Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thoughts and round-up of thoughts on yesterday's Supreme Court decisions about marriage

No doubt you have already read or heard about the two decisions yesterday, United States V. Windsor (striking down that part of DOMA which defined "marriage" and "spouse" as used in federal statutes), and Hollingsworth v. Perry (dismissing the suit brought by citizens of California to protect their own Constitution from the refusal of elected officials to uphold the law, Proposition 8, as passed).  Bishop Nickless's response is apt, for starters:

The Supreme Court of the United States announced two important decisions about the future of marriage in our country. In a 5-4 decision in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. In a separate 5-4 decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Court dismissed the case, finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit.

We are, of course, most disappointed at the failure of the Court to uphold the dignity of marriage in both cases. If not corrected, the Court’s implicit repudiation of the role of both state and federal governments to regulate the institution of marriage for the sake of children’s wellbeing (and eventual moral health as citizens) will have long-lasting deleterious effects on our already tattered social fabric.

Marriage is not just any sexual relationship between consenting adults, nor the bestowal of social recognition and approval on such a relationship by government or society. Marriage has a clear nature, prior to the creation of positive laws to regulate it. Marriage is one specific and unique relationship: namely, the complementary union of the whole life of one man and one woman, for the sake of begetting children, and the good of the husband and wife. It is, of its nature, permanent, exclusive, total, and fruitful. Good laws recognize and defend the unique nature of marriage and the special privileges of parents and children that result from it. Such laws are “good” precisely because they foster what is best for children, and thereby for all of society.

We of the Roman Catholic Church, along with all those of every faith and of no faith who also recognize the unique dignity and purpose of marriage, will continue to pray and work, peacefully but unrelentingly, for the preservation in law and society of what marriage really is, and for the protection of all children unable to protect themselves.

There is a reference here to how abortion and contraception contribute to the destruction of marriage, because they make the activity of marriage only about the spouses - indeed, only about the satisfaction of a very narrow appetite - and not about the end (namely children) to which that activity is ordered, of its nature.  So if that's all that marriage means, it is quite reasonable that two men, or two women, or any number of men and women in any combination, ought to be able to have legal recognition of the manner in which they choose, publicly and formally, to seek satisfaction for the sexual appetite.  This becomes a reductio ad absurdum, but in our already absurd society, no one hears.

But the problems with the two decisions are much deeper than the failure to recognize the innate nature of marriage as such, the failure to protect parents and children, or the rejection of the idea that government has a vested interest in the health of families because healthy families produce healthy children, on the whole, and thus foster the common good.  The worst aspects of these decisions are not problems of fact, but of vision: they are not decisions of law, but of ideology.  Quite apart from the issue of marriage itself - and it's no small thing that the Court has, at every level, refused to recognize that marriage has its own nature, prior to the law - there is another underlying issue of democratic process, and the activism of legislating, indeed of moralizing, from the bench.  Justice Scalia in his dissent in Windsor excoriates the majority for this:

The Court is eager—hungry—to tell everyone its view of the legal question at the heart of this case. Standing in the way is an obstacle, a technicality of little interest to anyone but the people of We the People, who created it as a barrier against judges’ intrusion into their lives. They gave judges, in Article III, only the “judicial Power,” a power to decide not abstract questions but real, concrete “Cases” and “Controversies.” Yet the plaintiff and the Government agree entirely on what should happen in this lawsuit. They agree that the court below got it right; and they agreed in the court below that the court below that one got it right as well. What, then, are we doing here?

The answer lies at the heart of the jurisdictional portion of today’s opinion, where a single sentence lays bare the majority’s vision of our role. The Court says that we have the power to decide this case because if we did not, then our “primary role in determining the constitutionality of a law” (at least one that “has inflicted real injury on a plaintiff ”) would “become only secondary to the President’s.” Ante, at 12. But wait, the reader wonders—Windsor won below, and so cured her injury, and the President was glad to see it. True, says the majority, but judicial review must march on regardless, lest we “undermine the clear dictate of the separation-of-powers principle that when an Act of Congress is alleged to conflict with the Constitution, it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Ibid. (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted).

That is jaw-dropping. It is an assertion of judicial supremacy over the people’s Representatives in Congress and the Executive. It envisions a Supreme Court standing (or rather enthroned) at the apex of government, empowered to decide all constitutional questions, always and every- where “primary” in its role.

Moreover, the decisions themselves appear to be contradictory.  The rules seem to bend in one direction in one case, to allow a third party to have standing (despite the fact, as Scalia points out, that there is no disagreement and no remaining injury, following the original judgment), while bending in the opposite direction to refuse a third party to have standing (despite the fact that the adversarial relationship is clearly present, and the additional fact, on which our whole constitutional theory rests, that the people always retain sovereignty over their elected officials).  One scratches one's head trying to figure out how this is not merely arbitrary interpretation of law and precedents to achieve a predetermined outcome.

Finally, one of the best responses I've seen is this one, begging for more consistent teaching and practice of the faith by those most visible as leaders of the Church, namely, bishops and priests.  The same goes for us as deacons, to the extent that we too are visible leaders (albeit in a slightly different sense) and official representatives (in the very same sense) of the Church.  Permanent deacons have a special opportunity as married clergy (as nearly all of us are) to witness to the sanctity of marriage, to preach it in every sense (action, catechesis, and liturgical preaching), and to lead the Church's much-needed revival of the virtues of marriage.  Buckle up, brothers, we are being called to the front lines.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Archbishop Chaput on the New Evangelization

From a conference last week on evangelization and preaching, Archbishop Chaput gave this stirring and sobering reflection (courtesy of

(Picking up with the second third of his talk:) And that requires us to understand the pastoral terrain we face as Christians right now, today.  We should probably start by realizing that some of the same civil authorities that once happily honored Father Serra with statues in Golden Gate Park and the U.S. Capitol building now work even harder to restrict the freedom of American religious communities, force the Church out of public debate, and impose same-sex “marriage” as the law.  Father Serra gave his life to the task of bringing the Gospel to the New World.  But the “new world” we actually have in A.D. 2013 is alien to almost anything Serra could have imagined.

Blessed Pope John Paul II saw the outline of our new “new world” more than 30 years ago.  And following his lead, the Church has been calling Catholics to the work of a “new evangelization” ever since.  But there’s a natural human tendency to attach magic powers to slogans, which then replace serious thought and effort — as if saying the slogan, or talking about it, actually makes mission work happen.  In practice, the words “new evangelization” are overused and underthought.  Unless we reconfigure our lives to understanding and acting on it, the “new evangelization” is just another pious intention – well meaning, but ultimately infertile.

From here he goes to interior conversion, and the possibility of inviting others to conversion when mostly people listen to the world telling them there's no reason to change even our most sinful and destructive behaviors.  He touches on the kind of shallow Christianity which has been called "moralistic therapeutic deism," and how it's so very different from real faith in Jesus Christ; on the narcissistic trap of love of novelty rather than substance; and on the resulting lack of the fundamental virtues that allow self-mastery which afflicts our culture.  He continues:

Here’s what that means for all of us as believers.  A “new” evangelization must start with the sober knowledge that much of the once-Christian developed world, and even many self-described Christians, are in fact pagan.  Christian faith is not a habit.  It’s not a useful moral code.  It’s not an exercise in nostalgia.  It’s a restlessness, a consuming fire in the heart to experience the love of Jesus Christ and then share it with others — or it’s nothing at all.  Mastering the new social and demographic data that describe today’s world, and the new communications tools to reach it, are vitally important for the Church.  But nothing can be accomplished if we lack faith and zeal ourselves.  We – and that means you and I — are the means God uses to change the world.  The material tools are secondary.  People, not things, are decisive.

This is always the basic dynamic of Church reform and flourishing: interior first, exterior second, leading to well-grounding mission.  Nothing surprising here, but his clarity and forthrightness are admirable.  So he goes on to talk about zeal:

The heart of every fresh work of evangelization is this kind of ardor; a passionate faith that can only come from seeking out and giving ourselves entirely to Jesus Christ, no matter what the cost.  Just as Francis was raised up in his time to preach the Gospel with new passion in new kinds of ways, so Junipero Serra followed the same path, with the same unshakeable faith, to preach Jesus Christ to new souls, on a new continent, in a new world.

And thus he concludes:

I began my talk today with a passage from St. Paul because the theme of this conference — “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (9:16) — comes from the same First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians.  The irony, the glory and the joy of faith in Jesus Christ is that the more we give it away to others, the stronger it grows, and the more we have for ourselves to feed our own hearts.  George Bernard Shaw once said that “When I was young, I observed that nine out of every ten things I did were failures, so I did ten times more work.”  Shaw was never a friend of Christianity, but that just makes me happier in borrowing his words.  Young or old, we need to live our faith as Junipero Serra did — all in, 100 percent, holding nothing back, with charity, endurance, passion and hope.  That kind of faith changes lives and remakes the world.

Read the full text of the talk.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, on the foundations of Apologetics for youth and young adults

Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, is a physicist with a clear view of the proper relationship of faith and reason.  He's also a wonderfully engaging and delightful presenter.  This video of his talk at the 2012 Napa Institute (found at the Sacred Page) is an excellent foray into one of the more urgent areas of Apologetics:

Fr. Spitzer is right on the money when he says that we must address the foundational questions first.  He lists three: the existence of God, the problem of suffering, and the historicity of Jesus Christ.  (One could also add to this list the question about what kind of church was/is intended by Christ.)  He really only gets to talk about the first one in this presentation, because of time, but I hope that our formation program has pointed to, if not taught more fully, some of the enduring answers to the others also.  (The classes on the Catechism, Apologetics, Moral Theology, and Christology, and the dash of Philosophy we're able to do, all touch on these three fundamental questions to some degree; and of course our Scripture and Ecclesiology classes address the fourth.)

He's also founded the Magis Center for Reason and Faith to provide resources for parents, catechists, and adult learners.  It looks like there's quite a bit here that would be useful in some homiletical situations, too.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Unity, Division, and the Church's Holiness - brief thoughts

A few weeks ago I read this review of a new book on ecclesiology, and was intrigued enough to want to read the book for myself.  May was very busy and I wasn't able to read it as thoroughly or deeply as I hoped, so this post will remain very general.  (I also didn't take notes while reading it, and no longer have it in front of me - ILL is a wonderful thing! - so can't cite examples of my impressions.)

Radner's argument seems to be that division, violence, and sin are inherent in the (life of the) Church.  He dismisses "traditional" ecclesiology(s) that distinguish between the holiness of the Church and the sins of her members.  He simply elides "the sins of Christians" to "Christian sin" to "the Church is violent."  Therefore an "adequate" ecclesiology will account for this, and the way forward, he asserts, is to root ecclesiology more firmly in the Church's imitation of Christ's sacrificial love (although he then avoids the obvious direction of the argument to the Eucharist and to grace).

I was certainly not convinced by most of Radner's argument, on several counts.  But the most important objection is simply this: a church that is not holy in the traditional sense, is not a church that can offer me relief from my own sins.  If I don't want to be free from my sins, I don't want any church, while if I do, I want a church that is holy, with the relevant divine gifts that make not only forgiveness but transformation possible. In any case, the church that he's describing is not one that attracts.

So I'll defend the traditional ecclesiology of the Church's holiness as sharing in the holiness of God, through the Incarnation, Passion, death, and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, by means of this lecture: