"Let us make man in our image, after our likeness...in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen.1:27)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Catholic Justices and the Death Penalty

Despite the efforts of some to claim that Catholic teaching allows for the possibility of capital punishment, anyone who has taken the time to read the Church's position on this will quickly learn that capital punishment -- in all practical instances -- goes against the Church's call to proclaim a "gospel of life" and is forbidden. (See below.)

Why is it, then, that the four Supreme Court Justices who seem to have no problem with States wanting to expand the use of state-imposed executions are all Catholic? In the 5-4 decision reaffirming current U.S. law that allows the State to take a human life only when the individual being executed has also taken a life, Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito joined Chief Justice Roberts in dissenting from the majority.

One wonders why these jurists -- whose "Catholicity" is often made note of -- are not called to task by those prelates who have no problem witholding the Eucharist from politicians with equally questionable commitment to the Gospel of Life.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (# 2267) states: "Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'"

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Austalian Bishops Ask Forgiveness

Through their National Office for Evanglization, the Catholic bishops of Australia recently launced a national advertising campaign inviting those who have drifted away from the Church to come back. Part of the campagin includes these words: "The Church is God’s family and, like any family, has its differences. Sometimes people are hurt by other family members. We ask your forgiveness if you have been hurt in some way through the Church."

The bishops are to be applauded for taking this step to reach out to those who have been hurt by the Church, seeking the forgiveness that is necessary to repair damaged relationships. But this is only a step, and seeking forgiveness is only one part of the process of reconciliation, as any 2nd grade Catholic preparing for his/her first confession can tell you. Other critical elements of the reconciliation process -- be that sacramental, interpersonal, or social reconciliation -- require that the sins be named, repentance be sincere, and a firm "purpose of amendment" be embraced.

As in the United States, I have no doubt that there are scores of Australian gay and lesbian Catholics who have drifted away from the Church because the message they have heard from the "official" Church is not the Good News of the Gospel, but rather a message telling them they are "disordered," "sinful," and not worthy of the respect that full human dignity demands. If such Catholics are to return, what welcome will they receive? Will the bishops and clergy of the Church in Australia engage in the dialogue that true reconciliation requires, or will they expect these faithful and spiritually hungry people simply to come back, sit down, and be quiet? Will the bishops' hearts and minds be open at least to listening to the stories of gay and lesbian catholics, stories that bespeak a God Who is not a cookie-cutter Creator, but whose Hands have lovingly formed each and every human person in unique and diverse fashion? Will they be willing at least to consider that such diversity is reflected not only in "race, language, and way of life," but also in the divine gift of sexual orientation?

I am thankful that the bishops of Australia have taken this first step. I pray they may have the faith and courage to take the next step, too.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time - God, Us, and Hesed

Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time – June 7/8, 2008
Dignity/NoVA & Dignity/Washington

Studying a language other than our first or native language certainly has its rewards, but it also has its challenges and potential pitfalls. One such pitfall that any student of another language quickly learns is that there are many words and phrases in one language that don’t translate perfectly into the other language. My Spanish isn’t all that good, but I do remember learning the concept of one pitfall that involves what linguists call “false cognates” – words in one language which look like and sound like a word in another language, but which actually have a totally different meaning. For example, the Spanish word, “embarazada” doesn’t mean “embarrassed” as it sounds to our English ear; it means pregnant.

Another pitfall in languages is a bit more nuanced. This is when one word in a given language has no real equivalent in another language. The word’s original meaning might be so broad and nuanced and multi-faceted, that there’s really no satisfactory equivalent in the other language. This is actually what I encountered earlier this week when I began to reflect on the scripture readings that we have before us for our liturgy tonight. When we look at those scriptures, it’s pretty clear that our focus and attention is being drawn to a phrase which we hear Jesus repeat in the Gospel from Matthew. After calling the tax collector Matthew to be one of his disciples, and then dining with Matthew, other tax collectors and others who would be considered outcasts or socially unacceptable people, Jesus admonishes the Pharisees to “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Jesus is here quoting what we heard in our first reading when Hosea, presenting the words of Yahweh being spoken to the unfaithful Israelites, states, “For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice.” So … if we take Jesus’ challenge at face value … what IS the meaning of these words: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

The “not sacrifice” part makes sense to me and is something that probably most of us are faithful to. After all, I suspect not many of us have burning altars in our back yards on which we offer up a pair of turtle doves or a young ram taken from our flocks. So the part about avoiding sacrifice or “burning holocausts” is not too difficult to put into practice.

But the “mercy” part was a bit more problematic for me. I had more trouble with this because of the way we define and use the word “mercy” in contemporary English. In our contemporary usage, “mercy” usually means something like “leniency” or not imposing as harsh a penalty as might be justified. We think of, for example …

  • The Judge who is asked to “show mercy” before imposing sentence on the convicted criminal; or
  • Perhaps a powerhouse sports team “shows mercy” on a weaker opponent by not defeating them as resoundingly as they could.

When understood this way, I don’t often find myself in situations where I can show mercy. Mercy is usually a one-way street; it’s something that one party – the dominant, active, “in control” party – is able to demonstrate to the other, less powerful party. If this is what Jesus and Hosea and Yahweh had in mind, then I didn’t see much application to my own life. It turns out, however, that this is not what they had in mind. As it turns out, “mercy” isn’t really the best translation of the original Hebrew word. That Hebrew word – hesed – is one of those very rich, very nuanced, very multi-faceted words that don’t lend themselves to easy or literal translation. I’m no Hebrew scholar, but in Hebrew the word is “hesed” is a simple word with complex meanings. Unlike “mercy” – which is suggestive of a very one-sided relationship – hesed can’t really be understood outside of the context of a reciprocal relationship, a relationship based on mutuality, reciprocity, give-and-take.

We see this, in fact, in the translation from Hosea … the translation we have uses the word “love” … but in other translations this same word, “hesed,” is translated as covenant love, loving kindness, steadfast love, loyal love, devotion, commitment, reliability or covenant loyalty. All of these words describe the relationship that God wishes to have with us, God’s People … and the type or relationship God wishes us to have with one another.
And so with this understanding of “hesed” as covenantal loyalty that is focused on a reciprocal relationship…. What does it mean for us … as individuals and as a community, when we hear God saying: “I desire not sacrifice – not mere outward signs of religious practice – but I desire covenantal loyalty”???

For one thing, being in this type of loyal, covenant relationship reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves:

  1. The presence of our national president and executive director here with us this evening remind us that we are not just this intimate community of NoVA or Washington, … but that we are connected to our brothers and sisters in the Dignity community around the country.
  2. In our Eucharistic prayer when we speak the name of the pope and the local bishop, as well as leaders of other communities the world over, it reminds us that we are part of a Church community that reaches the corners of the earth—even if, and perhaps especially if, those same Church leaders are “uncomfortable” with our presence.
  3. When we have a visible presence in events such as Gay Pride, it reminds us that we are called to be actively engaged in the world around us, being faithful and proud of who we are as God’s LGBT Catholic children.

When I was having difficulty earlier this week grasping these scriptures, I went where most of us go these days when we’re trying to figure something out … Google! If you Google the phrase, “Mercy, not Sacrifice,” you’ll get, 21,700 search results. The absolute number one, first result in that long list links to a posting on a Web site that describes itself as: “A Web Magazine for Christian Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender People.” In closing, I’d like to read what’s posted there as a reflection on these words from Hosea and Jesus – “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

“The Pharisees taught themselves that serving God was about performing rituals, sacrificing burnt offerings and keeping traditions. Jesus was saying that the Pharisees’ judgment of the tax collectors, sinners …ordinary people…was wrong.

'Today is no different than back then. Many religious Christians and churches of all denominations have decided that being gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender is a sin and that we are, in effect, “sinners.” But Jesus is telling them that it is a SIN to view ANYONE with contempt and that the reign of God is about mercy, compassion and love for ALL God’s people. It is NOT about living a perfect life of sacrifice, but about people coming together and learning to love and accept one another other." (http://epistle.us/articles/mercy.html)