Sometimes it is not one or the other, but rather both/ and. I have been thinking and praying about this a lot over the last two weeks. I live on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and have witnessed some of the largest marches and demonstrations that I have seen in the last twenty years. I’ve also been reading a lot of signs that the marchers and protesters carried. If you looked only at the signs, you would think we live in a world defined by competing principles and all of us are being called to take sides and battle it out until one side goes down in defeat. This serves no one well.Some of our most volatile issues of the day are not a battle of competing goods, but rather a battle that accepts no middle ground. We often lack the humility to recognize we might actually be talking about complementary principles and goods. For example, take the question of immigration. Most people would agree that a country has a right to secure its borders and most people agree that we have an enormous problem at present where many people’s homelands have become unlivable. Most people would agree that people have a right to seek justice and peace, in a safe community. It seems the discussion we should be having is how we manage to control our borders and respond to the need for safe passage to safer communities for millions of refugees who are displaced from their homelands. Who is having that conversation? Well, the Catholic Church, for one!
Our faith is grounded in balancing in a life-giving creative way the tension of both/and. After all, we talk about how belief is rooted in faith and reason. We believe that justice should be wrapped in mercy. We know that with sin, there is always the possibility of grace. This ability to see the complementary goods has never been on bigger display than this past week.
The week began with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issuing a strongly worded statement opposing President Trump’s executive order on Immigration. They write “We strongly disagree with the Executive Order’s halting refugee admissions. We believe that now more than ever, welcoming newcomers and refugees is an act of love and hope.”
Here the Church draws on its principles of Catholic Social Teaching which holds both the right of people to migrate to “sustain their lives” and the right of a country to “regulate its borders and control immigration” (Catholic Social Teaching on Immigration and the Movement of Peoples).
In the same week, many bishops and Catholic Pro-Life marchers welcomed the presence of Vice-President Pence who supports the work of the Pro-Life Movement. The Church both preaches against the sin of abortion and the right of every woman to have all the support she needs from the government and community to bring her child into the world. The Church will continue to advocate against abortion and, through ministries like Project Rachel, offer healing and hope to women and men touched by the experience of abortion.
These two issues in the span of a week, highlight what many people find so confounding about the advocacy of the Catholic Church on behalf of social issues. We seem to some to be “always changing sides.” And that is just it, we don’t take sides. We stand in the truth of the Gospel of Life. Rather than getting tied up in political platforms and ideologies, the Church looks to the Gospel and in the harmony of truth and reason seeks always and everywhere to protect the dignity of the human person through the exercise of mercy and justice.
Now, more than ever, our country needs the wisdom of a church that can navigate toward the common good by exercising both/and. We need to identify the common good within the issues on which we are so quick to take sides– and work together toward a shared good.
What does a country look like that has a secure border and the ability to welcome people seeking peace, a job, a place for their children to thrive. What do support networks look like that would say we are a community who know women deserve better than having to choose an abortion and can provide for their care. What does a country look like that can promote the dignity of the human person and the common good of the community? These are questions that the Church has thought about for centuries and has some wisdom to share.
Pope Francis believes that sharing that wisdom is part of our mission to the world today. He writes in The Joy of the Gospel, “Despite the tide of secularism which has swept our societies, in many countries – even those where Christians are a minority – the Catholic Church is considered a credible institution by public opinion, and trusted for her solidarity and concern for those in greatest need. Again and again, the Church has acted as a mediator in finding solutions to problems affecting peace, social harmony, the land, the defense of life, human and civil rights, and so forth. And how much good has been done by Catholic schools and universities around the world! This is a good thing! (65).
Today, we all have an opportunity to bring this good thing to bear in our conversations and in our advocacy. Let’s be one of those schools!
This post was originally published on the St. Joseph's College of Maine Theology Blog and was re-published with permission.
In my own prayer this summer, I’ve been using a collection of prayers from the great American Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor. The prayers were part of a journal that was recently found among her papers. They are the prayers of a young struggling writer who wants her faith to inform her writing and her writing to be a work of faith. The collection is called A Prayer Journal.
In one of the journal entries she is writing about the importance of a thread in writing a novel. The thread, she writes is “a view of the world behind it & the most important single item under this view of [the] world is the conception of love—divine, natural, & perverted” (O’Connor 30). She continues to reflect on how many of our great writers, Freud, Proust, Lawrence “have located love in the human & there is no need to question their location; however, there is no need either to define love as they do—only as desire, since this precludes Divine Love, which while it too may be a desire, is a different kind of desire—Divine desire—and is outside of man and capable of lifting him up to itself” (O’Connor 30).
O’Connor saw this way of defining love as primarily an emotion as a real problem for the modern heart, which was becoming increasingly “divorced from faith” (O’Connor 31). She writes “The modern man isolated from faith, from raising his desire for God into a conscious desire, is sunk into the position of seeing physical love as an end in itself” (O’Connor, 31). This, though written more than 50 years ago, is at the heart of the debate today on the definition and meaning of marriage.
Recently, I was asked to be part of a panel at the Catholic Information Center reflecting on the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. I was asked to address the theological and pastoral implications of the decision. One of the pastoral implications is both a challenge and an opportunity to give witness to that which makes a sacramental marriage different. I suggest what makes a sacramental marriage different is the way in which the Church understands love. As Flannery O’Connor writes, the love we are called to share in marriage is a divine love. Married love is a self-sacrificing and self-giving imitation of Jesus’ self-giving love. The married love of man and woman couple is a visible sign for the world of God’s faithful and fruitful love. What made this presentation so interesting was the centrality of defining what love means and what love has to do with marriage. Please follow this link to view the complete presentation which includes President John Garvey of The Catholic University of America and Helen Alvaré, of George Mason University.
Susan Timoney is Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington, teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online, and a Catholic Apostolate Center Advisor.
This blog post was first published on August 9th on the St. Joseph’s College of Maine Theology Faculty Blog. Click here to learn more about our cooperative alliance with St. Joseph’s College Online.
This week (January 18-25) is the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We are invited to pray for the unity of the Christian Family. Celebrated for more than 100 years, unity is more than just an ideal, for the Christian it is an obligation to be carried out in prayer and in shared commitment to building the kingdom of God.
The roots of praying for unity are fixed in Jesus’ prayer, near the time of his death, “… so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). The Catholic Church’s participation in ecumenical endeavors took new shape in the Second Vatican’s Council’s commitment to build stronger ties across Christian communities. Building on the work of the Council, St. John Paul II called the church to make unity an exercise of spiritual ecumenism, noting that the disunity of Christians weakens the credibility of the Gospel.
In an address to the church in Oceania he reflected “In the work of ecumenism, it is essential that Catholics be more knowledgeable about the Church’s doctrine, her tradition and history, so that in understanding their faith more deeply they will be better able to engage in ecumenical dialogue and cooperation. There is a need too for ‘spiritual ecumenism’, by which is meant an ecumenism of prayer and conversion of heart. Ecumenical prayer will lead to a sharing of life and service where Christians do as much together as is possible at this time. ‘Spiritual ecumenism’ can also lead to doctrinal dialogue or its consolidation where it already exists” (Ecclesia in Oceania, 23).
This reflection of St. John Paul echoes in the theme for this year’s celebration which is “Give me a drink.” Taken from John’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42), it emphasizes the importance of encountering one another in dialogue and celebrating that all Christians drink from the common well of the life-giving waters of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In our encounter with Christians, in our dialogue, in our shared ministry of charity we learn the richness of one another’s tradition and we more easily see ourselves through the eyes of Jesus; who we are and who we can become. In the Decree on Ecumenism, written at the Second Vatican Council, the unity that can be found in Christ magnifies the invitation of this year’s celebration to drink of the water Our Lord has to offer.
Before the whole world let all Christians confess their faith in the triune God, one and three in the incarnate Son of God, our Redeemer and Lord. United in their efforts, and with mutual respect, let them bear witness to our common hope which does not play us false. In these days when cooperation in social matters is so widespread, all men without exception are called to work together, with much greater reason all those who believe in God, but most of all, all Christians in that they bear the name of Christ. Cooperation among Christians vividly expresses the relationship which in fact already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant….All believers in Christ can, through this cooperation, be led to acquire a better knowledge and appreciation of one another, and so pave the way to Christian unity.
Decree on Ecumenism, 12
Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is also an adviser to the Catholic Apostolate Center.
If you would like to know more about Christian Unity, please see our resource page!
Among Catholics who take the season of Lent seriously, I’ve noticed a number of different approaches. There are the subscribers to Lent as boot camp. Boot campers decide to fast not just from one food they love, but from most foods they love. Added to this, they decide to get up an hour earlier than normal to pray or go to Mass, and they are going to give money to anyone they meet who needs help. A second group makes one serious commitment and day by day spends a little more time thinking about God, remembers they are not eating fried foods and discovers the joy of crunchy vegetables, and starts collecting their change each day so as to make a contribution to a worthy group. A third group is pretty darn casual about the whole thing, happy that, over forty days, they may remember not to eat meat on a Friday or two, will get to confession, and will go all in for the campus ministry or parish hunger awareness campaign.
Many of us, me included, have a love-hate relationship with Lent. It can so easily become more of a contest than a season of prayer. Thomas Merton once remarked that his brothers, in wanting to outdo one another in the severity of their fasts, became a bunch of grouchy, miserable men. Far better, Thomas thought, to feast and give thanks to God for his abundance than to fast and make yourself and others miserable. How is that holy? Thomas wondered.
The ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving which define the season of Lent are about making right the three most important relationships in the life of a Christian, God, self and others. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that “the interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1434). Rather than a contest with our best and worst selves, we are invited to think about what will make our relationship with God stronger. Where do we need to bring some balance into our lives so as to be healthier and what relationships are asking us to be more giving; emotionally, practically or monetarily?
I’ve learned from my own experience that Lent is most fruitful when I take some time to think about how I can deepen my relationship with God. What am I eating or drinking or doing (or maybe not doing) that is really not healthy or good for me? And where can I be more generous with the people who are part of my everyday life? Answering these questions opens up a number of practices that will make a difference over the course of forty days. My goal is to make these things a habit, not doing them for forty days and then be done, but rather to discover at the end of 40 days, they have become easier and have found a permanent place in my daily routine. If done well, I also am more aware of the depth and breadth of God’s love and mercy, because whether I am successful or not, I am saved. Jesus died for me so that my own failures and sins are not the end of my story.
Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and an adviser for the Catholic Apostolate Center
This post was originally written and posted on the St. Joseph's College Theology Blog, an affiliate of the Catholic Apostolate Center.
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