On the Loss of Common Spaces in a Politicized World

Among the losses in our declining culture is that of “common” or shared spaces and events. In these situations, Americans could come together and enjoy some degree of unity and common purpose. Usually they involved diversions like sports, movies, or other entertaining and uniting activities. Whatever political, religious, or cultural differences, Americans could set aside their differences and enjoy something together.

  1. Sporting events, amateur and professional (e.g., local high school football games, March Madness, the Super Bowl, the World Series)
  2. Blockbuster movies or television shows (e.g., Jaws, the final episode of M*A*S*H)
  3. Awards ceremonies (e.g., the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys)
  4. Amusement parks (e.g., Disneyland, Epcot Center, Six Flags)
  5. Parades (e.g., St. Patrick’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving Day)

These were times when people left their politics behind and enjoyed things common to everyone. Here in Washington, D.C., political divisions could run deep, but come Sunday the stadium was filled with united Redskin’s fans, especially when we played Dallas. Even if some rooted for “the other team,” it was all in good fun. Fans of things like Star Wars and Star Trek might be in different political parties, but they could enjoy talking about their favorite characters and episodes. On July 4th, it was great to be an American regardless of which political party we favored; there were parades, fireworks, and the reading of the Declaration of Independence. We could visit the Disney of more innocent times and watch the Main Street Electrical Parade, shoulder-to-shoulder with people of all shape, sizes, colors, and beliefs.

These and others were common or shared spaces where we could all have a good time and forget our troubles and divisions, even if only briefly.

Such spaces and occasions are disappearing, one by one. Everything these days is being politicized. In the football world, the latest kerfuffle over our National Anthem (another thing that used to unite us) is only the latest in a series of attempts by players, owners, and sports networks to inject politics into the game. Football players and coaches are lecturing to us; sports anchors opine, the PC crowd pores over Super Bowl commercials looking for any sign of offense, the Super Bowl halftime shows reek of the sexual revolution. Blech!

Actors, actresses, and singers wag their fingers at us, issuing political speeches and injecting social commentary at the Grammys, Oscars, and Emmys. Do we really care what some celebrity’s political stance is? Do we need to hear how much they like the sexual revolution? Must they weigh in on the latest cause célèbre? Even the opening monologue is some sort of tirade against someone or an opinionated lecture delivered in the bubble of a like-minded crowd who seem to have little understanding of how condescending it all sounds. Gone are the days of good old-fashioned movies that entertained and/or elevated us. Everything has to have a message—usually an attack on traditional values or a foray into our political divisions. This was the very thing we once turned to entertainment to escape.

Victor Borge once said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” But today even comedy has been infected with politics and the hypersensitivity of political correctness. What makes things funny is how they often stereotypically capture a truth. Yes, it is exaggerated. Yes, it pokes a little fun. Yes, it plays to expectations, though sometimes with a surprising twist. Today we’re not “allowed” to laugh at much of anything. We’ve become so thin-skinned that we’ve lost the ability to laugh at ourselves. Comedy has also become rife with sexual banter that makes it R-rated, and one-sided attacks that reflect its politicization.

Columnist Ben Shapiro has this to say:

America needs to take a breath from politics every so often. Football is one of those breaths.

Hollywood and pop culture would do well to remind themselves that if they don’t want to alienate half their audience and exacerbate our differences, they can allow us room to breathe. The Super Bowl [once] did that … So much for that rosy notion. The NFL has become ground zero for the culture wars. Which means that we can’t see movies anymore, watch TV shows anymore, or even watch sports anymore without feeling that we’re being judged. That means our common spaces are disappearing. And we have so little political common space already that cultural common space was our last relic of togetherness.

Here’s the bottom line: this conflict isn’t good for the country. We need our shared symbols, and we need our shared spaces. Both of those elements are being destroyed for political and ratings gain. If that doesn’t stop, we’re not going to have anything at all in common anymore [Ben Shapiro, writing in “The Daily Wire”].

While this issue is not a Christian one per se — it is a wider cultural one — Pope Benedict XVI diagnosed its deeper roots when he spoke of the “tyranny of relativism.” Relativism is a form of subjectivism which shifts the locus of truth and reality from the object to the subject. Because subjects (people) differ in their perceptions, the truth is then claimed to be relative. This leads to tyranny, however, because when we can no longer point to reality and reason to make our point, we are left with shouting and pressuring. Who wins when reason and reality itself are jettisoned? Those with the most money, power, and influence; those who are loudest; those who are fiercest; those who are willing to go to extremes to force their opinion. When reason and God’s reality are thrust aside, the loud, the powerful, the arrogant, and the extreme get their way.

Amusement parks, movies, parades, and even the gridiron cannot withstand the politicization; it is forcing its way onto the field and into everything. Common spaces are fewer than ever; everything today is a bitter dispute. Blech!

Here’s a video from another world, long ago.


Setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience… A Consideration of the Church’s Role in the Public Square

In much of the heated public debate on the HHS mandate (that the Catholic Church pay for contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization) and over gay “marriage,” there is a strain to the conversation, that somehow, the Catholic Church is trying to force people to follow what she teaches.

To think that we have such power is fanciful, but the charge comes up a lot and in different forms. Consider the following comments I gleaned from the combox of a Washington Post article submitted by me and the Archdiocese of Washington on the topic of gay “marriage.” These are just a few excerpts that illustrate that some see us as trying to use power to force others to do what we want. (I have added a few responses in Red just because I can’t resist):

  1. Translation [of your article]: Of course we do not want to make you a Roman Catholic, only that you will be governed by the pope in Rome…. He, and we, don’t have that power.
  2. Inasmuch as we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, everyone should be free to follow their own path as individuals. You are. I don’t have the power to force you to do anything. But you are going further than “following your own path.” You are asking for legal recognition of something that has never been recognized before. Expect a little push back. Further, the Catholic Church does not only appeal to God and the Bible but also to Natural Law because we recognize that not everyone sees the Scriptures with the kind of reverence we do.
  3. When it comes to owning a business that accepts public funds and which will employ believers of every stripe as well as non-believers, the owners have no right dictating the choice of others Actually is the Government that is dictating choice. In the HHS mandate, only the government has the power here to compel and punish non-compliance, and they are saying that we must give contraceptives free to anyone who asks for them. The “mandate” says that Catholics, and anyone who objects to sterilization, to abortifacients and contraceptives, (for it is not only Catholics), must pay for them whether they like it or not. As for Gay “marriage,” it is once again the Government that is requiring everyone to recognize what has never been recognized before, that same-sex couples are “married.” And, by gosh, if we don’t recognize them and treat them as married then we will be decertified from adoption services and have to stop providing marital health benefits for our married employees (as happened with Catholic Charities). So there IS a lot of forcing going on here, but it isn’t the Church. We don’t have that power, the State does. And frankly that should make everyone sober, even those who don’t agree with us on these specific issues. EVERYONE ought to be mighty concerned when the State seeks to compel people to act against their conscience.
  4. Just one more example why one should never vote for a Roman Catholic politician who would more likely march in lockstep to the dictates of the Church than follow constitution. Whew! Dream on, we have the opposite problem. Very FEW Catholic politicians live their faith when it comes to political agendas. And if they do, they, like anyone else, they have to face the voters every few years. Further, why is it wrong for politicians to follow, say, environmental agendas, or homosexual agendas, or social justice agendas, but it is WRONG for them to follow religiously inspired agendas? Since when do people of faith have no voice or seat at the table in the world of politics? Are we not citizens who have the right to petition the government for redress etc?
  5. This is about the Catholic church demanding that people who do not have any allegiance to that church or its dogma live by its rules. We don’t have this power. It is the State (and you?) who are instituting that we pay for what we consider wrong. Why should I have to pay for your contraceptives? Why should you simply demand to get them free?
  6. Today, they are gunning for the gays. Next will be your birth control. We don’t have this power. What we are asking is that we not be compelled to pay for things we consider wrong and sinful.
  7. In pushing your definition of marriage on to all other people and churches, you are in fact trying to ensure that Catholic law remains state law. We don’t have this power. As citizens, and for principled reasons rooted in Scripture and Natural Law, we argue that the law that Has ALWAYS been the law in this land, remain unchanged. We have a right as citizens to be part of the political process. One side is going to win, right now it looks like the pro-gay marriage folks. How would you feel if I said, “You are pushing your definition of marriage and trying to make it State law?” Why don’t we just admit that we both have a right to be in the public square and advocate for what we think is right? I think you’re wrong headed and confused about marriage and your type  loves to call me intolerant and bigoted. I’ll see you at the ballot box. Oh! but wait a minute! Here in DC your advocates on the DC Council would not allow a referendum. And, gee, when we do win at the ballot box as we have in several states, your side runs to a judge and tries (usually successfully) to overturn the will of the voters. Hmm….who is throwing power around here? Who’s pushing whose definition on whom? Hmm…?
  8. the church will be better off the more that it gives up its hold on political power. What power? If we’re so powerful, why is the moral meltdown so advanced? Again, are you simply striving to say we should have no voice in the political process? We have a right as citizens to try and influence outcomes, just like you. Frankly we haven’t been very successful lately. I’d love to find out where all this political power we theoretically have is hidden.

OK, well you get the point. A LOT of people think we have a lot more power than we do. Frankly it’s laughable to think think the Catholic Church has all this power. We can’t even unify our own believers. I have written before (with love) that unifying Catholics is like herding cats! I would to God that we could really unify around anything. Then we might be a political force to be reckoned with. And as citizens we would have every right to be such a force. But as it is, we are (sadly) a rather divided lot, even on abortion. I can assure you , most Catholic politicians do NOT have a hotline to the Vatican or take even a scintilla of advice from the Pope or Bishops. And even if they accidentally agree with the Pope or the bishops, for most of them, it is because the politics make sense, not that the faith has “compelled” them. No, don’t worry too much about the “power” of the Church.

That said, I have already commented above (in the red remarks) that Catholics, as citizens of the Untied States of America have the same rights as any other citizen to petition the government, to seek to enact laws that reflect our values and concerns. But we have no more or less power or voice than any other citizen of this Land. We, like others, often band together with coalitions. But again, if this is somehow wrong, then why is it not wrong for feminists, or environmentalists, or unions, or advocates of any number of hundred of other causes to do the same? We are Americans with rights. And people of faith have just as much right to be in the public square and the public conversation as any one else.

Some of the commenters in the Washington Post Combox, not listed here, wanted to recite grievances from the Middle Ages about Church power then etc. Why not leave the 14th Century politics in the 14th Century, and let’s stay in the 21st Century. There was a LOT of bad stuff in the old days. It wasn’t just the Church, governments too were different then. Modern democratic republics were unknown in those days. Today the political landscape is different. And if the Church ever did have all the power (and some of the claims are exaggerated and the Inquisition is often cartoonishly portrayed) that is not the case today. For our purposes we are in the 21st Century West.

Finally, I think a quote from St. Paul rather well distills what we, as a Church, and as believers, seek to do in the public square of America. More than acquire power (which is not easy in a wide and pluralistic culture), we seek to commend ourselves, and our message to everyone’s conscience. St. Paul says,

Rather, renouncing secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the Word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor 4:2)

Yes, frankly we do have vigorous disagreement with secret (and not so secret), shameful practices. And we will not, in order to be popular or conformed to these times, distort or misrepresent the Word of God. Abortion is wrong. Fornication, adultery, and homosexual acts are wrong. Divorce, and chosen single parenthood, and so called gay “marriage” are wrong. Contraception, sterilization, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, wrong, wrong wrong.

But I cannot force you to obey me. Rather I commend myself to your conscience. And even if Scripture will not be acceptable to you, I will have recourse to Natural Law. I, indeed the whole Church, will continue to commend myself to your conscience. And even though the gospel is currently “out of season” (cf 2 Tim 4:2) and you laugh at me and call me names like intolerant, bigoted etc., I will continue to commend myself to your conscience.

As long as I live I will speak the truth in love. And however you choose to understand me I will continue to speak. You may wish to call me hateful. I am not. I invite you to conscientiously consider what I say. I cannot command you, so do not fear me. But I do commend myself to your conscience.I will meet you in the public square, for that is my right as much as yours. But in the end, mandates and forced adherence are not in my power. I commend myself to your conscience, I do not, I cannot,  command you.

Here’s a video I put together of the World travels by the Pope as seeks to commend himself to everyone’s conscience. Johnny Cash supplies the musical theme: “I’ve Been Everywhere!”

Cardinal George Speaking Frankly on Abortion And Presidential Politics. And Older But Significant Video.

The video below, though an older video, is circulating of late on sites like Gloria.tv. Cardinal Francis George has some very frank things to say about abortion and the intersection with politics. He also addresses critics of the Bishops in these matters.

I have little doubt that there are some who will view this video who will not be satisfied with anything less than a public excommunication of all pro-abortion politicians, or at least a command that they refrain from Holy Communion. I further understand that some would like clear denunciations of anyone who voted for the current President. But the Cardinal stops short of these sorts of things.

However, what I would ask is that all of us listen carefully to His Eminence. He is not only the Archbishop of Chicago, but has led the Bishops as the head of the USCCB. As such he articulates the views of many bishops and we owe him, in justice, a careful listening.

The bishops themselves do not march in lock step when it comes to prudential decisions about how to handle the difficult intersection of abortion and politics. Hence, while some of who read here regularly will wish for more punitive and/or exclusionary measures, a careful assessment of the Cardinal George’s remarks may prove helpful in understanding a different point of view.

Cardinal George is no theological outlier. He is a solid theologian, and one who has been most helpful in matters such as the new translation of the Mass and other matters important to Church discipline and theological concerns.

Clearly the matters of which he speaks are “powder-keg” issues and they may elicit strong feelings, one way or the other. And, while you are most encouraged to comment here, I ask you to be careful. Bishops are our shepherds who deserve respect. And if you wish to express an wish that he or other bishops act or think differently, I ask that you do in the spirit of charity and the respect due to one of our appointed leaders. There is a reason you and I are not bishops, so a little humility is also helpful in such discussions.

With that in mind, here are the remarks of Cardinal George who is quite frank in his remarks and frames the issues quite well. Though the remarks given here were from 2009, they have received very few hits at YouTube. I had never seen them before, and perhaps you have not either. Remember too, his Eminence is speaking in the moment, not from a prepared text. This makes his comments engaging on the one hand, but also quick and to the point. Carefully prepared remarks may admit of more distinctions etc., but these are live, in the moment reflections, remember that context.

The Role of the Clergy in Elections – Limits and Principles

We have just completed an election cycle and experienced yet another tidal change in the political realm. On this blog as well as others there are frequent comments that express frustration with the clergy that we are not more directive in how and for whom to vote. The most common frustration expressed here has been that priests and bishops do not directly say to the faithful that they cannot, in good conscience vote for any candidate who is pro-choice. Every now and then a certain priest may be quoted to this effect and he is either praised as a hero or excoriated as a partisan tool, out of his boundaries.

What is the right and prudent thing for a priest to do in these matters, particularly as elections come and go? I would like to explore the question by making reference to an important source document that sets forth some criteria. The document is Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion  by [then] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. The document, really a memo, to the Bishops  is not meant to specifically address how priests should handle the issue of elections. Rather it’s main focus is to address the worthiness to receive Holy Communion and how Bishops and pastors should handle the problem of Catholic legislators who vote to fund abortion. Nevertheless it gives some principles that can be applied to elections as well. Let’s review some of the principles set forth in that document.

  1. Abortion is a very grave evil. The document states The Church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin…..there is a “grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. […] In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law or vote for it’” ( E.V., 73). Christians have a “grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. (WTRHC, # 2)
  2. Abortion has a higher priority than many other issues – The document states, Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia (WTRHC # 3).
  3. Direct or formal cooperation in the evil of Abortion excludes one from receiving Holy Communion– Direct or formal participation in abortion would involve things like performing an abortion, procuring an abortion, paying for an abortion, directly advising and assisting one to seek an abortion and providing information, transportation, etc.,  providing other resources for the abortion to take place such as the owners of a clinic providing space, and so forth. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger also defined the following as direct or formal cooperation in abortion: consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws (WTRHC # 5). Hence Politicians who do this are formally cooperating in abortion and are excluded from receiving Holy Communion according to the memo. The document instructs the pastor of such legislators and others who formally cooperate in the evil of abortion to instruct them to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until such time as they repent or their formal cooperation in this grave evil. Surely such counseling should include pastoral dimensions wherein the pastor teaches from Scripture that the unworthy reception of Communion not only is of no avail but actually brings further condemnation upon the unworthy recipient  (1 Cor 11:29). Salutary reminders of final judgment and the strong likelihood of Hell are also called for in a matter this serious. Pastors have this duty if they become aware of any Catholic who is involved in formal cooperation with the grave evil of abortion or euthanasia. They have the duty to exhort such individuals to immediate and complete repentance in order to save their souls. Surely there will also be the need for compassion especially in the cases of women and others who have felt compelled to seek abortion under various forms of duress. The Sacrament of Confession is surely and generously offered to all who seek mercy and have repented. Additionally, Pastors have the duty to remind all Catholics about mortal sin in general and the need for worthy reception of Communion.

But what of those Catholics who vote for pro-choice politicians? Are they also guilty of formal or direct cooperation in the evil of abortion? The document has this to say:

A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons (WTRC – Concluding note).

Hence a priest is not permitted, per se, to conclude that all his parishioners who vote for pro-choice candidates are in sin for doing so and/or are unworthy to receive Holy Communion. There could be certain cases, as then Cardinal Ratzinger describes, wherein the pro-choice position was the reason that candidate got their vote, but this is not always or even usually the case. Most vote for a particular candidate for a whole host of reasons. One of those reasons, cannot be the candidate’s stand supporting abortion. Their vote must be based on other “proportionate” reasons. This notation in the document seems to yield some principles related to elections and the clergy’s role in preparing the faithful.

  1. A pastor, directly stating to his people that they should not for “Candidate A” may be going too far. Note that the document states that it is possible for Catholics to have proportionate reasons to vote for Candidate A even if he is pro-choice. While many of us may find this odious and could never even think of voting for such a candidate it does seem that then-Cardinal Ratizinger indicates such circumstances can prevail. Since the faithful have this freedom to exercise their judgment in this regard, it seems that the clergy should not usurp their judgment utterly by absolutely excluding certain, even pro-choice candidates.
  2. The determination of “proportionate reasons” is a matter involving prudential judgment . There may be legitimate differences among Catholics as to what those “proportionate” reasons might be. Some respect for the fact that these are prudential judgments is called for. Catholics may often have vigorous debates about proper priorities in voting but the document does not etch in stone what a “proportionate reason” is or is not. Hence debate should involve some mutual respect for the nature of prudential judgment. Many of us who are strongly pro-life cannot imagine any reason to vote for a pro-choice candidate of any party, ever. And yet there are issues that evoke passion and concern for others (while not excluding abortion) such as questions of war and peace, economic policy that includes justice for the poor, affordable housing, immigrant issues, responsible fiscal policy, and so forth. Like it or not, the document permits some considerations of other issues as long as they are proportionate.
  3. The Clergy must help the faithful make proper judgments and understand what is meant by proportionate reasons.  Prudential judgments require a well formed conscience. Teaching the faithful is an important role that Bishops, priests and deacons must  fulfill. Helping Catholics assess priorities and be well informed on all the moral and social issues is an essential and on-going work, not just at election time, but throughout the year.
  4. As stated in the document and quoted above, abortion and euthanasia have an important priority: Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia (WTRHC  # 3). This is for the reasons stated there. Hence it does not seem wrong for the clergy to give special emphasis to the evil of Abortion and also Euthanasia as they instruct the faithful in what it means to have proportionate reasons. At the same time these two central, moral issues of our day should not entirely eclipse other important issues either.  Other moral issues such as same sex-“Marriage,” and social matters such as justice for the poor and immigrants, fair labor laws, affordable housing, educational reform and so forth are also important aspects of Catholic teaching that cannot wholly be neglected or set aside.

I realize this post will spur a great deal of controversy. But I have tried to stick to the document written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. That document could not be clearer that abortion is a grave moral evil and that Bishops and Pastors have serious obligations to warn the faithful that any advocacy or funding of this evil, is direct, formal cooperation. It is a grave sin and excludes one from Communion. At the same time the document respects the prudential judgment that is involved in voting and distinguishes that act from direct or formal cooperation in abortion.  This is what the document actually says. Hence, I invite your comments but encourage you to tie them back to the actual contents of the memo from then-Cardinal Ratzinger. We may all have certain wishes as to what the document should say, but in the end it says what it says. I am especially interested in your thoughts as to what priests can or can’t do in the close vicinity to actual election day, given what this document has to say.

As for me, I cannot believe that our country ever came to the place where candidates proudly run under the banner of supporting legal abortion. Something is deeply wrong with us and I pray that this great scourge will end. I don’t think any Catholic can steer clear of how very grave the sin of abortion is. While the document leaves open the notion of  proportionate reasons, it seems clear that the horrible gravity of this crime must weigh very heavily in any moral reasoning surrounding the question of proportionate reasons to vote for pro-choice candidates. There is a judgment upon this land for what we are permitting and we have every obligation to be clear what side we are on and fight to end this scourge.

If Abortion is Just a "Political Issue" Then is it Political Killing?

Just about every priest who has ever preached against Abortion has had the experience that someone will accuse him, when he does so, of talking about politics and being “too political.”

Of course the answer is that abortion is a moral issue on which the Church has always taught consistently. For what ever reason, the main political parties in this land of our have staked out different positions on the issue, so that in the political sphere abortion has a partisan tendency. But that is a fairly new phenomenon as we shall see. The Catholic Church however has taught against abortion from the very start, long before the existence of the Democratic or Republican Parties. For example the Didache, written sometime between 90 – 11o AD says:

You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill those who are  born. (Didache, 2)

Now the last time I checked my history books, 110 AD is a time that predates the American political scene or the founding of the Democratic or Republican Parties. I also checked my most sophisticated calendars and found that 110 AD predates the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and the political shaking out and dividing that followed it. It would seem therefore that Church Teaching on Abortion predates the American Political scene and that we have a pretty long track record of teaching against abortion.  It is unfair to say we have simply picked sides in a political battle. Our stance against abortion is principled, moral and in accord with biblical and ancient norms that require us to respect innocent life in the womb.

Partisan division over abortion is actually a rather recent phenomenon. Even in the direct aftermath of Roe v. Wade in 1973, there was not an immediate political relignment of the main parties on either side of the issue. For example, many prominent Democrats had pro-life stands well into the 1980s.

  1. Al Gore, during his tenure in the U.S. House (1977 to 1984) voted pro-life 27 times and had a 84% pro-life voting record. In 1980, he wrote a letter to NATIONAL RIGHT TO LIFE, supporting the Hyde Amendment. In letters to constituents, he wrote: It is my deep personal conviction that abortion is wrong. I hope that some day we will see the current outrageously large number of abortions drop sharply. (Letters from Sept. 15, 1983, August 22, 1984). In 1984, he voted for the following Amendment to the Civil Rights Act:  For the purposes of this act, the term ‘person’ shall include unborn children from the moment of conception.  Sadly, the amendment was defeated.
  2. Then Governor Bill Clinton  wrote to  Arkansas Right to Life on September 26, 1986,  I am opposed to abortion and to government funding of abortions. We should not spend state funds on abortions because so many people believe abortion is wrong.
  3. Rev Jesse Jackson endorsed the Hyde Amendment and wrote in an open letter to Congress that he opposed federal funds used for “killing infants.”  He also wrote the following statement in a 1977 National Right to Life News article: There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of [a] higher order than the right to life … that was the premise of slavery. You could not protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation because that was private and therefore outside your right to be concerned. …”What happens to the mind of a person, and the moral fabric of a nation, that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience? What kind of a person and what kind of a society will we have 20 years hence if life can be taken so casually? ….It is that question, the question of our attitude, our value system, and our mind-set with regard to the nature and worth of life itself that is the central question confronting mankind. Failure to answer that question affirmatively may leave us with a hell right here on earth.
  4. Senator Edward Kennedy wrote to a constituent in 1971 just prior to Roe V. Wade and had this to say:  While the deep concern of a woman bearing an unwanted child merits consideration and sympathy, it is my personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized — the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grown old…..When history looks back to this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.

These are just a few examples. But calling abortion “a political issue” is not only flawed because it is a moral issue, but it also over simplifies the political scene. There has recently been a strong partisan trend, but it is recent. And, even today there are pro-life democrats and even a few pro-abortion Republicans.

There also seems to be a logical flaw in those who want to insist that abortion is a political issue that should be banished from the pulpit. I don’t have it all worked out but imagine the following conversation:

  1. You say that abortion is a political matter? –
  2. Yes.
  3. Why?
  4. Well, when you denounce it from the pulpit you are supporting the Republican party.
  5. So you want to insist that abortion is a political matter?
  6. Yes.
  7. Well, if that is the case, then it seems you support political killing.
  8. No , I don’t.  I don’t agree with State sponsored assassination and killing.
  9. But you said that abortion is political. Now abortion is about killing, and if its just a political matter, then it’s political killing you support.
  10. Well I don’t mean that and you know it.
  11. Well then don’t call abortion political. It is a moral issue and I have every right and duty to speak on it.

Abortion is not a political matter. It is a moral one and the Church can and must speak of it. Sadly it is not the only only moral issue that has been politicized by the world (e.g. Homosexuality, stem cell research, Gay marriage etc.). But the Church was here long before the political stars aligned as they have and She will be here long after they have realigned.

If you get a chance to see this 10 minute video it is worth it. It described the amazing miracle of life in the womb.

The Politician and the "Private" Sin: Christine O’Donnell Runs Afoul of the "New Morality"

Christine O’Donnell, the Republican nominee for the US Senate from Delaware has surely run afoul of the advocates of the “new morality.” She has most surely transgressed by speaking against, premarital sex, homosexual activity and masturbation. The ABC News video below speaks of her positions as “eye-brow raising.”

Now this is not a political blog and I am not attempting to enter a realm where I am unskilled and uncomfortable. Further, I am not trying to make a hero of Christine O’Donnell. It has been my experience with politicians of every stripe that if you expect them to be real heroes in the moral realm, they will almost always let you down. Sadly Ms. O’Donnell is already showing signs of backtracking by indicating her statements (especially about masturbation) came from a time when her faith was “immature.” In “Kennedyesque” fashion she is quoted in the video below as saying her faith will not be her guide, just the Constitution when she goes to Washington.

Since it has come up in the news, I want to discuss Catholic teaching on masturbation. Clearly Ms. O’Donnell’s remarks on that topic have elicited many negative reactions from derision to scorn. And yet the consideration of masturbation as a sin is standard Catholic teaching.  Hence the scorn and derision, the laugh-out-loud ridicule that anyone would take such a notion seriously reflects also upon Catholic, and I would argue, Biblical teaching. So let’s look at the reasoning behind Catholic teaching on masturbation and why it is considered sinful.

First let’s be honest, masturbation is a hard topic to talk about. Many people experience significant embarrassment in relation to this topic. Many even struggle to say the word out loud. It is, for many, a humiliating matter to discuss in confession, or with others. It is the “private” sin. Some use euphemisms in their mentioning of it: “solitary self abuse” or just “self abuse.” Others refer to it with irreverent words and phrases I cannot repeat here. But the fact is, many are hesitant to discuss masturbation. Parents struggle as how and what to teach their children. Children struggle to speak to parents. Priests and educators in Catholic schools often dread to raise the topic in mixed company. And so the pattern goes. Hence this teaching is poorly understood or even known by many.

What is wrong with masturbation?– At the heart of masturbation is sexual fantasizing. To the degree that this fantasizing is willful, one commits sin. Consider this passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matt 5:27-30)

In understanding this passage we need to begin with what it means to look at someone with lust. While there is some debate as to its exact meaning we ought to exclude a few things from it. First it is not wrong or lustful to experience some one as being attractive. It is a normal thing for a man to see beauty in a woman, or a woman to find a man handsome. This is not lust, it is a God-given appreciation for beauty and part of the essential attraction God himself has given to draw men and women to each other in marriage and ultimately to procreation. Secondly, it can be a rather common occurrence that sexual thoughts occur in the mind about someone we find attractive. This is usually a spontaneous thought and may not be willed at all. It just occurs and we usually dismiss it as inappropriate. This too is usually excluded from the notion of lustful  thinking because it is not willed and hence is not a sin,  if it is not entertained.

But where lust begins is when we begin to fanaticize sexually about someone in a way that is willful. We have these thoughts and not only accept them but also entertain and dwell on them. This is where looking lustfully begins. Now this look may be of a person right before us or it may be the inward look of the imagination of some one we know or have imagined. This is what makes masturbation sinful for it clearly involves fantasizing about sexual activity about some one not our spouse. It is a a form of lustful looking or lustful thinking. To the degree that it is connected to pornography, its sinfulness is increased. So the essential wrongness of masturbation is the lustful thoughts that accompany it.

Now it may be popular today to ridicule anyone who sees masturbation as wrong and to make light of masturbation as of no account. Yet, the Lord did not have this attitude. He actually speaks quite strongly in the passage above using vivid hyperbole, (exaggeration), to underscore that this is something to take seriously. In indicating that the eye should be gouged out or the hand be cut off, he is not speaking literally. But the Jewish expression amounts to saying that it is a more serious thing to sin in this way that to lose your eye or hand. He goes on to warn that lustful thinking (a widespread problem today) can lead to hell. So, we ought to consider again if we choose to make light of lustful thinking and masturbation. The Lord did not take this attitude and neither should we.

The Struggle is Recognized – It is a true fact that many people, especially the unmarried, struggle to be entirely free of this sin and there may be things that limit a person’s freedom. But making light of the sin is no way to win a battle. Balance is necessary so that a person who struggles with this sin is not devastated by a morbid, unproductive guilt, but neither are they unmotivated by a false presumption that nothing is wrong here.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks well and pastorally on the sin of masturbation:

By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.” 

To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability. (CCC #2352)

Hence, one will notice that, while the Catechism is clear to state the sinful nature of masturbation there is also pastoral recognition that there are factors that make this sin difficult for some to overcome. While it is an objectively serious sin, there can be subjective matters that lessen culpability (blameworthiness).

Time will prove where wisdom lies – So the Church is not a prudish mother with no sensitivity. But sex has a purpose and a place: it is oriented to the marital relationship, to procreation and it’s place is thus marriage. Masturbation strays from this and is also rooted in the lustful thinking condemned by Jesus. The world may laugh, but the Church is being faithful to the Lord’s teaching here. These days the Gospel is out of season, but the the Lord, through St. Paul, told us to preach it even when it is out of season (2 Tim 4:2). Let the world laugh, but time will prove where wisdom lies.

A final thought. Masturbation as indulging fantasy is also problematic. It is generally not a good idea to indulge in a lot of fantasy. When this is done the real world can seem less appealing, even disappointing. Sexual fantasizing involves imaging the perfect and ideal sexual encounter. The other person is perfect, wholly willing and when pleasure has been achieved they vanish. This is not real. In the real setting people are not perfect, do not share in identical preferences and pleasures. Real people have moods, imperfections and inadequacies as well as good qualities. Further, a spouse does not vanish after sexual intercourse. They remain there with needs, struggles, ups and downs. Real sex is with a person and happens in relationship. (Clearly this relationship should be marriage). Masturbation side-steps all this and imagines something quite unreal. To indulge this is unhealthy and can lead to unrealistic expectations.

The use of pornography can escalate this unreality dramatically. Air-brushed photos of relationless sex often depicting exotic and extreme versions of sexual behavior can destroy appreciation for normal, natural sex with a real person in the relationship of marriage. Pornography and sexual fantasy are very unhealthy in terms of preparing one for the real relationship of marriage. It is no wonder that in these lustful times so permeated with pornography that marriage and family are so devastated.

Why Anne Rice is Wrong: The Intersection of the Church and Politics Cannot be Reduced to Simplistic Labels.

The recent and public proclamations of two prominent women, one Catholic the other Protestant, highlight the growing conflicts at the intersection of faith, politics and culture. Author, Anne Rice, who had returned to the Catholic Faith in 1998, recently “renounced” her Christian Faith. And Kirsten Powers, a Fox News analyst and former Clinton Administration official, has written in her defense. The comments of both women show how increasingly difficult it is for the Church to negotiate the delicate balance of proclaiming moral truth and yet not transgressing  political and cultural boundaries by “taking sides” or forging alliances with parties and movements.

Here are some quotes from these women:

  1. Anne Rice from her Facebook Page –   “I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”
  2. Kirsten Powers writing yesterday in The Daily BeastI feel your pain, sister. Like Rice, I developed a deep faith later in life and, like her, I brought with me liberal views that aren’t normally associated with devout Christians….American Christianity is suffering from a hangover from decades of indoctrination by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and a host of other religious leaders who falsely cloaked right-wing Republicanism in biblical principles. Worse, these leaders modeled the decidedly un-Christian behavior of treating certain groups with contempt. Even if Robertson et al. were actually justified in viewing liberals, gays, feminists, and Muslims as their enemy, their response is simply not rooted in Scripture. (See, for example, “love your enemies” and “bless those who persecute you.”) A popular bumper sticker—”I love Jesus but I hate his fan club”—reflects this growing frustration with the church among devout Christians. Something needs to change, or more Anne Rices are going to walk away. The full article by Ms. Powers is here: Kirsten Powers on Anne Rice’s Christianity Crisis

Now there are any number of things I personally object to in Ms. Rice’s comments. Referring to us as “infamous” borders on Religious bigotry. In her “anti”  list I particularly object to the anti-science, and anti-gay labels. The Church has a very nuanced and smart position viz. science wherein we respect science’s role and only object when certain scientists  transgress into philosophical and religious pronouncements. As for being “anti-Gay:”  It is difficult when an individual or group wants to insist that its entire identity be described by particular form sexual activity which the Scriptures we revere and must obey call sinful, it is unreasonable to expect approval from the Church. But disapproval does not equate to hate as many claim or simple and crude “anti-gay” agenda. The Catholic Church is not anti-gay, we simply cannot approve of any sexual activity outside of marriage and have a principled, Biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality. What is demanded of us is unreasonable. In fact her whole diatribe is simplistic in that it lacks any proper distinctions or respect for the nuances of Catholic and Christian views.

As for Ms. Powers’ comments she too uses words that are unnecessary. Why must she describe Christians as treating certain groups with “contempt?”  Is it now contempt to disagree or stand opposed to the seismic cultural shifts that have taken place in West?  And why the word “enemy?”  Is the fact that Christians oppose aspects of the gay agenda, for example,  mean that Christians necessarily see Gays as enemies? Why are such words used and do they not express the contempt for us that they criticize? Is it not possible for Christians to have principled differences with advocates of the new morality without being charged with contempt and being told we are treating people as enemies, that we are unloving and refusing to bless others?

But the deeper issue I want to explore is the implied critique that Catholics and Traditional Christians are wrong to build alliances in the political and secular realm. The simplistic form of the charge is that traditional Christians (to include Catholics) are just an arm of the Republican Party. I want to suggest that this is both simplistic and inaccurate. I also want to address the charge that it is wrong for the Church to develop alliances.  Let’s begin with a little history.

There is a long history of alliances – While the Church has never officially embraced a political party, political alliances have historically been evident. In the past, until the emergence of the Regan Democrats, Catholic voters were  a reliably  Democratic voting block. There were also many alliances forged between Church leaders and Democratic leaders. Issues such as labor, and labor unions, justice, minimum wage, and care for the poor forged deep alliances between Catholics and Democrats at all levels in the Church. In the years of the Civil Rights Movement the Christian Churches were the central pillar of that movement and a large number of Catholic Clergy, Sisters and lay leaders were active in the movement. The Civil rights movement forged important alliances with civic and political leaders to evoke lasting change. There were also countless alliances that developed between the Catholic Church, Protestant denominations and civic and political leaders to address a wide variety of local issues such as education, economic justice and development in poor neighborhoods, crime, traffic hazards and the like. So there is nothing new about the Church being out in the community and in the political realm forging alliances for matters deemed important.

Now in the first 70 years of the 20th Century the social and moral issues of abortion, euthanasia, homosexual activity, stem cell research and the like were not largely disputed and some didn’t even exist yet. Most Americans agreed essentially on such matters and that they were wrong. Generally then in these years the alliance was strong between the Democratic Party and Catholics due to the issues involved and the politics of the time.

After 1973 and the Roe v. Wade decision the alliance began to experience its first rifts. But not at first. In the initial years after Roe many prominent Democrats were against Abortion. For example Al Gore, Harry Reid, Jessie Jackson and others protested abortion. Abortion was not at first a strongly partisan issue. But in the decade following Roe, the pro-Choice position began to become Democratic orthodoxy. Pro-life democrats were increasingly hard to find and the party’s platform became officially pro-Choice. Little by little the Republican Party stood forth as increasingly pro-Life and this position was adopted as the official position of the GOP platform. One by one the other moral issues began to divide out along party lines as well.

And here we are today with a host of critical moral issues of which the Church cannot remain silent but in which political divisions are sharp. So sharp are these political divisions that when the Church speaks on what ARE plainly moral issues (eg. Abortion, Homosexual marriage, contraceptives and abortions to minors, stem cell research etc.) she is said to be getting too political, or to talking politics from the pulpit, or promoting a Republican Agenda. And yet these are clearly moral issues which fair minded individuals realize the Church cannot simply ignore.

And hence, new alliances are forming between the Church and the world of politics. Since most all these matters involve public policy, public funds, legislation and the like, the Church cannot be part of the discussion and seek to influence outcomes without bumping up against legislators who, by the way, also happen to be politicians. So the Church and other Christians do what we have always done, we form alliances to address these issues and influence their outcome. It is not just the Church that does this, everyone does this.

Now the point thus far is that political alliances are nothing new in Catholicism. While not being a partisan faith, it is just a fact that strong partnerships have been formed over the past 100 years between the Church and the Democrats in the past, increasingly the Republicans now. Seismic shifts in the culture have led to seismic shifts in the political landscape and led to shifting alliances.

Now that some of these alliances are seen as conservative or Republican some say, “tisk, tisk.”  But such scolding did not come from these same people or  secular media when the alliances were more left of center.

But what of the charge that the Catholic Church is merely an outpost of the Republican Party? It is true,  as has already been stated, there are more alliances withthe right of center and the Republican Party than in the past. This is for the reasons stated. But the fact is, the Catholic Church holds many positions that do not conform to “right-wing politics” and has alliances far broader than one party. The Church is generally pro-immigration, opposes the death penalty, and insists on proper care for the poor. The Pope and most of the Bishops opposed our initiation of the Iraq War. More locally my own parish and most other parishes in the City of Washington belong to a non-partisan group called the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN). Together with Protestant congregations, we number over fifty congregations who develop partnerships with City government and civic organizations to ensure the availability of affordable housing, redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods, restoration of public libraries and recreation centers. Most recently we gathered the Candidates for Mayor and City Council Chair and  secured their promise to work with us on a detailed and multi-faceted jobs initiative to get people back to work. Every month, I along withother clergy and Church leaders in WIN are down at the District Building holding their feet to fire and developing alliances to ensure that these promises are fulfilled.

It is also true outside the Interfaith Network that we Catholic Clergy, along with some Protestant Ministers worked hard to fight the Gay “Marriage” Bill. We have also fought hard for opportunity scholarships for inner city kids and opposed any expansion of Abortion funding.

So what are we? What is the Church? Is it really true to say that we are just shills for the Republican Party? That hardly seems fair. What if we are just Christians who fight for what we value? And the truth is, those values aren’t so easily categorized as Anne Rice and Kirsten Powers think.  We, like everyone else in this country form  alliances, to fight for what we value. But in the Catholic Church those alliances are not as monolithic as some of our critics claim.

Perhaps a personal litany to end: I am against abortion and they call me a Republican. I oppose Capital Punishment and they call me a Democrat. I am against Gay Marriage and many aspects of the Gay agenda and they say, “O see he’s a Republican!” I work for affordable housing and insist that jobs be the priority for the City agenda and they say, “See he’s a Democrat.” And all this time what I was trying to be is a Christian.