Balancing truth and love

Balancing truth and love

We’ve all had uncomfortable conversations which we’d rather avoid. In those moments it’s tempting to misrepresent one’s true thoughts and keep the peace.

Priests have lots of these conversations, though possibly no more than others. But priests have a big advantage. Priests minister sacramental confession.

When I am hearing confessions, I’m acutely conscious that I act in persona Christi. It is one of those very rare moments when I am enabled and obliged to judge another person. I certainly don’t do this on my own behalf, but only in service to the Lord, whose justice and mercy I minister.

No one on earth will ever know the advice I give to penitents. But God knows. This is one instance when the easy way out — acquiescence and agreeability — is not an option at all. Since I speak for God, not for myself, I am absolutely obliged to be faithful to God’s truth.

At the same time, the penitent is in a very vulnerable position. (I know, because I’m frequently a penitent myself!) They have just opened up their heart, and exposed their inner life. Not to me, but to our Lord. So I have another obligation, no less grave: to be kind. To minister the Lord’s mercy.

I do not remember the sins I hear in the confessional, because I ask to forget them, and the Holy Spirit grants me that favour. But though I remember nothing, the act of hearing confessions changes me. I am practiced in speaking the truth with love, which is often a very challenging task.

But of course this task, the duty to proclaim the truth with love, is not exclusive to priests. Every Christian is called to do this. Even in the most awkward conversations, the most unwanted confrontations, we must be faithful to truth, and faithful to charity.

I think veritas in caritate has a certain “look.” It is serene. It is good-humoured. And it is humble. But it is seldom easy.

An impressive account of veritas in caritate appeared in my Facebook newsfeed today. It was a shining beacon in the midst of an ever-rolling stream of ill-measured and inflammatory comments.

The other day we got together with a friend of mine from high school named Andrew, and his boyfriend, Tom. We caught up on life and work, Andrew and I clicking as well as we always have. I wore waterproof mascara because I knew I’d end up laughing to the point of tears, which, in fact, I did.

Then, when my husband and Tom went to pick up a round of drinks at the bar, Andrew had a question for me. “So,” he said, grabbing a tortilla chip from the basket in front of us. “What do you think of gay marriage?”

The last time we hung out, this unspoken topic was not as palpably present as it was now. Even though our gay friends knew that we’d converted to Catholicism, nobody cared enough to bring up potentially controversial issues. But now, the mood in the world around us had changed. Throughout our country the issue of same-sex unions was being debated furiously; it had become a defining issue of our generation, and thus the average person was no longer allowed not to have an opinion about it. It was too weird to sit at the table, two orthodox Catholics and two men in a gay relationship, and not bring it up. We could no longer ignore the storm that raged outside the cloister of our friendship; the doors had blown open, and the rain had come inside.

I shrugged, trying to keep it casual.

This is one of those awkward conversations we’d all rather avoid. But the author, Jennifer Fulwiller, doesn’t do this. Instead she attempts that elusive balancing act of truth and love.

Read it all. It’s worth it.

We’re bound to offend, so let’s speak plainly

We’re bound to offend, so let’s speak plainly

This morning at Mass, I distributed the Australian bishops’ recent pastoral letter on marriage. Despite its assertive title — Don’t Mess With Marriage — it is a very mild document.

The document presents a case for traditional marriage which seeks to be as inoffensive as possible. By this measure, the document has failed. Here’s a few headlines to prove it:

The supreme irony in this is that the document nowhere refers to the Church’s “most offensive” (read, most counter-cultural) moral teachings. No mention of the grave immorality of homosexual acts. No mention of objectively disordered inclinations. These teachings constitute the elephant in the room.

I spoke to a priest last week who was quite animated in his defence of traditional marriage. “Marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. If a same-sex couple came to me, I’d be very happy to bless them. I’d pray that they find God in their love for each other, and goodness in their life together. But it’s not marriage.”

Right. It’s not marriage. But what that priest said isn’t Catholic teaching either. A gravely immoral relationship can’t be blessed. This priest’s position is incompatible with the Catholic moral tradition. But it’s not incompatible with Don’t Mess With Marriage. I don’t wish to suggest that the bishops’ pastoral letter condones same sex relationships. That’s a logical leap too far. But certainly, the letter is ambiguous. It fails to present the full Catholic teaching on the subject.

For this reason, I also distributed to parishioners a much more comprehensive document. In 2003, Pope John Paul II approved the CDF’s Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons. The title is much longer than the Australian bishops’ letter, but the document itself is much shorter. It’s also much more “offensive” — in that it doesn’t mince words and includes very direct exhortations.

For example:

Sacred Scripture condemns homosexual acts “as a serious depravity… (cf. Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tim 1:10). This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” This same moral judgment is found in many Christian writers of the first centuries and is unanimously accepted by Catholic Tradition.

And:

When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.

Here we have language which is deeply provocative, and I can understand why it wasn’t used in the Australian bishops’ pastoral letter. The bishops want to teach and edify. They don’t want to offend.

But here’s the thing. Catholic teaching on homosexuality is offensive to a growing proportion of the population. We only have to review those headlines above to confirm it. As disciples of Jesus Christ, Catholics need to be comfortable with this. Our Lord, who of course excelled at speaking the truth with love, wasn’t very nice. He offended people left, right and centre. Why should things be different for us?

The furore caused by Don’t Mess With Marriage despite its mild presentation, suggests to me that we may as well be direct and avoid ambiguity. Hence my recommendation to parishioners to take and read both the bishops’ letter, and the CDF’s Considerations.

Many times in the last few years, I have heard bishops and cardinals call for a review of the language the Church uses. To cite a recent example, consider Cardinal Diarmuid Martin’s response to Ireland’s gay marriage yes vote:

“It’s very clear that if this referendum is an affirmation of the views of young people, then the Church has a huge task in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and to get its message across to young people, not just on this issue, but in general.”

I think this is dead wrong. It’s also a bit patronising. “Marriage equality” activists aren’t offended by the language of Catholic moral teaching. They’re offended by the content. The Church has never waged a petty war of words. The Church is engaged in the noble battle of ideas.

Put another way, the “messaging remedy” is not semantic. The remedy is something which was banished from the Church’s seminaries and universities and schools 50 years ago, at great cost. The remedy is apologetics.

Free and thoughtful assent

Free and thoughtful assent

The Franciscan papacy is a curious thing. For the first time in my life, the pope is quoted at “mainstream” (read: Establishment) church meetings and functions like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

I conjecture this must be what it was like in earlier times, before Pope Paul VI, before indifference to papal teaching became an established norm in the life of the institutional Church.

On the one hand, I rejoice at this new-found attentiveness to Rome because Pope Francis is our Holy Father. He is our Supreme Pastor, and we are supposed to heed his words, read his writings, and interiorise it all.

On the other hand, I lament that Pope Benedict XVI was not accorded the same treatment. With all due respect to Pope Francis, Pope Benedict is the superior writer and thinker. The local Church would have gained so much if only he was taken seriously.

But the past is the past, and the present points to the future. I thank God, sincerely, that Francis has revived something of the ultramontane spirit in the Australian Catholic Establishment. Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia.

Papal encyclicals are the second highest expression of the Supreme Magisterium, after Apostolic Constitutions. The pope’s new encyclical on environmental stewardship, Laudato si, is a very important document, which every Catholic should read — or at least heed. But it is not infallible.

I add that qualification because the secular press has reduced the whole document down to climate change. Behold Tony Jones, who is a paid beneficiary of the climate change industry when he’s not presenting himself as a “balanced” journalist:

It is true that Pope Francis decries climate change and rising sea levels. So did Pope Benedict. But these are not infallible statements. The spectre of anthropogenic climate change is a scientific question, not related to faith and morals, so the Church’s teaching authority does not come into play.

I, for one, am a “climate sceptic.” I’ve studied the science as deeply as a layman can study the science, and I’ve noted that the data-driven climate models which predicted extreme global warming have not been vindicated. Nothing in Laudato si convinces me otherwise, and nor should it.

The pope’s encyclical primarily addresses moral concerns, which every Catholic is obliged to heed and act on. But if you find yourself disagreeing with the pope — not to mention me! — on climate science or other such matters, rest easy. You’re no dissident; you’re simply exercising the intellectual autonomy by which we each glorify God.

Even in matters of faith and morals, Catholics are never called to blind and servile obedience. That’s the stuff of Christian fundamentalism and Islamism. Not that this gives us a license to “loyal dissent” either. On the contrary: Catholics are called to free and thoughtful assent.

[R]eligious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.

Lumen Gentium, no. 25.

Read Laudato si. Discern what relates to faith and morals. Weigh up its arguments and pray on them too. Assent is a task of intellect and faith. Recall Peter’s words in John chapter 6, when so many disciples rejected our Lord’s Eucharistic teaching. The Twelve could not possibly fathom what it meant, to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus. But they did not walk away. They responded with supernatural outlook:

“Lord, to whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn 6:68)

The perils of sincere speech

The perils of sincere speech

When The Family Guy‘s Seth MacFarlane​ was asked recently to comment on the Caitlyn Jenner​ story, he said he’s “too savvy to comment on the issue to the media.”

“Once the outrage industry shuts down, I will be happy to have an adult conversation about all of this stuff anytime anyone wants, but, even though I’m on the side of support, I just don’t think there’s any way to … you just got to play it safe because the climate is just too charged. Anything I say can and will be used against me.”

The outrage industry claimed another scalp in Fr John McKinnon, who in the middle of the Royal Commission hearings on clergy sex abuse in Ballarat, visited Bishop Ronald Mulkearns. The media had staked out the retired bishop’s house, for obvious reasons, and as he was leaving, Fr McKinnon gave a (car) door stop interview. It’s worth watching in full:

Since that interview was broadcast, Fr McKinnon has apologised, directly to parishioners and also via the press. Many people were offended. Many more wish he’d said nothing.

Not me. There’s a lot in this video I disagree with. Personally, I’d like to see Bishop Mulkearns take the stand at the Royal Commission. It’s not only that Bishop Mulkearns — and many other bishops in many other dioceses — moved offenders around. It’s also that they lied about it, even to the parents of those poor children. I would go so far as to say that in this interview, Fr McKinnon defends the indefensible.

But I’d also argue that Fr McKinnon speaks with such sincerity, and with such compassion, that he has nothing to apologise for. He was not defensive, and he was not shrill. On the contrary, he was self-effacing and thoughtful. Fr McKinnon did not persuade me through this interview, but he did give me insight into a different time, and different thinking. Far from silencing this sort of discourse, I think we need more of it. It’s the bread and butter of “adult conversation.”

The right to free speech entitles citizens to hear offensive speech. We are entitled to encounter dangerous ideas. These rights, unfortunately, are under seige — not only by present legislation, but also by our bizarre modern cult of “tolerance.”

Without free speech, it becomes impossible for anyone to speak the truth with love. Caritas in veritate is the duty of every Christian. I think this is what Fr McKinnon was at least attempting here. I’m not sorry Fr McKinnon spoke. I’m grateful.

ANZAC Day and the cross

ANZAC Day and the cross

Large crowds populated all the Anzac Day ceremonies I attended yesterday.

The breakfast which followed the dawn service included rum mixed with International Roast. That combination is probably the best and only way to consume those two beverages.

I heard a lot of stories about war. Good and bad. I heard the story of a ten year old in WWII whose hawkish arguments were only curtailed when his uncle described his own experience in WWI:

I fought on the Western Front. On my first day at the front line, we were ordered to take the German trenches.

Machine gunfire mowed us down, and we fell back. The dead and injured were left in no-man’s land. We couldn’t retrieve them because leaving the trenches meant instant death.

For five hours, we endured their cries for help, and tried to block it out. We had no choice.

Then a man cast his shadow over our trench. We looked up, and saw a seven foot German looking down at us. He was carrying one of our injured. ‘Help your friends,’ he told us.

He handed us the injured Australian, and then he turned around and walked back to the German line. We shot him in the back.

Isn’t that an awful story? It was enough to stop a 10 year old in his tracks, and realise that not every German was a baddie, and not every Australian was a goodie. More broadly, it reminds me of one of the many evils of war. War is barbaric. War is an occasion for good people to do horrifically bad things.

Of course, the opposite is true too. War can also be an occasion for noble sacrifice and heroic goodness. Simpson and his donkey are just one example, and more broadly, I think the Anzac Spirit is another example.

There are some Australians who were uncomfortable with this week’s Anzac celebrations. They feel the celebrations glorify war and romanticise violence. But I’m not convinced that’s what is occurring in the hearts and minds of Australians.

It’s significant, I think, that Anzac Day commemorates not a military victory, but a noble defeat. That points to something. The Anzac spirit doesn’t celebrate war. It celebrates a spirit of service; heroic generosity; and friendship.

“Greater love hath no man than this,” Jesus tells us. “To lay down his life for his friends.”

This Sunday’s Gospel contains similar words:

“I am the good shepherd . . . I lay down my life for my sheep.”

Now of course, the Lord wasn’t talking about death on a battlefield. It would be perverse to say that. Jesus is a master of non-violent resistance. He was talking about his death on a cross. But it’s not perverse to see an analogy in the mystery of the cross — the Lord’s cross and your cross and my cross — and the Anzac spirit.

The Lord wants us to foster a spirit of service. He calls us to heroic generosity. He gives us the means to love as he loves, even to the point of death. This doesn’t “baptise” or “canonise” war. War in itself is evil, and as that story from the Western Front reminds us, war is also an occasion for great evil.

The Lord’s words don’t give us license to die for any cause of our choosing, either. A suicide bomber dies for a cause, but he is no martyr. A martyr would rather suffer death at the hands of his oppressors than renounce his beliefs. Killing yourself and innocent people to make a point is an act of oppression, not resistance to it. That’s not martyrdom, it’s brutal murder.

In any event, God doesn’t actually ask us to be martyrs. He calls us to be heroes. A hero would die for love, but he’d much rather live for it.

That’s the Anzac spirit I think. And it’s also the lesson of the cross.

Borrowed time: an age of mercy

Borrowed time: an age of mercy

At 1:30 this morning — 5:30 Saturday afternoon in Rome — Pope Francis walked to the holy doors in St Peter’s Basilica, which are opened only a few times each century, and convoked the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.

This Holy Year of Mercy begins in December. For the duration of the year, the holy doors in Rome’s basilicas will be open, symbolising the extraordinary pathways to grace available to the Church during the holy year.

“This is the time of mercy,” Pope Francis declared.

It is important that the lay faithful live it, and bring it into different social environments. Go forth!

In fact, Pope Francis has made God’s mercy the centrepiece of his pontificate. And in doing so, he joins the company of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II.

Pope Benedict invoked divine mercy when he was elected pope in 2005.

Dear friends, this deep gratitude for a gift of Divine Mercy is uppermost in my heart in spite of all. And I consider it a special grace which my Venerable Predecessor, John Paul II, has obtained for me. I seem to feel his strong hand clasping mine; I seem to see his smiling eyes and hear his words, at this moment addressed specifically to me, ‘Do not be afraid!’

St John Paul II invoked divine mercy again and again during his 27 years as pope. After the attempt on his life, he visited and forgave his would-be assassin, relating the importance he attached to divine mercy:

Right from the beginning of my ministry in St Peter’s See in Rome, I consider this message my special task. Providence has assigned it to me.

The Polish pope was very familiar with the diary of Sr Faustina. He read it as a priest, and defended it as a bishop, even though the Vatican condemned it. As pope he lifted the ban, and heeded the request our Lord made to Faustina, that the Church honour his divine mercy on the Sunday after Easter. Moreover, Pope John Paul canonised St Faustina in 2000, making her the first saint of the new millennium.

There is an interesting passage in Faustina’s diary which may describe the Polish pope:

I bear a special love for Poland, and if she will be obedient to My will, I will exalt her in might and holiness. From her will come forth the spark that will prepare the world for My final coming.

Apocalyptic themes permeate Faustina’s diary.

You will prepare the world for My final coming.

Before the Day of Justice, I am sending the Day of Mercy

Before I come as a just judge, I am coming first as the King of Mercy. Before the day of justice arrives, there will be given to people a sign in the heavens of this sort: All light in the heavens will be extinguished, and there will be great darkness over the whole earth. Then the sign of the cross will be seen in the sky, and from the openings where the hands of feet of the Saviour were nailed will come forth great lights which will light up the earth for a period of time. This will take place shortly before the last day.

None of us are obliged to believe the apocalyptic prophecies in Faustina’s diary — nor are we obliged to accept that Jesus really appeared to her. Nonetheless, Faustina is a holy woman, canonised by a pope who is himself now canonised. That’s enough for me take seriously everything she writes.

It may be that Pope Francis thinks along similar lines. He has repeatedly advised journalists to read Robert Hugh Benson’s The Lord of the World, which is an apocalyptic novel written in 1908, describing a world eerily similar to the modern day. Last month, speaking to priests in Rome, he suggested the times are urgent:

The Holy Spirit speaks to the whole Church of our time, which is a time of mercy. I am sure of this. We have been living in a time of mercy for the past 30 years or more, up to today.

Whatever of end time prophecies, one thing is certain. You and I will die some time in the next hundred years. The world will end for each one of us. So with that in mind, we can all profit from the central message St Faustina related: a message of unconditional love and infinite mercy.

Tell sinners that I am always waiting for them, that I listen intently to the beating of their heart . . . When will it beat for Me?