Catholics Talking About Sex This Week

This week I’m in Orlando, Florida (on vacation), and everywhere you turn, there’s some kind of rainbow-themed promotion of this or that deadly sin.

Pride is the one being touted most.  The stores chiefly profit from envy and avarice, but why should those two get all the limelight?  Gluttony reigns in the food courts; given all the theme parks and tourist attractions vying for attention, around here sloth gets short shift.  Wrath is virtually ignored by comparison to the others, and lust, curiously, continues to fixate on the bodies of scantily-clad thirteen-year-old girls — you might celebrate attraction to every body and its brother, but advertisers play it conservative with consumer tastes.

Three good articles (one of them mine) that are variations on the theme:

As Father Longenecker observes, the whole question of Catholics vs. Gay People is dreadfully simple:

Therefore when we consider those people who are attracted to people of the same sex, the church teaches that they too are to be celibate.

What else is there to discuss?  Further discussion on this particular point is an attempt to wiggle out of the Church’s tough expectations.

The only other thing we have to discuss is how to minister to all the people in our care who, for whatever reason, are not able to enjoy sexual intimacy with another person. How to live chastely and how to deal with celibacy is the challenge–not just for homosexual people, but for anyone who is unmarried.

Vincent Weaver, who sometimes blogs here, writes at The Register about authentic kindness towards people struggling with gender-dysphoria:

This honesty shouldn’t be reserved for those with GID or same-sex attraction, though. Cohabitation, contraception, and pre-marital sex among heterosexual couples all have significant, damaging side effects. We should study these and be familiar with them so we can fully love those who are considering or are in the midst of such lifestyles.

To fail to love someone in any of these situations is failing in kindness. But, to say nothing or to not be honest with people is false kindness.  In some cases, we may literally be killing them with kindness of this sort. Jesus told us not to judge (people). But, he also obligated us to address harmful behaviors and told us that “The Truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). Let’s practice a religion of kindness that is the real deal. Gentle. Caring. Helpful.

Also at the Register, here’s some early NFP-awareness from me: Please Don’t Ask Me About My Sex Life.

The goal of contraception is to separate sex from fertility. It’s a goal so thoroughly achieved that people get shocked and offended if you suggest that pregnancy is the normal, predicted, even desirable outcome of sexual intercourse.

We now of course separate fertility from sex as well, thanks to IVF, artificial insemination, and surrogacy.

The result has been a traffic in children fueled by a newly-acquired conviction that offspring are something you order off a menu – and send back to the kitchen if the dish doesn’t appeal after all. Even for pro-life, Christian couples, the idea of not using contraception is radical and foreign.  “Family planning” is so ingrained in our mentality that we consider it irresponsible or simply unthinkable that one would plunge into parenthood with no particular strategy other than to welcome the children God sends.

Why wait for the last week of July, when you have the marital privilege of being NFP-aware all year long?

nfp

2017 NFP Awareness poster courtesy of the USCCB, where you can find lots of useful information for your awareness purposes.  The models were chosen based on their ability to best communicate the theme of “Hahaha we have no idea what we’re getting into!  But we can’t help ourselves!  What? There’s a class we’re supposed to take that will hopefully sober us up long enough to seriously consider what it is we’re about to commit to for the rest of our lives?  Hahahaha have a drink, okay?”

Remember When They Used to Have Eucharistic Processions?

Words from an otherwise perfectly nice Corpus Christi homily, spoken by an elderly priest to a Florida congregation with a hefty presence of retirees: “Some of you may remember way back when the Church used to have ‘Eucharistic Processions’ . . .”

Used to, Father?

Youngsters around the world remember it like it was yesterday . . .

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Corpus Christi solemnity 2017, St. Albert Church, Wrocław via Wikimedia [CC 4.0].  

The Holy Trinity Unexplained

I think my favorite day of the year might be Trinity Sunday.

It’s not obvious, except that every year it makes me gasp and be happy.  I probably like it better than other feasts because there’s never any obligatory feasting involved, thank goodness for that.

I don’t have anything to say about the Trinity.  The Catechism does have some things to say, and those will keep you busy for a while.

Meanwhile, here are some icons of the Holy Trinity.
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Photos taken just after dinner, I guess.

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You get pictures like this to explain the unfathomable if you’re from the mystic eastern lung of the Church; in the west, we prefer bad analogies, of course.  It’s good of the Church to call this Trinity Sunday and not Struggling With Theology Sunday.

But you can have a pretty good feast day if you pick one known true thing about the Holy Trinity and for a few minutes let it sit in your brain unfixed.  This is the thing with mysteries: They are meant to be worked at.  They are meant to be announced and examined and slowly revealed, bit by bit, until in the fullness of time our thirst for understanding is satisfied.

 

Icons via Wikimedia, public domain.

My Fish is More Penitential Than Your Fish

Is your fish penitential enough?

I’m not sure to what extent my friends are joking and to what extent they are serious, but that’s what they’re talking about.  Such-and-such lenten-compliant food is far too good be considered a penance.  You must eat this-and-so instead!

No.

No, no, no, and no.

If your idea of being a good Catholic is to find a way to thwart the spirit of the law by wallowing in luxury, you have problems.  Your problems will not be fixed by a greasy fish sandwich.

What the Church asks is that we abstain from meat on Fridays, done.  That’s the law.  What she also asks is that we take on a spirit of penitence throughout the season of Lent, with particular attention to Fridays and perhaps some relaxation on Sundays, depending.  That’s the pastoral guidance.

If you find abstaining from meat to be easy, congratulations.  The way is wide open for you to take on other more rigorous disciplines.

If you find abstaining from meat to be difficult, give it your best.  It’s not fair, perhaps, that this particular discipline is so much more difficult for you than it is for other people, but then again the crosses of this life never are distributed exactly the same to each one.  If you are overwhelmed by the rigors of Lenten abstinence, speak to your pastor.  Seek advice particularly if you have some medical reason you probably should not abstain, but you aren’t quite sure.  The Church isn’t seeking to sink you.

So what about lobster and sushi?

Let’s back up and ask ourselves: Is it acceptable to eat such luxuries on other days of the year?

The answer, I maintain, is that it depends.  Now if you observe a life of solidarity with the poor to such an extent that you would never eat such a thing, then you surpass me exceedingly and I don’t really know why you are reading this blog.  Please carry on with your devotion and do not let me dissuade you.

If, at the other extreme, you are a thoroughly wretched creature, devoted to nothing but your own pleasure from moment to moment, and that is what motivates your eating of lobster and sushi and gold-crusted cheeses carried on the backs of famished peasants who crawl through tunnels and tiptoe around lava pits to bring you the rarest and most precious of delicacies . . . how about you have a fish sandwich just to see what it’s like?

Said more seriously: Don’t delude yourself into thinking that observing the letter of the law is a Get Out of Hell Free pass.  (There is such a thing, but it doesn’t involve eating lobster. Or fish sandwiches.)

Those of us who live in the middle have to exercise the virtue of prudence concerning our own plates, and the virtue of Minding Your Own Business concerning the plates of others.  While we ought not excuse ourselves too lightly from the rigors of penance, there are any number of reasons that on some Friday in Lent the eating of a relatively luxurious item might in fact be entirely consistent with a sound spiritual life.

–> To evaluate, take into account both the particular circumstances of the meal at hand and the context of your Lenten observances overall.

  • Do you have other better choices?
  • Is this a special occasion?
  • Do you even get to choose the menu, or are you at someone else’s mercy?
  • Are you making a suitable effort to be penitential this Lent?
  • Or are you just cruising along all week with no regard for the spirit of the season?
  • Is this item in fact a gratuitous luxury compared to your other options, or does it just have that reputation as a byword?

But in all cases, you are only evaluating your personal spiritual life.  I hope you do that all year.

Related:

Scott Reeves has an excellent post on what penance is, and why and how it helps us.

And from me . . .

Lenten Tactics: Thwarting the Meat Demon

More Strategizing for Meatless Fridays

About the Required Penances – Some thoughts on the differences between the Catholic and Orthodox approaches to Lent, and the value of each.

 

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Artwork: The patron saints of careful distinctions. Via Wikimedia [Public Domain].

Lent Day 2: Coffee Date? #LentProblems

A friend and I have been meaning to get together to chat for a few weeks now. This morning over breakfast I pulled out the calendar and added her to my to-do list for March, then headed over to Facebook to message her ASAP before I forgot:

Hey – do you have an opening coming up for a cup of coffee or tea or something?

Or something.  Dagnabbit I have no idea what you gave up for Lent, girl!  It could be coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate, lunch dates . . . no clue.

The Forty Days of Complicated Socializing begins.

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Image by New York Tribune, circa 1919 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Emergency Confirmation Class Reboot

So next up on the dashboard is a post sharing parents’ confirmation class experiences from around the country.  But meanwhile, Margaret Rose Realy — yes, this Margaret Rose Realy — let me in on the secret about The Lake of Beer.

No one told me about this.

We have a Lake of Beer.

Catholics get a Lake of Beer.

People: Christian Mysticism –> Lake of Beer.

I don’t understand why we’re not taking advantage of this situation.

I mean, yes, “Infinity Mercy” is a fine theme for Confirmation class.  Sure sure sure.  But there outta be an asterix and fine print on the bottom of the t-shirt that says and also a Lake of Beer.

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Catholic mystics do it right.

Artwork: Stained Glass of St. Brigid of Ireland via Wikimedia [Public Domain]

The Solution to the Big Parish Problem

Yesterday I wrote about why ever-expanding parishes are a sign of trouble. This does not mean that a big parish is a bad parish; it means that if a diocese is growing in pewsitters but not in religious vocations, it’s growing spiritual fat, not muscle.  The good news is that stored energy, in the form of pewsitters, can be converted into a healthy Body of Christ just as soon as the head makes up its mind to start doing the things it takes to regain spiritual vigor.

A large parish that is pulling this off right now is St. William’s in Round Rock, Texas.  Over at the blog discussion group, Martina Kreitzer writes:

You should come visit St. William in Round Rock, Texas. We are the largest parish in the diocese with no sign of growing slower. Our post confirmation program retention rate is 4x the national average . . . and our parish faith formation programs (pre-k through high school) are thriving in ways that make our “mega church” work. We are also blessed to be a 100 year old parish in which the founding family still attends (and can often be seen in the trenches of service oriented work). We come from humble beginnings, have a multicultural background, and are rich in heritage – Mexican/Anglo/rich/poor, etc.

You should come talk to our priest, Father Dean Wilhelm, our adult faith formation director Noe Rocha and our high school and middle school youth ministers, Chris Bartlett and Gwen Bartlett (they are brother and sister). They are also co-founders of a mentoring ministry called Next Level Ministry, designed to help youth ministers get the most out of their programs.

Martina is behind the Jesus is Lord program, one of the key elements of St. William’s success, and which you can read about in detail:

Jesus is Lord Series Introduction

Week 1: God’s Love

Week 2: Sin and It’s Consequences

Week 3: Salvation – God’s Solution for Sin

Week 4: Repentance – Recognize and Receive

Confession

Week 5: Holy Spirit – Going from the Seat to the Feet

Prayer Session

Week 6: Jesus is Lord of My Talent

Week 7: Jesus is Lord of My Time

Week 8: Jesus is Lord of My Treasure

Week 9: Jesus is Lord of My Sexuality

Week 10: Intentional Discipleship and Commissioning

Is this program suitable for parishes not quite like St. William’s? Definitely.  It’s being used at Texas A&M’s legendary St. Mary’s Catholic Center, where vocations are flourishing.  You can watch the campus video series here.

What is this “Intentional Discipleship” business?

Back up a second though and notice the title for Week 10 of the Jesus is Lord series.  If you are not familiar with the concept of “Intentional Discipleship” you need to read Sherry Weddell’s excellent books on the topic, Forming Intentional Disciples and Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples.  The first book explains the problem, and the second tells you step-by-step how to solve it.  Book three, Fruitful Discipleship comes out in April 2017.

FID and BPID are both best suited to intermediate-level lay readers. You don’t have to be a genius or on staff at the parish, and both books are eminently readable, but when my own discipleship group read FID, some of the members found the density of the book a little overwhelming.  After you’ve read the book yourself, if you want to communicate and discuss the ideas in Forming Intentional Disciples with a broader audience of parish lay-leaders and future lay-leaders, the free CatholicMom.com study guide for Forming Intentional Disciples provides a snapshot summary of the key ideas and a few discussion questions for each chapter.

For the whole dang parish, Brandon Vogt’s book Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church is an excellent 101 on evangelization and discipleship for the ordinary Catholic.  He offers a video course as well, which I haven’t reviewed but which you may find helpful.

So there you go.  And if all fails, The Catechism of the Catholic has a few pointers as well.

 

Why Big Parishes are a Bad Sign

In the past few weeks I’ve gotten to visit two of the Diocese of Charleston’s newest parish church buildings.   St. Paul the Apostle in Spartanburg and St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken are both well worth a look.  (Our Lady of the Rosary is still on my sightseeing wish-list; meanwhile, for something fun, go see the stained glass at St. Andrew’s in Myrtle Beach — there is more information about those windows available at the church when you visit.  If you’re off the beaten path, Our Lady of Lourdes in Greenwood is charming and bright — the photos don’t do it justice.)

We are fortunate to live in a diocese where good design is flourishing.  I don’t for a moment wish to naysay any of the hard work and sacrifice that went into creating these beautiful new buildings.   On the contrary — I am grateful beyond expressing.

But let’s not delude ourselves: The very existence of some (not all) of this new construction should be an elegant, delightful, but shocking warning sign.

The Myth of the Flourishing Parish

Let’s look at St. Mary’s as a case study.  The original St. Clare’s chapel, now devoted to perpetual Eucharistic Adoration, was succeeded by the first St. Mary’s Help of Christians parish church early last century.  You can read an insightful history of Catholicism in the region — dating back to the 16th century — here.  The historic St. Mary’s parish church is still in use.  It wasn’t replaced because it was no longer habitable.  It was replaced because there were too many parishioners to fit into the building.

This sounds like a good problem, right?  It is, in a way.

It would be more accurate, however, to say: There were too many parishioners for the number of priests.

The Catholic population in Aiken, SC, as with the rest of the diocese, has grown significantly due to retirees moving south (we get your empty church parts to refurbish our buildings), professionals moving here from other parts of the United States, immigrants arriving from around the world, a certain number of conversions, and of course old-fashioned human reproduction.  Some of this represents spiritual growth; some of it is just other parts of the world sending us their Catholics.

But regardless of the cause, an unavoidable fact is now set in stone, brick, and concrete: We are not producing priestly vocations in adequate numbers.

A Faith Not Even Worth Living For

The Diocese of Charleston has a good vocations program going.  There’s always room for taking any initiative to the next level, but over the past twenty years the diocese has gotten conmendably serious and hard-working about reaching out to would-be seminarians.  We do have vocations flowing.  We have some superb new priests, and more on the way.  Fr. Jeffrey Kirby didn’t receive the state’s highest civilian honor for nothing.

Still, the arithmetic doesn’t lie.  Some parishes are on fire with the faith.  Some Catholics — in every parish — are wildly in love with Jesus and have the fruit to prove it.  But mostly we have to make larger buildings because we have pewsitters who love the pews, but who wouldn’t want to get carried away with any craziness.  Catholicism is legit here these days.  Church-going is civilized.  If you’re nicely married, it’s a wholesome place to raise the kids.

We feel good about our faith and we do good works, but it’s not the kind of thing you’d really give your life over for.  We pat ourselves on the back if we get the teens to Adoration for ten minutes.  We’re wildly excited if a young couple gets married in the Church — the idea that most young adults would remain Catholic after high school is a rich fantasy.  Some statistics, via Brandon Vogt:

  • 79% of former Catholics leave the Church before age 23 (Pew)
  • 50% of Millennials raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic today (i.e., half of the babies you’ve seen baptized in the last 30 years, half of the kids you’ve seen confirmed, half of the Catholic young people you’ve seen get married)
  • Only 7% of Millennials raised Catholic still actively practice their faith today (weekly Mass, pray a few times each week, say their faith is “extremely” or “very” important)
  • 90% of American “nones” who left religion did so before age 29 (PRRI)
  • 62% leave before 18
  • 28% leave from 18-29

If you’re not even Catholic, you are highly unlikely to become a Catholic priest.

Old Warning Signs

For as long as I’ve been talking to catechists and faith formation leaders, the refrain has been the same: “The kids in religious ed don’t even go to Mass.”  Some do, of course (mine, and quite a few others I know), but a surprising number of children are dropped off for CCD but never taken to Mass.  The situation is so dire that some parishes have resorted to requiring children preparing for sacraments to provide hard evidence they attend Sunday Mass, such as getting a bulletin signed.

Here’s another example by way of a personal story. My daughter’s would-be confirmation sponsor is an ardent young Catholic well known by many in the local Catholic community. As we put together paperwork, however, we discovered that due to an oversight when the family purchased a new home, they are not presently registered at the parish they attend most.  We’ll get it all straightened out one way or another, don’t be scandalized because there is no scandal.

But the underlying situation is this: It is now the rule that the way we “prove” someone is a “practicing Catholic” is via a set of papers and financial transactions.  Get registered, turn in collection envelopes, and you qualify for a “Catholic in Good Standing” letter.  The idea that one could simply be a faithful Catholic known in one’s community is utterly foreign to the present practice.

What if you trusted people when they said the godparents or sponsor were good Catholics?  We have come to fully expect people would outright lie as a matter of course.

Thus we live with a different set of lies.  We as a Church are so alienated from any sense of real community that we depend on bureaucratic proxies that supposedly indicate a practice of the faith, but everyone knows that they don’t.  Everyone knows that teenagers go through confirmation to make their parents happy, and then drop out at first opportunity.  Everyone knows that the confirmation class is composed of kids who last attended Mass at their First Communion.  Everyone knows that when we teach the Catholic faith assiduously, the kids whisper to themselves, right there in class, which parts they think are bunk.

The parts they think are bunk are almost invariably the parts their parents likewise think are bunk.  The Catholic Church is the stronghold of people who know how to shut up, smile, and get along.

Repeating Ourselves to Death

Any student of Church history can attest that things have always been shockingly bad.  The behavior of Catholics is the incontroveritble evidence that God must be holding this institution together, because it sure isn’t us.  That is not, however, an excuse to keep on behaving badly.

I write this today because I’m concerned that our beautiful new buildings will lull us into continued complacency.  We will persuade ourselves that what we’ve been doing is working.

It isn’t.

The buildings themselves cry it out.  We shouldn’t have mega-parishes.  We should have enough priests that when the parish overflows, we’re ready to form a second parish nearby.

The lack of priests isn’t some mystical aberration.  God isn’t suddenly pleased with the idea of men exhausted from administering multiple parishes and saying half a dozen masses in a weekend and having to rely on collection envelopes to know who comes to Mass because they couldn’t possibly meet all the parishioners they are supposed to be pastoring.  Nonsense.

We have no priests because we are very good at getting along and forming lovely clubs, but we are terrible at being Catholic.

If we don’t change this, St. Mary’s beautiful new building in Aiken will enjoy a brief sojourn as a Catholic Church, and then go the way of Sacred Heart across the river, no longer a church, now just a lovely but Godforsaken building.

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Artwork: Postcard courtesy of Boston Public Library (Sacred Heart Church, Augusta, Georgia) [CC BY 2.0, Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Dear Protestant Friends, Please Don’t Have Church on Christmas

I’ve heard there’s a stir among some Christians concerning assorted Protestant congregations declining to have services Sunday morning the 25th.

I wish to encourage this habit.  

I’ve already told my mother-in-law that if *her* mother-in-law, whose Baptist church is hosting a service Christmas Eve only (during which time she’ll be busy with the family), if she in her deprivation would like to visit my Catholic parish Sunday morning?  I will absolutely attend two, yes two, Christmas Masses so that my poor beleaguered Protestant relative has company.

[I’m obliged to be at Mass on the vigil, firm commitment.  And, yes, I hate crowed Christmas Masses just as much as everyone else. But I’ll take one for the team, you bet.]

I’ll be honest, I’m surprised to hear about this year’s church-service defecting.  Years ago (2011?) my son was sitting with my husband at his evangelical church on a Sunday Christmas morning, and the pastor in his sermon asked, “And why are we here this morning?”  To which my son responded: “Because it’s Sunday.”

Which was correct.  In years when Christmas didn’t fall on a Sunday, my then-Protestant husband came to Mass with the mackeral-snappers, because that was the only Christmas-morning action in town.

Thus a year or two later my husband came to Mass with us one Christmas non-Sunday morning and promptly forgot to ever go anywhere else.  Within a month he’d gone and reverted to the Catholic faith.  Thank you Protestants!  Keep up the good work!

So it’s with mischievous hopefulness that I’m hearing so many non-Catholics won’t be having church this Sunday.  You Catholic friends?  Stand in the back and help the vagrants find seats in your pews.  Thanks everyone!

Related: 10 Reasons It’s Safe to Come to Mass this Christmas

 

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Artwork by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Quick Note on Living Wages & Social Justice: Profiteering

While waiting for the timer on the pizza to beep, I came across Theodore Seeber’s post about a hypothetical scenario (linked from yet another blog writing on yet another topic) concerning a business owner who sources his clothing from a sweat shop.

There is much to say on the topic of just wages, and if you check the early archives of this blog you’ll see where I’ve gone and said a goodly portion of it.  The question of culpability looms large, in that often we cannot know or control every aspect of a commercial transaction.

The one concept I thought worth highlighting from Seeber’s comments is that there is a moral distinction to be made between solidarity and profiteering.  Everything else equal, if the business owner is profiting from the low wages and poor working conditions at his factories, it is a serious sin.  That should be contrasted to the situation of, say, a subsistence farmer whose hired workers live and eat just as badly as the employer.

In terms of economic theory, the challenge is overcoming the idea that just because an exploited worker is better off being exploited than being dead, does not therefore mean that we have a free and fair exchange of labor for wages.  Anytime your only alternative to a course of action is certain suffering and death, we cannot say your choice has been “freely” made.

For more details, see Rerum Novarum.

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Pope Leo XIII, who knew what he was talking about.  Courtesy of Wikimedia [public domain].