Monday, November 24, 2014

Capitalism's High Holy Day

All this week, when not that long ago one would have expected the focus to be on the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, we are instead being treated to a commercial crescendo all building up to consumerism's high holy day. Now commonly called "Black Friday" (which increasingly extends back into Thanksgiving Day itself), the day after Thanksgiving features buying and selling elevated to a quasi-civic ritual. It is commercialism and consumerism run riot. It is capitalism's high holy day.

This is not, of course, the capitalism that Karl Marx famously analyzed and critiqued in the19th century. His predictions proved spectacularly wrong by virtually any standard or measure. In part that was because of his erroneous materialistic presuppositions. But also among Marx's many errors was his not having anticipated how 20th-century capitalism would transform (and save) itself by turning workers into consumers. Capitalist greed drives "Black Friday," disastrously continuing capitalism's historic role of destroying the fragile fabric of human community - tearing away from the family, as Marx famously remarked, "its sentimental veil."

But capitalist greed in its post-modern, consumerist form, characterizes buyers as much as sellers. I read recently or heard somewhere how one retail chain that last year opened for business at 8:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day will this year open two hours earlier - because customers complained about having had to wait until so late to go shopping! If this story is true, it just illustrates how throughly the human necessity of shopping in order to live has been perverted into the consumerist disorder of living in order to shop!

The corruption of Thanksgiving Day is only the most recent such development, but remains an especially poignant and tragic one. Thanksgiving, after all, is one of the most beautiful (and distinctly American) holidays. And, until very recently, it had escaped much of the consumerist take-over that has corrupted every other American civic holiday (and, of course, Christmas). 

Better by far than the anachronistic critique of materialistic Marxism is that of Pope Francis, who has tellingly written: "The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ" [Evangelii Gaudium, 2].

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Judgment Day

On this annual celebration of Christ the King, the Church challenges us to contemplate Christ’s return in majesty - his coming again “in glory” (as we say all the time in the Creed) “to judge the living and the dead.”

Traditionally, we speak of two judgments – the general and the particular. Like Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel, today’s gospel [Matthew 25:31-46] portrays a final, general judgment, which we associate with the end of time. Yet, that final, general judgment will just ratify and confirm the particular judgment of each one of us at end of our individual life. Likewise, that particular judgment just confirms each one of us individually in the kind of life we have been living on earth - in the kind of person you and I have become over the course of our life.

Around the end of World War II, the British author C.S. Lewis wrote a short story, The Great Divorce, a fantasy, in which the narrator finds himself at a bus stop in what resembles a rather dreary, 1940s English town in apparently perpetual drizzle. There he joins a group of quarrelsome, grumpy ghosts on a bus trip to the outskirts of heaven, where they are to be offered yet one more opportunity to leave behind the sins that have kept them trapped outside.

The narrator then listens in on a series of conversations between the bus passengers and some representatives from heaven - people they previously knew in life, who now try to persuade them to change. One of them poignantly pleads with one of the visitors: “Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?”

Overwhelmingly, as in the Gospel account we just heard, the visitors obstinately seem to remain forever focused only on themselves. As one of heaven’s residents explains to the narrator (who is understandably perplexed by the visitors’ behavior): “There is always something they insist on keeping … There is always something they prefer to joy.” That is why each one becomes, as one of the heavenly figures explains, “nearly nothing,” that is “shrunk, shut up in itself.”

Lewis was just writing a novel, of course, a work of fiction. But, like the Gospel’s judgment story, it illustrates the connection between what we believe and how we live. And it dramatically captures how my own choices and actions here and now can either unite me with others or cut me off from others. Both the novel and the gospel illustrate how the person that I am going to be forever is the person I am presently in the process of becoming – by how I am living here and now. What I do with others, how I live with others, my actions, my relationships, my whole life matters. Each one of us is the story of a lifetime. And it is, of course, a process – a lifelong process, in the course of which each one of us experiences his or her own particular set of challenges and opportunities. And, just like with the servants in the parable we heard last week, the gifts God has given us to work with can be multiplied many times over by going beyond ourselves and joining with others here and now in this world, which we have been entrusted to love and care for, and in our life together as his Church. As Pope Francis has reminded us, defeatism stifles [EG 85], whereas God’s love summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive [EG 81].

Homily, Solemnity of Christ the King, Saint Anne, Walnut Creek, CA, November 23, 2014.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Heading West for the Holiday

Autumn and winter have always been my favorite seasons, and the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s holidays are always my most looked-forward-to and favorite time of the year. It is also that time of the year when so many of us especially try to make time for family and friends, visiting one another where possible and reconnecting with others by mail and other ways. Here in the United States, Thanksgiving week typically sees more travel than almost any other week of the year. I too am joining the traveling throngs this holiday week, flying cross-country this Saturday to celebrate Thanksgiving in California with my 92-year old mother, and with my nearby sister and her family
Thanksgiving remains the quintessentially American holiday. It has been so since at least the fall of 1623, when Massachusetts Governor William Bradford famously issued this proclamation: that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November ye 29th of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor, and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.
On Sunday, I will be celebrating Mass at my mother’s parish church in Walnut Creek, CA. That day, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Christ the King. This modern feast was first introduced into the Church’s calendar by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical letter Quas Primas during the Jubilee year 1925. In that encyclical, Pope Pius XI quoted Saint Cyril of Alexandria to say that Christ "possesses dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence, nor usurped from anyone, but his by essence and by nature."

Originally, this feast was assigned to the last Sunday before All Saints Day. Blessed Pope Paul VI expanded the title to “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe” and moved it to the last Sunday before Advent, a day traditionally associated with Christ’s final judgment of the world, which is the subject of today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 25:31-46). That theme of judgment is likewise central to the Advent season which begins next Sunday, as the annual cycle continues. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Lumen Gentium at 50

Today marks the 50th anniversary of what - from a doctrinal perspective at least - was undoubtedly the most important document of the Second Vatican Council - The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). The same day also saw the promulgation of the council's Decree on Ecumenism (Unitas Redintegratio), which, so to speak, goes hand in hand with Lumen Gentium in articulation the Council's ecclesiology.

Ecclesiology, of course, was what the Council was all about. Being just a high school kid at the time, my knowledge (and, a fortiori, my understanding) of the Council was quite limited. But however limited my knowledge and understanding, I did know that the Council would in some sense complete Vatican I's teaching on the Church. I knew, of course, that Vatican I had been interrupted by the unification of the kingdom of Italy (or, as it was then still sometimes called, "the sacrilegious invasion of Rome"). And I understood, albeit in some very vague way, that the result was a prevailing picture of the Church - one focused heavily on the papacy, whose primacy and infallibility had been definitively treated by the Council - that was certainly not wrong but which was only part of the entire Church picture. Vatican II was widely expected (at least by those who thought about such things) to reaffirm Vatican I's teaching but also to balance it by filling in the rest of the picture that Vatican I had had no opportunity to address. (In one of history's many ironies, the post-conciliar Church is perhaps even more papacy-centered than ever before - a consequence of modern media and the larger-than-life media presence of two post-conciliar popes - Saint John Paul II and now Pope Francis.)

Lumen Gentium most certainly did that. It utilized lots of biblical imagery and highlighted images of the Church (e.g., the Church as "the People of God") that seemed somehow new, while resonating with our roots. It spoke in expansively gracious language about non-Catholics, Jews, and other non-Christians, in ways that affirmed the uniqueness of the Catholic Church while at the same time recognizing the multiple levels of connectedness with the Church among the larger human family. (In the process, it may have paved the way for what contemporary commentators have called a "lifestyle ecumenism," that analogously attempts something similar to address the complexities of the many multiple levels of connectedness experienced subjectively by many within the Church and at its margins.) And, of course, Lumen Gentium also situated the Blessed Virgin Mary in her prominent place within the Church, helping to address not an internal Catholic problem particularly but a perception problem for many non-catholic Christians, with whom it has since become much easier to engage in productive common dialogue about Mary. Excerpts from Lumen Gentium's chapter on the Blessed Virgin Mary reappear regularly in the Liturgy of the Hours in the Saturday Office of the BVM. And, when they do,I never tire of re-encountering them.

A lot has gone unexpectedly badly in the Church and the world in the 50 years since the Council - at least in the West, where renewal sometimes seemed like simple surrender to a secular Zeitgeist. But that came later, and should not be blamed primarily on the Council. Had the post-conciliar decline been anticipated, undoubtedly the Council Fathers would have been much more cautious in their outlook and probably would have produced fewer and less interesting documents. As it is, they gave the world a rich vision of the Church's self-understanding, which under different historical circumstances could well have renewed the Church along the lines initially envisioned by Pope Saint John XXIII and which, with God's grace and seen through the longer lens of God's providence, may yet come to full fruition in the new historical circumstances of this third millennium.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

More on the Marriage License Debate

Besides being criticized by me in this space, the proposal that Christian clergy should no longer serve as the State's official witness singing marriage licenses has also elicited other responses from much more prominent figures, whose opinions have much more social standing than mine - among them Andrew Sullivan, on one end of the spectrum, and conservative canon lawyer Edward Peters, on another. As I said earlier, whatever one's political opinion about same-sex marriage, I fail to understand how witnessing legally to the fact that a marriage which the Church recognizes has duly taken place poses a problem of conscience for anyone. And if it does, then the obvious question - as Peters himself has also noted - would be why doesn't it pose a problem for the couple themselves? If a minister thinks it unconscionable for him to sign a state marriage license, why isn't it equally unconscionable for the married couple to do so? 

What is actually at issue is the mistaken (so it seems to me) view that if a priest signs a New York City marriage license form, "then he’s signaling that what New York calls marriage is pretty much the same thing as what the Catholic Church calls marriage." Actually, all he is doing is legally witnessing the indisputable fact that the couple has been properly married in accordance with both ecclesiastical and civil laws. If, in fact, what Reno alleges were actually the case, then every time a priest signs a marriage license then he is ipso facto "signaling" that New York's (and, as far as I know, every other state's) legal arrangement according to which marriages are dissolvable by civil divorce "is pretty much the same thing as what the Catholic Church calls marriage." 

I understand that same-sex marriage is something radically new in human history. Even so - as an instance of civilly sanctioned forms of marriage that contradict "what the Catholic Church calls marriage" - it joins an already populated club that includes re-marriage after divorce, priests and religious vowed to celibacy getting civilly married, polygamy, etc. While the first is widely practiced legally in the U.S., and the second certainly happens on occasion, polygamy is no longer legal here, but it is elsewhere in the world. And, if, let us suppose, the US Supreme Court had not ruled as it did in Reynolds v. US in 1878 and if, say, Utah law allowed polygamy, would it therefore be wrong for a Catholic priest to sign a Utah marriage license witnessing that a monogamous couple had contracted a Catholic marriage in Utah?

One doesn't have to believe in or support or advocate for same-sex marriage to ask the obvious question, namely what is it about gay people attempting marriage that makes it so much more apocalyptic to some people than those other situations do and that seems to warrant such an extreme response?