Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Miraculously Ordinary Family

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Have you ever wondered why Matthew and Luke chose to include information in their gospels about Jesus' birth?  Probably not.  I imagine most take it for granted that we would have this information.  But the gospel writers need not have included it.  Mark and John say nothing about Jesus' birth.  Mark introduces Jesus at the start of His public ministry with His baptism by John.  And John's gospel focuses on Jesus' divine origins: "In the beginning was the Word..." (Jn 1:1).

But Matthew and Luke tell us of Jesus' human origins, and we are fortunate that they do.  They show us that Jesus did not simply appear out of nowhere.  He was born at certain time and in a certain place.  He was born to a mother.  He was born into a family.

We celebrate the birth of our Savior with much fanfare during the Christmas season.  He is Emmanuel, God-with-us.  He is Jesus, God-saves.  He is born of a virgin.  The very stars announce His arrival onto the human scene.  Angels rejoice.  To say His birth is extraordinary would be an understatement.

Yet in very important ways, His birth and childhood are quiet and ordinary.  Jesus had a mother, Mary, and a father, Joseph.  He depended on His parents, just as all children do, for food, warmth, comfort, love and care.  He grew strong nursing at His mother's breast.  As He grew older, He learned a trade.  We are told in our gospel reading that Jesus "advanced in wisdom" (Lk 2:52).  He did all of this within a family.

The human family is an image of the Holy Trinity.  We are made in the image of God, which means we are made to be in relationship.  God has within His being the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  God is love, and love requires both a lover and a beloved.  God, in His perfection, has this within Himself.  But we must look outside of ourselves for relationship.  The first relationships that all of us have -- and often the most impactful --  are with our families.  We are literally born into relationship with others.  Family life is an image of the inner life of God.

This may sound rather esoteric and mystical, but the most amazing thing about it is just how marvelously ordinary it is.  The family is where we learn ordinary lessons of love.  It is where we learn to respect and obey our parents.  It is where we learn to think of others before ourselves.  It is where we learn patience.  It is where we learn to make sacrifices.  The family is where we learn to love -- which is to say the family is where we learn to be like God.  The relationship between parent and child, brother and sister, husband and wife, each mimic in some way the relationship between us and God.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the scriptures have quite a bit to say about family relations.  Immediately after the first three commandments instructing us on how we are to relate to God, the fourth commandment tells us how to live in right relationship with our parents. "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land" (Ex 20:12).

The book of Sirach tells us that how we relate to our families impacts our relationship with God:
God sets a father in honor over his children;a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.  Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and preserves himself from them. When he prays, he is heard; he stores up riches who reveres his mother.  Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children, and, when he prays, is heard.  Whoever reveres his father will live a long life; he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother (Sir 3:2-6).
We learn to relate to God well by relating well with others, and the first ones we are called to be in relation with are our parents.  They reflect, in a special way, God's divine Fatherhood.  And so even the Incarnate God obeys the fourth commandment and honors His human mother and father, as our gospel reading tells us (Lk 2:51).

We don't know much about Jesus' early years, but we know He spent them in the company of His family.  It is suggested that the gospel writers did not remark upon these years because they were unremarkable.  Yet His time living "ordinary family life" must have been extraordinary because He lived it perfectly.

From antiquity, the family has been called "the domestic church."  It is the primary place in which we are called to grow in holiness.  It is where we first learn how to love.  Of course Jesus did not need to grow in holiness or learn how to love -- He is Love Incarnate.  We celebrate this day that Jesus was born into a family not to learn but to teach.  He teaches us love through His family.  Allow Jesus to be born anew into your heart today, and into your family, that it, too, may become a domestic church, a school of divine love.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Mary the God-bearer.

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The final days of Advent are upon us  Our readings and prayers focus less on the final coming of Jesus in glory; our attention is instead drawn to His coming in humility in a Bethlehem manger.

Our Old Testament reading from the prophet Micah speaks of "the time when she who is to give birth has borne" (Mi 5:1-4a).  Our second reading from Hebrews speaks of "when Christ came into the world" (Heb 10:5-10).  Finally, in our gospel, we encounter a Mary who is pregnant -- as indeed the whole world is pregnant with the expectation of the coming Messiah. (Lk 1:39-45).

We meet Mary through the eyes of her cousin, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.  Last week we reflected on how John the Baptist points out the Messiah.  The first person he gives that message to is his own mother, by leaping in her womb as Jesus draws near.

Elizabeth understands the significance of the message.  Her greeting to Mary from this gospel passage gives us the familiar words of the second half of the Hail Mary prayer.
"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.  Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled" (Lk 1:42-45).
Elizabeth's words to Mary tell us volumes about the important and unique role that Mary plays in our faith, and in our lives as Catholics.  Non-Catholic Christians may sometimes accuse us of honoring Mary "too much," but the Church honors Mary in the same way (and for the same reason) that Elizabeth honors her.  Look again at her words to Mary.

Blessed are you among women.  Why?  She gives us two reasons.  The second reason Elizabeth gives is because Mary believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.  Mary had faith in God even when what God promised seemed impossible by human standards.  Mary stands as a model for all Christians to trust in God and have faith in His promise.

But the first and most important reason Mary is called "blessed" is because blessed is the fruit of her womb.  Mary is most blessed among women -- indeed, all generations will call her blessed (Lk 1:48) -- because she is the mother of my Lord.  In other words, Elizabeth's words of praise are only partly directed toward Mary and her faith.  They are mainly directed at the One being borne in her womb.

This is the key to unlocking all the Church's teachings about Mary.  Everything the Church teaches about Mary is really about Christ.  Elizabeth's addressing Mary as "Mother of my Lord," is a prime example.  In the Eastern Church, the Blessed Mother is addressed by the Greek title Theotokos, which is literally translated "God bearer."  In English we say "Mother of God."  The appropriateness of this title was once a matter of debate in the Catholic Church (as it continues to be debated today between Protestants and Catholics).

As early as the second century we find writings of the Church Fathers referring to Mary as the Theotokos.  But in the early fifth century a monk named Nestor (for whom the Nestorian heresy is named) denied that Mary could be called the Mother of God.  He argued that she could only be called the "Mother of Jesus" or the "Mother of Christ."  His argument was that God preexisted Mary and so Mary could not be God's mother.

Nestor could make this argument only by drawing a sharp distinction between the humanity of Jesus and His divinity.  He espoused a theology wherein Jesus existed as two persons, one human and one divine.  Mary gave birth to the human person Jesus, he argued, not the divine Second Person of the Trinity.

The Catholic Church responded definitively to the Nestorian heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, by asserting that the two natures of Christ, human and divine, are united in one Person.  Mary should rightly be called the Mother of God because the Person to whom she gave birth was God.  In other words, this teaching about Mary is actually about Jesus and His divinity.

From the Council of Ephesus:
"We confess, then, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, perfect God and perfect man, of a rational soul and a body, begotten before all ages from the Father in his Godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born of Mary the Virgin according to his humanity, one and the same consubstantial with the Father in Godhead and consubstantial with us in humanity, for a union of two natures took place. Therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to this understanding of the unconfused union, we confess the holy Virgin to be the Mother of God because God the Word took flesh and became man and from his very conception united to himself the temple he took from her" (Formula of Union [A.D. 431]).
The fruit of Mary's womb is Emmanuel, God-with-us.  Elizabeth is right in calling Mary the mother of her Lord.  She is the mother of the Lord of all of us, the one who has come to do the will of God (Heb 10:9), to reconcile sinners to the Father and thereby save a fallen world.

Jesus Christ still comes to us this day for the same purpose through His Body, the Church, which continues to carry out the Father's will by offering reconciliation.  Remembering that Advent is a penitential season, let us resolve to make a good confession (if you have not done so already), and accept that gift that our Savior wishes to bestow upon us -- the gift of forgiveness.  Christmas is a time of gift-giving, so let us not neglect this most important gift of all.  Let us be like John the Baptist, and leap for joy at His coming.  

Friday, December 11, 2015

One Mightier than I

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"One mightier than I is coming," St. John the Baptist tells us in our gospel reading for this Sunday.  "I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of His sandals" (Lk 3:16).

The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday, named for the first word from the entrance antiphon for the Mass: "Gaudete in Domino semper; Rejoice in the Lord always!"  This is taken from the second reading, Philippians 4:4-7, where St. Paul goes on to say, "The Lord is near.  Have no anxiety at all," and speaks of the "peace of God that surpasses all understanding."  Peace and freedom from anxiety sound like cause for rejoicing.  But what has this to do with St. John telling of someone mightier than himself?

It can be a little off-putting when we encounter someone better than we are.  We are taught to excel.  We want to be the best person on the team.  We like to think of ourselves as the nicest friend in our group.  We want to be the favorite son or daughter.  So when we meet someone who is smarter, more athletic, kinder or more favored than we are, it bothers us.  We find ourselves deposed from our thrones, knocked down a rung or two on our ladders.

I remember in elementary school taking pride in being the smartest in my class. I was a big fish in a small pond.  In middle and high school the pond got bigger.  There were lots of other smart kids, many smarter than I was.  In college that pond became an ocean.  Every day I would meet someone with more knowledge than I had on any given subject.  It was a humbling experience.

Not only did I meet people with more knowledge than myself, I met people with more wisdom.  They saw things more clearly than I did, and had a better understanding of how the world works.  Even more importantly, I met -- and continue to meet -- people who are holier than I am.  Being around holy people can make you profoundly uncomfortable.  Your own faults stand out in sharp relief.  It is no wonder that the saints were often persecuted, even by their fellow Christians.

Though it may at first be unsettling to encounter someone smarter, faster, stronger, wiser, or holier than we are, it can turn into a liberating experience.  If it were not for those greater than ourselves, from whom would we learn?  Who would inspire us?  Who could teach us to better ourselves?  Who could show us how to become something greater than we thought ourselves capable?  This is the role that the saints play for us in our faith.  They show us what the heights of holiness can look like, and demonstrate the path to get there.  Above all else, they point the way to Christ.

For John, recognizing someone greater than he is a cause for rejoicing.  This is because John understands clearly his place in the world, which is the key to true wisdom.  By this time in his career he had gained a large number of followers and a reputation as a great prophet and a holy man.  He even caught the attention and admiration of King Herod.  Many believed John to be the Messiah foretold in the scriptures.  But John knew he was not.  That honor belongs to the one John would later point to and say, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (Jn 1:28).

I saw a bumper sticker once that read, "There is only one God and the position is filled, so stop applying."  That's a humorous rendering of the old maxim, there is one God and He is not me.  This may seem obvious, but how many live today as if they are their own god?  We admire the "self made man."  There is a running theme in our culture of forging your own destiny and living by your own rules.  When it comes to morality, we reserve the right to decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong.  But there is a danger in being too autonomous.  None of us live in a world of our own making.  None of us is self-created.  As much as we may pretend otherwise, none of us sits as judge over creation.  Living as if we are our own god is living out of step with reality.  That is the opposite of wisdom.

One cannot be truly free if one is trapped in a fantasy.  To see the world clearly and understand one's place in it is a liberating experience.  The imprisoned man cannot escape his cell if he doesn't realize he is imprisoned.  The fallen cannot be saved if he doesn't realize he needs a savior.  And this is John's cause for rejoicing.  He knows the sinfulness of the world, but he also knows that the Savior of the World is about to step onto the scene.  "One mightier than I is coming," he says.  And He is near.

This past week we celebrated two very important Marian feast days, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8 and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12.  More so than any other saint, Mary consistently points the way to her Son.  A wise man once said that Mary shines brightly like the moon -- not with her own light, but by reflecting the light of the Son.  Mary's role in our lives is expressed profoundly and simply in her words spoken at the wedding feast at Cana.  Pointing to her Son, she says, "Do whatever He tells you to do" (Jn 2:5).  This is Mary's constant message to us.

John the Baptist is great like Mary is great.  He is great in his humility, in his willingness to decrease, so that Christ may increase (Jn 3:30).  Like Mary, he points the way to Jesus, the "one mightier than I."  He points to Jesus and tells us, You did not create yourself.  He made you.  You cannot judge yourself.  Only He can judge you.  You cannot save yourself.  Only He can save you.  Repent -- and rejoice!

Rejoice.  The Lord is near.  Just as He was born in a humble manger at Bethlehem, He desires to be born into the humble heart still today.  Mary points the way to Him.  John shows us the path.  Welcome Christ into your life, and welcome in the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.  Rejoice.  The Lord is near!

Do Jews Need Jesus?

Jesus teaching in the Synagogue
The above question may read as offensive to some, but to any sincere Christian the answer has to be an unqualified "yes," and for one very simple reason -- we all need Jesus, no exceptions.  The Catholic Church very clearly teaches that "all salvation comes from Christ" (CCC 846).  For this reason the Church also teaches that all of the baptized have a mission to evangelize (CCC 905).

Why then, did we wake up to headlines this morning such as the following?

We could cite many others.  What is this?  Why would the Catholic Church issue a new "landmark document" forbidding Catholics from even attempting to evangelize to the Jewish people?  It makes no sense on the face of it.  It would mean either one of two things.  It would mean that the Jewish people do not need Christ for salvation; that the Mosiac covenant is, on its own, salvific for them.  In that case, one would have to ask, "Why Jesus?"  Why would the Messiah, the Savior of the world, have come first to the Jewish people?  Why would He have had to come at all if the old Law was sufficiently redemptive?  Theologically, this position makes no sense.  

The alternative explanation is that the Catholic Church is no longer concerned with the salvation of the Jewish people.  While we strive to evangelize the rest of the world, the Jewish people are on their own.  They "missed the boat," so to speak.  This, also, is an untenable position.  One cannot imagine the Catholic Church advocating either of these things.  So what is going on here?

I've said it before, but it bears repeating.  We need to learn to take any news about the Catholic Church reported in the secular media with a grain of salt.  This is not always due to anti-Catholic bias in the media (though that sometimes can be the case).  Very often it is due to the fact that secular reporters are simply unfamiliar with the organization, methods, and teachings of the Catholic Church.  Whenever we read a headline reporting, "The Vatican Says..." we need to ask the following questions:
  • Who is saying it?
  • How are they saying it?
  • What, exactly, are they saying?
The "who" is rather important.  Most people read "the Vatican" as synonymous with "the Catholic Church."  Anything "the Vatican" says is taken to be official teaching (or at least an official position) of the Catholic Church.  This is simply not true.  The Vatican is a city-state with all kinds of offices, committees and congregations.  Some of these have quite a bit of teaching authority.  Others function more as advisory committees.  So it is very important to know just who is doing the talking when "the Vatican says."

In this case, the document in question comes from the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, which is part of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.  The Commission was created in 1974 with the mission to promote and foster relations between Jews and Catholics.  In terms of magisterial weight, it has no teaching authority on its own.  It simply does not have the power to issue a teaching that would be binding on all Catholics, as today's headlines seem to suggest.

But is this even what they are attempting to do?  No, of course not.  The question, "how are they saying it?" is important because there are various types of documents that represent different levels of teaching that even someone with obvious authority, such as the Pope, may use.  At the highest end of that spectrum would be a papal encyclical.  Much lower down on the spectrum would be an apostolic exhortation.  (Much lower still would be an interview given to reporters on a plane).  In other words, Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si carries a higher weight of authority than his apostolic exhortation Evangelium Gaudii, though both were documents issued by the pope.  His 2013 interview published in America magazine carries no authority at all.  In other words, the pope has different vehicles he can use when he makes a statement, depending on how much of his authority he wishes to put behind that statement.

When it comes to a Vatican body such as the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, they don't have the option of issuing different types of statements carrying differing levels of authority, because they have no binding authority at all.  So it matters less in this case "how" they are saying it.  Nevertheless it is still good to know exactly what sort of statement is being reported on.  In this case, it is a document called "The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable," issued in a press statement on December 10.  It is a reflection on the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate (the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) that was promulgated on Oct. 28, 1965.  

The Second Vatican Council was held from 1962-1965.  During that time the Council issued 16 formal documents addressing (among other things) the Church and her mission in the world.  We are at the tail end of a series of events going on throughout the Catholic Church marking the 50th anniversary of the Council.  This recent statement should be understood in that context.  Rather than being a "landmark document," as the Jerusalem Post reported, it is actually a reflection on a document that was issued fifty years ago.

And now we come to the final question: what, exactly, is this document saying?  Does it in fact say that Catholics should not evangelize Jewish people?  The answer is no.  In fact, it says the exact opposite.

In "The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable," the commission notes that the relationship between Christianity and Judaism is unique.  The Jewish people are the ancestors in faith of all Christians, and worship the same God as Christians, the God of Abraham and Isaac.  Under the heading, "The Church's mandate to evangelize in relation to Judaism," the commission echoes the sentiment of Nostra Aetate that in light of this unique relationship the Church views "evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views.  In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed toward Jews."  

In other words, there is no official and specific organized mission to the Jews conducted by the Catholic Church.  However, in the very next sentence, the commission reminds us that "Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews, although they should do so in a humble and sensitive manner..."  Far from saying Catholics should not attempt to convert Jews, this document encourages individual Christians to bear witness to their faith to Jewish people; but while doing so to be mindful of the unique relationship we have with them.  Our efforts to evangelize Jewish people, who worship the same God as we do, who share the same Hebrew scriptures, and who possess much revealed truth (though not the fullness of Revelation found in Christ), and who already await a Messiah will look very different from our efforts to evangelize Hindus, Buddhists, or atheists, with whom we have substantially different relationships.

This recent document also reminds us that Jesus was sent first to the Jews, that He is the universal savior of mankind, and that His Church consists of both Jews and Gentiles.  Far from being a declaration that "Jews don't need Jesus," it is a reminder of the fact that all of us stand in need of a savior, not the least of which are our elder siblings in the faith.  The Jewish people were the first to receive the light of Revelation.  The first Christians were all Jewish converts.  Jesus still calls to them, through His Church, to recognize and rejoice in their Messiah.  Let us keep this in mind as we continue to prepare to enter the Christmas season, celebrating the birth of our universal Savior into a Jewish family in Bethlehem.  

Friday, December 4, 2015

Discerning What is of Value

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St. John the Baptist
Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of Christ.   We prepare to celebrate the great feast of Christmas, commemorating His coming in history in Bethlehem.  But we also prepare for Christ's second coming at the end of time in all His glory.  Because of this, the readings during Advent, especially during the start of the season, tend to be rather apocalyptic.  Consider last week's gospel reading when Jesus warned of chaotic signs, people dying of fright, and "the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory" (Lk 21:25-27).

So we might read the words of John the Baptist in this Sunday's gospel as also being apocalyptic.  He quotes from Isaiah when he says, "Every valley shall be filled and every mountain shall be made low" (Lk 3:5, cf Is 40:3-4).  We may imagine mountains crumbing to the ground and valleys being filled with their rubble as the earth shakes at the second coming of Christ.  But that is not what John the Baptist, nor the prophet Isaiah, means to tell us.  John is not foretelling the end of the world.  He is telling of the salvation of the world.  He is not telling of an event that will happen millions of years from now.  He is speaking of something imminent; something happening now that people need to be aware of.  And he is not warning them of their doom and destruction, but giving them a cause to celebrate.
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Lk 3:4-6).
In our second reading this Sunday, St. Paul offers his prayer that our "love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value" (Phil 1:9-10).  St. Paul prays for us to love properly.  Love for what is evil is a disordered love.  If we learn to love that which is wrong, that which is harmful, we do damage to ourselves.  This is why St. Thomas Aquinas said that we offend God when we act against our own good (SCG III, 122).  We need to learn to love that which is good, true and beautiful.  We need the knowledge and perception that St. Paul speaks of so that we can discern what is of true value, and there direct our love.

In the past -- and for so many still today -- the path to discern what is good, true, and beautiful has been a rough and winding path.  Life could be like that old Johnny Lee song, "Looking for love in all the wrong places..."  Discerning the good and true could be like finding one's way through a maze of  different philosophies, different perspectives, different goals, and different desires.  How do we know where to find the ultimate answers to our questions?  How do we know what to love?

John the Baptist announces for us today what he announced to the Jewish people 2000 years ago.  Those winding roads will be made straight for us.  The rough roads will be made smooth.  The mountains will be made low and the valleys filled in not by way of destruction but in order to make a straight and level path between us and the object of our highest love.   Our difficult quest to discern what is of ultimate value, so that we may love it, is about to be made much easier for us.

It is said of John the Baptist that no one is greater who was born of women (Mt 11:11).  Yet in next Sunday's gospel, on the third Sunday of Advent, we will hear him say, "one mightier than I is coming."  John is very good, but he is so because he recognizes and loves the greatest good.  John's role is simple.  He points to Jesus.  He points to Christ and says, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn 1:29) -- the same words the priest says after he consecrates the Eucharist and Christ comes to us once again in the sacrament.

Like those who lived before John the Baptist, we still need to discern what is of value and thereby grow in love.  But unlike them, we need not wander in the wilderness.  We need not "look for love in all the wrong places."  The path has been made straight for us.  John points us to what (Who) is of ultimate value, and therefore worthy of ultimate love.  Here He is, John tells us.  Here is your God.  Here is your Creator, your Redeemer, your Sanctifier.  Love Him, for He is Love.

St. Augustine said, "love God, then do as you will."  He said this not as an excuse for immorality (it doesn't matter what you do, if you love God), but as a sure guide for morality (if you love God, you will want to do only what is pleasing to Him).  Our lives become ordered when our loves are ordered.  Love is ordered only when we love what is good, and we should love the highest good above all else.  Where do we find the highest good?  Where do we place our highest love?

Since that first Christmas 2000 years ago, we have lived in the Age of Incarnation.  The highest good, the object of our highest love, was made man and born to a Virgin.  John the Baptist points Him out -- Behold, the Lamb of God.  He is still with us today in the Church, in Her sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist.  He is with us in our neighbors and our families.  Do we recognize Him?  Do we love Him?  We need no longer search vainly in the wilderness for the proper object of our love.  Jesus makes straight our path.  John points it out.  It is up to us to choose to follow it.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Once & Future King

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We come to the end of the liturgical year in the Church. Next Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent, that time of preparation for the coming of Christ.  Advent is both a looking ahead (to the time when Christ will come in glory) and a looking back (to the time when Christ came in the nativity).  So it is fitting that before we begin the Advent season the Church celebrates this great feast which reminds us that Jesus Christ reigns as King right here and right now among us.

It may not seem that way when we look at the world around us.  ISIS terrorists destroyed more than a hundred lives in Paris and Beirut last weekend. Thousands are fleeing from their home countries and other countries are afraid to take them in.  How can we say that Christ is King?  People lose loved ones every day.  People suffer broken hearts.  How can we say that Christ is King?

Is the Kingdom of God something that exists now or something we only hope for in the future?  When we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "Thy Kingdom come," we pray for a future reign of God where justice and mercy will prevail. We pray marana tha because we know the suffering of the world around is not God's kingdom.  We long for that perfect reign of God where we will know unending love and peace.

In that respect, the Kingdom of God is a future event.  We await the final coming of Christ in glory when His reign will achieve perfection.  But we cannot lose sight of the fact that the Kingdom of God is also a present reality. Jesus did not come 2000 years ago in the Incarnation to tell us what He was going to do in some distant future.  He came to inaugurate His Kingdom then and there.  The Kingdom is not yet fully manifest in this world, because it is not of this world.  But God's Kingdom is present to us now and we are called to be citizens of it.  It is vital that we understand this.

It is Christ, not King Arthur, who is the real "once and future king," whose reign is both present to us now and enduring through all time.  "The Kingdom of God lies ahead of us.  It is brought near in the Word incarnate, it is proclaimed throughout the whole Gospel, and it has come in Christ's death and Resurrection.  The Kingdom of God has been coming since the Last Supper and, in the Eucharist, it is in our midst" (CCC 2816).  All those who belong to the Church are citizens of the Kingdom of God here and now.  "The Church is the Reign of Christ already present in mystery" (CCC 763, LG 3).

The Kingdom of God is not identified with the world, but with the Church -- yet the Church is called to serve the world and be present in the world.  The Church acts as a leaven, infecting the world with the glory of God's Kingdom until that day when Christ comes in glory.

In John's gospel Jesus tells Pilate, a mid-level administrator of the Roman bureaucracy, that His kingdom is not of this world.  But He, the King of the Universe, entered into this world to testify to the truth.  Christ entered the world, and His Kingdom entered with Him.  Wherever the King is, the Kingdom will also be.

"The Kingdom of God means Christ Himself," St. Cyprian said.  "For as He is our resurrection, since in Him we rise, so He can also be understood as the Kingdom of God, for in Him we shall reign." The Kingdom of God is not a place, but a Person.  To know Christ now is to know His reign in your heart.

So yes, as Christians, we await the fullness of the coming of His Kingdom.  We pray marana tha as we look forward with hope to His final manifestation.  But that does not mean we are do not live under His reign right here and now.  Christ reigns from eternity, which is not some future time, but an ever present time.  And so we pray "Thy Kingdom come," into our hearts right now, this day, O Lord, and reign within our lives.  To be a follower of Christ is to be a citizen of His Kingdom, both now and for all eternity.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Giving From Your Poverty

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A few weeks ago, in a reflection discussing temporal vs. spiritual goods, I made the point that those who have the least are often the most generous.  The example I used was that of a CEO who donates 1% of his income to charity compared to a homeless man who only has two dollars giving one dollar -- half of his wealth -- to a friend so each can buy a sandwich.  The rich CEO may have given a higher dollar amount, but the poor man has made a much greater sacrifice by his gift.

Like most of the insightful points I make, this one is not my own!  Jesus was the first to make this point, in today's gospel (Mk 12:38-44).  He contrasts the rich people putting a lot of money into the treasury with the poor widow who only gives a few coins. Our Lord says, "this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood."

It is easy to see that the poor man who gives away half of all he has gives a higher percentage of his wealth than the person with $100 million who gives $1 million away (50% vs. 1%).  But Jesus' point is not just about percentages.  It's about giving from your surplus vs. giving from your poverty.

If I asked how much the $1 million gift cost the multi-millionaire, the obvious answer is "$1 million."  But that is not the correct answer.  The correct answer is "nothing."  Because the multi-millionaire did not need that $1 million.  He is not hurt by the loss of it and so to give it away costs him nothing.  He gives from his surplus.

By contrast, how much did the $1 gift cost the poor man?  That $1 represents a sandwich off of the dollar menu.  It represents his next meal.  Food in his belly.  To give it away means he has to accept the very real possibility of going hungry.  So what does that $1 gift cost him?  It costs him dearly because he gives from his poverty.  That's what makes his gift an act of sacrifice.  That's what makes his gift an act of love.

This is the model of giving that the scriptures hold up before us.  In our first reading (1 Kgs 17:10-6), another poor widow gives the prophet Elijah bread that, practically speaking, she could not afford to give.  But because she made the sacrifice, God rewarded her and she and her son were able to eat for a year.  The people of Israel were expected to tithe 10% of their income and produce to God.  The 10% was to come from their first fruits, not what they had left over at the end of the year.  In other words, they were commanded not to give from their surplus.  They were to offer their first and best to God.  These lessons are there to teach us how to give as God gives, which is totally and completely, even when it comes at great personal cost.

Our second reading (Heb 9:24-28) mentions the priest of ancient Israel sacrificing "blood that is not his own,"  in reference to the animal sacrifices intended as atonement for sin.  This is contrasted with the sacrifice offered by Christ, who offers His own life's blood.  This is the ultimate example of giving from your poverty, for Christ's gift cost Him dearly.  Jesus gives from His poverty because He loves without counting the cost.  He loves fully and so He gives fully.

This is how Jesus wants us to give, because this is how Jesus wants us to love.  The poor widow contributed more to the treasury than any other because her gift was more than monetary.  She gave her love.  If we only give to others when it costs us nothing -- if we only give from our surplus -- we do not truly love them.  Love demands that we give even from our poverty, even when it costs us dearly.  Love requires sacrifice.  Likewise when we give to God -- whether that be treasure, time or talent -- we must give from our poverty.  If we truly love Him we cannot hold anything back.  Like Christ, we must offer God our very lives.

How much of yourself to you offer freely to others?  How much of yourself do you offer freely to God?  And what of yourself are you holding back?  Let us follow the example of the poor widow, and give from our poverty.  Let us follow the example of Christ and give ourselves in love.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Saints & Heroes

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The Saints are often thought of as the heroes of the Catholic Church -- and rightly so.  To be recognized as a saint means that person has "made it."  They have "run the race" and "fought the good fight," as St. Paul puts it (2 Tim 4:7), and now reside with God forever in heaven.  They are our inspiration and our intercessors.  They are the Catholic superheroes, with one important caveat.  We can fall into a trap of sorts when we think of a saint as a hero in secular terms.

What most often comes to mind when we think of a hero today?  The superhero genre is currently popular, so we might think of the Avengers, Spider Man, Superman, or the Fantastic Four.  These fictional characters all have special abilities which they use to save lives, help others, and make the world a better place.  There are often good lessons to be learned about sanctity in the stories of superheroes -- lessons about self-sacrifice and putting the good of others before your own concerns.  But in the end, these are fictional heroes.  We may look up to them in a way, but we know we will never be able to fly, have super-human strength, or run at lightning speed.

Thankfully, not all heroes are fictional.  There are plenty of real life heroes to emulate.  For too many, however, their heroes are famous athletes, singers or movie stars.  Don't get me wrong; a lot of hard work goes into singing, acting and athleticism, if any of these things are to be done well.  It is right to admire these skills that take much discipline to develop.  But the fact that someone has honed their craft doesn't necessarily tell us anything about their moral character.  All too often we hear of celebrity break-ups and break-downs, athletes landing in jail, or succumbing to drug use.  When we make heroes out of the famous, we will be disappointed more often than not.

Then there are those that might be called true heroes.  These are the everyday people that make sacrifices for the good of others.  The doctors who perform life-saving surgeries.  The fire fighters who pull accident victims from a burning vehicle.  The police officers who keep criminals off the streets.

A common thread that runs through all these types of heroes is a sense that they are somehow exceptional.  The super-heroes have special abilities that we can never have.  The celebrities all have special skills that we know, realistically, most of us cannot attain to.  Even the true heroes are recognized for their above-average bravery and dedication.  We are not all cut out to be first responders.  We admire these people, but see them as the exception rather than the rule.  They stand out because they are not the norm.  Most of us will never be like them.

The saints are Catholic heroes, but with a difference.  They are exceptional, but not for any special skill or ability.  They are exceptional for their sanctity.  The word "sanctity," like "saint," comes from the Latin word sanctus, which means "holy."  When we call someone a saint, we proclaim their holiness.  In a manner of speaking, that is their "superpower."  But unlike the special powers or skills of secular heroes, the superpower of the saints is one we can all possess.

The Church speaks of the universal call to holiness (CCC 2013).  Several times in the Bible God tells us to "be holy, as I am holy" (Lv 11:44; 20:26; 1 Pt 1:16).  God would not command us to do anything we are not capable of doing -- or that He would not make us capable of doing.  So we know each of us can be holy because God tells us we can; not just that we can, but that we should.  It is expected of us.  Holiness should be the norm, not the exception.  We should all be saintly superheroes.

So what is holiness?  How do we become holy?  By cooperating with God's sanctifying grace.  "Grace" is a gift from God, and so "sanctifying grace" is that gift from God that makes us holy.  The Catechism defines sanctifying grace as that grace which heals and perfects our soul.  In other words, it does not give us any super-human ability that is outside of our nature.  Rather it perfects our nature and makes us who we are supposed to be; sanctifying grace reveals our true selves, without sin.

This is why the saints are so different, and so interesting.  Each one is unique.  When we look upon a saint, we look upon a perfected human being -- someone living just as they are meant to live as they were created in the image and likeness of God.  A saint can be a little French nun who spent most of her 24 short years in a convent (St. Terese of Lisieux).  A saint can be an ornery old abbot who was so strict his monks tried twice to poison him (St. Benedict of Nursia).  A saint can be a young man who enjoyed mountain climbing and hiking and was concerned with social reform (Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati).  A saint can be a mystic who receives visions and writes great works of music and poetry (St. Hildegard of Bingen).  A saint can be a husband or a wife who suffer the loss of four of their children and who struggle to deal with a rebellious daughter (Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin).  In other words, a saint can be anybody.  A saint can be you.

The Church honors the saints because they are Catholic superheroes.  They serve as our role models in the faith.  They show us what it is like to be holy.  They show us how to grow closer to God.  They show us how to love more perfectly.  But more than simply being examples to emulate, they are people we can be in relation with.  And so we invoke their intercession and ask them to pray for us and help us on our own journey toward sanctity.  For we can follow the same path they have chosen, the path to our true and perfected selves.

Get to know the saints.  Become friends with them here in this life, so that you may be united with them in the Beatific Vision of perfect love in eternity.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Standing on our Heads

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It seems to me that everyone who denies the existence of God does so for the same reason.  Oh, they will give different reasons, some intellectual, others emotional.  But when you dig down beneath the surface and examine the heart of their argument, it usually boils down to this: If I were God, things would be different.  Things are not different, therefore there is no God.

We are told that God is omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing).  We are also told that God is perfectly good and perfectly just.  Yet we look around and see suffering in the world.  Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.  How can a God who is both all-good and all-powerful allow this?

Philosophers have been addressing this problem for ages. Perhaps God is not good.  Perhaps He is indifferent.  Or perhaps God is not omnipotent and is powerless to stop suffering.  But if God is not good then where does goodness come from?  Why do we even have a sense of goodness and what does it point to if not God?  And if God is not omnipotent then how did He create the universe?  It takes an infinite power to create something out of nothing.  Perhaps God does not exist at all, which is the position the atheists take.  In that case we are the most pitiable of all creatures, with a finite, pointless existence that means nothing to an uncaring universe.

But we approach the question wrongly by thinking this is a problem with God.  It is not.  It is a problem with us.  We look at the world around us from our limited perspective and declare it unjust.  But what do we know of justice?  We suffer and complain it is not good.  But what do we know of goodness?  We have a limited understanding of these concepts but God created them.  So if God fails to live up to our expectations, which is more likely; that God is wrong or that our expectations are wrong?

God has a way of defying our expectations.  Throughout the course of history, anyone who has had a direct encounter with God has been completely changed by the experience, from Moses and Job, to Peter and Paul.  God changes our perspective.  He shatters our assumptions.  He stands us on our heads.

We demand explanations from God and expect Him to give us an answer.  But God does not answer to us.  It is we who must give answer before God.  This is why Jesus never seems to give a straight answer to any question He is asked.  He turns things back to the questioners in a way that demands a response from them.

In this Sunday's gospel (Mk 10:35-45), James and John, two of Jesus' closest disciples, tell Him, "We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."  Isn't this how we often approach God in our prayers?  Do for me whatever I ask of you!  And when we do not get the answer we expect, we find fault with God.

What  James and John ask for is to share in Christ's glory, which indeed is a good desire.  But Christ shows them that they have no idea what that means.  For His glory is not in His greatness and power, but in His meekness and weakness.  His glory lies not in majesty but in humility.  Of course Christ is great and powerful and majestic.  But his greatness lies in His love, and lovers sacrifice themselves for their beloved. Christ loves more than anyone and so He suffers more than anyone.  He is greatly humble.  He is powerfully meek.

Christ turns our expectations on their heads.  He says, "whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant," and, "whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all."  He says He "did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life."  When James and John ask to share in Christ's glory, they are asking to share in His sacrifice.  When we pray to become more Christ-like, we ask for the same thing.

When we ask God, "Why is there suffering in the world," God turns the question back on us.  If He were to look down upon you from the cross and ask you why He is suffering, would you have the guts to admit that it is for your sake?  That it is because He loves you?  He shows us that we are worth suffering for.

God's answer to our big questions is not a formula or an argument or an equation.  God answers us in a way that we never could have imagined, and certainly do not deserve.  He offers us not an answer.  He offers us Himself.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Earthly vs Spiritual Goods

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Earlier this week I had the privilege of attending a talk given by two economists, one Catholic, one Protestant, on the topic of whether free market economies are compatible with Christianity.  Pope Francis has criticized the negative aspects of capitalism, and some of these criticisms were addressed during the presentation, including the oft-quoted passage from Evangelii Gaudium at right.

Does Christianity endorse the ownership and free exchange of private property?  On the one hand we have the example of the first Christian community described in Acts 2:44 as having "all things in common," selling their property and dividing it evenly among themselves according to need.  On the other hand we have the prohibition in the Ten Commandment against stealing (Ex 20:15), which presumes and affirms the right to private property.

The presenters at the talk highlighted the good that has been brought about by free market economies, most notably the overall reduction of poverty and the increase in beneficial goods and technologies including medical advances.  They made the argument that a free market economy is the best way -- or at least one good way -- to love your neighbor and minister to the poor and hungry, as Jesus commands.

If that is the case, then why does Jesus seem to have such a problem with wealth?  In this Sunday's gospel reading (Mk 10:17-30), Jesus tells the rich man to, "Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."  We are told that the man went away sad, because he had many possessions.  Why was it so hard for this man to do the one thing Jesus asked him to do?  Why does Jesus say that it is "easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God?"  Is money truly the root of all evil?

In showcasing the benefits of the free market, the economists focused on earthly goods -- things such as food, land, money, housing, medicine and all the other things we human beings may need or desire to help us along in this world.  The Church is also concerned with earthly goods.  She wants to make sure, as a matter of justice, that the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the homeless are sheltered and so forth.  But the Church is primarily concerned with spiritual goods.  Earthly goods are temporary and fleeting, whereas spiritual goods are eternal.  So the Church rightly teaches that earthly goods ought to be at the service of spiritual goods.  Elsewhere in the gospels (Mk 8:36), Jesus asks, "What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?"

This distinction between earthly and spiritual goods is the key to understanding this Sunday's gospel.  The rich man has not sinned simply by being rich.  Indeed, we are told that he has kept the commandments his entire life.  Moreover, he's asking the right question ("What must I do to inherit eternal life?") and asking the right person, Jesus.  By all appearances he's well on the way to sainthood!  In fat, Jesus tells him that he lacks only one thing -- and no, it is not simply to sell all that he has.  He must sell all that he has and follow Jesus.  In other words, given the choice between his wealth and his Savior, the rich man chose his wealth.  He valued earthly goods above the greatest spiritual good of all.  Therein lies his fall.

People say that money is the root of all evil, but this is a misquotation of 1 Tim 6:10, which actually reads, "the love of money is the root of all evils."  It is the disordered love of a lesser good over a greater good which corrupts.  Rather than condemning wealth per se, St. Paul instructs Timothy on how to advise the rich.  "Tell the rich in the present age not to be proud and not to rely on so uncertain a thing as wealth but rather on God, who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment.  Tell them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, ready to share, thus accumulating as treasure a good foundation for the future, so as to win the life that is true life" (1 Tm 6:17-19).  In other words, the rich ought to use their earthly goods at the service of the spiritual good.

It has been observed that the most generous people tend to be those who have little.  The homeless man who has two dollars freely gives half of his wealth to his friend so that they can both enjoy a sandwich.  Meanwhile the corporate CEO donates 1% of his income to charity and makes sure that a flattering press release is issued to improve his public image.  The CEO may have donated a higher dollar amount, but the homeless man has gained more treasure in heaven.

I wish the speakers at the talk I attended had mentioned spiritual goods -- but they are economists, not theologians.  Using the lens of spiritual goods, I would argue that a free market is compatible with Christianity for the simple reason that it is free.  Two scenarios will illustrate my point.  In each, I have two sandwiches and my hungry neighbor has none.  In the first scenario, in solidarity with my neighbor and out of love for him, I give him one of my sandwiches to eat.  In the second scenario, a man with a gun tells me, "I see you have two sandwiches and your neighbor has none.  That does not seem fair.  Give him one of yours."  I comply out of fear of punishment.

In terms of earthly goods, both scenarios seem to have the same result -- my neighbor and I each have a sandwich to eat.  In fact, one could argue that the second scenario is the more reliable way to ensure everyone gets a sandwich, because it is not dependent upon on my free will choice.  But from the perspective of spiritual goods, the first scenario is superior.  By freely choosing to share a sandwich with my neighbor I have engaged in an act of charity.  I have grown in love, and thereby grown in holiness.

Freedom is a prerequisite for love.  This is the answer to the perennial question, "Why is there evil in the world?"  It is because the same free will that allows us to do great evil is the only thing that allows us to love.  

Jesus is, of course, correct when He says it is hard for the rich to enter heaven.  The more wealth you possess, the greater the risk that it will come to possess you.  Greed can make you a slave to your wealth, just as every sin can make you a slave to something less than God.  But greed and generosity have more to do with the size of your heart than the size of your bank account.

Wealthy or not, we all face the same choice Jesus offers the rich man.  Stay bound to your treasure on earth, or bind yourself to Christ and gain eternal treasure in heaven.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

What Pro-Choicers Must Deny

לא תרצח׃ ס

Those Hebrew words above are from Exodus 20:13, which is generally rendered in English as "Thou shalt not kill."  Many modern English translations more accurately translate the text as "You shall not murder."  There is a difference between murder and killing.  Killing someone in self-defense or while involved in a military engagement may sometimes be morally permissible.  Murder never is.

The original Hebrew word means unlawful, violent killing, and so "murder" seems to be a more precise translation.

Those who are pro-life believe abortion to be wrong because abortion is equivalent to murder.  Both involve killing an innocent human being.

Those who take the pro-choice position must disagree with at least part of the preceding statement.  They must deny either that abortion ends a life, or that the life it ends is human, or innocent.  Let's look at each of these three points in turn.

1. Does abortion end a life?
If the unborn fetus is not alive then it either is dead, like a corpse, or made up of some non-living matter, like a stone.  But a dead corpse or a non-living stone cannot magically turn into a living human being.  The question of when life begins in the womb is surprisingly simple to answer.  There is always life!  A man's sperm cell (which is alive) unites with a woman's egg cell (which is alive).  The DNA of the two are combined to form a brand new zygote, which from the very moment of conception is also alive and growing.  Abortion ends that life -- that is the whole point of abortion, after all.

We end life all the time.  Whenever we swat a fly or pull a weed from the garden, we kill something that is living.  Neither of these actions is murder, because murder involves the taking of a human life. Many pro-choice advocates claim abortion is no more immoral than swatting a fly or pulling a weed. So our next question is important.

2. Does abortion end a human life?
If the unborn fetus that is killed by abortion is not human, then it must be something else.  It must either be some other species that somehow becomes human at birth, or some sort of non-differentiated bio-mass that morphs into a human baby at some point.  Both of these positions are easily proven false with basic science.  When a human male and a human female reproduce, they form a human child.  From the moment of its conception, that child is identifiably human.  Its DNA can be identified in a lab as that of a human being.

Some may argue that even a fingernail clipping has human DNA -- and indeed some say abortion is no more immoral than getting a hair cut or clipping your nails.  But this argument is absurd on the face of it.  A fingernail -- or even a finger or a hand -- is but a part of a human being.  Removed from the whole it withers and dies.  A fetus, though small, is a whole being.  Yes, it is smaller and less developed than a baby, just as a baby is smaller and less developed than a toddler or a teenager.  We are talking about human beings at different stages of development, not different species (although teenagers can sometimes seem like a different species).

3. Does abortion end an innocent human life?
The first two arguments for abortion -- that the unborn either is not alive, or is not human, and therefore it is permissible to kill it -- are easily dismissed.  It is a matter of science that the unborn fetus is a living human being in the earliest stages of development.  It would seem obvious that the unborn fetus would by definition be innocent.  After all, what could be more innocent than an unborn baby?  The unborn can commit no crimes, no offenses.  They have done nothing deserving of the death penalty.

Yet some pro-abortion advocates argue this precise point. They recognize that abortion means ending an unborn human life, but argue this is permissible because the fetus is not innocent.  They take the position that the fetus is an unwanted aggressor, a parasitic invader in its mother's body that can legitimately be killed in self-defense.

This is best argued against by appealing to common sense.  An invader is someone aggressively inserting himself where he does not belong.  But where else does a human fetus belong but in the womb of its mother?  Indeed, the womb is the fetus' place of origin.  The womb is where the new human being was created. The womb is its home.

The female reproductive system is designed for gestation.  It is precisely where new human life is meant to develop and grow.  So rather than being an aggressor fighting against the mother, the fetus works with the mother's body to carry out the purpose of engendering new life.  Yes, pregnancy can sometimes lead to complications (as can any function of the human body).  In only a tiny fraction of a percentage of all cases do those complications endanger the life of the mother.  There are approximately 4 million births in America each year.  According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, about 600 women die each year in America from childbirth or pregnancy related complications.  In other words, in 0.015% of cases does pregnancy end in maternal death.  In fact the true percentage is even lower, as the above calculation is based on number of births in America.  The number of pregnancies would be much higher as many pregnancies end in miscarriage or -- tragically -- abortion.    It is estimated that about 20% of all pregnancies in the US end in abortion.

To return to our question, is the developing human life innocent?  Or to phrase it another way, what crime has the fetus committed?  She is exactly where she is supposed to be, and doing exactly what she is supposed to do -- growing and developing in her mother's womb.  Her only offense seems to be her existence.  To allow abortion for this reason is to allow one human being to say to another, "Your existence offends me; therefore I can kill you."  This is the justification for every holocaust or genocide ever committed.  Is this really the argument anyone wants to make for abortion?  Yet it seems to be the only honest argument.

The Fourth Denial
Sadly, there is one other position the abortion advocate can hold. The pro-abortion advocate can understand and admit that abortion means killing an innocent human being, but deny that killing an innocent human being is always wrong.  All but the most hard-hearted sociopaths recognize the fact that killing an innocent human being is evil.  Even most murderers have to first convince themselves that their victims somehow "deserve" it in order to justify their violent crimes.  But this is exactly the position of all those who are "personally against abortion" but feel the decision needs to be left up to individual choice.  It is the relativist position that says, "it may be wrong for me, but it may be right for you."  It is a tacit acceptance that it can sometimes be legitimate to choose to end the life of an innocent human person.

That, my friends, is never permissible.  As Mother Theresa once famously said, "If abortion is not wrong, then nothing is wrong."

October is Respect Life month.  I encourage anyone who holds the pro-choice position because it seems non-judgmental or compassionate to reexamine their beliefs about abortion this month.  Look at it honestly, with open eyes, and see it for what it truly is.  Don't be fooled by euphemisms such as "terminating a pregnancy" or "product of conception."  Abortion means killing an innocent human life -- every time.  To be pro-choice means shutting your eyes to this reality.  October is a good month to open your eyes.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Bill Nye and the Breakdown of Reason

I finally got around to watching the four-and-a-half minute long Bill Nye “scientific defense” of abortion.  Surprisingly, it’s worse than I thought.  Most of the video has nothing to do with science.  What we are presented with is Bill Nye putting forward some of the most illogical arguments for abortion I’ve heard in a long time.  Were I a pro-abortion advocate I’d find Nye’s defense of the position an embarrassment.

Before we take a look at his arguments, let’s remind ourselves who Bill Nye is.  He was the host of the well-known children’s show Bill Nye the Science Guy that aired from 1993 to 1998 and won several Emmys.  It was a good show that taught a lot of kids some good things about science.  But being the host of a children’s show doesn’t make Bill Nye a real scientist.  Bill Nye has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.  That’s as far as his formal education goes.  He’s done some consultation in the aeronautics industry, but seems to have no special qualifications in the arenas of biology or medicine.  Ironically, Pope Francis’s master’s degree in chemistry makes the Holy Father a more qualified scientist than “the Science Guy.”

Mindful of his background and qualifications, let’s take a look at what Bill Nye tells us about the science of reproduction and the implications for abortion rights.  In the first 27 seconds of the video, Nye tells us:

Many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized and by that I mean sperm get accepted by ova a lot. But that’s not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman’s womb.

This, right here, is the sum total of the “science” contained in the 4:37 video.  And it’s wrong.  Yes, many eggs are fertilized that don’t lead to successful pregnancies.  Miscarriages happen a lot.  But Bill Nye is wrong when he says many more eggs are fertilized than “become humans.”  Maybe he means to say, “fully developed humans,” which would be more accurate.  But as it is, he implies that when a human egg is fertilized by a human sperm, the product of conception is something non-human that later somehow becomes human.  

If the product of conception (zygote) is not human, then what is it?  It’s a fair question to ask.  Is it some other species?  Or is it some sort of non-differentiated generic life form?  If I took a zygote to a lab and said, “I don’t know what species this came from.  Can you do a DNA test on it for me?” would the lab technicians, after running the test, scratch their heads and say, “Sorry, we don’t know what species this is?”  No, of course not.  They’d easily detect human DNA and say, “It’s human.”  But Bill Nye and other abortion rights advocates insist in telling us it is something less than human, a potential-human perhaps.  So what, in their view, makes a zygote or embryo human?

According to Bill Nye, it’s like Real Estate.  It’s all about location, location, location.  Once the zygote attaches itself to the uterine wall, it becomes human.  But that’s ridiculous on the face of it.  Since when does location define a species?  Why would Bill Nye use implantation in the womb as the starting point of human life?  The answer has nothing to do with science and everything to do with politics and pharmaceutical profits.  It has to do with how we choose to define pregnancy.  

If you went back in time a few generations and asked any doctor (or just anybody in general) when pregnancy began, you’d get an answer something like how Webster’s Dictionary defined pregnancy in 1913: “The state of a female who has conceived.”  If you conceive a child, you are pregnant, right?  Seems pretty straightforward.

If you ask an average person that same question today, you’d likely be told the same thing.  Unless you asked a politician.  Or someone from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or the American Medical Association, who define pregnancy as beginning when the zygote is implanted in the uterine wall.

Implantation in the womb is one of many milestones that a developing unborn human reaches before birth.  Why choose this one in particular to define the start of pregnancy?  Because it can take several days for the zygote to implant, and if a drug kills a zygote before implantation (such as “Plan B” and even most birth control pills), we can pretend that it’s not an abortion because “technically the mother isn’t pregnant yet.”  See how that works?

What Bill Nye does here is take it one step further and claim not only that pregnancy does not begin until implantation, but that human life doesn’t begin until then.  To be very clear, there is no scientific basis for this definition.  It is a definition of political expedience.   

This is the extent of the “science” Bill Nye addresses -- four sentences in a four-and-a-half minute long video.  From this point forward, he doesn’t even attempt to address matters of science.  Instead he gives us his opinion based on deeply flawed logic.

But if you’re going to hold that as a standard, that is to say if you’re going to say when an egg is fertilized it’s therefore has the same rights as an individual, then whom are you going to sue? Whom are you going to imprison? Every woman who’s had a fertilized egg pass through her? Every guy who’s sperm has fertilized an egg and then it didn’t become a human? Have all these people failed you?

Um.  Sometimes you hear arguments so unhinged from the real world that they stun you for a while.  You are unsure how to respond because sure, surely, you are missing something.  Surely he’s not saying what it sounds like he’s saying.  But then you listen to it again and realize, yes, he is saying just that.  

Bill.  Dear, dear, Bill.  There is a difference between someone dying by natural causes or by accident, and someone being intentionally killed.  Your argument basically amounts to, “Since some babies die before birth anyway, it’s OK to go ahead and kill them if you want to.”  Would you use this argument for infants?  Toddlers?  How about teenagers (some of whom really have their moments)?  Or older people in nursing homes?  Lots of them die of natural causes.  And that would really save us on medical costs.

The fact that you think this is a good argument frightens me more than a little bit.

It’s just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding, and you literally or apparently literally don’t know what you’re talking about.

Remind me again what is the science I’m not understanding here?  And how do I “apparently literally” do something?

This is really – you cannot help but notice, I’m not the first guy to observe this — you have a lot of men of European descent passing these extraordinary laws based on ignorance.

Nye doesn’t tell us what “extraordinary laws” he’s talking about.  I assume he means laws meant to prohibit or limit abortion -- such as the laws that existed in every state in America before 1973.  But assuming he means laws that limit abortion, those laws exist mainly in places such as South America or Africa or the Middle East -- you know, places where brown people live.  It’s in Europe and places Europeans have colonized, such as US, Canada and Australia, where you find permissive abortion laws.  I look around the globe and I see a lot of men of European descent passing extraordinary laws based on ignorance that allow the killing of unborn children in the womb.  Is that what you’re talking about here, Bill?

Sorry, you guys. I know it was written, or your interpretation of a book written 5,000 years ago, 50 centuries ago, makes you think that when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse they always have a baby. That’s wrong, and so to pass laws based on that belief is inconsistent with nature. I mean it’s hard not to get frustrated with this, everybody.

Bill Nye here seems to think that the only conceivable (ha!) reason to be against abortion is because the Bible tells us so.  I’m presuming he means the Bible, even though the oldest books in the Old Testament were written about 3500 years ago, not 5000 years ago.  But if we can’t trust Bill Nye to get his scientific facts right, why expect any different when it comes to historic facts?  

Leaving that aside, Bill Nye’s assumption doesn’t address why Muslims oppose abortion, or why you have groups like Atheists Against Abortion, Secular Pro-Life, Atheist and Agnostic Pro-Life League, or Pro-Life Humanists (all of which are non-religious pro-life groups that I found in about five seconds on the first page of a Google search).  

But what is Bill Nye actually saying here?  He claims that our (presumably the average pro-life Christian) interpretation of the Bible leads us to believe that sexual intercourse always leads to a baby.  Who believes that?  I know no one who believes this.  It’s certainly not taught by my church, the Catholic Church, that actually makes use of the fact that for most of her cycle a woman is not fertile to naturally help husbands and wives space pregnancies.  It’s called Natural Family Planning.  Any “Science Guy” should like NFP; it’s very scientific.  

You can’t tell somebody what to do.

This is the kind of argument made by a spoiled child on the playground, not by someone purporting himself to be an exemplar of reason.  One of my college students currently doing a semester of student teaching at a local elementary school told me just yesterday about a little boy in the class who got in trouble for telling his teacher, “This is a free country, you can’t tell me what to do!”  That child was disciplined because he was wrong.  

Laws in general tell us what we can and cannot do in a civilized society.  Pro-lifers believe that abortion is one of those things what we cannot do, because it denies the most innocent and vulnerable among us -- the unborn -- of the fundamental right to life.  Bill Nye has yet to come close to addressing this argument.

I mean, she has rights over this, especially if she doesn’t like the guy that got her pregnant.

So an unborn baby’s right to life is dependent upon whether and to what extent the mother “likes” the father.  Is there a way to scientifically measure this?

So it’s very frustrating on the outside, on the other side.

Imagine the view from the inside -- inside the womb, that is -- with your very life hanging in the balance based on whether your mom likes your dad.  I imagine that’s rather frustrating, too.

We have so many more important things to be dealing with. We have so many more problems — to squander resources on this argument based on bad science, on just lack of understanding.

So far I haven’t squandered anything but a Saturday afternoon arguing against Bill Nye’s bad science.  I wonder how much time was squandered making his video?  But this seems to be an attempt to basically say, “abortion’s no big deal anyway, so let’s just not talk about it anymore.”  This sounds like the sentiment of someone who knows they are losing an argument.  1.5 million babies die per year through abortion in our country alone.  If you don’t think that’s a big deal, you must not even bat an eye over war casualties, school shootings, or terrorist attacks.

You wouldn’t know how big a human egg was if it weren’t for microscopes, if it weren’t for scientists, medical researchers looking diligently. You wouldn’t know the process. You wouldn’t have that shot, the famous shot or shots where the sperm are bumping up against the egg. You wouldn’t have that without science.

Yes.  All very true.  Science is good.  Hooray.  I’m not sure how this backs up the arguments for abortion presented so far, however.  If anything, scientific advances as described have helped us to see more clearly the humanity of the unborn.  

So then to claim that you know the next step when you obviously don’t is trouble.

The next step in what?  Did I miss something?  I am guessing that Bill Nye is meaning to say the next step for a woman who learns that she is pregnant.  In that case, he is correct, it would be impertinent for me or anyone else to claim to know what the “next step” is for her.  What’s best for her to do at that point depends on a whole host of factors in her life.  But I do know that what’s best for the baby at that point is not be killed.  Killing an innocent human is never “the next step.”

Let me just pull back. At some point we have to respect the facts. Recommending or insisting on abstinence has been completely ineffective. Just being objective here. Closing abortion clinics. Closing — not giving women access to birth control has not been an effective way to lead to healthier societies. I mean, I think we all know that.

Here Bill Nye shifts from talking directly about abortion to talking about abstinence education and the availability of contraception.  I would argue with him against both of these claims (that abstinence education is ineffective and that access to birth control leads to healthier societies).  But then this article would be even longer than it is, and these are not really Nye’s main points, anyway.  Suffice to say, these issues are not nearly as cut and dry as Bill Nye makes them out to be.  So no, Bill, we don’t “all know that.”

And I understand that you have deeply held beliefs, and it really is ultimately out of respect for people, in this case your perception of unborn people. I understand that. But I really encourage you to look at the facts. And I know people are now critical of the expression “fact-based,” but what’s wrong with that?

I’m glad that Bill Nye at least concedes that the pro-life cause is ultimately about respecting all people -- even unborn people.  Because that is really true.  Pro-lifers want to make sure that everyone enjoys their unalienable right to life.  We stand against any attempt by our government to legislate away someone’s humanity, be they the unborn, the elderly, the disabled, the infirm, black people, Jewish people, or whomever.  We all have a right to life.  

Bill Nye encourages us to be “fact based.”  But here we are at the tail end of this video and so far Nye has not presented us with any “facts” to support the continued practice of abortion.  What we have been given are his opinions, which have not been based on science or sound reason.  

Nye ends his video with a plea for unity.  “Come on, come on, let’s all work together.”  But the question is, work together to what end?  Because I’m not going to work together with anyone to encourage the practice of killing the unborn.  That’s what abortion is.  And that’s what Bill Nye is advocating is permissible in this video.  So I am sorry, Bill, but I cannot work together with you on that.  

Now, if you want to put your knowledge, talent and notoriety to work helping to make sure that no expectant mother feels like abortion is her only option, to make sure that every unborn child is given a chance at life, and to make sure that big companies like Planned Parenthood are no longer able to take advantage of vulnerable young mothers, then yes, I will gladly work together with you toward that end.