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Thinking and writing at the intersection of faith and culture. We focus on both sacred and secular issues, and everything in between, because God does too.
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One-Minute Homily: Transfigured Darkness

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 22:41

At times, God seems so close, though those moments can be rare. Still, darkness is not the end of the story. Check out Fr. Michael Rossmann’s One-Minute Homily on the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Budgeting Love

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 22:59

The Trump budget reflects American values, but betrays the American people.

The US budget is incredibly complex, full of mandatory and discretionary funding for dozens of agencies. The budget also tries to respond to the needs of hundreds of millions of people. As a whole, the proposed Trump budget does not support the common good or preferential option for the poor. It relies on increased military spending and drastic decreases in programs that support the poor and the marginalized.

This budget, however, is not at all new in this regard. For decades, we’ve seen increases in military and law enforcement, while shortchanging vital programs like SNAP and Section 8 Housing. These discrepancies often rely on a false narrative of the undeserving poor. The budget reflects some of the worst parts of our American identity, such as disregard for the poor, the marginalized, and the common good.

While it would be easy to blame Trump for this budget, it is a reflection of the politics and the people that elected him: America. It is time for us to take a serious look at how the budget is a moral document, and how we must radically alter it to serve the common good.

 

Opioid Epidemic (Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Justice)

Trump’s proposed budget rightly seeks to tackle the American opioid epidemic. The drug crisis is impacting rural, urban, rich, and poor communities alike. According to The Hill, addiction deaths increased over 25% from 2015 to 2016. In response, the administration is proposed $13billion in funding directed toward curbing drug trade and funding addiction recovery. The Department of Health and Human Services offers a 5-part plan: improving prevention, treatment, and recovery; increased availability of overdose-reversing medicine; better public health data and report; research on pain and addiction; and better care practices for pain management. Beyond those five goals, however, the exact how-to becomes much murkier. Moreover, increased funding would go to law enforcement and the justice system for tough-on-drug legislation and arrests.

While the war on drugs looks good, it’s incredibly ineffective, costly, and damaging to communities. As a whole, Trump is commendable for making an effort to tackling the opioid crisis. His proposed funds, however, would be much better utilized using a public health framework that addresses the myriad of factors around drugs, such as despair deaths, rampant poverty, and other health factors.

 

Farmers, Food Stamps, and Forests

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) could have its own article. This agency maintains many absolutely vital sub-agencies and programs, such as SNAP, grain and meat inspection, conservation programs, the Forest Service, Rural Development, and more. Each of these plays incredibly important roles in the US and is needed perhaps now more than ever. As a whole, the proposed budget would cut USDA funding by $3.5billion, or about 15%. The department, however, has relatively small expenditures when compared to others; but its programs have incredible impact.

For example, the proposed budget would eliminate crop insurance programs. The insurance supports farmers in cases of underperforming crops or natural disasters. Proponents of the cuts say it would save $20billion over the next decade. The budget would also eliminate or reduce loan programs that help farmers to update their homes. However, farmer income is at a 12-year low. Moreover, the loneliness, economic tumult, and difficulty of farming is taking its toll. Farmers now have a suicide rate five times that of the general population and double that of veterans. It is abundantly clear that these programs must remain.

The threats to the USDA budget also include reducing SNAP, cutting conservation programs that not only protect the environment but increase the viability of farms, attempts to push the cost of food safety onto the farmers and ranchers themselves. While not perfect, these programs have nevertheless been incredibly impactful and important for supporting the poor and the common good.

 

National Park Service (Department of Interior)

Parks are one of my absolute favorite aspects of the US, preserving both our natural beauty and our national history. Its service to the environment and the well-being of communities is astronomical. Under the proposed budget, Department of Interior (DOI) funding would decrease 11.5%, focused largely in cutting what Trump describes as duplicate programs and redundant jobs. Despite park visitation at its highest ever, those cuts will lay off over 1,800 NPS employees. The budget offers to address the massive backlog of deferred maintenance through $18billion in new funding. However, only $257million will be guaranteed – the other $17.743billion comes from massive land sales, leases, and oil/mineral extraction that doesn’t currently exist, but the budget assumes will exist in the next 10 years. These sales also assume the ability for the DOI to sell off massive amounts of public land.

You might be thinking that issues surrounding national parks don’t exactly demonstrate preferential option for the poor. And in a way, you’re right – as it stands, park visitation is overwhelmingly wealthy, white, and those with easy access to travel. These patterns often lean on negative/positive stereotypes that hurt the community’s future. My fear is that the proposed budget cut pieces like the Office of Relevance, Diversity, and Inclusion, further endangering public lands and the communities they serve. Whereas I would hope to see drastically increased funding for the NPS, especially to employ and serve poorer communities, the Trump budget significantly decreases funding.

 

Amtrak, Independent Agency

I love trains. I grew up hearing train horns gently roll through my bedroom window on summer evenings and setting up a toy train around the Christmas tree. Living in Milwaukee, I frequently take the train between here and Chicago, and have taken it several times on cross-country adventures. According to a CityLab in 2012, Amtrak’s ridership is up 49% since 2000, but still depends on states and the federal government for funding. The current Trump proposal pushes funding for long-haul rides (think LA to Chicago) from federal to state governments. The budget will almost halve Amtrak funding from $1.4 billion to under $750million. Millennials (myself included) are moving more toward trains and other transit. Decreasing funding here would negatively impact rural and urban communities alike, as well as the future of train ridership.

While often having beautiful routes, Amtrak provides other key qualities. As a country, we desperately need to address climate change. Trains produce significantly fewer carbon emissions than cars and planes, especially in places like the Northeast Corridor. Several projects have proposed increasing high speed trains between major cities, such as the Twin Cities to Chicago (with possibilities of later adding St. Louis and New Orleans). Such projects could drastically reduce travel’s environmental impact. Moreover, trains provide valuable service to incredibly rural and frequently underserved communities. Amtrak reaches about 40% of America’s rural population, frequently in places that buses and planes do not go. Decreasing funding for Amtrak threatens both attempts to fight climate change, as well as serving rural communities.

 

The Whole Budget

As a whole, the budget attempts to reduce American spending and cut what Trump deems frivolous or ineffective spending. The proposed budget, however, places that burden primarily on the poor and marginalized, but on the common good as a whole. This budget would prove incredibly detrimental to vital programs that sustain the American people. Some of the budget has strong intentions – attempting to aid those struggling with addiction – but uses techniques that have proved ineffective. Other portions, however, are abhorrent in the harm they do. To solely blame Trump for this budget would be a falsehood. This is a budget that projects and supports American values at play over the last few decades. America must take a deep, long, and likely painful look at how the budget mirrors its beliefs, and clearly change for the good of all.

 

For additional reading, check out the following:

Breakdown of budget changes by department

Budget Blueprint

Chart breakdown of budget changes by department

Complete Presidential Budget Proposal

Categories: Things Jesuit

Tonya Harding and Yuzuru Hanyu: A Love Story?

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 02:01

Before last Thursday night, I didn’t know Yuzuru Hanyu existed. Less than 24 hours later, I wanted Yuzuru Hanyu to fall to the ice. Hard. I didn’t want to see him injured, mind you. But I certainly didn’t want him to win.

Everything about him annoyed me, his seemingly effortless quadruple jumps, the throngs of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ stuffed toys that littered the ice after his performances. When it comes to the Men’s Figure Skating Olympic competition, I wasn’t ‘all-in’ on anyone. I was ‘all-out’ on Hanyu.

This isn’t a veiled revelation of my hard and fast belief in American exceptionalism – the US hasn’t had a good Olympics, and I don’t mind. I think it’s good for us to remember that sometimes, the United States finishes 6th or worse. My longing for Hanyu to fall was more visceral.

Let’s put it this way. I’m not a Philadelphia Eagles fan, and I’m not a New England Patriots fan. When people asked me who I wanted to win Super Bowl LII, I’d say, “the Green Bay Packers.” I started watching the game as indifferent as possible, with perhaps a slight leaning toward New England out of loyalty to my friend’s father. As the game carried on, though, I was amazed (and, to be honest, alarmed) by how badly I wanted Tom Brady to lose. At the end of it I almost felt vindicated, such was my joy that Nick Foles had come out on top.

In exactly the opposite fashion, I felt robbed of something as Hanyu stayed on his elegant, spirited feet for the duration of his free skate and donned his second gold medal.

Now, five days later, I’m wondering – why did I care so much? And, why am I still thinking about it?

***

I went to see ‘I, Tonya’ the other night with a friend. This was BH – before Hanyu.

It’s a rowdy, sad story. In watching, I remembered a pre-teen Eric watching the Harding / Kerrigan debacle unfold on ABC Nightly News. I remember the red-cheeked Harding, golden-bladed skate propped up on the judge’s table, tears of panic streaming down her face as she complained of a broken lace. I remembered Harding’s downfall and ultimate seat in the halls of true American outcasts. I remembered the name Jeff Gillooly.

The film revealed as such, but more. A young Tonya skating through her mother’s second-hand smoke. A slightly older Tonya hunting with her father and wearing the fruits of the labor – a handmade rabbit-fur coat. That same father leaving her behind. A daughter, knife stuck in her arm after a nasty argument. A wife, beaten, bruised, manipulated. Bad judgment, made mistakes on and off the ice.

Sadly, she’s not the first person to endure these kinds of hardships. Whatever of the film is true (and, I suspect much of it is true to some degree), Tonya Harding deserved a better life.

And yet, in the face of tremendous adversity, Tonya Harding remains singular for one reason. The triple axel.

It’s the only figure skating jump that takes off from a forward-facing position and, after three and a half rotations, lands smoothly in reverse on the opposite foot. Tonya Harding is the first American woman to land it in competition, back in 1991. To date, only seven women have ever landed it in any competition.

When I got home after the movie, I laid in my bed and watched her 1991 routine three times in a row. Each time, my heart prepared for a fall, and each time, it leaped just as she did.

***

It’s wrong to presume that Yuzuru Hanyu’s life has been easy; every life has trials, Olympic-sized or otherwise. Unquestionably, he has put thousands and thousands of hours into his craft. We didn’t see any of that. To the world watching, he made everything on that ice look easy. He is a master, and I was lucky to see his virtuosity come alive.

Which makes my reaction to him all the more problematic. Either I want to knock him down to my level, or I resent his talent. I want him to fall because he’s at the top of his game, and I’m bumbling along. He swims in a sea of Pooh dolls, thrown at him in utter delight of his gift. I swim in a sea of shade, thrown at me because I’m a school administrator. At the end of the day, I’m probably jealous that he does things I wish I could do; my Olympic daydreams persist in spite of my aging and creaky 35-year-old frame.

Wrapped in the cinematic experience, though, the triple axel that Tonya Harding landed in 1991 felt more like a miracle than an athletic feat. It was a statement of defiance for someone who, by little fault of her own, had never been taken seriously and had never felt the support she deserved. It happened before Nancy, before the broken lace, before her subsequent trial and removal from figure skating, before her boxing career, before the movie. I love that she landed it.

Beauty can be revealed both the ease of mastery and in the brilliant struggle. Both. Which is why, tonight, I’ll be watching even more figure skating.

-//-

The cover image, from Flickr user Dustin Gaffke, can be found here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

The Power of ‘Black Panther’

Sun, 02/18/2018 - 23:01

What do we do with power?

Power is an inevitable theme of any superhero movie, but usually power is only realized in the hero herself/himself: Will Superman be strong enough? Will the Flash be fast enough? Will Captain America be true enough? Will Wonder Woman defeat evil and war?

But, the recent Black Panther movie shifts the discussion of power into something different: It is not what will I do, but what will we do with power?

The Black Panther is a superhero from the fictional African country of Wakanda, but more than that, T’Challa is the king. While other heroes are the fighter par excellence of the movie, T’Challa finds that he is needed to be more: “we need a king, not a warrior.” His choices directly affect the country and the people of Wakanda, which makes them different from the usual choice of a superhero: to fight or not to fight.

Black Panther offers something of an origin story of the hero/king, but even more so it offers the story of the people and nation of Wakanda. This nation, gifted with resources of vibranium, has developed technologically far beyond anything on earth—even beyond Hank Pym or Tony Stark’s advanced research. They have energy, technology, and natural resource abundance, but the Wakandans have attained such success only by isolating themselves from the outside world.

Their existence rests on a lie they’ve spread—they’ve claimed, to all the world, to be a poor country of farmers and shepherds. Yet, as T’Challa’s ship flies into Wakanda in one of the opening scenes of Black Panther, we find ourselves faced a beautiful display of Afrofuturism containing a careful balance of beauty, culture, and science. This is where the central tension lies: if we have power, what are we supposed to do with it?

It’s the “we” here that is so striking in terms of the superhero genre. For the Black Panther, the choice is not his alone, but the decision extends to Wakanda. Voices echo throughout the movie advocating for different uses of Wakanda’s power: Save it for ourselves—don’t get involved! We have the power—why shouldn’t we violently fight injustices, especially racial injustices? We have the power—why shouldn’t we rule the world? We have the power—why shouldn’t we share it and help others?

As Black Panther, T’Challa must choose: not what he must do with the power, but what do we do with the power? His choice faces all the complications that we face in our reality. If we provide aid, or welcome, or help to others, are we truly helping them or simply providing power from above? If we provide aid and assistance, will we lose our sense of self or our cultural identity as we encounter others? Will we simply inherit the problems of others?

These considerations are further complicated by questions of guilt, culpability, and injustice. The villain of the movie, Killmonger, has experienced the world outside of Wakanda with all of its racial injustices. Killmonger seeks to rectify these evils by using Wakanda’s power to both punish the perpetrators and to right the injustice—he sees this only possible with a Wakanda ruling over all. This anger towards inequality isn’t simply directed towards white oppressors or those perpetuating racism or cruelty, it is directed towards Wakanda itself.

Killmonger, T’Challa, and many within the movie identify a culpability in Wakanda’s situation: even though they were not the oppressors themselves, by maintaining a position of nonintervention, they have allowed the violence and injustice to happen. They had the power to stop this, they had the power to change things… they have the power now, so what should they do?

No decision neatly resolves the questions facing Wakanda. If Wakanda decides to take over the world to fix injustices, they use the method of the oppressor, perpetuating the violence they sought to end. If they choose to continue isolation, they choose to remain culpable for all of the injustices in the world. If they choose to encounter the world and provide aid, then they must accept their guilt for their past and trust that the world will wisely use the power they share.

Ultimately, T’Challa stands before the world claiming something radical: “We must find a way to look after each other, as if we were one single tribe.” The Black Panther chooses not to hold the power for himself or even just for the people of Wakanda, but to share it with humanity. His closing line demonstrates a non-binary view, not of us-vs-them but of a global we.

Power, abilities, resources, are not to be held by the few for the benefit of the few, but they are to be shared in order to provide for a more just world. Black Panther invites us not simply to view a superhero, but to take part in a super-heroic call to global justice.

-//-

The cover photo is featured courtesy of Bryan Ward of the Flickr Creative Commons. 

Categories: Things Jesuit

Real Lenten Sacrifices

Sun, 02/18/2018 - 10:53
Jesus doesn’t want you to go more to the gym this Lent… Maybe he’s asking for something more. Take a quick listen to Br. Matt Wooters SJ’s “One-Minute Reflection” on the readings for the First Sunday of Lent: http://bit.ly/2Gpoa0A

Categories: Things Jesuit

A Glimpse into Our Humanity

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 23:01

Edward and Alphonse Elric tried to bring their mother back from the dead using alchemy.  It cost Edward his right arm and left leg and Alphonse his entire body.  The story of Fullmetal Alchemist follows their quest to regain their original bodies as they search for the legendary Philosopher’s Stone.

On Monday, February 19th, Netflix begins streaming the live-action adaptation of the series released in Japan on December 1st. Debuting in Japan originally in 2001, the series has spawned two anime adaptations, one in 2003 and another (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood) in 2009 1, anime movies, audio dramas, numerous video game adaptations, and now this live-action film.  

And while critics have not been fond of this film, it is noteworthy that this series has received yet another adaptation, created with the potential of spawning a sequel.  Yet, why does this series continues to receive new adaptations more than seven years after the initial manga completed its run.  In short, why does this series still matter?

Fullmetal Alchemist’s success lies in how much this series grapples with the question of what it means to be human.  

Take the example of Alphonse.  Al’s soul is bonded to a suit of armor, a price he and his brother paid for trying to bring their mother back from the dead.  Much of the first arc of the series deals with Al’s own question of whether or not he is human.  Despite his appearance, he still has a human soul, and the brothers believe his original body still exists somewhere.

But Al’s humanity is fairly easy to accept.  Other characters make that question more difficult.

Early on, the audience encounters three characters named Lust, Gluttony, and Envy, soon to be joined by Greed, Wrath, Sloth, and Pride.  All of these characters, named for the seven deadly sins, are homunculi or artificial humans.  Their motivations and identities can vary from continuity to continuity, but it is also clear that they too have their limits, and sometimes one of them must be replaced with a copy.

[spoilers to follow for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood]

Behind the homunculi lies a character referred to only as Father.  He created the seven homunculi in an attempt to purge himself of these vices and therefore to make himself a perfect person.  Without these sins to weigh him down, Father attempts to reach the power of God himself and become the ultimate being.

And sometimes these vices are more human than he is.  Greed strives after possessions because he is lonely.  He covets these things because he longs for connection in his life, with friends he cares for.  Envy looks down upon all of humanity and intentionally interferes with human affairs in order to cause trouble and chaos.  But underneath all of this is a tremendous inferiority complex.  Envy plays a big game, but is ultimately very tiny.

At times, it can be tempting to think, as Father does, that we can be more human by denying those negative parts of ourselves, parts that we would rather ignore.  And yet without them, we become lifeless, passionless.  We exist, and we may still be able to make plans, but we cease to be ourselves.  We cease to care.

[spoilers end]

One of the most striking elements of the entire world of Fullmetal Alchemist is that each of the main characters in the world are broken people. For example,  Ed lives with guilt and feels responsible for his brother’s state.   And it is through these wounds that the audience can really explore the question of what it means to be human.  Ed and Al have to accept that they are not just broken physically.  Throughout the series, we see Ed learn to share his burdens with Al and with other characters.  He stops feeling sorry about the past and starts living.  And so the brothers pursue their quest with renewed vigor.

The inspiration of Ed’s growth reminds us that we am not bound by the mistakes of our past  nor do we have to pretend to be perfect 2.  We do not have to try to carry our burdens by ourselves.  When we acknowledge our scars and begin to deal with them, we, like the characters in this drama, become more fully human and become more relatable.

-//-

Author’s Note: There is so much more to this series than I could possibly cover in this article, including but not limited to worldbuilding, the system of alchemy and its philosophy, racial/ethnic relationships, and the role of the Truth.

The cover photo is courtesy of Joe Fanal of the Flickr Creative Commons. 

 

Categories: Things Jesuit

A Boy and a Sea Lion

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 02:01

My friends and I found the sea lion exhibit down some stairs past a few enormous trees and between giant fake rock formations. It was a thick glass cross-section of a seashore, complete with jagged  outcroppings and deep diving waters. The air smelled like salt, and I could’ve sworn I heard seagulls overhead. The sea lions laid on rocks. They slept. They barked. They swam. But one had the spotlight.

In an instant I was gone, lost in an alternative universe, snatched from this reality à la what happens when you sink into a superb novel or fall into the dark of a cinema.

The beast was beautiful, a whiskered marvel perfectly sleek, some eight feet of smooth muscle slip and gliding with charming elegance. Its eyes were kind and wide, its mouth was almost smiling. It moved effortlessly through smooth waters.

But there was a boy there –  a skinny boy with a white t-shirt and short hair, pants with a blue belt.

So we stood back.

We watched for who knows how long, along with the boy’s parents, who we didn’t notice until later. Mom and dad were as invisible as the zoo landscape as we were, still and silent and watching.

The boy would stand before the glass, lock eyes with the animal as friends lock eyes,and then together, they would go. They would start running one direction, swooping wide left, the nose of the lion pairing the running red cloth in the hand of the boy. Each time they reached one end of the glass, I would gasp as both the boy quick-pivoted and the sea lion flipturned. Losing no time, they took off running back towards where they started, my heart still fluttering. A grand finale to each series, the boy flung his red hand high above his head, the lion flying twice as high, breaking the water’s surface with a flip back down to meet his boy’s eyes. I wanted to applaud and applaud after every move, but I couldn’t. I was paralyzed with something like awe.

So it went, the boy and the lion, side to side, flip-turning and leaping. So it went, my friends and I so mesmerized we could barely ooh and aah. Diving and chasing whatever pattern that somehow led their swings, I caught no breath as they smoothly slid from one sequence to the next. It was an awesome display of something like a symphony or the easy intimacy of old friends, the boy and the lion shared a playful power.

At some point, finally feeling our eyes, the boy stopped and turned to see us; both of them now looked our way. The boy smiled.

“We’ve been doing this together for eight years.” He held out his hand. “Do you want to try? I found that he responds best to the red cloth.”

The boy stepped out of the way and we stepped up to the glass. Silence. My friend stretched out her arm holding her yellow bag of Santita’s tortilla chips.Yellow seemed to work, too. The sea lion played along with our stiff movements until a toddler at the other end of the glass caught the beast’s eye. And, with one flip of the tail, the sea lion was there, spinning as if his nose were on an axle, looking over his whiskers into the child’s delighted eyes.

***

What if I called this love?

This openness, this playfulness, this willingness to say yes to whoever came to the glass to dance, to swing, to create. And not just the sea lion, but the boy who’s come for eight years for all the same reasons.

Valentine’s Day doesn’t have the category, but I’ve felt it before and even alone. When with a person or a place or a time there’s direct connection, a surge of “YES, we are here now!” In pauses after long conversations. On a changing wind while walking. With the oranging sky over snowy hills. Together, again, with my brothers on a holiday. A few sets of footprints swept under pulling waves. Some sort of awe, some sort of gratitude, some sort of togetherness. It makes me smile for no reason, even laugh out loud. It makes my back tingle and my skin goosebump, my heart flutter fast or slow, so calmly, down.

What if I called this love?

Their connection and his confidence, their play and his poise– this boy was something special, unusually attuned and exceptionally open, but it was clear this virtue wasn’t his alone. There was something else happening there, a dynamic relationship thriving on trust and willingness and playfulness, and I feel privileged to have been there to see it.

What if I called this love?

And what if I sought it more often, willing to be surprised and awed and open to whatever and whoever new comes next today, the evening commute or the stranger sitting next to me? Or harder yet, can I choose this love again in my same old routines and same old coworkers and same old brothers? What if I said yes more often to that simple question from the boy and his dear sea lion…

“Do you want to try?”

-//-

The cover image, from Flickr user Pedro Lozano, can be found here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

One-Minute Homily: Ash Wednesday

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 01:00

Why do people flock to church on Ash Wednesday? Check out the special Ash Wednesday edition of the One-MInute Homily from Fr. Michael Rossmann, SJ. Based on the readings for Wednesday, February 14.

Categories: Things Jesuit

On Love in the Family

Mon, 02/12/2018 - 22:59

The longest apostolic exhortation of the Catholic Church has tragically been reduced to a footnote. It seems nothing can be written about Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia without addressing his footnote on the reception of communion by Catholics who are divorced and remarried.

For Julie Rubio, this is most unfortunate.

Rubio, professor at St. Louis University and author of Reading, Praying, Living Pope Francis’s The Joy of Love: A Faith Formation Guide, understands why some Catholics may be worried by Pope Francis’s words, which often point towards the grayness of the moral life. But she believes that there is still much in Amoris Laetitia that affirms and deepens traditional teaching, and takes us beyond simplistic “black and white” approaches to ethics.

For Rubio, what Pope Francis offers is a more inspiring vision of why a couple would want to get married in the first place and more compelling reasons why they should stay married, even through tough times. Amoris Laetitia does not merely address technicalities of canon law, but reveals the vital role of marriage in Pope Francis’ his vision for the wider Church.

 

Helping Marriage Today

In Amoris Laetitia (#52) Pope Francis asks: “But nowadays who is making an effort to strengthen marriages, to help married couples overcome their problems, to assist them in the work of raising children and, in general, to encourage the stability of the marriage bond?”

Rubio believes that with so many struggling married couples, Catholics ought to look more closely at the research of social scientists. While the U.S. bishops have made important efforts with websites such as foryourmarriage.org, more needs to be done to support couples. Many issues remain unaddressed in Pre-Cana programs, which vary greatly from place to place. In these programs engaged couples are understandably focused on their upcoming wedding, rather than how to actually navigate married life after the ceremony itself.

Rubio noted that Amoris Laetitia has already inspired more parishes to strengthen their efforts to support young couples. For example, more are providing “mentor couples” to walk newlyweds through the early years of their marriage. Programs offering Marriage and Relationship Education are crucial, too.

A concern for marriage could also guide public policy. Rubio notes the importance, for instance, of efforts to secure paid family leave, health care, and just wages, because there are strong correlations between financial security and strong marriages.

With so much research suggesting that a successful marriage is less about “finding the right one” than developing the skills and practices conducive to a common life, Rubio is hopeful that the vision provided in Amoris Laetitia might be achieved. “The implementation of the document in parishes is crucial,” she said. “We need to figure how how to help more couples sustain thriving, lifelong marriages.”

 

The Condemning of Sexual Violence

In what Rubio believes is the strongest language used in Catholic teaching against sexual violence, Pope Francis goes beyond merely a critique of sexism and addresses the violence and domination that can exist within a marriage. Pope Francis writes that sexual violence “contradicts the very nature of marriage” (#54).

 

Dr Julie Rubio

To Be a Family to Is to Be Imperfect

Pope Francis’s desire for a Church that is unafraid to operate at the margins of society is central to Amoris Laetitia. Those who feel lonely or judged, the widowed or divorced, or those otherwise on the edges of Church life are of special concern. Rubio hopes that people will find comfort in the pope’s emphasis on the idea that all families are imperfect families. The Church is not a club of families who set themselves apart as “holier than thou” but is a community of imperfect people committed to “accompaniment” or walking with those who are broken.

A key focus of the document is Pope Francis’s insistence that married life is always imperfect. More in social ethics than in other realms, Catholics have been comfortable balancing the ideal with the reality, understanding that more work can always be done and that there will always be diversity. Now this realism is working its way into family ethics. While calling people to the ideal, the pope never loses sight of compassion for those who fall short.

 

The Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”

In Reading, Praying, Living Pope Francis’s The Joy of Love, Rubio addresses the controversial footnote of Amoris Laetitia, #351. The footnote uses Pope Francis’s words from Evangelii Gaudium. In response to those who believe the reception of Holy Communion could ever desecrate the Body of Christ, she notes that it is amazing to ponder that we are able to receive Christ in our flawed, finite human bodies at all. Since we are all ultimately unworthy, the idea that people could achieve “worthiness” to receive communion without sin may point to an older notion of sin.

Since Vatican II, very few Catholics decide not to receive Communion. Our theology of sin has evolved from violating rules and to turning away from God, though we acknowledge that sometimes breaking rules can still be very serious. Catholic social justice teaching on complicity with social sins such as sexism and racism has helped broaden our notion of sin, too. For Rubio, “as our understanding of sin grows, it’s harder to affirm worthiness or purity. Unworthiness seems to be the default.” This may be why so many Catholics were happy to learn about the potential for the divorced and remarried to return to the Eucharist under certain conditions.

 

The Call to Love

Rubio believes that, at its core, Amoris Laetitia is about “upholding the idea of lifelong marriage and calling people to cultivate love while also walking with those who experience brokenness or failure.”

Categories: Things Jesuit

The Devotion of an Olympian

Sun, 02/11/2018 - 22:59

For the next two weeks in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the world will celebrate an athletic tradition which began near Mount Olympus in mainland Greece in honor of Zeus in 776 BCE.

Athleticism at its finest reveals the tremendous potential of the human person to exercise their will through disciplined training of their bodies and minds. The excellence we will witness in the performances of these athletes will be breathtaking.

But the breathtakingly beautiful doesn’t just happen. Great daily effort and mental toughness is required of these athletes to reach the summit of their sport. Olympians are tremendously driven individuals, who aspire for greatness over comfort, and have a tremendously high tolerance for pain. The athlete’s will to give everything they have beyond the threshold of pain most of us are inclined to tolerate is truly remarkable. Excellence requires the mental toughness to keep giving your all each day, even when you’re not feeling it.

Where do these athletes find the strength to break the cycle of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain?

To my mind, an athlete’s strength is derived from the dreams of the human heart and the will to achieve them. And it’s fair to say that the human will, while exercised through physiological means, is not reducible to neurological processes, but is rather exercised through an intrinsic relationship between physiology and immateriality.

(CNS photo/Toby Melville, Reuters)

But enough about the existence of the human soul and its intrinsic union with the body. Let’s talk about how much fun we will have watching the Olympic Games!!

What events are you looking forward to most? Are you into the gravity-defying tricks of the half-pipe or freestyle skiing? Perhaps you adore watching figure skater’s glide across the ice with mesmerizing beauty and grace? And who doesn’t like watching human beings ski downhill at speeds over 50 miles an hour? If ice hockey is your thing, the women’s tournament should be awesome! But don’t get your hopes up with the men cause the boys from the NHL had to stay home.

Personally, I thoroughly enjoy sitting on the couch and watching the high octane sport of… you guessed it… curling! Who doesn’t like watching a person try to curl a 44 lb granite stone around and between two other stones into the middle of a three ring cycle that is 72 ft across a sheet of ice?! It’s exhilarating!

Besides watching the events themselves, I also find the storylines behind the athletes’ pursuit of their dreams to be very moving. Take the story of Korean figure skater, Yuna Kim, and her powerful conversion to the Catholic faith. After her conversion in 2008, she promised God to “pray always”, especially before competitions, and became Olympic Champion in figure skating in Vancouver in 2010 posting a record-breaking score. More importantly, she went on to support Catholic education in war-torn South Sudan and became an ambassador for the Olympic truce which stands for peace between nations in conflict. And all this because she met some local nuns who showed her the power of loving God and others and the true and lasting joy it brings.

Regardless of the events you prefer to watch or the storyline you choose to follow, I hope you take the time to appreciate the awe-inspiring devotion to excellence these athletes exhibit. I know I hope to be so inspired by their devotion so as to be more fully alive. And, I hope to do my best to resist the ever-present temptation to be OK with mediocrity. It’s not easy. But, as the saying goes: where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Look Far: Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 23:01

In such an oversaturated and overstimulated media environment, filled with abuse, neglect, anger, and fear, it would have been easy to overlook a short announcement on January 22 that the author Ursula K. Le Guin had died peacefully at the age of 88. That would have been no surprise to Le Guin, who had given pride of place in her tales to overlooked peoples, places, and cultures.

Le Guin, whose works include the Earthsea Books, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, and the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, was a master of multiple genres and forms, with acclaimed novels in fantasy and science fiction. An anthology of her works were included in the Library of America series while she was still living, a rare honor that she shared before her death with few others.

But to say that she was a well-awarded author is to miss the point: Ursula Le Guin was, first and foremost, a good writer. In every sense of the word, Le Guin was a master of her craft. In her works, Le Guin generated complex characters, devised subtle plots, and created broader landscapes and worlds for her characters to traverse. Her mastery is evident even at the very basic level of the sentence, for much of her prose can, in its elegance and simplicity, mirror the best of poetry. Le Guin’s words greatly repay being read aloud.

Those traits Le Guin shared with many other great writers. Le Guin’s goodness as a writer extends to how she employed her mastery as a writer. The daughter of anthropologists, Le Guin brought an anthropologist’s eye for the ways and customs of a people, understanding how characters and stories emerge from a culture. This allows Le Guin to imagine the institutions of culture and society differently. She employs this most famously in The Left Hand of Darkness, in which the residents of the planet Gethen are without gender except for brief moments of the year. Le Guin asked questions about people that others didn’t and her fiction possessed incredible depth as a result.

Le Guin embraced the responsibility of the writer to tell others’ stories with respect and care, recognizing that what she wrote did not solely belong to her. This trait Le Guin observed first in her father, who studied Native American culture in northern California and worked side by side with native peoples to preserve as much memory and culture as possible in the face of white intrusion and the culture churning effects of industrialization and modernity. Thus, Le Guin felt compelled to tell stories that, in her words, reflected both sides of the frontier, the side “where no one has gone before” and its opposite, the side “where you live”, where “you’ve always lived”, no matter who you are or from what people you come. Le Guin always viewed the recording and telling of stories as a very human act of solidarity, seeking to use her gifts to tell stories of communities that lived in what she called “the wreck of cultures.” This moral seriousness lived on every page, even in her more lighthearted works, a moral seriousness that sought always to uplift the outcast and the overlooked.

Ultimately, Le Guin embraced the power of the imagination to subvert our expectations of what it means to be human and challenge us to look at ourselves in a vast different way. As she wrote, “Imagination, working at full strength, can shake us out of our fatal, adoring self-absorption and make us look up and see—with terror or with relief—that the world does not in fact belong to us at all.” It was not for nothing that her heroes were usually women or persons of color, a remarkably bold decision when Le Guin began publishing in the 1960s and 70s. Yet, Le Guin never wrote didactically: her writings provoke reflection but never at the expense of her art. She managed to simultaneously delight, teach, and move, which is the mark of the truly great artist.

In the end, I hope I have convinced you to take a look at some of Ursula Le Guin’s writings. If not, I trust I have shared with you my love and affection for a great American writer, who deserves recognition and remembrance for her decades-long work writing and seeking to discover “other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.”  

Ursula K. Le Guin, rest in peace.

-//-

The cover photo is featured courtesy of Oregon State University and was taken by Marian Wood Kolisch. 

Categories: Things Jesuit

Living Lent and Easter in China

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 22:59

Lent is a season Christians often associate with sacrifices – whether that is giving up something we cherish or doing something charitable we normally don’t do. In fact, the Lenten and Easter seasons play out in our lives throughout the year. In life we often find God inviting us to sacrifice something, not because he doesn’t want us to have it, but because he has something better in store for us. This played out very publicly recently when news began trickling out to the world at the end of January that the Holy See has continued to make progress in fostering greater communion with the Church in China.

The latest situation involves one of the biggest disagreements between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Holy See for more than 60 years: whether or not the pope has authority to appoint bishops. The law of the Catholic Church has given the pope this universal authority since 1917, but the CCP fears this is a way for a foreign power to undermine its own authority. A couple months ago, a papal representative went to China and informed two bishops loyal to the Vatican to step down to make room for two bishops that are loyal to the CCP and who have subsequently asked the Holy Father for forgiveness and full communion.

The news led Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, to accuse the Vatican of betraying Chinese Catholics loyal to the pope and opposed to the CCP.

It is easy to see why Cardinal Zen’s conclusion makes sense. The party official in charge of religion in China, Wang Zuoan, Director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, recently said, “The foreign use of religion to infiltrate (China) intensifies by the day and religious extremist thought is spreading in some areas.”1 Even the leader of China, Xi Jinping, himself said, the Party will fully implement its basic policy on religious work, “uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation,2 and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society.”3

Given the deluge of increased persecution that Chinese Christians have experienced in the past five years under Xi Jinping, as well as how easy it is for the CCP to paint a deceptive picture of reality to unperceptive foreigners, a rational person must conclude that Chinese Catholics and the Holy See, out of fidelity to Jesus Christ, cannot trust the Communist Party.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Pope, gave a lengthy interview clarifying what had actually happened. Instead of talking about foreign policy, however, he offered a spiritual reflection as the centerpiece of the interview. He said that the Holy See is only pursuing a spiritual aim, not a political one. What animates this ongoing effort is trust in the Lord, “which does not respond to worldly logics.”

From both cardinals’ statements, it is clear that there is agreement within the Church that we place total trust in the Lord and we cannot trust a political party whose worldview is inherently against what the Church is all about: God. The disagreement within the Church for the past few decades is whether or not we ought to work with such a party in finding a solution to this impasse.

Resolving this internal disagreement has not been and will not be easy. Francis is now the third pope to have attempted to build a bridge between the CCP and the Church. Cardinal Parolin reminds us that trusting in the Lord requires “greater humility and spirit of faith to discover together God’s plan for the Church in China.” It is to recognize not just the sacrifices of the Church in China in the past 68 years, but throughout its entire history and how God had worked through it all. When Christianity was outlawed in the mid-14th century,  Christianity completely died out in China until God sent the Jesuits and other missionaries 200 years later. While Pope Clement XI in 1715 condemned the Chinese cultural practice of honoring one’s ancestors, God inspired Pius XII in 1939 to permit this cultural custom again. When Chinese Catholics were persecuted (and exterminated) in the 18th and 19th centuries, the faith then experienced a resurgence in the first half of the 20th century.

Similarly, since the 1950s, the CCP has surveilled, censored, harassed, arrested, imprisoned, and at times tortured Chinese Catholics. Just as before, God continues inviting us to trust in his saving power, to trust that after suffering and death comes the Resurrection. This radical trust and hope does not come easy. The reality is that continued persecution, condemnation, or even extinction of the Church in China are possible regardless of what course of action the Vatican takes. A possible victory for the Holy See would be to prevent a formal schism of the Church temporarily, but the duration of this victory would be wholly at the whims of the party leadership.4 This illustrates precisely why a total surrender of the self and situation makes the hope of the Resurrection so radical. It is this total surrender that the martyrs of the early Church bore witness to even though it makes no logical sense to the world.

We have witnessed and continue to witness the Church in China living out Lent in a very real way. They live out the cry of Jesus at the climax of his Passion: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” More importantly, they live out the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when he says, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as you will” [emphasis added] as well as living out his last words before he died, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

During the Lenten and Easter seasons this year, none of us face the same persecution or the threat of martyrdom as our brothers and sisters in China do, yet we too are called to authentically live out Lent and Easter nonetheless. We fast at the beginning and end of Lent in addition to abstaining more intentionally from meat on Fridays. We make these and other sacrifices because they remind us of the total surrender and ultimate sacrifice Jesus made for all of us and of his Resurrection from the dead to save us. It is the hope of the Resurrection that is on our minds as we enter into these 40 days and 40 nights. Through our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving, we, as Christians, eagerly look towards discovering the empty tomb on Easter morning in awe and rejoice that what we had hoped for is now our reality.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Music and Memory

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 02:01

It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m cleaning my bathroom. I’ve selected an exceptional playlist on my phone, encouraging my feet to dance. Then I hear it. Ben Folds. It’s “Zak and Sara.” And with it a Back to the Future Delorean-like transportation of sound and fragrance for a particular place and person.

No longer am I surrounded by bathroom tiles and the potent scent of bleach. I’m in a white pickup truck. I hear a voice sitting next me, driving us someplace my memory can’t recall. It’s a voice belting lyrics while turning up the volume. A voice that knows every instrumental movement and taps their hand on my leg to the rhythm. The voice of a musician with perfect pitch. It is the voice of someone excited by the music and who shares their excitement with me. I am falling more and more in love.

But, it’s more than the voice. It’s the white pickup truck that smells like soap, citrus and sandalwood and spice. It’s the empty Skoal chew containers strewn about, adding a hint of wintergreen. It’s the constant sound of empty plastic bottles being crushed under my feet. It’s the way the voice’s eyes catch the light and seem to smile when we look at each other. It’s the way this voice seems to be singing to me and the way my skin responds to it. It’s the memory of a memory, and I welcome it as I sit on the edge of the tub and pause, forgetting about the toilet brush in my hand.

***

In 2014, I professed vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity in the Society of Jesus. As I and ten other men anticipated the beginning of this ritual, the pianist began to play the entrance hymn – “The Summons.” Tears formed at the corners of my eyes, and my heart was full of love. Memories waltzed through my mind in a seemingly choreographed awe – my first crush dancing with my first broken heart, the death of a friend in step with the birth of my goddaughter, the voice in the white pickup truck. All those moments led me to the back of that church with these companions, with whom I had made even more memories.

A couple weeks ago at Mass I heard the piano begin playing that same song. And I began to recall the faces of these friends who stood with me in the back of that church four years earlier. These past few months some of them have been experiencing rough times, but now we’re not together in the back of a church. We’re miles apart. It’s been an inviting challenge to discover how to be in relationship with people whom I deeply love, but who are nowhere near my front door.

As the congregation sang, all I could do was pray the lyrics for my friends. All I had in that moment was my deep love, my voice, and that song. So I clenched my eyes together and shout-sang, wanting my prayers to offer rest and relief. My jaw quivered from the urgent appeal to God, please, Lord, please, carry their cross, help them carry their cross.

***

Much like a movie, there’s a soundtrack to our lives, underscoring everything, helping us to remember.

When “Zak and Sara” makes its round on my playlist, I return to that pick-up truck. Nevermind the heartache that would eventually befall that relationship. Now, I can look back without hurt and regret and recognize the gift of having been in love. A song like “The Summons,” which carries a wondrous joy of commitment, becomes a prayer of love and hope for hurting friends and an acceptance of my reliance on God.  

Music almost always makes its way out of the speaker and into my heart. It becomes more than sound – it becomes a light, illuminating the hard and hopeful, the sad and surreal, the amazing and the average. Listening back, I’m reminded of who and where I was. My heart ready to see how God loves me into existence, then and now. A love that’s always been there. A love always eager to hold me and guide me forward. A love easily heard with the help of music.

-//-

Categories: Things Jesuit

What American Catholics Are Really Fighting About

Mon, 02/05/2018 - 22:59

When people argue about Pope Francis, how often are they really disagreeing on more fundamental issues – like the nature of the Church and who is Jesus Christ?

Last Wednesday night,  Ross Douthat and Massimo Faggioli, two well-known Catholic public intellectuals, engaged in a public discussion looking at the first five years of the Francis papacy. To those unfamiliar with these men, they often represent two different parts of the spectrum of American Catholicism. Faggioli is a theologian at Villanova who has written extensively on Vatican II and who often is seen as a spokesman for a more progressive Catholicism; Douthat, who regularly writes opinion columns for the New York Times and who has written several books critiquing American culture, is seen as a similar spokesman for a more traditional Catholicism. Though their public meetings had previously consisted in pithy—and sometimes heated—exchanges on Twitter, the conversation they had in person at Fordham University was, to my eyes, one of depth and real seeking after truth.

To try to rehash the whole conversation in this piece would be too much, so I hope to offer instead a glimpse of what I took to be the heart of their disagreement and common concern. To that end, one might be surprised that the event, “Francis@Five,” wound up being only partially about Francis. The topic that seemed to take center stage was really Vatican II. Francis was a recurring topic but both men seemed to come back to a central question: how does the Church understand Vatican II and its documents?

Both men acknowledged that Vatican II called for a shift in the ways the Church thought about and interacted with the larger world. However, they also both acknowledged that the current conflicts in the Church—especially those in the American Church—stem from divergent interpretations of what exactly shifted and to what extent. There appear to be at least three different main interpretations.

First, there is the view in which Vatican II means that the Church ought to dialogue with external voices—secular and interreligious voices—and accept that the Spirit might call for the Church’s traditions to continually be shaped anew and transformed by that ongoing dialogue. From this perspective, even Church teachings on moral issues might be significantly changed through engagement with modernity.  This position is most common among more progressive Catholics.

Second, there is what Douthat called the John Paul II synthesis, in which Vatican II called for dialogue, but one in which the firmness of most of the Church’s teachings acts as a witness to those with whom it dialogues. Here there is room for change and growth in response to modernity–on some aspects of interfaith dialogue, or the historical investigations of scripture, for instance–but there is also a strong sense that the Church’s moral teachings stand as a sign of contradiction to the world’s values.

If this second interpretation is more traditional, there is a third position that goes a step further. When asked to characterized those in the Church who oppose Francis, Douthat suggested that there is a growing group that has come to see Vatican II largely as a mistake  by either of those interpretations. As he put it, if the John Paul II synthesis paved the way for Francis’ raising questions even about issues of marriage and sexuality, then that is to them a sign of the failure of the John Paul II synthesis and so calls into question the legitimacy of Vatican II.  On this interpretation, there seem to be few areas in which the Church can change in response to modernity.

The three interpretations of Vatican II seem to me to ring true as far as generalizations go, and I think it crystallizes the point at issue: if the discussion stays at the level of Amoris Laetitia or any one controversial issue, those in disagreement will continue to talk past one another. The conversation must get to the question of how we are to understand the Church, its traditions, and the ways they can and possibly cannot develop.

Here it appears to me that Faggioli and Douthat have different understandings of the Church and its role in the world, as evidenced by the way they spoke at this event. For Faggioli, the Church is a living organism whose purpose is continually growing closer to Christ. ‘Growing,’ is the key term here, and Faggioli rejects the framework—used especially by Pope Benedict XVI—of continuity and discontinuity as unhelpful if we think of the Church as organism. Though he did not really explain how we can dispense with this frame without completely opening every aspect of tradition to discussion, he seems to hold that the Church, like an organism, must continue to respond to the needs and problems of its environment. On this model, he thinks, even significant changes need not be seen as ruptures.

Douthat, on the other hand, seemed to refer to the institutional Church when he used the word; if he did not specifically mean the ecclesiastical hierarchy, he at least seemed to emphasize the magisterial role of the Church as teacher. From his emphasis on synthesis, it seems he believes the Church needs to have clear teachings that hold to absolutes. Pastoral flexibility cannot risk calling these principles of the divinely-instituted moral law into question without undermining the Church’s role. Several times Douthat questioned the “endgame” of certain changes called for by those supportive of Francis, whether they are just first steps to more radical changes—and implying that there are points beyond which the Church cannot go.

This questioning of what the Church is goes even further, though. Ultimately, it is a question about who Christ was—and this came up in discussing his reaction to the Samaritan woman at the well. Do we understand him as having been willing to relax a moral absolute for the sake of pastoral care, or do we see him as having cared for her within the framework of that moral absolute? This seems a key question underlying the discussions of Church, tradition, and Vatican II.

These are questions we Catholics will have to keep working to answer together. As both men pointed out, it took the Council of Trent at least a hundred years to sink in; we are only about fifty years out from Vatican II. We may hope that time will lead to greater unity. We may not, as Douthat pointed out, take that unity as inevitable. The Church’s history is marked by conflicts, schisms, and civil wars.

Still, I do not think we should be afraid. Love casts out fear, and love in the form of charity will guard us against the animosity that turns disagreement into schism. Such charity remains, despite significant differences, and it was visible last week in two men who both care deeply about the future of the Church.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Super Bowl or Roman Colosseum?

Sun, 02/04/2018 - 22:59

After watching one of the most ritually-rich secular events in the world, what did we take from the liturgical experience? Was it the stunning aspects of the game? The intensity of our emotions as they volleyed to and fro? The hilarity of the commercials vying for our consumption of things we don’t need?

Or, did anybody get the idea they were watching a sham? An over-glorified modern-day version of Roman gladiators battling to the death to entertain our gleeful desires for violent entertainment?

Am I being cynical and irrational here? Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean there is not an element of truth to my sudden criticism of a sport I have always loved watching.

You see, I’ve been experiencing an epiphany of late regarding the nature of football. The more I read about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and how much CTE is linked to repeated concussions among football players, and even from the repeated impacts that offensive linemen experience on every snap, the more I wonder if I should be excited about football anymore.

I’ve also recently come to learn that the Super Bowl is used to exploit large numbers of people, mostly women, in the business of sex trafficking. Human sex trafficking is a daily occurence in our world, and becomes especially prevalent during major sporting events like the Olympics and the Super Bowl. In sex trafficking, people become subject to consumption, they are stripped of their dignity, and are enslaved to the whims of their pimp and clientele. The sexual exploitation of human beings does serious psychological and physical harm to victims of human trafficking. This reality is despicable on all accounts, but easily gets lost in the spectacle and bright lights of championship football.

But what can we really do about it? Law-enforcement increases resources and sting operations to try and limit the occurrences of sex trafficking in and around game day. But what about the 364 other days a year where sex trafficking continues to plague individuals from all walks of life? How can more people got involved in changing the culture where these atrocities are seemingly permissible – or at least where it is permissible to ignore them?

I’m thinking about the football players here as well. These players are paid pennies on the dime compared to what their owners are making, and what do they get for their labors besides an early death sentence in many cases, some by suicide? A gunshot to the heart like Junior Seau? Or a hanging like Aaron Hernandez, a former New England Patriot who hung himself at 27 after being imprisoned for murder and diagnosed post autopsy with the most severe case of CTE ever seen in a person his age? These are real consequences which substantially change the lives of players who are purchased for our entertainment. By in large, these changes are not beneficial for the flourishing of the tremendous athletes we just saw pour their hearts out on the field.

If football is to continue, then the way the game is played has to change. I’m not sure what it would look like, but something has to give. We are talking about human lives, not gladiatorial slaves!

Where does all this leave me? I just witnessed one of the best Super Bowls I have ever seen in my life, and I am torn between the magnificence of the performance by both teams on the field and the sad thought that the athletes and people in attendance are being used. There is no doubt about the power of sport to bring a city together. Philadelphia is flying very high at the moment. But this jubilation does not change the fact that the athletes who play the game of football are risking their physical and emotional health for our satisfaction. That might be OK with the players and owners and you the fans. But I’m not sure I’m OK with it anymore.

***

Image courtesy FlickrCC user Alex Valentine.

Categories: Things Jesuit

One-Minute Homily: “Jesus the Celebrity”

Sun, 02/04/2018 - 11:40

Everyone wants a short homily on Super Bowl Sunday. Here’s yours! Enjoy this brief, but powerful homily from Brian Strassburger, SJ. Based on the readings for Sunday, February 4, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/2DKu37B.

Categories: Things Jesuit

How Trump Brings Us Together

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 22:59

Our constant invocation of the rhetoric of polarization and division can drain us of hope and blind us to new possibilities for unity. But there are opportunities for us to grow together, and we should embrace them.

The Left’s New Love for Subsidiarity

Subsidiarity has never been popular on the American Left. Perhaps it sounds too much like “states’ rights.” Perhaps the party of the Civil Rights Movement knows that change often has to come from the top.

But Trump is changing that. Bill de Blasio, the progressive mayor of New York, has swung decisively toward the local in his policy-making. He sounded like a Tea Party conservative when he said in November that “the danger to New York City isn’t here. It’s 200 miles down I-95.”

Part of this is normal party politics: the party in favor favors centralizing power until it’s out of power, and then it becomes “anti-Establishment.”

But the Democrats have long favored national over state politics, and that has weakened them in the age of Trump. As David Axelrod argues:

I wonder, sometimes, whether the Democratic Party has contributed to [a decline in local politics] by making the president and the federal government the fulcrum of so much, and suggesting that we can solve these problems from the top down. Democrats have ceded a lot of statehouses and legislatures. Congress has been gridlocked… What can the president do with the power that he has to try and create some progressive action? It just puts a lot of weight on the presidency, when maybe we have to be a bit more innovative.”

These days the party of FDR and LBJ cannot expect to get things done in D.C., unless of course it sweeps the Congress in 2018. But it would be a tragic victory were Democrats to win back the Hill and forget the promise of local and state politics. If nothing else, Democrats will want to have more of a say in the redistricting process after the 2020 Census than they did after 2010. And Democrats can engage in innovative policy-making at the local level, much as they have with the minimum wage.

Republicans should welcome this chance to work with Democrats on local-level policies. Indeed, the GOP has long proclaimed their love for local government and devolution. Here’s their chance to prove it.

 

The Press’ New Love for the Truth

In an age often skeptical of “truth,” it is amazing how robustly the press has championed that notion since Trump’s election.

Perhaps in the past the concept of truth wasn’t flashy enough: it was more edgy to talk about how truth was socially constructed in the name of power. But many in the media now feel obligated to reclaim the truth as a force for good, to re-examine their journalistic commitments to balance, objectivity and neutrality. As Christiane Amanpour said in 2016: “I believe in being truthful, not neutral.”

Many of the press’ antagonists, however, have failed to see how the rules of the game have changed. The phrase “fake news” has become banal, but it’s been effective at blunting our recognition that we all care about the truth, and that truth can be a new common ground.

Where conservatives – and conservative media – have attacked the press for their “fake news,” they should be applauding the press’ new-found love of truth. If diverse groups believe that democracy indeed depends upon truth, we should be fostering a conversation about what kinds of truths are essential to democratic politics, not calling each other liars.

 

The Right’s New Love for Sin

I saved this one for last.

I’m glad that so many conservatives can forgive Trump. I’m glad that Trump reminds so many that everyone deserves the occasional mulligan.

But if religious conservatives are serious about embracing sin and forgiveness, they need to spread that message beyond Trump. If conservatives can forgive Trump, they can forgive others, too. While the GOP is quick to jump on the many moral failings of the Democrats, they have had more than their fair share of David Vitters, Bob Packwoods, Rudy Giulianis, John Ensigns, Bob Barrs, Tim Murphys, Dennis Hasterts and now Donald Trump.

And their understanding of forgiveness needs to be more serious: forgiveness cannot substitute for repentance and reparation. Forgiveness cannot be a carte blanche to carry on as they were before. Political expediency is no substitute for contrition.

I’m not saying the Left has a monopoly on virtue or forgiveness. I am saying, however, that the GOP does Christian values no favors when it routinely fails to practice the values that it constantly criticizes the Left for flouting. It makes Christians looks like hypocrites, and only makes it more difficult for a skeptical public to take seriously the claims of religion and morality in the public square.

It would be far better for the GOP to concede to the Democrats that it often fails at the task that it sets itself, and that it has not cornered the market on virtue. If Republican exercised their defense of morality with more humility, and with more actions than words, the GOP would be in much better shape. And then we could all take the moral dimension of politics more seriously.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Faith, as Taught by a Puppy

Wed, 01/31/2018 - 01:59

The text message read, “Meet your replacement.”

Soon after, the picture arrived. I saw a litter of puppies, most playing and roaming around in the background, except for one. One puppy stood firmly with his back toward the camera, but with his head turned over his shoulder staring directly into the lens. His two huge ears like radar dishes, that he will inevitably never grow into.

I held my phone, looking eye-to-eye with my parents’ new puppy, my replacement. As much as I wanted to be jealous, I couldn’t. Looking at those enormous ears and those focused eyes, I knew I had lost the battle to the adorable puppy, but I wasn’t jealous at all.

***

In August, I met him. A half corgi, half blue heeler mix, he would always be short with dwarfish legs and a long torso. My mother appropriately named him “Tyrion Lannister Biro,” in honor of one of her favorite characters from Game of Thrones.

One evening during my short visit home, after a long day, my mom, dad, and I sat around talking. The puppy played at mom’s feet, or rather, little Tyrion fought valiantly to return his rope toy from under my mom’s foot. Eventually, as his tugging waned and the effects of a long day full of exploring and playing caught up to him, my mom picked up Tyrion and held him in her lap.

It’s strange to say that a puppy can melt, but this one did. He laid on his back in my mother’s lap, and simply melted into sleep. His head leaned back. His arms fell to his side. His stomach faced her, inviting a belly rub. His positioning would seem awkward to anyone who has bones, but for a puppy dissolving into the comfort of being loved, he looked like he was in heaven.

***

A few months later, I quickly learned two lessons from my parents about Tyrion. First, be careful not to get the puppy too excited. Second, be careful the tone you use when correcting the puppy.

He gets very excited very quickly, and—still being quite young—he has trouble holding his bladder. Every time Tyrion sees me, his excitement leads to his little chirp-like bark, and nearly every time a little accident.

At one point, I unwrapped something and accidentally dropped a piece of the paper. Looking down, I realized Tyrion had grabbed the paper, so I said, “Drop it.” His little ears drooped back, he dropped the paper, and slowly stalked away. Right where he was standing, a little puddle remained. I hadn’t been loud, only firm.

I later tracked him down, and I apologized—which I know sounds crazy to do with a puppy, but I did it anyway. Only, I hadn’t planned on how happy Tyrion would be—as if he understood that I wasn’t actually mad at him—and he got too excited…

***

One evening, Dad, the puppy, and I were watching football. Tyrion was sleeping comfortably in the chair with dad. Something we did must have woken him up, and he sat up.

There was a look on his face, and I knew that look meant trouble. While sitting up on the extended legs of dad’s recliner, he looked with a ferocious focus at me and my chair. Mental calculations occurring. His ears twitching, checking wind speed. His little legs quivering with energy about to explode. Then, he jumped.

The little puppy, too small to genuinely make the distance, sprung into the air. His short, stubby legs outspread like Superman leaping over a building in a single bound! Despite his belief to the contrary, Tyrion is still a corgi—there was no way he was going to make the gap. At the last second, I sprung forward to catch him and pull him into my lap.

He curled up on my lap and went to sleep. What I thought of as a death-defying leap, a Evel-Knievel-esque dare, he somehow knew would be perfectly fine. His smug little nose hid itself between my arm and the seat cushion, and I couldn’t help but wonder if all along he had planned for me to catch him.

***

Tyrion Lannister Biro – the good life.

And here’s the honest truth: I am jealous of the puppy, but not in the way that you might think. It’s not that he’s more adorable than me; I concede that willingly. It’s not that he gets to play all day, though that sounds pretty awesome. I’m jealous of how simple things are from his perspective.

Sitting in my mom’s lap, Tyrion knows he is entirely safe. He lays there, in total peace. No worrying about how to fit his work into the hours of his day. No obsessing over whether something will or will not work. No struggle to navigate when to be guarded and when to be vulnerable. No overcomplicating things. He trusts entirely that it’ll be OK—that someone will catch him even if he falls.

It’s pure. It’s simple. It’s a faith without questioning or overthinking. It’s a faith with a little heart entirely open. It’s a faith so authentic, that I’m jealous. It’s the faith of a puppy, a faith that I wish I had.

-//-

Photos by the author!

Categories: Things Jesuit

Let the March for Life Be About Abortion

Mon, 01/29/2018 - 22:59

Criticizing the March for Life for being primarily about abortion is like criticizing Black Lives Matter for being primarily about black lives. It’s okay for a movement to seek action on a particular issue.  

I came to this important realization while attending the March for Life in D.C. a week ago. (For those who might not be aware, the March for Life is a demonstration that protests the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade, a case that made abortion legal nationally.)

That said, I know my comparison between the March for Life and Black Lives Matter is problematic for many. Thus, before proceeding any further, let me acknowledge and address a common objection to this perspective. You might be thinking that, as opposed to the name “Black Lives Matter,” the name “March for Life” misleads people: the movement is not primarily about life in general but rather about unborn life. You might say that the cause should more properly be called the “March for Unborn Life.”

Though this objection has some merit, I don’t think that it holds much water in the last analysis. Just as the name “pro-choice” in the context of Roe v. Wade does not refer to choice in general but rather to choice concerning abortion, “pro-life” in the context of Roe v. Wade does not refer to life in general but rather to life concerning abortion.  

Indeed, “pro-life” can mean “pro-all-life,” and in broader contexts it should mean “pro-all-life.” Nevertheless, my agreement with the broader sense of “pro-life” does not undermine my commitment to the unborn. When it comes to Roe v. Wade and abortion in the U.S., the position of the March for Life is the pro-life position. When we consider the horrific fact that more than 60 million lives have been lost to abortion in the U.S. since that fateful Supreme Court decision, it becomes clear that the March for Life is worthy of its title and its special place in the wider pro-life movement..

Returning to the main thrust of this piece, I hold that, while it is very true that all social justice issues are intertwined, there should be a place for raising awareness and activism on particular types of injustice.

All too often, we distort the “seamless garment” or comprehensive approach to social justice. We absolutize it unnecessarily. In seeking to listen to the cries of all marginalized groups, we often fail to listen to the cry of one marginalized group.

Some on the left say that the March for Life should be about all lives, not just about unborn lives. Others on the right say that Black Lives Matter should be about all lives, not just about black lives. The parallels are clear, and they are problematic.

The author at the 2018 March.

Now, these detractors do have a point: all lives do, in fact, matter. A just society involves more than justice for the unborn and the black community.

However, this just society most definitely includes justice for the unborn and the black community. For us to make this progress towards social justice, some people need to dedicate themselves to these topics in particular. Everyone can’t do everything.

Let me point out another key problem with this dismissive approach to single-issue protests.

Such behavior against the March for Life and Black Lives Matter increases political tribalism. Instead of engaging the topic of abortion, some leftists knee-jerkingly prefer to point to potential inconsistencies in the thought of the march-for-lifer. Instead of engaging the topic of the systematic oppression of the black community, some rightists instinctively prefer to interrogate their opponents on their orthodoxy in other areas.

Both groups of critics often assume that their opponents are inconsistent, when, in fact, they have no idea about a given protester’s complete social philosophy. These assumptions are dizzying and disconsoling, whether they are right or wrong. We need to dialogue with dignity, and we desperately need to stay on topic. If we can’t have a civil and generous conversation about one social issue, we will never be able talk to each other about society as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong. I do think comprehensively, and I do vote comprehensively.

But let’s be real.

As soon as there is a march that actively advocates for the twenty or thirty social justice stances with which the Catholic Church and I agree, I will be there. Believe me. I will be there.

Until then, I will support the March for Life

Until then, I will support Black Lives Matter.

Until then, I’ll see you at your local single-issue protest.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Pope Francis on Happiness in this Life: A TJP Book Review

Sun, 01/28/2018 - 22:59

Jesus once said to the apostles, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) So when a book comes out titled Happiness in this Life: A Passionate Meditation on Earthly Existence with the pope’s smiling face adorning the cover, it is bound to raise eyebrows.

Has the Vicar of Christ on Earth gone back on the words of Christ Himself? Are we allowed now not to hate our lives in this world and still gain eternal life? Can we go even further and be happy in this life?

*****

Thankfully, perhaps, this book is not a theological treatise on happiness, nor is it Scriptural commentary. Happiness in this Life isn’t even a single piece of work. Rather, it is a collection of brief snippets, none more than 2 small pages long, culled from Pope Francis’s homilies, writings, and speeches since the time of his election in 2013. These snippets are organized around a few central themes, although at times, discerning the common thread in successive excerpts is challenging.

For this reason, I can’t recommend reading straight through the book. Instead, this book is tailored for savoring a few passages at a time. It makes a good reference work for someone who might be struggling and needing an encouraging word. Even better, it could provide material for daily meditation, because it is packed with insight about the big questions in life which cannot be addressed purely intellectually.

*****

“There is one word that I want to say to you: joy!”

Early in the book, I started underlining every occurrence of the word “joy,” but soon I realized if I continued doing so, I wouldn’t be able to set the pencil down. That Pope Francis emphasizes joy will not be surprising to anyone even slightly familiar with him. The four parts of the collection each emphasize related, but distinct, aspects of the search for joy in our earthly life.

The first part treats the individual spiritual conditions for joy, with a special emphasis on the Beatitudes. Pope Francis offers insights on individual Beatitudes, explaining what purity of heart and meekness are, for example. These insights draw connections with our concrete lives in fresh and thought-provoking ways.

Considering our contemporary political climate, one may be fascinated to read, “The poor in spirit is the Christian… who is not obstinate and opinionated, but who listens with respect; and who willingly defers to the decisions of others. If there were more of the poor in spirit in our communities, there would be fewer divisions, disagreements, and controversies!”

Pope Francis encourages us to work hard to create a coherent life, one in which we identify a grand dream or long-term goal and then organize our daily activities around that goal. Speaking with the wisdom of experience, he laments, “It is sad to reach a certain age, to look over the journey we have made and find that it was made up of scraps, without unity, without form: everything temporary.”  The pope lauds the spiritual freedom that enables the Christian to recognize and choose the good and realize that life project. This freedom comes to us from God’s grace working in our daily lives.

*****

The material in the second and third parts of the book addresses the theme of joy in various circumstances or states of life. Pope Francis frequently teaches that our joy is found in relationship, in going outside of ourselves and encountering Christ in the poor, suffering, and outcast.

While there is ample material to reflect upon about human relationships in general, the collection shines in the chapters dedicated to families, priests and religious, and women. Pope Francis movingly speaks about the importance of a strong family life, for the family is the “school where we learn the art of living together.” The excerpts on women praise their dignity and their role in the Church, and the pope petitions for work to be done on a theology of the woman. My critique is that the pope does better at raising questions than providing steps towards answering them.

Any work on happiness in life must contend with the issue of human suffering. The passages on suffering gathered in the book display Pope Francis’s characteristic down-to-earth rhetoric. He employs personal stories, such as his reaction to watching people consult fortune-tellers in a park in Buenos Aires. Later, he muses on whether those who cause suffering, such as weapons manufacturers, can live eternally with God.

Most importantly, he emphasizes the mercy of God, encouraging us always to seek His forgiveness, especially in confession. If we are struggling under the weight of our sin, we must let God take care of it. “You may be ashamed to tell your sins, but as our mothers and our grandmothers used to say, it is better to be red once than yellow a thousand times,” explains Pope Francis. “We blush once, but then our sins are forgiven and we go forward.”

A short fourth part on prayer brings the book to a close. It includes a selection of prayers the pope has drawn attention to during his pontificate. Psalm 103, which extols the compassion and mercy of God, receives special emphasis, as Pope Francis challenges us to read it slowly every day. “Bless the Lord, oh my soul…Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger, abounding in mercy.”

*****

Jesus explained to the apostles, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)

The message of Jesus is that we must lose our own lives in order to be filled with His life, which brings total joy, even in this life. As Pope Francis explains, “This joy is not a question of hope, or something that awaits us in Paradise, as if we are sad here on earth but we will be filled with joy in Paradise. No! This joy is real and tangible now, because Jesus Himself is our joy, and with Jesus joy finds its home.”

So has the pope contradicted Christ in this book? Of course not. Has the pope offered us guidance on how to find true joy in this earthly life? Well, is he Catholic?

 

Categories: Things Jesuit

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