20 December 2008

New arrivals

A few new book arrivals from the WISH LIST to report:

Sabine N. (2), Will D. (1), and Catherine T. (1).

Grazie mille! Mille grazie!

Makes it all worth it. . .

The following was sent to me anonymously as a comment. . .it deserves a post all its own:


I just don't have the time to read every comment in detail and ponder every point you have made. Can I just say this. . .? I am a "modern, educated" woman who has had the experience of contracepting, trying to be Protestant, and now, currently living in a Catholic, sacramental marriage with a Catholic man.

Trying to be humble, trying to integrate the beauty of Church teaching with the reality of Originl Sin and the fall from grace... isn't easy, simple, or a done-deal. It's a daily battle.

But. . .I THANK GOD for good priests like you, and good husbands like mine, imperfect as they may be (like mine), who help me to understand that I am not at war with my spouse, my fertility, my children, or patriarchal humanity; what I am at odds with is satanic influence (yes, it exists as surely as the molecule), and with my own lack of humility and fall from grace.

I love men who, while battling their own concupescience, acknowledge the grace of God, the beauty of His plan, and embrace fertility, fidelity, and children. This is the way to combat the sorrowfully deficient arguments of Tony Blair's wife, and those who would like to embrace God's beautiful plan for the complemetarity of humanity yet are held back by. . .well. . .sin.

18 December 2008

Fr. Philip's comments on Cherie Blair's Angelicum lecture

Below you will find excerpts from Cherie Blair's talk at the Angelicum conference held here last Friday. I have chosen to focus on the more controversial parts.

The Church and Women’s Rights: time for a fresh perspective? (full pdf text)

[. . .]

It is clear that the way Jesus related to women indicates that he did not expect the main role of women to be to enchant or be subjects of admiration for men. Matthew’s Gospel describes, for example, his interaction with the Canaanite woman whose daughter he eventually healed. He first tries to brush off the woman when she asks him to intervene with a brusque “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs.” But the woman was no shrinking violet. Matthew’s describes here reply as a retort as she says: “Ah yes, Lord; but even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus was not all dismayed by her outspokenness but replied instead: “Woman, you have great faith. Let your desire be granted.” Scripture reveals that to be a woman of faith is to be a woman confident and assertive of herself, and her female desires and perspectives.

Given the broader context of this passage in the talk, these comments may be a quibble on my part, but I feel bound to point out that this particular interpretation of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is theologically bankrupt. In order for this reading to be true, we must accept that 1) Jesus is unaware of his mission as universal savior; 2) that Jesus is not who he himself says he is—God; 3) that the man who will later go willingly to the Cross for the salvation of the world is here rejecting one of those he will later die to save; 4) that a human being, one person somehow teaches the Messiah a lesson; and 5) that the woman’s assertiveness is the focus of Jesus’ praise. The text of the meeting between Jesus, his disciples, and the Canaanite woman can be very easily interpreted in a way that makes sense of everything that Jesus has said about himself and everything the Church has subsequently taught based on these revelations. Briefly put, Jesus and the Canaanite woman engage in something like a skit in order to teach the disciples who Jesus is. Jesus knows who he is. So does the Canaanite woman. It is the disciples who appear to be struggling with Jesus’ identity and mission. Jesus takes this opportunity to demonstrate to his disciples who he is by giving the Canaanite woman the opening she needs to point out the universal salvific mission of the Messiah. Imagine Jesus looking at his disciples as the woman pleas with him and giving them a look that says, “Hey! Even she gets it. . .are you listening, blockheads!?” Jesus praises the woman’s faith, her trust, and by extension her love for her daughter. Nowhere in the story does Jesus praise her assertiveness, her confidence, or her desires as Blair asserts. The Canaanite woman is a woman of faith, that’s her power. I have preached about this ridiculous reading of the Canaanite woman several times: here, here, and here.

By drawing on the example of the confident women who have found their rightful place in the church in earlier times, women today can shape their role in the church and help interpret its fundamental truths in a way speaks with relevance to the modern world. What John Paul II wanted to see in Mulieris Dignitatem, the twentieth anniversary of which we also celebrate this year, was that the full human potential of women should be released, for their benefit and for that of the whole of society. For that to happen, along with access to property and to education, the Church has also rightly recognized the need for couples to exercise their fertility responsibly. We know better than ever before now, thanks to modern science, that life begins at conception with the contribution of both man and woman.

The phrase “to exercise their fertility responsibly” makes me nervous. To deny the implicit claim of the phrase would be ridiculous. However, what we mean by “responsible exercise” must be carefully unpacked. I know that there are faithful Catholics who believe that the responsible exercise of fertility means not using NFP because they consider it a form of artificial birth control. And I know Catholics who advocate the immediate sterilization of husband and wife in order to foster zero population growth in defense of Earth. Most Catholics, if the media are to be believed, stand with most Americans in their stalwart support for the moral use of contraception and medical necessity of abortion. All parties, when acting on their moral principles, believe that they are acting “responsibly.” So, the question for Blair at this point needs to be: “What standard are you using to judge the exercise of your fertility as responsible or irresponsible?” This question is answer in part in the following paragraphs. . .

I know that for myself, not least through the wonderful surprise of becoming a mother again for the fourth time at the age of 45. The Church rightly makes a clear distinction between controlling fertility and terminating a life once conception has occurred. I experienced that myself when I refused to have an amniocentesis test which was regarded as automatic for an elderly mother such as myself when I found myself pregnant with my fourth child. Two years later I was more than conscious of a life lost when I miscarried a second late pregnancy.

This paragraph makes four important points. First, Blair describes her fourth pregnancy at age 45 as a “wonderful surprise.” Not the phrase we would expect for a pro-abortion ideologue. Second, Blair makes a distinction between “controlling fertility” and “terminating a life once conception as occurred.” This is a dodgy distinction where the Catholic faith is concerned. Yes, there is a difference between controlling the use of one’s fertility and aborting a child. However, the question is: what is the responsible use of one’s fertility? Not having sex is one responsible means. Surgical sterilization is an irresponsible means. This distinction is the set up for Blair’s later assertion that the Church makes a grave error when she links contraception and abortion. In other words, it appears that Blair denies any link between “preventing conception” and “terminating conception.” This distinction throws a very suspicious light on her commitment to the Church’s single teaching on the sacredness of life. Third, unspoken but strongly hinted at in her admission of refusing the amniocentesis test is a rejection of any possibility of having an abortion. For a woman of 45 years, a pregnancy can mean giving birth to a child with Downs Syndrome or some other birth defect. As I understand it, it is quite common in the UK to abort children when they show any signs of congenital birth defects. Blair is telling us here that by refusing the test, she never considered abortion as an option. Fourth Blair reports that a fifth pregnancy was lost in a miscarriage and that she is conscious of having lost a human life in that tragic event. Clearly, Blair believes that human life begins at conception and is sacred from that moment on.

The Church’s current teaching on responsible parenthood is summed up in Article 3 of The Charter of the Rights of the Family, It says “The spouses have the inalienable right to found a family and to decide on the spacing of births and the number of children to be born, taking into full consideration their duties towards themselves, their children already born, the family and society, in a just hierarchy of values and in accordance with the objective moral order which excludes recourse to contraception, sterilization and abortion.”

Here Blair freely admits the Church’s teaching against the use of contraception, sterilization and abortion, categorically excluding their use as a means of exercising responsible fertility. However. . .

And while I am on record as having had difficulties with accepting the current teaching on responsible parenthood [. . .]

Here we enter the land of ambiguity. In the paragraph Blair quotes the Church excludes the use of contraception, sterilization and abortion in the development and exercise of responsible parenthood. When she says that she is “on record as having had difficulties with accepting the current teaching on responsible parenthood,” is she saying that she has difficulties with contraception, sterilization, abortion, all three, or some combination of the three? This is unclear. It does not help her pro-life case that she follows this ambiguous admission with the following. . .

[. . .] I do recognize that much of what Paul VI predicted could happen in Humanae Vitae as a result of the wide and indiscriminate use of abortion has been borne out particularly in relation to baby girls as the birth ratios of boys to girls in some countries testify. What those lost girls demonstrate is that across the world we lack widely held sense that the contribution of women is important to society in its own right. The situation of too many women in the developing world shows that we are still so far away from women being regarded as of equal worth to men.

We might want to jump in here and note that a truly pro-life Blair would be horrified at any abortion regardless of the sex of the child or its nationality, socio-economic status, etc. But we must remember that she is presenting at a conference on women and human rights, so she is simply connecting the particular point to the theme of the conference. I doubt very seriously that Blair is only concerned about the aborting of poor Indian girls to the exclusion of all other nationalities, etc.

Here, the overwhelming problems are economic, education and health-related. The British Independent newspaper, commenting on the 1994 UN Population Conference in Cairo singled out the Catholic Church for praise. It persuasively argued that by being one of the leading providers of education to girls across the developing world, the Church was making a powerful contribution to improving the lives of women, to lifting them out of poverty and enabling them to reduce levels of childbirth which can be dangerous to their health. History teaches us that improving the general economic situation and women’s educational levels gives them more power in society and helps them to exercise more responsible fertility.

Taken as it is written, there is nothing objectionable here. Women’s education and access to property rights is a basic human rights issue and one that the Church is right to support. Improved economic conditions, etc. are always a good thing. My sneaking worry here is that Blair is making an Obama-esque move toward the argument that we ought to focus our pro-life attention on improving overall economic conditions as the primary means of reducing the number of abortions. Again, on the surface, what’s objectionable about improved economic conditions and a reduction in the number of abortions? Nothing. The difficulty lies in the priority given to the socio-economic over the juridical. Abortion must be outlawed as an expression of our nation’s horror at the killing of children. If someone argues that the numerical reduction of abortion needs to be our goal and not the outlawing of abortion, ask them: Why do you want to reduce the number of abortion? In other words, why do you consider abortion to be that sort of activity that needs to be reduced? We outlaw rape, slavery, murder, kidnapping, etc. in order to dissuade people from committing these heinous acts. We also outlaw them in order to define who we are as a people who respect human life and freedom. So long as we continue to move toward lifting all legal restrictions on abortion; eliminating all moral and religious objections to abortion; and then making tax dollars available to pay for abortions, we cannot expect to see any reduction in the number of abortions.

We are all on a journey here. Just as there has been a journey from hostility to acceptance in relation to the Church’s teachings on human rights. I think we will see the Church continue to develop and refine some of its teachings regarding the specific issues which arise from women’s rights, always on the basis of an ever-deeper entering in to the witness and teaching of Christ and into his love for humanity.

Again, I am struck by the desire to shout Yes! and at the same time Wait! Clarification is needed here. Yes, we are all on a journey. A journey to the perfection that is Christ Jesus. And this journey to Christ Jesus is clearly and carefully defined by objective moral and ethical standards that brook no violation in the honest pursuit of holiness. To say that “we are all on a journey” is true but hardly profound if what is really meant is “all these moral standards are subject to the whims of history and will disappear on our journey soon enough.” Being on a journey in no way excuses the sojourner from his or her responsibility in traveling the narrow way though the eye of the needle. Of course, we will venture off the path, but those moments of getting lost have reasons not excuses. And we must always be on guard against making the short-cuts, the off-trail adventures, the off-road expeditions the norm. It is entirely too easy and too dangerous to excuse one’s moral error with a flippant “well, I’m on a journey.” I don’t think this is what Blair is doing here, but I find it necessary to flash the warning.

Those who predicted the death of religion have been disappointed. In the 21st Century, faith for many hundreds of millions of people remains an integral part of what it is to be human. And the Church has a critical role to play in discussions about what true equality must mean.

So, the question remains: is Blair pro-life or not? Here’s my considered conclusion given this talk, her answers after the talk, and her public associations. The easy conclusion: Blair has no difficulties with artificial contraception. She openly advocates for its use contra Church teaching and argues that the Church makes a serious error when she links contraception to abortion. She holds that the Church’s moral authority in opposing abortion is seriously weakened by its opposition to artificial birth control. On this issue she opposes the Church’s pro-life teachings and fails to understand the intrinsic link between a respect for the dignity of the human person and the proper moral use of our reproductive faculties. Though strictly speaking, contraception is not abortion, the two are inevitably tied to the destruction of the sacred links among love, sex, and procreation. Blair acknowledges that Paul VI was correct in predicting the destructive result of legalized abortion. It is very odd that she fails to see how artificial birth control has de-valued women globally by undermining any legitimate progress for women’s liberation from cultural oppression and leaving women more isolated and alone than every before in human history.

On abortion, I am ready to believe that since Blair admits that life begins at conception, she holds that abortion is the termination of a human life. It seems fairly apparent to me that she is opposed to abortion for the sake of birth control and that she would be happy to see a reduction in the number of overall abortions or even their elimination altogether through improved education, economics, and the liberal use of contraception. Given Blair’s public associations, International Planned Parenthood, for example, it is impossible for me to say that she is categorically opposed to abortion as a form of murder. In other words, I do not believe that she accepts without qualification the Church’s teaching that abortion is the direct killing of innocent life, and because it is so, abortion is always, everywhere, and in all circumstances a morally evil act. The answers she gave to questions after her talk clarified very little of the confusion. She reacted against the accusation that she is not a good Catholic. She asserted again that she follows Church teaching—this is manifestly untrue in the case of contraception. She said that she could not understand how pro-life advocates so misunderstand her own pro-life position and she seemed genuinely upset that she is misunderstood. I am hesitant to call this upsetedness disingenuous, however, it strikes me as odd that she is so puzzled about the opposition when she belongs the Planned Parenthood and supports the UN treaty on the elimination of discrimination against women, a document that clearly and forcefully calls for the establishment of “reproductive rights” as a human right. At the very least, Blair must admit that her critics have something to worry about when they look over her C.V. and see so many national and international groups that vigorously support abortion.

Despite the ambiguity of Blair’s pro-life credentials, I want to say unambiguously that I fully support the decision of Sr. Helen Alford and the Angelicum administration to invite Blair to speak at this conference. Catholics have absolutely nothing to fear from the truth. No one that I know here at the Angelicum came away from this event emotionally scarred, spiritually disenchanted, weakened in the faith, or magically converted to a pro-abortion position. Our job here is to teach the truth. Sometimes the best way to do that is to point to error and say, “See. That’s wrong. And here’s why…” We cannot turn a Dominican university into a Sunday school class. No one at the Angelicum advocates for abortion. There are legitimate disagreements about how best to address the evil of abortion. These are tactical and strategic differences. Not differences with the Church about core teaching.

Some will object that Blair was not properly challenged in the question and answer period. I agree. This was not a conspiracy of silence but rather a consequence of our limited time. For those of us who go to conferences regularly, we soon learn that a common feature of these gatherings is the lack of sufficient time for questions and discussions. They are structured occasions for professionals to discuss topics of interest not casual gatherings of friends for debate. Often questioners give long-winded speeches before asking a dull question, or ask a good question that gets lost in the subsequent discussion.

Go read the full texts for yourself and make up your own mind.

On the event itself. I’ve read some very dodgy news reports and blog posts about the reaction of the audience to Blair’s talk. It is obvious from the slant given in these descriptions that the reporters/bloggers need for Blair to be seen as a pro-abortion advocate and anyone who invites her to speak as secret pro-abortion supporters.

Let me say here with all the clarity I can muster:

--there were no standing ovations for Blair as has been reported.
--the applause was polite not enthusiastic.
--the laughter was “yea, we know what you mean” and not appreciative.
--most all of the friars who attended came away noting Blair’s ambiguity.
--none of us were in any way “duped” by Blair’s talk.

No doubt this conversation will continue for a while longer. . .in the meantime, I believe that we are bound to pray for Cherie Blair and her husband, asking God to work overtime in converting their hearts to an unambiguously pro-life stance, propelling them to work as hard for life as they work for other social justice goals supported by the Church.

15 December 2008

When YES leads to despair

3rd Week Advent (T): Zep 3.1-2, 9-13; Matt 21.28-32
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS Domenico e Sisto, Roma

For those who wander in the desert, relying on one another for survival, relying on family and friends to live day to day, relying on the providence of God to flourish where they find themselves, for these folks, the city, with all its complications and distractions, represents everything that can go wrong with the human spirit. The city is clogged with unnamed faces. It’s dirty, polluted with waste. Filled to the brim with crime, sin, disease. Souls are detached from one another. There is no communion, only commerce. No peace, no silence. Only racket, wrecks, riots, and the tyranny of loneliness. For those who wander in the desert, relying on family, friends, and the Lord, their God, the city is Sin given architecture and a population. The city is a disobedient mouth, gaping in the desert, shouting up at God, “rebellious and polluted,” a mouth both defiant and desperate, shouting up at God, “I WILL NOT!” This is the start of loneliness, the beginning of despair: the first step is to shout NO! at God.

The first son shouts, “I will not!” when asked by his father to work in the vineyard. The second son, when ordered to go to work among the vines, says, “Yes, sir!” The defiant son, his disobedient mouth twisted with rebellion, resolves his heart and mind and goes to work despite his first wrong step. The compliant son, his obedient mouth ready with yes’s and sir’s, has no resolution in his heart or mind and goes ahead instead to do his own will. Jesus asks the chief priests and elders, “Which of the two [sons] did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus agrees. The first son took the first step to loneliness and despair by defying the will of his father. But he repented and did as he was told. The second son also took the first step to loneliness and despair. Even though his compliant mouth said, “Yes, sir”, his rebellious will said no, leaving him set aside, detached, without the help of his father.

Jesus tells the chief priests and the elders of the people that they are like the second son, obedient in word, mouthing yes yes but doing nothing, believing less, watching the rebellious prostitutes, the loathsome tax-collectors change their defiant NO’s to loving YES’s, and yet, even with John coming to them “in the way of righteousness,” they do not believe; they do not act. And so they stand together in their loneliness and despair, poking around for visions and signs and wonders, wandering the desert of the sinful city, rebellious and polluted with yes on their lips but the heavy darkness of no in their hearts.

Our Lord comes. If your mouth says yes, let it come from a heart and mind given to the Lord. If your mouth says no, let it come from a heart and mind willing to change, willing to repent. The rebellious and polluted city is no place for a son or daughter of the Lord.

14 December 2008

Heresy and Mass Intentions

Aight! I feel bad for all those who answered the heresy question correctly but didn't have the advantage of the good time zone. . .the perils of living at GMT +1 with an audience at GMT -6.

So, if you correctly guessed the Name That Heresy question, send me your intention, and I will offer that intention at Mass over the next few weeks.

Please note: my family, friends, book benefactors, men and women seeking vocations all get lifted up every Mass. . .I tend to storm the gates of heaven when I say Mass and receive communion!

Send away. . .I will keep track. If you don't want me to publish your intention, say so.