Archive for April, 2006

Why are sound bites usually so stupid?

Saturday, April 22nd, 2006

It continues to amaze me how many sound bites that are used routinely and considered to be compelling arguments are complete bunk.  Case in point, this statement by a Florida politician regarding Terri Schiavo:

“There are some decisions that ought to be left to God and family,” Crist said. “Had I have been governor, I would have not done the same thing” as Bush.

(That’s governor Jeb Bush for those forgetting)

OK, how many times have I heard “life decisions should be made by the family” touted in cases like this?  The problem frequently is that the family is not in agreement.  Specifically, Terri’s biological family (parents and siblings) ALL wanted to keep Terri alive while her husband wanted to see her life ended.  So it’s not just about “the family should decide”.  What do you do when they can’t decide amongst themselves?

Furthermore in this case, the case came down NOT to what the family wanted but what Terri wanted.  That was what was in dispute.  So really, the family’s interests were technically irrelevant.  If Terri’s husband had said in court “Terri told me that she would want to stay on life-support if she were in this state but I think it’s time for her to die anyway” (not saying that it is what was indeed the case, I’m just speaking theoretically) then the case would have turned out completely differently.  What was in dispute was that the husband thought she would want to die and her parents thought the opposite and there was nothing but hearsay for either side to present in court.

Finally (and back to the original sound bite), what does “left to God” mean?  Is he arguing that we should never do any medical treatment and let God either heal or not heal everyone?  The question is not whether we have faith in God, it’s whether we choose to follow God by doing His will.  We have to decide whether it is God’s will that a feeding tube be left in or removed.  We can’t just “leave it to God” and turn our backs.  That just doesn’t make any sense.

Obviously everyone who knows me, knows my opinion on the case and I’m sure that opinion colors this post.  However, I tried to be careful in this post NOT to make a specific judgement as to which side was right.  My point is not who is right, but just that the arguments used are completely irrelevant to the case.

Why do we as a public put up with this kind of crud?

Review of my Lenten fast

Monday, April 17th, 2006

Well, Lent is over.  For those who didn’t know or have forgotten, I was on an Lent-long fast (meaning one meal a day).

Fasting is a very difficult thing for me.  You only have to take one look at me and you know that I’m a man who loves his food.  It’s also difficult over sustained periods for me not so much because of the volume of food but because of the daily inconsistency.  I spent 20+ hours each day starving, a 1/2 hour eating 1000+ calories, and an hour or two satisfied.  Without a polite way to say it explicitely, let’s just say that’s a recipe to catch up on my magazine reading.

So here are the final stats of the fast:

  • Total days: 46
  • Total meals: 47
  • Number of days with no meals: 2 (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday)
  • Number of days with 1 meal: 41
  • Number of days with 2 meals: 3 (sailing days where I added a small breakfast for strength for the day)
  • Longest streak withouth food: 52 hours (Holy Thurday lunch to Holy Saturday dinner)
  • Days without meat: 7 (Fridays of Lent and Ash Wednesday, per Church Lenten obligations and no more)
  • Starting weight 270.0 pounds (Ash Wednesday morning)
  • Low weight: 247.5 (Holy Saturday before breaking my Triduum Fast)
  • Final weight: 251 (Easter morning before Mass)

Some have asked me why I did this or why I’ve done it in the past.  What do I gain?

The answer is difficult to put to words, but I’ll try.  First of all, I’d say that the aspect of my human nature that I least have control of is Gluttony (note definition #2 because this is the full sense of the word and what I am referring to).  I love to over-indulge and don’t have much will-power to stop myself.

One of the best ways to grow closer to God is to force yourself to rely on Him.  One of the best ways to do that is to put yourself in situations where you have no choice but to rely on Him.  For me, since Gluttony is so tempting, forcing myself to fast forces me to rely on God.  I’m completely incapable of fasting on my own.  It’s only by growing closer to God and putting my fate in His hands that I have an outside shot of fasting for sustained periods.  I spent a lot of time praying for strength and God always delivered… in God’s time.  And the “in God’s time” bit is important.  It’s not like I’d pray and the next instant I wasn’t hungry.  No, the hunger would pass when God thought it was time.  So the prayers were often sustained and repetitive.  It not only forced me into deep long prayers, it taught me to have patience.

Finally, I’m a sinful man, just like any man.  I feel the need for a great deal of penance for those sins.  As such, I’m constantly looking for good forms of penance.  Of all the forms of penance, fasting is the best for me because of how it draws me close to God.  I not only have the spiritual benefits of penance in its own right, but also the spiritual benefits that fasting gives me in its own right.  And for me particularly, fasting has many benefits.

I hope that explains it well.

In the end, this Lent was a successful one because I feel closer to God again.  Of the other things I had hoped to do or did as part of Lent, none of them helped as much as the fasting did.  It truly brought me into the Lord’s presence and that is always the most important goal of any spiritual practice.

Sometimes sports give us the clearest view of our human nature

Monday, April 17th, 2006

I’m a pretty big sports fan.  I have football season tickets for the Cal Bears.  I try to make it to more than a handful of Oakland A’s games a year.  I sail much more than I can afford and which I could make myself even broke-er.

One of the things I love about sports the the purity of it.  At one end, the rules are simple and the winner is clear.  But at the other, we get to see our human nature played out in a very visual form.  Today I got another example of that while doing my morning blog reading at The Seventh Inning Stretch.  Here’s the quote:

“Today was no different, it was raining hard before one of the Easter masses I had to sing in. I joked and said that the rain was God’s punishment for those in line for Huston Street bobbleheads. Instead of celebrating Christ’s ressurection they were committing the sin of idolatry by waiting in line for a bobblehead. Of course, if I wasn’t obligated to be at church I’d be in line with all of those idolators commiting idolatry.”

And that’s our human nature in a nutshell.  We strive to be good and with the right re-enforcement, we are.  But that nagging desire calling us to sin is a powerful one, one that we have to admit we are powerless to overcome by ourselves.  But God has not abandoned us and is always available to strengthen us.  He gives us the strength to overcome our sinful desires.  All we must do is ask.

A glorious Easter to all of my readers

Monday, April 17th, 2006

Well, Easter is upon us!  I hope that everyone had a repentant Lent and was able to joyously celebrate the start of Easter yesterday with friends and family.  I also pray that we’ll all be able to celebrate the entire Easter season, the 40 days in which Christ was on earth in His risen form.

May God’s blessings be upon all of us!

My thoughts on immigration reform

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

Well considering how much political commentary there is on immigration reform I thought I’d add my two cents.

First of all it is my belief that no matter what we do, the #1 important thing that must happen as a result of this is enforcement of the new laws.  Unless laws are complied with, laws are meaningless.  Laws are only complied with when the combination of the risk of getting caught and the penalty for being caught encourages most people to comply with the law.  In the case of immigration, with so many of those seeking to live in the US having very little to lose, there isn’t a strong enough penalty you can give that would deter illegal immigration on it’s own (or said differently with a low risk of being caught).  As a result, the only way to ensure compliance with the law to make the likelihood of being caught very high.

So whatever we do, enforcement of the new law MUST be our top priority.  If it isn’t, whatever our plan is will be meaningless.

Beyond that, my feelings are driven by two factors: respecting the lives of those who want to immigrate legally and relative stability of the US economy.

First, let me state what I think the biggest overlooked aspect of this debate is: employers abusing illegal immigrants.  When the debate is talked about, most speak as if the companies employing illegal immigrants and the immigrants who are illegally employed are perfectly happy with one another and would be content to just see the government leave them alone.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The reality is that although the alternative back home may be worse, most illegal immigrants face a world where they are routinely abused by not being paid for their work (in addition to the low wages to begin with), working in unsafe conditions, and rampant racism.

Why does this occur?  Because the illegal immigrants have no recourse.  They can’t go to law enforcement because they’re illegal.  And that’s the crux of the matter.  Many argue that by letting illegal immigrants into the country we are being humane to them.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  By letting them in illegally we are creating an environment where we are allowing them to be abused and we can turn our back in ignorance.  That is morally unacceptable to me.  We must ensure that our borders are enforced not only for “America’s” sake but to ensure the fair treatment of all who live in this country.

Next, I’ll attack another overlooked aspect: subverting minimum wage.  When politicians talk about a “guest worker program” what they’re talking about is a way for US employers to pay below minimum wage to immigrants.  Why should they be able to do that?  What makes these individuals less deserving of minimum wage than the rest of us?  I think that the “guest worker programs” as currently proposed are barbaric and de-humanizing.

I’m perfectly fine with allowing vast numbers of immigrants into our country.  However, that does not give us the right to treat them in sub-human fashion.  If they’re allowed to live here then they deserve the rights that everyone who lives here has.

Finally, what should we do with the illegal immigrants who currently live in the US?  This is the most difficult problem to address particularly considering that the US’s lack of enforcement in the past has been a de facto endorsement of their arrival.  Additionally, I heavily believe in the principle of forgiveness.

So where does that leave us?  It leaves us where the right solution is to do the following:

  1. Dramatically step up enforcement on the border
  2. Create a temporary residency program that has a path to permanent residency and citizenship for all immigrants and gives those immigrants the full set of rights of current legal immigrants, including minimum wage.
  3. Allow those who are already living in the country to join the above program with some credit based on the length of their stay although never so much that they immediately become permanent residents.  Despite the fact that they deserve forgiveness, there must be some requirement that they go through a immigration process.  Residents who have arrived in the last year(?) would have to apply similar to non-residents and would not get any time based credit.
  4. Set target number for these programs that are realistic and are “front loaded” to accept the reality that millions are already living here and will be joining the program “mid-stream”

Now, is that so hard?

Congress session: RCIA: Where Are Our Catechumens and Candidates After Initiation? (Jerry Galipeau)

Saturday, April 8th, 2006

The final session!  Most of my readers know that my main ministry in the Church is helping people who are interested in converting to Catholicism go through the process of conversion.  The formal process of joining the Church is called RCIA.  Those who go through the process are called Catechumens and Candidates based on whether the are already baptized or not.

One of the most disheartening things about being involved in RCIA is watching people disappear from the pews in the months following their initiation.  Fully half of new initiates are no longer attending Church a year after being initiated.  This session was all about where these new initiates are going and what we can do to help them stay in the Church after initiation.

I have lots of specific implementation ideas for RCIA as a result of this session, but I’ll save that commentary for the RCIA team’s meetings.  What I want to focus on is two things.

First, we need to be cautious in evaluating the faith of other people.  We tend to measure success based on whether the new initiates are in the pew every week.  While this is a reasonable starting metric, it is not the true underlying goal: conversion of heart.  I know of many Catholics, both cradle and convert, who attend Mass every week but have not experienced a conversion of heart.  The message of Christ is not strong in their heart.  On the other hand, I know many a person who has embraced the message of Christ but for one reason or another doesn’t attend church regularly (often out of ignorance of the value of doing so).  So we must be careful to remember the REAL goal of helping people through conversion and remember that metrics are only indicators, not the goal itself.

Second, I wanted to tell a story he told to illustrate the right way to lead someone through conversion: by example.

He shared a story from when he was in the third grade at Catholic School.  Sr. Della Williams, the teacher, told the class one morning to put on their coats and boots and go outside into the stormy weather.  When they got outside there was a bus waiting there and Sr. instructed them all to get on the bus.  She gave each of them a tag with a number.  When the bus arrived at its destination she told the class that they were at a nursing home and that the number she had given each of them was a room number.  She instructed them to go into their assigned room and talk with the people in the room.  If they were asleep they were to say some prayers.

Of course each of the students was nervous and he recalled thinking the person in the room he was assigned looked dead.  But after a few minutes of adjustment, he had a nice conversation with the woman.  After about a half hour, Sr. Della called everyone back to the bus and they went back to school.  Once everyone had settled down in their chairs Sr. Della opened the Bible and read the following passage:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'” (Matt. 25:31-40)

Then Sr. Della said to the class: “This is what Catholics do” and then went on to the first lesson of the day.

I’m glad I was able to end this series of posts with this story because everything I’ve shared is meaningless if it is not put to action.  We must cloth the naked, feed the hungry and share the Good News of Christ with the world.  I pray that I was able to share just a small slice of the insights into Christ’s kingdom I had while at this conference in these posts.

Congress session: The Death of Innocents (Sr. Helen Prejean)

Saturday, April 8th, 2006

This was a session I had been looking forward to from the moment I filled out my registration form.  For those who the name doesn’t ring a bell, Sr. Prejean (pronounced pra-jawn) is the nun who wrote the book Dead Man Walking and oversaw the making of the film with the same title.  She’s written a more recent book about the number of executed prisoners who are innocent called “The Death of Innocents”.

Sr. Prejean mostly walked through her journey as a nun finding herself involuntarily called to serve those who are have been sentenced to death.  It was heartening to see God working in her life as I have seen God leading me in directions I did not want to go.  We all are being walked on a Journey by God.

There was so much she said that is worthy of commenting on but I’m going to keep it to one point: the victim’s families.

One of the things I hate most about the death penalty activists in our country is how much time they spend lying about how good of a person the soon-to-be-executed prisoner is.  They bring up all kinds of stuff trying to improve the perception of the criminal.  This bugs me to my core because it has nothing to do with the REAL reason to oppose the death penalty: the sanctity of life.  It also bugs me because frequently they are lying about people who have done truly horrible things.  The activist do this because it is expedient.  It’s going to be pretty hard to prevent the execution of a particular person by stating “the death penalty is wrong” because it is not relevant to the specific case at hand. (See the end of my previous post in which I comment on expediency).  But Sr. Prejean would have none of this.  She was very clear that she thought the majority of crimes which we execute for are barbaric and grievous.  She showed great sympathy for the victim’s families.

She went on to say, that the victim’s families are being sold a false bill of goods by society.  We tell the families that only the execution of the perpetrators of the crime will bring them peace.  That killing the criminal will “make it right”.  Sr. Prejean points out that nothing in this world will ever make right the loss of a loved one.  That person’s death will not be un-done by executing the killer.

The result of this false bill of goods is that we are instead trapping these families in decades of hatred and grief.  The can not forgive, and this is the only path to peace, because they are told that only through the death of the killer will justice be done.

So I resolved to pray more often for the families who are faced with a capital case from the death of a loved one.  That they can find the only true path to peace: Jesus Christ.  That they can see that justice comes from God and that God is the path to forgiveness and peace.  May God’s will be done.

Congress reflection: The difference between married and female priests

Saturday, April 8th, 2006

In addition to Mr. Davidson’s inability to present logically consistent statistics, he made a distinction when talking about the adherence of US Catholics to Church teaching that really hit a nerve with me.  He divided Church teaching into two categories: Core and periphery.

The first thing about this that bugs me is that it reflects the mind set of “Cafeteria Catholics”, those people who pick and choose which part of the faith that they think are important.  That of its own right bugs me.  But something specific bugged me even more: one of the items he put in the periphery category.

In the core section were appropriate things like the divinity of Christ, the importance of the Sacraments, the Real Presence, the virtues of faith, hope and love, the need for social justice, etc..  In the periphery section he put things like labor union support, male priests, priestly celibacy, birth control, the death penalty, and specific religious obligations (I’m assuming Holy days of obligation, no meat on Friday, etc.).

Let’s play a game, shall we?  “Which one of these is not like the others”.  We all learned it while watching Sesame Street when growing up.

The issue of only ordaining male priests is the correct answer (and partial credit goes for birth control).  While the rest of the issues have to do with jurisdictional authorities and fallible moral judgments, priestly ordination of only men is an issue that is settled by both Tradition and Scripture.  Let’s go through the items one by one (in order of least firmly defined up):

1. Priestly celibacy: This has always been a matter of Church discipline.  Not only does the Church believe that married priests are morally acceptable, for over 800 years of the Church’s 2000 year history most priests were married.  In fact, there are currently approximately 450 married priests in the US, TODAY!  These are mostly pastors from other Christian churches that converted and went through the priestly formation process.  This is obviously not an infallible issue.

2. Labor unions: While the concept of a just wage is a principle of Catholic social teaching, the specific implementation of that principle is open for much interpretation.  The traditional support of labor unions by the Church was a discretionary one based on specific priests and bishops fallible understanding of how to advance this principle.  There is nothing infallible here.

3. Church obligations: This one is fairly obvious.  The list of Church obligations changes all the time.  The number of Holy Days of Obligation is at a historic low, the no meat on Friday rule has been reduced to only being during Lent, the definition of fasting has been loosened, etc..  While we as Catholics are bound to observe the obligations in place at the time, it is self evident that the Church has the right to change what these obligations are at any time.  Again, nothing infallible here.

4. Death Penalty: While the Pope did strongly condemn the use of the Death Penalty in the western world, he also made clear that this was a moral judgment which could not be made infallible.  He made it clear that the Death Penalty was still morally licit for the purpose of protecting a society.  What the Pope questioned was whether it was necessary in western society for this purpose.  His conclusion was that it was not.  That said, this is a prudential judgment and one that can be (albeit unwisely in my opinion) argued against in good faith as a Catholic.  John Paul’s statements in this regard not only do not carry any infallible weight but there are already infallible statements by the Church stating that the death penalty can be licit in certain cases that he can not contradict.

5. Birth Control: Now we’re getting into some murky water.  While Pope Paul VI did not make a infallible declaration when he released his now infamous encyclical Humane Vitae, anytime an encyclical is released with a singular issue to be addressed, the conclusions of that encyclical should be taken pretty seriously by Catholics around the world.  Additionally there is some debate as to whether the Magisterium has previously infallibly defined birth control as morally impermissible and Humane Vitae is only a reaffirmation of that.  I’m willing to accept that this is not yet a matter of the infallible teaching of the Church, but it is very firmly taught and in my opinion is not part of the periphery of the teachings of the Church (although I am willing to allow that my opinion is debatable).

6. Male Priests:  Finally, we come to the subject that sparked this post!  I will quote from John Paul’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (and the entire letter is worth reading): “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”  To me, language like “a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself” does NOT sound like the periphery.  The reality is that the teaching that men and women have different roles as defined by God and that the role of priestly ordination is a role reserved for men is a settled matter of the faith.

I went through this list not to be a thorn in anyone’s side, but to point out that there is a lot of confusion with many Catholics as to what makes up the infallible teaching of the Church, what is core but not yet infallibly defined and that which is still in development (and may never be central to the faith).  One of the key results of the Second Vatican Council was that it is important that lay members of the Church not blindly follow the directives of the Magisterium but that they embrace the teachings of the Church through a deeper understanding of these teachings.  With this revelation, the father’s of the Church knew that they were opening the door to more people actively questioning the faith.  However, we’ve gone far beyond questioning when we are unable to articulate just what is core and periphery.

I pray that we can delve more deeply into the nature of our Church and the Truths revealed to us through Christ.

Congress session: Contemporary Myths About Catholics and Their Church (James Davidson)

Saturday, April 8th, 2006

As I said in my first post on Congress, there is a wide variety of sessions at Congress, something for everyone.  The trick is making sure you pick the right ones!

This was NOT the right one…

The topic was about demographics of the US Church but with an emphasis on the misperceptions that people have about the US Church.  To this end, Mr. Davidson (who wasn’t the best speaker to begin with), displayed a list of 10 myths that he intended to debunk.  I knew I was in trouble as soon as I read it.  Fully half of the myths I disagreed with being myths.

Additionally, while some of the statistics he quoted may have been interesting in their own right, most of them were VERY poorly applied.  I wish I could remember a specific example but my brain has done me a favor and specifically blocked out most of the session at this point.  The one thing I particularly member was his inconsistency in providing trend data for trend based “myths” and his use of trend based data for time static “myths”.  It might have been that he was trying to use the most “shocking” statistics and really had far more data that he didn’t share, but based on what he presented there was absolutely ZERO logical consistency to the numbers presented.

So my takeaway from this session was simple: don’t EVER go see James Davidson again.

Congress session: A Global Church in a Globalized World: The Rise of the South in Roman Catholicism (John Allen Jr.)

Saturday, April 8th, 2006

This session, the second session with John Allen Jr., was the last session I had about the worldwide Church and the Vatican.  I was a little worried going in that Allen’s second session was going to have a lot of overlap with the first.  Again I was pleasantly surprised with the exception of a few statistics that were repeated from the first session.  Thankfully those statistics were well worth hearing twice.

This session instead of being about the Pope was about the changing demographics of the Church.  There is no better way to explain than to repeat the numbers John Allen Jr. gave us:

In 1900, there were a little under 500 million Catholics.  Of those, right around 400 million lived in the “global north” that includes Europe, western Asia (like Russia and the Holy Land), the United States and Canada.  That’s fully 80% of the Catholic population at the time.

From statistics taken in 2000, the worldwide Church as grown dramatically to 1.1 billion.  However, literally ALL of this growth as been in the “global south” that includes Latin America, Africa, and southern/eastern Asia (mostly the Philippines and India).  While the “global south” has been experiencing massive growth, the “global north” has been slowly shrinking to around 350 million.  This has resulted in a percentage drop to barely 30% of the worldwide Church.

We, particularly us Americans, like to think of the world in our terms and from our perspective.  We wonder why the Church doesn’t react more quickly to our problems.  It would do us a lot of good to think of the Church in these global terms.  There are twice as many Catholics in Mexico as their are in the US.  The US Catholic population of 67 million makes up 6% of the worldwide Church.  We are quite literally a puny minority in the Church.  As Allen put it: “Hopefully these number will help us to understand why the Pope doesn’t wake up with the problems of the US Church on his mind every morning.”

But despite these trends, the reality is that the clergy of the Church is still very much biased towards the northern Church.  While the US Catholic population is only 6% of the worldwide Church, fully 12% of bishops and 14% of priests are serving in the US.  If we think the priest shortage is bad in the US, we really have no idea.  The problem is FAR worse in other countries.  Additionally the US has twice (15) the number of cardinals than it deserves on a per-capita basis.

It is Allen’s belief (and I have no choice but to agree with him) that while the leadership may still be demographically biased to the north, it is only a matter of time before the leadership’s demographics will shift to reflect the Church as a whole.  This shift will significantly change the emphasis of the Church.

As an example of this was when the document concerning homosexuals in the priesthood came out last fall.  To much of the African clergy it felt like the Vatican was releasing a document saying “the sun is going to rise today” at 11:30 AM.  This analogy fits in two different fashions.  First of all, the global south is more conservative than the northern Church.  This is particularly true with matters of sexuality (and interreligious dialogue) so the statement seemed fairly obvious to them.  But more importantly, the issue of homosexuals just doesn’t show up on their radar.  They’ve got far bigger problems to deal with, ranging from genocide to AIDS (it’s interesting to note that the African bishops strongly support the Vatican’s ‘no condom’ policy) to Muslim repression of Christianity.  They’re dealing with matters of life and death, quite literally.  Just how ‘gay’ you can be before you’re not eligible for the priesthood seems like a trivial matter to them.

So what I took away from this session is that we as American Catholics are in strong need of a lesson in humility.  We are a very small block of the Church and need to remember that the world does not revolve around us.  We need to remember that what is important to us may not be important to the vast majority of the Catholic world.  We need to understand that what Vatican changes may have a positive impact on our local Church may have a negative impact on the Church as a whole.  We need to be generous enough to remember that our problems as American Catholics are insignificantly trivial when comparted to the problems that cause so much suffering in the larger portions of the Catholic world.

Or to steal/paraphrase from our only Catholic president:

“Ask not what the Church can do for you, but what you can do for your Church!”