Friday, April 27, 2007

More on Abp. Burke and a reality check

Ed Peters has a (per his norm) well-thought-out response to the Archbishop Burke - Sheryl Crow - Cardinal Glennon Hospital for Children debacle. In part, he echoes what I said on this yesterday, although I somehow doubt I served as any source of inspiration.

But you know, I've seen this happen before: Catholic movers and shakers, flush with their own funds or with easy access to others', too often measure success in philanthropic undertakings in terms of media splash, dollars donated, and the number of glitteratti chatting around banquet tables, while they completely forget the fundamental religious, and even the human, values that make their efforts worthwhile in the first place. This time, even the clear words of a very thoughtful archbishop could not pierce the commotion which the organizers of this event confused for progress.
To coin a phrase, no kidding. For more prime examples of this we need only look at people like John Kerry or Ted Kennedy or organizations like San Francisco Catholic Charities. It is a frequent problem people walk into - they get so busy doing what they are doing they forget why they are doing it and to what end it is intended.

This brings me to the "reality check" portion of this post. This past weekend at our RCIA session (and it is fun to see them now "fully Catholic" and starting to really stretch their wings) we talked about the "now what do you do about it" aspect of entering the Church. The one point I tried to make to them, which even had our Pastor, who had dropped in for a surprise visit, nodding his head (at least I hope that was nodding) was this: what ever you do, which ever act you choose, remember always to do it as a Catholic. First things first, be a Catholic. Do what you do not for praise or glory or pay raise or even "to be a nice guy" but for God and through God. Certainly it's a hard saying, but God didn't call us to an easy chair existence. Did they get it? I don't know - the facial reactions were somewhere between "huh?" and "that's going to be hard". The important point for them is that they heard it and even if it doesn't sink in now it will always be rattling around in their brains until such a time as it finds a home.

To continue the thought for a second... You have doubtless heard sayings like, "do everything for the glory of God" or "see Christ in the people around you"; perhaps if you're of sufficient age and/or have gone through Catholic schooling you have memories of topping every paper with "AMDG" or "JMJ". But what in the world do these things really, really mean?* What does it mean to "do everything for the glory of God"? How can I glorify God flipping burgers or trading stocks or selling houses or slopping the pigs? The problem, you see, is not in the act, it's in the question - it's being asked in the wrong direction, if you will.

Being a rather contrarian person to begin with, and my wife will gladly attest to this, I like to constantly look at things in opposite directions from that of most people. It's a curse, but every once in a while it's a gift. The problem, to me, in these questions is the built-in assumption of the constraining or defining factor. How do I, as a burger flipper or a stock trader give greater glory to God? Do you see the inversion of priorities inherent in that statement? It suggests the concrete factor is the person's station in life and the adjustable factor is his or her Catholic necessity to give glory to God. This world certainly does like to define people by what they do 8-5 every day, but we know better than that. We are defined primarily by what causes us to be and what sustains us in being - that being God Himself - and then, and only then, are we further defined by what we do with what we are given.

So, if rather than, "how do I as a burger flipper or stock trader or house seller or pig slopper..." we say "how do I as a child of God, as a member of His Mystical body the Church..." the inversion is reversed and our polarity is set aright. There is, I will assert, an ontological difference between an act performed as a function of one's occupation or even as a volunteer and that same act performed as a function of being a child of God and a member of His Church. To feed a poor person because that is one's job or because one is fulfilling a role is fundamentally different than to feed that same poor person because you find in them the imago Dei and for love of that same God. As a Catholic, we do not feed a poor person, clothe the naked or visit the sick or imprisoned because they are poor, naked, sick or imprisoned - we do so because they are humans, indeed they are our brother or sister, children of the same Father. We do so because we could not do otherwise and remain true to what we are.

Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote in Catholic Matters, and has further expounded in First Things, a theory that in names "the former defines the latter". In context, it means that when someone considers him or herself to be an "American Catholic" the 'American' defines the limits of the 'Catholic'; it also sets an order of priorities - American first, Catholic following. This is, in fact, somewhat of a contradiction. If Christ's "Kingdom is not of this world" then neither can ours be nor can we define or control how we imitate Him by constraints formed around us in this world. Instead of being an "American Catholic" we must seek to become a "Catholic American", a "Catholic burger flipper", a "Catholic stock trader", a "Catholic house seller", a "Catholic pig slopper". Indeed, a "Catholic charity" rather than a "charity which is Catholic". Allow that former to define that latter and the question of whether it makes sense to invite a pro-abortion, pro-ESCR advocate for the hope of making a few extra dollars becomes obvious. "And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna." (Mt 10:28)

*Aside: if you don't know because, like me, you're too young and/or never went to Catholic school: AMDG = "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam", or "For the Greater Glory of God" and JMJ = "Jesus, Mary and Joseph", the Holy Family - they are intended to be reminders of how we are called to do everything for the glory of God and in unity with Him.