Analysis by Oswald Sobrino, J.D., M.A., who has published in New Blackfriars (U.K.), Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Answer, New Oxford Review, CatholicExchange.com, and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly. He is a lay graduate student at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. © 2002-06 Oswald Sobrino.
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Saturday, September 27, 2003Catholics and Economic Analysis
After teaching college economics courses from 1997 to 2001, I was happy to see that President Bush appointed N. Gregory Mankiw this year as the new chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers based in the White House. Mankiw (pronounced "Mankiew" to rhyme with "view") is a Harvard economist who has written one of the leading textbooks on economics for college students. His work is crisp, clear, and nonideological. If you want to keep up with what is happening with economic policy by going to a reliable source, you should monitor what Prof. Mankiw is writing and speaking about. You can find his latest analysis at the White House website.
Better to go to Prof. Mankiw than to rely on the "hot air" bellowing by such liberal dynamos as Ted Kennedy whose grasp of economics is highly questionable. The typical rhetoric of the Ted Kennedy liberal is that of knee-jerk accusations of social injustice in which a policy like an income tax cut simply favors the rich and is thus a direct attack on the poor and on workers. Why is this knee-jerk liberal jeremiad demagoguery? The answer is that it manipulates the truth and ignores the use of reason. We as Catholics are committed to the truth. As such, we are at home with whatever is true and seeks the truth, whether in the hard sciences of physics or chemistry or in the extremely soft and controversial science of economics.
We have a moral obligation to respect reason and to always give precedence to reasoned analysis over emotional appeals. That is a witness to the commandment not to bear false witness. In economics, there are a few non-controversial principles about which most economists agree (see Mankiw's listing of ten such principles in Ch. 1 of his basic Principles of Economics [Dryden Press 1998]). But, as we all know, there are still large areas of debate and disagreement. This situation is inevitable because the subject of economics is a dynamic and highly complex social reality shot through with the decisions of psychologically complex and free human beings. Economics is not physics engaging in controlled and circumscribed experiments in an orderly laboratory.
Yet, whenever economic issues arise, we have a moral obligation to search out the most reasoned arguments. That bias toward reasoned as opposed to purely emotional appeals is a requirement of the obligation of an informed conscience to seek truth, not mere convenience. It is interesting to see what the Church says about the social sciences in this regard:
Congregation for Catholic Education, Guidelines for the Study and Teaching of the Church's Social Doctrine in Priestly Formation 68 (Dec. 30, 1988), quoted in J. Neuner & J. Dupuis, The Christian Faith (Alba House 2001), p. 958.
Now, the above quotation does not imply an uncritical acceptance of whatever claims to be social science. The document rightly warns against the uncritical embrace of manipulative ideologies and of positivism which exalts empirical data above "an overall understanding of the human being and the world" (Id.). Yet, the main point is clear: we need to search for reasoned, nonideological analysis.
One example of how such reasoned analysis differs from the typical demagogic liberal rhetoric is, as noted earlier, the idea of an income tax cut. If the tax cut reduces the tax rates of those who are rich, the simplistic analysis is that the tax cut unjustly favors the rich. The reality is more complex and leads to a radically different conclusion: reducing tax rates for those who have high incomes can benefit all income levels, including the poor.
In a September 15, 2003, speech to a gathering of economists, Prof. Mankiw focused on the example of how the burden of a tax cannot be simplistically seen as falling solely on those who write the checks to pay the tax. This issue of who bears the burden or receives the benefit of a particular tax policy is referred to as the "incidence question." The professor's address is impressively clear and suitable for non-economists, even if the audience consisted of those who make a living from economic analysis. Here is an extended, relevant excerpt with my own explanatory parenthetical remarks:
N. Gregory Mankiw, "Remarks at the Annual Meeting of the National Association of Business Economists" (Sept. 15, 2003), pp. 9-10 (pdf document), available in full at White House website.
So the moral of the story is fairly clear: what may at first appear superficially as a burden solely on the rich owners of ice cream factories ends up hurting consumers and workers. The "tax on the rich" ends up hurting the common good. Likewise, the opposite policy of a tax cut benefiting the owners of the ice cream factory can in turn benefit consumers and workers.
But in this fevered election season, you will not hear this type of reasoned analysis being bellowed by Ted Kennedy or the Ted Kennedy liberal. But then again we should not be surprised. Ted Kennedy is the same person who ostentatiously champions the killing of the unborn and still lines up to receive Holy Communion. Reason, common sense, and reflection are not his strengths or the strengths of his ideological comrades.
Friday, September 26, 2003The Last Ambition
We are now being exposed to the media circus of the Democratic presidential candidates. We have pro-abortion pseudo-Catholic John Kerry of Massachusetts whose campaign has foundered in the face of Dr. Howard Dean, who pursues a radical left-wing agenda. The new entrant, former General Wesley Clark, descends into further absurdity, as on a daily basis more and more past statements are discovered in which he praised President Bush and his administration, while he now undertakes to fervently condemn them so he can keep up with the other candidates. The rest of the Democratic candidates are not even worthy of notice.
Whether we like it or not, we will be bombarded with the rhetoric of these self-appointed "saviors" of America for several more months. As we watch the circus, we can ask ourselves why do these late middle-aged men and women, some after many years of prominence and power, seek at their ages to pursue the presidency? On one level, it seems to make sense if we take their words at face value: as patriots and concerned grandparents they want to leave a better America for their descendants. On the other hand, it all appears quite trivial: ego and narcissism push aging politicians, and now a retired general, to undertake the ultimate grab for power in their waning years.
Back in May 2001, University of Chicago Professor Leon Kass wrote an insightful article in First Things entitled "L'Chaim and its Limits: Why Not Immortality?" (hereafter "Kass") in which he argued that the current scientific push for human longevity was misguided and would change something central in our humanity. In the article, Kass emphasized how the desire for long life on earth could be more fittingly met:
Kass, available on-line at First Things website.
Professor Kass (also a physician) points to satisfying our desire for long life on earth through our children. This view fits in well with the Catholic tradition which views children as the "crown" of marriage, as stated in Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes, 48. Although we as Catholics certainly affirm the immortality of the soul and the ultimate resurrection of the body, we also recognize children as a powerful blessing and gift in this life which perpetuate our own lives on earth. Catholic parents are thus called to sacrifice on behalf of their children as a way of "finding" their own lives. The same applies to the celibate who sacrifice on behalf of their spiritual children.
How does all this connect to the display of late middle-aged ambition made by the gaggle of presidential candidates? We, the captive audience of the political circus, have to realize the absurdity of candidates many of whom are pursuing this ultimate prize of worldly ambition without anything worth contributing to our country. In other words, they are not running because of deeply held principles that address the authentic crisis of our country. They are rather running out of deeply held narcissism to address the personal crisis of their approaching mortality. What else can explain how they produce contentless rhetoric seeking to please anyone and everyone in order to win at all costs?
Those of us who are not in the world of great political ambition can sit back and reflect that the Clintonesque life of perpetual contentless ambition is a poor and unsatisfying substitute for the vocation of being a parent. Like Leon Kass, we can recognize the power and depth of satisfaction from our posterity who will hopefully continue on earth after us. That view is a powerful answer to the mid-life crisis of ambition that seems to motivate the presidential contenders who give us rhetoric in search of power, instead of principles in search of truth.
Thursday, September 25, 2003Catholic Rejuvenation Part II: The Priesthood
In a recent essay (9/22/03), I noted the welcome Catholic rejuvenation in the rise of more reverent liturgy appropriately focused on the best of Catholic tradition. Today, we take another anecdotal look at Catholic rejuvenation, this time in the priesthood. For several years, many have reported on the trend of "late vocations," that is, older men who enter the priesthood after having had a career in the secular world. In October 2000, one of these men published an insightful article describing the experiences that sparked the call to the priesthood for him and others who already had secular careers:
My brothers and I have been surgeons, elementary school teachers, health care professionals, bartenders, musicians, marketing executives, retailers, farmers, lawyers, architects, and military officers. Some of our older brothers are widowed with children; others have been in religious orders for some years. Well over half of new theologate seminarians have had a career. We have seen the world from the inside and have made an unsentimental assessment of its condition. We have seen family cohesion dissolve before our eyes, and have witnessed galloping violence, materialism, and radical individualism erode our culture. We have watched in dismay as an aggressive iconoclasm has replaced traditional notions of beauty, purity, and nobility. Even our cherished heroes of youth are systematically exposed to the mockery of an unrestrained media thirsty for scandal and gossip. We have lived through the charged atmosphere of ideological hegemony on college campuses, where one’s very words are monitored for violations of the politically-correct “speech code.” Most of all, we have seen an uncontrolled plummet down the steep slope of moral decay.
Carter H. Griffin, Homiletic & Pastoral Review (Oct. 2000) (full article available at this link).
Although lately statistics have emerged showing that the age of seminarians is dropping to a more traditional range, the phenomenon of these later vocations after other careers is still very much with us. In a recent parish mission presided over by Fr. Bill McCarthy of Our Father's House Spiritual Retreat Center in which he concelebrated Mass with three other priests, it was quite striking to see that one of the priests was formerly a medical doctor. It was also striking that one of the other priests had a prior career of a different sort: a former Episcopalian priest who converted to Catholicism due in part to his study of the Church Fathers. Interestingly, this convert-priest also has a quite unique prior and continuing "career" as a married father because the Church makes special pastoral provision allowing certain converts who were previously in Protestant ministry to become Catholic priests, even if married. So, in some cases, the "prior career" includes having been a married Protestant minister! (See newspaper article for statistics, although the article, in my view, unnecessarily and woefully understates the theological value of celibacy, which can exist in full harmony with this pastoral exception).
As the author quoted above eloquently affirms, these post-career vocations are a tremendous witness to the power of the Gospel in the midst of a highly secular, immoral, and anti-Christian society. In cases like that of the converted minister, these vocations also witness to the fact that the fullness of the Church of Christ is found in the Roman Catholic Church.
The third celebrant of the mission Mass was the parish pastor, a Vietnamese priest who had faced persecution in his native land. His presence was another sign of a rejuvenated American priesthood in which new immigrants are making their mark. Statistics show that the Vietnamese community is making a significant contribution to priestly vocations in the United States (see N.Y. Times article). Other nationalities are also making their mark in the priesthood throughout the United States. It is a powerful sign of the universality signified by the very name Catholic. (By the way, the priest mentioned earlier as a former physician, although non-Hispanic, is fluent in Spanish and is pastor of a Hispanic parish.)
From this anecdotal experience, we can see the work of the Holy Spirit in a New Pentecost calling to a new vocation those who at first chose another calling in a highly secular society, calling to conversion those who ministered in other Christian communities, and also bringing us into closer communion with Catholics from other nations.
Yet, we cannot overlook those dynamic priests who followed more traditional paths to the priesthood and who are still laboring with great fervor in the vineyard of Christ. The priest who presided magnificently over the mission which sparked these observations was Father Bill McCarthy who has spent more than 40 years in the priesthood and who hails from My Father's House Spiritual Retreat Center in Moodus, Connecticut (see link to the retreat center, which also contains writings by Fr. McCarthy). From our own northeastern United States, so filled with negative headlines about the Catholic priesthood, there came a priest on fire with a tremendous love for Jesus, for the Pope, and for the People of God. The fullness of what a priest of Christ should be was overwhelmingly evident in the presence and ministry of Fr. McCarthy. You are not likely to read about such priests on the pages of the New York Times or the Boston Globe. These examples of second-career priests, convert-priests, Third World priests, and dynamic long-time priests are further signs of the "New Springtime" of the faith prophetically preached by John Paul II.
Wednesday, September 24, 2003Marriage: Merely Romantic or Sacrificial?
Being social animals, we humans tend to put great stock in what our fellow humans think and prize, whether in fashion, material success, physical appearance, or even what schools to attend. The same is true in marriage. We are saturated with advertisements about diamond rings which are "forever," with all sorts of advice and quizzes to test our compatibility and to "renew" our marriages. And with the contraceptive mentality, the notion of marriage has changed radically from one of service to one of self-gratification. With easy and socially acceptable divorce facilitated by thousands of attorneys eager for business, our legal notion of marriage has become that of a highly conditioned union, just another partnership dissolvable at will. The assumption underlying all these developments is the romantic notion of marriage: marriage as an extended infatuation. Just as in the widespread lifestyle of fornication and "shacking up" that precedes marriage for many, a marriage is viewed as being over as soon as one meets a better and more compatible "partner."
Given that fantasy, it is no surprise to read reports about frequent adultery, frequent divorce, falling birth rates, and the widespread use of pornography to replace this unsustainable marital fantasy. In contrast, the Catholic view of marriage is that of a vocation, a vocation as distinct as that of a priest or of a consecrated person. The wedding band is not just a fashion piece: it is the "religious habit" of those of us in the state of marriage.
Professor Janet Smith speaks of the Latin word munus as referring in Church documents to "a work that one does at the behest of God and as a service to God" (Janet Smith, "The Importance of the Concept of "Munus" to Understanding Humanae Vitae," Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader [Ignatius Press 1993], p. 309) (hereafter "Smith"). She notes that the word is usually translated "as 'role', 'task', 'mission', 'ministry', and 'apostolate' and at times seems interchangeable with them" (Smith, p. 309).
She documents that the word "munus" is used to refer to Christ's mission as priest, prophet, and king, to Mary's mission, to the mission of Peter and his papal successors, to the mission of the other bishops, and to the mission of the laity (Smith, pp. 309-310). Clearly, the idea of "munus" applies to those lay persons who live the consecrated religious life.
She also notes that Vatican II's Gaudium et spes makes repeated mention of the "munus of spouses, which is the munus of parenthood" (Smith, pp. 310-311, quoting Gaudium et spes, 50).
If we look as marriage as a mission in the sense set forth in these Church documents, we can see marriage in the Church as entry into another form of consecrated life for lay people. We are accustomed to expect and view that those entering religious orders are entering a life of sacrifice, not of infatuation and self-gratification. Not surprisingly, few in our culture are willing to enter the religious life. Yet, I suggest that we would all be better off if we started to look at marriage as a sacrificial mission, rather than one long exercise in self-gratification.
In Ephesians 5, St. Paul presents the sacrificial mission of marriage parallel to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross:
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. . . . . Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Eph. 5:21-22, 5-27 (RSV).
Clearly, the husband is called to take up his cross. But so is the wife because both are called to "be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ." That Christ is the crucified Christ.
What would be the impact when in a marriage ceremony the priest hands a crucifix to the new married couple as a sign of their mission in marriage? What if wedding bands were inscribed with the initials "INRI" that you find at the top of most crucifixes? It would be a powerful and wise message that the couple has entered a vocation of sacrifice for each other and for their future children. It would open the eyes of many in a strikingly tangible way to the truth that Catholic marriage is not the Russian roulette of unstable emotions and infatuation that is conventionally practiced, but rather consecration to a sacrificial mission. In that sacrificial mission, there is the joy and power of the Resurrection and of marital union, but the way to the Resurrection is through taking up the cross. In this way, the wedding band becomes a sign of a consecrated life of sacrifice, not a disposable trapping of a consumer culture always looking for the most compatible "partner."
Update: Julian David at Aranda weblog brings to my attention that the idea of mutual submission of husband and wife found by many in Ephesians 5:21, including John Paul II and the commentators of the Navarre Bible, could be construed as a misinterpretation because this idea is viewed by some as inconsistent with the husband as head of the family. For the record, the above essay never addressed the question of who is the head of the family. I certainly agree that Ephesians 5:23 clearly indicates that the husband is the head of the family, as Christ is the head of the Church.
The idea of husband and wife being "subject to one another" I take as referrring to the husband, who, although the head of the family, sacrifices for the sake of wife and family. In other words, being husband and holding authority in the family is a sacrifice by the husband because it entails a permanent commitment to another flawed human being. In an analogous way, Christ (though, of course, unlike the husband in that Christ is perfect) became "subject" to and a servant to flawed humanity by emptying Himself and undergoing the humiliation of the cross, although He is always Lord and Ruler (cp. Phil. 2:5, 6). I also use the reference to being "subject to one another" as indicating that the wife is also to sacrifice for her husband. So, in my view, Ephesians 5:21 is talking about "mutual sacrifice," not about the husband being under the authority of the wife. Christian leadership as servanthood includes such sacrifice. The leader subjects himself to those he leads, however flawed, through sacrifice, in imitation of Christ in the washing of the feet and on the cross. Given our flawed human nature, this idea of servant-leadership has never been a "fashionable" view. It is this idea of sacrifice that is uppermost when the Pope and orthodox commentators such as those in the Navarre Bible, sponsored by Opus Dei's University of Navarre in Spain, speak of mutual submission.
Tuesday, September 23, 2003Religious Habits and Barriers
It is certainly noticeable that many American religious orders for women have adopted a policy of not wearing a traditional habit. Now, there are many fine and holy women religious who follow this policy. I am in no way taking aim at them or questioning their vocations. But I am taking aim at the attitude that the habit is an out-of-date relic that is best abandoned. In a Church with a plurality of charisms, it is not surprising that religious orders will differ as to their views on the traditional habit. As long as each order is still committed to following Christ in accordance with the teachings of the Church, there appears no reason to be alarmed at this diversity.
But diversity of charism is a matter of reciprocity. As those who prefer the traditional habit have had to learn to accept changes, so those who espouse the more "modern" look must be careful to respect those religious orders and those individual Catholics, such as myself, who still see great value in the tangible witness of the traditional religious habit. One justification for not using the traditional habit claims that the garb creates a "barrier" between the consecrated woman and those she seeks to serve. Well, with all due respect, there are quite persuasive grounds to disagree charitably with that contention.
First, let us look at real life situations of service. When a physician or nurse dressed in distinctive medical garb works in a hospital, office, or in the field, the garb actually removes the barrier and facilitates the service. Everyone, including especially those in need of medical help, know immediately who is coming to their aid. The same goes for the policeman or fireman. People in need immediately recognize that aid has arrived. Likewise, someone in need, whether a homeless person or a child needing medical care or tutoring, immediately knows who is coming to their aid when the religious is clothed in the habit. The habit instantly discloses the core of the consecrated person's identity and thereby wonderfully facilitates communication and personal communion, the exact opposite effect of a barrier.
Second, there is what I call the tangible silent witness. Intrinsic to the Catholic ethos is the sacramental aspect in which God's presence works through physical matter. The religious habit testifies to consecration to God, to a vocation for holiness. In my view, it is as much a "sacramental" as a rosary or a prayer card. So in Catholicism, it seems essential that there should always be women religious who choose to use the habit as a sacramental. It is a distinct and essential aspect of lived Catholicism.
Third, when in the above situations someone is approaching a person in need or is simply silently and tangibly testifying to her consecration, there is a profound theological message. This service is not simply that of a social worker or of a decent and good person. This life is not just that of any other Catholic layperson. This service and this life is that of someone radically committed in her concrete lifestyle to the example of Jesus Christ. The profound theological message is that this garbed religious is coming as Jesus Christ came: totally committed to service, rather than to the typical lifestyle of ownership, marriage, and career.
So, in my view, there is no barrier created by a religious habit. It is not a barrier, but a sign that communicates immediately and effectively the identity of the person coming to serve one in need. As such, those who view it as a barrier should refine their views. The idea of a religious habit as a barrier does not appear convincing, at least to me. Yet, I respect and appreciate those consecrated women who choose not to wear the religious habit. Those who prefer not to use or see religious habits should likewise respect and take seriously those of us with other views, especially since the Church favors the religious habit.
Here is an excerpt from John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation on the Consecrated Life:
The Church must always seek to make her presence visible in everyday life, especially in contemporary culture, which is often very secularized and yet sensitive to the language of signs. In this regard the Church has a right to expect a significant contribution from consecrated persons, called as they are in every situation to bear clear witness that they belong to Christ. Since the habit is a sign of consecration, poverty and membership in a particular Religious family, I join the Fathers of the Synod in strongly recommending to men and women religious that they wear their proper habit, suitably adapted to the conditions of time and place. Where valid reasons of their apostolate call for it, Religious, in conformity with the norms of their Institute, may also dress in a simple and modest manner, with an appropriate symbol, in such a way that their consecration is recognizable. Institutes which from their origin or by provision of their Constitutions do not have a specific habit should ensure that the dress of their members corresponds in dignity and simplicity to the nature of their vocation.
John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata (25 March 1996) (emphasis added) (available at Vatican website).
I submit that the idea of the religious habit being a "barrier" is alien to the mind of the Pope and of those who participated in the Synod on consecrated life.
Monday, September 22, 2003A Sign of Catholic Rejuvenation
In traveling in northern Michigan, I attended Mass at a local church in a quasi-rural area. The church appeared to be, from all indications, newly constructed or radically and recently remodeled. The church was quite crowded. The priest-celebrant was young and articulate and spoke without hesitation or long pauses. When you are walking into a new church you have never attended before, it is natural to take in the interior. What I saw is a sign of Catholic rejuvenation. I am not using the tired word "renewal." I prefer rejuvenation because it literally means becoming "young again."
Here, in what to all appearances was a newly constructed or radically renovated church, there was a towering crucifix affixed to the wall behind the altar. The tabernacle containing Jesus was on a high altar directly beneath the crucifix, against the back wall. Another altar was in the center of the sanctuary area for the actual celebration of Mass. This was not an older church that had been marginally adapted or slightly remodeled. From all indications, it was intentionally designed quite recently to have the tabernacle and its altar at the center of the sanctuary. The message was clear: Jesus is the focus of this assembly, not the personality of the "presider."
In an unobtrusive yet central way, there were statues of the Holy Family, of St. Therese, of the Infant Jesus of Prague, among others, all taking their appropriate places without clutter or confusion. My guess is that the pews, the stained glass, and apparently the stations of the cross, were salvaged from the original, smaller and older church which appeared to stand across the street.
As you entered the vestibule, a prominently framed papal blessing from John Paul II hung on the wall. Across from it, was a framed picture of a statue of Our Lady.
The liturgy included some "modern" Catholic music that we have all become accustomed to. After communion, the congregation recited the Hail Mary. The final blessing was in Latin. All of the rest of the preceding Mass was in English.
From the announcements and prayers and simple observation, it was clear that the church was in the middle of a building campaign. The emphasis was on growth. A prominent announcement was a weekly series of gatherings of all mothers in the parish to hear speakers on the theme of motherhood and Mary.
This was a crowded church, with all age groups present. From the bulletin, it appeared that the weekly collections were in the range of $7,000 per week.
What I saw was order, reverence, devotion, without any straining or artificiality. I saw piety that was neither exaggerated nor melodramatic. I saw Catholic balance. I saw what for 25 years the Pope has labored to bring about: a reverent liturgy inclusive of all elements of the Catholic tradition, fully intelligible to all present. In a time when "inclusive" is a much abused word that fully deserves our suspicion, here was an experience of authentic inclusivity, of genuine "catholicism," which encompasses in universal fashion all the elements of the tradition without exaggeration or extremism. The genius of Catholicism is that it preserves in full all of the elements of the Christian tradition and refuses the Protestant temptation to accent one aspect of the Christian revelation at the expense of all other aspects.
Here in a remote corner of a northern state (not in a stereotypically conservative state like Texas), I saw a growing and vibrant church that was Marian, reverent, papal, Eucharistically centered, and which appreciated the spiritual timelessness of our Latin heritage. The woefully misinterpreted fathers of Vatican II would be delighted with this balance, not a balance of mediocrity but an Aristotelian balance that is qualitatively excellent. The liberals who have given us so much irreverence and confusion in the endless "protestantizing" of the liturgy would be dumbfounded at how young timeless Catholic tradition is. As the liberals grow old, the tradition grows younger.