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Monday, February 27, 2012

Bioethics and a Tale of Two Sermons

I have to admit, sometimes I rue going to church on Ash Wednesday. More often than not because of my work schedule, I have to go to a parish not my own and end up with a defective homily. My own parish is devoted to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite and the homilies are usually excellent. If anything, the (minor) defects I encounter -- in my opinion, which is to say I could be wrong -- tend toward excessive rigor, but even then I would rather have the homilist set the bar too high than too low. Because when it's set too low, I (and I would think most people) tend to take advantage of the low mark.

I began this post on Thursday after Ash Wednesday, to whine a bit about the homily I heard then at a "mainstream" parish, but didn't get a chance to put it up until now, after Sunday Mass and the homily at my own parish.

By Divine Providence, these two homilies exemplify the point I originally wanted to make. Let me start with Ash Wednesday. The general thinness of the Ordinary Form aside, the homily basically gave everyone permission to forego penance this Lent. The key sentence was this: "Rather than 'giving up' this Lent, give of yourself to others."

(What follows, I promise, was written before I heard the homily on Sunday.) Now, the discipline of Lent consists in three things: Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. All three. Not one, not two, but three. 

The Lenten discipline of prayer means we should pray more, and more fervently, to renew our personal prayer life, to let prayer cover more and more of our lives, our thoughts, and our actions throughout the whole day. And to draw closer to God.

Fasting pertains first of all to food, but also to other earthly goods in which we tend to indulge too much. This is where the tradition of "giving up" for Lent fits in. We fast simply speaking, but also from candy, from in-between meal snacks, from TV and electronic diversions of all sorts, from good things that are not really necessary and that tend to distract us from the pursuit of holiness and to impede virtue. We "give up" (in the sense of stop doing and not in the sense of surrender) to give more room to the effects and goals of our renewed discipline of prayer.

Almsgiving likewise pertains first to material giving, to money, to making sacrifices of the goods we possess to help those who have less. But it also pertains to what the Ash Wednesday homilist meant by giving of yourself to others. Time. Attention. Help. Comfort. What in the old days were called corporal works of mercy. I have no contention with the value of giving of yourself.

The problem with the homily is this. The homilist basically gave everyone permission to forego fasting for almsgiving. In so doing, he gave everyone a dispensation from one third of Lenten discipline and diluted the meaning of another third. As a mere priest, he overstepped his authority. As a homilist, he stumbled in his duty. (As a liturgist, he also left a lot to be desired, but the relationship of the Mass to bioethics is a topic for another entry.) He gave us permission to be wimps.

The time has long come and gone to abandon wimpy spirituality in the Catholic Church. (Along with wimpy music and wimpy liturgies… but that's another story.)

Even the bishops, as wonderful and miraculous as it is to see them stand together against the Obama Edict, seem to miss the point in terms of bioethics. This really is not only about religious freedom. It's also about how the US Government has made it illegal to avoid complicity in products and procedures that are themselves inherently unethical. Contraception and abortion are not really religious issues. We need the bishops also to take the next step, and be much stronger in proclaiming the evils of the things the Obama Edict mandates for everyone, not just for Catholics. This is not about religion. This is about right and wrong. Doing the right thing is not for wimps.

I want to emphasize that I put these thoughts in writing for this post before Sunday. On Sunday, the homilist said almost the exact same thing as I said above. He didn't talk about the Obama Edict (he did that two weeks earlier in no uncertain terms), but he did say that the value of the disciplines of Lent consist in all three things, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and not in just one or two of them.

As I said in my Ash Wednesday post, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are also the heart of authentic bioethics. Without them, we cannot hope to reason well on bioethical issues. We form ourselves and our ability to know right from wrong and to choose what is right through what we do. If what we do is prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, then we are much better equipped to make right decisions on every aspect of our lives, including issues in bioethics.

Bioethics is not the realm of so-called (and self-proclaimed) "experts": health professionals, academicians, lawyers, and politicians, and their surrogates in think tanks and lobbying groups. It's for real people, and it's not really all that complex. Who is the final decision maker with respect to contraception? The government? A committee of health professionals and lawyers? No. It's the person who uses it, and next is the person who prescribes it. That is where the decision is made. Same with abortion. IVF. Euthanasia. Private people, people who go to church on Ash Wednesday and hear lame homilies, who go from there to their doctor's appointment -- they are the ones making the decisions in bioethics. Say that decision pertains to contraception. Contraception is easy and reliable. NFP on the other hand, is equally reliable but requires periodic abstinence, a little effort and self-control. So if the patient is in the habit of foregoing "giving up" because of homilies like the one I heard on Ash Wednesday, what will be her decision do you think?

While we need to resist the Obama Edict, by the same token we can cut it off at the knees by reaching out to these final decision makers and equipping them to know right from wrong in the moment they make their decisions. By strengthening them. What if your personal trainer said, "Rather than working out, take a walk now and then during the day and be more active"? What kind of shape will you be in? The defect is setting the two in opposition instead of in sync. "In addition to working out, be more active." That is, be in the habit of being fit, as a way of life. Fitness isn't only for the gym. What good is it if you work out a few times a week and then are an indulgent, lazy couch potato the rest of the time? It makes it easy to slack off, and those who work out know that every now and then you need to renew your resolve because you do slack off.

Spiritual fitness is a lot like physical fitness. It is a way of life, not an occasional thing. Lent is one of those times to renew one's resolve spiritually. Ash Wednesday comes once a year. It's a great day for a great homily.

My wife and kids went to our parish for Mass on Ash Wednesday, after spending some time outside of an abortion clinic. She said there was no homily at all. Sometimes the EF Mass can be like that. They were lucky. 

With all due respect to the homilist I had, I am not taking his advice. I appreciate his consecrated hands and his priestly ordination for the Sacraments, and I thank God for him. But he has given me permission to not listen to him. What a shame.

I'll listen to the priest in my parish though.

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