Wednesday, July 23, 2014

UPDATED: Natural Family Planning Awareness Week

Every year the week that includes 25 July is designated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as “National Natural Family Planning Awareness Week.” The reason for this is that it was on 25 July 1968 that Venerable Pope Paul VI promulgated what would turn out to be the final encyclical of his pontificate, Humanae Vitae. Paul VI remained pope for slightly longer than ten years after issuing this watershed document.

Given that the Catholic Church’s teaching on the inherent immorality of contraception is what currently constitutes the brightest “flash point” between the Church and the United States government, it seems like a good time for the Church to begin making its members more aware of this teaching and to teach it more persuasively. But chances are you heard far more about the Fortnight for Freedom, which concluded on 4 July, than about National NFP Awareness Week. Nonetheless, I really like the theme for this year: Natural Family Planning: It’s Worth It. Join the Revolution!

“Natural Family Planning,” or “NFP,” is an umbrella term for the various methods of NFP that couples may use, such as the Billings Ovulation Method, the Creighton Model, the Sympto-thermal method, to name just some of the methods. According to the USCCB website, “Natural Family Planning (NFP) is the general title for the scientific, natural and moral methods of family planning that can help married couples either achieve or postpone pregnancies” (emboldening in original).

There are so many misconceptions about NFP that it would be impossible to address them all in a single blog post. Therefore, I will refrain from attempting the impossible. What I intend to do is make one crucial distinction, followed by a clarification, and finally to write to any of my married brothers who might read this.

Having written about and taught on NFP consistently over the past 10 years, the distinction is one I make quite often: When used by spouses who, “for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” (Humanae Vitae par 10), NFP is a form of birth control.

As to the “serious” reasons a couple might decide not to have more children either temporarily or indefinitely, the criteria is given in the encyclical. Of course, NFP can also be used as an aid to conceiving a child. The takeaway here is that the Catholic Church is not opposed to birth control per se, but is opposed to contraception in all cases, even to what might be called "natural forms of contraception" (i.e., forms that do not artificially prevent conception, but prevent pregnancy by abstaining from sexual relations during the fertile period of a woman’s menstrual cycle) when a couple’s reason(s) for so doing arise from what amount to selfish, consumeristic, or any worldly motives.

When broaching the subject of contraception in light of NFP, it is important to clarify what this might mean, lest NFP be viewed as a “natural form of contraception.” According to fundamental Catholic morality the inherent “goodness” or “badness” of certain acts is objectively determined, which means that while intention and circumstance may either mitigate, or eliminate altogether, the culpability of a person who engages in a "bad" act, neither circumstance nor intention can change the nature of the act itself from "bad" to "good." So, while one’s intention cannot turn a “bad” act into a good one (the road to hell is paved with good intentions), one’s intention can render an otherwise "good" act “bad.”

So, the distinction is between birth control and contraception. NFP can be employed in what might be called a contraceptive manner, that is, with a contraceptive mindset, or, to use an overused phrase that understandably drives many people nuts- “with a contraceptive mentality.”

One way such a mindset/mentality/cultural/societal disposition, whatever you want to call it, is made manifest on the part of some who vigorously oppose NFP is when a person arguing against NFP says to someone like me, “Well, you practice NFP and you have six children.” Their point, it seems, is that NFP doesn’t work because I have six children. According to this logic, NFP can only be proven successful when it is used in a contraceptive way. In reality, one of the best ways to demonstrate that NFP is not “a natural form of contraception” is by living your marriage in a manner that is open to life. A marriage open to life is a marriage open to children, which means accepting children as blessings, not as financial burdens who get in the way of self-realization.

Finally, far too many men believe that practicing NFP requires heroic virtue. In other words, many believe that using NFP when not trying to conceive a child requires long periods of sexual abstinence. I want to be honest, for some couples it does mean that. But if your wife’s menstrual cycle is more or less regular (most women’s are) then NFP does not require long periods of abstaining from sex, but relatively short ones.

UPDATE: My lovely wife, who actually possesses true expertise on NFP, upon reading this made an observation worth passing along, which she typed in her own words:
In your twenties it can require longer periods of abstinence if you are not trying to conceive. Nature seems to work towards conception during these years
But even with that, let’s not lose sight of the fact that chastity is a virtue even within marriage. Chastity should not be conflated with celibacy or sexual continence. Acquiring any natural virtue requires self-denial. A natural virtue is one that we acquire by practicing it. Of course, God’s grace, especially as given us in and through the sacraments, comes to our aid even in the acquisition of the natural virtues, something Paul VI points out beautifully in Humanae Vitae.

In the words of the Venerable Pope Paul VI:
The right and lawful ordering of birth demands, first of all, that spouses fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life and that they acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions. For if with the aid of reason and of free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the expression of love, essential to married life, conform to right order (Humanae Vitae par 21)
Men this requires us, as caring husbands, to be active participants in NFP, which primarily takes the form of charting, or at least being aware of where things stand so as not to put your wife in the position of having to frequently tell you “Not tonight,” which can put a lot of strain on your marriage. It also gives us many opportunities to find non-sexual ways of drawing nearer our wives.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

God is kindness and mercy

Readings: Wis 12:12.16-19; Ps 86:5-6.9-10.15-16; Rom 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-43

Most of the attention in the ambo (i.e., pulpit) this weekend will no doubt be given to the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. With the Gospel reading being rather long, the other readings and even the remaining two parables contained in the Gospel are likely either to receive short shrift, or be completely ignored. This is not a complaint. As a preacher, I grasp that you can't preach everything.

A single mustard seed

Since I invoked our second reading from St Paul's Letter to the Romans in the post immediately preceding this one, I will focus on the other readings.

Towards the end of our first reading, we hear "that those who are just [righteous] must be kind" (Wis 12:19). One of the most difficult things to "get right" is balancing mercy with justice. Humanly speaking, at least in my view, striking a perfect balance between mercy and justice is impossible. The main reason it is impossible is because we are never aware of all the factors that need to be known in order to make a "spot on" determination. Contrary to the view of some, if we err, we should err on the side of mercy. Is this just my personal opinion? No, it is scriptural: "For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13). The person I should judge most is myself. But I only judge myself in order to receive God's mercy, which is nothing apart from a brand new pledge of His great love for me.

Turning to the parable of the mustard seed, it's important to note that Jesus here is not talking about personal faith. His use of the example of a mustard seed to teach about faith comes a bit later in St Matthew's Gospel (Matt 17:20). Being part of what New Testament scholars identify as the "Q" document ("Q" being shorthand for the German word "quelle," meaning source), which is posited to account for the material that the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke have in common that they did not derive from St Mark, is also found in St Luke's Gospel (see Luke 17:6). In this passage, the Lord is talking about establishing the kingdom of heaven, which, like the mustard plant, starts out improbably small, but will ultimately fill the earth. I believe that this is the kind of thing Bl Teresa of Calcutta had in mind when she said, "God does not require that we be successful only that we be faithful."

Jesus makes very much the same point by using the example of how a little bit of yeast leavens an entire loaf of bread as He sought to make in the Parable of the Mustard seed. It is difficult for us, being a people constituted by the Eucharist, to hear Jesus teach using bread as an example and not be put in mind of the Eucharist. I don't think it'd be stretching things too much to say that our receiving communion is precisely what is supposed to make us into the leaven our Lord calls us to be: the leaven at work bringing about the kingdom of heaven.

So, connecting these two parables to that of the wheat and the tares, I think we can conclude that the Church, at least the Church on earth, cannot be taken as co-terminus with the kingdom of heaven, which is yet to come. But it is not my job, or your job, to determine or decide who is in and who is out. Nonetheless, I think we'd be less than honest if we did not frankly admit that we are sometimes tempted to do just this, both generally and in particular cases. One way to avoid this temptation is to call to mind the wisdom expressed in our reading from the Book of Wisdom- "that those who are just must be kind" (Wis 12:19). Kindness, which is perhaps best described as love in action, is the leavened and baked loaf. Kindness is the full-grown mustard plant. Love expressed in word and deed, is the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven.

Last night I attended the memorial service for a wonderful man who, in a moment of pitch black despair, took his own life. I was extended the privilege of making a few remarks and offering a prayer at the end of what turned out to be one of the most beautiful memorial services I have ever attended. Inside each program was a card that read, "Be gentle with yourself & with others." Let's not forget that God is gently and kindly disposed towards each of us without exception. In other words, this includes you, whoever you may be, or wherever you may be, either geographically or spiritually.

In our first reading we heard these words, addressed to God almighty- "For you show your might when the perfection of your power is disbelieved." This is followed by Psalm 86, the reponsorial for which is, "Lord, you are good and forgiving" (Ps 86:5). Let's not forget that God's might was most powerfully shown, not in punishment and harshness, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Your empty passion won't satisfy me"

Since my Friday postings lately have usually been both late and hasty, on this Saturday morning, as the fruit of a grace-filled encounter with some friends this morning on FB (Yes, social media can be a succor instead of a vexation- our encounter was virtual, but the grace we experienced was real), I offer a supplemental traditio: "No More Words" by Berlin. It was my friend Paul who invoked this song during our encounter.

I don't know about you, but for me it's often an interesting exercise for me, when listening to some contemporary songs, to replace a human lover with God. I admit, the fit can be both good and somewhat incongruent, even in the same song. For example, in this song, a reference is made to when "We make love..." Now, this might make us uncomfortable when we think of God. But let's not be too quick to dismiss this notion outright. In his reflecting on his marriage to Helen Joy Davidman, C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, wrote about marital sex as perhaps the nearest human analog to experiencing divine love:
One thing, however, marriage has done for me. I can never again believe that religion is manufactured out of our unconscious, starved desires and is a substitute for sex. For those few years [Joy] and I feasted on love, every mode of it—solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied. If God were a substitute for love we ought to have lost all interest in Him. Who’d bother about substitutes when he has the thing itself? But that isn’t what happens. We both knew we wanted something besides one another—quite a different kind of something, a quite different kind of want
Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, by Bernini, 1647-1652

"No more words/You're telling me you love me while you're looking away." Christ wants us to meet His loving gaze, but we're afraid His brilliance will blind, or maybe even kill, us. The truth is, returning His gaze will both blind us and kill us, but only in order to enable us to see things anew and to raise us to new life. We need to see things clearly and to put to death that part of us that needs to die, our sinful nature, characterized by our self-absorption, which causes us to be attracted to so many ephemeral things. But meeting Christ's gaze requires you to stand there with everything, especially your self-deception, stripped away, which is scary, but it's the only way to gain any sort of comprehension of how much He loves you.

But don't fool yourself
Your empty passion won't satisfy me, I know
So don't pretend that you want me

"In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will" (Rom 8:26-27).

I hope this does not come from a motivation of "Hey, look at me," but I don't mind sharing that my favorite way to pray is to lie prostrate in silence before the Blessed Sacrament. I never feel more like God hears me than when I do this, just letting the Holy Spirit articulate my "inexpressible groanings." I make no claim to any personal righteousness, all this amounts to is just taking some time. I often use words to create a barrier, a smokescreen, between myself and God (I do this with my wife too).

Last night I re-watched an episode from series three of Rev. I was blown away by the scene in which Adam admits to his wife, Alex, that he kissed another woman, touched her breast, and enjoyed it, but still wished he'd never done it. After she vents her anger a bit, her response is amazing:

"Adam, it's not about the...tits
and the willies, and the fannies.
It's about the hearts.
You've broken mine."

Then she graciously forgives him and he thanks her profoundly. Aren't we all, in some way, the aptly named Adam?

I believe it was St Ignatius of Loyola who bids us to pray as we can, not as we think we ought.

A note on grace

I think the phrase "grace builds on nature," that is, grace is always at work through the ordinary and every day circumstances we experience, is just a way of saying it usually percolates slowly. I believe this is true because I do not believe that God's grace is irresistible. You are always free to resist grace at any given moment and you are even free to do so ultimately. This why C.S. Lewis, in the Great Divorce, wrote:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened
While God relentlessly pursues you, He won't save you, or damn you against your will. Keep in mind Jesus' rebuke of the "lukewarm" Christians of Laodicea: "So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth" (Rev 3:16). A lifetime of resisting grace, of pursuing your own will, especially with regard to matters that are clearly at odds with God's expressed will, doesn't predispose one to want to submit to God's will in the end.

Pater Tom wrote, "A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire." Lest I tempt anyone to despair, please remember these words of our Risen Lord to St Paul: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9)

Friday, July 18, 2014

"Blowing through the jasmine in my mind"

Okay, today's late, late traditio is a song I had stuck in my mind for a few days early this week- Seals and Crofts version on "Summer Breeze."

It's summer and it's here along the Wasatch Front. I am not sure why (I blame it on the heat), but I am always a little bit more anxious than usual in the summertime. I consider this song and this version of the song, which I remember my parents listening to when I was young, coming into my mind and remaining with me at the beginning of a long and stressful week a great grace.

Sweet days of summer
the jasmine's in bloom
July is dressed up
and playing her tune

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Notes and asides on the Celestine Jubilee

On Saturday, 5 July, in Isernia, Italy, the probable birthplace of Pietro del Morrone, who, from 5 July -13 December 1294, served as Pope under the name Celestine V, Pope Francis announced the beginning of a Celestine Jubilee Year. Speaking in the piazza of the Duomo di Isernia, Cattedrale di San Pietro Apostolo, the Holy Father said:
Here is the truly modern sense of the Jubilee Year, this Celestine Jubilee Year, which I proclaim open from this moment, and during which the door of divine mercy will stand wide open to everyone. It is not an escape, not an avoidance of realty and of one’s problems, it is the answer that comes from the Gospel: love as a force of purification, of integrity, a force of renewal of social relationships, a force of planning for a different economy, which places the person, work and family at the centre rather than money and profit
From the perspective of his resignation, which he announced 11 February 2013, many commentators came to see Pope Benedict XVI's 2009 visit to the tomb of Pope Celestine V (the last pope to resign), which is in L'Aquila, Italy, in Santa Maria di Collemaggio Basilica, in a new light. Celestine V is a canonized saint of the Church. He was canonized as a holy hermit and founder of a contemplative religious order. Due to the high regard in which he is held, even venerated, first by Pope Benedict and now by Pope Francis, the question, "Who was Pietro del Morrone?" has been raised. Sandro Magister's recent article "Celestine V a Model Pope? The Myth and the Reality" is as good a response to this question as I have found.

Pope Benedict XVI visiting the tomb of Pope Celestine V

It seems to me that from the perspective of this papal veneration, one cannot simply dismiss Celestine V as "a bad pope." That he was not an effective pope is beyond historical dispute. He never wanted to be pope! Let's keep in view the fact that Pietro del Morrone was not elected pope until he was 84, which would be old even now. His pontificate only lasted five months and nine days.

One of the reasons Bergoglio was not on my radar during last year's conclave is that, given Benedict's resigning due to age, at 76, I thought him 10 years too old. This is no mere digression. Pope Benedict, having lived through the final years of the papacy of Pope St John Paul II, who gave heroic witness to the value of human life during this time, did not see fit to put the Church through that again.

Both Benedict and Francis see Celestine V as a model precisely for his humble and even selfless realization and acknowledgment that, as an old man, well past his prime, he was not "up to" the job. In this regard it bears noting that Benedict XVI resigned when he was the same age as Celestine V was when he resigned: 85. As Magister describes it, Celestine V's "plans for abdication were scrupulously examined from the juridical point of view. And on December 13, in the Castelnuovo in Naples, he read his declaration of resignation before the assembled cardinals. He set aside the pontifical vestments and dressed himself again in the gray robe of his congregation: the pope had again become Pietro del Morrone."

At least to me, there is something quite beautiful and distinctively Franciscan in Magister's description of del Morrone's resignation. Undoubtedly this is one reason why, in his speech announcing the Celestine Jubilee, the Holy Father linked these two men so closely together. I was personally gratified that in his Isernia remarks Pope Francis finally uttered the word "deacon" in public. Speaking of the example set by Sts Pietro del Morrone and Francesco de Assisi in giving prophetic witness to a new world, the foundation of which is mercy, a world in which "the goods of the earth and of work are equally distributed and no one lacks the necessary, because solidarity and sharing are the concrete result of fraternity," the Holy Father noted "one was a deacon [St Francis], the other a bishop, the Bishop of Rome — as clergy, both had to set the example of poverty, of mercy and of totally divesting themselves."

Pope Francis in Isernia

Regarding what the Pontiff said concerning "mercy," "indulgence," and "the forgiveness of debt," it bears noting that not long after he became pope, Celestine V promulgated a papal bull granting a plenary indulgence to all pilgrims visiting Santa Maria di Collemaggio (where he is now entombed) through its holy door on the anniversary of his papal coronation. He was selected as Roman Pontiff on 5 July, but was not installed until late August. To this day, the people of L'Aquila celebrate a festival, called Perdonanza Celestiniana, each year on 28-29 August.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Accomplish God's purpose

Readings: Is 55:10-11; Ps 65:10-14; Rom 8:18-23; Matt 13:1-23

God sows His word throughout the world. His word is not fruitless, but, in the words of Isaiah, God's word accomplishes His will, accomplishes "the end for which it is sent" (Is 55:11). Of course, Jesus Christ is God's Word. I have long cherished these words from Michael Card's song "The Final Word"- "He spoke the incarnation and then so was born the Son/His final word was Jesus, He needed no other one."

Just as not everyone understood the parables Jesus taught, not everyone grasps that Jesus is God's final, perfect Word, sent to accomplish the Father's will. Indeed, there is something quite mysterious about this.

What is perhaps most counter-intuitive of all is how Jesus Christ, as God's Word, accomplishes the purposes of the One who sent Him. St. Paul, in our second reading, taken from the most majestic of his writings, his Letter to the Romans, drawing from his own experiences as one in whom "the word of the kingdom" found rich soil, writes with a great deal of precision about just how God's Word accomplishes His work in us and through us.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower, 1889

If I were to assign one word to describe how God's word accomplishes His work in us and through us based on what St Paul wrote I would be tempted to use "suffering." But, with a bit of reflection, I'd have to go with "travail." Travail means painful or laborious effort. Why "travail" instead of "suffering"? Suffering, it seems to me, is far too passive. Suffering just happens. It has been observed, "to live is to suffer."

Travail implies that we take those circumstances that cause us to suffer, and, by the power of the Spirit, offer these to God, which is what it means to participate in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, something we were called to do when we were baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. This is what St Paul means a few chapters on in Romans where he wrote, "I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship" (Rom 12:1). This requires us to recognize that it is precisely through experience, through the circumstances we face every day, which recognition causes us to "groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption" (Rom 8:23), that God redeems our bodies, making us ever more fully His children. God redeems what we freely offer Him.

If we extend today's second reading two more verses, our understanding is enhanced: "For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance" (Rom 8:24-25). Sticking with today's metaphor of seeds growing into fruitful plants, we can quickly grasp that after we plant a seed a lot happens in the earth, that is, underground, before even the first sprout becomes visible above ground. So it is with God's word for those in whom He finds rich soil. The soil of our souls is made rich, is fertilized, by patience and perseverance, which is why the apostle wrote, "in hope we are saved."

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The diaconate and ministry: an Eastern Catholic perspective

In response to my last blog post, a friend of mine, Isolde, a sister in Christ who belongs to the Ukrainian Catholic Church, wrote something I thought was important enough to pass along:


The transitional diaconate makes the diaconate seem like a consolation prize or stepping stone and it therefore loses it's unique charism. I love the suggestions, including the possible, and appropriate context for, a return of the role of the deaconess (which is not a female deacon as it doesn't hold a liturgical role and has a unique ministry to women and children). Though, it could be argued that returning deaconesses would be an orientalization, too. (The Coptic Church recently re-established the order of deaconess. Whether deaconesses were once tonsured/set aside or ordained is a semantic issue highly disputed. That they existed, as evidenced by Phoebe in the Bible, is not.)

It's a job already being largely fulfilled in the church by RCIA directors, directors of catechesis, or under similar titles. Giving them the recognition, training, and unique ministry they deserve would be a benefit IF it could be accomplished within the appropriate context.

That the role of deacons is not properly respected or understood right now is an underlying issue that needs to first be addressed within it's own right for the sake of our deacons and our church. Similarly is the role of male religious, whose identity of being set aside was consumed in the corporate ladder model to the priesthood, making the religious orders top-heavy with priests and bereft of brothers. Which is what started the process of them losing their communities and identities as they filled the role of parish priests. I am so pleased to see both the diaconate and the male religious life beginning to be rediscovered in the west and to serve the church with their unique charisms again.

Serving alongside my bishop- this picture appeared on the front page of the Deseret News last weekend

I think a similar rediscovery of the ministry of the priesthood needs to happen, which will remove the role of marriage or celibacy from the equation. How can the priesthood be a vocation if it is dependent on the church's need and affirmation? It isn't an alternative to marriage. The "mandatory" celibacy requirement caused us to frame the priesthood as an alternative to marriage, but it isn't. Celibacy is an alternative to marriage, but there are a lot of ways to live out celibacy. Singles (like deaconesses), consecrated virgins, religious, priesthood... The uniting factor is that every person lives that out in a community that supports and builds up that vocation. Even hermits are attached to communities. Sadly, our diocesan priests today lack in this essential area and I think a large reason is the rhetoric that the priesthood is the vocation instead of the proper focus on the celibate life being the vocation and the priesthood being the ministry.

Understanding vocation--the life one will work out one's salvation through--to be marriage or celibacy will really go a long way. Then, the priesthood as a ministry that the church calls the most qualified to will transform who is chosen, how they're chosen, the training provided, etc. And all of a sudden, whether the best candidate for the job being required to be married or celibate doesn't rank so high any longer. His stability, personality, responsibility, gifts, orthodoxy, witness, and so on become qualifying qualities.

I am so excited to see all of these transformations of how we speak and think returning to the fuller contexts in which practical solutions for how to live that out within our traditions can be legitimately discussed.


Married deacons ≠ married priests

I offer these thoughts on the diaconate with one important caveat - these are my ideas and mine alone. I am not claiming any authority on these matters apart from my own experience, study, and involvement in on-going discussions concerning these matters. So, as with everything on Καθολικός διάκονος, take it for what it's worth.

Observation: A lot of married permanent Roman Catholic deacons seem to be fervent advocates for the Latin Church normatively ordaining married men priests (the Church does now in exceptional cases), thus doing away with what is mistakenly called "mandatory" celibacy (mistaken because celibacy can only be freely chosen, not imposed). At least on the surface, this does not seem too difficult to figure out.

I guess my view, as one who seriously considered a vocation to the priesthood as a much younger man (particularly becoming a Dominican friar), and, only years later, with a lot of encouragement, discerned a vocation to the diaconate, I see being a deacon, serving as a deacon, especially as a married man with a family, as a distinct vocation, not as a consolation prize. Having written that, let me state that it is easy for me to understand that married deacons in the various Eastern Rite Catholic Churches throughout the United States might have a different set of concerns, given the normativity of those churches ordaining married men priests outside the United States, according to the ancient tradition of those Churches. Thankfully, it is becoming more and more common for some Eastern Rite Churches in the U.S. to ordain married men priests. Just as it is important for the various Eastern Churches in communion with Rome to resist "Latinization," we're on shaky ground, it seems to me, when we seek to "orientalize" the Latin Church.

In my view, the diaconate will not succeed in forging a mature ecclesial identity until the issue of the diaconate being a distinct vocation starts to be resolved. To this end, one concrete proposal I believe has a lot of merit, something of which I have long been in favor: doing away with the so-called transitional diaconate and making diaconal ordination part of episcopal ordination. This means doing away with the cursus honorum, which the Latin Church adopted from Roman polity. Cursus honorum literally means "course of offices." I refers to the sequential order of public offices held by aspiring politicians in both the Roman Republic and the early empire.

Applied to holy orders, the cursus honorum means going from deacon, to priest, to bishop. This practice often results in bad theology, which I have heard expressed by a few of my brother deacons along the lines of, "He's been ordained twice and I've only been ordained once." Our current practice does not strike me as all that consistent with the development of these orders in the New Testament and earliest Church. In fact, one can make a pretty good argument that the office of deacon existed prior to the office of priest. This change would also have the effect of bringing into even bolder relief the deacon's unique and, yes, special relationship to his bishop.

In addition to more clearly distinguishing deacons from priests, I believe such a move would the clear the space necessary to have an intelligent and conclusive discussion on women and the diaconate by doing away with slippery slope concerns about women becoming priests, which, for Catholics, is off-the-table. I don't mind saying, for the sake of clarity, that I am okay with the non-ordained office of deaconness, which would be conferred by institution, not ordination. This office would permit women to be of pastoral service primarily to other women.

The issue I am indirectly getting at is addressed in the USCCB's National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons, approved by the Holy See and subsequently issued in 2004:
Underlying the restoration and renewal of the diaconate at the Second Vatican Council was the principle that the diaconate is a stable and permanent rank of ordained ministry. Since the history of the order over the last millennium, however, has been centered on the diaconate as a transitory stage leading to the priesthood, actions that may obfuscate the stability and permanence of the order should be minimized. This would include the ordination of celibate or widowed deacons to the priesthood. "Hence ordination [of a permanent deacon] to the Priesthood . . . must always be a very rare exception, and only for special and grave reasons . . . Given the exceptional nature of such cases, the diocesan bishop should consult the Congregation for Catholic Education with regard to the intellectual and theological preparation of the candidate, and also the Congregation for the Clergy concerning the program of priestly formation and the aptitude of the candidate to the priestly ministry" (par 77)

"what you receive is the mystery that means you"

Garrison Keillor's quote, "Going to church no more makes you a Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car," is, understandably, quite popular with many Christians and non-Christians alike. If I understand it correctly, it points out the necessity that, if you are going to call yourself a disciple of Jesus, how you act all the time matters. Innocuous enough, right?

As with so many of these kinds of popular quotes, there are some other things at work, some of which, I would say, are a bit insidious ("causing harm in a way that is gradual or not easily noticed"). Keillor is not a Catholic. Hence, it would be wholly unfair to expect whatever theology he might convey through his radio show and his writing to meet that standard. Nonetheless, there are two observations I wish to make about this over-used quote. The first has to do with reducing faith merely to morals and the second has to do with the indispensability, at least from a Catholic perspective, of "going to Church," which means to participate, fully, actively, and consciously, in the sacred liturgy, in the holy Eucharist.

Regarding my first observation, I think C.S.Lewis, when he made the analogy between being a Christian and being a gentleman, wrote about all that needed to be written. In short, being good does not make you a Christian. It's much more accurate to call a person gifted with faith, but poor in praxis, a "bad" Christian than it is to call a person who believes in something else, or nothing at all, but who does good things, a Christian.

It strikes me as more than a little arrogant to call a person who believes in something else, or nothing at all, but who does good things, a Christian. Let's be honest, Christians do not have a monopoly on doing good. That stark reality might make some Christians angry, but it's the truth.

A prerequisite for being a Christian is the realization that you are not a good person. The next realization a Christian must have is that even though you are not good, you are infinitely loved. Only love, being loved and then loving, can make us better people, by the grace of God. With Evelyn Waugh, I invite everyone to ponder "how awful I'd be if I weren't a Christian."

I think quotes, like the one by Keillor, are often used by Christians as an excuse for not going to Church. I want to ask these brothers and sisters of mine, in the vein of St Paul, "Are you really that convinced of your own goodness?" Or, perhaps, "Are you so harshly judging the 'badness' of your sisters and brothers who attend, dismissing them as 'hypocrites,' that you stay away?" That going to Church, participating in and receiving the holy Eucharist, is an indispensable part of the that process is borne out by this, from a sermon by St Augustine:

So if it's you that are the body of Christ and its members, it's the mystery meaning you that has been placed on the Lord's table; what you receive is the mystery that means you. It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent. What you hear, you see, is The body of Christ, and you answer, Amen. So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make that Amen true (Sermon 272)