Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Take Heart

OK, so health care passed. Some people I've talked to are angry, some are depressed. Both of these are natural and to be expected, but let's not go overboard. I'm reading blog posts that make it sound like the world is ending and we will all be judged on this one event.

History is full of horrible events, some of which make this look like fun. I'm not saying that I'm OK with it (just read my earlier blog posts on health care) but let's not lose sight of reality. As Christians we know the end of the story - God wins, and we are saved through His grace and mercy. There should be nothing on this Earth that causes us to lose hope.

My mother used to say to us when we whined about something bad "what's the worst that could happen?" In this case, the worst is pretty bad. 300,000 more children could lose their lives each year (an estimate based on results of existing public funding of abortions in Medicaid). The American economy could be devastated for decades to come. Our democracy could be at an end. And yet is it so different from where we were the day before health care passed? We already had over 1,000,000 children being killed each year, and expanded funding for it oversees to help it grow in other countries. Our economy already tanked under a staggering amount of debt, and our democracy and constitution have been spat on and attacked almost daily. Our government is fiddling while we burn.

Oh my, now it sounds even worse! My point is not to sugar coat the situation, nor to bury us under a mountain of trouble, but to say "take heart". We can fix this. We just need to work together. Perhaps this is the crisis that will be our wake up call. Americans always seem to pull together better when there is a crisis (like 9-11, or Pearl Harbor).

I can't find the darn quote I want right now, but it goes something like "We will be judged not on what we accomplished but why what we attempted." If that's not a "real" quote it is now, as I just said it.

"Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your Dearly Beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins, and those of the whole world.

For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us, and on the whole world."

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Back in Philly

While the rest of America was worrying about health care I was camping. Friday evening we packed ourselves, three scouts, three tents, five sleeping bags, four folding chairs, assorted back packs, day packs, etc. and my "small" telescope (a 6" dobsonian) and eyepiece case into the back of our minivan and headed off to Pine Hill scout reservation in Southwestern New Jersey.

The evening was perfect (although it got down to 37 degrees - a bit chilly). In the morning we were awakened at about 5 AM by scouts telling jokes and humming the "Jeopardy" song, for some reason. We did have to get up early, but not that early. We packed the scouts into cars, drove to the train station and rode the rails into Philly.

I know my last post about Philly probably gave a poor impression of things, but this trip was much more enjoyable. We began the trip in much the same way we ended the previous one - at the Liberty Bell. After that, however, we met Heather, our guide in period costume, who gave us a 90 minute walking tour of historic Philadelphia. It was a lot of fun, and fact filled. Did you know that the original post office run by Ben Franklin is the only one in the United States that doesn't fly the American flag? Ben refused to fly the Union Jack when Pennsylvania was still a colony, and after the revolution they continued the tradition of not flying a flag at that post office.

After our tour we ate lunch and visited the National Constitution Center. It was scout day, and the place was packed with scouts. We were wearing class A uniforms, which usually makes us quite visible in a crowd, but there many of the people were, so it actually made it hard to pick out our troop. I enjoyed the Constitution Center although I have one complaint. One exhibit has a caption "A Pro-life and a Pro-choice button" but the exhibit actually displays 2 pro-choice buttons and no pro-life button. You'd think that would be pretty obvious to whoever set up the exhibit. I'd include a photo, but they have a no photo rule for most of the exhibits, which I think is stupid. Still, it's their exhibits, so no photos.

After the Constitution Center we had a tour of Independence Hall, which was also quite cool to see. We had a rather cynical, wisecracking tour guide which was kind of interesting. After that it was back to the train and camp site. If there was one downside to the trip it was the number of apparently homeless people we saw in the city.

Back at camp we had a late supper and I set up my telescope. The first exciting thing was a very naked-eye visible pass of the International Space Station (ISS) overhead. It was magnitude -2.7! For those who aren't astrogeeks magnitude -2.7 means it was about 2.5 times brighter than the brightest star in the sky. Not only that but it was visible for over 5 minutes, slowly and silently crossing the sky. Through the telescope you could see the solar panels and major sections.

We looked at Mars and Saturn, and some star clusters and nebulae. I tried for some galaxies (the trio in Leo) but the skies were too light polluted. The observing was a hit, even though we had clouds rolling in and out and I gave up after an hour or so. We were all exhausted from the long day.

So another chilly night in a tent, and we broke camp and came home this morning.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Round about the Internet

So what to blog about? Well, the health care bill, for one. But so many people are writing such excellent posts about it I have little to add that you can't read more eloquently elsewhere. Plus I have had lots to do this year, and have had little time for composing posts that require a lot of research. So I was thinking...

I follow blogs. Lots of blogs. I don't get to keep up with them all the time, but when I do I often get ideas for posts of my own that I don't have time to write. So I thought I would occasionally post something with just links or a short blurb about articles on the internet that I found interesting. I hope you will find them interesting too. But what about a clever name?

When I was in high school I had a friend who had a shortwave radio. We used to sit up nights and listen to stations from around the world. The two shows we listened to a lot were "The Father Bill Ayers Show" on HCJB (Heralding Christ Jesus' Blessings) in Quito Ecuador, and "Round About the Soviet Union" on Radio Kiev. "Round About..." had a variety of short segments on various topics, usually about similarities between the US and USSR, or the wonderful improvements tat Communism had brought to the Soviet states. So I decided to crib the name, in case you were wondering. Anyway, without further ado, some actual content.
This week I was reading a blog post of Jill Stanek's on using google labs to show the world depopulation crisis. It has some interesting visualizations of the depopulation of the world due to decreased birth rates and ineffectiveness of contraception use in preventing HIV. Sadly, I know many people who will look at all sorts of graphs, scientific papers and peer reviewed research and say "yes, but the world is overpopulated" or "yes, but we need to distribute condoms to fight HIV", and then call me ignorant for not seeing the obvious "facts" that these things are "true".
In a surprise ruling, Catholic Care won a suit against a law in the UK which would have forced them to either give up their faith or their adoption agency. I say surprising, because I would have thought such a ruling less likely in the UK than the US and I can't see it happening in the US. So a big "good for you" to our cousins in the UK!
The "Our Sunday Visitor" blog has a piece about someone in St. Peter's Square calling for the Pope to excommunicate Pelosi and Biden for supporting abortion. While inappropriate, I would like to see some definitive guidance on how the Church should approach these matters. At least from my view our stance seems to be uncoordinated and rules are not being applied consistently. I realize that this is under the authority of different bishops, who have different opinions on these matters, but I like consistency.
The Archidiocese of Washington has a piece on what Jesus might have looked like. For those who don't have time to read it, the answer is the image at right (although the article is filled with caveats about speculation, especially as it pertains to the Shroud of Turin). It also features a cool YouTube video "The many faces and titles of Christ".

From "The Economist" a frightening story on "Gendercide":
XINRAN XUE, a Chinese writer, describes visiting a peasant family in the Yimeng area of Shandong province. The wife was giving birth. “We had scarcely sat down in the kitchen”, she writes (see article), “when we heard a moan of pain from the bedroom next door…The cries from the inner room grew louder—and abruptly stopped. There was a low sob, and then a man’s gruff voice said accusingly: ‘Useless thing!’

“Suddenly, I thought I heard a slight movement in the slops pail behind me,” Miss Xinran remembers. “To my absolute horror, I saw a tiny foot poking out of the pail. The midwife must have dropped that tiny baby alive into the slops pail! I nearly threw myself at it, but the two policemen [who had accompanied me] held my shoulders in a firm grip. ‘Don’t move, you can’t save it, it’s too late.’

“‘But that’s...murder...and you’re the police!’ The little foot was still now. The policemen held on to me for a few more minutes. ‘Doing a baby girl is not a big thing around here,’ [an] older woman said comfortingly. ‘That’s a living child,’ I said in a shaking voice, pointing at the slops pail. ‘It’s not a child,’ she corrected me. ‘It’s a girl baby, and we can’t keep it. Around these parts, you can’t get by without a son. Girl babies don’t count.’”

So many pro-aborts (like Hillary Clinton) insist on a woman's "right" to an abortion, yet condemn women who have abortions for gender selection. If you believe the woman had that right, what a hypocrite to then condemn her for making it!
"Vocal Minority" has this interesting graphic on "Democracy Denied" showing how the Obama administration is getting around the legislative branch of our government. Of course, the Judicial branch has been doing this for years as well.
The Department of Homeland Security has an article, and no, this is not a spoof site, but the real thing, on "Could Airborne, Parachuting Bears Catch Bin Laden?" From the article:
“Overnight, Parachute some bears into areas [bin Laden] might be,” the innovator wrote. “Attempt to train bears to take off parachutes after landing, or use parachutes that self-destruct after landing.”
And that's all I have for now. If people like this I'll try to make it a regular thing. Please let me know what you think.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Hierarchy of Freedom

I was trying to explain to a friend something St. Thomas Aquinas wrote. We spent some time talking past each other. We still are. But somewhere along the line it occurred to me that while I was talking about justice, my friend was talking about legality. That prompted me to think about it and eventually sit down and write this post. It's not a completely worked out topic, so I hope you'll bear with me, and perhaps add your own thought in the comment box.

I often quip (I can't say "joke" because it's certainly not funny) to the effect that we should rename the Department of Justice into the Department of Lawyers because the law often seems to have very little to do with justice these days. Perhaps my disillusionment has to do with a conception that the law ought to promote justice. In fact, at best the law's purpose is to reduce injustice, which is not the same thing.

We recite "with liberty and justice for all" but then we kowtow to "the rule of law" as if it were the highest ideal we are called to. When grave injustices occur in our society we fall back on "it had to be that way because that's the law."

But is the law the highest ideal to which we are called? I was thinking about natural law versus civil law, And arrived at what I am calling the hierarchy of freedom.

Levelis concerned with
Sacredwhat is holy
Justicewhat is fair
Proprietywhat is acceptable
Lawwhat is legal
Naturewhat is possible

This is a hierarchy of "frames of reference" for regarding freedom. At each level in the hierarchy we find a set of "rules" or a way of thinking that includes the lower levels, plus new concepts.

For instance, nature is concerned with what can be done. It's "might makes right" or "anything goes". If you've ever read "Lord of the Flies" you know what I'm talking about.

The next level up is the law. In thinking about the law we are concerned with what is legal. For instance, stealing is certainly something that happens all the time in nature (just watch animals), but it is illegal. We have added a new dimension for determining what behavior can be done.

Moving up to propriety, we are concerned with what is considered proper by society. There are things that, while they are not illegal, have no place in society because they are offensive or would isolate us from others. For instance, while there is no law against wearing a suit of armor to the office everyday, it just isn't done. There are more realistic examples, of course, like being perpetually rude.

The level of justice is concerned with the rights of all. For instance, a "big box" store obtaining land via eminent domain is legal, but it certainly isn't fair.

At the top we have the sacred. An action may be just, but it may not direct us toward union with God. For instance, it is just for me to enjoy the fruits of my own labor, but sharing those fruits with the poor is better. For that matter, if I give money to the poor, but do so without consideration for them as human beings fashioned in the likeness of God, I have not done much. As St. paul write in 1 Corinthians 13:3 "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing."

As we go up each level, the number of possible actions considered becomes more limited. Yet ironically, our degree of freedom is higher. The things that cause us to act at lower levels are things that control us, and reduce our free will. For instance, I might steal food (operate at the "nature" level) if I am hungry enough. But was that my free choice? No, I was coerced by my hunger. Likewise if I cheated on my wife (controlled by my lust), kept money that I found without trying to find its owner (controlled by my greed), etc. None of these are truly free choices. Only at the level of the sacred am I truly considering things that I freely choose without being influenced by circumstances, object, or people.

This, to me, is one of the compelling aspects of Catholicism, and one in which many people fail to see beyond the apparent paradox, or see it inverted by looking at external appearances only. That only through obedience to God are we totally free.

One of the problems of Catholicism today (and I would argue religion in general) is the tendency to reduce faith (sacred level) to some form of social justice (justice level), and ignore (or be embarrassed by) the holiness aspects of it. The true calling of man is to be united with God, not merely to do right by the poor or sick. Reducing it to that level takes away what it is, and so makes it nothing worth pursuing. Hence we see that the further one gets from the "hard crunchy parts" of the faith, the slipperier the slope to sin becomes.

Many of the attacks on the church are an attempt to deny people the ability to choose at any level above a particular one (usually the law). Take homosexual "marriage". Here is something that was against law, propriety, justice and holiness. By appealing to "nature" the laws against it have eroded, and now using that law propriety is under siege. Of course, the attacks go all the way up through the levels, so that the Church herself is persecuted for speaking the truth of the matter.

And that's where I find the difference when people argue that abortion rights or sexual "freedom" is akin to the abolition of slavery. Slavery exists at the "nature" level, and it's abolition brought society up towards justice. Abortion and those other "rights" are attempts to bring the law and society down to the "nature" level. In that light it makes more sense to compare the abolition of abortion to the abolition of slavery.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Bishops and Kennedys

A while back NBC's Chris Matthews interviewed Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island on "Hard Ball". The topic was allegedly a letter from several years before which Patrick Kennedy had made public, in which the bishop advised him that he should not receive the sacrament of Communion while he was not in communion with the church. Instead, Matthews opened with a speech given in 1960 by John F. Kennedy, and used it to batter and attack the bishop repeatedly. Bishop Tobin, of course, was unprepared to answer to the words of John f. Kennedy, and the interview did not start or go well (IMHO).

Like most Americans of my generation I was taught to revere president Kennedy, and to be proud that "one of us" had become a great president. However, over the years, I see Kennedy (and his family) more and more as CINOs (Catholics in Name Only) in their political lives. I wished Bishop Tobin hadn't been blind-sided and had more to say on the subject.

Fortunately, I came across an article by Bishop Charles Chaput (pictured above) today, that tackles the issue head on. The article, "The Vocation of Christians in American Public Life",  is the text of a speech he gave at a Baptist conference in Houston. It wonderfully expresses the teachings of the church as they apply to civic duty and public life. I highly recommend you read it, even though it is a long read. Go on, I'll wait. OK, here's some excerpts:

According to Bishop Chaput:
[Kennedy's speech] was sincere, compelling, articulate—and wrong.  Not wrong about the patriotism of Catholics, but wrong about American history and very wrong about the role of religious faith in our nation's life.  And he wasn't merely"'wrong."  His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America's public life and political conversation.  Today, half a century later, we're paying for the damage.
...Early in his remarks, Kennedy said: "I believe in an America where the separation of Church and state is absolute."  Given the distrust historically shown to Catholics in this country, his words were shrewdly chosen.  The trouble is, the Constitution doesn't say that.  The Founders and Framers didn't believe that.  And the history of the United States contradicts that.
...America's Founders encouraged mutual support between religion and government.  Their reasons were practical.  In their view, a republic like the United States needs a virtuous people to survive.  Religious faith, rightly lived, forms virtuous people.  Thus, the modern, drastic sense of the "separation of Church and state" had little force in American consciousness until Justice Hugo Black excavated it from a private letter President Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association.   Justice Black then used Jefferson's phrase in the Supreme Court's Everson v. Board of Education decision in 1947.
...[Kennedy] warned that he would not "disavow my views or my church in order to win this election."  But in its effect, the Houston speech did exactly that.  It began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way.  It also divided a person's private beliefs from his or her public duties.  And it set "the national interest" over and against "outside religious pressures or dictates."

...Fifty years after Kennedy's Houston speech, we have more Catholics in national public office than ever before.  But I wonder if we've ever had fewer of them who can coherently explain how their faith informs their work, or who even feel obligated to try.  The life of our country is no more "Catholic" or "Christian" than it was 100 years ago.  In fact it's arguably less so.  And at least one of the reasons for it is this:  Too many Catholics confuse their personal opinions with a real Christian conscience.  Too many live their faith as if it were a private idiosyncrasy—the kind that they'll never allow to become a public nuisance.
The rest of the article is just as good, but I highlight these segments because they speak to what Bishop Tobin was not given a chance to in that interview. Namely, just because a beloved popular figure says something doesn't make it true. Bishop Chaput concludes:
I listed all the urgent issues that demand our attention as believers: abortion; immigration; our obligations to the poor, the elderly and the disabled; questions of war and peace; our national confusion about sexual identity and human nature, and the attacks on marriage and family life that flow from this confusion; the growing disconnection of our science and technology from real moral reflection; the erosion of freedom of conscience in our national health-care debates; the content and quality of the schools that form our children. 

The list is long.  I believe abortion is the foundational human rights issue of our lifetime.  We need to do everything we can to support women in their pregnancies and to end the legal killing of unborn children.  We may want to remember that the Romans had a visceral hatred for Carthage not because Carthage was a commercial rival, or because its people had a different language and customs.  The Romans hated Carthage above all because its people sacrificed their infants to Ba'al.  For the Romans, who themselves were a hard people, that was a unique kind of wickedness and barbarism.  As a nation, we might profitably ask ourselves whom and what we've really been worshipping in our 40 million "legal" abortions since 1973.
All of these issues that I've listed above divide our country and our Churches in a way Augustine would have found quite understandable.  The City of God and the City of Man overlap in this world.  Only God knows who finally belongs to which.  But in the meantime, in seeking to live the Gospel we claim to believe, we find friends and brothers in unforeseen places, unlikely places; and when that happens, even a foreign place can seem like one's home.
The vocation of Christians in American public life does not have a Baptist or Catholic or Greek Orthodox or any other brand-specific label.  John 14:6—"I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me"—which is so key to the identity of Houston Baptist University, burns just as hot in this heart, and the heart of every Catholic who truly understands his faith.  Our job is to love God, preach Jesus Christ, serve and defend God's people, and sanctify the world as his agents.  To do that work, we need to be one.  Not "one" in pious words or good intentions, but really one, perfectly one, in mind and heart and action, as Christ intended.  This is what Jesus meant when he said, "I do not pray for these only, but also those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (Jn17:20-21).
We live in a country that was once—despite its sins and flaws—deeply shaped by Christian faith.  It can be so again.  But we will do that together, or we won't do it at all.  We need to remember the words of St. Hilary from so long ago: Unum sunt, qui invicem sunt. "They are one, who are wholly for each other."   May God grant us the grace to love each other, support each other and live wholly for each other in Jesus Christ—so that we might work together in renewing the nation that has served human freedom so well.

Lia Rocks!

Today I have for your viewing pleasure two videos by a young woman named Lia. She was 12 years old when she made the first video, and 13 in the second.

I don't think I should or can add anything to her words.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

I may not know music...

...but I know what I like. I confess, as a baby my grandmother used to sing hymns while rocking me to sleep. I was probably the only kid who learned "The ABC song" and "To Jesus Christ, our Sovereign King" at the same time.

Of course I also grew up in the 70's, and so at mass, guitars and tambourines rang out in front of the silent organ, and songs like "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name" and "Immaculate Mary" were replaced by such favorites as "Kumbaya", "They'll know we are Christians" and "Smile on your brother".

Having experienced both ends of the spectrum, I guess you could say I have eclectic taste in liturgical music. Yet I am constantly amazed by how bad some of the "post guitar mass" music is. It wasn't until recently, as I was listening to some friends complain about Haugen/Haas music that I started reading the opthamalogicly sized writing below the songs in the hymnals to see who wrote the songs I detest. Sure enough, two names come up most often.

So why don't I like these songs? Well, the old hymns were all about God. We were praising God, talking about God, and when we talked about us, it was to mention how much we we praising Him, or how much He does for us. The imagery is very concrete, describing scenes of indescribable majesty. For example, from one of my favorites, "Holy Holy Holy":
"Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Who was, and is, and evermore shall be."
The 1970s songs are very simple and singable. Since they came from popular rock and roll, they are unabashedly generic. They are all about us, of course, rarely mentioning God except indirectly.
Some will come and some will go
We shall surely pass
When the one that left us here
Returns for us at last 
but the new stuff is neither. The lyrics are still all about us, but they seem to try not to be about anything in particular, like some campaign speech for Jesus.  They seem to my untrained ear to consist of random sound bytes from psalms, gospels or wherever thrown together with various connections via symbols. The tunes are catchy and sometimes the lyrics, but they are neither cold nor hot, and so I spit them out.

That's not to say I don't sing them, for of course "he who sings prays twice" but on some of them I sort of cringe in places. The other week, as I was sitting listening to one of these tunes I thought about offering it up for Lent, and then a song of my own came to me. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. I'd sing it, but I have few enough followers on this blog as it is:

Offer it up
(to the tune of "Gather us in")

    Here in this place, a new song is playing
    now is the silence vanished away,
    hear, in this space, our sound bites and sayings,
    brought here to You in the light of this day.

    Offer it up the trite and shallow
    offer it up the lyrics so lame
    call to us now, our spirits lie fallow
    cringing at songs that rejoice in our name.

    We are the young to whom worship's a mystery
    we are the old – who yearn to embrace
    hymns that were sung throughout all of history
    sadly it seems they have all been replaced.

    Offer it up the lyrics so haughty
    offer it up the messages wrong
    pray for the soul of poor brother Marty
    give us the stomach to finish this song.

    Here we will sing of wine and of water
    wish we would sing of the blood of our Lord
    here we shall sing with our sons and our daughters
    hoping they don't get confused by the words.

    Give us to sing, a song that is pious
    Give us to sing, a song about You
    let our music ministers buy us
    hymns that are holy with words that are true.