Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Defining Marriage

     There is a matter before the Supreme Court of the land: whether or not it is permitted by the U.S. Constitution to restrict the legal state of "marriage" to the once common understanding of "between one man and one woman."
     I have certain ideas that may be of interest.
     First of all, regarding the Church: I believe that the Church has failed in catechizing the faithful, including the married faithful, on the nature of marriage. The result is that a vast number of professed Christians, failing to understand the mystical nature of Christian Marriage - or having never been taught it -  have embraced concepts of marriage that may be cultural or conventional, but not really consistent with what sacramental marriage is. As a pastor I have been approached on numerous occasions by persons I did not know, belonging to a variety of religious traditions, asking if our church was available on such-and-such a date - for a wedding. I realize that in many denominations, a pastor may perform a wedding for anyone at all but it is not so for Orthodox Catholics. For us, at least one of the partners must be a practicing Catholic. This is because marriage is a sacrament and, as a priest, I may not dispense the sacraments to those who are not members of the Church. I cannot marry a Methodist to a Lutheran. I may not marry an atheist to a Baha'i.
     Such a request - for a date in our church's building - most likely was based on an aesthetic idea, namely, the hope for a beautiful back-drop for something having nothing -really- to do with the Church. Or perhaps the request came from a spiritual kind of idea that it would be nice to embellish the wedding with some religious symbol.
     I recall the first time I saw a "unity candle," which is not a part of Catholic wedding ceremonial. It was at a Roman Catholic wedding at the campus church of Fordham University circa 1970. At that time the unity candle was a cute novelty - an engaging visual aid to the concept of "two becoming one." At some point within the past few decades this novelty has become commonplace to the extent that most Catholic goods stores have a wide array of unity candles for the happy couple's upcoming nuptials even though it is not a part of the ritual and, in some parishes or dioceses, is strictly forbidden! So, some hip idea of a neat thing to do has "crept in," so to speak.
     A few years ago when New York State voters approved their state's recognition of same-sex marriages I was astounded at how many young people I know who posted ecstatic approvals on social network sites. What astonished me the most were that many of these approvals, blandishments, and celebratory expressions were posted by persons I knew who were themselves cohabiting with members of the opposite sex, or to use the language of a prior age, "shacked-up." My question posed to them was: "If the benefits of a committed, legalized, exclusive relationship status is so praiseworthy, why are you persisting in your shacked-up status?"
     I suppose, for the cohabiting crowd the whole affair was seen as an issue of justice or of equality. Nevertheless, I am still confused as to why persons in pairings without legal status appreciate the benefits of a legal status for others, regardless of the configuration.
     During my entire high school career (1964-8) I knew of one solitary case of a student who had become pregnant out of wedlock. There were 3,000 students in my school. (I am sure there were others who fell under the then-common rubric of silence, secret, and shame). The student I knew was popular and well-liked and no one shunned her. But she did drop out of school and remained secluded in her parents' home to take care of the birthing and care of the child. In our time a large percentage of infants are born to unwed parents and there is virtually no adverse reaction. Thus, for society at large, the conception and bearing of offspring has been effectively cut off from marriage. And no wonder, for since the widespread rebellion against the Church's ban on artificial contraception - and the failure of the Church leadership to effectively teach it - the conception and bearing of children within marriage often has nothing to do with the nuptial bed.
     There once was a kind of marriage called a "shot-gun wedding." This covered the scenario of a young man being encouraged to marry a girl he had impregnated, by the girl's father and/or other relatives, or perhaps even by his own parents. Needless to say this is not the best basis for a life-time commitment. Yet the message was clear: the child deserved to have both parents in a family situation, hastily contrived though it was. Some of it certainly was shame-based: "You have defiled my daughter and brought shame upon her and us. The only remedy is for you to fix it by marrying her."
     There also was once a kind of marriage called a "common law marriage." This meant that - depending on one's civil jurisdiction - after a man and a woman had lived together as husband and wife without benefit of the marriage license and the public ceremony, within a certain number of years they were considered "legally" married, with at least some spousal rights.
     I have remarked many times that I believe that most couples walking down the aisle on their wedding day have no idea what marriage is - much less Christian Marriage.
Yet we all know what a "wedding" is, due to cultural and even consumerism-based ideas promoted by t.v., magazines, celebrity weddings, etc. It is a pageant and it is all about the bride. Her special day. The gown. The photographer. The wedding-rehearsal dinner and the requisite gifts to the members of the wedding party. The lavish wedding reception. The extravagant white gown. The unity candle. Daddy walking his daughter down the aisle and the "giving away" of the bride. It has even come to the bizarre custom of engaged couples advising their gift-giving guests as to which stores they are "registered at" - I assume this is to safeguard that the gifts of china, silverware, salt cellars and table linens can all "match." NONE of this has anything to do with marriage, of course.
     I vividly recall one pre-nuptial catechesis in which I was giving the deep, mystical, sacramental significance of the Rite of Crowning (i.e., the Byzantine Catholic wedding ritual). The couple appeared to be utterly consumed by the depth of the theology I was expounding. They were paying attention and seemed to be sincerely avid. Like any teacher, I was thrilled to behold what I believed to be the "light" in the eyes of students who were grasping the meaning of my teaching. Then, at one point I asked if they had any questions. The bride-to-be asked "Can we have bows on the ends of the pews?" I mentally threw up my hands because, rightly or wrongly it made me think that the beautiful depth of the ritual, signifying the sacramental union of the couple with Christ, the beginning of a new household of faith, the centrality of Christ and His Gospel, the sense of "ordination" as priest and priestess of a new family of God, the shared cup of joys and sorrows, all came down to "bows on the ends of the pews." A pageant. Her special Day.
     In another but similar circumstance I had a "fallen-away Catholic" (whom I knew) and his non-Catholic fiance swear with their hands on the Gospels that they would commit to becoming active members of the parish community, and promise to raise any children within the Church. They faithfully worshiped with us most Sundays up to the time of their wedding. After that I never saw them - until they wanted their first child Baptized. After repeated oaths, apologies, explanations and acts of contrition, they agreed earnestly. They then participated in the catechesis preparatory to Baptism. And, after the Baptism I never saw them again.
     There is a likelihood that my own pastoral skills and instructions, the catechesis and preparations were flawed and insufficient. But they were, at best, steps of ordeal to be endured by the candidates until the desired end was achieved: namely the ritual. And then even the ritual was simply the prelude for a celebration afterwards in a restaurant.
     In another instance I gently approached a young man who was living with his pregnant "girlfriend." He had been raised somewhat in a Christian context. I gently and lovingly urged him to consider getting married. His response: "I would, but my girlfriend wants a really big wedding and we can't afford it." I told him "There's no such thing as a big wedding! One bride. One groom. Two witnesses. A priest. That's a wedding!" (So: since there can't be a major pageant and a memorable banquet and party, there are now TWO children born to two adults who are not, at least formally, committed to a serious family life together.)
     So, it occurs to me that in our modern, secularized society, even among Christians, the notion of marriage itself is hardly at all sacramental. It has become a way of celebrating an idea, perhaps even of romantic love. And when that idea peters out or is replaced by a "better idea," or when the romance is over, what's the point of remaining in the marriage?
     In our time there are myriad notions of what constitutes a couple, a family, a commitment, a meaningful life together. Society itself has broadened to include all of these: cohabitation, open marriage, no-fault divorce, contraception, conception and birthing out of wedlock, and so on.
I fear that the Christian concept of a sacramental marriage is one that is rarely held - even by Christians. The Supreme Court and the European Union can consider what constitutes a "right." And every society develops its own conventions. But the Church and Her leadership, Her pastors, Her faithful, need to be clear and unrelenting in feeding the flock with the Christian meaning of marriage regardless of what governments and societies come up with to please their constituencies.
     Finally: for centuries in many places it was the Church who taught, exemplified, and lived the Mystical Life and society at large accepted it as the basis of its understanding. And the society supported it. This is no longer the case in the West. Society really doesn't care.
     Personally I regret this state of affairs. But, again, I see it in the context of a generation or two of very poor catechesis and the loss of support in the society at large. Regardless of what civil authorities come up with, the faithful Christian can commit himself or herself to living the life of grace we have received in the waters of Baptism, sealed with the chrism of the Holy Spirit, nourished at the Table of the Lord by His Body and Blood, renewed it in Confession, and exemplifying it ever deeply in our own lives, families, and vocations. Our modern American Society is not at all looking to the Church for guidance, much less parameters. And I fear that the Church has either been "defeated" in this regard, or has wimped out. Whether its a unity candle during Mass, or the white gown on a mother of four, or a reading from a Shakespeare sonnet, or the crucial matter of bows on the end of pews, or a ceremony on the beach performed by a Unitarian clergyman, everyone can pretty much make up his own mind, and the crowd with accept it.
     But for Christians, CHRIST is the True LIGHT Who enlightens every man who comes into the world. He has come into the darkness and the darkness does not grasp him. He has come to His own, and His own have not received Him. But to those who have received Him, He has given them the power to become children of GOD. (paraphrasing John 1)

Friday, March 27, 2015


Now and then someone will tell me that they enjoy reading my blog. Usually I think "Wow! It's been awhile since I posted anything." Today I noticed that it has been pretty near 2 years! (I knew it was a long time - but I didn't think it was THAT long.)
Time flies!
This evening we celebrated the Vespers of "Lazarus Saturday." In the Eastern Churches this marks the end of Great Lent. In the Western Churches Holy Week is considered part of Lent. Not so in the East, where the forty days of fasting are now concluded. The Great Holy Week is also a time of fasting - stricter - but we have finished the Quadragesima, the forty days. And I must say that, while usually Lent seems interminable to me, this year it has gone in a flash and I actually feel nostalgic for it.
Have we already done all of those services - Great Compline, the Presanctified Liturgy, the Great Canon of Repentance, the Akathist Hymn to Our Lady? How many prostrations and Prayers of St. Ephraim have flowed under the bridge? Ineed: how ever will I get all the things needed for Holy Week and Pascha in order?
I used to dread the onset of Lent - though I knew it was good for what ails me! The dietary discipline was heavy: no meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, wine. The services tended to be longer. Prostrations. Like many youngsters I got pretty much enmeshed in the externals themselves, perhaps failing to realize the depth hidden in them and revealed through them. I don't know why, but this year it was very different. The corporal limitations of "senior citizenship" manifested themselves in a failure to be able to perform even one single prostration. Time was when I was able to celebrate the morning and evening services every day. That time has gone. I have even had to modify some of the stricter details of fast and abstinence.
Not being able has granted me the insight to really plumb the depths of those things I am able to do! Being the only one standing in church when almost everyone else is on their knees with heads bowed to the ground is a mite embarrassing, but it's also an occasion for surrender and perhaps humility. Not being able to "do" as many services has given me more and more recourse to the beloved "Jesus Prayer" - a welcome transition. Even the need to include a "bit" of animal protein to my diet has made me more acutely aware of the spirit of fasting, for simplicity.
Two years since I have last blogged - and forty days since beginning Great Lent with "Forgiveness Vespers" both astonish me. Really!
The time is short. Two years. Forty days. Five minutes waiting in line. Three-score-and four years on this earth. It is all like a rush of flowing water.
"A man - his days are like grass. As a flower of the field so shall he bloom. But let a breath pass over him and he is gone and never shall he know his place again. But the love of the Lord is from all eternity and to all eternity to those who fear him." (Psalm 105)
Forgive me my absence, negligence, laziness, preoccupation, scatteredness. God grant us all a solemn and prayerful Holy Week and a glorious Pascha!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Musings on Issues

What is the issue of the day - on this Good Friday 2013?
The news and social media seem to be dealing with same-sex marriage, gun control, and "the economy."  Also the new Pope, Francis.
I know very little about any of these subjects. Regarding gun-control, I know that the founding fathers felt it was important that the citizens be armed - not for hunting, but to protect themselves primarily from any government tyranny.  Regarding the economy, I know that we and the Western world are in trouble.  Regarding His Holiness I know nothing - but am enjoying the various insights, observations, etc.
On the question of who can marry whom I have many problems. 
Having prepared a number of couples for this holy state of life, I have often observed that most people walking down the aisle have no idea what marriage is - much less what Christian marriage is.  Why is this?  At some point during my life-time, the Church decided it needed special preparatory sessions for couples about to marry.  Prior to the 1950's it seems that people approached their pastor and, once it was ascertained that they were free to marry, a wedding could be scheduled.  At some point "Pre-cana" programs came into existence because there was an apparent need to try and explain in spiritual and practical terms, what marriage involved.  Certainly the Church authorities observed that things had changed.  Divorce - once quite rare - was becoming common-place. Spousal abuse was being addressed - at last.  The stigma of pregnancy out of wedlock was fading.  So-called birth control was becoming "respectable."  Prior to the 1940's virtually every Christian denomination condemned the practice of artificial contraception.  I believe the Anglicans were the first to cave.  Only Catholicism perdured in its refusal to accept it.  And, in the 1970's many a Catholic pastor rebelled against Pope Paul VI's teaching reaffirming the Church's stance.
In short, the culture of the West was going through a radical change regarding human sexual behavior and indeed, human sexuality.  "Freed" from the "constraints" of marriage, family and responsibility, people began to see sex as a matter of choice between consenting adults.
I believe this manifested itself in the transformation of the American wedding - egged on by the t.v. soap operas.  Rather than being a communal event, a sacramental, holy moment, shared with family and friends, the wedding itself has gradually become a "show."  It has become "her" special day.  The size of the diamond, the number of attendants, the profusion of flowers, the apparent expense of the reception, the preoccupation with photographers, videographers, etc.all became important matters.
Interestingly, many of the symbols remained intact even though they had lost all real meaning: the veil, the white gown, etc.
Among evangelical Protestants marriage has generally been seen more as a convention or contract than a sacrament.  Whether a marriage was celebrated in a church or a home or on the beach were all Protestant options.  In addition, throughout the world marriage has always had an economic dimension.  Whether by dowry or by alliance of families, money was often involved.  And when a marriage ended by death, separation or divorce, the state and the society sought to insure an equitable treatment of surviving spouses - particularly the wives.
Thus there came to be a certain relationship between the Church and the state.  The ministers became officials to some degree - recognized as able to perform the legal thing known as a "marriage."  At one point in U.S. history, a conflict arose on this level: between the government and the Mormon Church.  The government would not recognize the Mormon openness to polygamy which was, in fact, criminalized.  The Mormons for the most part modified their practices in order to conform to civil and social requirements.
These social and civil requirements and standards were based on what we have come to call the "Judeo-Christian" culture. 
This Judeo-Christian thing implies a rootedness in certain religious concepts and standards.  For most Americans this was all summed up in a rather vague standard called "The Bible."  Of course the Bible includes all kinds of polygamous relationships, not to mention concubinage.  From Abraham up until the Council of Jerusalem it required circumcision of boys.  And the multiplicity of Protestant sects provided a whole panoply of intertpretations on various minutiae of proper Judeo-Christian behavior.  Nevertheless, until recent decades, there was an unspoken consensus among America's Jews, Catholics, Methodists and agnostics regarding certain conventions.
Now our society seems to be at a point of approving marriage between persons of the same sex and in many instances, is even championing the cause.
I amaze myself that - while I am certainly against it - I am not particularly shocked or alarmed by the whole thing.  Why?  Because the culture has changed and has pretty much abandoned the whole Judeo-Christian aspect of morality and social convention.  Thus, the approach of the society at large and particularly the young, seems to me to be in concert with their culture:  Marriage is a personal choice.  Sexual activity is a personal choice.  Contraception is a given.  Abortion of the fetus is an option.  Cohabitation outside the sanctity of marriage is a very acceptable norm. For them.
In fact, when New York State voted to approve same-sex unions, several of my young relatives rejoiced victoriously.  Since the majority of them were in unmarried heterosexual cohabitation ("shacked-up," as they say), I expressed my puzzlement to a couple of them, as to why they thought that marriage was such a grand state for same-sex people, whilst they themselves had not considered it!  It was obvious to me that they were not really concerned about marriage or marriage "rights."  Rather, they were concerned with celebrating a whole new culture that is unrelated to its predecessor.
So, where do I stand?
As a Catholic, I have a good idea of what Christian marriage is.  It is a union of a faithful Christian man and a faithful Christian woman, celebrated in the heart of the Church, infused by God's grace and blessings.  It is a commitment to family life - nuclear family life.  It is concerned with fruitfulness.  The use of sex is for the mutual edification of the partners and is always open to life.  It is not entertainment.  Fidelity to spouse and family and Church is guaranteed.  The raising of children in a home which is a domestic church is essential.  God's Presence in the marriage, the family and the home is notable.  The observance of religion is important in and out of the house.
I know that today this is actually rare.  But I believe that ranting against the downfall of society is useless.  They are not listening.  My position is that it is important for us - Christians - to recognize that we are not in the mainstream, and therefore, to hold fast to our faith, our doctrine, our spiritual life.  The mainstream will not accept our standards.  They no longer believe in them.  To pretend otherwise is likely to open the door to an idea: that our way is one of many "options."  All the options have existed since time immemorial.  Our world is no longer scandalized by any of them.  In fact, the Church was born and spread abroad in the midst of just such a world. 
For me, it is not a matter of instructing the world, nor certainly accomodating it.  It is perhaps an opportunity for us, as Christians, to follow our vocation which is to reject the world, and to commit ourselves over and over again to Him who said "I have conquered the world."

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ecumenical musings

I have often been asked if I believe that the Churches of East and West will be reunited "in our lifetime."  My answer is "No."
Compared to the situation that prevailed in my childhood, though, the current climate is far more favorable.  When I was a child I recall one of our teachers in Catholic school telling us that a Protestant church is "a barn," and that God is not present there.  When I was a teenager delivering the (now-defunct) Long Island Press, there was a lady who lived next door to the Press office in Bellerose who was an evangelical of some sort.  She used to visit us in the garage-like structure where we folded our papers for delivery.  She would rant and rave against the Catholic Church - whore of Babylon, etc. - in an attempt to call us Catholics and Jews to salvation.  The children of my Grandmother's landlord would ask us questions about Catholicism: whether we worshiped the Virgin Mary, whether nuns were witches with magic powers, and so on.
Such attitudes are very rare these days, but at the time they were commonplace.
Today there is a modicum of respect among serious Christians.
But when we speak of Church unity there is an understanding of sorts that we are referring to an organic union between different religious organizations.  Regardless of what ecumenists might say or write, most Catholics assume that a future reunion will amount to separated Churches "becoming Catholic."  The same is true of the Eastern Orthodox.  Rome must abandon her innovations and return to Orthodoxy.  Orthodox must "come under" the pope, and so on.
Moreover, in Catholicism there is a kind of vague idea that the Eastern Churches are a united group.  When the Ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople meets with the Pope of Rome we may tend to see this as two heads coming together, as if the Patriarch of Constantinople were the Pope of the Orthodox - which he is not.  Eventually they might sign a concordat of some kind and we will all be united.  Perhaps this is because of Catholics' generally monolithic view of the Church - the old pyramid scheme with the Pope on top, the bishops next, followed by the clergy, the religious, and the ordinary faithful on the base. 
Besides the various Eastern Orthodox Churches, there are also the Coptic Church, the Armenian Church, the Syriac Church, the Church of the East, et al, who are not in union with the [Byzantine] Orthodox Churches, but are technically considered "heretics" who separated from Orthodoxy (and Catholicism) at the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.).
Regarding the Orthodox Churches, many of them have internal schisms.  For example there are "old Calendarists" and "New Calendarists."  The Church of Ukraine itself is divided between three main groups, one of which recognizes the Patriarch of Moscow as its head, while another has a Patriarch of Kiev.
If the monolithic Church of Rome were to unite with "the" Orthodox Church - to which one would it reunite?  Supposing it is Moscow.   Chances are the other autocephalous Churches would almost certainly excommunicate Moscow and, in the unlikely event that the Patriarch of Moscow would enter into a union with the Church of Rome, the Russian Church would very quickly be divided between those who favored the "union" and those who opposed it.  Incidentally, the word "union" among the Orthodox is almost a cuss-word as it might be applied to the various Eastern Churches which actually entered into union with Rome in the 16th and 17th centuries.
However, the over-all change of attitudes is encouraging - because the unity of the holy Churches of God is not really a matter of signed documents and agreements and organized movements.  I know a Greek woman - very active in her Orthodox parish church - who is a devotee of St. Pio, the famous stigmatist.  Her husband has dismissed the apparent disunity of the Churches.  "We were the same religion for over a thousand years.  It's all nonsense."  There is also a sort of informal - and perhaps illicit - intercommunion. Perhaps one spouse is Eastern Orthodox and one is Roman Catholic, and they alternate their attendance between two parishes, freely communicating in either.  Of course such a situation could be labeled "anarchy" by zealots of either persuasion.
For my own part, as an Eastern Catholic, one thing has puzzled me over the years:  Catholics regard the Orthodox Churches as Churches, with "valid" bishops, priests, and sacraments.  They have everything they need, in a sense.  So what is it that separates us?  Ecclesiology? History? Politics? Stubbornness?  Loyalties of a more tribal nature?
Myrna Nazzour - a mystic in Damascus, Syria - has claimed to have received visions and locutions from the Mother of God.  The Catholic Church has called them "credible."  She also experiences the stigmata, with a substance issuing from her wounds that has been analyzed and determined to be 100% olive oil.  At any rate, according to Myrna, Our Lady is very displeased by the disunion among Christians, and has particularly harsh words for those who "delight in the disunion."  That impresses me very much.  The lack of unity is one thing - a vicissitude of history, culture, politics, the works of SatanBut the existence of people who delight in the lack of unity is even more grave.
I know such people - on all sides.  Some are ordinary folks.  Some are clergy, theologians, politicians.  They are smug.  They regard "the others" as heretics and schismatics, BUT it pleases them.  "All the heretics have to do is become just like us!"  In a sense they remind me of family members who have refused to speak to one another for many years.  They no longer care what separates them - they just refuse to take any steps to move towards each other.  They have come to enjoy the separation.  They have become confirmed in whatever it is that separates them even if it no longer matters.  The definition of this state is "hatred."  They have embraced animosity.
So, back to the question: Do I believe that the Eastern Churches and the Roman Catholic Church will reunite in my lifetime?  My answer is "No."  However, the ability of Pariarchs, ordinary people, theologians, etc. to set aside the animosty, and to regret estrangement and bitterness, to sit down with one another in love and respect - this is pleasing to God - and perhaps more pleasing than forming a single "organization."

Friday, September 14, 2012

The "U" Word

Some years ago I taught a course at Milwaukee's Lafarge Institute entitled "Introduction to the Eastern Churches."  It turned out to be a popular course.  And the running joke was that the student needed a "score-card," in order to understand the terminology: Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Chaldeans, Maronites, Byzantine-Catholics, and on and on.
From the perspective of world-wide Christianity, all the Eastern Christians put together are numerically small.  From an historical perspective, small as they may be, they are very significant in that they represent some of the earliest continuously existing Christian communities.  In the Acts of the Apostles it states matter- of-factly that "it was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians."  Today there are no less than 5 ancient communities who trace their origin to the (once) great city of Antioch.
Early on in the development of the organization of the Church throughout the world it was agreed upon that the bishops of certain major cities of the Empire enjoyed preeminence among the bishops.  These were the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.  Later Constantinople was added immediately after Rome, being as it was, the "New Rome."  This caused a problem because Rome and Alexandria both resented this "intrusion" in the ancient order of things. 
At any rate, situations such as this caused rifts great and small amongst the various Churches.  Theological differences, now considered semantic rather than dogmatic, caused further separations.  The fall of the Empire in the West caused a whole new world-view to evolve there - including a brand-new Roman Empire: that of the formerly barbarian kings.  Remember that in the order of the chief bishops or patriarchs, there came to be five - with only one in the West.
The relationship of the Bishop of Rome to the other Bishops of the other Apostolic Churches was a matter of discussion, opinion, and even doctrine over the centuries.  Constantinople and its Church flourished and spread throughout the Balkans and the lands of the Eastern Slavs (Ukraine, Russia, Belarus) with only occasional contact with "Old Rome."  The Crusades were the occasion of some contacts, which did not endear the Western Christians to their Eastern brethren.  (To be fair, there were events which rarely are mentioned, such as the slaughter of the Latin Christians of Constantinople)
Now, I have admittedly not expressed all of the above in a scholarly way, but it brings me to a point: By the time of Constantinople's fall to the Muslims in the Fifteenth Century, ancient, apostolic, catholic, orthodox Christianity had become very much divided.  The Copts of Egypt, the Ethiopians and the Armenians maintained Communion with each other.  The Antiochenes were divided between the "Melkites," i.e. Byzantines and the Syriacs.  There were Nestorian communities from Baghdad to China.  There were ancient communities in India.  And there was Rome and Western Europe.
Over the years there were attempts at reunion.  Notable among these was the Council of Florence (in the 1430's) which actually managed to unite all the Eastern Churches with Rome.  Though the bishops managed to come to tenuous agreements, when they returned home to Greece, Russia, Egypt, etc. the "union" fell apart.  It simply was not accepted.
[Interesting note: there were Eastern Christians in southern Italy who had never been separated from union with Rome.  Also, the Maronite Christians of Lebanon have claimed that their Church also never separated from Communion with Rome.]
A century or so after the failed union of Florence, the popes sought in various ways to reach out to the Eastern Churches hoping for another reunion.  What happened -briefly- is that communities of Eastern Christians entered into union with the Roman Catholic Church.  Primary among these were the Eastern Slavs - called collectively the "Rus" or "Rusyns."  These were Orthodox Christians living in the general area of Ukraine and Belarus.  The union took place in 1595-96.  Most of the bishops, with their Metropolitan Archbishop of Kiev, agreed to articles which would preserve their legitimate, ancient, Byzantine traditions of worship, government, etc. while recognizing the authority of the Pope of Rome.  This "program" was called the Unia - a Polish term which means "union."  The Christians of the Kievan Metropolia were virtually all within the government of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and there's no doubt that political considerations played an important role in the "Unia."  Though related ethnically to the Russians (Muscovites), there had been little contact between the Church of Moscow and that of Kiev.  In fact, the Metropolitans of Kiev were confirmed directly by the Patriarch of Constantinople.
Those who entered into union with Rome came to be called Uniates.  This term has become more and more a pejorative.  Personally, I like the term.  When I was a youngster already interested in Eastern Christianity, it was a pretty standard term.  Plus, it means what it says: United.  But no one else seems to like it.  Instead, the descendants of these original Uniates are called Byzantine Catholics.  Or Greek Catholics - though none of them are Greek.  Those who are not of Byzantine tradition are called Eastern Catholics.  More often they are called by their particular names: Chaldean Catholics, Malabarese Catholics, Coptic Catholics, etc.  Nowadays there is much hyphenation, as in "Ukrainian-Greek-Catholic" or "Melkite-Greek-Catholic."  Not too long ago they were collectively called Eastern Rite Catholics.  This was inadequate because it implied that the Eastern Catholics were "regular" Catholics except that their "rite" or ritual was exotic.
The preferred term in many circles is "Orthodox in union with Rome."  This reflects a newer self-understanding: that we Eastern Catholics are Orthodox Christians (just like the Russian Orthodox and the Serbian Orthodox), except that we have entered into union with Rome.  Eminent Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev would agree with this term.  He converted to Catholicism based on his conclusion that to be fully Orthodox one had to be in union with the Roman Church.   Of course, for most people "Orthodox in union with Rome" is a kind of oxymoron, because the "Orthodox" are those who are not in union with Rome. 
What I find interesting is that, in the Polish language, whence the term "uniate" is derived, the Eastern Catholics were referred to as "unici prawoslawni" which means, simply enough "United Orthodox," or, "Orthodox in Union."
In the long run, it doesn't do much to resolve the need for a "score-card."  And there is little danger of anyone finding a sign that reads "St. Thomas Uniate Church."  It is sad that history has heaped up division after division, false unions, partial unions, forced unions.  Uniates - oops! - I mean Eastern Catholics still are in need of a self-understanding that expresses the reality of their union, challenges any imposed or embraced character of second-class status - and whatever resentments are bound to attach to such a status, renew the beautiful and valuable treasures of their own spiritual and liturgical patrimony, without apologizing for their very existence - either to the West or the East.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Rome and the Nuns

Following a lengthy (3-year) study of communities of women religious in the United States, it has been decided at the Vatican level to appoint a reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, under the immediate charge of Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, due to grave concerns about positions taken by the LCWR over the years.
The Leadership Conference was founded in the mid-1950's and given authority by Rome's Congregation for Religious, now known by the unwieldy title of "Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life."  Its purpose was to provide a forum for superiors of women's religious Orders to meet and share mutual concerns.
The current reform is concerned with evidence that the Leadership Conference has abandoned the Catholic Faith and Church teaching regarding some key issues: radical feminism, abortion, homosexuality, etc.  Response to this call for reform has been varied.  Many have expressed concern that the Vatican is trying to "come down the poor nuns."  Others have expressed relief that such a reform has finally been called for.  I have studied in great detail, the situation of "women religious" in the United States as it has unfolded since the 1960's.  My remarks below are the result of this study and ongoing concern.

First of all, the panoply of women religious in the United States impressed me from a very early age.  In almost every parish there was a convent.  Those living in the convent were committed to the teaching and the authority of the Church.  They lived a dramatic witness of community life, expressed in the living out of the vows, the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Most were engaged in the education of children.  I have vivid memories of walking past a local convent and hearing the chant of the prayers.  The monastic or quasi-monastic presence in virtually every parish was palpable.

These Sisters and/or nuns (there is a difference), exhibited a certain variety.  In my immediate neighborhood there were Sisters of St. Joseph, Felician Sisters and Dominican Sisters - all teachers.  Their habits differed remarkably - though they represented the age-old habit of tunic and veil.  Their spirituality and piety were different, due to their particular origins.  Common prayer, daily Mass, contemplation, common meals, and the apostolate formed the framework of their daily life.  They were true sisters - and the head of their house was aptly and lovingly called "mother."  (Nowadays she might be called a co-ordinator!) The Leadership Conference would have reflected this up until the '60's.

The Second Vatican Council called upon these women throughout the world to reexamine their experience of religious life, and when possible, to take steps to return to the aims and spirit of their foundresses.  Regarding the religious habit the only change suggested was modification to avoid unhealthy, cumbersome and exaggerated styles of garb.  Many of the communities of Sisters were founded specifically for the education of youth.  The Felician Sisters, founded in 19th century Poland, were founded to care for the poor and orphaned.  It was in the U.S.A. where immigration had swelled the parochial schools of Polish parishes, that the Sisters of this community became primarily associated with teaching.  (Some were also engaged in nursing - true of many communities of women.)

Their habit was unmistakably Franciscan: tunic, cord, scapular, crucifix, cloak and veil.  Like most communities, their headdress had become exaggerated, in the various contrivances that the veil was attached to.  The Sisters of St. Joseph looked like "lady Jesuits," with the addition of assorted starched pieces and the veil.  The Dominicans were simplest of all, and readily identified as Dominican.

The call for a return to the spirit of the founder was a call to deepen what they were already living.

At some point the LCWR became preoccupied with feminist issues, "liberation" theology, ordination of women to the priesthood, ecology, etc.  It has been demonstrated that the LCWR - while officially "representing" most congregations of women religious - had become an elitist organization of "professional" women.  Like the Vatican they eschew, they became authoritarian and succeeded in imposing their will on an unsuspecting majority of faithful Catholic nuns.

Most who are over the age of 55 will recall that many nuns stopped wearing the habit, stopped living in convents, stopped observing the spirituality and treasures of community life.  Those who read up on these developments might also have been shocked to find the LCWR and certain religious communities proposing ideas that were contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church.  This is what I find amazing: that women who vow to live a life as consecrated women in an OFFICIAL way, that is as nuns or religious Sisters, have balked at the requirement that they conform to the very institution that gives them their official position and approves of their way of life and gives them credibility.  It also amazes me that the Church's present call for reform has been  seen as threatening or oppressive, by those in the forefront of "reform."

I know that the good old days were not good in every way.  Reform was needed, particularly in dress and in observance of customs.  In some communities, a Sister who accidentally broke a tea cup might be required to prostrate on the floor in the doorway of the dining room while the other Sisters stepped over her, as a sign of her contrition.  The care and cleaning of the garb in some instances took a full day - and in many instances that garb had become more and more elaborate with each generation.  Some communities required that a Sister get permission of her superior before having a drink of water between meals.  There was little or no collaboration in terms of assignment of chores and duties.  Some of these customs actually made sense, but often had become external forms void of any interior understanding.

When the reforms started in the 60's and 70's there were many explanations that were given.  One was that nuns' habits had been the customary dress of widows at the time of their founding, and could now be discarded.  This is false.  The habit of women religious goes back at least to the 4th century where it was described as a tunic, girdle, and veil.  Some ladies were told that their foundresses had been dynamic, revolutionary women of their times, and that it was now incumbent upon the modern daughters to become equally dynamic and revolutionary.  (Of course the venerable foundresses would not have gained approval for their foundations if they had spoken out contrary to the teaching of the Church, or advocated life-styles contrary to generally accepted norms of convent life.)  Some decided to disobey the reform by abandoning religious garb and instead chose a pin which they contrived as a sign of their consecration.  Some of the popular literature was calling upon Sisters to divorce themselves from the "spirit of the foundress" and come to some new understanding of life based on their "lived experience."

I looked on with sorrow at many instances of wholesale abandonment of religious life.  Later in life I was to discover that many Sisters were sorrowed and bewildered by what the powers-on-high had instituted in place of their customary -and approved- way of life.  Many left the convent because the life to which they had solemnly vowed themselves had not only disappeared, but been held up to ridicule.

The Church has indeed been patient.  When official leaders of a formal group publicly take stands that are clearly antithetical to the Church's teaching, why have they not been removed from their Church-sanctioned offices?  When public societies of vowed consecrated religious life abandon the way of life wholesale, how is it that they retain their official "status?"  Incidentally, when so many women in leadership call for ordination to the priesthood - why has there been no equal clamor for ordination to the diaconate? Hmmmm.

Everyone knows what religious life is like and what a convent is.  Even the popular media depict nuns in traditional garb living the traditional life.  The specter of assembled women, wearing professional, business outfits complete with jewelry and makeup, presiding at bizarre ceremonies that have no relation to common Christian prayer, signing their names (and titles and the initials of their various Orders) to documents and statements and letters that challenge fundamental Christian doctrine, and boldly declare positions that have been condemned is horrible - if it is even relevant.

The LCWR is being called upon by ITS leadership: the Catholic hierarchy, to be true to its calling to promote solid Christian life in the heart of the Church and work together with women vowed to poverty, chastity and obedience.  That this is controversial amazes me.

Monday, May 28, 2012

What's it all about?

In the recent controversy over U.S. government health care policies vs. religious freedom, it seems like the Church's position regarding artificial birth control is front and center - treated both as the essence of the argument and as a red herring distracting from the essence of the argument.
One hears the illogical argument that "most" U.S. Catholics do not subscribe to the Church's doctrine.  Then I ask, "Is it the government's role to interpret religious doctrine according to a poll of the opinions of the 'faithful?'"
The bishops' more lucid argument is that it's not about birth-control.  Rather it is about the Church's right to function in the world, in Her various ministries, in Her own institutions according to the dictates of Her teaching.
My own opinion is that it IS about birth-control after all. 
Until the 1930's all Christian Churches and denominations condemned artificial contraception.  The Anglican Church's Lambeth Conference in 1908 stated that one cannot speak of contraception without "repugnance."  Twenty-two years later the Lambeth Conference approved of artificial contraception. And by 1931, virtually all Protestant groups agreed with this revolutionary opinion.
In 1968 Pope Paul VI issued the famous encyclical "Humanae Vitae." The encyclical reiterated the Church's continuous teaching on the matter, despite expert advice which had suggested that the Church change Her teaching.
The response to Pope Paul's encyclical was swift.  I was still in high school at the time and I recall the confusion.  Some priests were openly telling their parishioners that they could ignore the document.  Others were telling penitents that they could not receive Holy Communion if they did not stop using "the pill."  Society at large cast His Holiness and the hierarchy at large in the role of mediaeval fools.  Some theologians and professors were quite public in their rejection of the document and its teaching.  And many priests told their people to use their conscience as their guide.  (This would be perfectly sound IF the consciences were informed by at least reading Humanae Vitae and studying and seeking sound spiritual direction.  But the prevailing idea seemed to be "if you're okay with it, go ahead.")
Perhaps naive, I recall being stunned by the reaction.  Growing up hitherto, I had often heard the phrase "The Church teaches..." - and that ended any discussion.  The phrase "Sister said..." had the gravity and finality of "Roma locuta est."  In 1968 it no longer seemed to matter what the Church taught.  Indeed, "Sister says..." had lost all currency.  The faithful were being told that we had "grown up" and could now think for ourselves.  We were no longer dumb sheep or lisping children.  This all following an age when we children would not dare go to a movie unless Dad first checked it out with the Church's approval ratings given by the "Legion of Decency."
Sociologically speaking many exciting papers could be written about American Catholicism in the '60's and '70's.  Society had become increasing suspicious of Authority.  Demonstrations against the govenment were a daily occurence.  Soldiers and police officers were routinely spat upon at parades.  Catholics were being sold a bill of goods by countless wolves using the sheep's clothing of "renewal."
Humanae Vitae should have been received by bishops, clergy and faithful with at least an open mind and heart- certainly with respect and eagerness to discover what our "teacher-in-chief had to offer us."  As Catholics, if the document challenged our own opinions or ideas, we would have the obligation to study it and to pray and to try and conform our life according to its precepts.
But society at large would have none of this.
Instead it became a discussion about hormones, chemicals, barriers, and how antedeluvian the Church was in its out-dated attitude. Galileo became the hero of the argument.  And the conscientious couple struggling with this issue found themselves at sea.
The germ of the teaching is that sexual activity belongs in the context of loving and mystical (read "sacramental") commitment, cooperation in God's creation, respect for one's spouse and for the mystery of human life, openness to new life and ongoing spiritual warfare.  Though only 1 out of millions of U.S. Catholics, I recall NONE of this being taught or even recommended from the pulpits of the Diocese of Brooklyn at the time.
It was all about birth control and whether I may and whether I might.  In the same year that Humanae Vitae was published, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara - now president of the world bank, announced that foreign aid would be given with a preference for those countries which promoted contraception.  Admirably, one Latin American president responded that it was insulting to assume that money could buy off the consciences of the faithful in his country.  Though I am not particularly prone to conspiracy theories, Mr. McNamara's proposal does appear to be part of a wider agenda.
Now, separated from a sacramental and deifying theology and a deep understanding of human love and God's eternal wisdom, the ultimate teaching is this: "Sexual activity need no longer be confined to marriage, nor seen as holy and God-cooperating."  The bearing of children is a matter of convenience and economics.  Sex became recreational.  Sex became "liberated."  We witnessed a "sexual revolution."  Adult responsibility dropped by the way-side.  Adultery and fornication, cohabitation, anonymous sex, all became options for the 20th century American.  Marriage need no longer be confined to the complimentarity of "opposite" sexes.  Children were and are being born out of wedlock at alarming rates.  Divorce is endemic. 
The Church has become at odds with society.  And society has become predictably more and more secular and even pagan.  Now the government's health issues are directly opposed to the Church's teaching and the government is trying to insist that the Church conform.  We are being instructed that in the modern world, the Church no longer has to "right" to conform to Her own precepts!  It is reminiscent of the Soviet policy whereby churches could remain open and priests could perform liturgical rites so long as they neither preached the Gospel nor taught Christian doctrine to children.
The Church Herself is handicapped because Her leadership has often relinquished any serious role of teaching and of moral authority.  And it is - after all - about "birth control," because the controversy has separated the average Catholic from the "mind" of the Church.  And many of the aberrant teachings and practices prevalent in society have been embraced by the faithful who have had no one to guide them except the opinions and examples of their favorite sit-coms - or have been taught that guidance and doctrine are obsolescent.
[I am reminded of a cartoon from the '60's which depicted a father and his outlandishly dressed hippy-son.  The caption: "But, Dad, I want to be different like everybody else!"]
Meanwhile, all of the nonconformist anti-establishment activists of the 60's and 70's have been proven most conforming and sheep-like in following the whirwinds of changing opinion and convention.  And it is the minority of faithful Christians seeking lives of sanctification and spiritual nourishment, who live their lives according to the patterns of nature and nature's God, who truly believe and trust in Him, who struggle and seek Him - it is they who are truly revolutionary and not fooled by the false promises of this world.