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.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Culture and Nostalgia

Yesterday I happened to be in a grocery store. I noticed a woman, perhaps in her late forties, with a male companion - perhaps husband? - who appeared to be a decade or so her junior. The woman had numerous piercings and tattoos. Her gentleman companion had a Mohawk hair-do. They both appeared to be under the influence of some substance or another. Lots of giggling, dropping things, etc.

Within an aisle or two I chanced upon a mother and son. Mother was approximately my age (60's). They were arguing. He wanted her to hurry up. She cursed him with the "F" word and told him to leave - she would walk home. The conversation ensued for awhile, with Mom & son each cursing the other, as I meandered out of ear-shot. Most of the customers were Hispanic and there were many small children around.

Later in the afternoon I watched the news on TV. One of the noteworthy items was that apparently voters in North Carolina had affirmed the definition of "marriage" as a union between a man and a woman. There was much controversy and discussion, back and forth. Apparently the President of the United States had come out publicly in favor of the newer definition.
In this morning's newspaper there was a short item about the political leaders of France, their divorces, marriages, concubines, etc. It was quite confusing.
In our contemporary American culture none of the aforementioned characters, behaviors, etc. is particularly noteworthy. Admittedly, my amateur sociological or anthropological observations are judgmental to some degree. The relationship between the pierced, tattooed, intoxicated middle aged woman and her younger companion cannot be known for sure. They could have been aunt and nephew, or simply neighbors. So I have made assumptions. I mention the Hispanic families and the small children, assuming that most are of the Catholic Faith, in traditional, intact families, working class. [These assumptions are based on the particular neighborhood.] At any rate, it saddens me that in a market, during the afternoon hours, one can encounter a drunken couple laughing and cavorting, a grandmotherly type using really filthy language, echoed by her son's retorts, and then check the media and find a debate as to what a marriage is, and read a brief article categorizing the various marriages, adulteries, divorces, and companionships of world leaders.

I grew up in a devout Catholic household in the 1950's and '60's, in a working-class neighborhood in Queens. I am sure that there were alcoholics, including housewives. One did not encounter them in public in a state of intoxication. In fact, any adult appearing in public in an intoxicated state would have been remarkable to say the least. Indeed, sobriety was a matter that concerned more than chemical use. The "F" word was never uttered in public. In fact, I recall occasions when men were ejected from taverns because their language was indecent. I honestly never heard a woman use that particular word until I was well into my twenties. I never heard my mother swear. Adults who did swear would not do so in public and would not tolerate their children using such language. In my immediate neighborhood there wasn't a single divorced person. Every child on my block was born to a married couple. Those who were siblings had the same mommy and daddy. Pornography was unknown and, at any rate, unavailable. Every Dad worked and supported his family. Many Moms also worked outside of the house. Every family I ever knew ate their meals together.

Certainly all the "modern" issues existed back then. But the culture sustained a level of decent behavior. This is no longer the case: Celebrities having children out of wedlock are celebrated. Divorces and multiple marriages are commonplace. Indecent behavior - even in public - is unobjectionable. Tolerance and license have replaced respect. Mind your own business. I'm okay, you're okay. Whatever floats your boat. Live and let live. These are the virtues that govern contemporary American society.
The difference is Faith.
Though most people I knew as a child were active members of a church or synagogue, there were some who did not. But they showed a distinct respect for their neighbors of Faith. Belonging to "the Church" was essential and was a life-long condition. One might "skip" Mass occasionally, but it was a glaring exception. If one happened inadvertently to eat meat on Friday it was cause for embarrassment. Contrary to oft-cited anti-Catholic anecdotes, the Bible was prominently displayed and available for reading. Family prayer was regular, though rote and ritualistic. But the saying of Father Peyton that "the family that prays together stays together" was taken seriously. In our parish church there were six Masses every Sunday, and devotional services every Tuesday and Wednesday night - all well-attended. Modest attire was standard - everywhere.

The same standards existed for our Jewish and other neighbors. The bottom line was that we - and society at large - recognized God. We differed in belief from one another, but respected the worship and observances proper to each group. God was feared, and our relations with one another reflected that reverence. Society recognized that there were obligations and commandments. Sadly, this attitude has yielded to a selfish and subjective and inconsiderate model, based too often on "what seems right to Me." I know that we cannot return. And I admit that things are not necessarily as rosy was we remember them. But we can return to the practice of our Faith, meaning, we can commit to making our Faith the basis and standard of our life, unapologetic, seriously and starting with ourselves.