Some Basics of Christian Anthropology and How They Speak to Moral Issues of our Day (Part 2)

Note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.

At its root, anthropology considers what human beings are and how they have interacted with one another and the world around them over time. While many think of anthropology as a secular study of cultures from ancient to modern day, I propose that there is also a Christian anthropology, one that considers who and what the human person is based on God’s revelation in His word and through our bodies. Indeed, our body is a revelation from God, and by and through it He teaches us.

This essay (consisting of both today’s and yesterday’s posts) is not a complete discourse on the topic. Rather, I selected certain teachings rooted in Scripture and the nature of our bodies that apply particularly well to moral issues of our day. In yesterday’s post we considered a few basic points; today we conclude with a few more.

Each human being exists because of a sovereign, loving act of God.

It is a biological fact that a unique human being comes into existence at the moment of conception. The DNA in that single-cell embryo contains all the instructions needed for it to develop, over the next twenty years or so, into an adult.

However, Scripture indicates that although we come to exist at a specific moment in time, God has always known and loved us: The word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you’ (Jer 1:4-5). Scripture also praises God saying, For You formed my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13-14). Hence, each of us is specifically intended by God.

This makes every human life sacred. No form of unjust killing can be justified under any circumstances. Each of us is the result not merely of biological processes or human decisions but a sovereign, loving act of God. Our lives come from God and belong to Him. Therefore, abortion, murder, and suicide (including physician-assisted) are grave evils that we must combat. Even capital punishment must be opposed except in rare cases.

Our body is not our own.

A common assertion today is we can do whatever we like with “our own body.” However, Scripture reminds us, You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, glorify God with your body (1 Cor 6:19-20). Yes, Jesus redeemed us; He purchased our salvation at the price of His own blood and His own life!

Hence, our bodies are not tools to simply use as we please. Neither are they canvases on which to display tattoos, cuttings, piercings, and the like. We are not to degrade them by using them for excessive or illicit pleasures or to lure others into sin. I do not wish to divert this post into a debate about tattooing and piercing. While such things are not wholly excluded by Church law or Scripture, anything that deliberately, dramatically alters the appearance of the body we received from God is surely problematic. (The nearly permanent quality of such alterations is also concerning.) Such excesses are far too common today, at least in the U.S.

Because our bodies belong to God, we should ask ourselves, “Is God pleased with the way I regard, treat, and make use of the body He has given me?”

There is a nuptial meaning to the body.

We do not exist by ourselves nor only for ourselves. We are contingent beings and, as such, depend on our parents for our existence. Although we exist for our own sake and thus have intrinsic worth, we also exist for others. Our very body speaks to the most fundamental relationships of marriage and family. Simply put, there is a part of our body that is for another. The male and female reproductive organs are designed for each other. This is biologically evident, though sadly some have lost their way and refuse to acknowledge it.

The denial of the purpose of our body’s reproductive organs is manifest in the approval of homosexual practices that “close the sexual act to the gift of life [and] do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity” (CCC # 2357). It is also manifest in certain heterosexual practices that close the sexual act to the fruit of life and/or use the sexual organs in disordered ways, ways in which they were not intended to be used.

To restate, there is a nuptial meaning to the body. Our body says to us, “I am for another.” Most of humanity realizes this truth through monogamous marriage. A man leaves his father and mother, seeks a wife, clings to her, and the two become one flesh (cf Gen 2:24). Thus, through the husband and wife, completing and complementing each other, a new member of the human family is created. This is the most common realization of the nuptial meaning of the body.

For priests and for religious brothers and sisters who live celibate lives, the nuptial meaning of the body is realized in a spiritual but real way. Religious sisters are espoused to the Lord, the bridegroom of their souls. Priests and religious brothers take up a spousal relationship with the Church, the bride of their souls. Priests and brothers are not bachelors nor are sisters “single women.” No, each lives in a spousal relationship.

What about members of the laity who never marry? Here, I would argue, a distinction must be made. Because there is a nuptial meaning to the body, there is no vocation to the single life per se. However, those who are currently single (including those who may remain that way permanently), may by that state be available to serve the Lord and the Church or community in a more substantial way. For such individuals, the nuptial meaning of the body is expressed through that vocational service.

Marriage has its structure because children both need and deserve the stable presence of their father and mother in their lives.

God did not design marriage arbitrarily. He set it forth as one man for one woman till death do them part, bearing fruit in their children (see Genesis 2:24-25). He did this because that is what is necessary and best for children. Marriage by its nature is oriented to having children. The Lord’s first command to Adam and Eve was, Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:28).

Obviously, there must be a father and a mother for a child to exist at all, but beyond the conception of children there is the necessary work of raising them. Children need to have their parents reliably present in their everyday lives so that they can depend on them and trust them. Further, a child needs a father to learn the masculine genius of being human and a mother to learn the feminine genius of being human. This is necessary for the proper and best human formation—psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally. Even an unbeliever should be able to see this. The structure of marriage is not an arbitrary arrangement by God for us to toy with at will.

Sadly, we have done just that. We casually separate what God has joined. God intends for children to be conceived in the sexual union of a husband and wife pledged to each other for life. Having sex and having children are inextricably linked to Holy Matrimony, yet today we have largely separated them. As a result of minimizing the relationship between sex and marriage, there are many marriages without children (by choice) and many children without parents married to each other. We do this through sins and misbehavior such as fornication, adultery, divorce and “remarriage.” The current practice of refusing to favor a married heterosexual couple over a single mother, a single father, or a same-sex couple when placing a child for adoption also severs what God has joined. As a result of all these things, fewer than half of children today grow up in a traditional family.

While children might lose their mother or father through death, to intentionally subject them to anything other than being raised by their own parents is a grave injustice.

The common objection to this teaching is this: “Are you saying that a single mother, a single father, or a homosexual couple cannot raise a child just as well as a married (heterosexual) couple?” The answer is, “Yes, that is exactly what we are saying,” for all the reasons stated above. Some will respond with horror stories that occurred with this or that traditional couple, but atypical occurrences do not alter general norms, and “hard cases make bad law.”

God intends sex, marriage, and children to go together. Having sex naturally leads to having children; this is biologically demonstrable.

Sex, intimacy, and procreation belong together and should not be separated.

Contraception, the artificial prevention of conception that naturally results from human sexual intercourse, is an attempt to sever the connection between sexual relations and having children. Even if not every act of sexual intercourse can result in a child, the bodily truth is that sexual intercourse is directed toward having children. That sex is also pleasurable and may be a sign of love and intimacy does not set aside this point. God joins pleasures to the things that are most necessary for us so that we do not neglect them. For example, the purpose of eating food is to nourish the body. It is also true that eating is pleasurable and sharing meals promotes camaraderie. This does not, however, mean that the primary purpose of food is something other than bodily nourishment. God joins pleasure to food because eating is necessary for our survival, thus they are to be together, not separated.

As an analogy, consider a person who was not particularly interested in the nutritional aspect of food, but rather just liked the pleasure of eating and/or keeping company at feasts. As a result, he would eat and drink to excess, vomit it all up, and then return for more. We all wince at such a horror. This is because eating has a purpose that is being trampled upon in favor of lesser aspects. The proper end, bodily nourishment, is subverted when a person eats to excess and merely for pleasure.

This is precisely what contraception does when it severs the relationship between sex, intimacy, and procreation. We would be similarly aghast at a couple who had sex without any love between them, merely for the purpose of making babies for profit (e.g. selling them for adoption or for use as laborers). This makes the same point: sex, intimacy, and procreation belong together and should not be divided as separate pursuits. Every child deserves to be the fruit of the intimacy and shared love of a stably married father and mother.

Contraception facilitates the violation of the norm Let no one separate what God his joined (see Matt 19:6). The legalization of contraception in the U.S. has led to the explosion of promiscuity and all of the accompanying woes, including sexually transmitted diseases, teenage parents, children raised in single-parent households, and the horror of abortion, which has become the “contraception of last resort.” All of this has gravely harmed or even killed millions of children. Some argue that it is perfectly fine to separate the procreative dimension of sex from its pleasure or its promotion of intimacy, but in separating what God has joined we have reaped a harvest of misery and death. Contraception promotes the exaltation of the pleasure and intimacy of sexual intercourse unmoored from its purpose: the serious business of having and then raising children within a stable marriage. The worship of pleasure and intimacy unmoored from their purpose has led to the unbridled lust we see today.

There will always be more to say about Christian anthropology, but allow the points made in today’s and yesterday’s posts to paint the bigger picture: God has set forth an understanding of the human person both in Scripture and through our very body and soul. We do well to take heed of what He teaches.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Basics of Christian Anthropology (part 2 of 2)

Basics of Christian Anthropology (part 1 of 2)

Creation of Adam – Michelangelo Buonarroti (1510)

Anthropology is, most simply, the science or study of human beings through time and space. Different specialties focus on the analysis of biological/physiological characteristics and the examination of societies/cultures. In the religious sense, anthropology deals with the origin, nature, and destiny of human beings.

In our times there are many moral issues emerging from viewpoints that diverge widely from our given nature, both physical and spiritual. Numerous false notions (e.g., “transgenderism”) have arisen that either disregard or even deny physical data. Other errors involve ignoring the clear evidence of humans’ spiritual nature, which so distinguishes us from animals.

A Christian/biblical anthropology, however, sees the created order—and the human body in particular—as revelatory. The body is not just accidentally or incidentally present. No, the body is a revelation because through it, God speaks to us of who and what we are and what we ought to do. To this revelatory quality of the body God adds His own words in Scripture, leading to the emergence of a Christian anthropology.

In this essay I would like to review certain aspects of this Christian anthropology. This is by no means a complete or systematic treatise. Rather, it touches on certain key points that address modern errors. The order of these observations is not a perfect progression, but I have tried to progress from basic to more complex points.

We are the union of a body and a spiritual soul.

We are not merely our body nor are we merely our soul. We are the union of the two. Gnostic and dualistic anthropologies seek to divide body and soul or to indicate that a person is only his body or only his soul. Although we can distinguish body and soul intellectually, in reality they are so together as to be one. It is much like the flame from a candle. Although one can distinguish the light of the flame from its heat, one cannot put the heat over here and the light over there. They are so together as to be one. It is like this with our body and soul.

What is the soul?

On one level the soul is the animating principle of any living thing. Hence, even plants and animals have souls. The soul is related to the mysterious principle we call life. Although we casually use words like “life,” “death,” “living,” and “dead,” life is a mysterious reality. Imagine that in one hand I hold and acorn and in the other a stone. From a great distance they may even look alike. However, the acorn has the mysterious spark we call life while the stone does not. If I plant each in the ground and water the area, the acorn responds: first a shoot emerges and eventually a mighty oak tree. In contrast, the rock will do nothing no matter how long I wait; it does not have the mysterious spark called life. Neither does it have the animating principle we call the soul.

If the mysterious quality called life is taken away, the plant, animal, or human “dies.” Because the life that organized him/her/it is gone, the body or what is left falls into disorganization and decay. The force we call “life” and what we call the “soul,” are deeply mysterious.

What makes the human soul unique?

The human soul is different from that of animals and/or plants in that it is a spiritual soul. Scripture says of man, In the image of God He created them (Gen 1:27). It also says, Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed the breath of life into [Adam’s] nostrils, and the man became a living being (Gen 2:7). To no other creatures are such attributions made. To say that we have a spiritual soul, that we have the breath of God within us and are made in His image, is to say that we have intellect and free will. It is our dignity to unite two orders of creation, the material and the spiritual, in our one person. Angels are pure spirit. Animals, though possessed of a soul (an animating principle), have no spirit and are thus material. Humans, however, unite the spiritual and the material. This is our glory and it is the central reason why our body will rise one day, gloriously transformed, and be restored to our spirit.

Sadly, there is a tendency today to equate humans with animals. Some say that humans are merely smart apes and that there are other creatures (e.g., dolphins) just as intelligent as we are. This is demonstrably false. You will know something by its fruits; you can see a cause by its effects. Humans are vastly different from all the other animals, even the highest primates, and this is evident in the effects we produce. While our bodies resemble other animals (especially mammals) in many ways, the similarity ends there. If the animals are just like us, where are their cities and farms? Where are their universities, libraries, and museums? Where is their art, their literature? Where are their legislatures where they pass laws or their courts where they hold one another accountable? Have they traveled to the moon and back? Have they learned and then handed on their knowledge to later generations? Where is their technological progress—or any progress at all, for that matter? Why are animals really no different than they were thousands of years ago?

Clearly there is a vast difference between human beings and other animals. This can be seen in the way we live and what we do, and in what they do not do.

Morally speaking, reducing humans to the state of animals not only robs us of our dignity but also our freedom, because it says that we are merely at the whim of instinct.

A common error today regarding the unity of body and spiritual soul is claiming that one is not one’s body but rather only one’s thoughts and feelings.

This is common among proponents of transgender and/or homosexual ideology. A certain man might say, “I am actually a woman.” A normally observant person would likely retort, “No, your body indicates that you are a man.” Yet, in transgender ideology, that observation is dismissed by saying, in effect, “I am not my body. My body has nothing to do with what or who I really am. I am my thoughts and feelings.” This amounts to a denial that our bodies are revelatory.

In homosexual ideology a similar error is encountered. A biological assessment makes it clear that the male and female reproductive organs are designed for each other. Further, an exit is not an entrance. Here, too, they dismiss the body as being of no relevance. This is pure Gnostic dualism: the body is of no account; one is only spirit, only thoughts and feelings. In such a world, what matters are intentions and thoughts; what the body teaches or indicates is of little account. This is an error because it dismisses the reality that the body presents to us.

The opposing but equally untrue claim is that one is only one’s body.

This is materialism and it denies the existence of soul. In this view, a person is merely a collection of chemicals and interactions between them. We only do what the chemicals and nerves “tell us” to do. We have no spirit and thus no free will. Because human behavior is said to be merely the result of physical interactions over which we have no control, there is no such thing as right or wrong. The absurdity of such a claim can be illustrated in this way:

Materialist: “You are just matter, a mere bag of chemicals.”

Believer: “I think that is dead wrong and an unfounded claim.”

(The materialist then becomes angry at the believer’s refusal to accept his claim.)

Believer: “Why are you angry? I am just a bag of chemicals and my behavior is just the result of the random firing of synapses. I am only saying and doing what those forces are making me say and do. Hence, I am not a responsible agent and your anger is unfounded.”

Obviously, the notion of right and wrong and of being accountable for our actions only makes sense if we have a spiritual soul that is able to rise above the effects of chemical reactions or nerve impulses.

We come in (only) two kinds.

In the creation of the human person, God says, So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Gen 1:27). There are not dozens of different sexes/genders, as some assert. In fact, until recently, the word “gender” was used almost exclusively as a grammatical term (in some languages, nouns, adjectives, verbs, and/or pronouns have a gender) while the word “sex” referred to the classification of organisms as either male or female. (If you doubt me, look in a dictionary that was published any time prior to the last ten years or so.)

Yes, we are either male or female, and it is God who designates this and creates it. Our bodies reveal to us our sex, as designated by God. There is no need for a lengthy study of this matter; it is quite evident from a simple look at the body.

Some object that there are people born with both genitalia or who are ambiguously equipped, but the existence of such abnormalities does not indicate that there is a third (or fourth or more) sex. It does not follow that every anomaly indicates a different kind of human being. For example, some babies are born missing an arm; from this we do not conclude that there are two different sorts of human beings, those with two arms and those with one.

Therefore, given God’s teaching that we are either male or female, any acceptance of “transgender” ideology is inimical to Christian anthropology. It rejects what God has revealed to us in our bodies and what He teaches us in His written word. We must refute claims that there are more than two sexes/genders and insist that people accept the reality of what God has done. There is no such thing as a female “trapped in a male body” or vice versa. Neither can one “transition” so as to “be” the opposite sex. No matter how many surgeries one endures or how many hormones one takes, no matter what sort of clothing one wears, one’s sex cannot be changed. It is written in every cell of the body. One does not simply declare one’s sex nor can one change it. No, each person must humbly accept his or her sex from God, who is Creator and Lord.

In tomorrow’s post we will look at some other principles of Christian anthropology and relate them to errors of our day.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Basics of Christian Anthropology (part 1 of 2)

All God’s Children and Nothing Greater

We often get anxious about rather petty notions related to our ranking relative to one another. On this topic, the Lord teaches an important lesson in the Gospel of Luke:

An argument arose among the disciples about which of them was the greatest.
Jesus realized the intention of their hearts and took a child and placed him by his side and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest” (Luke 9:46-48).

It is a simple lesson, really, so simple that we usually miss it altogether. The lesson is this: for all our exalted titles, honors, and distinctions, at the end of the day our greatest title is “Beloved Son (Daughter) of God.”

Jesus stands this little child in their midst. To them who would boast of their exalted status and argue about who was the greatest, Jesus demonstrates that this is how he sees them all. What makes them great is simply their status as his beloved little children.

This child is the true picture of greatness, not some big cheese with a big hat. To be humble and to recognize the dignity of humility is to see and experience Jesus.

So much for their debate about who was greatest!

We Catholics, and especially we Catholic Clergy, love our distinctions and honorifics: Excellency, Eminence, Your Grace, Your Holiness, Pontifex Maximus, Reverend, Very Reverend, Right Reverend, Reverend Father … you name it, we’ve got it.

My own full title, given my status as Dean, is this:

The Very Reverend Monsignor Charles Evans Pope, M. Div., M.A.

(You might want to add “Big Mouth Blogger” to that, too!)

Do you want to know what God calls me? “Carlito” (Little Charlie). Whatever “exalted” status I attain, to God I am just a little kid that He dare not let out of his sight lest I run into trouble. Whatever my titles (and I am grateful for every bit of graciousness extended to me), I am no more baptized than any other Christian, and my greatest title is “Child of God.”

The Pope has authority, is deserving of our respect, and rightly has titles accorded him—but he is no more baptized than you or I. Before God each one of us is accorded this highest dignity: God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved (cf Col 3:19). We are just his little children. This is our greatest dignity, our greatest title.

Why, you may ask, do I say, “little children”? Because Jesus did, not only in this Gospel, but elsewhere as well. There is a tender moment when, after His resurrection, the Lord Jesus stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and called out to grown men: “Little children, have you caught anything?” The Greek word used is Παιδία (padia) meaning little children or infants. While this diminutive is surely used affectionately, there is little doubt that this is how God sees us.

We easily forget our beloved status before God and devolve into debates about our relative status here. We argue about who is the greatest, who gets to do what, who gets which honors, etc. We debate about roles: why women can’t be priests, who is the head of the household, what leadership positions are open to whom, etc.

Setting aside our greatest dignity, we focus on lesser distinctions.

To be sure there are distinctions and offices, some (not all) of them from God. Scripture says,

And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts (1 Cor 12:28-31).

Whatever our distinctions, even those from God Himself, they do not affect our dignity, for our dignity is something we all have by baptism. Before any other title, role, or honor, our greatest title and dignity is “Child of God and member of the Body of Christ.”

Scripture says this regarding our dignity:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Here there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:26-29).

St. Paul is not denying distinctions. For example, there is of course male and female, but distinctions do not overrule our common, fundamental dignity: Child of God.

Do we really understand this? Too often, no. In an instant, we’re back to our debates about who is the greatest, who gets to do what, who is in charge, etc.

St. Augustine beautifully underscored how distinctions do not affect dignity when he said, For you I am a bishop, with you I am a Christian. I have sometimes used this idea when speaking to my own parishioners, saying, “For you I am your pastor, with you I am your brother, and from you I am your son.”

Distinctions should not be confused with dignity. Our greatest dignity, our greatest title, is something we all share, something given us by God not by man: “Child of God.” It is your greatest title.

I’ll conclude with this humorous story:

One day, a powerful and influential Cardinal Archbishop of a large city was in Jerusalem strolling with his priest secretary in the market. He came upon a vendor, who cried out, “You, sir! Come here and I’ll give you a fair deal!” The secretary, annoyed at the vendor’s use of the lesser title “sir” said to him, “Do you know who this is?” “No,” replied the vendor. The priest said, “This is His Eminence Cardinal Archbishop so-and-so.” “Really?” replied the vendor, “Well, I’ll still give you a fair deal!”

Our distinctions do not affect our fundamental dignity.

Here is how God sees us:

Labor Day Reflection: We Need One Another to Survive

Labor Day makes me mindful of our interconnectedness; we need one another in order to survive. Consider how we are each called to contribute as well as how we benefit from the labor of others:

Even that simple can of corn you pull from the grocery store shelf has thousands of people standing behind it: from those who stock the shelves to the truckers who transport the product to the store; from the regional warehouse workers to the rail operators who supply the warehouse; from the farmers and harvesters to the granary workers. Then there are others such as those who supply fertilizers that aid in growth and those who developed innumerable agricultural technologies over the years. People also labored to build the roads and rails over which the products travel. Others supply fuel for the trucks, combines, and locomotives. Coal miners work hard to supply the electricity needed all along the way. Still others in banking and business take risks and supply the funds to run agricultural, transportation, and food distribution businesses and networks. The list of people who have worked so that you and I can buy that can of corn at the store is almost endless.

Thanks be to God for human labor; we help each other to survive!

As today is Labor Day in the United States, it seems good to reflect on some teachings about human labor from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). In the list below, the text from the catechism is italicized while my comments appear in plain red text.

1. Human labor precedes Original Sin and hence is not an imposition due to sin but rather part of our original dignity.

God places [Man] in the garden. There he lives “to till it and keep it.” Work is not yet a burden, but rather the collaboration of man and woman with God in perfecting the visible creation (CCC #378).

Note that our dignity is that we are to work with God to perfect creation. Adam and Eve were told by God to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:28). Radical environmentalism often presents a far more negative view of humanity’s interaction with the environment. While we have not always done well in treating the environment, it is wrong to think of the created world as better without humanity’s presence. Rather, it is our dignity to work with God in perfecting nature. Note also the description of work as not burdensome prior to the advent of sin. Man and woman did have work to do, but it was not experienced as a burden. Only after Original Sin did work come to be perceived in this way: Eve would bring forth her children in pain and Adam would only get his food by the “sweat of his brow” (Gen 3:16, 19).

2. Human work is a duty and prolongs the work of creation.

Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” [2 Thess 3:10]. Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him (CCC #2427).

See again the emphasis on our dignity as collaborators with God in the work of creation and in perfecting what God has begun! Not everyone can work in the same way. Age and handicap may limit a person’s ability to perform manual labor. Further, talents and state in life tend to focus one’s work in specific areas. All, however, are called to work in some way. Even the bedridden can pray and offer their suffering for the good of others.

3. Work can be sanctifying and redemptive.

[Work] can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ (CCC #2427).

In his mercy God has not forsaken sinful man. The punishments consequent upon sin, “pain in childbearing” and toil “in the sweat of your brow,” also embody remedies that limit the damaging effects of sin (CCC # 1609).

Sin has brought upon us many weaknesses and selfish tendencies. Work can serve as a remedy through which we are strengthened unto discipline, contribution to the common good, and cooperation with others in attaining good ends.

4. Work is an acceptable sacrifice to God.

[The] laity, dedicated as they are to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and prepared so that even richer fruits of the Spirit maybe produced in them. For all their works, prayers, and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit—indeed even the hardships of life if patiently borne—all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. In the celebration of the Eucharist these may most fittingly be offered to the Father along with the body of the Lord (CCC # 901).

5. To work is to participate in the common good.

Participation [in the common good] is achieved first of all by taking charge of the areas for which one assumes personal responsibility: by the care taken for the education of his family, by conscientious work, and so forth, man participates in the good of others and of society (CCC # 1914).

We work not only to benefit ourselves but also to contribute to the good of others and society in general. We do this first by caring for our own needs to the extent possible, thus not burdening others unnecessarily. We also contribute to the common good by supplying our talent and work in such a way as to contribute to the overall availability of goods and services in the community. We supply our human talent and the fruits of our labor to others, while at the same time purchasing the goods and services of others.

The key word seems to be “dignity.” Human work proceeds from our dignity as collaborators with God in perfecting and completing the work of creation. Everyone can work and should do so in the ways possible for him or her, not merely out of a sense of duty but also because it is the essence of dignity.

To return to our opening theme, here are some lyrics from the song “I Need You to Survive”:

I need you, you need me.

It is God’s will that every need be supplied.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.

Two Stories About Detachment

It is common to think of detachment as something the poor easily have and the rich seldom have. Whatever the statistics on detachment as related to wealth, it is certainly true that there are some poor folks who are greedy attached to this world’s riches, while there are some rich people who are quite generous and unattached to the possessions their wealth affords.

Two stories come to mind. I do not recall the sources, and I have likely adapted them over the years. They speak to the difficulty of maintaining a healthy detachment from material wealth regardless of one’s financial health.

A wandering monk moved about preaching. He owned only the clothing on his back and, strangely, a golden begging bowl, gifted to him by a benefactor who was also his disciple. One night as he was about to lie down among the ruins of an ancient monastery he spied a thief, lurking among the columns. “Here, take this,” he said, handing the golden begging bowl to the thief. “That way you won’t disturb me once I have fallen asleep.” The thief eagerly took the bowl and ran off. But the next morning he returned, saying, “You have made me feel poor, giving me the bowl so freely. Teach me to acquire the riches that make this sort of lighthearted detachment possible.”

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Among the wandering shepherds was a leader who lived in riches, with luxurious tents, surrounded by servants. So lavish was his wealth that his tent pegs, driven in the ground, were made of solid gold. A poorer shepherd came by one day with his wooden begging bowl, cracked and warped. Seeing such wealth, he begged from the wealthy man but also upbraided him for such conspicuous wealth. Nevertheless, the wealthy man welcomed him, served him a fine meal, and permitted him to rest in his expansive tents. Early the next day the wealthy man said to the poorer one, “Come, let us go up to Jerusalem.” Staff in hand, the wealthy man left his wealth and luxury behind without a thought or care. A short way into the journey the poor man realized that he had left his wooden begging bowl behind and wanted to go back and get it. But the rich man said, “I left all my wealth behind without care or worry. Yet you are so attached to a cup of little or no worth that you cannot go up to Jerusalem without it. You upbraided me for my wealth, but I want to assure you, the golden tent pegs to which you objected were driven into the earth, not into my heart.”

Yes, detachment is ultimately a matter of the heart. It is not wrong to enjoy the good things of life, but too often they possess us, and we come rely on them so heavily that we cannot imagine living without them. We who live in these times of widespread comfort sometimes discover that we lack the freedom to live without them. Further, though surrounded by abundance, we see to be more fearful, not less. Though this age is filled with luxuries and creature comforts, we seem more anxious than ever; we just have too much to lose. The tent pegs that belong in the earth are so often driven into our heart.

St. Paul describes the grace we should seek:

I have learned to be content regardless of my circumstances. I know how to live humbly, and I know how to abound. I am accustomed to any and every situation—to being filled and being hungry, to having plenty and having need. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength (Phil 4:11-13).

Without this grace, it is clear how quickly our hearts enter bondage and we go astray. Help us, Lord, to enjoy what you have given but not so much that it becomes a substitute for you. May trust and gratitude be our guide to detachment.

 

Two Teachings on Discipleship from Jesus

In the Gospel for today (Monday of the 13thWeek of the Year) Jesus gives two teachings on discipleship. They are not easy, and they challenge us—especially those of us who live in the affluent West.

Poverty– The text says, As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Here is a critical discipline of discipleship: following Jesus even if worldly gain not only eludes us but is outright taken from us.Do you love the consolations of God or the God of all consolation? Do you seek the gifts of God, or the Giver of every good and perfect gift? What if following Jesus gives you no earthly gain? What if being a disciple brings you ridicule, loss, prison, or even death? Would you still follow Him? Would you still be a disciple?

In this verse, the potential disciple of Jesus seems to have had power, prestige, or worldly gain in mind. Perhaps he saw Jesus as a political messiah and wanted to get on the “inside track.” Jesus warns him that this is not what discipleship is about. The Son of Man’s kingdom is not of this world.

We need to heed Jesus’ warning. Riches are actually a great danger. Not only do they not help us in what we really need, they can actually hinder us! Poverty is the not the worst thing. There’s a risk in riches, a peril in prosperity, and a worry in wealth.

The Lord Jesus points to poverty and powerlessness (in worldly matters) when it comes to being disciples. This is not merely a remote possibility or an abstraction. If we live as true disciples, we are going to find that piles of wealth are seldom our lot. Why? Well, our lack of wealth comes from the fact that if we are true disciples, we won’t make easy compromises with sin or evil. We won’t take just any job. We won’t be ruthless in the workplace or deal with people unscrupulously. We won’t lie on our resumes, cheat on our taxes, or take easy and sinful shortcuts. We will observe the Sabbath, be generous to the poor, pay a just wage, provide necessary benefits to workers, and observe the tithe. The world hands out (temporary) rewards if we do these sorts of things, but true disciples refuse such compromises with evil. In so doing, they reject the temporary rewards of this earth and may thus have a less comfortable place to lay their head. They may not get every promotion and they may not become powerful.

Thus “poverty” is a discipline of discipleship.What is “poverty”? It is freedom from the snares of power, popularity, and possessions.

Jesus had nowhere to rest his head. Now that is poor. However, it also means being free of the many obligations and compromises that come with wealth. If you’re poor no one can steal from you or threaten take away your possessions. You’re free; you have nothing to lose.

Most of us have too much to lose and so we are not free; our discipleship is hindered. Yes, poverty is an important discipline of discipleship.

Promptness (readiness)The text says, And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The Lord seems harsh here. However, note that the Greek text can be understood in the following way: “My Father is getting older. I want to wait until he dies and then I will really be able to devote myself to being a disciple!”

Jesus’ point is that if the man didn’t have this excuse, he’d have some other one. He does not have a prompt or willing spirit. We can always find some reason that we can’t follow wholeheartedly today because. There are always a few things resolved first.

It’s the familiar refrain: I’ll do tomorrow!

There is peril in procrastination. Too many people always look to tomorrow. But remember that tomorrow is not promised. In Scripture there is one word that jumps out repeatedly; it’s the word now. There are many references to the importance of now or today rather than tomorrow:

  • Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD (Isaiah 1:18).
  • behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).
  • Today if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart (Ps 95:7).
  • Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for you know not what a day may bring forth (Prov 27:1).

That’s right, tomorrow is not promised! You’d better choose the Lord today because tomorrow might very well be too late. Now is the day of salvation.

There is an old preacher’s story about delay: There were three demons who told Satan about their plan to destroy a certain man.The first demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no Hell.” But Satan said, “People know that there’s a Hell and most have already visited here.” The second demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no God.” But Satan said, “Despite atheism being fashionable of late, most people know, deep down, that there is a God, for He has written His name in their hearts.” The third demon said, “I’m not going to tell them that there’s no Hell or that there’s no God; I’m going to tell them that there’s no hurry.” And Satan said, “You’re the man! That’s the plan!”

Yes, promptness is a discipline of discipleship. It is a great gift to be sought from God. It is the gift to run joyfully and without delay to what God promises.

Here are two disciplines of discipleship. They are not easy, but the Lord only commands what truly blesses. There is freedom in poverty and joy in quickly following the Lord!

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Is this World a Womb or a Tomb for You?

There is a line in the first reading for Wednesday of the seventh week of the year that reminds us to be humble and to realize that things—including us—are passing:

You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears (James 4:14).

This is an antidote of sorts to the modern tendencies of excessive self-esteem and lack of concern for our death. Despite the advances of modern science and technology, we cannot even be sure of the next beat of our heart. A man can be robust and confident, at the height of his career, and then suddenly gone.

To be sure, there is a glory to the human person, a glory that comes from God, but our sense of it must be received with deep humility. Whatever we have, we have received from God. St. Paul says, What have you that you have not received; and if you have received it why do you glory as though you had not? (1 Cor 4:7) Whatever glory we have is from God. We are small, contingent beings; each of us is but a puff of smoke, a vapor, a mist. The slightest wind will scatter us.

In the frontispiece of a family history, my father transcribed the following verse from Psalms:

As for man, his days are like grass; he flowers like the flower of the field;
the wind blows and he is gone and his place never sees him again (Psalms 103:15-16).

It is similar to what James says in today’s reading. We are like a puff of smoke or a vapor just before the wind blows or the sun rises.

Our years are seventy, or eighty for those who are strong. They pass swiftly, and we are gone (Ps 90:10).

As Christians, we should not be depressed by such thoughts, but we should be sobered. This life and its worldly glories are not the point. What a cruel joke it would be if that were so! Nothing but a puff of smoke, scattered by the merest breeze—it would be cruelty to say the least.

We Christians know that our life here is like the time we spent in the womb. Our tenure here is temporary while we await a greater glory to come. The child in the womb enjoys its warmth and seclusion, but as it grows, the womb comes to seem confining and limiting. Then birth pangs usher in the news: “You were made for something larger, something greater.” Many things of this world give joy, warmth, and pleasure, but if we are faithful we outgrow them. Our heart expands and this world can no longer contain us.

The birth pangs of our looming death say to us, “You were made for something larger, something greater.” We go forth from the womb of this world to what the Psalms often call the wideness or spaciousness of the glory of God (e.g., 17:29; 117:5; 118:45 Vulgate). Most of us will need the “afterbirth” of this world purged from us. After that is done, we will be received into the loving arms of our God and Father. This is our glory: to be caught up into the heart of God our Father, who conceived us and who loves us.

James warns, within the wider context of calling us a “puff of smoke,” that we must be wary of a pride that roots us in this world and celebrates a human glory somewhere other than in the arms of God.

Come now, you who say,
“Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town,
spend a year there doing business, and make a profit”
you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow.
You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears.
Instead you should say,
“If the Lord wills it, we shall live to do this or that.”
But now you are boasting in your arrogance.
All such boasting is evil (James 4:14-17).

Yes, beware of arrogance; beware of your own plans. God must have His heartiest laughs when we tell him our “plans.”

People used to visit cemeteries frequently, but doing so is much less common in today’s busy, arrogant times. Make it a practice to walk frequently in the nearest cemetery, particularly during Lent. While there, behold the glory of this world and remember that whatever it gives it takes back.

Consider again the words of Jesus:

Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it falls and dies, it rises to produce abundant fruit (John 12:23).

What will it be for you? Will it be the passing glories of this world, which die and then are trampled underfoot, or are blown away like a puff of smoke? Or will it be the seed that is sown but dies to itself and rises to something far more glorious?

Will this world be for you a tomb, which seals you into itself, or a womb, which births you to new and greater life? The decision is yours.

Tearing Up the Memo, as Seen in an Animal Video

credit:  Catholic Standard

At the bottom of this post is a video of dogs and cats who apparently never “got the memo” that they are supposed to fear and hate each other. As the video makes clear, they are bosom buddies who love to romp, play, wrestle, and even snuggle. How unlikely! And yet there it is before our eyes.

While the interactions between animals are mysterious and not to be compared with human relationships, I can’t help thinking of humanity as I watch them. What would things be like if some of the “memos” we pass back and forth were torn up, lost, or never received?

I remember some years ago when the former Yugoslavia broke apart. It was good news, as Soviet-style rule there ended. But then a horrible bloodbath ensued and the Bosnian, Serbians, and Croatians turned on one another, rekindling old hatreds going back hundreds of years. I remember wondering how people who had lived largely without violence for so long could still hate one another so. It seemed that the injustices of the past predated most of the people who were alive at the time.

Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian babies are not born hating one another; it must be instilled by someone. When the longtime “strongman” Tito died in 1980, dormant hatreds that had been handed down from parent to child surfaced.

I realize that I may be oversimplifying things, but there is also the tendency to overcomplicate matters. The fact is, children do not enter this world with an intrinsic hatred of an entire group of other children. Someone teaches them that. That part isn’t complicated.

When I was a child, I lived in Chicago, Illinois. I don’t remember my parents ever telling me to hate or even be wary of black people; I give them a lot of credit for that. Neither do I remember any awareness of racial tension or hatred in my neighborhood. However, I was still very young and the racial riots that followed Dr. King’s assassination did not really register in my 7-year-old mind.

In 1969, though, we moved to Northern Florida (think “Southern Georgia”). There, racial tension was always in the air. I remember being bewildered by the unexplained resentments and fears. I guess I was too young. In addition, I was a newcomer and had not “read the memo” telling me that I should be suspicious, that I should hate, that I should in no way mix with “them.” I remember once seeing some black children across the playground who were playing with what I thought were some “really cool” toys. Intrigued, I went over to join them. I was rebuffed not only by fellow whites but also by some of the black children, who seemed to consider my “incursion” unwanted and even threatening.

It’s crazy stuff. We are not born hating any person, any race, or any ethnicity. Someone teaches us that. This very fact increases the total disgrace that such hatred is. You may call me naive and simplistic—even myopic—but I wonder what might happen if we could just “tear up the memo.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes some very helpful observations:

Deliberate hatred is contrary to charity. Hatred of the neighbor is a sin when one deliberately wishes him evil. Hatred of the neighbor is a grave sin when one deliberately desires him grave harm. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (CCC #2303).

Respect for and development of human life require peace. Peace is not merely the absence of war, and it is not limited to maintaining a balance of powers between adversaries. Peace cannot be attained on earth without safeguarding the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, and the assiduous practice of fraternity. Peace is the “tranquility of order.” Peace is the work of justice and the effect of charity (CCC #2304).

Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust, and pride raging among men and nations constantly threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders contributes to building up peace and avoiding war: Insofar as men are sinners, the threat of war hangs over them and will so continue until Christ comes again; but insofar as they can vanquish sin by coming together in charity, violence itself will be vanquished and these words will be fulfilled: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (CCC #2317).

Well, if nothing else, enjoy this video of animals who never “got the memo” that they are supposed to be mortal enemies and consider joining me in the dream that we humans will do the same.