Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What is freedom?

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Is there any other word that defines the American spirit quite like the word freedom? Ask most people what they understand freedom to be and youll hear a response resembling the following: freedom from coercion, oppression, and extrinsic force so that one may exercise the ability to make choices and determine their own path of life. Any limitation placed on the choices available to a person is, by definition, a loss of freedom.

While all of this is true, it is an incomplete understanding of freedom, it resembles more the idea of liberty, which is a part of a the full concept of freedom. To understand freedom more completely, one must explore two senses of freedom and how they relate to one another.

Mike Mozart, "American Flag" is licensed under CC 2.0.
The first sense would, in fact, be this idea of liberty. The particularly human quality of having the ability to make a decision about ones actions, thoughts, and life as a whole. While animals function under the direction of instinct, human beings have the ability to make free choices. We are not bound by simple impulses and often make decisions contrary to what basic impulse would direct us. Freedom, in this sense, has a more negative reference and is properly described as freedom from.

The second sense, however, can be described as freedom for. In this sense freedom refers to an ability or a power. One is free to perform an action because she has the ability or the power to perform that action. A classic example would be the freedom to play an instrument. Having never learned to play the piano, I do not have the freedom to sit down at a moments notice and produce music. The most I can do is awkwardly press a few keys and produce the first few notes of a simple song. One who has learned to play the piano has the freedom to sit down at any keyboard they come across and produce music for all within ear shot. This is a fuller understanding of freedom and liberty only exists in service to this second sense of freedom. The first sense is merely potentiality, the second, actuality.

In addition, once someone makes a choice, they automatically reduce their liberty. If I choose chocolate ice cream, I necessarily no longer have the liberty to choose the vanilla. If I turn right down the road, I no longer have the liberty to turn left. In contrast, freedom in the second sense is never diminished. It always actualizes potential, it fulfills. This being said, to achieve freedom, one must always sacrifice one's liberty. If I want to produce music from the piano, I am not at liberty to bang down on any key I choose at any moment. The piano has a law and an order that I must submit to if I wish to be truly free to play the piano. In addition to laying aside my liberty in service to this internal structure that must be obeyed, I must sacrifice my liberty continually to practice and play scales over and over when Id rather play or do something else. This constant sacrificing of my liberty gradually transforms into the freedom to produce the beauty of the music to achieve the purpose for the pianos existence. Freedom, then, can be described as the ability achieve excellence - to fulfill the purpose of a particular object or power.

These two senses of freedom are dependent upon each other. I cannot exercise the freedom forwithout the freedom from.If someone has bound my hands, I am not free to play the piano. The first sense is in service to the second. Liberty is not an end in itself. It exists always in service to freedom. The goal, then? Instead of understanding mere liberty as the primary virtue to be sought for oneself, one should seek to use their liberty to achieve excellence and fulfillment.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Would you give up your iPhone for a person?

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Several months ago I heard a soon-to-be 11-year-old share her biggest birthday wish.  “I want a little brother or sister.”

Gonzala Baeza, "iPhone" is licenced under CC by 2.0.
Her friend’s mother, in whom she was confiding her wish, laughed and gave her innumerable reasons why her desire would not come true.  “Your mom doesn’t want any more children.  She’s done.”

“But I want a baby sister or brother so much.  I’d give up my iPhone if my mom would have a baby.”

The friend’s mother laughed again.  “A baby is much more expensive than your iPhone.”

The little girl was not convinced, and I sat a few feet away, troubled by the conversation I had witnessed.

Could it be that this little girl – we’ll call her Lucy – would translate the expense of a brother or sister to her own life?  Might she now look at dollar signs when seeing tiny fingers and toes?  Would she think of her existence as a financial burden on her parents instead of as a surprising gift?  Will she marry someday and view fruitfulness as  calculation and debt, rather than ever-new generosity?

In 1968, Pope Paul VI completed the final encyclical letter of his papacy.  Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life”) reaffirmed the Church’s constant teaching that contraception is not fitting for the dignity of the human person.  As Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical, he sought advice from bishops, theologians and laity.  Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who later became St. John Paul II, convened his own commission to examine the moral question of contraception.  Together, he and the theologians and couples wrote a document to share their thoughts on the matter with Pope Paul VI.

When I came across a translation of this document (“The Foundations of the Doctrine of the Church Concerning the Principles of Conjugal Life”), I was struck by one of the lines of logic St. John Paul II and his colleagues used.  There are three main points within this particular section:


1)    Jesus stressed love in the New Covenant (Love God and love your neighbor as yourself).  In fact, love is a participation in the love of the Trinity.  Because human persons are a union of body and soul, our love is incarnate and is expressed through our bodies. 


2)    In a unique way, married couples express this love through the marital act, which must seek always to affirm the dignity of the human person.  Contraception – though often unintentionally – fosters a kind of selfishness in marriage.  When removing the life-giving nature of sex, the act is transformed from being one of authentic love to being a matter of using another person as an object.  One’s spouse becomes a means to an end – in this case, primarily for the sake of pleasure.


3)    Children who are raised by parents who are using contraception cannot help but be affected by their parents’ choice, even if the children are unaware of what their mother and father are doing.  The document explains that a climate of selfishness is formed in the home – because contraception prioritizes self-pleasure over self-mastery.  Even the way in which parents love their children can be affected by contraception.  Children deserve to be raised in a climate of love.  Rather than grow in an environment where acts of love are distorted into acts of selfishness, St. John Paul II and his colleagues wrote: “The good of the family therefore demands true love, which means knowing how to master oneself for the good of the person loved. This is nothing other than loving God in the person of the spouse.”

Later in the document, the authors explain that the way in which husband and wife view one another impacts the way they view their children.  Since children come from the union of the spouses, this makes sense.  If husband and wife treat each other as objects, then viewing their children as an object, or as simply “mine” naturally ensues.

On the other hand, if husband and wife see each other as a gift – a unique, unrepeatable person who should always be loved and never used – and if their sexual life likewise affirms their love, allowing the marital act to serve their love instead of dominating them, then the children born through that union are more readily seen as the gifts that they are.  

The authors suggest that contraception is a kind of “anti-parental” behavior.  They write: “The contraceptive relationship cannot be the expression of a parental attitude, because it is not a gift of self without restriction, a total communion with the other, despite whatever opaque veils of possible illusions may be present.”

If it seems abstract or even far-fetched, think back to “Lucy” at the beginning of this article.  While not presuming to know the intentions or actions of her parents, we can only imagine that whatever their attitude toward children, it must affect their daughter.  If to her mom and dad, children are a surprising gift, a generous cooperation of God’s generosity with our own, then Lucy will know it.  But if children are a burden – financially, emotionally – or perhaps an object on which we place a limit, then Lucy will know that too.

The future Pope John Paul II’s recommendations to Bl. Paul VI in preparation for the encyclical Humanae Vitae challenge us.  It seems almost unfair to suggest that the private choices of a couple behind bedroom doors could directly impact the culture of the home, the place where their children learn the meaning of love.  We might be tempted to slam the door on the idea, insisting on a more immediately pleasant view of love and its role in our families.  But what might we be missing? 

St. John Paul II was quite clear that love is a constant challenge entrusted to us by God.  While demanding at times, this task is attainable.  We can love authentically because God Himself is Love and invites us to share in His love.  Nothing less than this ever-generous love will satisfy us. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Mystery of Our Family's History Unfolded In Grandma's Christmas Tree

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My father’s family has lived in the same little town in the same house for the last one hundred ten years, and my Grandmother has the Christmas tree to prove it.  Her poor little tree is dense with ornaments, sometimes three or four deep on a single branch.  Even so, there are still four big boxes in the basement that won’t be displayed this year.

To my eighteen month old daughter Mary Claire, Grandma’s tree is a kind of miracle.  We were worried that she would attack the tree with her usual exploratory gusto — grabbing at Grandma’s treasures and attempting to eat them, likely destroying them in the process. 

But without saying a word, Mary Claire approached the tree for the first time slowly, tentatively – even reverently – and just stared. 

After a couple of minutes, she squealed with delight, toddled closer to the tree, and pointed to a little stained glass wren.  Grandma lovingly removed the ornament from the tree, and recalled that she had received it half a century ago from a dear family friend who had passed away later on that same winter.  “What about this one?” I asked, pointing to an ancient ornament with a foil pinwheel that spun from the heat put off by the tree lights.  “My own mother brought this with her from Minnesota for her first Christmas as a new bride out on the prairie,” Grandma said.  Next, Mary Claire found a Thumbelina doll, nestled in half a walnut. “Your mother made this one for me when she was a little girl,” Grandma explained to my daughter. 

Though it may be tempting to write off Grandma’s Christmas aesthetic as merely cluttered, I began to appreciate the way her tree, bedecked with its “jewels”, carried with it the inexhaustible richness of our family’s story – a story that bound us to one another and to our place through the love we’d been given to share. Though she certainly can’t articulate it yet, my own daughter must have some intuitive sense of this love, a sense that prompted her to approach Grandma’s tree with wonder, awe, and delight. 

My daughter finally did help herself to an ornament on Grandma’s tree, - a cut-metal silhouette depicting the Holy Family that first night in Bethlehem.  She turned the ornament over in her hand, and smiled as though she had some private little secret.  Then she smiled at me. 

Truly, it is the Christ-child who reveals the love that is the heart of every human story. It is His love that inspires in us wonder and delight as it is revealed anew in every generation.  I thank God for the chance to encounter him through the babe in the manger, and through my own baby at the foot of my Grandma's tree.  

Sunday, December 28, 2014

What should couples expect from Catholic marriage preparation?

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I went to the eye doctor a couple of months ago for my yearly eye exam and a typical (for me) small-talk conversation transpired as the doctor was finishing making his notations on my chart.
Dr.: “So, what do you do for a living?”
Me: “I work for the Catholic Diocese in town.”
(Pause while typing in chart.)
Dr.: “Did you say the Catholic Diocese?!”
Me: “Yep, that’s correct.  I work in the Marriage and Family Life Office.  We do marriage preparation and enrichment retreats as well as coordinate the instruction of Natural Family Planning among other things.”
Dr.: “Hmm, guess you have an uphill battle to fight what with divorce rates being what they are.”
Me: “Yeah, there’s always more that we can be doing to help married couples respond to God’s grace.”
Dr.: “Well, OK, on your way out you can schedule your appointment for next year.  See you then.”
Me: “Sure thing.”
Ken Teegardin, "Vision of Eye Chart with Glasses" is licensed under CC by 2.0
I don’t want to read too much into the doctor’s pause when I told him who my employer was and what I specialize in, but I can’t help but think that at some level he was buying time to think of a cordial response to a typically polarizing topic – the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage and family life.  I mentioned this was a typical small-talk conversation for me because whenever someone asks me what I do, my response automatically propels us into the impolite social conversation realm of religion, if not also politics!

Along with these social exchanges with service providers and professionals, when engaged couples come to diocesan PreCana sessions they either have no idea what to expect for the day, or they have heard anecdotes from their friends or siblings.   If so, they think they’ll be spending the day listening to couples sharing their experiences on topics such as: communication (perceived as “fight fair”), finances (experienced as “we have these school, car and credit card debts that we don’t like to look too closely at”) and intimacy (“we know what works for us and we like things just the way they are, thank you very much”).  None of these preconceived notions is particularly helpful to them because what the mind of the Church is when it comes to actual marriage preparation is quite different.

So what would I share with my eye doctor if he seemed more open to a conversation about what constitutes Catholic marriage preparation?  What do I wish engaged couples roughly knew prior to attending a PreCana day (or better yet a weekend) of reflection?  

A few key principles that may help prepare you for your own conversation with your optometrist:  
1.     There are objective truths and you cannot simply say that “your truth is your truth and my truth is my truth” while simultaneously asking God to bless your marriage.

a.     The Lord is a gentleman. If you ask to profess your vows in his house according to his design on your wedding day you can be assured that he will turn the inevitable sorrows in life into instances of resurrected new life.  If on the other hand, you go through all the motions on your wedding day and outwardly do everything that Catholic Christians are supposed to do at a wedding, but then consistently act in ways contrary to your wedding vows, the Lord will allow you to persist in your choices, always willing to accept your homecoming should you choose to return.  An example of this problematic dual living is saying “yes” to the question, “will you accept children loving from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” on your wedding day and then making use of contraception and/or sterilization throughout many years of your marriage.          

2.     There are three general stages of marriage preparation: Remote (from conception to puberty), proximate (starting with puberty, dating, courtship through engagement) and immediate (last months of engagement and finalized discernment for wedding liturgy).

a.     Everything we observe, and do, prior to marriage is either shaping us to readily love others selflessly or selfishly.  Let your imagination wander with the notion of what your relationships might have been like in high school and college if you had progressively learned and applied the lessons of how best to anticipate the true needs of others rather than focusing on getting what you like or want from others.  

3.     Divorce prevention does not equal marriage preparation.

a.     Bumper bowling prevents you from ever getting a ball in the gutter, but it can never make you a professional bowler.

4.     Marriage takes up and re-proposes the tasks of spreading and defending the faith, tasks that were given in baptism and confirmation.

a.     Who has ever heard a homily on this before!  I certainly never have.  But it is amazing, because it means that married couples have two tasks in marriage that God, through the Sacraments, is equipping them to accomplish: spreading and defending the faith.  Some examples of spreading the faith within marriage might be, sharing Bible stories with toddlers and having them learn from observation how to genuflect before the tabernacle and how to make the Sign of the Cross.  For defending the faith, how about charitably responding to a teenaged child’s questions about the relevance of Sunday Mass or Lenten fasting.  God knows the difficulty of these tasks, which is why in part he gives spouses direct access to his own divine life and consoling spirit through the sacraments.        

5.     Your burning desire to enter into marriage will always give way to feelings of disillusionment and uncertainty which is always the invitation to mature vowed love.

a.     Just like a caterpillar begins life, enters a chrysalis and emerges as a beautiful butterfly, so too all married couples must complete a simple, but arduous, transformation in order to reach the heights of love.   Eventually the honeymoon is over and a powerful question is posed: “Why did I give my whole life permanently to this person who is hurting me so bad?”  Precisely at this moment of questioning, the wedding vows show the way forward to mature enduring love.  If the vows are forgotten, distained or purposefully ignored full growth can never be achieved and with it the gift of wings which allow for glorious flight, something far better than a happy contented caterpillar ever knew.  
6.     On your wedding day, at the moment of consent, you give away your whole life in an instant.  All of married life after that is an unfolding of that promise given in time!

a.     Yikes!  We do not do this with other humans in any other context.  We do it “frequently” with God in the other Sacraments, but he is trustworthy and faithful, unlike our imperfect spouses.  Incidentally, this is part of the reason why witnesses at weddings are indispensable; we all need to have our feet held to the fire sometimes.       

7.     You do not have to have all the answers for your marriage to be pleasing to you, your spouse, your families and God.  You do need to be humble and receive grace from God.

 a.     I do not understand how the Internet, my cell phone or microwaves really work, but that is OK.  I still successfully collaborate with them all the time.  My wife and children will always remain mysterious to me, but that is OK.  I can still successfully serve their mysterious otherness from me and when I do so, I will find myself becoming more joyful and conformed to God who is love himself.

"O Come, O Come Emmanuel:" Self-surrender as the path to universal holiness, Part I

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“Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:7

Like everyone else, the commercialism of Christmas can be overwhelming to the point where I feel like I’m in the middle of Whoville’s mad “buy, buy, buy!” mentality from The Grinch who Stole Christmas.  It’s hard to imagine that Christmas Day used to be a day of solemn prayer, contemplation, and shockingly . . . worship.  Christmas Day began the 12 Days of Christmas during which merriment, feasting, and dancing occurred, culminating in the 12th day, Epiphany.  Sometimes, that reality feels very far away.  We allow ourselves to be consumed by cleaning, decorating, purchasing and wrapping gifts, entertaining, and mostly, rushing through it all.  As culpable of this rush as anyone else, I find myself at odd moments during Advent masses (or even just listening to carols in the car), surprised and overwhelmed by the beauty and awe of Advent as anticipation for the birth of Christ.

As cradle Catholics, many of us grow up casually referring to the Holy Family, and somehow along the way forget that our own families are called to holiness as well.  At Vatican II, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (Light of Nations) emphasized that all Christians – not just members of the religious or clergy – are called to be saints.

For those of us whose vocation is marriage, we are called to live out this holiness through our own families, which are themselves understood to be little “domestic” churches.  And yet our families are often the source of stress and argument, and regrettably, they commonly bear the brunt of our worst behavior.  We’ve all heard the maxim, “You always hurt the ones you love,” but I don’t think we spend enough time considering that the ones we love are the ones who deserve the best from us and not the worst.  We need to look to the Holy Family, not as an unreachable, mystical symbol, but rather as a tangible, physical reality which once existed and towards which we should never stop aspiring.  This time of year, we most often visualize the Holy Family in the context of the Nativity, and I find I use that depicted moment of wonder and awe to center myself in meditation on the type of holiness that we are called to during Advent.

Most Catholics know the Nativity as the third Joyful mystery of the rosary, but I want to speak for a moment about that word, mystery.  We are blessed to inherit a rich history of revelation, including an abundant multitude of mysteries that we are still contemplating more than 2,000 years later.  The Incarnation is arguably the greatest of these mysteries, rivaled only by the Paschal Mystery.  And Christmas is the Incarnation, this profound mystery in which God becomes human, without limiting or detracting from His divine nature as God.  The familiar nativity stable scene of Our Lady, St. Joseph, and the Christ child, complete with angels, shepherds, and wise men is deceptively simple and humble when you consider the awesome reality of God choosing to enter the world through the consent of a human woman.  

Since I was a little girl, one of my favorite Christmas carols has always been “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  As I grew up, I learned that we have this revealed name of God, Emmanuel, as just one of many names for Christ.  In contrast to Yahweh, whose divine name means being and existence itself, but is unpronounceable and ultimately unknown, Christ reveals Himself to us constantly, through many names.  He is Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, Emmanuel and the Rod of Jesse, the Lamb of God and the Bread of Life, the Bridegroom and the King of Kings, the Way, the Truth, and the Life . . . the Logos, or the Word of God.  And the meanings of these names are fascinating, from the “Messiah” as the “anointed” to Christos, meaning “God saves.”  But, above all, my favorite name for Christ is still Emmanuel, meaning, “God is with us.”

"Nativity with the Torch," Le Nain brothers

Because this is what our faith is all about.  This is what differentiates us from every other religion.  We have a God who loved us enough to become human—to live, love, teach, suffer, die, and ultimately unmake death for us.  We have a God who remains with us, physically and literally, in the awesome mysteries of the seven sacraments, but most profoundly in the Holy Eucharist.  For the first time in salvation history, God enters the world, not as a military leader or an omnipotent vengeful deity, but in the most vulnerable form possible—that of a human infant.  And more—He chooses to enter the world through the free consent of a human woman, who has no agenda or delusions of power, but who says “yes” rather because everything that she is and has ever been is a fiat, or total, unreserved “yes” to the Trinity. 

In Philippians 2:7, we read, “Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”  The Greek word for this “humbling” is kenosis, which translates as “self-emptying.”  Now, we must not understand this “self-emptying” as a kind of mindless numbing, or worse, some Buddhist form of detachment.  Rather, we understand this to be a complete and utter surrender of one’s will to the Father, until one becomes a perfect and pure vessel for the Father’s will. 

We understand Christ to have taken on everything it means to be human—including a human body, mind, will, suffering, and death—in sheer and perfect obedience to the Father.  And more—Christ’s motivation for all of this is nothing but absolute, utter, and unfathomable love for the Father and for His lost and wandering children. And I think this is the core of what it all comes down to for us at Christmas, and of what we are called to during Advent—nothing less than this self-emptying in which we surrender everything that we are to Christ in love, and through this surrender, finally find ourselves.

And so, as we celebrate these days of Christmas, I wish nothing less than this for all Catholics, and all men and women of the world, that we may join together in prayer and allow Christmas to not just be a time of hope, generosity, and love in which we anticipate the birth of the Son of God and the renewal of the world, but that it may also be a time of self-giving in the sense of kenosis, a time of emptying ourselves until nothing but Emmanuel remains:  God with us now and for all ages.

O Come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

Welcome to Time for the Family!

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On this Feast of the Holy Family, we are excited to welcome you to our new site.    As alumni of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, we would love to share with you what we've learned about the gift of the family.  You can read about our mission and history here.

Regular features of our site include:
  • Ask a Canon Lawyer -- FAQs with our resident canonist, Carlos Sacasa.
  • Define Your Terms -- explanations of some common words and phrases.
  • Reflections on marriage and family life.
  • Explanations of the Church's teaching on various issues related to marriage and family. 
Do you have questions about marriage and the family?  Please contact us, and we'd be happy to answer your question on the site or point you in the right direction.  

As we pray at Mass today in the Collect:

O God, who were pleased to give us the shining example of the Holy Family, graciously grant that we may imitate them in practicing the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity, and so, in the joy of your house, delight one day in eternal rewards.

While we explore the treasures of the Church together, let's make this our prayer together.