Thursday, December 25, 2008

Good news of great joy

Dear Brothers and sisters in Christ

“For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests.”

This verse from the book of the prophet Isaiah resonates deep into our soul this night of heavenly peace. We celebrate a birthday unlike any other. For most people, we only celebrate the birthdays of the living. After their death, we have a different day to remember them by. Yet, for this “Wonder-Counselor”, this “appearance of the glory of our great God and savior”, this savior born in the lineage of David, we continue the praises that began with the songs of angels to shepherds some 2000 years ago. This Son will be remembered for his life and so, each year, we feel compelled to remember when first God and Mary gave the world its redeemer.

We need to take this time because it will soon be over. It seems to me like these next two weeks pass with the speed of Santa’s reindeer. So much preparation goes into tomorrow. The children need to behave, or at least they’ll do so when mom and dad remind them that Santa’s watching. We all will (hopefully) get to sleep in heavenly peace this night but, before the last present is unwrapped, we have already started putting away the Christmas decorations that have been out since Thanksgiving day. We start our plans for New Years eve…just one short week away. Do we want to have the cheese dip in the crock pot all night and spend all New Year’s Day soaking it to get it clean? Did we remember to get a babysitter for the kids? Then, before we know it, it’s all over and the kids are still at home on their winter break while the rest of us go back to work. Or, worse yet, the kids go back to their normal lives with their own family and we remember, with fondness, that there used to be something different about this time of year, something that just isn’t different any more because we’re older. We need this night to be different.

I think of this tonight as we read this most famous passage of the birth of Christ. This passage has been immortalized by such great readers as Raymond Burr, Stephen Colbert, and even Charlie Brown. It has been dissected by scientists to prove or disprove its historical reality. But, at its core, the evangelist is trying to tell us something larger than scientific news. He’s telling “good news of great joy.” Mary and Joseph make the 90 mile trek from Nazareth in the Galilee region south to the miniscule city of David that is Bethlehem. They were going there because it was Joseph’s home town. This should have been a time of rejoicing. In a time in which travel was difficult, especially because they weren’t a family of wealth so they would have had jobs that demanded they stay in close to home, the fact that fancy pants Joseph is coming home with the woman he intends on marrying should have meant that everyone is putting on their Sabbath best and getting the best room in the house ready for their arrival. But, because of the census, everyone is coming home, all sixteen children of the sixteen children of the sixteen children. This town of limited space and resources suddenly is overpopulated such that the entire house, even the equivalent of a garage, would have been necessary for occupancy. That’s really where Joseph and Mary found themselves sleeping, in a room reserved for the animals since the rest of the house was taken. And, of course, this is when all the elements came together for the birth of Jesus. Mary wraps her son in straps of cloth and takes a deep pride in her newborn son.

Meanwhile, somewhere close by, the working stiffs of the world who had no idea what was happening, were informed by angels that they should be the first to visit the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger. One wonders why the angels appear to them? These aren’t the mighty and powerful of this world. They also aren’t the poorest of the poor. They’re hardworking, middle-class folks that take a shower after work, not before. Jesus is literally surrounded by them this night in his parents, his extended family and, now, because of the message of angels, the shepherds.

It seems as though, throughout his ministry, he had a special affinity for them and people like them. He called hard-working fishermen to be his first disciples. He scorned the rich and powerful who were far too comfortable in this life calling them hypocrites. He looked with love upon the poor but never told his followers that it was their job to get rid of poverty. In fact, at points, he seemed to indicate that there will always be poor people. It’s almost as though Jesus knows that the ones who are most open to his message are the ones who most need to slow down their lives and get a view of the larger picture, the ones most in need of a Sabbath rest. The shepherds could easily get so fixated on protecting their sheep that they lose the sense of wonder and awe. Joseph’s family were so concerned with finding places for everyone and keeping everyone fed, that they lost their sense of charity. That’s the amazing thing about preoccupation: It makes it easy to neglect something important. When the chaos subsides and before you take down the decorations, take a minute or two and remember one thing. This is not a birthday party for a long-dead loved one that we just can’t quite stop remembering. This Christ mass is the birthday of the savior of the world whose birth was foretold by prophets and announced to common shepherds. It is a time for us to pause and give thanks to the God who came into this world to personally show us his love. I pray that each of you feel the song of praise the angels sang so long ago, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace to those on whom is his favor rests!” May God bless each of you this Christmas Season!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The role of conscience in being a catholic on good standing.

This question is, oftentimes, raised regarding several “hot button” moral issues including abortion, gay marriage, war, euthanasia, stem cell research, etc. The classic example of this is a politician who claims to have a well-formed conscience who is told by his bishop that he cannot receive Holy Communion because he legislates contrary to a church teaching. Is the church trying to impair the politician from freely doing his job? Is the bishop justified in stating that the politician’s actions have excommunicated him? The easy answer to both questions is: It depends. The difficulty comes in defining on what circumstances it depends.

First off, I feel like I need to clarify a few terms. What do we mean by “informed conscience”? One can find a great definition of a conscience in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #’s 1776-1802. To abbreviate the content of those paragraphs, the conscience is “present at the heart of a person” to help guide a person in making moral decisions. Without the conscience, a person would not be culpable for his or her actions because it would be impossible to know right from wrong. A person spends a lifetime forming his or her conscience. The Word of God is key to the formation of conscience, though the church does not restrict the Word of God to just the Bible. The Bible is part of the larger Word of God but, ultimately, “We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.”

So, in some ways, a fully formed conscience could not be in conflict with church teaching on issues on which the church has definitively decided, since it is what guides the formation of conscience. There are times in which a person, through no fault of his or her own, may not have a fully formed conscience. If the person was incapable, at the time of occurrence, of knowing what the teaching of the church was, they cannot be held accountable. Also, related to this, there is the prospect that a person is in the process of growing deeper in his or her understanding and is simply not to the point of learning (let alone accepting) a church teaching. In those cases, it’s possible that someone hasn’t yet had the church’s teaching on same-sex marriage or euthanasia explained to them or may have had an inadequate explanation. The person has an informed conscience but is ignorant of church teaching. Of course, it is the responsibility of the individual to seek out the full explanation of church teaching and not simply rely on ignorance as a rationale for not obeying the church.

Having said all of the above, there is room for legitimate disagreement with church authority if the church has not definitively stated a position on something or if the application of moral principles in a given situation is not entirely clear. For example, it is not legitimate to say that you wholesale disagree with the church’s teaching on abortion but are still a catholic in good standing. The church has been consistently clear that abortion violates the law of love and the dignity of the human person. But, if a pregnant woman has uterine cancer and would die without removing it, there is room for legitimate moral disagreement. Some moral theologians say that you are justified in removing the cancerous uterus since you are preserving the life of the mother and not intending on committing an abortion. Others disagree and say abortion is, nonetheless, an indirect result of the action and, therefore, it should not be taken. Oftentimes, the application of moral principles in complex situations is where moral theologians will disagree.

To know if something has been definitively decided, one should look toward the Catechism of the Catholic Church and official church statements. And, remember, not every statement that a priest, bishop or educated lay person makes is definitive. As a priest, I can tell you that I have very often been saddened by priests who either are unwilling to teach what the church teaches on tough moral teachings or who seem to believe that every statement they make is definitive.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A first

I had to cancel the one mass I was supposed to preach at this morning because we're having extremely cold temperatures here in Iowa. I was going to preach about Mary and her important role in salvation history. I hope to slightly change it for my Christmas homily so I don't want to put it here, yet. But, I hope to have an answer I gave in my bulletin to a question of ethics and morals and such.