God and God Alone – A Homily for the 29th Sunday of the Year

credit: Portable Antiquities Scheme, Wikimedia

The Gospel for Sunday contains lots of interesting juxtapositions: hatred for Jesus but grudging respect, real questions vs. rhetorical ones, politics and faith, duties to Caesar and duties to God. The word “juxtaposition” comes from the Latin juxta, meaning “near” and positio, meaning “place” or “position”. Juxtaposition is the placing of two things near to each other, usually in order to see how they are similar yet different. Most often the differences are emphasized more than the similarities.

Let’s look at the juxtapositions in today’s Gospel, concentrating most of our attention on our duties to God as compared to our duties to “Caesar.”

I. The Plotting of the Peculiar Partners The Gospel begins by describing an extremely unlikely set of “bedfellows.” The text says, The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians. A very unlikely set of allies indeed. The Pharisees hated the Herodians. It was a combination of political and racial hatred, just about as poisonous as you could get in the ancient world, yet they both agreed that this Jesus fellow had to go.

Here is an important teaching: if you’re going to be a true Christian, the world will hate you. Too many Christians think that some segment of the world will agree to live in peace with us and so we strive to forge allegiances with it. In the modern American milieu, some think that the Republicans or the Democrats are natural allies, but we really don’t fit well into either party nor any worldly “club.”

Catholicism is an “equal-opportunity offender” in its unabridged form. Issue by issue We may appeal to one political party or another on a particular issue, but on the whole we’re a nuisance: we’re pro-life, traditional family values, immigrants’ rights, and affordable housing. We both please and annoy, which is another way of saying we don’t fit neatly into the world’s categories; everyone has some reason to hate us.

Welcome to Jesus’ world, in which groups who seemed to agree on nothing were aligned when it came to hating Jesus.

II. The Praise that is actually a Perilous Provocation – In their opening remarks to Jesus, His enemies give Him grudging respect. They do so not to praise Him, however, but rather to provoke Him. They say, Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?

The praise is largely a pretext that is used to provoke. In effect, they think they can they can force a definition on Jesus: “You’re ‘the Man.’ You’re the prophet. You’re the only one around here who tells the truth no matter what.” Now none of these things are false and they bespeak a grudging respect for Jesus.

However, they are only using this to draw Jesus into a worldly debate that is well “below his pay grade.” They want Jesus to take sides in a silly human debate over politics and worldly power. They want him to get arrested and killed over something that is not worth dying for.

Prophets die for the truth revealed by God not for who the “big cheese” should be in human affairs. They want Jesus to opine as if He were some sort of talking head on TV rather than the prophet and Lord that He is. A question of this sort is not worthy of Jesus’ attention. Ask this of the local senator or mayor but leave God out of human political distinctions and camps; do not expect Him to take sides. He is beyond our distinctions and will not be confined by party lines, national boundaries, or political philosophies.

We may well contend that certain systems of government better reflect the Kingdom than others, but in the end, God cannot be reduced to being a Republican, a Democrat, or for that matter an American. He is God and He transcends our endless debates and camps. He is not a talking head; He is God.

Generally speaking, rhetorical questions are statements or arguments posed in the form of a question. If I say to you, “Are you crazy?” I’m not really looking for an answer; I’m making statement that I think you are crazy. This is what takes place in today’s Gospel. The questioners already have their own opinions and aren’t change their minds no matter how Jesus answers. They don’t really want an answer; they want something to use against Him.

If Jesus says, “Yes, pay the taxes,” it will make Him unpopular with the crowds. If He says “No, don’t pay the taxes,” He will be arrested and likely executed.

In the end, Jesus calls them what they are: hypocrites, a Greek word meaning “actor.” And that is what they are. This whole thing is an act. This is not about discovering the truth; it is about setting a trap.

But Jesus will have none of it. He will not be reduced to human distinctions and categories. The truth He proclaims transcends the passing political order and any human power struggles. He will not be drawn into choosing sides. Rather, He will apply the rule of truth evenly to all.

Jesus is reality in the face of rhetoric, perfection in the face of politics, divinity in the face of division.

III. The Protesting of their Pretext and Pretense Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” Not everyone who engages us is truly looking for an answer or for the truth. We cannot always know things, but Jesus surely could. Often, when engaged in a discussion about the truth of the Gospel, one discovers that authentic dialogue is not actually taking place. In that case it is permissible to merely proclaim the truth firmly, clearly, and with due charity, and then end the conversation. Jesus called them on their pretense and authoritatively announced the principle with the goal of ending the conversation and sending them away to think.

IV. The Pointed Proclamation of the Principle – Jesus says, simply, and in a way that transcends worldly “all-or-nothing” scenarios, Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.

Such an answer elicits in us a desire for elaboration, but in our demands for more detail, we too often seek to conceal the fact that we really know the answer. We also betray the need of the flesh to specify everything so as to control and limit its impact.

If we really need a list, we might include some of the following things we ought to do in order “repay” to Caesar:

1. Obey all just laws.
2. Pay legally assessed taxes.
3. Pray for our country and its leaders.
4. Participate in the common defense based on our abilities and state in life.
5. Take an active and informed role in the political process.
6. Engage in movements for necessary reform.
7. Contribute to the common good through work (domestic or market-based) and through the sharing of our abilities and talents with others.
8. Maintain strong family ties and raise disciplined children who are well-prepared to contribute to the common good and to the good order of society.
9. Encourage patriotic love of our country.
10. Strive for unity and love rooted in Truth.

Here are some things we might include in a list of what we owe to God:

1. Adoration, love, and gratitude
2. Obedience to His Word and His Law
3. Worship
4. Repentance
5. Support of His Church by attendance at sacred worship, financial support, and sharing of our gifts and talents
6. Proclamation of his Word both verbally and by witness
7. Devoted reception of the sacraments
8. Raising our children in His truth and in reverence of Him
9. Evangelization (making disciples)
10. Preparing for death and judgment through a holy and reverent sojourn in this world.

A glance at these lists reveals that there is some overlap. One would expect this with God because He defies our human categories and distinctions. In the overlap, we see a setting forth of the great commandment of Love: that we should love the Lord our God with all our soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as our self (e.g., Matt 22:37). For while God is not Caesar and Caesar is not God, love unites both categories.

To love our country is to love our neighbor. To work for, support, and be involved in the common good is to love our neighbor. And to love our neighbor, whom we see, is to begin to love God, whom we do not see. Further, to seek to reform our land, secure justice, and ensure unity rooted in truth is to help usher in the Kingdom of God. To be rooted in God’s law, walk in His truth, and raise our children as strong and disciplined disciples of the Lord is to bless this country. To obey God and to walk in sobriety, love, and self-discipline is not only to render to God but also to be a good citizen.

However, it must be clear that God is and must be our supreme love. Jesus is not setting forth an equivalence here. This world is often at odds with God and thus we who would be His disciples must accept the fact that we will often be seen by this world as though we are aliens from another planet. Neither Jesus nor we should expect to fit precisely into any worldly category or club. We will be an equal-opportunity irritant to any large group. If we are going to be faithful Catholics then we must expect to be outsiders, outliers, and outcasts.

Rendering to God comes first. Too many people today, however, are more passionate about their politics than their faith. They tuck their faith underneath their politics and worldview. They are more inclined to agree with their party than with the Church or even the Scriptures. If you point that out, though, they’re likely to accuse you of violating the separation of Church and State (a phrase that does not appear in the Constitution, by the way) or tell you that unless something is infallibly defined (as they determine it) they are free to ignore the teaching of the bishops, the Pope, and/or the Catechism.

Here is the question we must ask ourselves: Do we really put God first? Is His Word really the foundation of our thoughts and views or are we just playing games? Loving this world and working for the common good are not at odds with our love for God, but submitting to worldly categories and human divisions and permitting them to drive our views is most often opposed to God, who will not simply be conformed to human political movements.

God has set forth the Catholic Church to speak for Him but He has not anointed any political movement or worldly organization to do so. No Catholic should surrender to artificial and passing distinctions or to organizations. No Catholic should permit worldly allegiances to trump what Scripture and the Church clearly proclaim. Sadly, today many seem far more willing to render to some version of “Caesar” than to render obedience and allegiance to God and to the Church, which speaks for Him. The Church is an object of faith; a political party is not. Render to God what is God’s.

This song in the video below says that God and God alone is fit to take the universe’s throne.

Beware the Strangest Idol of All – A Reflection on How Even Works of Charity Cannot Eclipse Obedience to Christ

052515There is a passage in the gospels that breaks conventions and cuts to the core of what has come to be called the “Social Gospel.”  Before looking at the passage we need to define “Social Gospel.” The phrase “Social Gospel” emerged in the Protestant denominations but has also come to be used in Catholic circles as well. The Social Gospel is an intellectual movement that was most prominent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement applied Christian ethics to societal problems, especially injustice, inequality, alcoholism, crime, racial tension, poverty, child labor, labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war.  Basically stated, if faith was to be real it must address these issues and be relevant to those who suffer these maladies.

So far, all true. But then comes this very troubling gospel passage. It breaks the conventional wisdom that the service of the poor is the first priority of the Church. It obnoxiously states that there is something more important than serving the poor. To be sure, serving the poor is essential, but this gospel says that something else is even more important. How can this be so? Who said such a thing? And that brings us to the text:

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”  (Matt 26:6-14)

The other gospels contain this account as well (Mark 1 and John 12). John attributes the objection only to Judas and reckons that it is on account of his greed. Mark and Matthew attribute the objection to all the disciples present. Even more interesting, all three gospels link this to Judas’ decision to hand Jesus over. It obviously shocked the disciples—especially Judas—to hear Jesus speak this way.

There is simply no other way to describe this gospel than “earthshaking.” The reader surely expects Jesus to agree that extravagance toward Him should be jettisoned in favor of serving the poor. Had He not said that judgment would be based on what we did for the “least of my brethren” (cf Matt 25:41ff)? Why does Jesus not rebuke the extravagance and demand the perfume be sold and the money given to the poor? It is a shocking gospel, an earthshaking declaration: “The poor you shall always have.”  But there it is, glaring at us like some sort of unexpected visitor.

What is the Lord saying? Many things to be sure, but let me suggest this essential teaching: Nothing, absolutely nothing, not even the service of the poor, takes precedence over the worship, honor, and obedience due to God. Nothing. If the service of the poor takes precedence over this, then it becomes an idol—an idol in sheep’s clothing—but an idol nonetheless.

A seminary professor of mine, now deceased, told me many years ago, “Beware the poverty of Judas.” What does this mean? Fundamentally it means that the care of the poor can sometimes be used in an attempt to water down Christian doctrine and the priority of worship. The Social Gospel, if we are not careful, can demand that we compromise Christian dogma and the priority of proclaiming the gospel.

Let me be clear, the Social Gospel is not wrong per se. But like anything else, it can be used by the world and the evil one to draw us into compromise and to the suppression of the truth. The reasons for this suppression are always presented as having a good effect, but in the end we are asked to suppress the truth in some way. Thus the Social Gospel is hijacked; it is used to compel us to suppress the truth of the gospel and to not mention Jesus.

Perhaps some examples will help. Let me state at the outset that I am supplying generic examples here. Although they are based on real-world examples, I am not mentioning names and places because it is not the purpose of this blog to engage in personal attacks of other people’s struggles to uphold the gospel. I cannot and will not supply specifics. This is about you and me, not merely other people. It is easy for us to condemn others for their faults and fail to look at ourselves. Hence I offer these examples in humility, realizing that I also struggle.

  1. A large diocese in the United States is offered the opportunity to serve drug addicts. The price of admission is that the diocese coordinate a “needle exchange program,” which helps addicts shoot up without contracting AIDS. The government funding is substantial and may enable treatment programs for poor addicts, which may lead to their sobriety. The only downside to such a program is that some other addicts may be enabled in their self-destructive behavior and encouraged by the clean needles to shoot up. Church teaching does not permit us to do wrong even if good may possibly come from it. Nevertheless, the diocese accepts the money, handing out clean needles to addicts, but using the money to serve others. The poor are being served! Shouldn’t we look the other way? Is serving the poor an absolute good or do we owe God obedience first? What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even poor drug addicts? Or is He less important? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say, “I think both are important.” The government is demanding that you choose. Will it be Jesus and what He teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the gospel? What will it be?
  2. A bishop from a moderately large diocese is confronted with the fact that he has not rebuked the local senator for his votes to fund abortion for the poor using federal money. The bishop responds, “But he is with us on important social legislation and we cannot afford to alienate him.” The senator in  question does surely support substantial funding of programs that the Church supports, programs such as housing for the poor, aid to families with dependent children, drug treatment programs, affordable housing initiatives, etc. The senator is a great advocate for these issues that the Church supports. The only problem is that he thinks it’s OK to fund the killing of babies in their mother’s womb. The bishop reasons that it is not good to alienate this senator, who “is with us on so many issues.” He fails to rebuke the Catholic senator and urge him to repent. “The Church would lose too much; the price is too high. We would not be able to serve the poor as well without his support. The senator might not vote for the bills that fund programs we support. We need to compromise here; the poor are depending on us. Surely Jesus will understand.” And thus Church teaching yields to the need to serve the poor. Surely it is good to serve the poor. But at what price? What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even the poor?  Or is He less important? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say, “I think both are important.” The government is demanding that you choose. Will it be Jesus and what He teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the gospel? What will it be?
  3. In several large cities, Catholic Charities runs adoption programs. Lately, city and state governments have begun to demand that Catholic Charities treat “gay” couples on the same basis as heterosexual couples. In order to receive government funds that help Catholic Charities carry on its work of service to poor children looking for a stable family, Catholic Charities will have to agree to set aside Church and Scriptural doctrine that homosexual unions are not only less-than-ideal for children, but sinful as well. If Catholic Charities wants to continue to serve these poor children at all, it must deny the teachings of Christ and His Church. Is this too high a price to pay in order to be able to serve the poor? What do you think? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say, “I think both are important.” The government is demanding that you choose. Will it be Jesus and what He teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the gospel? What will it be?
  4. Many Catholic hospitals receive government funds to treat the poor. But lately the government is demanding, in certain jurisdictions, that Catholic hospitals dispense contraceptives, provide abortion referrals, and cooperate in euthanasia. Remember now, the poor are served with these monies. Should the hospital compromise and take the money? Should it say that these are OK, thus enabling it to continue serving the poor? What is more important, the poor or Jesus and what He teaches? What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even the poor who come to hospitals for service? Or is He less important? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say, “I think both are important.” The government is demanding that you choose. Will it be Jesus and what He teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the gospel? What will it be?
  5. Catholic Charities is offered the possibility of getting a large amount of money to serve the homeless. But there is a requirement that Jesus never be mentioned. Catholic Charities must remove all crucifixes, Bibles, and any references to Catholic teaching. Now remember, the poor will be served with this money! It’s a lot of  money to walk away from! What do you think? Is Jesus more important than even the homeless? Or is He less important? Remember, you have to choose! You can’t just say, “I think both are important.” The government is demanding that you choose. Will it be Jesus and what He teaches or will it be the poor at the price of compromising the gospel? What will it be?

In the end, we are left with these questions:

  1. How far do we go in serving the poor?
  2. The service of the poor and addressing the issues they face are essential works of the Church, but do they trump worship and doctrine?
  3. Should Church teaching bend to the demands of the government in order to serve the poor?
  4. What does Jesus mean in the gospel above when He teaches that anointing Him is more important than serving the poor?
  5. What is the Church’s truest priority? Is it the truth of the gospel or is it serving the poor?
  6. What if these two things are in conflict? Which is chosen over the other?
  7. Given the gospel above, what would Jesus have us choose as our first priority?
  8. When large amounts of money are made available to the Church to serve the poor, but at the price of compromising or hiding the truth of gospel, what should the Church should do?
  9. Why?

The Social Gospel is essential. It cannot merely be set aside. But the Social Gospel cannot eclipse the Full Gospel. A part, even if essential, cannot demand full resources and full obedience—not at the expense of the whole or the more important!

Money and resources to serve the poor are essential, but they are still money and it remains stunningly true that we cannot serve both God and money. In the end, even serving the poor can become a kind of idol to which God has to yield. It is the strangest idol of all, for it comes in very soft sheep’s clothing, the finest wool!  But if God and His Revealed truth must yield to it, it is an idol—the strangest idol of all.

 While I do not agree with everything in this video from a few years back, it presents well the temptations that Catholic Charities faces:

What Does the Arrest of St. Paul at Philippi Teach a Sometimes-Timid Church?

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“Saint Paul imprisoned at Philippi” oil on canvas by Leonaert Bramer Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In daily Mass we are following the missionary journeys of St. Paul. Yesterday we heard of his going over to Macedonia and of the baptism of the first “European” converts: Lydia of Thyatira and her family.

Unfortunately, in today’s reading (Tuesday of the 6th Week of Easter) important lines are cut out that describe why Sts. Paul and Silas were in jail. The whole story serves as a metaphor for the radical nature of true Christianity and explains why it so perturbs many in this world. The Christian faith, its message, and the transformation it can effect can be very unsettling to a world that literally and figuratively “banks on” sin. Let’s consider this lesser-known story of Paul and see what it ought to mean for us if we take the Christian faith seriously and do not try to “tame” it. We pick up the story just after the baptism of Lydia, when Sts. Paul and Silas encounter a possessed slave girl, whom tradition sometimes calls “Pythonissa the Soothsayer.”

Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.

When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks (Acts 16:16-24).

Note the heart of the problem: St. Paul, in setting the slave girl free of her demon, has deprived her “owners” of the income they were deriving from her sad state. They were banking on her sad condition and profiting from her trouble. In the name and power of Jesus Christ, St. Paul sets her free. His action draws deep anger from the “owners.” He has rocked their world and touched their pocketbooks. They see the Christian message as revolutionary, disconcerting, threatening, and deeply unsettling.

It is a threat not only to profit but to power. In having Paul arrested, they stir up the hatred and fear of others as well, indicating that Paul is not merely preaching some “strange new religion” but is advocating customs forbidden to Romans. The word “customs” here in Greek is ἐθη (ethe) and refers to “religious rites or forms of worship.” Cicero, in De Legibus ii. 8,  wrote, “No person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods, unless they be publicly allowed.” While the Romans often overlooked the private worship of unapproved gods, they were strictly forbidden from publicly proclaiming new and unapproved deities, as this provided an occasion for dissension and controversy.

And, frankly, the charges against Paul and Silas were true enough. In the healing they brought about, they hindered profit. Further, they were openly proclaiming that Jesus was Lord. To our ears that is a religious proclamation, but to Roman ears it was a provocative and revolutionary statement. It was directly contrary to their proclamation that Caesar was Lord. Yes, Paul, Silas, Luke, and the others were shaking the ground in Philippi. While they were not advocating the overthrow of any government, they were announcing a power greater than Caesar, a higher King who demanded first loyalty: Jesus!

This is not the tame and domesticated proclamation of the faith that is so common today. This is not the faith that is trimmed to fit into worldly categories and to be tucked under political, philosophical, and moral preferences. This is the faith that shakes the world and brings a revolutionary challenge to the world’s priorities. Yes, Paul and Silas were a serious threat.

And what of us today? We have gone through a long period during which the faith could be lived quietly and generally fit quite well into the world in which we lived. Harmony and “getting along” were highly prized. Particularly here in America, Catholics wanted to reassure the general populace that our faith in no way hindered us from being full participants in the American scene and that we could fit right in and be just like everyone else. With the election of the first Catholic president back in 1960, we could say that we had finally made it and had been fully accepted. Finally we fit in.

Of course the culture was not in such disrepair in those days and there was a fairly wide moral consensus rooted in the Judeo-Christian vision. Now that we have finally “made it,” the fire of our distinctively Catholic culture seems to have faded away. At the same time, Western culture has also largely died. (Is it a coincidence?)

In recent years, so-called Catholic universities and other institutions have been caving in to pressure. They are affording marriage benefits to same-sex bedfellows and succumbing to the HHS mandates to provide contraceptives and abortifacients. This is sad, pathetic, wrong, and cowardly—hardly the revolutionary faith that got Paul arrested.

And now we are coming full circle. We must rediscover how revolutionary our Catholic faith truly is to this world gone mad. And as we proclaim healing and profess an allegiance to something other than this world, we will become increasingly repugnant to the world around us.

Let’s consider more thoroughly the two offenses for which Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned:

1. They ate into profits. Paul drove a terrible demon out of a slave girl, a demon that afflicted her but profited her “owners.” In this world today there is a lot of trafficking in sin and addiction. Terrible demons afflict many people in the areas of sexuality, drugs,  and alcohol. But there’s a lot of money to be made. Sex sells. Hollywood movie producers, pornographers, purveyors of contraceptives, pimps, escort services, abortionists, and even traffickers in the sex-slave industry feed at the trough. Drugs and alcohol are big money-makers as well. Huge numbers of products are sold using the demon of fear that says things like, “You’re not pretty enough,” “You’re not healthy enough,” “You’re getting old,” “You don’t drive the right car,” “You haven’t impressed your friends enough,” “You need to buy our product right away so you’re not so pathetic.” And thus the demon of fear and low self-esteem is exploited along with the demon of greed.

But what would happen if the Church were to start preaching unabridged Christianity effectively? You don’t need to be afraid of your health, your age, or what people think of you. You can find serenity in Christ so that you won’t need all that extra alcohol and those drugs. You can be set free from your enslavement to sex. You can take authority over your passions and discover the beauty of traditional marriage. What if we got back in the business of driving out demons?

Of course the answer is that we, like Paul, would be (and are) under attack. We are especially hated by the sex industry and the abortionists since those are hot-button issues these days. To them we are public enemy number one. We threaten the vision, the addiction, and the despair that fills their coffers. If we are too successful (and for now our successes are meager) their profits may go away. Yes, we must be dealt with.

But we will only be effective if we preach the unabridged faith, not the faith that is tailored and tucked under worldly priorities, not the faith that insists on being “realistic,” not the faith that makes endless apologies to the inevitable objections of the world no matter how much we water things down. The true faith is revolutionary in the freedom it offers from sin and demons.

Paul and Silas didn’t end up in prison by preaching a watered-down, tamed moral vision. They unabashedly drove out a demon that was afflicting a girl and in so doing they engaged in a revolutionary threat to a world that profits from sin.

2. They threatened power. Calling Jesus, “Lord,” was a revolutionary threat to incumbent power, which demands full loyalty. And thus today, many strive to make Catholics fit into neat little political categories. Both Republicans and Democrats want the Church to fit into their narrow little categories and to march in lockstep with their party platform. Even many Catholics want the Church to conform. Many Catholics in fact are more loyal to their party than to the Church and are more passionate about their political views than their faith. If there is a conflict between a Church teaching and the party line, guess which one usually gives way!

But in the end, the Church will not fit into some neat and tidy political category. The true faith is too revolutionary to fit into some worldly box.

And thus there is a lot of hatred and anger directed at the Church. Republicans say we’re too liberal; Democrats say we’re too conservative. More and more we are being kicked to the curb; our very right to religious liberty is being threatened. Religious exemptions to increasingly pernicious laws are slowly being removed and the number of lawsuits against Catholic institutions is increasing. And it will surely get worse as secular systems demand increasing loyalty. The Church must refuse that loyalty.

Jesus is Lord; the government is not. Jesus is not Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. He is God, and the faith He announces cannot be watered down or compromised to fit into a friendship with the world.

Tame, domesticated Christianity will not threaten or change this world. When Paul preached, the people rioted. Modern preaching too often incites only yawns and indifference.

What should we learn from St. Paul’s arrest at Philippi? That the true faith is revolutionary and hits the world right where it hurts: in the profit and power centers. As the world becomes increasingly secular, the revolutionary aspect of the faith will become more evident.

Are you ready?

Photo Credit: The Bible in Pictures

In this video Fr. Barron comments on the movie “The Matrix,” which depicts an interesting Christian motif. The Matrix is a machine from which people need liberation. The solution can only happen when someone from outside the Matrix (Neo) enters in and announces liberty, dies, rises, and defeats the Matrix.

Anti Christian Bigotry in California School District is Rebuked by Judge.

I have marveled over the years at the kind of fear and anger the Christian Faith generates in some sectors of our society. Even the suggestion that there might a a small nativity scene in a park, or Christmas tree near City Hall, or a display of the Ten Commandments often elicits a hew and cry and brings forth camera crews and elicits lawsuits. But the venom seems especially reserved  for symbols of the Christian faith in particular and to some extent the wider Judeo-Christian heritage. A reference from the Q’ran in school is seen by many of this same crowd to be “tolerant” and “diverse.”  But to quote the Bible is an egregious violation of the (so-called) separation of Church and State. A comedy skit on a TV show that even indirectly depicts Mohammad is bemoaned as intolerant and anti-Muslim (which it may be) but a photo of a crucifix submerged in urine is called “art” and receives funding from the National Endowment of the Arts. Well, you know the basic drill.

Most Americans are not offended by religious display. It remains a small but very vocal minority which seeks to remove all reference to America’s spiritual and religious heritage. And due to this movement’s particular hostility to things Christian one is left to conclude that we are not dealing with a rational objection here but rather one rooted in bigotry, hatred or at least aversion to the Christian faith.

The latest round in anti-Christian fervor has taken place in San Diego (Spanish, by the way and meaning “St. James”!)  California. I will excerpt the story here from briefing by the Thomas More Law Center and provide a few comments of my own in red. The Full briefing with other links can be found here: Poway School Board Continues Fight to Ban God  .

In a closed-session meeting held on Monday night, the Poway Unified School District board in San Diego, California, voted to appeal the ruling of Federal District Court Judge Roger T. Benitez that held school officials violated math teacher Bradley Johnson’s constitutional rights when they ordered him to remove two patriotic banners from the walls of his classroom because they referred to “God.” The appeal will be filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth CircuitNotice, the specific reason they said they wanted the posters removed was because they referred to God. The posters did not endorse a specific denomination or even reference Jesus, they simply mentioned God. Note too, they were all quotes from official US documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the National Seal, and the usual conclusion to any presidential speech: “God bless the United States of America.” Now the School officials SAY that they were concerned about references to God. But where they? As we shall see they allowed other religious references to remain. It would seem that their objections focused only only on religious references to God that emanated from the traditional Judeo-Christian heritage of this Nation’s past. This God has to go but other religious figures from Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu sources can stay. Also, as you will see anti-religious slogans were also permitted to remain. So, what are we dealing with here? Is it some sort of misguided but at least consistent and principled stance against any religious or sectarian display in public schools?  Obviously not. It is an inconsistent singling out of the Judeo-Christian heritage of this land and seems more bigoted than principled.

The banners included the phrases, “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” , “God Bless America.” [“All Men Are Created Equal, They Are Endowed By Their Creator.”]. The school district claimed Johnson’s banners, which had hung in his classroom for two decades without complaint, advocated an impermissible Judeo-Christian view point and may be offensive to a Muslim student. I could not find in any of the articles I read on this that a Muslim Student had actually complained. The School officials seem to have merely concluded that a Muslim student might be offended. But I wonder if they would? Muslims are not Christians but neither are they secular. If I were in a largely Muslim Country and saw references to Allah and was greated Allahu Akbar (God is Great) I would not be offended. After all I too think God is great. I do not share the Muslim faith or worship God under the title or vision of Allah. But somewhere I suspect that they and we are both striving for God. I think their notions of Him are quite flawed but I am surely not offended by references to Allah. It is always possible that a militant Muslim of some sort might be offended by a reference to “God” but the militants aren’t going to be pleased no matter what. So I seriously doubt that the average Muslim is going to be offended by a sign that says, “In God We Trust.”

However, the school district left untouched displays that included a 35 to 40 foot string of Tibetan prayer flags with images of Buddha; a poster with the lyrics from John Lennon’s anti-religion song “Imagine,” which begins, Imagine there’s no Heaven; a poster with Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi’s “7 Social Sins;” a poster of Muslim leader Malcolm X, and a poster of Buddhist leader Dali Lama. OK the gig is up, they’re singling out Christians and the Judeo-Christian Heritage.

In a public statement made shortly after the vote to appeal the ruling, School Board member Jeff Mangum stated, “[I]f this is allowed, what else can go up on the wall?” The board member’s question was answered by Judge Benitez, who noted in his ruling that school officials banned Johnson’s patriotic displays while permitting other teachers to display personal posters and banners promoting partisan political issues such as gay rights and environmental causes, including global warming. Looks like the Judge smelled a rat of rank hypocrisy and selective outrage

Judge Benitez’s 32-page opinion was strongly worded and critical of the Poway school districts aversion to God: “[The school district officials] apparently fear their students are incapable of dealing with diverse viewpoints that include God’s place in American history and culture. . . . That God places prominently in our Nation’s history does not create an Establishment Clause violation requiring curettage and disinfectant for Johnson’s public high school classroom walls. It is a matter of historical fact that our institutions and government actors have in past and present times given place to a supreme God.”

The Thomas More Law Center, a national public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, filed the federal lawsuit on Johnson’s behalf after the school district ordered him to take down his banners in January 2007. The Law Center vows to defend Judge Benitez’s ruling before the Ninth Circuit and to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary…..Robert Muise, the Thomas More Law Center Senior Trial Counsel handling the case, commented,…. [School Officials]  “have no objection to a 40-foot display of sacred, Tibetan prayer flags in a science classroom, among countless other religious and political displays. But they do have a personal objection to Mr. Johnson’s patriotic banners because they recognize a fundamental truth that school officials dislike: God plays a prominent role in our Nation’s history and heritage.”

The Ninth Circuit is unfortunately not friendly to traditional religion however. I suspect there may be trouble in this appeal but there is hope if it gets to the US Supreme Court which commonly overturns the 9th Circuit. An example of this happened very recently when the Supreme Court allowed a War memorial Cross to stand on a hill top on Federally owned land in California. You can read more of that here: Supreme Court overturns objection to cross on public land

This video summarizes the school case and even includes a little humor.

A Long, Long Time Ago in the Land of Lincoln: The Faith of Abraham Lincoln

Religious expression by Presidents today is infrequent, and if it happens at all there are some who claim to have been offended. We live in  time where many want to sweep faith under the rug and when protests are made, usually by a tiny but noisy minority, that religion has no place in the public square. But the two presidents we honor today lived in a different time, a time when religious expression was an accepted part of the national scene. The ease with which both Washington and Lincoln speak of God, and the lack of protest at their utterances depict a time when Faith was integral to life in America.

Back in November we discussed some of the ways our First President George Washington invoked God in National Addresses. If you missed it, it is here: A Founding Father Gives Thanks to God.  But today I’d like to present a few quotes here from Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was not initially known as a religious man. He belonged to no denomination and did not attend church with any regularity. When asked of this he responded by citing annoyance over the varying creeds and doctrinal squabbles among Christians. But Lincoln lived in a time where God was more present in the national psyche than today. The more religious climate than now combined with the terrible tragedy of the war and also the death of his son in 1862 combined to make Mr. Lincoln more religious as his presidency unfolded. More frequent and fervent references to God and requests for prayer began to dot his speeches and proclamations. There are many that could be cited, but perhaps just a few here. As you read them, consider how they reflect his own faith and trust but also how they reflect the religious sensibilities of the time. Imagine some of these things being said of done now! Caution you are about to enter a non-religion-free zone!

That I am not a member of any Christian church is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular….I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, or scoffer at, religion.” [Abraham Lincoln On Campaign, July 31, 1846]

The Almighty has His own purposes….Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” (Abraham Lincoln – Second Inaugural Address)

It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, and to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in Holy Scripture, and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord. And, insomuch  as we know that by His divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisement in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which has preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended power, to confess our national sins and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.” [Abraham Lincoln, a Proclamation of a National Day of Fasting and Prayer, March 30, 1863]

“I invite the people of the United states (on Aug 6)… to invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit… to guide the counsels of the government with wisdom adequate to so great a national emergency, and to visit with tender care and consolation throughout the length and breadth of our land all those who, through the vicissitudes of marches, voyages, battles, and sieges have been brought to suffer in mind, body, or estate, and finally to lead the whole nation through the paths of repentance and submission to the Divine will back to the perfect enjoyment of union and internal peace.” [Abraham Lincoln, Proclamation of a National Day of Prayer, July 15, 1863]

Amazing really. The third quote sounded almost like the sermon of a prophet. Go on Mr. President!

My, how times have changed. I am not that old (just shy of 50) and I can remember living in the deep south and attending public school. Every day the Principal, Mr Bulware would turn on the PA system. Every one stood and we said the Pledge of Allegiance and then a student would read from the King James Bible. Mr. Bulware would then called us to a moment of silent prayer and things concluded by the Our Father (with the Protestant ending). Evidently Mr. Bulware had not gotten the memo that the Supreme Court in 1962 and 1963 had issued rulings against such prayer. But there we were still, in the late 1960s,  praying and reading from the Bible (John 3:16 was a favorite along with the 23rd Psalm). But no one in our sleepy Southern town of Orange Park ever questioned the fact that you started the school day with prayer. Even into High School in the mid 1970s we still sang Christmas carols that spoke clearly of Christ and his birth (e.g. Silent Night, O Come All Ye faithful). But in my brief lifetime that’s  all changed. Don’t you dare mention Jesus in a public school today! Prayer and Bible Reading? Unthinkable! But not so long ago things were very different. Imagine a president today speaking like Lincoln did in these quotes.

Once upon a time in a moral galaxy far far away, God was freely mentioned, invoked and accepted as part of the National Discourse.

Running Afoul of the”New Morality”

The latest edition of Gloria TV News contains the following item:

Catholics Under Pressure Because of Gay Legislation – UK  The Charity Tribunal has ruled that Catholic Care– the Diocese of Leeds’s adoption agency– must cooperate with homosexual couples who wish to adopt children. “If the charity now sticks to Church policy and continues to follow its ‘heterosexuals only’ policy it could lose its charity status and public funding,” the Daily Telegraph notes. “ It might also face discrimination claims by same-sex couples it has turned away in the past.”

This is not dissimilar to what has happened to Catholic Charities in Massachusetts and  California. Catholic Charities has largely had to remove itself from providing adoption services due to it’s inability to comply with state laws baring discrimination against gay couple who want to adopt. Church teachings and policy forbid placing children with gay couples. But State Law in both Mass. and California, forbid any distinctions being made. Attempts to pass an exemption for religious institutions failed in Mass and in California the wording of the religious exemption clause cannot be met by Catholic Charites. The clause states that only Catholics are served. Obviously Catholic Charities serves more than just Catholics.

So here is another indicator not only of where we are, but also of  the road ahead. Increasingly the Church and other Christian denominations will be forced to comply with edicts of the “new morality.” If we do not comply we can either be sued for discrimination or accused of “hate crimes.” The alternative seems to be comply, or get out of the business. The Catholic Church as a long legacy of serving the Community through our Hospitals, Catholic Charities and the like. This is beginning to erode. Increasingly we may see such services ending because of those who want to force us to comply with laws that contradict our faith. Thus, if we fail to  provide contraceptives in our health plans, a judge says we must or we violate the law and are subject to fines or worse.  If we refuse to adopt to Gay couples we are now being told we must or we violate the law and are open to lawsuits. If some elements of the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) are enacted we will be required to provide or refer abortion services.  Otherwise our hospitals and clincs will be in violation of law, subject to fines, closure and desertification.

Do you see what is happening? There is a steady erosion of religious liberty underway. Advocates of the “New Morality”  have long marched under the banner of tolerance but as they gain greater power and influence, the mask of tolerance is shed and forcible compliance is at revealed as the true policy. The Catholic faith is 2000 years old. We are not some extremist group of haters. We have a long and noble religious teaching that deserves respect even if everyone does not agree with it. We should not be pressured to set aside 2000 years of religious teaching simply because some in the modern world have chosen to depart from long held and basic moral beliefs. Religious Liberty is a precious cornerstone of this Country’s history but it is being eroded by judges and advocacy groups. Pay attention.