Friday, August 13, 2004

A Bishop Weighs In On The Questionnaire

Bishop Rene Gracida has also studied the USCCB Presidential Candidate Questionnaire, and found it wanting:


I have had an opportunity to review a copy of the 2004 Presidential Questionnaire submitted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to President George Bush and Senator John Kerry. I am disappointed that the Questionnaire is so broad and covers so many issues that are before the American public today that its value in helping to show the differences between the positions of the two candidates on the really important issues will be minimal.

While certainly there could be and should be a "Catholic" position on most, if not all, of the issues covered by the Questionnaire, from the perspective of the Church's teaching some issues far outweigh others in importance. For instance, there is no moral equivalence between the issue of abortion-on-demand and farm subsidies. The Questionnaire should have been much shorter and should have been limited to questions on those issues on which there is a clear unequivocal teaching of the Church, e.g., abortion, cloning, assisted suicide, embryonic stem-cell research and marriage.

There is no clear unequivocal position of the Church on such issues as the minimum wage, immigration, farm subsidies, etc. The inclusion of questions in the Questionnaire can only result in confusion in the minds of Catholic voters who do not understand that there is no moral equivalence between these two groups of issues. I can only hope that both presidential candidates will refuse to reply to the Questionnaire, or, if they do reply, that the leadership of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will recognize the danger to Catholic voters and will publish those replies with a clear teaching on the greater importance which should be attached to the replies to the first group of questions I have listed above that have far greater moral implications for the Nation.

+Rene Henry Gracida
Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi
10 August 2004

From Deal Hudson's Crisis E-Letter

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Christ Makes Us Worthy

My friend, Fr. Brian Stanley, reacted about as strongly to some comments on women's ordination and "modern priestly formstion" over at Amy Welborn's blog as I did Tuesday. Fr. Stanley sent me the following note, with his observations on the matter:

As a priest, I take, too, take offense at the question of worthiness that has been raised, however "unintentionally". Am I to understand that the comments were intended to criticize the institution, but not the individuals who have given their lives over in service to God through that institution? I'm not buying it. That's a little too neatly compartmentalized. And it would seem that since the question of personal worthiness is an internal one, but evidently fair game for blogger commentary, wouldn't the question of intentionality be similarly fair game? Bottom line, how many priests have to blog and say that they were insulted before a comment is acknowledged as an insult? I think that the effects of a statement have as much weight as the intention behind it.

I have a brother, less than a year younger than I, who absented himself from the Mass for my ordination, because he and his wife considered me "unworthy" for ordination. To be fair, he also absented himself from my sister's wedding, my brother's wedding, and my mother's funeral, all because those people were “unworthy.” I tend to have a purely personal reaction when I hear the question of "worthiness" brought up, mainly because I think such question reveals more about the person asking the question than it does the actual object of the question.

Now to the actual object of the question, from my own story. I spent seven years in priestly formation with the Holy Cross Fathers in South Bend, from age 18 to 25. At no time did I ever hear that I was worthy of breakfast, lunch or dinner, let alone ordination to the priesthood. When I left the community of my own volition, my self esteem was pretty low. Who is worthy? No one. Fortunately, Christ makes us worthy. And like it or not, the Church is the instrument of grace for ordination.

Then I went to teach with the Jesuits in Wilmette, IL, for five years. I had a good experience teaching and coaching there. I also had a department chairman who liked to remind me that I was easily replaced, and frequently quoted General DeGaulle: The cemeteries are filled with indispensible men. Who is needed? No one. Fortunately, Christ calls us, not the department chairman. And like it or not, the Church is the instrument of that calling to ordination.

At Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, I had further priestly formation that emphasized service, humility, self-sacrificing love, self examination, frequent confession, peer evaluation. I was grilled, questioned, prodded, examined, stretched, gutted, stuffed, and then we went through the process again... for five years. That anyone gets through that without becoming a complete cynic is the real miracle of formation. I know my flaws and failings better than most know their own, if there is indeed even the slightest inkling of self examination in the modern world. The bald fact of the world today is that, as the blog commentary shows all too clearly, we're far more comfortable challenging others' worthiness than questioning our own worthiness. In a world that has promoted ultimate rebellion in questioning authority (and yes, Joan Chittister does exactly that, and not as logically as has been asserted, either), there are some who are seeking to authorize the questions first. I applaud Fr. Johansen’s responses, which promote the historical record, the hardest thing for liberals to overcome (they generally prefer to ignore that record). For the record, I am with the Centurion: Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. But only say the word and my servant will be healed. Only say the word, Lord, and I will be healed.

Has recent seminary formation somehow failed to address the issue of worthiness? I suppose if one confuses confidence in the Church’s teachings with personal pride, one might come away thinking that many newly ordained priests are full of themselves. I assure you, they are not. They are filled with the Good News, and proclaim it confidently, boldly. Some hearers take exception to that, because they want their gospel meek and mild. They do not want to hear of authority or objective truth or historical record. Such things do not fit into their preconceived notions, their ideas of ministry which come to resemble themselves rather than resemble Christ.

I think something has to be acknowledged here, a difficult matter of fact -- those who promote women’s ordination will not accept any argument against women’s ordination based on the Tradition of the Church. I have read so many specious arguments for women’s ordination which blithely sweep away Tradition, because they claim the Tradition on this subject is unreasonable, irrational, illogical. They do not substantiate the claim – they merely state it, as if saying it is irrational makes it so. No argument by Fr. Johansen or Cardinal Ratzinger or Pope John Paul II will sway these people, regardless of the soundness of their logic, the accuracy of their history, or the passion and sincerity of their presentation. It is a shame that the defense of male ordination is deemed insufficient, and that according to its critics, no worthy effort has been made in two thousand years.

One gets the sense that Our Lord Himself could return and proclaim the Church’s teaching on television clearly and plainly, and the feminists would respond with, “But that’s not logical,” and would ask Our Lord to defend His statement. The other difficult matter of fact is that Our Lord Himself has indeed spoken clearly and plainly on this topic, in the magisterial teaching of the Church. And it is just as clear and plain that the critics do not acknowledge that Holy Presence in the Church hierarchy, and that they are taking advantage of the incompetent administration in the midst of the Scandal as rationale for their rejection of Tradition.

And they fail to address the problem of precedent: if the Church changes this substantial discipline and doctrine, which discipline or doctrine will be next? This is the program that Fr. Johansen describes, this is the program that the Joan Chittisters of the world promote. And it is a program that is most destructive to the Church.

Fr. Brian Stanley is Pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Coldwater, Michigan. He can be reached at frstanley at cbpu dot com.

The USCCB Presidential Questionnaire

Yesterday's Washington Times ran an article, titled "Catholic Survey Criticized as Partisan", by St. Blog's own Victor Morton. It's about the recent Questionnaire sent in the name of the bishops by the USCCB's Office of Government Liaison to the Presidential candidates.

As one of the critics cited in the article, I thought I'd add a few more of my thoughts on the matter.

I think the survey is seriously flawed. As I said for the article, the survey takes a "throw-everything-in-but-the-kitchen-sink" approach, that makes no distinction between the differences in moral gravity of various issues. The Survey is organized alphabetically. The ostensible reason for this approach, given the rationale provided by the Office of Government Liaison's director Bill Ryan, is to avoid the appearance of the bishops making "editorial comments" on the responses. But the bishops wouldn't be making editorial comments on the politicians' responses by distinguishing between fundamental moral teaching and issues of lesser gravity. The result is simply incoherent.

The result is a hodgepodge of issues with no principles or hierarchy of values seeming to organize them. For example, the question "Will you support or oppose a federal constitutional amendment to protect the right to life of unborn children?" is right next to "Will you support or oppose legislation to reduce government subsidies to large corporate farmers and redirect those funds to low-income new farmers and ranchers?". The legislation to reduce subsidies to corporate farms may very well be a good idea, but no one in his right mind could pretend that it is of equal or even approximate moral weight to the issue of protecting the lives of innocent children. But you'd never get that idea from the survey.

Furthermore, as I said in a comment which didn't make it into the article, the survey mixes issues on which the Bishops Conference have made policy recommendations of a prudential nature with those which are a matter of fundamental moral teaching, as though they were of equal weight. For example, the survey asks "Will you support or oppose legislation to increase the federal minimum wage from the current $5.15 per hour to $7.00 per hour over two years?" From this I can assume that the USCCB has taken a position advocating such an increase. But the specific policy recommendation that increasing the minimum wage would, in fact, help poor people is a prudential judgment. It is a judgment on which some Catholics (such as myself), based on Catholic moral principles, would differ. It is perfectly possible to be a good Catholic and say "I think raising the minimum wage in this way at this time would be a bad idea." But an issue such as cloning or embryonic stem-cell research admits of no such prudential judgment. The survey gives no evidence that such a distinction exists.

Frankly, I also fail to see how the bishops have any business at all wasting their time by making policy recommendations and asking politicians about such issues as communications law, in which they have no conceivable competence. One of the questions is "Will you support or oppose legislation to strengthen the regulation of broadcasters to ensure that they meet their public service broadcast license obligations?" This question, by the way, is conveniently juxtaposed against the issue of cloning. For the bishops to include such matters in their survey just trivilaizes it, and undermines their ability to be taken either intellectually or morally seriously.

The US bishops themselves have been clear that life issues are of foremost importance today, saying things like "Failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions in other matters", or "The right to life is the foundation of all other rights."

But the survey in no way reflects that teaching. And therein lies the the real problem. This survey, authored by the bishops' conference, doesn't reflect the teaching either of the universal Church, or even of the bishops in whose name it is issued.

Austin Ruse, president of the Culture of Life Foundation, is quoted in the article as speculating that "these questions reflect the legislative priorities of the lay staff" of the USCCB. Whether that is true or not, I don't know. But this incident raises questions which seem to keep coming up again and again:

Who is really speaking when statements are issued in the bishops' name?

Who really runs the USCCB?

The Eternal Banquet of The Lamb

Fr. Jim Tucker over at Dappled Things has an outstanding post on the Eucharist, based on a talk he gave to a monastery of the Poor Clares.

The issue for him, and for all of us, is how do we come into "real contact" with Christ's saving act on Calvary? The answer is: through the Eternal Sacrifice of the Mass. He explains:
In some way that cannot be explained, the Christian who takes part in the Mass finds the walls of the church dissolving and the hands of the clock stopping and the familiar faces around him being lost amid a multitude of faces of people who have lived the Faith throughout the centuries. He finds himself beneath a Cross as bread and wine lose their reality, and crucified Flesh is held aloft, and sacrificed Blood comes streaming out of a Heart that was pierced 2,000 years ago. With the eyes of his Faith, he sees, as John saw in the Apocalypse, a slaughtered Lamb that lives again. And he is offered a chance to be a part of that Sacrifice, to eat and drink the Death of Jesus, which is the only way to win the promise of a share in His Resurrection. "Blessed are those who are called to the wedding feast of the Lamb."

Read the whole thing. Fr. Jim is one of the best.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

"My Grace Is Sufficient For Thee"

I would have preferred to narrate the following experience according to the promptings of a spirit of peaceful reflection or the like. But recent events have induced me to relate it in almost a spirit of self-defense, or perhaps more importantly, in a spirit of defense of the priesthood, as it is and has been understood by the Church, and lived out by some of the best men I know: the priests whom I attended seminary with and are products of "modern" priestly formation.

I have been reticent about sharing the following, except with a few close friends, because intense spiritual experiences, experiences which hindsight reveals to be turning points in one's life, are initimate matters. To reveal them too widely risks a sort of spiritual nakedness, which can perhaps render one more vulnerable than the physical variety. I am also reluctant to share this because I do not want to be seen as "tooting my own horn".

I am prompted to share this now as a result of some comments made by another commentor over on Amy Welborn's blog (You'll have to scroll fairly far down to find the relevant comments). He and I were carrying on a running debate on various issues relating to feminism and women's ordination, and at one point he wrote:
We have too many instances of people following the way of the reluctant Biblical figure or Christian saint: aware of unworthiness, they respond anyway. (Hardly the model of modern priestly formation, I might add.) [emphasis mine]

This remark that the awareness of unworthiness is "hardly the model of modern priestly formation...", carries with it the implication that I and other recently ordained priests somehow think of ourselves as worthy or deserving of the privilege of the Priesthood, as though we see ourselves as some sort of elevated Brahmin caste. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I found the remark and the implication deeply offensive. Knowing the years of trial, purification, and sheer hell that many of my confreres went through to be ordained makes the remark all the more offensive. While the author didn't intend it this way, it seems to impugn the priesthood of all of those good men with whom I am privileged to serve as brother priests.

No doubt, there are some men who enter the seminary with some twisted idea that they are "worthy" of the priesthood, or that they are doing God some sort of favor by offering themselves for ordination. I met a few along the way during my formation. But those guys usually didn't last long, and I'm glad to be able to say that not one of those losers I encountered made it to ordination. The fact is that the difficulties and trials of seminary life simply won't permit that sort of nonsense to survive long. Furthermore, a man's classmates are usually the best bullshit detector in the seminary. I recall once, during my time at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, I heard a classmate complaining over dinner about being made to do work at his Apostolate assignment which he felt was "beneath" him. He said "these hands were meant for chalices, not callouses." I felt sickened upon hearing his remark, and at that moment lost any respect I had for him. I seriously considered "reporting" his comment to the seminary Formation Team, and believe me, that was the sort of thought I rarely entertained. But I felt that a man who harbored such an attitude was simply unfit for ordination. I was dissuaded from reporting this seminarian by my spiritual director, who advised me to hold off, and assured me that the Formation Team was "onto him". When, later that year, that seminarian was dismissed, his departure came as no surprise to, and was greeted with a sense of relief by, his classmates.

Now, after that long preface (I'm sure that purgatory for me will consist mainly of having to endure the ramblings of people as long-winded as myself), on to the narrative of an experience I had in the seminary which I think is relevant to the above-mentioned comment:

Because I transferred both dioceses and seminaries, my reception of the ministries of Lector and Acolyte (two "stepping stones" on the way to ordination) was delayed. This meant also that my admission to Candidacy for Holy Orders was also delayed. Candidacy is the formal recognition by the Church's authority that a man is in fact considered a candidate for Orders. It is, in a sense, the Church's "seal of approval", that in due course of time, when a man completes his studies, he will be ordained. Normally, at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where I completed my formation, Candidacy is received in a man's third year of Theology. Because of my transfer, I did not receive Candidacy until the fall of my fourth year.

I received Candidacy at a regular Sunday Mass at the seminary, from the then-Rector of Sacred Heart, Bishop Allen Vigneron (now bishop of Oakland, California). I was the only man to receive Candidacy then, so I felt particularly "on the spot". I was also both touched and challenged by the fact that, as it seemed to me at the time, Bishop Vigneron's homily was directed to me personally. His admonitions and exhortations seemed to be tailored specifically to my shortcomings, strengths, and weaknesses. I did not feel threatened or oppressed by this, so much as I felt a growing sense that this was serious business.

The ritual for Candidacy includes a prescribed Instruction, with which Bp. Vigneron concluded his homily. These words seemed to leap up and challenge me:
Day by day you [the candidate] will learn to live the life of the Gospel and deepen your life of Faith, Hope, and Love. In the practice of these virtues you will gain the spirit of prayer and grow in zeal to win the world to Christ.

I began thinking, "OK, I've got the zeal, but that's about all that I have. My Faith is weak, my Hope struggles, and I can think of a dozen people who are much better than me at exhibiting the Love of Christ. Why me, Lord?"

Then, a little later in the ceremony, the bishop asks the candidate two questions:
Bishop: In response to the Lord's call are you resolved to complete your preparation so that in due time you will be ready to be ordained for the ministry of the Church?

Candidate: I am.

Bishop: Are you resolved to prepare yourself in mind and spirit to give faithful service to Christ the Lord and his body, the Church?

Candidate: I am.

At this point, my mind started whirling. I asked myself, am I really prepared? Am I really ready to give myself to Christ and His Church?

The enormity of what I was doing struck me. I realized at that moment that I was standing before the Church - the whole Church, the Church in Heaven and the Church here on earth, and saying "Ordain me. I will serve." And it seemed to me at that moment that I was no longer standing in just that seminary chapel. I felt as though the space had opened up, and I was in the midst of some vast space, surrounded by a multitude. I looked up at Bishop Vigneron, and realized that I had addressed my words, those two simple "I am's" not to Bishop Vigneron, not even to my assembled brothers, but to Christ Himself.

And the thought came to my mind "Who do you think you are? Who are you to be standing here? You're not worthy of this great calling. You're a fraud, a poseur."

And my heart sank, as I began to feel that I was committing some great effrontery.

Then, as if welling up from some great depth, I heard in my heart a voice. That voice was not my own mind, my own thought. It had a different quality than my questions and self-reproach. The voice seemed to be both from the very center of my self, and yet from somewhere else.

And the voice said "My grace is sufficient for thee. (2 Cor. 12:9) My grace, my life, my body and blood, are sufficient for thee, Rob."

And the weight, the reproach, vanished. I knew once again that this wasn't about me. It wasn't about me, my strengths or my weakness. It was about Christ. He had called, and I would say "yes." Christ was the one who would remedy my unworthiness. He was the one who would supply the sufficiency for my lack.

After the Mass, I went back to my room and looked up Second Corinthians. The full verse is this:
"My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.

This verse has been a constant part of my prayer ever since.