Tuesday, December 23, 2014

O Emmanuel - God With Us

On the 23rd of December, the Church prays together the last of the seven traditional O Antiphons composed in the Seventh and Eighth centuries as short, simple reflections on the Old Testament prophetic writings foretelling the coming of Christ.  They are traditionally prayed during final seven days of Advent. In more recent times, the O Antiphons have been sung in a different form in the hymn, Veni, Veni Emmanuel (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel)

The O Antiphons are perfect for a family or community to incorporate into night prayers during those final seven days, December 17-23, and hopefully can be a resource for you and your family in future Advents.

Here is the text of the O Emmanuel antiphon:

LATIN: O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.

ENGLISH: O Emmanuel, God with us, our King and lawgiver, the expected of the nations and their Savior: come to save us, O Lord our God.

Although the calendar date is passed for this year, Christmas Eve still presents wonderful opportunity to pull away from the commercialized "magic" to reflect on the profoundness of the real meaning of Christmas, as the first phrase of O Emmanuel expresses, God with us.

On this eve, the power of the incarnation comes to its full fruition, as Mary bears God himself to the world.  Stop and take a few minutes today (and tomorrow too) to think about that...


Yep, the God of creation, of all things visible and invisible, is here.  Not in some symbolic, ethereal way, but real, 100% in the flesh, pouring all of his divinity into all of our humanity.  Since we were (and still are) powerless to fix our own broken, pitiful state, he has come as one of us (not like one of us...as one of us) to fix it himself for eternity and to offer us our share in the work in time.

I'll leave it at that for now.  Just take a few minutes today, wherever and however you can find a quiet moment, to think about the significance of what happened in that stable in Bethlehem so many years ago.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

From a Line of Sinners

As we begin the last week of Advent and the countdown to Christmas, in this post (originally from December 24, 2013), let's reflect on the significance of Christ choosing to count both the best and the worst of humanity among his ancestors.  Today's Gospel reading, Matthew's account of the genealogy of Our Lord (Mt 1:1-17) is packed with more than meets the eye

"For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Corinthians: 22-24)

I once heard it said that, if you really want to know someone, you've got to know where they came from and where they're headed.  The only thing that could probably be added to that is the present.  Along with the past and future, you've got to know someone's here and now, to meet them in their present life circumstances.  To really enter into relationship, in particular the type of caritas or agape relationship that God calls us to, and that we are called to seek out in each other, there has to be a genuine interest in the heart, in seeking out what influences push and pull it, and a willingness to enter into the broken and ugly pieces that we all carry around with us.

This is one way I've been led to approach the the question, "Who is Christ?  Who is this man that we claim worship as God?"    We could spend an eternity exploring and reflecting on the person of the God-man, of mystery of Emmanuel (God with us) and, by his grace, one day we will...for eternity. After all, isn't that what heaven is about?  Isn't it about being immersed in the power of divine relationship, of perfect love incarnate, and of the unlimited truth, goodness, and beauty that we only catch fleeting and limited glimpses of during our walk in this valley of tears?  Isn't it living with full consciouness and perfect knowledge of the One who not only created us, but who loved us with such self-abandon that he lowered himself to give up his life, choosing mercy beyond justice so as not to leave us in the squalor and suffering of our sin?  If not I'm not sure that I would want any other idea of heaven, or any other God, at least for eternity.

As for there here and now, I'll  narrow it to the question of the Who of The Five W's: the person of Christ as One who came to enter into relationship with us and literally save us from ourselves, in the past, present, and future.  He took on a human identity without giving up his divinity so that we might know that, despite our frail humanity, we are no longer bound by the pain of our past, by our present circumstances, or by the future that we so often look into with both hope and fear because we are so powerless to control it.  By entering into our humanity, he literally bent time, condescending (lowering himself) to at once dwell with us as the fulfillment of the hope of our ancestors in faith, as leader and our constant companion on our life's journey, and to raise us to the intended dignity and show us the glorious destiny he has won for us and destined us for by his passion, death, and resurrection.

In the December 16th reflection of Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, entitled Genealogy and Grace, Gail Godwin offers a reflection on Matthew's purpose in beginning his Gospel by recounting the genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:1-17), and particularly his inclusion of people who were "...not necessarily the noblest or most deserving person[s] to carry out divine purposes."
For reasons unknown to us, God may select the Judahs who sell their brothers into slavery, the Jacobs who cheat their way to first place, the Davids who steal wives and murder rivals - but also compose profound and beautiful psalms of praise.
And what about the five women Matthew choses to include? Not a mention of Sarah or Rebekah or Rachel, the upstanding patriarchal wives of Israel.  Instead Tamar, a Cananite, who disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law Judah to get a son out of him.  And Rahab, another Cananite and a real prostitute this time.  And Ruth the Moabite, another outsider.  And Bathsheba, mother of Solomon, is named only as the wife of Uriah, whom King David had killed so he could marry her himself.  Every one of these women used as God's instrument had scandal or aspersion attached to her-as does the fifth and final woman named in the genealogy: Mary, the mother of Jesus, with her unconventional pregnancy.
Matthew's intent in highlighting these women is to make the point that Christ, who as God was able to plan and choose his own lineage, did so in a way that made a bold and profound statement: that he desired to come to us not with the appearance and glory of God (as he is and will return), but in the humility of a 100% human being with very much imperfect ancestors.  In doing so, took on our sin not by sinning himself, but by assuming the sins of the past and all time onto himself. At the same time, in choosing to singularly exempt Mary from this stain of sin, he reversed our trajectory from darkness and sin to light and redemption and prepared for himself a perfect flesh-and-blood tabernacle from which to enter into the world.  Christ chose to enter the nastiness, pain, and fear, and death of a fallen humanity rather than abandon us to the fate we deserved.  He chose love and mercy beyond justice.  Only God could plan that kind of entrance.

And that is where we are arrive at Christmas.  Light has pierced the darkness.  God with us has come into the world, to take the burden of our fallen and broken state onto himself, beginning with the past, because only he as God is strong enough and wise enough to rid us of it once and for all.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Muslim Go Boom! - WND Commentary by Matt Barber

This is by far the best commentary/op-ed I've come across all week.  Matt Barber (entertainingly) argues the stark truth, that:

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Cleaning House

Do you or have you ever met someone who enjoys cleaning?  I mean really enjoys it, as if there were nothing else the person could see themselves doing more than cleaning.  When someone tells me they do, it automatically raises the question, at least in my head:  Really?  Do you really enjoy it, for it's own sake?  Don't get me wrong, I like love a clean room, clean house, clean garage, clean car, clean clothes...you name it.  There's just a deep-down, simple, good feeling that comes from having things sorted, straightened, unsoiled, and fresh, especially when it has been returned from the alternative state.  There's just something in the normal, rational, god-fearing human soul that gravitates toward things being that way.  There really is more truth to the old adage, "Cleanliness is next to godliness" than meets the eye.

But, cleanliness is an end state.  The process to get there, of expending time and sweat to put things back the way we wished they had been all along, isn't nearly as fun as being there.  On second thought, it just isn't fun period. Not at all.  For me at least, it usually comes more out of necessity than of choice, and has to be disciplined and enforced (parents, you know how this goes, right?).  I can almost always think of at least a half dozen other things I'd rather be doing, or places I'd rather be, like reading, taking a nice long run, you name it.

One of the greatest motivators to just get it done when it comes to cleaning is the arrival of guests.  Knowing that they are coming to visit suddenly gives us a sort of hyper awareness of everything in the house that isn't absolutely immaculate.  Those dust bunnies that have been hanging out under the bed for a few weeks now?   Odds are the guests will never, ever lift up your covers to see them, but you know they're there and with just the the thought of it, they might as well be screaming out loud enough for the neighborhood to hear, "Clean me.  Clean me!"

Back the the "unfunness" of the task at hand (can you tell how much I haven't felts like cleaning this weekend?)... Heck, we here in American despise cleaning so much--and our time doing anything but is so precious to us--that we even outsource it.   We have an entire industry built around providing cleaning services, both at home and in the workplace.  And even when we don't pay directly for someone else to do it, we consult with others about how to clean up because we don't even have time to think  and plan how to do it.  Sometimes we pay big bucks for this too, for someone to think for us and tell us what needs to be cleaned and how we should do it.

Not only that, but once the end state of having everything clean and in its proper place is attained, it's so easily lost.  I mean it's just downright demoralizing, isn't it?  I don't know how many times I have spent the better part of a weekend cleaning our garage, organized everything, sweeping, re-arranging shelves, and re-establishing a system for maintaining that hard-earned end state, all the while thinking, "This time it will work.  It will stay clean, everything that's used will put back in it's place, I will never have to spend hours cleaning again, and the life of garage storage will go on happily ever after."

Mmm hmm...Riiiight.  Somehow it just doesn't work out that way, and in a matter of days, weeks, or months later, it seems like we are back to square one and needing another round of neatness intervention.  I think we all (sane people anyway) really do like to have things as they should be.  It's the process of getting there that's not fun, and keeping things that way can seem downright impossible.

And so it is with the spiritual life.

The Church, recognizing that we need a periodic reminder to set aside time to sweep and straighten the "house" of our souls, gives us Advent season as a dedicated time to prepare for the arrival of the most important house guest, the King of all creation.

The readings for today, the Second Sunday of Advent, begin with one of my favorite (and perhaps one of the most well known) verses from Old Testament scripture: the prophet Isaiah's message of hope and promise of salvation that flows from the old covenant into the new.  Through the prophet, God speaks to remind us both of our need to diligently and expeditiously "prepare the way of the Lord," to get about the nitty gritty work of cleaning house, so to speak, in our souls, all the while lifting our eyes and hearts to the hope of the future kingdom.

A voice proclaims:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!

Every valley shall be lifted up,
every mountain and hill made low;
The rugged land shall be a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

A voice says, “Proclaim!”
I answer, “What shall I proclaim?”
“All flesh is grass,
and all their loyalty like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower wilts,
when the breath of the LORD blows upon it.”
“Yes, the people is grass!

The grass withers, the flower wilts,
but the word of our God stands forever.”

Go up onto a high mountain,
Zion, herald of good news!
Cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Cry out, do not fear!
Say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!

Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,
who rules by his strong arm;
Here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.

Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
Carrying them in his bosom,
leading the ewes with care.
- Isaiah 40:3-11 (NAB)

With these words, the prophet points us forward through the trials, difficulties, and flat out spiritual warfare--with our own personal sins and the societal evil that we seem so powerless to cure--to look toward the fullness of time, when the "space" of creation, dragged down through history by man's sin and disobedience, will be restored to its immaculate end, to our promised salvation and the fullness of God's kingdom, as St Peter writes in the conclusion of the second reading:

But according to his promise
we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.
Therefore, beloved, since you await these things,
be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

-2 Pt 3:13-14

As I mentioned in a previous post from 2/14/2010, Now Comes the Best Part, the most beautiful and concrete way to take up this spiritual house cleaning, and to get rid of the sin that mires and clutters our souls, is to make a good confession.   It is often a very difficult and laborious experience to have to voice our failings and shortcomings, but as with all cleaning work, it must be done, and habit makes it easier.  And the result after this cleaning is complete is joy and encouragement as our soul is swept clean.  So, during this Advent season, let us hasten to make way in our own hearts for the coming of He who seeks to dwell there, and by doing so bring a little light, fresh air, and clarity, to our own little part of his kingdom.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Identity Crisis

So my girls have completely fallen in love with the Lion King.  Who would've thought, a 20-year-old Disney flick would capture their attention, and so quickly supplant Frozen? Well, partially anyway.  It's their (and, by proxy, my) favorite character story du jor, so...yes I'm going to go there and write about a Disney movie on a blog about cultural warfare.

As we were watching it during one of our recent Friday pizza-and-movie nights, the story eventually came to the scene where the now-adult Simba, who was driven out by the searing indictment of his conniving and power-hungry uncle Scar, begins to ask questions and wonder what he's supposed to be doing with his life.  Sounds familiar, right?  Young man grows up with little or no guidance, and suddenly finds himself an adult groping for direction in his life.  As Simba starts seeking for answers, he is led by Rafiki, the wise sage baboon, to look at his own reflection.  At first he finds it pointless, but directed back again by Rafiki, he looks deeper into his image for that of his father.

Here's the scene:

So...could we consider this snippet from a children's story in the light of our own wandering and groping for identity?  How often have we given into the accusations of the world, particularly of the accuser, the father of lies (cf. John 8:44)?  How often do we believe that we can't do it, that we're not good/strong/handsome/beautiful/holy/worthy enough of the lofty tasks set aside for us from the foundations of the world?    Most of the time this slide into believing the accusations doesn't happen out of malice, so much as it does because we take the easy road out to satisfying our deep-seeded human need for belonging and acceptance.

After all, isn't it so much easier just to allow the answers in through our five senses--from the world--than to take the time to look inside, to recognize and water the seed that our Creator has put in us? Instead of looking to the One who so desires to be the ultimate source of our affirmation, for who we are, we allow noise and din of the world to begin to answer the question for us.  And the answer is... "You are only as (fill in the blank with a desirable trait) as we say that you are."  We can even begin to let the accusations and the anxiety that flows from them define us.  We trade the peace and freedom that comes from grounding in the truth of who we are for the worry and bondage of believing lies.

I know I have.  A lot.  I will forever be a recovering lie-believer.

But those lies are not who we are or what we were made for.

St. Paul gives us what is arguably the most poignant reminder of who we are in his Letter to the Romans (8:14-17):
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba, Father!”
The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Let's rewind and review that one more time.  So, according to St. Paul we are:

1. Children of God.  That is, children of a perfect Father, who wants us to call him "Daddy!" as obedient children do, more than "Master."

2. Joint heirs with Christ.  Our Lord, the second person of the Trinity, by descending into our humanity, now raises us up to a share in the glory of his divinity. Christ came and suffered for us--and the ultimate Father sacrificed his only son--so that we could be like him in all things but being.  (A previous post from June 3, 2013, Gods and Goddesses, has more on that).  The Second Person of the Trinity lowered himself to walk among us as brother and friend.

Think about that.  Let it sink in, and do it often, because that is the point of truth that the enemy most wants us to forget.

Paul also reminded his spiritual son, Timothy, as he gave him encouragement and "marching orders" in his second letter: "For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control." (2 Tim 1:7)

Of course.  That only makes sense.  God doesn't remake us into his children, ask us to call on him as Daddy, then just leave us to our own fallen, weak, broken devices.  That would be the ultimate cruelty, (another of the original lies, the first proposed in the garden:"Does he really want what's best for you, or is he holding out?" [cf. Gen 3:1,5]).

The truth is quite the opposite: He gives us everything we need, although that is seldom what we think we need. The refrain of the old Lonestar song, Mountains, comes to mind. "The good Lord gave us mountains, so we could learn how to climb."

Other words come to mind, from St Thomas More, about how incapable we are of judging our own needs and controlling our fate in this life.
So blind are we in this mortal life, and so unaware of what will happen, so uncertain of even how we will think tomorrow, that God could not take vengeance on a man more easily in this world than by granting his own foolish wishes.
Saint Thomas More

So what are we to do with this?  The implications of being The answer to that could be a whole other book, volumes really, and I'll have to write more about that later (Part 2?).  But for now, let it suffice to say that we only need to follow Mufasa's advice:

Remember who you are.  That is, sons, daughters, and heirs of the living God, the King of kings, who are called to struggle and suffer toward perfection now so that we might rejoice and share in his glory forever.

No more and no less.


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

European court: Gay marriage is not a human right - Lifesite News

This is stunning (for me, anyway...in a good way) and is the last thing I would have expected to come out of the European Human Rights Court.  The first sentence from the summary paragraphs below almost had me pinching myself:
The court confirmed that the protection of the traditional institution of marriage is a valid state interest—implicitly endorsing the view that relations between persons of the same sex are not identical to marriage between a man and a woman, and may be treated differently in law.
The judgment says that European human rights law recognizes the “fundamental right of a man and woman to marry and to found a family” and “enshrines the traditional concept of marriage as being between a man and a woman.” It explains how no European consensus on same-sex marriages exists, as only 10 of the 47 countries bound by the treaty allow such designations.
Read the entire article here.

Monday, August 4, 2014

"No, Jesus did not bear arms, but..." - The American Spectator

Behind the controversial and attention-grabbing title of Mark Tooley's article, Whom Would Jesus Shoot? in The American Spectator (July 30, 2014) lies his counterpoint and answer to a question that the Judeo-Christian tradition has answered (I believe very adequately, as I wrote about a few years ago in my three-part series, Faith and Firearms):

Does the moral imperative to pursue peace and non-violence automatically trump our responsibility to provide a legitimate defense and repel the assault of unjust aggressors against innocents and those charged to our care, using violence if necessary?

Tooley's conclusion is spot-on:
"No, Jesus in the Gospels did not bear arms. But the whole message of scripture and Christian tradition carefully allows that some of His followers may be called to bear and deploy weaponry in certain circumstances where justice requires. The ultimate question is not so much What Would Jesus Do but rather What Does Jesus Tell Us to Do?"
Read the entire article here.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sweet and Light

Ten years ago, when I first felt the nudge to return to the faith I after thinking in college that I could "write my own ticket" through life, there were some major stumbling blocks.  Chief among them them my own ego.  I was a young, invincible 20-something with a promising military career, and the streak of wanting to do it my own way (that is the motto and anthem of hell, by the way) made the commitment to jump with both feet to a life on God's terms very difficult.

So...I didn't.

Plans to live it up on my turns stifled any ability to listen to God's plans. I thought as long as I could "punch the ticket" on Sunday morning, did a few good deeds here and there, and didn't murder anybody, the rest of life was mine to live as I please.  Needless to say, I was deaf to any calling he was making of me, and even if I had heard it there was no desire whatsoever to carry out someone else's plans, even if that someone did happen to me the Creator and Lord of all things visible and invisible.

Thanks be to god that he quickly broke that status quo and supplied the humility I needed, and has continued with maintenance doses of many and varied forms throughout the past decade of adult life.  I say thanks be to God because, a dose of humility from without is a bitter but necessary pill, to clean and sweep our souls for a true indwelling, and without it, the words spoken by our Lord in this past week's Thursday Gospel would have continued to be nothing but noise and mystery to me:

"Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart and you will find rest for yourselves.  For my yoke is easy and my burden light" (Mt 11:29-30)

"What? Easy and light?" would have been my response back then. "All these rules and commandments about what I can and can't do, and how I am obligated to love even complete strangers and even my enemies, how I'm supposed to carry a cross through life and accept any struggle, pain, and humiliation that comes with it?  How in the heck is that easy and light? Sounds like a bum deal."

It is only with humility, whether found within (the easy way) or given from without (the hard way) that the sweetness and lightness of the yoke comes comes.  The 14th Century Domincan priest, Father John Tauler (+1361), explained the idea further far better than I ever could:
Now, to what people is this yoke sweet and light, as they accept it and bear it along?  Surely only to those whose thoughts are turned inward in search of God, and quite turned away from all created things.  Children, our souls ever stand on the boundary line between time and eternity.  If we turn toward time, we shall without doubt forget eternity, and soon be led far away from the things of God.  Whatever we see from a distance looks small; whatever we see close at hand looks large, for there is but little intervening space.  Thus the sun is many times larger than the earth, but if reflected in a cup of clear water on a summer's midday it seems no bigger than a little bean, and any little object that should come between the sun and that mirror would be large enough to take away entirely the image of the great luminary.
So it is with a man's soul.  No matter how trifling may be the earthly image he places in the depths of his soul, it is enough to interfere with God's life shining there; the infinite good that God is may easily be hindered from entering and possessing the soul of a man.  And this is equally true when it happens that the image in the soul is not an evil and little thing, but a great and really good thing; it may hinder the entrance of God, who is without any image or intermediary whatsoever.  Know, therefore, for a certainty, that in whatever soul the infinitely good God shall be mirrored, it must be totally freed and emptied of all images; if the soul reflects a single created thing, that is enough to exclude the reflection of God.  All souls who have not established in their very depths this freedom from creatures, who have not uncovered and laid bare before God their innermost recesses, are as yet only scullions in the divine service, and to them God's yoke is bitter.  And, says Origen, the man who has not looked into the deeper depths of his being has a plain sign, that as yet he has not tasted of the eternal sweetness of God....And all who cleanse the mirror of their souls perfectly clear of the images of created things, so that God may pour in the sunlight of his divinity quite unobstructed, to them his yoke is sweet beyond all other possible sweetness.
Indeed.  In case you haven't figured it out yet, the world's yoke is crushing.  Why else in a world where we are supposed to have so much to make us comfortable--and where even the poor among us live better than most of the wealthy did just a few hundred years ago--are so many people, even people of means, so depressed, anxious, and hungry and thirsty for meaning in life.  Why is it that the emptiness and loneliness is sometimes far greater when the trappings are more plentiful, and that the world with its plethora of feel-good psychology, conscience-is-king pop spirituality, and the use of antidepressants has skyrocketed in the last two decades?

We as people being spiritually killed by the yokes we have allowed the world to place around our necks.  For a broken world that sees us not as people longing for answers to the deepest questions of the heart, but as commodities to be bought and sold, all it can offer is temporary, fleeting happiness at best, and at worst (more often than not) disappointment and bitter brokenness.  So, why not try out the yoke that the Master of hearts, the one who can only answer the questions of the heart with truth because by his very nature he is only capable of truth?  Why not let him clean off the mirror of our souls as he desperately wishes to do.  After all, what have we to lose? In the case of the world and what it wishes to take, it is only eternal peace.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Love Without End, Amen

Following on Monday's Post about the crisis of fatherhood, here's the positive side, the simple message of a father's love that's a little more easy on the ears.

"Daddies don't just love their children every now and then...It's a love without end, amen."

The truth, like only George can sing it....

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Crisis in Society is a Crisis of Fatherhood (AudioSancto)

WARNING!!! Includes statements that are non-PC, gender distinct, and highlight rather than diminish the differences in needs between girls and boys that only father in shaping childrens' identity.  "Church of nice" listeners beware!

This is a tremendous sermon by one of our local priests, one of many posted weekly at http://www.audiosancto.org/.

Download link: http://files.audiosancto.org/20140615-The-Crisis-in-Society-is-a-Crisis-of-Fatherhood.mp3

Here are links to the books referenced by the priest (I have not had a chance to read them yet, but have them on my list and look forward to posting a few more tidbits):

Legacy: A Father's Handbook for Raising Godly Children by Steve Wood 

Father, The Family Protector by James Stenson

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Good of Government by Roger Scruton

The conservative movement in America so often finds itself responding to the tidal wave of progressivism and expansionist government, instead of offering the good and natural (and necessary) function of government.  In this must-read piece, Roger Scruton summarizes the philosophical and natural law origins of conservatism, of the limited-government roots that have made the American experiment so unique, and what conservatives must do to regain the offensive in the culture war.

"Conservatives therefore have an obligation to map out the true domain of government, and the limits beyond which action by the government is a trespass on the freedom of the citizen.  But it seems to me they have failed to offer the electorate a believable blueprint for this, precisely because they have failed to see that what they are advocating is not freedom from government, but another and better kind of government..."
The Good of Government by Roger Scruton - First Things

Friday, July 4, 2014

Independence Day Reflection - When Is It Okay to Disobey?

A happy and blessed Independence Day!

On this 238th birthday of our nation's independence from imperial rule, as we celebrate the blessings of liberty given to us by God and by those who have fought tirelessly to gain and preserve it, I thought I'd get started up again by reposting an oldie-but-goodie from a few years ago (March 1, 2010, to be exact).

In this reflection from the March-April 2010 issue of Catholic Answers (formerly This Rock) magazine, Fr. Frank Pavone reflects on the enormous responsibility of living as a Christian in a free society, and addresses many of the same issues as Dr. King and Pope Benedict XVI (see my previous posts from January 24 and January 31, 2010).  He writes from the same tradition and understanding of the relationship between divine law and human law as St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica and Dr. King in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail (excerpts below).

Please God, let us never forget in the ins-and-outs of the daily political grind, that God's law supersedes any law created by man, always and everywhere, and that it is our responsibility to carry his truth into the here-and-now (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1897-1904 and 2234-2243).

When Is It Okay to Disobey?
Catholics and Civil Disobedience
By Fr. Frank Pavone

Imagine for a moment that a law were passed in our country outlawing attendance at Mass. What would you do? Certainly campaigns would be launched to change the law, to challenge the law in court, and to elect new leaders who would reject such a law. 

But those processes could take years. The question is, what would you do in the meantime? Would you go to Mass anyway? If you are a priest, would you celebrate Mass anyway? Are there times when you would disobey the law and consider that disobedience to be morally justified?

This question goes to the heart of who we are as Christian citizens and of the relationship of the Church to the state.

The King Is Subject to a King
The Old Testament provides an excellent starting point for this question in 1 Samuel 8. The people of God are living on the land the Lord gave them. All around them, other nations are worshipping strange gods and engaging in strange rituals. One of the differences between God’s people and these other nations was that the other nations had a king. The people of Israel were always talking about the Lord, the Covenant, and the Commandments God gave to Moses, but they didn’t have a king.

So one day they go to the prophet Samuel, and ask, “Would you give us a king, please? All the other nations around us have a ruler that leads them into battle and fights their wars and provides for them, and we don’t have a king.” Samuel says, “What are you talking about? The Lord is your king!” “Yes, but we want a king like the other nations,” they reply.

So Samuel turns to the Lord, who tells Samuel to grant their request but also to warn the people that they’re going to suffer for it. And several chapters later we read the instructions that Samuel gives to the people. He says to them, "You said to me, no we want a king to rule over us. But the Lord your God was your king and now behold the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked. Behold, the Lord has set a king over you. If you will fear the Lord and serve him and hearken to his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God it will be well. But if you will not hearken to the voice of the Lord and rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then the hand of the Lord will be against you and your king." (1 Sm 12:12b-15)

A hierarchy is established: The people obey the king. The people and the king obey the Lord.

If you read through the history of the Old Testament, you’re actually reading the history of two kingdoms interwoven one with another, the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). And you soon discover that you are reading theological history. In other words, the events happened, but you are reading them from the perspective of God and understanding the God-related reasons why certain armies won the battles and others lost. 

What Scripture is trying to convey is not the brilliant political strategies or the terrible blunders, but rather the fact that when the people and their king observed and obeyed the Covenant, things went well and God delivered their enemies away from them. But when they—often at the urging of their king and because of his sinfulness—violated the Covenant, God delivered them into the hands of their enemies.

The prophets arrived to admonish the kings and to instruct the people. The role of the prophets is very clear in the Old Testament: to reproach the kings, telling them again that they need to be faithful to the Covenant.

We Have the King’s Responsibilities
You and I are in a position today in America that gives us even more responsibility than the prophets had when they spoke to the kings. We too are prophets by our baptism into Christ. We have a prophetic role, not in the sense of telling the future but of speaking the present, interpreting present events in the light of the Word of God. We do it as clergy when we preach, but we all do it as baptized members of the faithful when we bear witness to the Word of God in our daily life. We bear greater responsibility because we have more than just the opportunity to speak to our “kings,” our rulers, those in government authority. We have the opportunity to choose them—an opportunity that the people in the Old Testament never had. We have the power to choose them. And if our system of governance works the way it’s supposed to work, we in fact govern ourselves.

What this means is that all the scriptural responsibilities that God places on the sovereign, on the king, on the ruler, are placed on us! If you read the Bible from the beginning to the end you see a whole series of very serious responsibilities placed on the shoulders of the ruler of the people. The ruler of the people was to do justice, reaffirm the Covenant, lead the people in the ways of the Lord, promote peace, defend life, and rescue the poor and the widow. All of the responsibilities of the sovereign and their people are now on us. We don’t only have the responsibility that belongs to the people; we have the responsibility that belongs to the sovereign because of our ability, our opportunity to take part in the political process.

The Church’s Yes and No
What, then, does the Church think about the state? Historically, beginning with Jesus himself, it has said to governments at the same time yes and no. And the Church maintains a delicate balance between her yes and her no. In his book, Church and State in Early Christianity, Hugo Rahner writes, “The Church has never confronted the state with a ‘no’ of inflexible refusal dictated by another worldly mysticism or with a ‘yes’ of unqualified acceptance based on political indifference. The Church of the martyrs with a sure political instinct illuminated by grace knew how to find a balance between ‘yes’ and ‘no.’”

Let’s look more closely at that yes and no.

First, the Church says a profound yes to the state, and this is rooted in a very simple fact: All authority, all power, comes from God. Therefore obeying earthly, civil authority becomes part of our obedience to God.

Scripture is filled with examples of this. Perhaps one of the most striking is in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Even when the state and the powers of civil authority are persecuting believers, believers are exhorted to be good citizens. We read that God’s people are being taken into exile in Babylon. Yet they’re not told to create a revolution. They’re not called to overthrow the Babylonians. What are they called to do? 

Thus says the Lord of hosts, to the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives, have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer 29:4-7)

Seek the welfare of the city even if the city is holding you in exile.

We’re even more familiar with the New Testament exhortations. Peter, for example says:

Maintain good contact among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers they may see your good deeds and glorify God . . . Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme or to governors . . . Honor all men, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the emperor. (1 Pt 2:12-13, 17) 

And then of course we find the exhortation to pay taxes and the example of Jesus paying the temple tax and taking the coin out of the mouth of the fish to do so.

So to put it simply, the fact that we are citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20) does not give us the right to ignore our duties as citizens of earth. One of the old criticisms of religion is that because we focus on the world to come we are less concerned about this one. But the Church’s teaching has always been very clear: Preparing for the world to come makes us more concerned about this one. After all, we want to spend eternity with the person next to us. God is preparing for us new heavens and a new earth—not some kind of totally disconnected world that has nothing to do with the things that go on in this life. 

Nonetheless, the Church also says a clear no to the state. That no is grounded in the very nature of a kingdom not of this world. When Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king, Jesus replied that his kingdom was not of this world (Jn 18:36). When Jesus was asked, “Is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar? ,” notice what Jesus does in response. He asks whose image and inscription are on the coin. They say “Caesar’s.” “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he tells them (that’s the yes to the state) “but give to God what is God’s” (that’s the no; see Mt 17:24-27, 22:17-21). In other words there’s something higher here. There’s a duty to be given. Now, from where does that duty flow? Think of what he said. The coin belongs to Caesar because it bears the image of Caesar, so give it to him. But “give to God what belongs to God.” That belongs to God which bears the image of God, namely human beings—including Caesar himself! So Christ establishes the framework. Caesar himself belongs to God. The state itself belongs to God.

The Church has always taught that the state does not contain the fullness of human hope or embrace the totality of human existence. The state exists for the human person, not the other way around. Our destiny, ultimately, is the new heavens and the new earth. So we can never put our ultimate hope and trust in what the state can do for us. In this consists the Church’s no to the state. It frees us from the myth of some kind of political salvation. The Church is the first to say that we are not asked to put ultimate hope and trust in any political party, candidate or system. Those things do play a key role but never merit our ultimate hope or trust. Our destiny is not comprised by this world alone. 

That does not mean, however, that we can shirk our responsibilities. We can’t walk away saying, “Oh, we can’t rely on those people anyway; they’re all crooked, they never keep their promises.”

God’s Law Comes First
In this context, then, we can return to the question with which we began. What would we do if a law were passed in our country outlawing attendance at Mass?

Hopefully, we would have the courage to disobey it. 

The Catechism asserts in its own words the Church’s yes and no to the state in sections 1897-1904 and again in 2234 to 2243. It explains that we are “resident aliens.” Our citizenship is in heaven, and only there is our ultimate loyalty. Hence, if that loyalty conflicts with our loyalty to civic authority, loyalty to God must prevail.

Having said this, the Catechism then explicitly talks about the proper role civil disobedience can play, if circumstances warrant. We have to obey authority, it reminds us. But the role of authority “is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society” (1898). Sometimes authority will fail in doing so.

It explains such a circumstance in this way:

Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility: A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence. (1902)

Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse. (1903)

Our duty in such cases is explained a bit later in the Catechism:

The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “We must obey God rather than men”:

When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the Law of the Gospel. (2242)

The Right to Life
In our day, the most egregious example of the failure of civil authority to maintain the common good and protect human rights is in the legalization of abortion and euthanasia. Applying the Catechism’s teachings, Pope John Paul II wrote at length about civil disobedience in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life):

Laws which authorize and promote abortion and euthanasia are therefore radically opposed not only to the good of the individual but also to the common good; as such they are completely lacking in authentic juridical validity. Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good. Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law.

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pt 2:13-14), but at the same time it firmly warned that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In the Old Testament, precisely in regard to threats against life, we find a significant example of resistance to the unjust command of those in authority. After Pharaoh ordered the killing of all newborn males, the Hebrew midwives refused. “They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live” (Ex 1:17). But the ultimate reason for their action should be noted: “the midwives feared God” (ibid.). It is precisely from obedience to God—to whom alone is due that fear which is acknowledgment of his absolute sovereignty—that the strength and the courage to resist unjust human laws are born. It is the strength and the courage of those prepared even to be imprisoned or put to the sword, in the certainty that this is what makes for “the endurance and faith of the saints” (Rv 13:10).

In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it. (EV 72, 73)

Surveying these teachings briefly, we find that the Church first of all calls us to do everything we can within the law to correct injustices. That is why we must be politically active and fully utilize our democratic system to change laws that fall short of the very purpose of law.

Secondly, when circumstances justify acting outside the law, we are never justified in committing acts of violence or otherwise violating human rights. Moreover, in judging whether circumstances for civil disobedience prevail, we have to exercise the virtue of prudence and always seek the guidance of others so that we do not rely solely on our own judgment.

Finally, it is clear that civil disobedience is not in any way disrespect for the law, because unjust laws are not bad laws, but no laws at all. Defending human rights in peaceful ways outside “the law” is ultimately a form of defense of and respect for the law. Civil disobedience, in defense of human rights, is actually divine obedience.

No Longer Law but a Perversion of It

As Augustine says (De Libero Arbitrio i, 5) “that which is not just seems to be no law at all”: wherefore the force of a law depends on the extent of its justice. Now in human affairs a thing is said to be just, from being right, according to the rule of reason. But the first rule of reason is the law of nature, as is clear from what has been stated above. Consequently every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.
Some things are therefore derived from the general principles of the natural law, by way of conclusions; e.g. that “one must not kill” may be derived as a conclusion from the principle that “one should do harm to no man”: while some are derived therefrom by way of determination; e.g. the law of nature has it that the evil-doer should be punished; but that he be punished in this or that way, is a determination of the law of nature.
Accordingly both modes of derivation are found in the human law. But those things which are derived in the first way, are contained in human law not as emanating therefrom exclusively, but have some force from the natural law also. But those things which are derived in the second way, have no other force than that of human law.
—Summa Theologiae I-II:95:2
Bound to a Higher Law

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. . . . One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.  Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. . . .
—Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

Fr. Frank Pavone is founder of the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life, a society of apostolic life dedicated to the formation and training of priests, deacons, brothers, and seminarians who will devote themselves fully to the proclamation of the gospel of life. He is also the national director of Priests for Life, an officially approved association of Catholic clergy who give special emphasis to the pro-life teachings of the Church. Contact Priests for Life at http://www.priestsforlife.org/.