Monday, November 9, 2015

All Saints Day - The Church's Senior Yearbook

I should have posted this a week ago. This is the homily for All Saints Day, November 1st.

Even though preachers are encouraged to beg, borrow, and steal, we should give credit where credit is due (or at least when credit can be remembered). My first year in the seminary, Fr. Joe Szolack preached on All Saints and used this idea of the saints' yearbook. The only specific item I am conscious of borrowing from him is the jock table and the cutest couple, but other ideas may be similar too. It's been 18 years. I regret nothing; he gave an awesome homily. Anyway, here is my rendition.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Misfiring Shots Heard Around the World

The Fourth of July ticks me off. Not because I dislike America, but because I like the truth. Really what I dislike is how some Americans act on the Fourth. I know a lot of the dumb stuff said around this holiday is tongue in cheek, things like, “Dear Britain, <bleep> yourselves! Love, America.” I know it’s good to let off some steam alongside the bombs bursting in air. I get it that when you’re the superpower and a lot of countries want to play David to your Goliath it feels good to remember when you were still the underdog. Cool. But if we’re going to play American independence like we’re a teenage kid getting pissed off at Dad and punching him in the front lawn before taking off to follow our own hopes and dreams, let’s notice that literally no son has ever looked more like his dad than the USA does. If Great Britain was seen as the blustering, arrogant, bullying empire of the 18th and 19th centuries, then it should come as no surprise that the U.S. owns that title for the 20th and 21st ones. And if America is “exceptional”, we should realize it’s largely due to the exceptional political heritage of the nation of England.

This is hard for me to write. I love my country and I love its story. I’m a history junkie and I love great epics. I love heroes. I spent my high school years devouring stuff on the American Civil War because it seemed to me the great modern Iliad: one culture, two peoples, two armies, heroes and villains, cowards and common folk. I literally was so devoted to the idea and object of America that when my reversion back to practicing the Catholic faith took place in 1995 I struggled with giving myself fully to God out of fear that it might someday put me athwart my homeland. I was a literal “My country, right or wrong, my country” kind of patriot. And like many Americans I believed we were exceptional. If not specially blessed by God, then at least we were the proud, brilliant inventors of rights, liberty, and democracy. Little did I realize that in the 1770s nothing could be more thoroughly English than the rhetoric of Patrick Henry, the militias of Boston, and the documents that came out of Philadelphia.

That word “English” needs some explaining. My constant frustration with the American historical mindset is that we (and not just Ron Swanson) tend to think that human history began in 1776. Most of us can’t explain why we speak English but that our Revolution was against “the British.” Quick historical summary: The Anglo-Saxons settled in the land south of Scotland and east of Wales and that nation became known as England. When Elizabeth I died in 1603, her cousin King James of Scotland became the ruler of England too. The 17th century saw horrible wars within and among all the nations of the British Isles, which through a long and tortuous road ended with the Treaty of Union in 1707 making Scotland, England, and Wales, into a single realm, Great Britain. In 1800 Ireland was added, and they called that realm The United Kingdom. This is important because while in 1775 the Minutemen were firing on the red-coated regulars of Great Britain, the American statesmen were quoting, often verbatim, the arguments of the English Civil War, the political cataclysm of the mid-1600s. To quote Simon Schama on Boston and the Stamp Act: “The problem for [British Prime Minister] Grenville, did he but know it, was that he was making trouble for the best-read smugglers in the world. And what they read was history—English history, the epic history of English liberty.”

We were taught in school that the American Revolution was about No taxation without representation, but who invented that rallying cry? Not John Adams, but John Pym and John Hampden, the heroes of the Long Parliament in 1640. I was taught (and will still hear conservative broadcast personalities say) that our Amendments for bearing arms and against quartering soldiers were added because of “the tyrannical things King George did in Boston.” Well, maybe he did, but the America founding fathers knew those things were tyrannical because people had suffered them throughout the 1640s and 50s in the successive tyrannies of King Charles, Parliament, and the New Model Army. 

These 17th century English principles stoked the American grievances of the 18th century. Four months before Lexington and Concord, William Pitt the Elder stood before Parliament and declared that the colonies were not rebelling against English law but were rebelling in order to claim their rights within English law: “This resistance to your arbitrary system of taxation might have been foreseen: it was obvious […] above all, from the Whiggish spirit flourishing in that country. The spirit which now resists your taxation in America is the same which formerly opposed loans, benevolences, and ship-money in England: the same spirit which called all England on its legs, and by the Bill of Rights [of 1689] vindicated the English constitution: the same spirit which established the great, fundamental, essential maxim of your liberties, that no subject of England shall be taxed but by his own consent. This glorious spirit of Whiggism animates three millions in America; who prefer poverty with liberty to gilded chains and sordid affluence; and who will die in defence of their rights as men, as freemen.”

Catch that? The English Bill of Rights was in existence a hundred years before the American one. Now, what about that most glorious of Constitutional Amendments, the First, which assures freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly? It is true that the American fathers expanded it beyond what had been promised in its English predecessor. In America, freedom of speech was granted to all citizens, not just to lawmakers in debate. Freedom of religion was given—not just to all Protestants but to all men. It is often pointed out that Jefferson, Adams, and Madison got their ideas from Hobbes and Locke, but what we don’t get told is that what got Hobbes and Locke reflecting on liberty and governments was the tumultuous half century of 1640-90. In the freedoms of religion and speech, we see the American framers going further, perhaps because they could see the need to respect consciences (especially since many were from Puritan families, dismissed from Britain in the 1660s) and perhaps because after two hundred years of wars of religion in Europe they saw it as the only way to safeguard peace. 

What then is the United States but an end product of England’s attempts to define personal liberty and self-government? America, what did you hurl in Britain's face but his own promises of natural rights that you felt he had failed to keep? Certainly America has not stayed put in the last 239 years, and neither has Britain, but this spirit of liberty is not our divider, but our common heritage. Another time I would like to look at how the English emphasis on liberty and the French emphasis on equality are the two great competing streams running through American thought in the last two centuries, but for now I just want to say thank you to the United Kingdom for educating us in liberty and training us how to live in independence.

P.S. Dad, when we turn a quarter millennium, can we borrow the car?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Challenges of Same-Sex Marriage

This was one of the hardest sermons I can remember writing. The subject matter is obviously controversial, and there was a true need to "sweat the details", but the real challenge was that it's not easy to write sermons that are challenging. What is the right balance of encouragement and "in your face"? How do I challenge others publicly when I feel like I fail constantly? Is this what people need right now? And yet, you preach not because you want to but because the occasion demands it. 

With no further ado then, here is the audio and the full script of the sermon is below that. 

There’s a good chance that everybody can be ticked off by something in this homily. I’ve got strong words and challenges for everybody. Today I am an equal-opportunity offender.

As was referred to in the Bishop’s pulpit announcement, on Friday the Supreme Court declared that all 50 states must recognize same-sex marriage. Many people were overjoyed by this; many people were crushed to hear it. Some people threw it in others’ faces; some people raged back or got self-righteous.

Let’s start there. This challenge is for everybody. We all have feelings. We all have our reactions. A feeling deserves to be felt. Whether joyful or angry, ecstatic or frustrated, feelings deserve to be felt. But we also have choices, and they can be right or wrong. Some choices, some responses, are not acceptable. It’s not okay to mock, or to respond with hate-filled words. It’s not okay to insult or give slurs. We should feel authentically, but being Christian calls us to never cease loving or respecting. Like I said, this one is for all of us.

To those who were heart-broken by the Court’s decision, and I am among them, we need to look within ourselves and ask some hard questions, questions of our attitudes leading up to, and now, after this. How do we view and treat people with same-sex attraction? What do they think we think of them?

Why? Because the Catholic Church should be the most welcoming, loving, understanding place a person with same-sex attraction ever encounters. We ought to be the light in the darkness to those who are hurting. We are to be Jesus’ heart in this world.

I wonder how well we have done on that. Have we been who we ought to be?

For 23 years now—since 1992, when the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published—for 2+ decades, we’ve have had clear, black and white directions on what the Christian response to gays and lesbians is to be. Paragraph 2358 says, “[Men and women with deep-seated homosexual tendencies] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” Have we always done this?

And if not—if our Church hasn’t been accepting with compassion and respect—can we be surprised if Catholics with these attractions look elsewhere to be accepted and loved? And if we haven’t included them, if we haven’t shown them a way to fulfill their Christian vocation within the Church, can we be surprised if they turn to a movement or a lobby or a mindset that says, “We want you. We want you to belong fully.”

We talk about the beauty of marriage and family, and we are told to use that beauty to help us to make the legal, cultural, spiritual case for the Church’s view, but if we preach about that beauty but don’t offer real love, real acceptance, and a real home to people with same-sex attractions, can we be surprised if they say, “Yes! And that beautiful thing you’ve been talking about: I want that for me too.”? We have to offer an alternative and we haven’t always done that well.

For those who were left confused and frustrated on Friday, that part was for you.

This next part is for everyone. Because the only path ahead for the Catholic is one of both radical love, respect, and sensitivity, and at the same time holding fast to the truth that marriage is a unique institution of a man and a woman in a lifelong union with the possibility of new life.

To most people, that double calling sounds impossible. To one half, claiming to love and accept while continuing to believe that marriage is between only man and woman is just patronizing lies and hypocrisy. To the other half the call to accept and respect seems like a dangerous watering down of the commitment to stand for true marriage. To all, holding both seems hard if not impossible. And yeah, Jesus does that sometimes. Remember the “Love the sinner, hate the sin” idea? Or telling us to correct others’ bad actions but not judge their motives? Yeah, he does that.

It’s hard. Some want to dig in and fight this to the last. Others want to just say, “It doesn’t affect me; do what you makes you happy.” And a third group, and maybe the largest, just wants to hide. They don’t know what to think or say. They are torn. And they just wish the moment would pass.

I read an article on the Internet yesterday and it talked about how many people talk big about how they’ll fight for their beliefs, how they’re willing to face persecution, how they’d risk losing a job for their faith. But the author made the good point that while they say that, many roll over the instant you imply that they are a bigot. None of us want to be called “haters”.

I get it. Trust me I get it. I went in to Walmart on Friday in my Roman collar to get a prescription, and I was convinced that everyone was looking at me and thinking, “A priest. Oh, I bet he’s mad. What a bigot. He probably hates all gays.”

But why do we Catholics still say that marriage is between a man and a woman? What’s our argument in the face of such ridicule?

Preface: we all stink at this debate. First, both sides are constantly mixing up three different things: same-sex attraction, same-sex actions, and finally same-sex marriage. We swirl them together and we often use imprecise language. For example, the Church clearly states that there is no sin in the attraction of people to their own gender; it’s about actions. Similarly, the question before the courts isn’t about actions. Since 2003, any law against actions has been abolished, and most hadn’t been enforced for decades. It’s about civil marriage. But people don’t make distinctions.

Here more mistakes are made. Conservatives tend to argue things like: “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” or “Marriage is made by God” and then sprinkle in quotes from Genesis, Leviticus, and Romans to show that gays are evil. On the other hand, Liberals tend to say things like: “You can’t legislate morality.” Both are doing this wrong.

Yes, God made marriage, but it’s hard to use that as your main pitch when talking to a secular democratic-republic with dozens of competing religious (and non-religious) ideas. On the other hand, we’re constantly legislating morality. When we outlaw murder, rape, plagiarism, skipping child-support, whatever, we are legislating morality. We do it constantly. The question is, what moral judgments should we use? Even arguments for gay marriage are moral reasonings. That moral argument goes something like this: “Humans possess personal love and freedom of will; if Bob and Sally can choose to enter a permanent bond of love, why can’t Bob and Bill?”

So here’s the case for civil marriage being only a man and a woman. And this then is the challenge to the people who were jubilant on Friday at the Court’s decision.

The key question isn't “Why not gay marriage?” but rather “Why is there civil marriage at all?” Why would states and nations care? States don't bother to regulate, legislate, or validate your friendships. You don't mention your siblings, boyfriend, or BFF on your 1040 form. But the state does track marriages and it does ask for your spouse on your tax form. Why? Because states want to protect, encourage, and reward entities that are good for the commonwealth. We give tax breaks to clean energy initiatives because we want more of that. We break up monopolies because business competition is good. We regulate and underwrite public schools to ensure an educated citizenry.

See, ancient humans figured out that a child is brought up best when her parents stayed together and if her siblings had the same parents too. Why best if they stayed together? Because humans are notoriously slow-developing and need years of cooperative rearing. Why is it best if siblings come from the same pair of parents when possible? Because a family is a better bonder of persons than a boarding house.

So they developed some rules to encourage and benefit these pairings, like recognizing the transfer of property, and they made other rules to protect this institution, like forbidding adultery and rape and giving legal recourse for injuries to one's family members. Successive generations added greater formality, but all to the same end. States granted privileges to this institution which they didn't grant to other relationships, like friendship, because it benefited states in a unique way as the institution that reared the nation’s children and provided stability through this basic building block of society.

That’s the case. Marriage is a contract that guards and benefits children and makes a stable, healthy society. A common response to this is that same-sex couples could adopt or be inseminated. But there are some flaws there. One, that union doesn’t naturally beget those kids, so historically there wasn’t the same reason to institutionalize and defend it. Two—no, that’s not an insult to adoptive parents in traditional families. Adoption is a beautiful way of making the best out of a bad situation. When parents die, or parents can’t raise a kid safely, or a single mother would otherwise abandon or abort a child, and adoption makes something beautiful out of it by inviting them into a steady family. What we have seen in the last couple decades is a shift, in both gay and straight couples, to seeing child as a commodity—“I have a right to be able to have a family”—and we see this “right” being fulfilled by insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, or adoption. This may be one of the scariest shifts in the modern world in terms of human rights: that we are now more focused on the wants of adults than on the needs of children. And notice, I said male-female couples, and singles, have sometimes taken this mindset too. Which brings me to a final challenge:

We have to admit the part we all have played in bringing about massive changes in the concept of marriage and family. I have described an institution developed over millennia that expected faithful, permanent unions that were open to children and reared them in a healthy way. Once we privileged it and enshrined it, and yet part of the reason people can very easily argue that marriage is just about love, (#LoveWins) is that we let that institution fall apart. America is not currently a country dedicated to preserving marriages or forming children within those families.

How is that? In the last fifty years, no-fault divorce and abortion have become enshrined rights. Contraception and sterilization are seen as standards features of the efficient, practical, modern family. This is our fault. Catholics started practicing sterilized love. Christians bought into the idea that marriage is just about feelings, feelings that come and go. Red-Staters accepted divorce as standard practice in modern families. The Supreme Court might be wrong about the ancient institution of marriage, but they might be dead-on about the thing in modern America we call “marriage”. Gay-activist Andrew Sullivan famously writes, “The heterosexuality of marriage is intrinsic only if [marriage] is understood to be intrinsically procreative; but that definition has long been abandoned in Western society.” And he’s got us dead-to-rights on that. I am amazed at the colossal number of Christians, Catholic and Protestant, who utterly reject same-sex marriage but defend to the last contraception and no-fault divorce.

Mary Eberstadt explained the connection perfectly in an article in 2008—she was talking about the Anglican Church, but it applies to all Christians in the last fifty years, “By giving benediction in 1930 to its married heterosexual members purposely seeking sterile sex, the Anglican Church lost, bit by bit, any authority to tell her other members—married or unmarried, homosexual or heterosexual—not to do the same. To put the point another way, once heterosexuals start claiming the right to act as homosexuals, it would not be long before homosexuals start claiming the rights of heterosexuals.” In other words, gay marriage.

So what now?

On Friday the President said this: “I know that Americans of good will continue to hold a wide range of views on this issue. Opposition, in some cases, has been based on sincere and deeply held beliefs. All of us who welcome today’s news should be mindful of that fact and recognize different viewpoints, revere our deep commitment to religious freedom.”

We’ve been told for years now: “This isn’t going to affect you. If you don’t want a gay marriage then don’t have one, but this isn’t yours to worry about.”

I hope this is true, but I have my worries. No, tanks are not going to roll up and cart off priests who won’t do same-sex weddings. Would that courage were so easy to come by! It’d be easy to stand up then.

Last weekend there was an article in The Weekly Standard called “You Will Be Assimilated”. I invite all supporters and opponents of gay marriage to read it. The first ¾ are about the bait-and-switch tactics used over the last twenty years of this campaign. But the last part explains that ultimately same-sex marriage and religious liberty will be incompatible. The Left is not going to make the mistake it made after Roe vs. Wade of letting a fallen opponent get up off the mat to fight on another 40 years like the pro-life cause has. Dissenters will be demonized and silenced, called bigots and haters.

You think not? On Friday the Harrisburg newspaper PennLive/The Patriot-News announced it “will no longer accept, nor will it print, op-eds and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage.” The popular website Buzzfeed also said Friday that “We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality there are not two sides” to the argument. [emphasis mine]

Justice Samuel Alito asked the solicitor general during the SCOTUS arguments if this will be an issue for tax-exempt status. After hemming and hawing solicitor Verrilli said, “I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito, It is—it is going to be an issue.”

Most likely trouble will come in the form of lawsuits. Already the bakery “Sweet Cakes by Melissa” has been fined $135,000 by the state of Oregon. Maybe tiny parishes like St. Ann’s and Sacred Heart will escape that, but St. Francis hospital and GICC, St. Michael’s and St. Cecilia’s schools, dioceses and Catholic colleges will be targets. Anything involving Catholic counseling, hospitals, insurance through Catholic offices, and especially hiring and firing could be battlegrounds. If a same-sex couple wanted to teach CCD here, would that end in a lawsuit? And you don’t even have to win the case to crush someone with lawyer’s fees. This is real. So what are we going to do?

One, pray. It doesn’t feel like a lot, but if you’re not doing it, the rest is pretty useless.

Two, know why we teach what we do. It’s no longer ok to just hide and say, “Well, my church teaches this,” because now the Church is open to infinite criticism from the rest of the country. You’re going to have to know and explain it, because people will ask, “Why do you even stay in that church?”

Three, be heroic in your families. As I said: this is partly our fault. We need the best marriages, the strongest families. We need to show that, no, modern marriage is not destined for divorce. No, marriage is not meant to be closed off and selfish and not be open to new life.

Four, going back to my very first point, we have to love and accept same-sex attracted people. We have to show that we really mean it when we say, “You are loved and welcomed and accepted, and we’ll treat you with respect and sensitivity.” We have to show them that they have a place in Christ’s Church. Otherwise it just reinforces what people accuse us of or have been assuming. Honestly, part of this is going to be done by reaching out to all single people, gay or straight, to say, “You fit in here too.” When you feel like the only way to be involved is by being married or having kids that keeps on reinforcing the feeling that 1) “You don’t get to be a part of this,” and 2) the goal is to get “this”. This double impression may have partly driven what happened on Friday. So we have to challenge ourselves on that. We must learn true love; that’s our job as Christ’s Church.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Funeral Homily for Karla

Normally I would never share a funeral homily on the Internet. That wouldn't even be the kind of thing I would ask about. But because I was asked by family to share this homily, and because the ideas are the kind of thing that people need to be reminded of again and again, I'm willing to do it.

Karla was a wife, a mom, and a nurse. She was just 50. She left behind a husband, four kids (as young as fourteen), and close friends. Her death was sudden, tragic, and confusing. It seems she fell down the stairs late at night and suffered major head trauma. Words are hard to come by in light of such events, but priests have to try.

(If you want to download the file instead of streaming, click here, and when redirected to the Internet Archive website, select "Apple Lossless Audio" under the Download Options.)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Sublime and (Just Maybe) the Ridiculous

Here are three homilies from the last ten days, including some of the "High Holy Days" of Catholics, the sacred Triduum. 

Usually during Lent I will pick an author to nerd out with and sometimes that captivates my mindset going into Holy Week and Easter. This year the author was N.T. Wright, but this time not his book on the resurrection of Jesus, but his two short works, The Challenge of Jesus and Paul: A Fresh Perspective

The Good Friday sermon was from my meditating on a paragraph Wright had written about how sometimes we have to rely on story and symbol to make the world hear the message, as opposed to just telling, explaining, and defending. It intended to meet the sublimity of Holy Week with humble solemnity. 

The Easter homily was more, umm, non-traditional. At the vigil we had read the OT readings about Creation, the Red Sea, and Baruch's address to the exiles in Babylon. The Gospel was Mark's. If ever there was a time to present Wright's grand vision of how to read the story of Jesus, it was now. And I took Wright (and others) at their word that sometimes we have to find new ways to "tell the story" to a world that thinks it already knows it. Thus was born the Lego Easter Story, and it will now have to be judged as either a brave attempt to make sense of salvation history or borderline blasphemy/sheer nuttiness. 

Finally, I am including today's homily on when to "retain sins" in justice instead of forgiving them in mercy—also from a point made by Wright that is both novel to, and necessary for, the modern world.