Category: Bible and Theology

(HT: Catholic Culture) Note: One in six patients receives care in a Catholic hospital in the United States.

February 26, 2012

What are you going to give up this Lent?

By Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

The Lenten rules about fasting from food and abstaining from meat have been considerably reduced in the last forty years, but reminders of them remain in the fast days on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and in the abstinence from meat on all the Fridays of Lent. Beyond these common sacrifices that unite us spiritually to the passion of Christ, Catholics were and are encouraged to “give up” something voluntarily for the sake of others. Often this is money that could have been used for personal purposes and instead is given to help others, especially the poor.

This year, the Catholic Church in the United States is being told she must “give up” her health care institutions, her universities and many of her social service organizations. This is not a voluntary sacrifice. It is the consequence of the already much discussed Department of Health and Human Services regulations now filed and promulgated for implementation beginning Aug. 1 of this year.

Why does a governmental administrative decision now mean the end of institutions that have been built up over several generations from small donations, often from immigrants, and through the services of religious women and men and others who wanted to be part of the church’s mission in healing and education? Catholic hospitals, universities and social services have an institutional conscience, a conscience shaped by Catholic moral and social teaching. The HHS regulations now before our society will make it impossible for Catholic institutions to follow their conscience.

So far in American history, our government has respected the freedom of individual conscience and of institutional integrity for all the many religious groups that shape our society. The government has not compelled them to perform or pay for what their faith tells them is immoral. That’s what we’ve meant by freedom of religion. That’s what we had believed was protected by the U.S. Constitution. Maybe we were foolish to believe so.

What will happen if the HHS regulations are not rescinded? A Catholic institution, so far as I can see right now, will have one of four choices: 1) secularize itself, breaking its connection to the church, her moral and social teachings and the oversight of its ministry by the local bishop. This is a form of theft. It means the church will not be permitted to have an institutional voice in public life. 2) Pay exorbitant annual fines to avoid paying for insurance policies that cover abortifacient drugs, artificial contraception and sterilization. This is not economically sustainable. 3) Sell the institution to a non-Catholic group or to a local government. 4) Close down.

In the public discussion thus far, efforts have been made to isolate the bishops from the Catholic faithful by focusing attention exclusively on “reproductive” issues. But the acrimony could as easily focus next year or the year after on assisted suicide or any other moral issue that can be used to distract attention from the attack on religious liberty. Many will recognize in these moves a tactic now familiar in our public life: those who cannot be co-opted are isolated and then destroyed. The arguments used are both practical and theoretical.

Practically, we’re told that the majority of Catholics use artificial contraception. There are properly medical reasons, in some circumstances, for the use of contraceptive pills, as everyone knows. But even if contraceptives were used by a majority of couples only and exclusively to suppress a possible pregnancy, behavior doesn’t determine morality. If it can be shown that a majority of Catholic students cheat on their exams, it is still wrong to cheat on exams. Trimming morality to how we behave guts the Gospel call to conversion of life and rejection of sin.

Theoretically, it is argued that there are Catholic voices that disagree with the teaching of the church and therefore with the bishops. There have always been those whose personal faith is not adequate to the faith of the church. Perhaps this is the time for everyone to re-read the Acts of the Apostles. Bishops are the successors of the apostles; they collectively receive the authority to teach and govern that Christ bestowed upon the apostles. Bishops don’t claim to speak for every baptized Catholic. Bishops speak, rather, for the Catholic and apostolic faith. Those who hold that faith gather with them; others go their own way. They are and should be free to do so, but they deceive themselves and others in calling their organizations Catholic.

Since 1915, the Catholic bishops of the United States have taught that basic health care should be accessible to all in a just society. Two years ago, we asked that whatever instruments were crafted to care for all, the Hyde and Weldon and Church amendments restricting funding for abortion and respecting institutional conscience continue to be incorporated into law. They were excluded. As well, the present health care reform act doesn’t cover entire sections of the U.S. population. It is not universal.

The provision of health care should not demand “giving up” religious liberty. Liberty of religion is more than freedom of worship. Freedom of worship was guaranteed in the Constitution of the former Soviet Union. You could go to church, if you could find one. The church, however, could do nothing except conduct religious rites in places of worship-no schools, religious publications, health care institutions, organized charity, ministry for justice and the works of mercy that flow naturally from a living faith. All of these were co-opted by the government. We fought a long cold war to defeat that vision of society.

The strangest accusation in this manipulated public discussion has the bishops not respecting the separation between church and state. The bishops would love to have the separation between church and state we thought we enjoyed just a few months ago, when we were free to run Catholic institutions in conformity with the demands of the Catholic faith, when the government couldn’t tell us which of our ministries are Catholic and which not, when the law protected rather than crushed conscience. The state is making itself into a church. The bishops didn’t begin this dismaying conflict nor choose its timing. We would love to have it ended as quickly as possible. It’s up to the government to stop the attack.

If you haven’t already purchased the Archdiocesan Directory for 2012, I would suggest you get one as a souvenir. On page L-3, there is a complete list of Catholic hospitals and health care institutions in Cook and Lake counties. Each entry represents much sacrifice on the part of medical personnel, administrators and religious sponsors. Each name signifies the love of Christ to people of all classes and races and religions. Two Lents from now, unless something changes, that page will be blank.

The observance of Lent reminds us that, in the end, we all stand before Christ and give an accounting of our lives. From that perspective, I ask lay Catholics and others of good will to step back and understand what is happening to our country as the church is despoiled of her institutions and as freedom of conscience and of religion become a memory from a happier past. The suffering being imposed on the church and on society now is not a voluntary penance. We should both work and pray to be delivered from it.

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Today marks the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church. Not simply a fast, it is a time for that true asceticism which, according to Fr. Georges Florovsky, “is inspired not by contempt, but by the urge of transformation.”

There is something of this true asceticism, even if imperfect and incomplete, at the basis of all human society. One must, even to only a small extent, renounce self-will to be a member of a family, a clan, or a tribe, not to mention a city, state, or nation. No community can exist or has existed without some semblance of this asceticism. Every member must deny some part of his or her self for a perceived common good in order to form any community, in order for society itself to exist.

Thus, asceticism is not and never has been reserved for monks in the history of the Church. As Florovsky notes, “Ascetical virtues can be practiced by laymen also, and by those who stay in the world.” Interestingly, Vladimir Solovyov even goes so far as to identify marriage as one of the first ascetic practices inasmuch as it constitutes a “limitation of sensuality” that results in increased “control of carnal passions.”

In a healthy marriage, the husband and wife likely find that the level of self-renunciation necessary to maintain family life extends far beyond the sensual as well. Indeed, during his address at Acton University this summer, Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America remarked,

Is there any greater ascetic than a young mother, a new mother, who has to get up at all hours, night or day, to feed the child, to change the diapers? That’s the image, that’s asceticism—it’s total self-giving in love. All real asceticism is self-giving in love.

On a personal note, my wife and I are currently celebrating the birth of our first child, and (to my wife’s credit) I can confirm the truth of His Beatitude’s statement. (Don’t worry, I change diapers too, but my wife deserves far more credit for “get[ing] up at all hours.”) According to Florovsky, through asceticism “a new hierarchy of values and aims is revealed.” Certainly, any other new parents would agree with me that having a baby literally changes one’s whole world. Suddenly things I used to value seem so insignificant.

Through marriage I was transformed into a husband. Through the birth of my son, I am now also a father. As Christians, both of the East and the West, embark on the ascetic, spiritual journey of Great Lent that culminates in the joy of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, I hope that all of us will also be spiritually transformed according to the likeness of Christ’s self-giving love.

My wife Kelly and our new little son Brendan.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, February 23, 2012
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One of the conclusions from last week’s commentary was that the government shouldn’t be in the business of promoting a particular vision of the good life in America. That’s not to say that the government doesn’t have some role in promoting the common good or making some normative judgments about the good life. But it shouldn’t get anywhere near the level of specificity of promising a family, home, college education, and retirement for all.

In part this is because while moral good is objective, happiness is, by definition, subjective. The technical gloss on happiness in the scholarly literature is “subjective well-being.” This subjective element gets at why there can be such paradoxical disparity, say, between objective standards of rising affluence and static or even declining levels of happiness. Happiness has much more to do with how people assess their own levels of satisfaction and well-being than with simply objective measures.

Becky Hsu explores this over at the Black, White and Gray blog by observing the irreducible diversity and subjectivity of defining happiness: “The trick is in how people define happiness to begin with.”

The delicate balance that results from these considerations is that people must be free to define happiness for themselves within the boundaries of the moral order. And the role of the civil government and positive law in promoting that connection between liberty and happiness is definitive for good government. As Jefferson put it, “the freedom and happiness of man” are the “main objects of all science,” and such concerns help to “keep ever in view the sole objects of all legitimate government.”

I would argue that the best conceptions of happiness are those that intimately connect the subjective sense of well-being with the objective moral order, the source of which is God. The Christian doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation can go a long way in explaining why there is so often this disparity between objective material well-being and subjective well-being in human life.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” confesses Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Or as the Teacher puts it, God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). This life is the beginning of the story.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
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AschenkreuzYesterday my son asked me why today is called “Ash Wednesday.” In that question I could hear the echoes of another question, “Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?”

The latter question is found in the Heidelberg Catechism, and the brief but poignant answer has stuck with me since I first encountered it. First, the catechism clarifies that our death does not have redemptive power: “Our death does not pay the debt of our sins.” That’s what distinguishes Christ’s death from our own.

But next, the catechism describes two interrelated things our death does do. First, our death “puts an end to our sinning.” What a comforting thought! As Luther put it strikingly, “As long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin.” Our death is the end of our lifelong struggle against sin, and the culmination of the purpose of our entire life. As Calvin writes, “during our whole lives we may aim at a constant rest from our own works, in order that the Lord may work in us by his Spirit.” Our death is where this “constant rest” is finally achieved.

And following from the end to our life of sin, our death marks “our entrance into eternal life.” Thus we enter through our deaths into the eternal Sabbath, where we finally rest from our evil works, enjoy the “constant rest” (Calvin) from sin, and the fullness of life in the Spirit.

So on this Ash Wednesday, when we contemplate the origin and destiny of our earthly life in dust, let us take comfort in the realization that the death of those who are in Christ is merely the end of the beginning of the story. In the midst of our mourning during the Lenten season inaugurated with Ash Wednesday, let us not “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13 NIV).

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
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In his classic book Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asks the critical question for the Christian life in today’s world: “What could the call to follow Jesus mean today for the worker, the businessman, the farmer, or the soldier?” This question is a corollary of another, more basic, question: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” If Christ is Lord, then what does his lordship mean for the lives of his followers?

In a worthwhile post over at Out of Ur, Skye Jethani explores the implications of Christ’s call to discipleship for our work, “where most adults (young and old) spend most of their time and what occupies most of their identity. Without the ability to connect faith to either family or work, there is little remaining to engage young adults other than entertaining gatherings or a celebrity in the pulpit.”

Jethani updates and sharpens questions related to Bonhoeffer’s famous discipleship question:

What does it mean to be in business to glorify God and bless others?

How does Christ want me to engage the health care sector?

Does being an artist matter to God?

How do I serve in the public school system as a follower of Christ?

Apart from not being dishonest, does it matter how I run my business?

I’ve been offered two jobs, how do I discern which one to take? Does it matter?

Can I be a soldier and be a Christian?

Does my work have any meaning apart from the money I earn and give to the church?

One of the consistent refrains from established denominations nowadays is concern over how to connect with younger generations of believers, to keep them from leaving the church, and show that the Christian faith is relevant to a contemporary world. A good place to start is to ask and begin to answer the questions that Bonhoeffer and Jethani have posed.

But as Jethani warns, such efforts must be undertaken not just as a rearguard stratagem: “Developing a theology of work and vocation-based-discipleship is not a silver bullet to slow the exodus of young adults from the church. But I am increasingly convinced that it is a significant blind spot for much of the Western church that must be remedied.”

In his treasure of a book on the subject, Lester DeKoster goes so far as to call work “the meaning of your life.” It is of central importance for followers of Christ to understand, articulate, and live out the way in which the Gospel shapes and determines the meaning of life “to the full.”

At this past year’s Evangelical Theological Society meeting, the Oikonomia Network convened a luncheon entitled Renewing the Call: Why Pastors and Business Leaders Need Each Other. Dr. Amy Sherman, senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of recently published Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship For the Common Good presented along with Dr. Scott Rae, professor at Talbot School of Theology and co-author of Business For the Common Good: A Christian Vision For the Marketplace.

Click the video image below to watch the luncheon presentation.

Much has been made already about President Obama’s comments yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast concerning the Christian faith’s teachings about social responsibility. During his time at the breakfast, the president opined that getting rid of tax breaks for wealthy Americans amounted to a Christian obligation:

In a time when many folks are struggling and at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income or young people with student loans or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually thinks that’s going to make economic sense. But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that, from to whom much is given, much shall be required.

The president is referring to the passage that concludes Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the watchful servants in Luke 12. It’s a good thing that the president isn’t the theologian-in-chief!

As Breanne Howe has pointed out (HT: The Transom), the text itself has to do with the basic idea of stewardship (the best resource for exploring the truly biblical conception of stewardship in its fullness is the NIV Stewardship Study Bible). I do think Howe draws a bit too sharply the lines between obligations and giving, as she writes, “Giving out of obligation is not truly giving, it’s merely following the rules.” There’s a complex relationship between legal requirements, moral obligations, and Christian gratitude that can’t be summed up by simply juxtaposing Christian charitable giving and government taxation.

But at the same time, paying your taxes can’t be simply conflated with meeting Christian social obligations, either. Christians are to pay taxes, certainly, but that doesn’t mean that Christian social responsibility is reducible to paying taxes.

More problematic, perhaps, is this latter identification, with our responsibilities before God being transferred to our responsibilities to government. If the president can use a text like Luke 12:48 to argue for progressive taxation, then what kind of tax policy should we implement on the basis of Luke 19:24-26?

Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’

“‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’

“He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

It’s too easy and sometimes irresistibly tempting to move directly from the text of Scripture to the text of legislation.

Prooftexting for the purpose of political posturing does violence to the Scriptures and damages our public discourse. That might be the most important political lesson arising from yesterday’s breakfast.