Tuesday, December 31, 2013


This past Sunday, I walked out of church for the first time in my life.  That is, it wasn't that the baby was crying, I walked out because I felt if I listened to that homily for one more second I was going to stand up and scream.

It was the Feast of the Holy Family, so there were lovely readings about honoring fathers and bearing with each other patiently and the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt.

There was also this:

"Wives, be subordinate to your husbands,
as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives,
and avoid any bitterness toward them."

It was a small snippet of a long reading, but that's the part the priest wanted to talk about.  In Seattle, where I grew up, they would usually cut that bit out or else explain it away somehow.  But this is the diocese of Arlington, which might just be the most conservative one in the country.  So we got a lecture on wifely obedience.

I was annoyed that the priest was going on and on about women and never mentioning the duties of men in the passage.  But I got really angry when he said something along these lines:  "Nowadays feminists try to convince you that spouses are equal, that you can just make decisions together.  But a family has to have a head.  You know what you call a creature with two heads?  Well, I'd call that a monster."

Yeah, that was when I got up and walked out.  It was that or start heckling the priest.  Poor guy, he's a youngish priest and means well.  But he also called my marriage monstrous, and I really couldn't sit there and take that.

My marriage works great, as it happens.  And I don't obey my husband.  I do submit to him, in the sense of letting him have his way when it seems really important to him or when I am trying to be nice.  He also submits to me, in the same sense.

There's a lot of ways you can understand that passage from Colossians.  In fact, there's someone who understands it almost any way you can think of.  Let me try to list them off.

1.  Husband makes the orders, wife obeys without question and gives no input.
2.  They discuss a matter, wife gives input, and husband makes a decision.
3.  They discuss everything and come to an agreement, but if they can't come to an agreement, husband makes a decision.
4.  They discuss everything and each tries to "submit" to the other in the sense of being willing to give up their own way .... but decisions are made together or not at all.
5.  This passage was written in the context of a male-dominant society where women were already subject.  The advice is when the wife submits, as she already has to do, she should do it "as to the Lord."  So this passage doesn't really apply to modern marriages at all.

And then, of course, there are a wide variety of applications even among people who agree on the basic meaning of the passage.  Where the husband is a more dominant personality and the wife is more adaptable, "submission" doesn't even come up because it's their natural dynamic anyway.  When the wife is more dominant and the husband tends to go along with her ideas, "submission" might mean she makes an extra effort to include him in decision making.  Couples that believe in the husband having the "final say" if they can't agree, may find that never comes up because they are always able to work things out.

As far as I'm concerned, it's all good.  Marriages are all unique; you can't grab someone else's dynamic and patch it onto your marriage.  And Catholic teaching is surprisingly relaxed in this area.  While many Church Fathers and saints took it as a given that wives would obey their husbands, many also were adamant that wives are not inferior or to be treated like slaves, vassals, or children.  Pius XI talks about wives obeying their husbands, but then makes a number of exceptions, saying a wife should not obey her husband when it is opposed to right reason or her human dignity, and adding that "this subjection of wife to husband in its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time."  And John Paul II went the furthest, saying that a wife's submission to her husband doesn't at all excuse the husband of the duty of submitting in turn to his wife.  Both should be giving up their will for the other.

And all of this is a matter of developing teaching.  None of it appears (so far as I can tell) to be infallible.  I think one is safe, as a faithful Catholic, going with one's best judgment on the matter.

What bothers me, though, is when people seize upon this verse, and certain interpretations of it, and believe it is a moral law which they (and others) are obligated to follow.  Like, for instance, the priest did on Sunday.  He taught as if it were the mandate of the Church what was really his own opinion on the subject.

And misunderstanding this -- particularly in trying to force your marriage into a mold which doesn't fit it -- can have disastrous results.  I read one woman's story of how she and her husband got along great before they became Catholic, but she made all the decisions.  And oh what a struggle it has been for her to "take her proper role" since their conversion.  All I could think was, it wasn't broken, why did she feel the need to fix it?  Who told her that a marriage where both people were happy was operating "wrong"?
Or the many women married to placid, easygoing guys who live with a daily frustration that their husbands are not "manning up," "taking the lead," and making all the daily decisions.  Maybe there is a deep-seated instinct telling them they want a more dominant attitude from their husband -- many would say so.  But maybe they are just struggling trying to fit into the role of "obedient wife" when their husband just isn't the sort of guy that needs to be obeyed.  Why make them both feel like they are wrong and inadequate because she has a more dominant personality and he doesn't?

Worst of all, when the wife is naturally more passive, it seems to give her permission to take no responsibility and never assert herself while giving her husband permission to lay down the law.  So they end up with a very unequal relationship.  Sometimes this is a happy one.  But sometimes it's not.  As an easygoing person myself, I know I knuckle under easily in an argument, but then I resent it forever.  I make it a point to be more outspoken, because I know things don't go as well for me when I let myself get pushed around.  If I were still subscribing to the "obey your husband" thing, I'd probably be angry and resentful all the time.

This goes double when I'm talking about the kids.  I'm an easygoing person .... but I also have very strong opinions about parenting and a very strong gut sense to go along with them.  If my husband said "spank the kids" and I felt that my religion morally required me to do it .... well, I'd have two ways to go.  One would be to go against my conscience, spank the kids, and be angry about it forever, blaming my husband for every problem that arose with the kids.  The other (and more likely) would be that I would leave my religion. 

No number of quotes and scriptures and sermons can talk me out of what I know in my gut, which is that my kids were entrusted to me equally with my husband, that I have a responsibility to them that can't be erased by putting myself in a position of subjection.  I couldn't imagine telling my children once they're grown, "Well, yes, I knew doing X was wrong at the time, but your dad said I should, so what was I supposed to do?"  I am their mother.  They have a right to have me stand up for them.

My own general rule is this: after a bit of discussion, if I think there is some way John could be right, I tend to go along.  Not because I'm female, but because he generally has good judgment and because I am pretty adaptable and am not likely to mind what he chooses.

But if I am sure about something, sure on a gut level, I don't budge for anything.  Especially where it concerns the kids.  There are two of us for a reason.  Taking one person's God-given mind and heart out of the equation just so the other can be in charge seems absolutely wrong to me.  It seems wrong to John too.

It's sometimes meant some long, drawn-out debates.  Sometimes we get angry.  But every time, sooner or later, we have worked it out in a way that respected both of our God-given wisdom and authority.  Often the "compromise" is a lot of work or it ends up having to be reworked or whatever.  But I am willing to go through that trouble rather than step down what I see as my responsibility.

If that makes our marriage a two-headed monster, Father, I'll take it.  Beats lopping off one of the heads just because it's female.

What do you think submission is supposed to mean?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas thoughts

This Christmas has been a struggle for me.  This Advent, we missed two out of four Sundays because of snow and vomit, and Christmas Mass we were late for and ended up jammed in like sardines in the back, hearing nothing.  It didn't feel very spiritual.

Last night I tried and tried to meditate on the Nativity, and all I could think was, "Angels?  Glorias?  Virgin birth?  Isn't it exactly what someone would make up if they wanted to make a birth legend for someone they looked up to?"

Then I remembered the stable.  Who would try to honor someone by making up a story that they were born homeless?  For contrast, here is the Buddha's birth story.  Jesus was born in a degree of humility that no one would invent for him; likewise, he died a shameful death that no one who loved him would make up.

I can't bring any great wisdom out of this.  But it makes me think of how very close Jesus is to us, his people.  To the homeless, the foreigner, the poor, the child born out of wedlock, the prisoner, the falsely accused, the victim of capital punishment .... he has a story from his own life that we can all call our own.  He really meant what he said when he spoke of preaching good news to the poor, when he said the rich would struggle to enter heaven.  Coming from above, he could have entered the world at what we call the top.  Instead, he came to the very bottom, so that there would be no one so lowly that he thinks Jesus is too exalted for him to speak to.  The soul in danger is the one so exalted that he thinks Jesus is too lowly for him to speak to.

This year I am filled with worries.  Guilt for not having more presents under the tree for the kids; disappointment because it is impossible for Christmas ever to match the ideal I create for it.  Concern for the year to come; fear because the same paycheck is worth ever less every year as inflation spins out of control.  Frustration at going without things to save money; anger at myself for being so materialistic that I mind the loss of a few luxuries.

And yet Jesus is not far from this.  When I am told "God has a plan, he never gives you more than he can handle, God will not be outdone in generosity, just watch, he will come through with exactly what you need," I can't help but scoff.  People do lose their houses.  They roam the streets, beg for crusts.  It's not at all unknown in this world that people starve to death, and I imagine many of them are praying for help.  I just can't believe that I am somehow miraculously exempt.  I'm not better at praying than the next person.

But when I see a baby in a barn, lying in a feedbox, wrapped in rags, I feel like maybe he does know what it's like.  That even if he doesn't send us a 10% raise and a Christmas bonus, he will be here with us.  He isn't afraid of poverty, even if I am.  He isn't even afraid of my pathetic grasping for more out of fear even though we aren't really poor at all.  He knows it all.  He gets it.

In this world, the rich aren't always cast down from their thrones, and there are hungry who aren't filled with good things in their lifetimes.  But I don't think Christ would have come as one of the poorest if he didn't know full well there is more to life than this, that he had a much greater reward to give us than a bigger paycheck.

The doubter whispers in my ear, "Religion of slaves.  Opiate of the masses.  Comforting the starving with promises of heaven."  But Jesus didn't just preach for the poor to be content.  He came to the poor -- and not just the poor, but everyone who suffers: the disenfranchised, the overtaxed, the lonely, the sick, the fatherless, every single person who struggles or is sad.  He walked beside them and lived it.

If my God is a God who does this, I think I can have faith in him.

Merry Christmas, all.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mother guilt

Everybody knows that mothers are always feeling guilty.  As far as guilt goes, it's apparently as bad as being Catholic!  Which, as we all know, must be awful.  *rolls eyes*

Catholic guilt, though, is a straightforward thing.  You did something wrong, you know it, hopefully you're going to try to make it right.  If Catholic guilt keeps you up at night, it's easy to fix.

Mother guilt never rests.  You can drift off with it at midnight and wake up with it again at two a.m., and it's every bit as fresh and bushy-tailed as you aren't.  There is no confession for mother guilt.  If you go to a priest for it, he'll only be puzzled.

Because mother guilt is not actually guilt, not in the sense we usually mean.  You feel guilt when you did something wrong, when you could and should have done better.  Mother guilt is what you get when there was no human way you could have done better, but you still feel horrible.

I rarely felt guilty when Marko was a baby.  He had needs, I fulfilled them, no angst.  Except when he caught a cold at work.  I felt guilty because I had brought him there.  Surely that was because I valued my own sense of accomplishment more than my fragile baby?  But when the year ended, I felt guilty because we didn't get out much and my poor baby would never be socialized.

When Michael was born, though, guilt exploded.  Michael was either latched on or screaming 24/7 at first.  I felt horribly guilty that I could do basically nothing for or with Marko, to the point that he was raiding the fridge himself because he was hungry.  But if I put Michael down and made Marko a sandwich, I felt guilty because Michael screamed that pitiful heartrending cry that only a newborn can and I knew it was all my fault.

There was a time when John was gone at night and both kids were awake and needing to be rocked to sleep.  Neither would fall asleep if the other was there (I did try).  I locked Marko in his room and nursed Michael to sleep, feeling anguished the whole time because Marko was screaming and pounding the door and I knew he had no idea why he had been abandoned.  Then I laid Michael down and went to lie down with Marko.  This was fine until I faintly heard a sound of crying and realized Michael had been crying for some time .... I had no idea how long.

What could I have done differently if I had known?  I have no idea, but I was racked with guilt.

I felt guilty for having Michael when Marko was still so little and needed me so much.  And I also felt guilty for even thinking about not having had Michael, because he was here now and deserved to be loved and wanted.

If John wants some attention from me or to spend some time just with me when I am super tired, I feel guilty if I turn him down.  But if I don't, I feel guilty because the whole time he is talking I am daydreaming about my cozy pillow.  I feel like a failure as a wife.

Before John gets home, I like to have dinner ready and the living room clean.  If dinner is ready, the living room's a mess, so I feel guilty.  If the living room is nice, turns out I forgot to turn on the potatoes and we all have to wait twenty more minutes.  Guilty.  And if by some miracle I've done both, it's only because I completely ignored Michael trailing along behind me the whole time, tears running down his face, arms outstretched, begging for "uppie."  I am a terrible mother whatever I do.

Lying awake one night, counting over my inadequacies, I suddenly realized something.

This is not guilt.

Guilt is when you do something wrong, and you could have done right.  This is the feeling that there is no right.  Mother guilt is not guilt, but the helpless feeling you get when you realize there are so many needs, and you will never fulfill them all.  There will always be someone else who needs something else from you.

That's kind of what being a mother is all about -- taking upon yourself the various needs of everybody until it's not just dutifulness, but a moral imperative to take care of everybody and everything.  It's a tremendous task, more than any of us will ever adequately perform.

What we call "mother guilt" is really just an enormous love, love that suffers in every single moment that we realize our hearts may be a mile deep, but our bodies are only so big, that we have only so many hands.  The neediness of everyone tugs at your heart so that there is nothing more important than fulfilling those needs.  When we can't do it all, the pain is excruciating.  But it isn't guilt.

It's love.

I feel like a terrible mother because I want to be so much more, want to be everything for these needy little people whom I brought into this world and love more than my own life.

But maybe this very feeling is proof that, perhaps, I am exactly what they need.  They need to be loved this much.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Evangelii gaudium highlights

Well, I finally finished reading Evangelii gaudium, the Holy Father's new apostolic exhortation. I read it for two reasons: first, because I'm tired of people yanking quotes out of it in the hopes of proving either that their enemies are wrong, or that the Pope is wrong. Second, I feel so encouraged by everything this Pope says that I felt I should read it all. It's not the controversial bits that are likely to mean a lot to me, but the parts nobody quotes.

Halfway through my reading of it, the Vatican webpage took down the html version and put up a pdf. That was pretty annoying, because it made it harder to pull quotes. I had to type them out instead of copy/pasting. Then, of course, they put the html back up today so now you can pull quotes again. Sigh.

The first important thing to know is that it is an apostolic exhortation. That means an encouraging letter, not a doctrinal one. They're written after bishop's synods, sometimes by a committee, though it seems this one must have been personally authored by the Pope, at least for the most part, because it's very much his tone and his priorities. At the same time, you can tell he's making sure to include the points the bishops talked about at the Synod.

Sometimes it was hard not to quote the whole thing. I managed to keep my excerpts to 40 paragraphs -- about a seventh of the whole thing. You should go read the whole thing. But if, like me, you're a bit overwhelmed by a 200-page document, this will give you some nice snippets.

8. Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?

I have been thinking lately that it's hard enough to be a good human, why should we try to be more? But being human is a funny thing. It's part of our nature to try to transcend our nature.

11. Saint John of the Cross says that “the thicket of God’s wisdom and knowledge is so deep and so broad that the soul, however much it has come to know of it, can always penetrate deeper within it”.[7] Or as Saint Irenaeus writes: “By his coming, Christ brought with him all newness”.[8] With this freshness he is always able to renew our lives and our communities, and even if the Christian message has known periods of darkness and ecclesial weakness, it will never grow old. Jesus can also break through the dull categories with which we would enclose him and he constantly amazes us by his divine creativity. Whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always “new”.

In other words, don't read St. Thomas and St. Augustine a lot and then assume that you know allll about Jesus. Read the Gospel too and ponder how much more we have to learn.

24. An evangelizing community gets involved in people's daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on "the smell of the sheep" and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be.... It cares for the grain and does not become impatient at the weeds. The sower, when he sees weeds sprouting among the grain, does not grumble or overreact. He or she finds a way to let the word take flesh in this particular situation and bear fruits of new life, however imperfect or incomplete these may appear.

This is why Francis speaks disparagingly of "proselytism." Just telling people about Jesus is not enough. You have to be with people.

32. Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy. It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestion which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization. Pope John Paul II asked for help in finding "a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation". We have made little progress in this regard. The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion. The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchial Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position "to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit". Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church's life and her missionary outreach.

I am very curious what the Pope means by this, and what he means to do. Decentralization? Doctrinal authority for bishops' conferences? (Do I really want the USCCB having power like that?!) We'll just have to watch and see, but it's intriguing to say the least.

34. If we attempt to put all things in a missionary key, this will also affect the way we communicate the message. In today's world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects. In this way certain issues which are part of the Church's moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning. The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ's message. We need to be realistic and not assume that our audience understands the full background to what we are saying, or is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel which gives it meaning, beauty, and attractiveness.

35. Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing, and at the same time most necessary.

This is the Pope's defense of his habit of focusing on Jesus and not talking about people's pet issues. If you talk about the moral teachings and you don't talk about Jesus, not only are you failing to evangelize them, but you will ultimately fail to convince them of the moral teachings too. If they don't know Jesus, why will they trust what he says about how they should live their lives?

38. First, it needs to be said that in preaching the Gospel a fitting sense of proportion has to be maintained. This would be seen in the frequency with which certain themes are brought up and in the emphasis given to them in preaching. For example, if in the course of the liturgical year a parish priest speaks about temperance ten times but only mentions charity or justice two or three times, an imbalance results, and precisely those virtues which ought to be most present in preaching and catechesis are overlooked. The same thing happens when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God's word.

*cough cough* I hope our local pastor reads this.

40. Within the Church countless issues are being studied and reflected upon with great freedom. Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology, and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God's word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.
There is room in the Church for a lot of different ideas. That's something I like about it.

43. In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid of re-examine them. At the same time, the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people's lives. Saint Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God "are very few." Citing Saint Augustine, he noted that the precepts subsequently enjoined by the Church should be insisted upon with moderation "so as not to burden the lives of the faithful" and make our religion a form of servitude, whereas "God's mercy has willed that we should be free." This warning, issued many centuries ago, is most timely today.

This reminds me of the debate every time a Holy Day of Obligation gets transferred. Some people say, "No, this is awful, we're abandoning a TRADITION!" And some people say, "But we have work that day, and getting to church is a huge burden which I am thankful to be free of this time." I see the Pope wants to be practical about this stuff, keep what is still working and not being afraid to drop things that aren't. Practices aren't dogmas.

53. Just as the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say "thou shalt not" to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a "throw away" culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society's underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised -- they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the "exploited" but the outcast, the "leftovers."

54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people's pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else's responsibility and not our own.

The economic stuff -- or at least the first batch of it. Seems clear enough to me that the Pope isn't saying "you can't have a free market" but "you can't be consumerist, you can't trust the market to take care of the moral stuff for you." And you can't. Is what he describes necessarily a result of Austrian economics? No way ... like I said, it seems more Keynesian to me. But is it what is currently happening, what many conservatives currently say? Absolutely. I hear it all the time.

63. We must recognize that if part of our baptized people lack a sense of belonging to the Church, this is also due to certain structures and the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or to a bureaucratic way of dealing with problems, be they simple or complex, in the lives of our people. In many places an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelization.

This is why we don't go to our local parish.

88. The Christian ideal will always be a summons to overcome suspicion, habitual mistrust, fear of losing our privacy, all the defensive attitudes which today's world imposes on us. Many try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realism of the social aspect of the Gospel. For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.
In other words, isolating yourself with a circle of blog readers and facebook friends who all agree with you is not going to make you close to Christ. Can the internet bring you closer to others? Absolutely! But it can also help you push them further away.

94. This worldliness can be fuelled in two deeply interrelated ways. One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings. The other is the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others.

Smackdown on both liberals and conservatives in one pithy paragraph. You rock, Papa F.

98. How many wars take place within the people of God and in our different communities! In our neighborhoods and in the workplace, how many wars are caused by envy and jealousy, even among Christians! Spiritual worldliness leads some Christians to war with other Christians who stand in the way of their quest for power, prestige, pleasure, and economic security. Some are even no longer content to live as part of the greater Church community, but stoke a spirit of exclusivity, creating an "inner circle." Instead of belonging to the whole Church in all its rich variety, they belong to this or that group which thinks itself different or special.

Read: sticking to your group of traditionalists, Fatima people, Medjugorje people, Regnum Christi people. If you're in a group or a movement and you refuse to associate even with fellow Catholics if they're not in your movement, or you speak disparagingly of people who aren't in your group, he's talking to you. This is exactly what we did when I was in Regnum Christi, always in a subtle way. "Oh, well, those people aren't formed. That bishop just doesn't understand."

101. Let us ask the Lord to help us understand the law of love. How good it is to have this law! How much good it does us to love one another, in spite of everything. Yes, in spite of everything!..... We all have our likes and dislikes, and perhaps at this very moment we are angry with someone. At least let us say to the Lord: "Lord, I am angry with this person, with that person. I pray to you for him and for her." To pray for a person with whom I am irritated is a beautiful step forward in love, and an act of evangelization. Let us do it today! Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the ideal of fraternal love!

I have never read a paragraph in a papal document anything like that one. Beautiful.

104. Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded. The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general. It must be remembered that when we speak of sacramental power "we are in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness." The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head -- namely, as the principle source of grace -- does not imply an exaltation which would set him above the others. .... This presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church's life.

I am curious what he's going to come up with as roles for women. I can think of quite a few that don't involve ordination at all, and yet people would get mad about those too because they feel only priests should have power anywhere. But there is no real reason why we can't have women administer parishes (especially where one priest provides sacraments to a number of parishes). In fact, there's no reason a woman can't be a cardinal. But will that happen? I doubt in my lifetime.

117. When properly understood, cultural diversity is not a thread to Church unity. The Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son, transforms our hearts and enables us to enter into the perfect communion of the blessed Trinity, where all things find their unity. He builds up the communion and and harmony of the pople of God. THe same spirit is that harmony, just as he is the bond of love between the Father and the Son. It is he who brings forth a rich variety of gifts, while at the same time creating a unity which is never uniformity but a multifaceted and inviting harmony. Evangelization joyfully acknowledges these varied treasures which the Holy Spirit pours out upon the Church. We would not do justice to the logic of the incarnation if we thought of Christianity as monocultural and monotonous. While it is true that some cultures have been closely associated with the preaching of the Gospel and the development of Christian thought, the revealed message is not identified with any of them; its content is transcultural. Hence in the evangelization of new cultures, or cultures which have not received the Christian message, it is not essential to impose a specific cultural form, no matter how beautiful or ancient it may be, together with the Gospel. The message that we proclaim always has a certain cultural dress, but we in the Church can sometimes fall into a needless hallowing of our own culture, and thus show more fanaticism than true evangelizing zeal.
In other words, nice as Latin is, there's nothing intrinsically superior about it. And there's nothing intrinsically inferior about inculturated practices when they genuinely come from the culture of the people. Didn't the Black Robes convert the Pacific Coast tribes with "ladder to heaven" totem poles? (On the other hand, a bunch of white people in Seattle dancing and singing in Swahili at a catechetical conference was just weird. There's such a thing as needless hallowing of other people's culture too.)

128. In this preaching, which is always respectful and gentle, the first step is personal dialogue, when the other person speaks and shares his or her joys, hopes and concerns for loved ones, or so many other heartfelt needs. Only afterwards is it possible to bring up God's word, perhaps by reading a Bible verse or relating a story, but always keeping in mind the fundamental message: the personal love of God who became man, who gave himself up for us, who is living and who offers us his salvation and his friendship. This message has to be shared humbly as a testimony on the part of one who is always willing to learn, in the awareness that the message is so rich and so deep that it always exceeds our grasp.
In other words, the last instance of "evangelizing" which I saw wasn't it: A Catholic said to an agnostic, "You must repent of your sin or you face damnation. Look up Thomas' proofs for the existence of God." This is not evangelization. This is putting someone else down to make yourself feel superior. Not cool.

153. In the presence of God, during a recollected reading of the text, it is good to ask, for example: "Lord, what does this text say to me? What is it about my life that you wan to change by this text? What troubles me about this text? Why am I not interested in this? Or perhaps: What do I find pleasant in this text? What is it about this word that moves me? What attracts me? Why does it attract me? When we make an effort to listen to the Lord, temptations usually arise. One of them is simply to feel troubled or burdened, and to turn away. Another common temptation is to think about what the text means for other people, and so avoid applying it to our own life. It can also happen that we look for excuses to water down the clear meaning of the text. Or we can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make. This leads many people to stop taking pleasure in the encounter with God's word; but this would mean forgetting that no one is more patient than God our Father, that no one is more understanding and willing to wait. He always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve.

This is from the section on lectio divina. Definitely going to make an effort to do this more. I don't think I've gotten such practical advice on prayer from any priest.

184. This is not the time or the place to examine in detail the many grave social questions affecting today's world, some of which I have dealt with in the second chapter. This Exhortation is not a social document, and for reflection on those different themes we have a most suitable tool in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, whose use and study I heartily recommend. Furthermore, neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems. here I can repeat the insightful observation of Pope Paul VI: "In the face of such widely varying situations, it is difficult for us to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity. This is not our ambition, nor is it our mission. It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country."
In other words, that economic stuff earlier isn't the point of this document. (Try telling the media that!) The Pope is talking about ends -- justice, equity, care for the poor. He is not trying to exhaustively detail means. If you share the Pope's ends, he's not going to care if you achieve those with different means than his preferred ones.

187. Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid. . . . If we, who are God's means of hearing the poor, turn deaf ears to this plea, we oppose the Father's will and his plan; that poor person "might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt" (Dt. 15:9). A lack of solidarity towards his or her needs will directly affect our relationship with God: "For if in bitterness of soul he calls down a curse upon you, his Creator will hear his prayer" (Sir. 4:6). The old question always returns: "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods, and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" (1 Jn. 3:17) Let us recall also how bluntly the apostle James speaks of the cry of the oppressed: "The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts" (5:4).

This in return to the person who said on the internet last week that the Pope talks too much about physical poverty and not enough about spiritual issues. Failing to care for the poor is a spiritual issue. It's a sin.

189. Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them. These convictions and habits of solidarity, when they are put into practice, open the way to other structural transformations and make them possible. Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that these same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive, and ineffectual.

Yes, your property is yours. No, you don't have the right to keep it when another is suffering for the lack of it. Even John Locke said the same. It might not be illegal -- and it does not have to be illegal -- but it is morally wrong not to provide for those in need out of your own excess.

202. The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.

203. The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies. At times, however, they seem to be a mere addendum imported from without in order to fill out a political discourse lacking in perspectives or plans for true and integral development. How many words prove irksome to this system! It is irksome when the question of ethics is raised, when global solidarity is invoked, when the distribution of goods is mentioned, when reference is made to protecting labor and defending the dignity of the powerless, when allusion is made to a God who demands a commitment to justice. At other times these issues are exploited by a rhetoric which cheapens them. Casual indifference in the face of such questions empties our lives and our words of all meaning. Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.

204. We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms, and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.

I have no idea why the other paragraphs about the economy were quoted so often, and these ignored. Seems the Pope's words are even stronger here. And yet they ring true. Financial speculation? Have you read how speculation on wheat prices caused them to skyrocket and starve people in the third world ... just a few years ago? Increasing profits by reducing the work force ... have we seen anyone do that lately? No one likes it when you mention this stuff. You must be a damn socialist or you wouldn't talk about unemployment. And yet, the solution to these problems is a moral one. You can fence the financial sector about with a million laws; as long as people see profit as the only end, they will find a way. If something is banned in your own country, surely there is an undeveloped one that will let you do it. If taxes get too high, there are always ways to get around them. If the law raises wages, you can cut hours. The only solution is to actually have a conscience.

210. It is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability, in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ, even if this appears to bring us no tangible and immediate benefits. I think of the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others. Migrants present a particular challenge for me, since I am the pastor of a Church without frontiers, a Church which considers herself mother to all. For this reason, I exhort all countries to a generous openness which, rather than fearing the loss of local identity, will prove capable of creating new forms of cultural synthesis. How beautiful are those cities which overcome paralysing mistrust, integrate those who are different and make this very integration a new factor of development! How attractive are those cities which, even in their architectural design, are full of spaces which connect, relate and favour the recognition of others!

211. I have always been distressed at the lot of those who are victims of various kinds of human trafficking. How I wish that all of us would hear God’s cry: “Where is your brother?” (Gen 4:9). Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved? Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses, in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labour. Let us not look the other way. There is greater complicity than we think. The issue involves everyone! This infamous network of crime is now well established in our cities, and many people have blood on their hands as a result of their comfortable and silent complicity.

212. Doubly poor are those women who endure situations of exclusion, mistreatment and violence, since they are frequently less able to defend their rights. Even so, we constantly witness among them impressive examples of daily heroism in defending and protecting their vulnerable families.

213. Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual”.[176]

214. Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?

215. There are other weak and defenceless beings who are frequently at the mercy of economic interests or indiscriminate exploitation. I am speaking of creation as a whole. We human beings are not only the beneficiaries but also the stewards of other creatures. Thanks to our bodies, God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement. Let us not leave in our wake a swath of destruction and death which will affect our own lives and those of future generations."

I couldn't help but quote this whole block. We have to loudly oppose anything and everything that takes advantage of the vulnerable. To be consistent, the Church has to favor both the immigrant and the unborn, both the slave and the elderly person. If we made one exception -- even one -- where an innocent life could be destroyed to solve someone else's problem, there would be no honesty or consistency in our message.

I only wish there were more Catholics who were 100% pro-life. It seems the ones who care about abortion don't care about children killed in drone strikes, and vice versa.

243. The Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences -- rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry -- arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. Neither can believers claim that a scientific opinion which is attractive but not sufficiently verified has the same weight as a dogma of faith. At times some scientists have exceeded the limits of their scientific competence by making certain statements or claims. But here the problem is not with reason itself, but with the promotion of a particular ideology which blocks the path to authentic, serene, and productive dialogue.

Not new, but the Pope thought it worth repeating. Both Catholics and non-Catholics could use a reminder that the Church isn't anti-science.

246. Given the seriousness of the counter-witness of division among Christians, particularly in Asia and Africa, the search for paths to unity becomes all the more urgent. Missionaries on those continents often mention the criticisms, complaints, and ridicule to which the scandal of divided Christians give rise rise. If we concentrate on the convictions we share, and if we keep in mind the principle of the hierarchy of truths, we will be able to progress decidedly toward common expressions of proclamation, service and witness. The immense numbers of people who have not received the Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot leave us indifferent.

In short, who wants to be Christian when there are so many different kinds and none of them get along?

266. But this conviction has to be sustained by our own constantly renewed experience of savouring Christ's friendship has his message. It is impossible to persevere in a fervent evangelization unless we are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning it everything. This is why we evangelize. A true missionary, who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him in the midst of the missionary enterprise. Unless we see him present at the heart of our missionary commitment, our enthusiasm soon wanes and we are no longer sure of what it is that we are handing on; we lack vigor and passion. A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody.
I keep hearing the argument, "Why share the Gospel with anyone if there's a chance they could get to heaven without it?" What a ridiculous argument! If it's not better to know God than not to, who wants to go to heaven?

And yet the last few lines left me a little depressed. I feel, at the moment, like I would convince nobody.

270. Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.

In other words, the good life is messy.

274. If we are to share our lives with others and generously give of ourselves, we also have to realize that every person is worthy of our giving. Not for their physical appearance, their abilities, their language, their way of thinking, or for any satisfaction that we might receive, but rather because they are God's handiwork, his creation. God created that person in his image, and he or she reflects something of God's glory. Every human being is the object of God's infinite tenderness, and he himself is present in their lives. Jesus offered his precious blood on the cross for that person. Appearances notwithstanding, every person is immensely holy and deserves our love. Consequently, if I can help at least one person to have a better life, that already justifies the offering of my life.

Every person is worthy of our giving. I want to cross stitch that on a pillow.

279. Because we do not always see these seeds growing, we need an interior certainty, a conviction that God is able to act in every situation, even amid apparent setbacks: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4:7). This certainty is often called “a sense of mystery”. It involves knowing with certitude that all those who entrust themselves to God in love will bear good fruit (cf. Jn 15:5). This fruitfulness is often invisible, elusive and unquantifiable. We can know quite well that our lives will be fruitful, without claiming to know how, or where, or when. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted. All of these encircle our world like a vital force. Sometimes it seems that our work is fruitless, but mission is not like a business transaction or investment, or even a humanitarian activity. It is not a show where we count how many people come as a result of our publicity; it is something much deeper, which escapes all measurement. It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit. The Holy Spirit works as he wills, when he wills and where he wills; we entrust ourselves without pretending to see striking results. We know only that our commitment is necessary. Let us learn to rest in the tenderness of the arms of the Father amid our creative and generous commitment. Let us keep marching forward; let us give him everything, allowing him to make our efforts bear fruit in his good time.

I don't always have this kind of faith. But it encourages me just to think that Pope Francis does.

What message of Pope Francis inspires or challenges you the most?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I thought I was over this

In the earlier part of this year, I wrote about seeking God.  I confessed some of the struggles I have with my Catholic faith.  And then I wrote some hopeful posts which seemed to close the story.  I felt like the story was closed.  I had some doubts; I prayed about them; I read some things (The Case for Christ and the Pope's homilies, mostly); and I put my doubts to bed.  I just kind of made up my mind that I was sure enough that it's all true that any continued doubting and dithering was just holding me back.  I wasn't going to be held back from practicing my faith just because I was having a hard time with it.

But it's not that simple.  These things don't go away.  Mostly, it's not even a matter of having questions.  It's more of a shift in perspective.

Here's an image that might help me explain.  My mom has terrible astigmatism.  She used to wear contacts.  The trouble is, contacts for astigmatism only work when they are the right way up.  She'd blink -- yay! clear vision! -- and then blink again, they would rotate, and everything was a blur.

It's that way for me.  I'm kneeling in the pew, at the consecration.  I'm listening and watching what's going on.  I'm believing in it, or I think I am.  And then suddenly my perspective shifts and I see myself as one of a crowd of credulous sheep watching a man in a dress do some curious hocus-pocus that obviously means nothing.

It's terrifying.  I guess I doubt my own mind.  I've been deceived in the past.  I'm not really very bright, when it comes to making judgments like that.  I easily believe what other people I respect believe.  How can I ever know I'm not just being played on by an enormous hoax?

Now I have many answers for this, reasons I've looked up and evidence I know of.  I think about Jesus and how the historical evidence is better for him than it is for most people in the ancient world and that the apostles clearly wouldn't have died for their belief if they knew it was a hoax.  I know enough about cults to know that usually someone profits off them, and no one was profiting over early Christianity.  I know that the beliefs of the early Church look very much like what is believed by the Catholic Church today.

But I don't know.  I don't know at all.  I wonder then if I should still go up for communion and hope that the grace of the sacrament helps my unbelief ... or if I should run screaming from the church because I just can't bear this another second.

Most of the non-Catholics I know are ex-Catholics.  These are people I also like and respect.  And I wonder, maybe they're the ones who have seen the light and we haven't?  The questions they ask, I can't answer.  Like "Why do you believe?"

I believe because Jesus' message is better than any other message anybody else has.  I believe because loving someone enough to die for them is an admirable thing.  Enough that, if Jesus never rose from the dead, his moral teachings would still be a good thing to follow.

And I believe because I'm not the sort of brave, principled person who says "I am not going to lie and pretend I believe when I can't."  I am the sort of person who would keep going to church for sixty years just because it doesn't hurt me, whereas leaving would hurt everyone I love.

But that's sort of a long way from what we call "faith."

I'm pretty good at answering people's questions with a "Catholic answer."  But I still have questions that keep me up at night, questions I can't answer.  I know the Catholic answers, and they just don't strike me as adequate.  Questions like these:

* In the New Testament, after baptism the apostles would lay their hands on people and the Holy Spirit would rush upon them, in such a way that it couldn't be ignored.  Wind, tongues of fire, speaking in different languages.  They would rush out and preach in the streets.  When I was confirmed --- in fact, when everyone I know was confirmed -- I felt nothing.  Not one person spoke in tongues.  I was just as scared to run around preaching as before.

What happened?  Is confirmation broken?  Why doesn't it appear to work?

* How much stuff is infallible?  It bothers me that we can claim to possess infallible teaching, but no one can tell me which ones they are.  If we don't know what it is, can it really be infallible?  Take "no salvation outside the Church."  Infallible, right?  But we've changed the understanding of it to the point that it means something completely different from how medieval Catholics understood it -- which was that any person not part of the visible Church goes to hell.  Are we next going to find that some other doctrine isn't really true the way we have all been understanding it?  This is no small problem.  A huge contingent of Catholics and schismatics still holds onto the old understanding and claims all non-Catholics go to hell.  Meanwhile an even larger group takes the change as evidence that "everything changed in Vatican II and so I don't have to believe anything I don't want to anymore."

And don't get me started on "stuff that isn't infallible but we have to believe or practice anyway."  That just makes me mad.  I want a shortish list of stuff to work through, to try to believe, not a 1000-page catechism to read and believe in.  That's a lot of stuff.  How can we be sure about that much stuff?

*Why is grace undetectable?  I know people who will tell me, "I always feel worse when I haven't been to confession in awhile," or "I'm always on top of a cloud after Mass, must be all that grace."  I am not one of those people.  I never in my life have been.  I'm highly sensitive and very introspective.  I can tell when a friend of mine is out of sorts from across a crowded room and I frequently analyze my own moods and try to find the roots of them.  But I can't find any connection between how I feel or my interior disposition or how easy it is for me to do virtuous things and the level of grace that I supposedly have.  I was so miserable and made so many bad choices back when I went to daily Mass.  Now I am not so good with the praying but my life seems very much on track.  How can something be going on with my soul on a spiritual level and be completely undetectable to myself?

*Why are there so few people who believe a Catholicism that is both rational and merciful?  On the one hand you have pious people who believe that they shouldn't make decisions, but seek signs from God for every one.  Saw a rose today?  It's from St. Therese, it means you should totally do whatever it was you were thinking about.  That is not rational to me.  It doesn't appear to be supported by Catholic teaching, either.  On the other hand are the Catholic jerks, like the guy who leaped on my agnostic friend's wall and told him he was going to hell before unfriending him.  I don't see that supported by Catholic teaching either.

But why are there so few good Catholics out there?  Is it possible that I'm just following my own gut and moral code which tell me things like "looking for signs is dumb" and "you should never be mean," rather than actually getting this stuff from Catholicism?  Maybe the "bad" Catholics are the real kind, and the people I like aren't reflecting true Catholicism.

*On that note, why don't Catholics behave any better than anyone else?  Sure, there are outliers.  The saints were good people.  So was Gandhi, and he wasn't Catholic.  But in the Middle Ages, the whole of Europe was Catholic and they still killed each other incessantly -- and I mean apart from religiously-motivated violence.  Nowadays Europe is almost all nonreligious and it's at peace.  Weird, huh?  If just being Catholic didn't make all the kings of Europe better people, what makes me think it will make me a better person?

Now these are all just questions.  I don't necessarily think there's no answer; I can think of okay ones, but not good enough answers to keep them from bothering me again.  Sometimes they just motivate me: if Catholics aren't good, I should be better.  If no one really follows Jesus' teaching, I should do it at least.

And sometimes I just think, "There has to be a better reason to stay Catholic than the ones I have."

I'm reading Pope Francis, I'm reading the Gospel, I'm trying to pick up on the beautiful words of these good people and bring them into my life.  I figure even if Jesus were an imaginary friend, he'd be a good one to have around.  I try to live like a good Catholic, and much as I dislike going to church, I still go.  But that isn't really enough for me.

I want to believe.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Errors of the capitalists

Pope Francis has gotten a lot of press coverage for criticizing "trickle-down economics."  Some are furious, some delighted.  All are pretty much ignoring everything else he said in Evangelii gaudium, which is a shame because it's amazing stuff.  (When I'm done reading it, I'll share my favorite bits here.)

What really gets me is the way some capitalists are showing their true colors by how they react to Francis's words.  I've gotten in a few debates about it, and I can't help but feel a bit puzzled.  The Catholic Church has always criticized capitalism -- that is, business-favoring policies that result in vast wealth for a few and poverty for the rest.  At the same time, the Catholic Church has no problem with capitalism -- that is, markets which function with little government involvement.  Francis's critics seem to be under the impression that he is criticizing the latter, when he is really criticizing the former .... but the trouble is, the former is actually quite popular with a lot of people, and they are just as offended to hear that criticized.

Here's a list of things I have heard capitalists say which I absolutely repudiate.  None of them is something I think is essential to belief in a free market.

"Pro-business is pro-market."

No, if you favor businesses specifically, you don't have a free market.  The point of a free market is allowing businesses and individuals to meet each other on even ground.  Businesses that don't build up good relationships with their customers, fail to pay good wages, or prioritize short-term stock prices over long-term success will eventually fail in a free market.  Being pro-business means not letting these bad businesses fail, but propping them up with a lot of special help.

People choose to favor business because they think the benefits will "trickle down" to the rest of us.  This, John informs me, is called Keynesianism and he says it doesn't work.  I don't need to be an economist to tell you it doesn't work, because it's what we have and it's not working.  When my county built a nice building for free so that Walmart could move into town, it did not stimulate the local economy one whit, only harmed locally-owned businesses.  When the federal government bailed out failing banks, it didn't help the poor who lost so much in the recession.  In Francis's words, "the poor are still waiting."

"Any money I spend stimulates the economy, so it helps the poor."

More Keynes.  Keynes taught that if you smash a window, it stimulates the economy because it creates work for the window repairman.  That may be so, but it doesn't necessarily help the poor.  It just creates activity, moving cash from the window owner to the window repairman, while destroying a resource.

Sometimes economic activity benefits the poor.  More often, it causes a flurry of activity which makes a ton of money for a few before drying up and bursting the bubble.  Usually the rich can cash out with plenty, but the poor lose out.

I saw someone say, in all seriousness, that buying a t-shirt made at a sweatshop is like giving to charity because it makes a job for someone in a third-world country.  After all, a dollar a day beats no dollars a day!  But that ignores the fact that the sweatshop is dominating the economy of the region and often destroying its natural resources, so it is preventing people from making money in other ways.  When the sweatshop decides to close its doors and move to somewhere where the labor is cheaper -- which it will -- the region will be left in worse straits than before, now that the local economy has been destroyed.

When you spend money, you choose which sectors of the economy will grow.  It's like voting.  Vote used, vote fair trade, or just give the money to charity.  Spending money to get what you want is not tithing.  If you think private charity will take care of the poor, you have to actually open your wallet and donate.

"Wealth is a reward for virtue."

Someone actually called the Pope a heretic for denying that God favors the rich.  Catholics believe that God rewards the virtuous with wealth!  Right?  WRONG!  Calvinists believe that.  So, I believe, do Mormons.  Catholics believe that the Lord hears the cry of the poor.  Now, it's not bad to be rich -- but it is hard for the rich to get into heaven, so from a spiritual perspective you're probably better off being poor.

Money is morally neutral.  Having it doesn't make you better than anyone.  If you are a lazy bum who inherited millions from your dad, you don't get to call a poor person lazy because he is still making minimum wage.  Some people who are lazy succeed.  Some people who work hard don't.  Working hard may help your odds, but there is never a guarantee and a lot of it is luck.  God doesn't hand out money to the deserving.  He wants to get you to heaven, not buy you a flat-screen TV.

"Uneven distribution of wealth is not a problem."

Theoretically, one would think this ought to be true.  Wealth is not a zero-sum game; it is possible for the rich to get richer without the poor getting poorer.  Since wealth is a product of human labor, you can make more of it.

However, this ignores two things.  The first is that wealth is a product of human labor and natural resources.  Human labor is virtually infinite, but natural resources are not.  If the rich buy up all the land, or all the petroleum, or all the iron ore, there really is less for everyone else.  The poor are then being priced out of resources which they need.  Speculation on land has driven up its price, which made a fortune for many real estate investors, but the result is that I can't afford to buy a farm.

The second is that wealth tends to translate into power.  If I can afford to retain a lawyer and sue people, I have power a poorer person does not.  We all know well-funded candidates win elections while those who can't get funding lose.  If Bill Gates gives candidate A ten million dollars, while I speak for an organization of a hundred thousand people who all care deeply about candidate B, but can only give him ten dollars apiece, odds are good that candidate A will win.  Bill Gates just has a louder voice than a hundred thousand average Joes.  Maybe this shouldn't be true, but it's pretty hard to deny that it is true.  When Washington State defeated an initiative to label GMO's, 52% to 48%, it may seem that Washington voters don't like the law.  But considering that the No side raised $22 million, almost all from out of state, while the Yes side raised only $7 million, what that says to me is that money talks and an expensive ad campaign convinced a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have cared one way or the other.

This latter problem could be helped with laws: laws requiring the losers of lawsuits to pay all legal expenses, laws limiting who can fund campaigns.  Of course it seems unlikely that you could find laws that extinguished all graft and corruption.  But if you could, I'll tell you one thing: you'd see inequality reduced a great deal.  When the rich have more of a say politically than the poor, it's not surprising to see that the law favors the rich and they get richer.

"Solidarity [community, cooperation, fighting injustice, helping the poor] is code for government."

I got in a debate with someone who kept insisting Pope Francis was calling for more government involvement.  When I asked where he said that, she quoted this line: ""Growth in justice requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality."  Yes, government can do this.  So can private organizations.  So can individuals.

If we admit that only government can assist the poor or prevent injustice, libertarians lose the race right out of the gate.  Saying "helping the poor is what government does, and I hate government, therefore poor people don't exist / could help themselves if they weren't lazy scum," just shows you to be a jerk.  We have the responsibility to help the poor.  If free markets do this best, then that's what we should have.

I wish libertarians would lead with this more.  Instead it seems they are so attached to their ideology that if they can't see an easy free-market solution to a problem, then it's not a problem.  Why not say, "Of course I care about the poor, I simply don't find government is doing a good job, so I founded this nonprofit to teach job skills / invested my money in microlending to finance entepreneurs in the Third World / had some homeless people over to my house for Thanksgiving"?  Libertarians should be the loudest about helping the poor, because they ought to know that when you get rid of government solutions, the private solution has to be ready to bridge the gap -- and that private solution will only work if you get people on board.  I simply can't believe that "private charity will take care of it" when currently people give so very little to the poor.  Even with government solutions, poverty still exists; and even with taxes, you probably still have a few bucks to spare.  Until you can match those two things together on a small scale, I'm not going to believe you will ever do it on a large scale.

"The main goal of a CEO is to increase profits for the shareholders."

I have been reading a series of articles in Forbes calling this "the dumbest idea in the world."  And it is.  The premise is simple: since the shareholders own the company, the CEO is their employee, so he's morally obligated to work for them first.  And after all, making the company succeed is what generates profit for the shareholders, so everybody wins.

The problem is that there are many ways to generate profits for shareholders besides just running a successful company.  Especially in the short term, you can generate profits by raising prices, laying off employees, or shutting down research and development.  Sure, this hurts your company in the long run, but the shareholders -- and the CEO is a shareholder too -- can cash out and move on.  It doesn't matter if your company goes under; there are other companies and you can buy their stock and run them into the ground too.

This idea hurts everyone.  The smart choice is to worry about pleasing the customer first, then the employees, then the shareholders will naturally make a steady profit as your company continues to do well.  Prioritizing things this way will help the market as a whole.  Doing things the other way around is going to be the death of capitalism.  It incentivizes businesses to behave badly and hurt customers and employees.  I could go on, but if you're interested in this topic, you should read the whole article.

"Greed is good."

No, it isn't.  There's a deep chasm between "less government involvement is good" to "anything I do, so long as it's for my own benefit, is okay."  Greed is bad.  It's harmful.  It leads people to bend and break laws to make money, to do things that aren't illegal but are unfair and wrong, and to ignore their duty to their fellow human beings.

Believe in free markets if you want to.  I do.  But that doesn't give you permission to be a jerk.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

To whom does the land belong?

That is, as I see it, the real question.  I've argued in past posts that it is best for more people to own land, but how exactly do we get that?  Whose rights come first -- my right to own five acres, or my great-grandparents' right to sell away the family farm?  (Hypothetically.  I don't know when the last time was that anyone in my family owned land.  Even in the old country (England) they ran a drugstore.)

The average American thinks of property rights as a very simple matter.  You get a job, save up enough money to buy land, and once you've done so, it's yours.  If the seller wants to sell and the buyer wants to buy, the property changes hands and everyone is happy.  Once you own it, you can do what you want with it.

However, other traditions have different understandings of property rights.  In some places -- and in America before the colonists showed up -- it was not considered possible to own land.  You simply used it, and cultural standards dictated what you could and couldn't use it for.  There are regions in Africa where three different tribes share the same spot of land: farmers during the growing season, pastoralists in the dry season, and fishermen in the flood season.  There are ancient agreements about who uses it when and how to make sure it's not spoiled for the other users.

Of course there are problems when these two worldviews collide.  The colonists to America "bought" tracts of land from the Indians -- who thought it was funny that these silly white people gave them all these beads just for the right to hunt on their land.  When the colonists cut down the trees, laid fences, and started plowing, the Indians were understandably annoyed.  The same happens today when pastoralists find themselves fenced out of their traditional grazing land because the government gave that land to farmers.

So, despite what anarcho-capitalists say, I don't think property rights are a matter of simple fairness.  If you try to govern everything by the non-aggression principle (no one may aggress against another's person or property) you have to define "property," and there is no simple answer.  Is it my property if I own it, but don't use it?  Is it my property if I have farmed it for fifty years but I don't own a deed?  Is it my property if I bought it from someone who didn't know they were selling it?  Is it my property if my ancestors had it stolen from them by your ancestors?

Even the word "fair" has different definitions to different people.  A liberal will generally agree that it is unfair for Bob to have ten dollars and Joe to have ten million dollars.  If Bob is starving and Joe can help, it's unfair for him not to.  (And the Catholic Church would agree with that.)  A conservative will say that if Joe has ten million dollars which he has earned legally, it is unfair to take a red cent of it and give it to Bob.  (Oddly, I think there is a Catholic argument for this too.)

Perhaps they both are right.  Perhaps your opinion on fairness just comes down to whether or not you were forced to "share" at playgroup when you were two.  (That could be a whole different conversation!)

But rather than think of what is fair, perhaps we could ask, what would have the best results?  How can we ensure that all people have access to the goods the earth provides -- food, water, raw materials?  Because without this access, we don't have the ability to work for our own living.  To work, you have to have something to work on.  Being reliant on a corporation's willingness to give you something to work on and pay you fairly leaves you vulnerable.

I keep tossing around ideas in my mind.  What if we had a law that land couldn't be sold, only rented?  Each person had their own plot and if they didn't want to farm it, someone else would have to pay them to farm it .... and they could get it back whenever they wanted?  But what happens when they die ... could they still will it away?  Would it have to be to their sons, or could they will it to someone else?  Could they will it to ConAgra, in return for a cozy retirement?  Hmmm.  Anyway, is it fair to restrict what someone can do with their own land?

Or what if there was a law that no one could own more than, say, 100 acres?  Or 1000 acres?  The sort of land it was, and what they were growing, would make a big difference here.  But this way people could have the right to own land or not own land, but corporations would still have to rent land if they wanted to go big ... thus putting small owners at an advantage.

And yet both of these two solutions raise another problem: we are not starting from zero.  We are not starting with x number of people, y number of acres, let's divvy it up.  We are starting with land owned by a vast number of people and corporations, some of which was unjustly taken from the people who had it before.  Wouldn't it be just to give it all back to the Indians?

And yet the world's population has grown much too big by this point to be sustained by hunter-gatherer lifestyles or by pastoralism.  We rely on farming to live.  It seems unfair to let hunter-gatherers have 10,000 acres apiece (which they would need to sustain themselves), while farmers could make much more food with less.  But on the other hand, it is also unfair to take land from pastoralists or hunters who are using it and have used it for generations and hand it to farmers.

If I were the queen of my own little island, and all the land were mine, I'd let people have plots of it to farm and I would make laws that helped individuals own the plots rather than allow megacorporations to gobble all of it up -- even by buying it at the market price.  That's how you can tell I'm not really a true believer in the free market.

However, in a country like ours, where already so much of the land is owned by so few, the sort of land revolution that splits up the land more equitably seems unjust.  Isn't it just stealing from the rich to give to the poor?  And in every country that has done this, sooner or later the land gets concentrated in the hands of the few all over again.

I think we have to accept that those who currently have land, have the right to keep it.  That does not mean they have the right to laws that make it easy for them.  I believe the law should favor the individual over the corporation, and put the poor on at least an even footing with the rich.  Why else do we have law, but to keep the weak from being overpowered by the strong?

In another post, I'll talk about some laws that favor individuals, and some laws which we have today which cripple individuals so that corporations can flourish.  It does seem clear to me that there is no such thing as an ideal system; you can never make a system so perfect that there will be no need for individuals to choose to do the right thing.  There is also no system that everyone will agree is completely fair.  But I do think there are laws that can help -- and quite a few that can hurt.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Agrarianism is for the poor

Awhile ago, I read on a Catholic blog the comment that "luxuries" like Catholic agrarianism are the province of the rich.

At first it boggled my mind.  The whole point of agrarianism, as I see it, is that you shouldn't have to be rich.  Then I remembered the sort of agrarians and distributists I knew at Christendom.  They were aware of Catholic social teaching stating that property ownership ought to be as broad as possible, but there was quite a bit of fuzziness as to why.  I joined the Distributist Club for a bit, but we mostly muddled about trying to define property.  People seemed rather hazy as to what we were aiming for at all.  I don't remember the poor ever being mentioned.  And the more agrarian professors seemed mainly to be Luddites, griping over wristwatches and email, but it seemed clear enough to me that if they were in the employ of a college for their livelihood, they did not "own the means of production" in any of the senses we were talking about.

I recently read The Church and the Land, by Fr. Vincent McNabb. It's a fine bunch of diatribes, though not very specific on social programs.  (Belloc is better for that.)  The introduction was written by a favorite professor of mine, who taught me Latin and had the most acerbic wit I think I've ever encountered.  For all I loved his class, I felt his introduction focused on all the wrong things.  He points out that things have changed a lot since the early 20th century when McNabb wrote, and that some say distributism isn't needed anymore.

It is, he says, but not for the reasons I think of.  He talks about modern ease, comfort, commercialism, microwave dinners, and points out the loss of women's crafts, men's opportunity for physical toil, and family dinners.

Sure.  Fine.  I hate Wal-Mart too.  But I don't feel that women and men have to be bound into gender-specific jobs in order to be agrarian, and I don't think you have to be agrarian to have dinner together as a family.

The central tenet of distributism is this: as many people as possible should be able to own property -- defined usually as a farm or business.  Not that we should shun technology.  Not that women should cook and men should chop wood.  Not that families should have dinner together.  These things may be good or bad, but they have no real bearing on distributism as such.

And it seems to me talking about air-conditioning and SUV's and microwave dinners is ignoring the real problems of our world today -- the fact that many still are poor.  Poor not only in the sense of not having enough to eat or wear, but also in the sense of having very little control over their lives.  Knowing that a single pink slip stands between your family and ruin.  Knowing that if you are poor enough, you will have to go on welfare to feed your family.  Knowing that once you do, the government has you on a string just like your employer used to.

And that's only in this country.  The professor does mention, to his credit, that American prosperity is predicated on the exploitation of other countries.  We no longer have smoke-belching, unsafe factories, not because we have made the factories safe, but because we have moved them elsewhere.  All the poverty of England in the 19th century exists in Asia or Africa in the 21st.  Capitalism has generated wealth, but it has not eliminated poverty.  Neither have communism or socialism been able to do the same.

That poverty is inescapable without property ownership is clear from one example: the minimum wage.  The liberal view is this: A man can't live on $7 an hour at McDonalds.  We have to raise the minimum wage to $10.  To which the conservative responds: If we raised the minimum wage to $10, McDonalds still wouldn't pay the man $10.  It will fire him and buy an automatic burger-flipping machine.

The same in the third world.  The liberal cries, "This factory is cruel, it forces women and children to work in unsafe conditions for two dollars a day!"  The conservative responds, "But if you close the factory, they will be even worse off.  They wouldn't be working there if they didn't desperately need that two dollars a day."

They're both right, absolutely right, and that's the trouble.  When a man has nothing to live off of but a hope that a corporation will find him "worth" an amount large enough to pay for food and shelter, he is perpetually at risk for exploitation.  And if he refuses to work for the amount offered, he can't bargain the price up -- some other person more desperate will take the wages.  It's happening all over the market right now.  If you aren't willing to do work you're overqualified for, and put in extra hours for free, and accept a smaller paycheck and fewer benefits than you used to have -- well, there are people who are willing to do it, and they will have a job and you will have none.  No one has any bargaining power, because they all need to live.

But we are in this weak position because we are landless.  We cannot live without employment -- without convincing someone else we are "worth" a certain amount.  If we all had land, if we had a choice to live off that land or get a job in town, companies would have to offer a living wage if they wanted any workers at all.

A lot of capitalists are adamantly pro-business.  If the businesses prosper, we all will prosper.  Give businesses as many advantages as we can.  They don't seem to realize that if large corporations hold all the land, all the natural resources, all the capital, and all the machines, everyone else -- "the 99%," or the peasantry, as I like to call us -- have very little clout when it comes to opposing them.

Want proof?  Since 2008, what we call the recovery really only happened to the owners in society.  The income of the top 1% rebounded by 30% -- up to pre-recession levels.  The income of the rest of us rebounded by 1% -- less than inflation.  Of course there are many reasons for this, corporate bailouts being one.  But I also wonder if the recession wasn't just a convenient way to cut pay.  Since unemployment is high, people will work harder for less, and there was no reason to pass on the extra money to employees, so long as all the other employers were paying less too.  Certainly that has happened with John's job -- unless you have a competing job offer in hand (and here in the boonies, you're not likely to), you aren't going to get a raise.

Since the seventies, workers have produced 80% more in the same amount of time -- but wages have only risen 10%.  If minimum wage increased with higher productivity, it would be $21.72!  In other words, workers are working hard, producing lots of profit for their employers, but they are not sharing in the rewards.  In fact, it seems unlikely to me that they ever would share in the rewards, since workers don't set their salaries.  Those are worked out through supply and demand, so if you're unlucky enough to have a common skillset, your wages will be low no matter how hard you work.  It's only when you own your own business or farm that your increased productivity will result in a direct advantage to yourself.

Now, not everyone wants to work for themselves.  Some people would rather punch a clock and go home at the end of the day.  I don't think everyone needs to own property.  But the important thing is that property ownership (or, by extension, self-employment) should be within reach.  Prosperity can't be built on a shaky foundation of unstable agricultural policy -- and economic freedom doesn't exist where all the land is owned by a few.

This raises an even harder question: what to do when the land is owned by a few and property ownership is so difficult to obtain.  If I knew the answer to this, we'd own some already!  But my next post will give some thought to that topic.
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