Friday, August 31, 2012

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.”  Before there was a formal Catholic Mass structure, this hymn galvanized the early Christian community based upon its core belief.  What is that core belief?  The Latin text is usually translated as, “Where charity and love are, God is there.”   Thus, if people wish to bring about God’s kingdom, it would seem charity must abound.  So, let’s reflect upon what constitutes “charity.”

The English word “charity” derives from the Latin word “caritas” but there are some important nuances that seem to be lost in translation and perhaps in practice.  “Charity” means to voluntarily give to those in need whereas “caritas” means “dearness”, “esteem”, “high-priced”, “costly”, “fondness”, “attachment”, and “affection” in addition to “charity”. There is a sense of value-related connection associated with the Latin word “caritas” that is lost in our modern translation to “charity.”  For many people in today’s world, charity seems to be detached but caritas was very personal and connected. 

In the early church, when caritas carried its fuller, richer meaning, all community members gave of themselves to the rest of the community. 

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need (Acts 4:32-35).

“From each according to ability to each according to need” is one way to summarize this passage from the Acts of the Apostles.  It was the philosophy of the community but it was a lived philosophy versus an empty phrase hanging on a plaque.  Consequently, the early Christian church grew, not because people were emotionally flogged into abstaining from birth control, but because the marginalized knew that they had a safety net in a caring community where their basic personal needs would be addressed.  And the privileged knew they had a safety net in a caring community, should their fortunes reverse or their popularity diminish.  Instead of merchandising and profiting from their Christianity, they used the proceeds from their secular work to care, personally care, for the community and its members.

I fast forward to today. The Catholic bishops’ charitable organization is called “Caritas Internationalis” with national chapter affiliates such as Catholic Charities USA.   However, what is the U.S. bishops’ personal investment in caring for others?  About two-thirds of Catholic Charities’ funding in the U.S. comes from the government and the remainder from private donations.  The bishops take a lot of money from taxpayers, enshroud it in their rules, and direct employees and volunteers to re-distribute it to those of whom the bishops approve.  Rarely does a bishop have a personal role in any of these interactions: understanding the need, consoling those in need, helping those in need.  Of late some bishops and their fan base have marketed the bishops’ charity organization’s works as part of a public relations effort to boost the bishops’ public image.  Would this qualify as the caritas that defined and galvanized the early Christian community?   

The bishops are not alone in offering detached charity.  We must examine our own charitable efforts.  Are they detached and impersonal efforts or do they more represent the full meaning of caritas?

One way to begin this reflection is to think of the motivation for doing charitable works.  When such works are true caritas, it is all about doing the right thing because “those unfortunate people” are no longer “them” but “us”.  They are “my” people.  Thus the charitable acts are not about making me feel good or my tax write-off but about personally caring for people because God entrusts the care of humanity to all of humanity.  At this point, such works occur because it is one’s honor or duty.  There is not a sense of superiority as though “I am more fortunate and they are less fortunate.”  At this point a person no longer helps other people’s children but instead treats those children as they would their own. 

I once encountered a university chaplain who refused to help Libyan students facing deportation.  The Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 froze these students’ scholarship money, preventing them from attending university and ultimately nullifying their U.S. visas.  Returning to Libya meant almost certain death for these students.  However, this chaplain explained that he was “too busy preparing for Lent and the alternate Spring Break mission trip.”  

I also once encountered someone who repeatedly effused about a mission trip which she found “so cool” because she got to see and help so many “quaint poor people.” 

Caritas is not a destination adventure.  It is not a form of entertainment.  It is not a form of sight-seeing.  It is not to make you feel good.  Should a person feel good that the misfortune of others gives them an opportunity to be helpful and generous?  Or, should the vastness of opportunities grieve them, inspiring them to do as much as they can to help people, and fix broken systems that cause the volume of misfortune?

Many Catholics give to their local parish as an act of charity.  Though churches legally qualify as charitable organizations in the U.S., the typical parish budget does not include funds for the needy.  That is left to a separately funded and run group such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society.  Most parish budgets allocate around a third to a half of collected monies to pay for the Catholic school, subsidizing the tuition of students regardless of financial need.  Indeed, in most parishes to which I’ve belonged, the poor cannot afford to send their children to Catholic school, but still contribute to the weekly parish collection, unaware that this money will help pay the tuition of wealthier people. 

Here’s a representative hypothetical breakdown of parish allocations derived from consultative work I’ve done for a handful of parishes:
Most of the funding goes towards salaries and subsidizing school tuition.  So, do charitable donations to one’s parish qualify as acts of caritas?

Finally, charity is about helping those in need.  That requires defining “need” and “help.”  Are these defined from the eyes of the person in need or by the person doing charitable works?  When it is true caritas, it is from the eyes of the one in need. 

I offer this example.  Once after I was newly divorced, someone anonymously left bags of clothing on my doorstep.  The clothing was really rags so they weren’t helpful.  Furthermore, because I had a good job, I didn’t have a need.  I was actually financially secure enough to be funding a scholarship for other children at the Catholic school my children attended.   But, the incident gave me pause to wonder if the person who did that “charitable” act glowed euphorically for even a moment because they felt they had “helped” someone in “need.”  If so, that was an illusion existing in their mind rather than in reality. 

Is your giving about you or is it about others?  Is it personal and connected or impersonal and detached?  Do you perform works of charity or works of caritas? 

By the way, the oldest version of the hymn had one additional word, “Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est."  And translated, that means, “Where there is true charity, there God is.”  May we see an increase in true charity so as to experience an increase in the presence of God.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Should women try to imitate Mary?

This past week was the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, celebrating the hierarchy’s belief that Mary didn’t die but was assumed into heaven, body and soul.  Many people vigorously debate, “Did she or didn’t she die?”  However, since church hierarchy teach Mary represents the pinnacle of being a good female, wife and mother, my questions tend to concern her life more than her death (or non-death).

Mary and I have the same standard equipment package because we are both females.  But beyond broad physical similarities tied to common gender, I mostly see major differences between our lives.

Mary as Portrayed by the Hierarchy
Began life
Born into “original sin” in need of redemption
Born pre-redeemed, “immaculately conceived”, free from sin
Trying to avoid sin but nonetheless committing sins here and there along life’s journey
100% sinless
Was educated
Kindergarten through undergraduate degree in public schools and earned a master degree from a Catholic university
At home and most likely was illiterate
Outside the home providing for myself and my family, and paying taxes
At home as a wife and mother
Conceived child(ren)
Within my marriage
Before her marriage – what today would be labeled a “welfare momma”, assumed to be expecting others to provide for her and her kid
Had first child
When I was in my twenties
As a teenager
Children’s conception occurred
Via sexual intercourse with husband
Via Holy Spirit “overshadowing” her
Learned about pregnancy
Via a pregnancy test administered by my doctor
Via an angel of the Lord appearing to her – a bit more dramatic than my experience
Gave birth
In a hospital paid for by my insurance
In the stable of an inn and who knows how or if she paid for it
Children’s birth was attended by
Husband, obstetrician, nurses
Husband, donkey, sheep, goats, cattle…perhaps dogs, cats, a chicken or two and some mice
New child visited by
Family, friends and the pediatrician
Shepherds and 3 astrologers from Asia who were all complete strangers – did no one they knew visit these people?
Human daughters who are good kids but still commit sins here and there along life’s journey
One son who was a sinless human/god
Multiple children and thus refereed profound sibling interactions such as “Make her stop looking out my window!”
One child so she missed out on lots of parenting’s most challenging and rewarding experiences
Needed to
Deal with children’s sins
Endure watching her sinless kid be killed
Grew by
Learning from my mistakes, and loving kids beyond their sins
????  When you’re born sinless and have one sinless kid, how much growing do you require?
Was pregnant
While raising other children and working fulltime outside the house – this is a HUGE challenge
Without the strain of other children or working outside the home
Emotional and physical intimacy with spouse aligned with church teachings on marriage
Only emotional intimacy with spouse and thereby contradicted church teachings about performing one’s “marital duty”
Spousal physical intimacy is taught by church hierarchy to be
Beautiful, natural and necessary – grounds for annulment if not performed
“Stained”, “spotted”, and “sinful” since her perpetual virginity is taught as preserving her as “stainless”, “unspotted” and “sinless”
Travelled to other countries
By car, plane, boat and train with passport and visa in hand
On foot or the back of a donkey without giving any cares regarding border crossing as an alien
In different towns and states in my home country
In a foreign country as a refugee alien, as well as in different towns and regions within her native country
Will die
Was sucked into heaven as though by a Holy Hoover vacuum

There are vast differences in women’s lives as well as marriage and motherhood experiences.  This is especially true when it comes to Mary.  She was sinless raising a sinless kid.  That’s a very different experience than the rest of humanity.  How do you then say, “But you should imitate it?”  If God wanted another sinless human, doesn’t God have the power to cause another person to be born pre-redeemed, free from original sin?  Quite simply, if God wanted me to be Mary, why didn’t God just make another Mary? 

I think a lot of people experience emotional and spiritual angst pursuing someone else’s calling rather than their own.  Why do Church leaders encourage women to imitate Mary rather than pursue their own genuine and unique callings?  Wouldn’t it be better to advise people to pursue who God asked them to be rather than who God asked somebody else to be?

Do church leaders really want women to imitate Mary which would include her marital relations with her husband?  The church and humanity would become extinct pretty quickly.

Do Church leaders try to appeal to women’s egos by putting Mary on a pedestal and then encouraging women to strive towards an unachievable goal imitating her?  Is this a feigned “honoring” of women meant to divert attention from marginalization and discrimination of women in the church? 

To me, Mary isn’t any stronger role model for me as a woman than she is for any man.  She shows men and women how to defer their personal will to the will of God.  That carries no gender specificity.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Questions on Church Governance

A governance model is all about power; it defines who has power to set roles, make decisions, set policies, perform various acts, and hold others accountable.  Rather than attempt to categorize the church’s governance model as “absolute monarchy”, “constitutional monarchy”, “medieval hierarchy”, “democracy” or some hybrid, maybe it’s better to explore church governance from a practical standpoint.  Who really has power to do what? 

The church hierarchy doesn’t control people’s access to or relationship with the Holy Trinity.  It doesn’t control access to piety practices; anyone can obtain a rosary and pray it.  It doesn’t control access to education or information, especially not since the advent of the printing press and internet.  Though the hierarchy opine about politics and politicians, it doesn’t control how people vote.  It doesn’t control most people’s food, clothing or housing decisions. 

It seems in most societies, church hierarchy has almost no if any power over laypeople, except those employed by the church.  Though the hierarchy created almost two thousand rules in Canon Law, and though some of those rules outline consequences for infractions, there is little if any power to force laypeople’s compliance, again, unless the layperson works for the church.  Without effective compliance enforcement mechanisms, the church hierarchy is largely powerless.  Do laypeople realize this?  Do the clergy realize this?

One might assert, “But the hierarchy does control access to the sacraments…”  Maybe this is why some clergy try to use sacramental access as a compliance tool.  However, examining each of the sacraments, yields a realization that this not unilaterally true. 

Baptism:  The hierarchy acknowledges baptisms administered by most other Christian denominations.  And, anyone, even laypeople, can baptize in an emergency. 

Reconciliation:  Though only baptized Catholics are supposed to use this sacrament, most priests are thrilled to have anyone come during their hours of reconciliation.   No one checks credentials of a penitent to ensure their right to be in the confessional. 

Anointing of the Sick:  Again, though this is supposed to be for baptized Catholics, no one checks credentials.  In deathbed scenarios when a person is successful rousing a priest, I’m unaware of any instances where the priest denied either an anointing, reconciliation or baptism regardless of credentials. 

Eucharist:  Though there is an illusion of control here, there’s really not.  I offer this anecdote as food for though.  A person once told me that reading my blog inspired joining the Catholic Church.  Given my cultural bias, I assumed the person had participated in the formal Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program.  However, this person explained they just started going to Mass and receiving communion and thereby felt a member of the church.  Rarely does a Eucharistic minister deny communion to anyone.

Yes, there are high profile individuals whose communion practices receive great public scrutiny due to some pronouncement by members of the hierarchy.  But most people, even if shunned by the local parish, have enough mobility and obscurity to attend other parishes where they would be just another anonymous recipient of the sacrament.  So, no, the church hierarchy does not really control this sacrament despite many efforts to create the illusion it does.

This leaves only three remaining sacraments: Confirmation and the two lifetime vocational sacraments of Holy Orders and Marriage all of which require credential verification.  Confirmation candidates must show evidence of baptism and sometimes of instruction and service.  In turn, Confirmation is a gateway sacrament to Holy Orders and Marriage. 

Confirmation: Hierarchical officials do control this sacrament.  But, what is the impact of not receiving it from a church approved person?  Sometimes proof of Confirmation is required to perform unpaid labor as a volunteer liturgical minister or for church employment.  However, many if not most church-sponsored ministries don’t require Confirmation credentials.  One can be an usher, a greeter, choir member, refreshment server or preparer, cleaner, advocate for the poor, etc… without being confirmed.  With the internet and self-publishing, one can even be a religious educator outside the hierarchy’s control.  Ministerial work outside church-sponsored groups definitely doesn’t require Confirmation.  Therefore, Confirmation isn’t a tangible concern for most Catholics unless they wish to act as unpaid labor in certain liturgical ministries or receive one of the two vocational sacraments.

Marriage:  In many countries civil unions associated with legal rights and responsibilities are controlled by the secular government with church leaders having been granted the authority to perform such unions.  This is separate from a sacramental union though. With sacramental marriage, the two parties confer the sacrament upon each other with some authorized church person officiating to witness the conferral.  This is why deacons and religious sisters can perform marriage ceremonies done outside of a Mass.  A priest is not needed. 

If one does not confer the sacrament upon one’s life partner in the presence of an authorized church member, what does that impact?  The rules say they aren’t supposed to receive Communion but as mentioned before there is no enforcement.  So, that’s an empty rule.  As with Confirmation, compliance with church marriage practices sometimes limits the unpaid volunteer work open to a person and some paid church positions.  However, I believe that a priest is not supposed to deny sacramental care for children from such unions.  So, with the current governance model, what is the true impact of non-compliance?

Holy Orders:  The hierarchy also does control access to this sacrament. But an amount of control has been shifted because a bishop validly but illegally (in the eyes of many hierarchical leaders) ordained some women and a female bishop. 

However, some sacramental administration and decisions regarding paid and volunteer labor seem to be the only unique powers requiring the sacrament of Holy Orders.  Since most sacraments can be obtained without presenting credentials, that’s really mostly an illusion of power.  And, even if a hierarchical leader banishes someone from performing unpaid work for the ecclesial institution, the person still can imitate Christ’s work with the poor, sick and marginalized outside of church-sponsored groups - and the person can do this without sacramental credentials.  Therefore the power entrusted to hierarchical leaders seems to be an illusion also, at least as pertains to the laity.

The hierarchy does have real powers over clergy, avowed religious, Catholic school employees and perhaps even Catholic school children.  However, according to statistics, in the U.S. the number of those in positions controllable by the hierarchy is falling off the proverbial cliff while numbers of laypeople outside their control is increasing. 

U.S. Figures
Percent Change
Total Priests
33% lower
Diocesan Priests
25% lower
Number of Ordinations
53% lower
69% lower
62% lower
48.5 Million
77.7 Million
60% higher
0.1% higher
Catholic  Schools
30% lower
Students in Catholic Schools
3.441 Million
2.142 Million
38% lower

Of late, the profoundly shrinking ranks of hierarchical leaders are making more aggressive attempts to assert control over the increasing number of laypeople.  Yet the hierarchy has no powers over the masses of laypeople unless the laypeople submit to it.   Does the key to church reform lie in the increasing masses of the Catholic lay population, or in the dwindling ranks of hierarchical members?  Sadly, many of those desiring church reform leave because they feel they cannot change the minds of an entrenched hierarchy.  In doing so, have these people granted more powers to the hierarchy than are actually due? 

By the way, the governance model in Jesus’ time was pretty simple.  He interacted with apostles, disciples and unaffiliated people alike, speaking directly to all of them.  He explicitly told the apostles not to lord it over others, and that he desired mercy more than sacrifice.  That’s about the extent to the governance model he instilled.  Why did the clergy complicate that so much?  Why do the masses of laypeople that outnumber the clergy by almost 2,000 to 1 permit the complication?  With only 23% Mass attendance, do the masses permit it or just leave?