Saturday, May 30, 2009

Go West, young man!

Due to a prolonged family illness, I have completely missed the boat on the Christopher West drama unfolding in the Catholic (and non-Catholic) blogosphere. [UPDATE: Christopher West is the sort of public face of the popularization of John Paul II's "Theology of the Body."] But I have been following it. I feel particularly unqualified to comment, in a way, because it has been years since I read anything West. My first encounter with him was a then-unpublished recording of his first shot at the "Naked Without Shame" seminar. I had just accepted a marriage proposal, and then-Scientist-not-Dad and I were driving up the east coast, listening to this really shocking set of CD's. The Easter candle represents the Spirit impregnating the waters. I'll never forget that image. But there were no vulgar metaphors, no bloody placentas, nothing beyond some eschatological speculation that seemed off-color or even approaching heterodox.

That following school year, my women's group at Catholic University listened to the entire set of lectures (it was 9 hours long) over the course of four months. The results were electric. I know West made personal for me what had unti lthen been an impersonal commitment to the Church's teaching on contraception. I knew one girl who had been on birth control pills for "medical reasons," who went home one night and flushed every last pill. Others were inspired by the pope's reflections on celibacy to seriously discern religion life. All of those with whom I've stayed in touch are still deeply committed to the Catholic understanding of the image of God--"male and female he created them," our desire for our origins--"from the beginning it was not so," and to the permanency of marriage--"what God has joined, let no man separate." Such fruits.

The controversy erupted--it began the minute West made it his mission to popularize John Paul II's lectures on the theology of the body--over West's appearance on Dateline. The first thing you should do, out of respect for West, is watch the piece. Then read West's own corrections.


There cannot be anything we Christians find it easier to forget than Christ's maxim, "Whoever is not against us is for us." If we are going to discuss the theology of the body (TOTB) and West's interpretation of it, let it be with charity. West's language may be problematic in places, but please remember that, as Jimmy Akin put it, he's on the "side of the angels."

There are sort of two levels of critique going on against West. The first is a theological argument over whether or not he "gets" John Paul II's theology. Most prominently, David Schindler, dean/provost of the John Paul II Institute at Catholic University, has criticized West's understanding of the effects of original sin on our sexual desires. He thinks West underestimates the scars left by concupiscience, places too much importance on sexual love as an image of God, and that these misunderstandings (as well as several others) lead West to be too free with his language when discussing sex. I'm finding it impossible to really evaluate Schindler's claims, since he cites only personal anecdotes. Not one article or book chapter written by West is ever mentioned--always red flag.

The second level of controversy, then, comes from the first. Does West's sunny view of our sexual desires result in vulgarity? Is explicit sexual language and even "street language," such as "getting laid," ever appropriate for Catholic speakers addressing contemporary audeinces? Alice von Hildebrand said, "NO!" As did James Likoudis. Janet Smith, who I'll link you to further down, is not so quick to pull the trigger:

'I think it is important to keep in mind, as Akin does, who West’s audience is. It is largely the sexually wounded and confused who have been shaped by our promiscuous and licentious culture. People need to think long and hard about the appropriate pedagogy for that group. Yet, as West himself knows, his approach is not for everyone. An analogy that pushes the envelope may be "offensive" to one person and may be just the hook that draws another person in.  West has adopted a style that appeals to a large segment of that population—and even to some who are “pure and innocent.”'

Now, I have never heard Christopher West in person, though most of my friends and acquaintances have. I have never read his best-seller, The Good News About Sex and Marriage. But I have seen lives changed by it--from an 18-year-old girl struggling with the Church's perceived "injustices" to women to a 55-year-old man who repented of his vasectomy. And, with all due respect to academics (heck! I'm one of them!), these people were not about to read either the original lectures given by the pope or any academic articles from the John Paul II Institute's esteemed graduates. 

I also have two witnesses with whose work I am very familiar (I wrote one of my theses on the concept of "nature" in Humanae Vitae) who have endorsed West's work. Neither Janet Smith nor Michael Waldstein give West a blanket "seal of approval"--both call for careful reading, prayerful reflection, and further study--but they at least give the other side of the story. As Smith puts it:

"West has been giving his presentations for over a decade now; he has shown spectacular docility and humility in reworking them in response to criticisms. I suspect that as a result of this recent dust-up West may want to adjust some of his approach (or he may not!), but I also am confident that onlookers will find that many of the criticisms against West are without foundation. Some are erroneous because the critics are not sufficiently acquainted with West’s work.  Others are not sufficiently acquainted with John Paul II’s work. Sometimes differences are not about substance but about emphasis or semantics. When dealing with a subject as fraught with distortions and sensitivities as sexuality there are surely going to be differences between people of good will."

The last point there, "differences between people of good will," is key to keep in mind. I cannot take seriously any claim that West has been either vicious or stupid. Glib, perhaps, but undeniably engaging. I am fairly certain that more people watching that Dateline special, however egregiously ABC or West violated decency, were moved to investigate this "Catholic sex therapy" then to open up the latest issue of Playboy.

I am remembering, too, that C.S. Lewis took endless loads of criticism from his high church friends for speaking "the bluff, common language of bluff, common men." I'm so glad he did. The sexual revolution is not going away quietly into the night; I'd rather men like West were out there using words such as (gasp!) "ovaries," "holy sex," and "getting laid" than not. 

Friday, May 29, 2009

Miriam the spiritual director. Part III

Miriam: "Let us meditate upon the third astonished mystery: The Coming of the Pope! And the fruit of this mystery is liberty. Amen."

Maybe John Paul II should have consulted a three-year-old for yet another set of mysteries? I love the "astonished" adjective. But "liberty"? A little American for the universal Church, perhaps.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Comforts for a sick philosopher:

"The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust in evolution; he will do the work that lies nearest; he will devote himself to deeds, not words. Thus struck down by blow after blow of blind stupidity and random fate, he will stagger on to a miserable death with no comfort but a series of catchwords; such as those which I have catalogued above." ~GK Chesterton, The Revival of Philosophy

If, after completing your education, you feel you still in any way reduce life to the "practical," you vote based on the "progressive" or the "evolution of civilization," or you measure happiness in terms of "efficiency," it's time to hit the books.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A beautiful place to be born.

The pope's visit to the Holy Land moved me deeply, especially the contrast between the memorial service at Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial of the Shoah, and his stop at Aida, a Palestinian refugee camp. The deep and tragic divisions in that land could not have been more keenly illustrated.

That is why I was also moved to learn of this beautiful ministry to families near Bethlehem. Truly, peace begins in the womb. From their website:

"Holy Family Hospital is an obstetrical/gynecological facility-the only one in the region that can handle the complicated medical conditions of women living in extreme poverty and under the shadow of political strife which stalks the birthplace of the “Prince of Peace”.

The women who give birth at the hospital may have different traditions but they are united in the primal need of all laboring women: safety and care as they bring their children into the World.

Like Mary and Joseph, these families are on journey to find a place of refuge, a place of promise, a place where their babies can be delivered safely."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Pseudogamy and the beauty of marriage.

Anthony Esolen, a professor at Providence College and editor of Touchstone, has a beautiful exhortation up on the magazine's blog page. He contemplates the reality of marriage, society's deep need for marriage, and its tragic violation. Complete with Dante and Augustine, he offers some compelling and--if not unique--at least oft-forgotten insight:

"Marriage -- marriage such as Jesus defined it -- is the foundation of society not simply because it is the best environment for raising children, though it is. It is the foundation because in it man and woman commit themselves one to another, as if they were, so to speak, gods freely bestowing freedom upon what they create. They are like God Himself in that free and freedom-making relinquishment of themselves, and they find themselves in that greater thing they create, the one flesh, the love that embraces them and that stands as an example to all others of the beauty and grandeur of that complete gift."

Really the best witness to that grandeur is the faithful marriage. I have been blessed to witness many faithful marriages, some are good and wholesome, others filled to overflowing with pain. But fidelity to the vows--in and out of season--has its own inimitable joy. And then, at the end, when one spouse has died, and the marriage is over, that joy overflows. It is finished!

Esolen is much more articulate, so give him a read.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"I Did Not Come to Call the Righteous"

Matthew 9:9-13

We ninety-nine obedient sheep;
we workers hired at dawn's first peep;
we faithful sons who strive to please,
forsaking prodigalities;
we virgins who take pains to keep
our lamps lit, even in our sleep;
we law-abiding Pharisees;

we wince at gospels such as these.

~Julie Stoner

From this month's First Things.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Guilty Pleasures by the Otherwise Reasonable.

"Building A Mystery," Sarah McLachlan. Oh, yeah, baby. The throes of high school drama relived while folding laundry. I love connecting with all the melancholic-romantics of the 90's.

Nothing more to say.

I watched both Fr. Jenkins' and President Obama's speeches at Notre Dame this past Sunday. My first impulses were predictable and certainly nothing not felt by hundreds of thousands of Catholics across the nation.

The president's discourse was predictably lofty and vague. He urged us to respect all human life, equated adult and embryonic stem-cell research, insisted on his complete sincerity, on and on. I have no doubt of his sincerity. I also have no doubt that, when respectful dialogue must end and action must be taken, that he will always--barring the road to Damascus--decide for the will to power over and to the detriment of human dignity.

UPDATE: To see what I mean, read Wesley J. Smith over at the First Things blog. Talk is cheap. Theater is just ... theatrics.

But I was not nauseated by his words. I've heard them all before, as has Amy Welborn who says it all.

Fr. Jenkins was nauseating. The man should know better. Archbishop Chaput reprimands him so eloquently, that I really can't add anything. The blog is superfluous!


"Let’s remember that the debate over President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame was never about whether he is a good or bad man. The president is clearly a sincere and able man. By his own words, religion has had a major influence in his life. We owe him the respect Scripture calls us to show all public officials. We have a duty to pray for his wisdom and for the success of his service to the common good -- insofar as it is guided by right moral reasoning.

We also have the duty to oppose him when he’s wrong on foundational issues like abortion, embryonic stem cell research and similar matters. And we also have the duty to avoid prostituting our Catholic identity by appeals to phony dialogue that mask an abdication of our moral witness. Notre Dame did not merely invite the president to speak at its commencement. It also conferred an unnecessary and unearned honorary law degree on a man committed to upholding one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in our nation’s history: Roe v. Wade.

In doing so, Notre Dame ignored the U.S. bishops’ guidance in their 2004 statement, Catholics in Political Life. It ignored the concerns of Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, Notre Dame’s 2009 Laetare Medal honoree – who, unlike the president, certainly did deserve her award, but finally declined it in frustration with the university’s action. It ignored appeals from the university’s local bishop, the president of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference, more than 70 other bishops, many thousands of Notre Dame alumni and hundreds of thousands of other American Catholics. Even here in Colorado, I’ve heard from too many to count.

There was no excuse – none, except intellectual vanity – for the university to persist in its course. And Father Jenkins compounded a bad original decision with evasive and disingenuous explanations to subsequently justify it."

For the whole thing, click here.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Intimacy and humility

A friend facetiously asked me to teach him humility this week. Naturally, I rejected the humorous tenor of the request in favor of intense musing, "How on earth does one teach humility?" As a mother, I want above all to teach my daughters humility--the total submission of their lives to the Truth (who, we believe, is a Person). How? How can I, or even Todd and I together, teach them to the joy of humility when I myself struggle so much to be humble?

The answer is not to break the child's will. It is not to manipulate them to "do the right thing." All the parenting methods and philosophies over which we wage our little mother-wars in the end boil down to a matter of preference and personal temperaments. Attachment parenting, nannies, sleep training, bottles, breastmilk... saints have come from households practicing every imaginable parenting-style.

The one word that kept coming to my mind as I pondered humility was intimacy. In fact, my first response to my friend was that I could never teach him humility, only life with a spouse could teach him that. The problem was that he was not married, my children are not married, and I certainly hope they all learn humility before they are married (if they ever are at all). But intimacy can be pursued--and it must be pursued--regardless of anyone's state of life or "relationship status."

Intimacy is the mother of humility, because only in living with others and opening ourselves to them do we learn (ever so slowly) to forget ourselves. A life lived purposefully together with others--with God, with the saints, with the family, with others--is a life that has begun to submit itself to something outside of itself.

In the family, intimacy for my children means that a toy picked up by a younger sibling is not to be grabbed back, "MINE!" It means that at dinner we each wait until the speaker is done speaking. We share what we can afford to eat. Intimacy also means enjoying the others present as they are--not as we want them to be. It means laughing at the baby's "joke", because you love the baby, and when Mommy spills all the tomato sauce on the floor (Mommy has to laugh, too!).

I find myself thirsting, aching, to be alone during the day. Every chord in my being screams, "HERMITAGE!" I just want to do dishes without answering 500 questions; I want to spill the dinner all over the floor without four little hands splashing in it and two little throats laughing at me. But the intimacy of the life I've chosen calls me out of my impulses. It's not a comfortable lesson, but it bears more fruit than I can say.

Other lives pursue this lesson in the way the divine love has marked for them: the nun in her cell daily opens her heart to the Truth about herself, to mourn and rejoice. The single professional seeks those around him who need him, and to know those who are closer to God than him. There is an opportunity to open ourselves, to become vulnerable to the necessary death-to-self, everywhere and in every moment.

We must pursue intimacy, healthy intimacy. The divine intimacy within God himself is centripetal--drawing all of creation into its bond. Our souls were made to live only his life, and to do that we need to open our whole selves to him. In prayer, in obedience, in the daily self-sacrifice that is his will for each of us. Doing the dishes? His will. Spilling the sauce and laughing with the delighted infant? His will. A smile at the two extra pounds on the scale? His swill. The snatched moment of rest and prayer? His will. The joy in my husband's eyes? His will. 

Submission to such an intimate love can only be joy. And the measure of that joy is the measure of our humility. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A woman too oft scorned...

Poor Douglas Kmiec. If he would only stop posturing as the poster-child for the tenacious 1960's American Catholic Rebels Without a Cause. If only. I have nothing personal against Kmiec, and I hope with all my heart to partake of the heavenly banquet with him, but his capacity for slothful thinking just begs to be answered.

I have to admit that of the mental gymnastics proffered thus far by Douglas Kmiec, this exercise, appearing in the most recent America magazine, takes the gold medal for pathos. The prose is affectedly breezy, but the overall impression is that of a desperate puppy wanting a pat on the head. His mission: To prove empathy as a primary qualification for the newest Supreme Court justice. (And perhaps to thus invite a nod of approval from our nation's leaders? I cannot say.) I thought the image above appropriate: This Lady Justice ain't blind.

I don't think he realizes (at least I hope he does not realize) that inserting the idea of "empathy" into jurisprudence is actually selling out to an entirely anti-Christian (un-Christian, pre-Christian, post-Christian, whathaveyou) worldview. Some thoughts:

1. The notion of impartial justice, the rule of one law judging each human action, which goes hand-in-hand with the idea of equality before the law, arose only as a result of the Christian revolution. The coming of Christ, opening up salvation to all human beings, changed the whole notion of the role of government and law. "Render unto Caesar" did not demand that Caesar start feeling the pain of every litigant who felt wronged. It did demand that Caesar (1) exercise authority only where God authorized him (remember Pilate?) and (2) that his laws be in accord with or not contrary to the divine law.

2. God came and "stood on our shoes," as Kmiec puts it, not so that he could "feel empathy" when we came before him in judgement (I think he already had a pretty good idea of what we feel when we either sin or do good). He came so that we might become perfect in every way, living testaments of God's self-gift of love. He came to redeem human action and call us to a higher law than any government has the right to impose. He thus freed Caesar to be just Caesar--not a psychiatrist, not our collective savior--and he freed us to obey Caesar (insofar as he is just) and the Father at one and the same time.

3. The Supreme Court is not a place for a collective therapy session. It would be nice if we were not fallen, finite beings. Then, when someone felt wronged, we could all group together, express our sense of hurt, and enjoy the empathy of a group of justices who then made everyone feel happy by redistrubting to each according to his or her need. But this is not the way we are. I understand that litigants are real people with feelings and moral tragedies in their lives. Feelings, however, cannot be the measure of good jurisprudence, because that will necessarily result in injustice (inequality before the law). Law will no longer mirror the unconditional love of the Father in judgment, but rather the pathetically limited feelings of the individuals on the Court. Kmiec's idea that it is "possible to feel empathy for all parties involved" is ridiculous. It simply will not happen because every individual justice will feel more or less the pain of each side of the case. We are human, not divine, and cannot know the inside of every other human person. To ask the Court to feel everyone's pain equally would be asking them to play God, which they cannot do. Acknowledging our human need for an impartial law is simply acknowledging our nature. It is limited and fallen. (Further, Kmiec's invocation of Micah against justices who are simply trying to stick to the law--which is the limit of their authority--is self-righteous and violates one of basic tenets of a liberal democracy.)

4. St. Augustine would roll over in his exalted tomb at the idea that: "If the California Supreme Court, for example, chooses to uphold Proposition 8 in a way that validates the selective oppression of one class of citizens, the empathy animating federal equal protection will be put to the test." In the Christian tradition, just law does not arise when law-makers (or interpreters) feel the pain of the people. It arises when, again, the government acts within the limits of its authority (which does not include the definition of marriage) and in accordance with divine and natural law.

5. For Kmiec to suggest that decisions based on an attempt (however imperfect) to judge actions according to the agreed-upon law of the nation (the Constitution) rather than upon a judge's personal ability to "empathize" are somehow "cold" or "heartless," is infantile. It reminds, me, actually, of what Miriam hopes I will do every day. She may find me to be cold and heartless because I suppress my empathy for her in service of a higher good--her safety or the harmony of our family. Empathizing with Miriam when she is angry and hits Isabella is good. But it does not fulfill my vocation to bring justice to my home. Allowing Miriam to express her anger in that way would mean doing injustice to Isabella. Similarly, "empathizing" with an underqualified minority teacher and forcing a school to hire her is to do injustice to her students.

Now, I know I just posted Strunk's viatribe againt opinion pieces. But, really, an unjustifiable opinion requires the response of a valid one. (I smirk wryly as I type that.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Abandon opinion, all ye...

I was browsing my beloved Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. (see photo--what a prim little fellow!), and happened upon this piece of advice. Considering my blog activity, I found it most amusing:

"Do not inject opinion. Unless there is a good reason for its being there, do not inject an opinion into a piece of writing. We all have opinions about almost everything, and the temptation to toss them in is great. To air one's views gratuitously, however, is to imply that the demand for them is brisk, which may not be the case, and which, in any event, may not be relevant to the discussion. Opinions scattered indiscriminately about leave the mark of egotism on a work. Similarly, to air one's views at an improper time may be in bad taste. If you have received a letter inviting you to speak at the dedication of a new cat hospital, and you hate cats, your reply, declining the invitation, does not necessarily have to cover the full range of your emotions ... [Bear] in mind that your opinion of cats was not sought, only your services as a public speaker. Try to keep things straight."

I will try, dear Strunk, I will try.

Friday, May 8, 2009

More media for you.

And here's another ad from the Catholic Vote--apparently set to air during the America Idol finale. Pretty slick and sweet!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A little "reality" TV...

Thanks to Amy Welborn, I found this series of posts on YouTube: The Monastery 2005. Apparently, the reality TV craze in Britain actually bore some real fruit. A group of five men, none of them Catholic, enter a Benedictine monastery in England for several months. Their stories are quite impressive. You can watch the whole thing in nine-minute segments (which is just right for folding laundry).

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The sin of exclusivity.

Well, it's happened again (and again and again): "The Church is so exclusive. They should acknowledge that we are all unique. Stop excluding gays! Stop excluding women! Stop excluding me!"

Oh, dearling.

There is a world of difference between being "exclusive" in the sense of "not allowing you in the club" and being "exclusive" in the sense of following a very specific (and dare I say narrow) way of life. That way of life, which is in part what Christ is ("I am the Way"), is open to anyone with a heart of adventure and a hand to the plow. It is a straight path, a narrow path, but anyone and everyone may enter upon it. And anyone and everyone who falls off the path may return to it.

In fact, the Way has accommodated through history human beings of every imaginable talent, gift, sin, past, parentage, state of life, and class. He--and his faithful sheep--delight in variety and the high adventure of the universal family.

There is not one human person excluded except by his own decision that his way is better than the Way.

But that Way does, yes, exclude other ways. "There is no other name under heaven by which we are saved." Just as my marriage to the Scientist excludes "all others," our union with God excludes all other gods. Not because God is a spoilsport or party-pooper, but rather because there is only one of Him. The others are false gods that cannot save, because they are simply creatures themselves, passing fancies, or--worst--nothing at all (as in, evil). So, sacred cows, idol worship, sexual pleasure (as an end in itself), child porn, gluttony, hatred... yes, these, among other things, are excluded from the kingdom of God.

Because if they weren't, to hell with the kingdom of God. To hell with it all, because there would be no meaning, no transcendence, no hope of the eternal. It's either Christ or ... whatever.

Friday, May 1, 2009

May 1st is St. Joseph.

I loved this excerpt from Caryll Houselander via Magnificat. She speaks of Joseph, the "just man," who is so often portrayed as the gray-haired, impotent, doddering old husband of a limpid-in-blue Mary. The Gospel portrait of this strong man, champion of justice is other:

"That which in our eyes seems unjust is often the extreme logic of love which is justice. It seems unjust to us, when young men in the Maytime of their lives, and often the gentlest of them, must go to war and be slain, when the poet must die with the poem still in his heart, the lover with his love still unconsummated [and surely this was Joseph, husband of the ever-virgin Mary].

"But it is Christ on the cross who dies all their deaths. In him, in the Word of God's love, all poetry is uttered; in him, Incarnate Love, all love is consummated. On the field of Calvary, the battle between love and death is fought which restores the kingdom of heaven to the children whom Satan has despoiled."

She goes on, and I, too, could go on. These few words on justice are my only response to all those "hot-button" questions: homosexuality, contraception, abortion, just war theory, the principle of subsidiarity. All the hard, moral questions lose their angst for me before the figure of Joseph, the silent one who "does such violence to himself" for the sake of the weak. All our various difficulties have no power over us under the shadow of the Cross, which finally made sense of Joseph's own sacrifice. Alleluia!