Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A few thoughts on the apparent contradictions of sinfulness

It is written, “The Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps merciful covenant and steadfast love with those who love Him and keep His commandments, to a thousand generations, requites to their face those who hate Him, by destroying them; He will not be slack with him who hates Him, He will requite him to his face. You shall therefore be careful to do the commandments, the statutes and ordinances, which I command you this day.” (Deut 7.9-11)

And yet, we also find, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” (Ex 24.6-7)

The apparent contradiction is between God requiting the sinner himself “to his face” (other translations see immediacy implied in this passage), and in the “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” Which is it? And how is it that the righteousness of a man results in God being merciful and showing steadfast love “to a thousand generations”? And what of the Prophet Ezekiel who said, “The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself”? (Ez 18.20)

The answer is clear when we think of the effects of sin. Often in this age, we hear people comment that some sins are not truly evil because committing them “doesn’t hurt anyone.” The rhetorical question is often brandished “where’s the harm in it”? But in fact, the effects of sin are deadly. We see this first and foremost in original sin.

The Apostle speaks precisely when he states, “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” (Rom 5.12) The effect of original sin is death. In committing that first (original) sin, that which was created immortal became mortal, the pristine image of God was besmirched, and the body, like the sullied soul, began its descent into corruption and decay. This legacy affects us all to this day. Equally harmful, corruption is at work in the universe, the decadent dissolution into cold emptiness of the universe is more than a metaphor of the emptiness of a soul separated from God.

Returning to actual sin, it is clear that every sin has effects that go beyond the mere committing of the sin itself. Like a ripple on a still pond, the effects of sin radiate out in ways that are to some extent almost invisible to the human eye; while in other ways the effect is all too visible. This has practical import for any morality we can conceive. At once, we understand the old adage that “good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.” It is not that God is actually ‘testing’ the good nor teasing the wicked; rather, the effects of sin rippling through the ethical universe cause the good to suffer in a world as diseased as a potters field. In a similar way, the wicked, being – shall we say? – attuned to the discordant cacophony of sinfulness droning through our existence, often benefit from sin through means that the ear of human conscience cannot clearly fathom.

And so, the sinner often seems to ‘get away’ with his sinful actions. And yet, this is not so. For the lord does requite him to his face. As with original sin, the actual sin committed by the wicked redounds to him in a spiritual death, the agony of which he may not clearly perceive. Sin separates the wicked from God, like the universe flying way from itself in silent frigid emptiness. We see from this that no amount of earthly reward can truly benefit the sinner, for the satisfaction that he seeks, and prima facie sometimes achieves, is ultimately hollow, sterile and wanton.

And yet, because no sin is ultimately private, the effects of this fruitless addiction to that which can never bring life and joy, ripple through the universe. And for the man who lives sinfully, his children are indeed affected by his wickedness; learning immoral lessons and being taught to sojourn in a wilderness of unfulfilling passion. Thus we see the sins of the father visited upon their children.

Consequently, we also see an added hope and incentive to our choice of morally charitable and Christian ends. The effects of righteous actions not only redound to our benefit but to that of the world also. The moral example we set for our children helps form them ethically and spiritually. And the effects of our moral choices have positive impact on the world.

Indeed, it has been noted, how much worse off the world would be were it not for the prayers of repentant sinners and saints! Amen.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Imperative of the Right to Life

This is Right to Life Month, and around the country battle lines are drawn. On the one side are those who pray, protest and urge politicians and judges to end the immoral practice of abortion in the US. On the other side are those who protest, argue and warn politicians that abortion is a human right and essential to the preservation of US freedoms.

The pro-abortion side has done a good job of relegating the pro-life side to the margins of the political landscape. Their arguments are wrapped in a kind of idealistic notion of human rights that strikes the uncommitted listener as logical and even laudatory. The pro-abortion argument essentially states that human beings have unalienable rights, which include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To prevent a woman from access to abortion is to violate her liberty to make decisions on her own behalf. The classic example of why such liberty must be defended is the woman impregnated through rape; that anti-abortion legislation would require her to carry the child to term strikes many as barbaric as the rape itself. Couple to this an appeal to the right to privacy; any legislation that would proscribe the choice for abortion not only violates the mother's personal liberty it violates her privacy to make such a choice outside the glare of public scruitiny and opinion. A generally conclusive assertion that it is ‘her body’ rounds off the case.

In light of such a tightly asserted argument, pro-life supporters are either cast as religious fanatics, bent on imposing their morality on the nation, or as political zealots determined to mold society to their chosen ideology. Pro-life supporters are therefore dangerous, irrational people whose blind bigotry is constantly in danger of spilling over into acts of wanton violence. Worse, by characterizing pro-life supports as being identifiable with certain political groups they can be challenged with hypocrisy is the political group favors the death penalty. (The fact that a political party may take the pro-life position and hold an inconsistent view towards end of life issues does not necessitate that a pro-life advocate necessarily holds to every position of the party.)

This demonizing of the pro-life movement has been so successful that I challenge anyone to find a major media news outlet that substantially covers the pro-life march on Washington later this month. By ‘substantial’ I mean more than a scant few seconds and quick crowd shot on the evening news. If the event is reported and numbers are mentioned, look for a comparative number to be indicated for pro-abortion counter-protesters or at a separate march. Odds are that if more than thirty seconds are spent mentioning it at all the ‘conservative’ character of the supporters, the ‘fundamentalist’ tone of the arguments made, or the number of politicians of ‘that side’ who were in attendance will feature significantly in the report.

Yet what are the pro-life supporters really about? In the Catholic Church, they are Christians. What does it mean to be Christian if one has neither care nor respect for human life? Pope John Paul the Great produced the ethico-anthropological masterpiece Theology of the Body, which is only now beginning to be recognized as the epochal monument and contribution to human ethical and cultural history that it is. So central to Christianity is the concept of life as a gift and the proto-right in all ethical and political discourse that it is impossible to accurately understand the pro-life movement without reference to it. The impact of Theology of the Body on all ethical debate will continue to grow in the decades to some.

All human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. This means that each human person has a dignity that is at once undeniable, inalienable (for those who smirked at my use of "unalienable" above), and irreducible. The dignity of the human person extends to the body as well as the soul. Consequently, a variety of ‘rights’ are inherent to each human being by virtue of simply being human. In addition, certain moral imperatives are therefore axiomatic and immutable.

Abortion is essentially (in its essence) an immoral act. It does not respect the dignity of the child in the womb. Only sophistry could claim that what is aborted is mere tissue. Science cannot deny that what is conceived in the womb is a human being and nothing else. The undeniable horrors of ‘partial-birth’ abortion does not exhaust the barbarity of all abortions, no matter how sanitarily performed (read: committed) at any stage of the pregnancy. Once we face the reality that what is conceived in the womb is human that child (for no other word indicates thruthfully the being to which we refer) must be recognized as possessing all the rights common to every other human being.

This inherent human dignity defeats all political arguments for abortion, revealing them to rely on sophistry as the only method of circumvention. The liberty of the mother to make choices for her own life cannot extend to a decision to end the life of her child. The child is not "her body". In truth, from the moment of conception the fetus is a separate human being and enjoys the same rights as any other human being. This truth is often obscured by arguments about the ‘viability of the fetus’ as though children are born in a state of maturit and are at birth ability to take care of themselves. Science has shown that even after birth certain organs have not reached their complete development (e.g., the part of the brain that controls circadian rhythms, the skull, etc.). It is noteworthy that in some countries the notion that a child is not fully developed until long after birth has led to perverse arguments to allow the child to be killed up to several years after birth!

To cast the argument in terms of a woman’s right to decide for her body is to reduce the child in the womb to the status of property. Some years back two US senators had a donnybrook on the topic of abortion that hinged on this very facet of the issue. One senator (a white conservative male, if memory serves me) began to compare the argument for a woman’s property rights over the fetus to the South’s view of slaves as property at the time of the US Civil War. This argument was stifled in mid-sentence and vilified by another senator (a black liberal female) who expressed indignation that the senator would dare make such a comparison. Her indication rested solely on the fact that she was a black woman who had ancestors who were slaves. She would not hear the possibility that the same logic once used to enslave people based on something as insignificant as skin color was at work in the pro-abortion campaign.

But note, never addressed the analogy of her colleague; she protested and prevented his attempt to draw the comparison. She did not attempt to counter his arguement. And, of course, the reason was that she couldn’t. His analogy is exactly a propos. Abortion is not an exercise in equal rights for women, it's an act of facism that sees in the womb an opportunity to play god.

At one time, it was considered madness to argue (as did Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae) that a pro-abortion view would necessarily degenerate into acceptance of euthanasia. Indeed, part of the criticism of Pope Paul was his daring to connect contraception with abortion. Not only has this connection been shown valid, but the other consequences he foretold have come to pass in recent decades. Remember, several European governments either have or are ennacting legislation that allows children to be killed up to a certain age. We have already witnessed the sophisticated murder at the hands of medical professionals that once would have been recognized as murder yet is now euphomisically termed "physician assisted suicide."

The utilitarianism that defines the value all things as dependent on their usefulness or convenience has grown to an Orwellian demonic dominance. Indeed, madness has become the measure of modern morality. It is illogical and hypocritical for anyone to claim adherence to the Catholic Church and the Christian Faith while holding the morally indefensible view that abortion is acceptable.

Western Civilization is the product of Christianity – it’s morality, it’s philosophy, it’s anthropology. As Pope Benedict XVI noted recently, if we would be true to that heritage of freedom and defence of human rights that is the boast of Western Civilization it is necessary that we face our views on life with alacrity. If we would be faithful to our democratic ideals, we must "recognize and protect the sanctity of life from the first moment of conception until natural death. It requires us to acknowledge the indispensable role of stable marriage and family life for the good of society. It obliges us to consider carefully the ethical implications of scientific and technological progress, particularly in the field of medical research and genetic engineering. Above all, it directs us towards a proper understanding of human freedom which can never be realized independently of God but only in cooperation with his loving plan for humanity. Tolerance and respect for difference, if they are truly to benefit society, need to be built upon the rock of an authentic understanding of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God and called to a share in his divine life." (Address to the Ambassador of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Holy See, 23 December 2005)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Opening Ramblings

On the Catholic Faith
I set my self to a wandering reflection on the Catholic Faith as I understand it and attempt to live it. God willing, it will settle out into specific reflections on various topics, but initially it will be somewhat rambling.

Why I am writing is a mystery to me. There are so many who have written so much of great value, and more who have written of dubious value, and even more who have written what can best be described as misguided. What can I contribute?

I am neither very holy, nor very wise. I don’t possess great faith, deep prayer, or even a disposition that avoids hypocrisy. So, whatever I put down will likely be shallow or pretentious. God forgive me. As I write, guide my hand so as not to sin, nor to lead others to sin. Let my reflections serve for good, to correct me in my errors, to guide me to Truth, to beckon me to salvation, to protect me from sin.

Here in my old age I discover myself a Catholic priest. I am one who has come home to the Holy Catholic Church from the Orthodox Churches. Why did I do it?

The wholeness of Truth beckoned me. It is almost impossible for me to explain. There is a ring of Truth in the Catholic Church that simply was not there in the Orthodox Church. And this is most strange to me in that I celebrate the same Liturgy, follow the same calendar (even if Pascha is celebrated according to the Gregorian Calendar now), keep the same cycle of fasting and feasting. How is it different?

Despite all anyone can say it is the Holy Father. The Pope makes the difference. He is not my patriarch, yet he is my Pope. I commemorate him in the Liturgy. That is the difference. It seems like something so little and yet for the Orthodox it is so monumental a distinction that they call us "uniates" and pretenders and fakes.

But consider: Do I believe in the Undivided Trinity? Yes. This great Mystery of our Salvation is the heart and focus of my worship. It breathes life into my being, the Trinity reveals the great mercy of Divine Love, shared intimately with the Christian soul. When I offer up the Anaphora I find myself somewhat trembling that I am at that moment actually addressing my prayer to God the Father. I have entered into the Life of God Himself to offer him, "Your own of what is your own…"

How can this be? I am such a sinner. So full of sin and shame. Guilty and full of filth and perversion. Yet I have been given the grace to stand at the altar and pray not just to God, but entering into the Mystery of Who God is, to speak with the Persons of the Holy Trinity Himself.

In my mind I see a great darkness, the unfathomable light that is God. I understand it but do not comprehend it. Intellectually, I accept it and know all the great formulas to put it on paper, but the reality of it eludes my understanding. In moments of spiritual clarity, I can almost say I am acquainted with Him but cannot do more than accept it. (And this makes me wonder how I can ever convey this Mystery in a sermon!)

So how is it that I, so full of pettiness, lust, ambition, arrogance, jealousy, weakness, callousness, and spiritual blindness, can actually stand before the Holy Table? Ex Opere Operato? Yes. But the magnitude of the grace given overwhelms me.

Once, long ago, when I was in seminary I served as a student chaplain. I was called upon to baptize a prematurely born infant who subsequently died. It was traumatic for me. I spoke later with one of the professors and said that I felt empty. All I had done was pour water on a tiny forehead and recited a few words. He told me that I was right. God produced the miracle, all I had done was go through the motions. It was a humbling and uplifting insight for me. In a way it was formative for my becoming Orthodox and ultimately Catholic. It became constitutive of why I love the rubrics and find attention to following them correctly so important to my liturgical spirituality.

I find the whole debate in the Roman Rite almost comical. Why would anyone presume to do the liturgy "their way" as opposed to how the Rubrics indicate it should be done? The Roman Rite has such great potential. Look at a papal mass from the Holy See. It is no less majestic than the Byzantine Rite, and like the Byzantine Rite could equally be celebrated with dignity and spiritual intensity in the most humble of parish settings.

So it is the Holy Father that guarantees the seal of Catholicity to my Faith. And for this the separated brethren call my Church traitorous or blasphemous. But then again, for too many Orthodox the Faith is almost entirely defined by what separates them from the Pope.
I remember one Holy Thursday, listening to the hymns of the Orthros of the Passion, and the primacy of St Peter was clearly indicated! And I thought, how can we sing this and not be united to Rome? Of course, the answer is that Peter had primacy but it was not transferable to his successor. But if not, how is the Apostolic Succession passed on at all? Is it really logical that the succession can pass from generation to generation of bishops but the particular succession of primacy cannot? (Read Soloviev. He says it all!)

The Gates of Hell shall not prevail. Thanks be to God for the Catholic Church. The Orthodox have even abandoned the ancient name of the Church. None of the Church Fathers called it the Orthodox Church. It was always the Christian Faith and the Catholic Church. Perhaps that is why I had to come home – to be in the Church of the Fathers. (What is that old song, "Faith of our Fathers"?)