Sunday, July 19, 2015

Teaching Infallibly

There is a clear connection between the first reading and the gospel today. In our first reading, the prophet Jeremiah is prophesying against the leaders of Israel. So Israel was at a low spot right now. After Kings David and Solomon, the kings continued to lead Israel further and further from God. It God so bad that the 12 tribes of Israel had actually divided into two nations. Worship of foreign gods was pretty standard. In a couple more generations, Israel would turn so firmly from God that God would allow them to be taken into exile in order to get their attention again. Not a good time in Israel, and it was primarily the leaders's fault.

So God speaks to these leaders through his prophet Jeremiah and he compares them to shepherds when says, "Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture."  And then a few lines later he tells what he is going to do about this when he says, "I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them...I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble." Jeremiah is prophesying about Jesus, the one true shepherd who will actually gather God's people into one flock. And that's what we're beginning to see in our gospel today.

Now, the gospel highlights two important themes for us that we want to unpack: teaching and doing. This gospel follows just shortly after last week's gospel, and we need to remember that for context. So in last Sunday's gospel, Jesus sent the apostles out two by to two to preach repentance and to heal the sick. After that in Mark's gospel, we get an interlude about the death of John the Baptist which we don't read in the Sunday cycle, and now we see Mark getting back to the main story about Jesus and the twelve apostles. We see them returning from their individual missions, and they're coming back to report on what happened.

And the gospel tells us that they reported two specific things. They reported all that they had done and taught. Doing things like healing and feeding and is one half of the ministry that the apostles were sent out on, and the other half is teaching. And they do that because that's what Jesus does. The gospel tells us that Jesus's heart is moved with pity for the crowds and he begins to teach them. He doesn't attend to their physical needs yet, first he teaches. Right after this passage, Jesus feeds this same crowd of five thousand, so then we see that "doing" half of the ministry. But Jesus thinks that the teaching side of his work is just as important as the doing side of the work.

What Jesus teaches is about as important as what he does because teaching keeps his flock united. What we teach is just as important as what we do because teaching keeps us united. What we do is crucial to our unity, but what we teach is just as important. What we teach keeps us united because, for example, many different organizations help the poor, from atheists to Catholics, but we would never claim that we are a united group of people. Two groups can agree on a single cause or project and not be united. But for us Christians, unity is crucial to our identity, because unity was what Jesus taught and prayed for, and unity was what he won for us by what he did on the cross.

Christ willed for us to be united, one flock united under one shepherd, one Body of Christ. He wants this because he knows it's better for us and better for the world. A group that is united in purpose and belief can support each other more naturally when one member is struggling. That's what the ancient pagans saw in the Christians, they saw a group that cared for everyone within the group. And a group like this that is united in purpose and belief is a powerful and unstoppable witness in the world.

So unity in the Church is God's will for us, but we must make sure we understand unity rightly. We don't want to understand unity simply as a consensus of beliefs as if the Church was a political body. We could all be united in the wrong belief and it would be just as wrong even though we all believed it. That wouldn't do us any good. No, we have to be united in Christ and in his right teaching.

Fortunately, because Jesus's heart was moved with pity for us, because we were like sheep without a shepherd, Jesus gave us the means to know his right teaching when he gave his authority to Peter and the other apostles. Jesus entrusted Peter and the apostles with his full authority to preach in his name, and to bind and loose sins. But Jesus didn't intend for that real and tangible authority to exist for just one generation, so it Jesus's authority continues to exist in the Pope and the bishops united to him down to the present day, all for the sake of the unity of the Body of Christ.

The Pope can't even infallibly declare beer
to be the finest beverage known to man
One of the most common sticking points about papal authority, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, is the teaching of papal infallibility. So what's papal infallibility? Does it mean that the Pope can't be wrong no matter what he says? Not quite. The teaching of papal infallibility means that the Pope is preserved from the possibility of error "When, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church." So he has to be acting in his office as pope, and he has to be teaching authoritatively on faith and morals. If the pope were to declare that cookies and cream ice cream was the best and anybody who disagreed was wrong, he would be correct because cookies and cream is indeed the best, but that wouldn't be an infallible statement. When the pope decreed in 1854 that Mary was immaculately conceived without sin, that was an infallible statement. Papal infallibility is much bigger than just the pope's opinions. Throughout the history of the Church, less than a dozen statements or teachings have been considered infallible, and most popes spend their whole time as pope never issuing an infallible teaching.

Papal infallibility, like every other aspect of the Church that Jesus set up, exists for the sake of unity. Jesus's heart was moved with pity when he saw the people like sheep without a shepherd, and so he taught them so that they might be united. Trust Jesus, trust his teaching authority present in the Church, and then you can experience the hope that the responsorial psalm offers: "The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want."

Sunday, July 12, 2015

On Preaching and St. Francis

Again, it was Deacon Andrew's weekend to preach, and he delivered an excellent homily about how we are called to be disciples. One particular point I liked is that some of us are actually called to give up everything and follow Christ:
We are also called not to rely on ourselves, but rely on God for everything. Does that mean leave your home and go be a missionary taking no possessions with you? Probably not, but some may be called to that, I know plenty of missionaries that do a similar thing.
Here in the West we live a very comfortable sort of Christianity, and so we seldom pay attention to Jesus' call to sell all you have and give to the poor in order to have treasure in heaven (Matt 10:21). We seldom pay much attention to the order that Jesus gave us in today's gospel, and that is to preach.

[stepping onto my soapbox]

A common homily to give in response to a gospel like this is to quote St. Francis of Assisi, who supposedly said, "Preach the gospel at all times, use words if necessary." The thinking is often that Jesus sent the twelve out to preach repentance (Matt 6:12), by which he clearly meant tell the people to stop sinning, and, well, that's a bit awkward and doesn't make for nice dinner conversation. Soooo...we need a more covert, less obtrusive way to preach the gospel,

Problem is, St. Francis never said this thing that is too commonly attributed to him. It doesn't appear in his writings. It doesn't appear in any of his biographies for the first 200 years after his death. And it doesn't fit the man. Francis was a deacon: he was ordained to preach. He tried to preach to the sultan to end the crusades. When people wouldn't listen to him anymore he was so overcome with love of his Creator that he preached to the birds.

By Jason Bach
We seriously need to stop falsely attributing this pithy quote to a preacher who never said it. A few sources on the internet alerted me to this common error, here, here, and here. But more importantly, we need to stop using this false quote as an excuse to not preach the gospel with our mouths. We need to stop using this false quote as an excuse for being Christians who tell ourselves that we're going to convert people because we smile politely a lot.

Paul tells us (really, actually, and scripturally, not just a false attribution) that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and ever tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10). You can't very well have the name of Jesus without someone who speaks it with words. And you can't very well confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father if you don't tell others about him.

So I am on a mostly one-man mission to convince the world of the falsehood of the above-mentioned quote. Join me in this effort. Preach the gospel. Use words. Words are necessary.

[stepping off my soapbox]

By me

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

SSA Resources

As I discuss the Supreme Court's decision on same-sex "marriage" with various Catholics, I've noticed that many people agree with and trust Church teaching on a gut level, but they're not conversant in the matter; they're unable to explain the teaching or the reason behind it. Our mission as Catholics in this increasingly anti-Christian country is to preach the truth with love. But to do this, we have to understand why the Church defends traditional marriage so strongly.

There are various resources out there that explain why the Church believes so strongly in traditional marriage and how the Church loves every person out there. You are not alone in your acceptance of Church teaching, but to evangelize the culture you have to understand your faith. These are some resources that I know of; I recommend you take some time and look them up.

First of all, the Catechism teaches in paragraphs 2357-2359 on homosexuality. You'll find that the Catholic Church hates no one and teaches hate towards no one. The Catechism teaches about acting on same-sex inclinations, that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." But it also teaches about the persons who experience same-sex attraction, that "Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided." Notice: Church teaching distinguishes between the act and the person. Acts are sinful or virtuous. Persons are beloved children of God. The inclination that a person feels but didn't ask for is not a sin, only actions are.

I've linked to it before, but I want to point you again to the homily that my friend Deacon Andrew Kinstetter preached the weekend after the Supreme Court decision. I think it's the best homily he's preached in his short time as an ordained minister. He showed the beauty of marriage, and that it is beautiful because it gives life. Marriage unites and marriage creates life. Marriage is a gift from God to help us reach eternal life. By showing the beauty of marriage, he showed quite simply how homosexual "marriage" cannot participate in the life-giving power and cannot image the relationship between God and his Church. Do read his homily.

The Third Way
This is a 38 minute video that features Catholics who experience same sex attraction and have chosen to live chastely and experience the fullness of life. They boldly tell their stories about how they tried the world's version of happiness and never felt satisfied, and how they got out of that culture and found their way (for some of them, found their way back to) the Catholic Church. It also features some of the most popular Catholic speakers and evangelists today: Sr. Helena Burns, Chris Stefanick, Jason Evert, Christopher West, Fr. Michael Schmidt, and others.

Desire of the Everlasting Hills
This is another video, about an hour long, that has three people telling their stories of trying to be happy living how the culture told them to live. One of them was even in a same-sex relationship for 25 years. But like the other video, the culture's promise of happiness never played out and they found their way to the Catholic Church.

Catholic Stuff You Should Know Part I and Part II
This is a two podcasts from former classmates and seminary friends of mine. They excellently and tactfully explain the topic, and they took the time to address it in two parts; both are about 25 minutes each. One of the most excellent points they make is that we (we the Church, we the proponents of traditional marriage) cannot advance a logical argument for traditional marriage as long as we continue to utilize contraception or as long as we live together before marriage. If heterosexual unions exclude the procreative or unitive ends for which marriage is made, then you can't advance a logical argument against homosexual "marriage." The second part deals largely with pastoral care for those who experience same-sex attraction and calling all people, no matter their sexual orientation, to holiness.

Chastity Project
This particular part of Jason and Crystalina Evert's overall Chastity Project deals with homosexuality. A good collection of short videos from knowledgeable Catholic speakers.

This is a solid Catholic organization that seeks to support those who experience same-sex attraction, their families, and their ministers. Their goals (from their website) are chastity, prayer and dedication, fellowship, support, and to be a good example. Not all "catholic" same-sex attraction support groups are good. Beware of the group called Dignity. They misinterpret the Bible and the teachings of Jesus to defend the LGBTQ movement.

Gay Marriage: Brought to you by Contraception
This article advances an argument that was referenced in the podcast above. If marriage is in a bad spot today, it started with the widespread acceptance of contraception. It began with the Anglican Church's 1930 Lambeth Conference. Not that marriage was perfect before 1930, but that's the first time you can point to a thing that was detrimental to marriage being called good.

Heather Does Not Have Two Mommies: Talking to Your Kids About Same Sex Attraction
This is an article from a mother of four who has decided she needs to start talking to her young kids about SSA in the culture. She realizes she can't shield her kids from hearing about it in the culture, so she wants them to hear the truth from her before they hear the lies from the culture, and she offers tips on how to talk to kids about this tricky topic by making sure they understand solidly what marriage is for.

False Enlightenment at the Court
Here is a more intellectual argument (still very accessible) about the hubris present in the Supreme Court's decision. The Court has misunderstood essential and accidental in their redefinition of marriage when they said that procreativity is accidental and not essential to the nature of marriage. Read the article for more.

Agape Wins
A small historical analysis of why and how the gay rights movement has won such victories, and which "movement" is destined to win in the long run.

The Church and the New Normal
This article by George Weigel also analyzes how we got to this point and where we go from here.

Here are three books by authors who experience same-sex attraction. I haven't read them, but I trust the brother priest who recommended them. I hope to read them soon.
-Beyond Gay - by David Morrison (from Denver, forward by Archbishop Chaput)
-Sexual Authenticity - by Melinda Selmys
-Washed & Waiting - by Wesley Hill (protestant author)

Those are the highlights of what I know right now. I have some other ideas that I would like to reflect on and post on, so hopefully more at a later date. If you know of other resources that might be useful please let me know. Overall, be loving, be genuinely charitable, but be honest. There is no place for hatred or lies in this discussion with our culture, but then again, there is no place for hatred or lies any place in the Christian life.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Faith at the Limits

This is a really interesting note that the Gospel ends on, that Jesus was unable to perform any mighty deeds in that place because of their lack of faith. Jesus, Lord of all creation, unable to do something because of the attitudes and beliefs of another. That's worth a bit of attention on our part.

So first let's understand the context. We just heard from Mark's gospel, and we're going to hear from Mark's gospel for most of this year until Advent. Throughout Ordinary Time, we'll hear from it chronologically, and this is pretty early in the story. At the beginning of Mark's gospel, Jesus was baptized by John, then he was tempted in the desert, and immediately he called the apostles and started going around healing people.

So now, this is his first trip back to his hometown of Nazareth, and it doesn't go well. Granted, I don't think Jesus expected to be welcomed with open arms, but the reaction of the people of Nazareth shows what happens when you think that you understand God. All the Nazarenes had been checking their Facebook feeds and they've heard about these supposed healings that Jesus has been doing, and they can't accept it. They know him. They know his family. They know his job. They know that he isn't a healer or teacher, and they're not impressed that he's trying to act like one.

And because they couldn't accept this new thing that the town carpenter was showing them, because they couldn't accept that the carpenter might be a little bit more, he couldn't perform any of the mighty deeds there that they had been hearing about. Now, let's briefly deal with this word "couldn't." When the Gospel tells us that Jesus "couldn't" do something, we shouldn't see it as weakness on God's part. The church fathers, the first generation of bishops and leaders after the apostles, are pretty unanimous in understanding that two things are necessary for a healing to take place: power on the part of the healer and faith on the part of the one being healed. The power of God is of course limitless, but he doesn't force himself on us. He allows his power to be checked by our faith, so inasmuch as the townspeople didn't believe in him, Jesus's ever-present power could have no effect in their lives.

But on the other hand, think of the beautiful miracles that occurred because of the faith of the people that Jesus encountered. Last week we saw him raise a girl from the dead, and we saw a woman healed from a 12 year illness just by touching his cloak. The week before that we saw him calm a storm with just a word. Jesus never forced a miracle on anybody; he waits for faith, because faith dares to ask the impossible. Faith recognizes that the world is bigger than our limited minds can hold. Faith recognizes that the world is more beautiful than the ugliness that our eyes see before us.

So God makes his power dependent on our faith in that power. And yet, like the townspeople in Nazareth, we try to limit God and insist that we understand him. We try to insist that God is big, but he's not that big. When we do this, when we try to define for ourselves who and what God is, then we can miss him when he comes to us in a form we don't recognize, or don't want to recognize, and when we miss him because he's in a form we don't want to see, then we miss the chance to have his power work in our lives.

So what am I talking about here? If we don't accept that God can be present in the poor, if we judge them and just insist that they need to get a job, then we miss a chance for God's power to work in our lives. If we don't accept a piece of Church teaching, if we insist that the Church is wrong or just doesn't understand me when it comes to gay marriage, contraception, abortion, the importance of Sunday Mass, then we limit the power of God in our lives, because he works through our faith.

But on the other hand, if we seek out opportunities to serve the poor-personally and not anonymously-and ignore our own convictions about the reason for their plight, then we let God be bigger than what we can understand. If we embrace all of Church teaching and seek to learn and understand it rather than just insisting that it's wrong, then we let God be bigger than our imagination, and because of that openness God can rush in with his power and transform your life.

God operates at the limit of our own abilities and the limits of our own understandings because it is there that we have to stop relying on ourselves. If I live my life of faith only in ways that I find comfortable, then it's not really a life of faith at all, but rather a life of shallow security, because I depend on myself and my own strength for everything. But if I live at the edge of my comfort, serving those I don't want to, believing that which I do not understand, then that's the spot where I can't depend on my own strength anymore. That's the spot where I have to depend on God's power rather than my own understanding.

And that's what Paul is talking about in the second reading today. He tells the Corinthians about a "thorn in the flesh" or an "angel of Satan" that was given to him to keep him from being too elated. Now, Paul is being intentionally vague so we don't know exactly what this was. Scholars think it was either a sexual temptation, a physical disability like a speech impediment, or a persecution of some sort. Whatever it was, it stretched Paul to his limits so he couldn't depend on himself or his own strength anymore. So the Lord said to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." Paul learned to rely on God exactly at the point where his own strength was insufficient, and that's what we need to learn also.

So start here, at this Mass. As we prepare to offer the Eucharist, ask God to teach you the true value of the Mass. The Mass is of such infinite value that we can never really understand it. Learn to rely on God's infinite strength by really learning to see him in the Mass. Rely on God at the limit of your own strength and your own understanding, and his power will be made perfect in your weakness.