Thursday, January 31, 2019

Excommunication is a No-No

The very brave Bishop Tobin—in a shrug heard round the world—has suggested that there's no point in trying to use canonical discipline against what he admits as "pseudo-Catholic" politicians like Governor Cuomo. Why? "The Church lost her ability/will to discipline them a long time ago." Several clergymen like Tobin are speaking out on the subject as well, attempting to justify the appalling and mystifying refusal of the Catholic hierarchy to impose any sort of sanction whatsoever against Cuomo in light of New York's barbaric new abortion law. Tobin argues that a gesture such as excommunication would be pointless since such canonical penalties are no longer effective.

A few thoughts on this matter:

It is good to revisit the passage in the Scriptures where St. Paul speaks of the concept of excommunication, though that word is not used specifically. I am referring to 1 Corinthians 5. In this passage, St. Paul addresses a situation of extreme immorality unfolding within the Corinthian church:

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? (1 Cor. 5:1-2)

The only comment I will offer here is to note that St. Paul is not only appalled at the sin itself, but on the attitude of the Corinthians towards it. I'm not sure what he means exactly that they were "arrogant", but his words call to mind the celebratory attitude of Governor Cuomo and the Assembly of New York upon the passage of the abortion bill.

St. Paul goes on to call for excommunication against the man:

Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Cor. 5:2-5)

The phrase "deliver this man to Satan" is another way to say "remove this person from the communion of the Church." The desired outcome is that, by being cut off from the access to the community and the grace of the sacraments (i.e., being delivered to the kingdom of Satan), that this person's fleshly attitude may be prodded to repentance by the shock of being deprived of the sacraments.

However, excommunication is not solely remedial. St. Paul hopes the man will come to repentance, but that is not it's only purpose. In the following verses he explains the value of excommunication to the Christian community:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor. 5:6-8)

Let us really contemplate this passage—the purpose of excommunication is not merely for the good of the sinner's soul; it is also for the edification and protection of the community. "Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump." St. Paul teaches that excommunication helps purge the body of "leaven", and that without this purging such leaven will cause a rot throughout the body. When the offender is singled out and has judgment pronounced upon him, the faithful at least see that such behavior is proscripted. St. Paul is not only worried about the sinner, but about the boasting of the congregation, that is, their attitude about the sinner. By excommunicating him, St. Paul judges not only the sinner, but the broader attitude that allows sin to flourish unchecked.

To bring this back to Governor Cuomo: from the biblical perspective, whether Cuomo will repent or not, whether he respects the authority of the Church or not, whether the Church can claim any socio-political leverage in these matters, is not ultimately the main concern. The fact is, the good of the Catholic Church in America demands that this man be thrown out. At least make an attempt to purify the lump of its leaven. If we don't, we are celebrating with the old leaven. It's about the integrity of the community as much as it is about the sinner.

* * * * * *

There have often been times in Church history where discipline has been lost or seriously eroded. We can think of various monastic reforms throughout the centuries. Or the era of the Counter Reform and the Council of Trent when the Church had to fight an uphill battle to transform the episcopacy from a class of political courtiers into something more in line with what Christ intended. Countless regional synods from the first millennium and the era of the barbarian invasions attest to the Church's commitment to maintaining or restoring discipline in an age of chaos when order seemed to be falling apart everywhere.

Yes, there will be times when the Church loses her will and ability to discipline. But the lesson we see from these varied examples is that the will to discipline is restored by...disciplining. It is common sense. If the will to discipline has been lost and you will it to be restored, then you discipline. Imagine we swap out the issue of discipline for something else...say, painting your house:

You: "Hey man, the paint on your house is peeling off everywhere. It looks really awful. It's kind of an eye-sore. You really ought to paint it."
Me: "That's not a realistic option."
You: "Why not? There's nothing stopping you from doing it."
Me: "I lost the will to paint it a long time ago. It's hard to recapture that will now."

In such a dialogue, you would rightfully infer that it's not really a matter of me having "lost the will" to paint the house, but more that I simply do not care if the house is painted or not. I have kind of washed my hands over the state of the house. It is no longer of pressing concern to me whether it is an eye sore or not. If I truly cared about how it looked, I would find the will and ability, whether painting it myself or devoting resources to hiring someone else. When people care about something, they make effort. If I refuse to make effort, you rightfully deduce that I don't care.

And that's the sad truth here. Cardinal Tobin, Dolan and the like don't care what the optics are here. They don't care whether the House of the Lord is an eye sore, an abomination to the people. "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you" (Rom. 2:24); but they don't care. If discipline has been lost, then the common sense approach is to restore it. You restore it by making examples of people and actually asserting your will to enforce discipline. If you can't do that or refuse to, it simply means you don't even want discipline restored. You're happy with the status quo. This is the inescapable conclusion: Cuomo will not face excommunication because the princes of the Church are content with the current situation.

* * * * * *

Why are they content? Why do they prefer this current state of things to something else? The fact is, if Dolan, Tobin, etc. were to excommunicate these pro-abort politicians, they would raise the ire of liberal Catholics who would probably cut off what paltry financial support they already give. Someone like Dolan looks at his archdiocese and says, "Hmm...okay, I have so-and-so many million Catholics here, donating about such-and-such million dollars annually. I know demographically (in New York) that somewhere between 60-70% of them identify as liberal and favor liberal causes." He does a quick mental calculus and figures out that angering this constituency can cost him a net loss of X million dollars every year. With declining Mass attendance, the collapsing parochial school system, and the shadow of impending gargantuan abuse scandal settlement payouts, he dare not endanger his financial outlook any more. He simply cannot afford to agitate the liberal Catholic demographic.

And truth be told, he doesn't really want to even if he could. A prelate who attains Dolan-level prominence is not an ideologue. He is a bureaucrat and a pragmatist. He wants to walk the path of least resistance; if the diocese is heavily liberalized liturgically and ideologically, he is content to just go with the flow, keeping his head down as much as possible—not drawing the attention of the Vatican but neither doing anything to inspire their flock. To expect the bishops to take a man like Cuomo to task is like a man sitting in the warm comfort of his home being asked to go outside and pick a fight with a bear that's knocking over his trash with nothing to be gained from such effort save guaranteed pain and massive hospital bills. It's easier to just sit in the fluffy arm-chair sipping wine with the Wall Street Journal on your lap, watch the bear thrash your garbage bins through the window, shrug and say, "What can I do?"

None of us would risk our lives just to run a bear away from our trash; it just doesn't make sense. They view this political problem the same way; it doesn't make sense to them. Of course, they are seeing it errantly, and our own  resolve would change if that were our children and not the garbage the bear was destroying. And of course, it is our children who are at stake here. That they even see the question in any other terms betrays an appalling, scandalous lack of testicular fortitude.

* * * * * *

Like the contemporary discussion about capital punishment, these prelates' attitudes focus way too exclusively on the remedial-corrective aspect of the subject while ignoring the retributive-justice side of the question (see "Death Penalty and Retributive Justice", USC). There is too much hand-wringing about "Oh well Cuomo won't care about an excommunication; excommunications don't carry that sort of weight anymore...this will accomplish nothing." Regardless of whether it "accomplished" anything in the temporal order, justice and the integrity of the Faith demands it. The heinous nature of the New York law cries out for it on principle.

Consider the famous scene from the film Becket, depicted here. Doesn't that give you chills? If only we had that kind of leadership today. But let's delve into the historical background of this scene a bit. This scene is meant to encapsulate the historic excommunications of several agents of King Henry II of England by Becket throughout the 1160's over the issue of the royal power infringing on the rights of the Church. Did Becket think his excommunications were going to change King Henry's policies? Perhaps, perhaps not. Becket had worked with King Henry for years as his royal chancellor and must have known how iron-willed the king was. But ultimately the temporal success of his efforts, while important, was secondary.

Did Pius VII think excommunication was going to change Napoleon? Did St. Pius V think Queen Elizabeth was going to repent when he excommunicated her? I'd have to assume not. But they acted because they knew the rights of the Church were at stake and that they must be defended. They were able and willing to act on principle. That is what is lacking in men like Tobin and Dolan.

* * * * * *

Finally, let's remember that we can't limit God's grace. Maybe, just maybe an excommunication would have some desirable temporal affect. Maybe Cuomo would be shocked into repenting. Maybe this could be the occasion of an infusion of grace that could change his heart. Maybe it would rally the faithful Catholics of New York and lead to some sort of pro-life renaissance in the state. Maybe, amidst the hostility, expressions of solidarity would pour in from faithful Catholics around the country, who would renew their prayers for New York and the governor and the Church. Maybe miracles of grace would happen that we can't conceive of. Stranger things have happened in the history of the Church. It's not impossible.

That is, not impossible if the bishops man up and do their job. But since Vatican II, positive excommunication by decree (as opposed to latae sententiae) has really only been used against clerics, like Marcel Lefbvre, Simon Lokodo, and Ezinwanne Igbo. Excommunicating laity by positive decree is an unspoken no-no.

Ultimately, as the adage goes, you miss 100% of the shots you never take.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Christ Will Give You Victory

This morning I did a very general confession by appointment to a very excellent diocesan priest a few towns over from me. After confession we talked for about an hour, and I had some very helpful insights that I wanted to share. None of this is novel, but even so, revealed to me in the right moment it all proved to be "a word in season" (Prov. 15:23). If you are walking through a dark cloud, perhaps this will help you.

I. Do we spend too much time picking bad fruit off of our tree rather than looking at the root and finding out why it is producing bad fruit to begin with? Confessing the same sins over and over again and beginning to doubt it will ever be different? It's good to recall that God's will for you is not to "manage" your sins; His will is to have total victory over them. Have you sunken into a place where you have given up hope that you will ever have victory over your sins and have begun to settle for just maintaining your current place—treading water while you try to manage your sins? This is not why Christ died for you. His death gives you the power you need to have total victory over your sins and that should be our goal and our hope.

II. We often use a language of "distance" when speaking about our spiritual lives. Saints are "closer" to God; sin puts us "farther" from Him. However, given that God is omnipresent, "not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27), we have to remember that this language of distance is a metaphor for something else—its a way of quantifying our likeness to him; those who are more transformed by grace are "closer" to God, those who resemble Him less are "further." But really we are only ever as far from God as we put ourselves. When we sin we can feel like God is very distant, like we are prodigals suffering in a distant land. But the truth is, there is a bit of a Wizard of Oz illusion; though we may feel distant, we can go home at any time if he just really will to. The distance is only as great as we think it is. All you need to do is turn your face towards home like the prodigal son and the father will run from the house to meet you where you are.

III. It's easy to reduce grace to merely a legal concept: an abstract state we are either in or out of. That certainly is part of it, but it's not the whole part. What is the point of being "in" grace? I have sometimes prioritized the mere fact of being technically, 'legally' in a state of grace while ignoring the purpose of what is supposed to happen while I am in that state. Grace is not merely an indicator of whether I am in a state of friendship with God or not; it is also a vital force from God whose purpose is to work in my life to transform me. That is to say, grace is not merely adjectival ("state of grace"), but it is a noun. It is a thing; it is like a power or energy that is the very life of God which is lavished on us in order to ennoble us and enable us to love God beyond what our natural limitations would permit. What's the point of being "in a state of grace" if I am not actualizing the growth that being in such a state is supposed to make possible? 

* * * * *

My friend, you can have victory over your sins. Begin by believing this, trusting Christ to grant you this triumph, and take things one day at a time.

Even if you feel apathetic or distant from God, whether from sin or just lethargy, remember you can go home if you only will to. The distance between yourself and God is only as great as you let it be.

Don't focus only on being in a state of grace, but once there, on letting grace change the state of your life. Grace is not merely a place to be in, but a vital power God gives us to transform our lives. Be aware of it's work in your life and rejoice in the small victories it wins.

Christ will give you victory.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Stop Whining About Media Coverage of the March for Life

The 2019 March for Life has only been over for a day and already Catholics are engaged in the annual mantra of whining about how the media "ignores" the event. Tens of thousands of Washington selfies are being plastered across social media platforms with comments like "The media isn't reporting this!" Various Pro-Life sites are running an article titled "All Three Networks Ignore March for Life." Et cetera, et cetera.

It was probably three or four years ago that I started noticing the way Catholics just repeated this like a mantra. They get back from the March, post pics of the swelling crowds, and say something like, "Too bad the media doesn't cover this" or something similar. In fact, it was being so oft repeated that I started thinking, "This must be false," so I started following media coverage of the March. This is my third year tracking the media coverage, and I want to tell you Catholics who are repeating this, please stop. The main stream media does not ignore the March for Life. It is covered pretty consistently every year.

As of today, here are the major news outlets that have done stories about the 2019 March for Life:

USA Today
The Washington Post
FOX News
Associated Press
NBC Affiliate (example)
CBS News
CBS Chicago
Now This News (livestream)
Huffington Post
The Washington Times
New York Times (this one even shows nuns marching)
TIME Magazine

If these don't count as "main stream media", then I don't know what does. It is clearly untrue that all the major networks "ignored" the March for Life. As far as I can tell, MSNBC is the only network that had no mention of the march, although NBC and other NBC affiliates did.

All of these organizations covered the March from different angles: Some focused on the issue of abortion itself, while others zeroed in on the comments of Vice-President Pence; some networks wanted to contrast the March for Life with the Women's March, while others were more interested in exploring Trump's relationship with the Pro-Life movement. Some were merely giving directions and noting which streets were closed; still others were complaining about Ben Shapiro's comments or the Kentucky teens in the MAGA hats who disrespected some Native American elder. The sorts of coverage varied, but there was certainly coverage. It's patently false to say all the major networks "ignore" the March for Life.

The organizers of the March for Life itself seem to be cognizant of the perpetuation of this myth, because on their website they have a page dedicated to chronicling media coverage of the March. This seemed to be unique to 2017 because that was the first March during the Trump administration, but nevertheless we can see there was ample media coverage. The March media page from 2017 states:
The following outlets covered the March for Life (this is not an exhaustive list):
EWTN, CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, FOX, Washington Post, New York Times, AP, LA Times, BBC, USA Today, Fortune, The Economist, Politico, Business Insider, Roll Call, Wall Street Journal, NPR, Real Clear Politics, US News and World Report, The Hill, McLatchy, Yahoo, People Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Vox, Slate, Buzzfeed, Aljazeera, National Review, the Federalist, IJ Review, Washington Times, Newsmax, Daily Caller, Washington Examiner, Townhall, The Blaze, American Spectator, Lifezette, First Things. 

But all that coverage did not stop people from complaining about the March being "ignored" in 2017 too, nor in any of the other years. It's just become some thing that people repeat every year without even bothering to verify or think.

Now, I can grant that you might not have liked the type of coverage these media outlets provided. You might think their coverage was too brief, that they focused on the wrong aspects of the March, that the coverage portrays the Pro-Life movement negatively, that it focuses too much on novelties rather than on the Pro-Life message itself. Fine. Complain all you want about the nature of the media coverage, but stop perpetuating the falsehood that the march is "ignored" or that no media outlets cover it.

I was actually talking to a Catholic acquaintance about this who works for an NBC affiliate. People were telling him that they were dismayed by the lack of media coverage of the March. He, like me, noted first that it's simply not true. But second, he explained why he thought the March was not getting the right kind of coverage and suggested what Pro-Lifers should do it they want to garner more attention for the March. I have reposted his comments with permission:

To those Catholics who are dismayed at the "lack of coverage" of the March for Life this year, I want to offer a few thoughts. For may have heard how there was absolutely no coverage from the major networks. I want to tell you that's not true. I work for an NBC affiliate, and I can tell you for a fact, the network dedicated two live feeds to it with its own resources, not relying on the local affiliate on the ground. I saw the March on several videos that were offered that day to use in newscasts.
That said... I know it's not as much coverage as you would have liked. And I can weigh in on that. You guys have a serious problem when it comes to understanding how the media works. Take this quote for example, Alexandra DeSanctis of National Review noted at the time that "the March for Life actually deserves more coverage than either of the other marches because it is a recurring event and grows every year." your problem! It's like you guys are in World War I being led by a bunch of old cavalry generals who don't understand how this thing works. The very thing you are doing which you think should earn you more results, is the exact reason why you are getting less!!! And instead of addressing the real issue, you just throw greater numbers thinking that will solve it...not unlike a WWI general who thinks his charge will work this time. 
The fact it's a recurring event is the very reason why it gets downplayed. I'm not saying this methodology is right or wrong, but I know the media tends to be more interested in things which have novelty (something liberals are more prone to be good at). When it becomes the "same old, same old" ritual every year...the media gradually loses interest until it only gives it a footnote. Even this year I see they are giving the Women's March far less coverage than years past because it's becoming more of a yearly ritual. The March for Life really needs a PR shakeup. If you want massive coverage, I can tell you it's rather easy. If you did an unannounced demonstration on a random day that shuts down traffic in a mid-size city that's not Washington, I guarantee the networks would go wild. The problem is...that's not something conservatives are prone to do.

This is something I've been pondering for awhile; the March for Life is simply old news. It's not a novelty anymore. It gets an obligatory mention, a footnote, but that's about it. I think this gentleman's suggestion to do "an unannounced demonstration on a random day that shuts down traffic in a mid-size city that's not Washington" is pretty much what Pro-Lifers ought to be thinking about. But, as he notes, "that's not something conservatives are prone to do." Indeed.

So some of you are probably asking why I am harping about this? "Gosh, Boniface, it's like you're on the side of the main stream media or something.. These people went to march against abortion. Stop ragging on them" Pfft. Don't be silly. God bless them for marching, and I'm certainly not on the side of the media. The main stream media sucks, but the reason I am talking about this is because it is counterproductive; it ultimately hurts the Pro-Life cause when Catholics ignorantly repeat false hearsay as fact.

And on a personal level, it drives me crazy because when some college kid comes back from the March and goes on Facebook and posts selfies of himself in D.C. and snorts, "Heh...too bad the networks ignored the March," well, I am fairly certain that kid has not bothered to do any research to see if what he is saying is true; did he take the time to investigate the coverage of each network and media outlet? Almost assuredly not. He's simply repeating some mantra Catholics have got in their head that it's cool to say every year.

If you want to complain about the media coverage, do something to make it more media attractive. You can't do the exact same event in the exact same place on the exact same weekend for 46 years and expect it to be this huge media phenomenon. Do something different; be innovative. Engage in critical discussion about the type of media coverage of the march, why it is so, and how it can be changed, but stop repeating the falsehood that the March for Life is "ignored." I've been following this for years now and it's never been the case. You discredit us when you say this so please stop.

Rant over. God bless you all.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

On the Concept of Celebration

In case you have not seen the footage yet, here is a video of what occurred at Pope Francis' weekly audience on Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019:

I am beyond numb by seeing this sort of thing; it's just more par for the course. It's outrageous. It's embarrassing. It is literally the farthest thing imaginable from my mind when I think of the phrase "dignity of the See of St. Peter".

It did get me thinking about why this sort of thing happens, and I think it has to do with a fundamentally over-simplistic view celebrating. You see, at some point the modern Church got into its head the idea that Catholicism was too dour and pessimistic and gloomy. And so part of the campaign to "Throw open the windows of the church and let the fresh air of the spirit blow through", as Pope John XXIII phrased it, came this idea that Catholic worship in general needed to be more celebratory. It became commonplace to refer to the Mass as a "celebration"; priests no longer "say" Mass, they "celebrate" it; hymnals have names like Celebration and missalettes titles Celebremos!/Let us Celebrate!.

Of course, the Eucharist is a celebration and Christianity as a whole should be a joyous, celebratory religion. "May the God of hope fill you with all joy" says St. Paul (Rom. 15:13); and the Psalmist says “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” (Ps. 126:2-3). A Christian ought to be joyful, and he ought to celebrate the good things God has done for him.

But the problem is that people take "celebration" in the most banal, simplistic way possible. "Celebration" is a very nuanced concept, and how people express joy is quite varied. For example, consider the following situations:

  • A ceremony in which a wounded combat veteran receives a medal in honor of his service.
  • A group of intoxicated Irishmen singing boisterously in a pub
  • A banquet held in honor of a couple's 50th wedding anniversary
  • A gaggle of peasants holding hands and dancing around a Maypole
  • A formal dinner where a toast is made in honor of one of the attendees
  • A Fourth of July parade
All of these occasions are celebratory, but you will notice the mood and atmosphere of each is very different, running the gamut of human expression from solemnly dignified to casually festive to straight up rowdy and boisterous.

The point is, there's no one way "celebration" looks. Celebration is not a fixed absolute that always appears in the same manner. Rather, it is a fluid concept which is given its form by the concrete circumstance and the nuance inherent in any social gathering.

But those in the Church who idolize the sort of nonsense we see in this video don't care what celebration really means; they are not interested in asking the question, "What kind of celebratory attitude befits the Sacrifice of the Mass?" Because for them celebration means a single thing - desacralization and profaneness. 

I know this event was not a liturgy, only a Wednesday audience. That's kind of beside the point. This post is really just about the banal, watered-down, overly-simplistic view of "celebration" contemporary Catholicism has adopted. How stupid. How utterly, utterly stupid.

Is Christianity a joyous, celebratory religion? Yes, of course. How does that celebration look? That depends; tell me the particular life circumstance you are envisioning and I will tell you what sort of celebration is fitting. 


Related Posts:

"David Danced Before the Lord" (USC, Jan. 2011)
"Excuses for Liturgical Dancing" (USC, July, 2013)