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."