Here's to us Catholics

We Catholics today don't tend to wear our religion on our sleeves. If asked to tell about ourselves, "I'm a Catholic" would probably not be the first words out of our mouths. Those words would be somewhere in our description, however, because our Catholic beliefs are an integral part of who we are. Those beliefs are an ingrained guide for our thoughts and actions. The results are evident everywhere, even if we don't take time to acknowledge them.

Maybe it's time we Catholics gave ourselves a pat on the back. We're not perfect, for certain, but we are persistent followers of Christ. Although we hold certain beliefs in common, we are a diverse lot in ways we pray, celebrate and volunteer. We also have diverse views on a wide variety of issues. Yet our commonality and our diversity are complementary components of our makeup. Our commonality is our foundation as well as the mortar that holds us together. Our diversity is the fuel that enables us to accomplish so much in so many different areas.

This is particularly evident in the area of social justice. For the past six weeks, small groups of Catholics throughout the Archdiocese of St. Louis have been gathering to pray over, study and share their faith experiences on that topic.

The Renew study guide prepared by the Catholic Education Office listed more than three dozen archdiocesan programs actively working in such social justice areas as pro-life, support for families, racism and prejudice, assistance to the poor, disability ministry, protection of the environment and world peace. For each program listed, a half dozen or more related programs and projects exist within our archdiocese alone. All are funded by Catholics and fueled by our volunteer time and sharing of talents.

These organized activities, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. As the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote in 1998 in "Everyday Christianity: To Hunger and Thirst for Justice," Catholics are called "to be instruments of God's grace and creative power in business and politics, factories and offices, in homes and schools, and in all the events of daily life. Social justice and the common good are built up or torn down day by day in the countless decisions and choices we make."

The Renew program and similar faith-sharing programs enable us to take a close look at the decisions and choices we make in business dealings; in community activities; and in relating to others, including co-workers, elderly parents, adult children, young children and even strangers. We can take pride in what we have accomplished with God's help, learn from our mistakes and be open to new opportunities to do God's work. Such programs also help us to connect with God and to gather strength and support through one another. It is well worth our time to participate in a faith-sharing group throughout the year because, while we have accomplished much, there is still much more to do.

Responsibility for terrorism

Since Sept. 11 we have seen a parade of journalists and experts discuss the "reasons" for the terrorist attacks. We have even heard from many within the Church who believe that the economic inequality among nations is at the root of such violence. If only we could redistribute wealth such violence would be eradicated. This kind of explanation is alluring, but it seriously misses the mark. During the 20th century such rationalizations undergirded the defense of Marxism and other ideologies, which all contributed to an unprecedented loss of human life worldwide. Let's not make the same mistake at the new millennium. Let's be clear about the immediate cause of the terror: a kind of fascist fanaticism by those who have transformed religion into a vision of violent domination to be imposed upon those who do not see God and human existence as they do. This is religion morphed into an ideology where the confusion between good and evil becomes absolute. When this happens all barbarity no matter how immense can be justified because it is at the service of a "transcendent" value only the ideologues can know and understand.

It is certainly true that serious inequalities exist between First and Third World nations. But as Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver has lately observed, "The injustices in the world can never be used to 'contextualize' or excuse mass murder. And the United States is by no means the only source of the world's social and economic inequalities." According to Catholic moral teaching, America does bear a weighty moral obligation in the world because of its enormous prosperity and power that it has often misused. As Luke's Gospel says, "Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more."

Nevertheless, we must distinguish between responsibility and moral guilt. We may be responsible for the less fortunate, but this does not mean we are morally guilty of their plight. The United States, despite its participation in training the Afghan rebels in the 1980s, did not create the current situation in Afghanistan. To the contrary, the refugee problems, the unequal distribution of food, the subsequent famine, the oppression and persecution of Christians and women since 1989 are not the primary responsibility of the United States. In his Oct. 16 letter to President George W. Bush, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Archbishop of Philadelphia, sums up this position well. He cautions us not to think, "that they (terrorist attacks) were an inevitable and deserved response to United States foreign policy. These were the acts of men with evil in their hearts, perpetrated against innocent human beings. No reason can be given to explain them or the loathing which inspired them."

Many leaders in the Third World and the Muslim world must examine their responsibilities regarding continued exploitation of their own people. For too long they have turned a blind eye to the terrorist ideology of resentment. It is completely appropriate to ask why wealthy Muslim nations have done nothing about the criminal violence of the Taliban toward the people of Afghanistan. Likewise, it is completely reasonable to ask why affluent Arab countries have not helped to ease the plight of the Palestinians. Also, recall Sudan's enslavement of Christian women and children in the south, or Iraq's gassing of the Kurds, Pakistan's oppression of Christians or Indonesia's violent persecution of the East Timorese. We should remember that sin, exploitation and moral indifference are not the exclusive purview of wealthy Western nations.

Responding to terrorism

The news release arrived via fax. The headline - underlined and in bold type - "PRESS RELEASE - Mailroom Respiratory Kit for Biological Terrorism Response."

The release noted that "upon strong request," a Long Beach, Calif., firm "has put together a Mailroom Respiratory Kit For Biological Terrorism Response." It said, "As the war is moving closer to home and we are having more civilian casualties than military casualties it has become essential to improve safety on the domestic level."

For only $29.95, you can be protected for a month. A smaller kit, "for single use when a suspicious mail or package (sic) needs to be checked out," will run you just $9.95.

In a sad way, the company that wrote and distributed the release shares a goal with those who have sent the anthrax-containing letters. The news release preys on people's fears. The difference is the Long Beach company also wishes to make money off the hoped-for panic.

Should we be concerned about the increasing number of anthrax cases discovered in recent weeks? Of course we should. Our nation is at war and we must understand that life as we know it has changed. But the daily bombardment of scary news we see on television or read in the newspaper oftentimes seems to overstate our vulnerability. The media ask: Is our air safe to breathe? Is the water supply safe? Is our food safe? Is it safe to fly? Should we open our mail?

The news release for the Mailroom Respirator Kit promoted the device as a "response" to terrorism. As people of faith, our response to terror must be both practical and spiritual. On the practical level, we are called to a certain sensibility sorely lacking in the media hype surrounding anthrax. On the spiritual level, we must keep our eyes focused on Christ, the model of God's love and the perfect communicator. He assures us that goodness wins in the end, and his services are provided free of charge. Order now.

The Pope's intentions for China

Catholic "China watchers" have been intrigued in recent weeks by the overtures of Pope John Paul II to normalize relations between the Church and the Peoples' Republic. According to a story in Catholic World News, Archbishop Giuseppe Pittau, secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, told the Italian daily newspaper Avvenire that the Pope is trying to restart the dialogue between China and the Holy See - "a situation which is frozen in place." The Italian prelate was quoted as saying that the Pope "would be ready to sign an accord with China tomorrow" and is eager to visit Beijing.

These developments were sparked by the Pope's Oct. 25 message to the participants of an international meeting in Rome on "Matteo Ricci: For a Dialogue between China and the West." The symposium marked the fourth centenary of the arrival of the Jesuit missionary priest in Beijing in January of 1601.

Pope John Paul noted the contribution of Father Ricci and at the same time asked pardon for errors committed by missionaries and others in China in the colonial periods of that nation's history. He went on to say that the "normalization of relations between the People's Republic of China and the Holy See would undoubtedly have positive repercussions for humanity's progress."

Calling Father Ricci's work "enduringly relevant," the Pope stated that "Father Ricci based his entire scientific and apostolic methodology upon two pillars, to which he remained faithful until his death: first, Chinese neophytes, in embracing Christianity, did not in any way have to renounce loyalty to their country; second, the Christian revelation of the mystery of God in no way destroyed but in fact enriched and complemented everything beautiful and good, just and holy, in what had been produced and handed down by the ancient Chinese tradition."

As the Pope pointed to the model offered by Father Ricci, he also acknowledged that "the work of members of the Church in China was not always without error, and that "in certain periods of modern history," there persisted a "kind of 'protection' on the part of European political powers." The Pope expressed "deep sadness for these errors and limits of the past," and, he said, "I regret that in many people these failings may have given the impression of a lack of respect and esteem for the Chinese people on the part of the Catholic Church. For all of this I ask the forgiveness and understanding of those who may have felt hurt in some way by such actions on the part of Christians."

The Fides news agency posted reaction to the Pope's message from representatives of Church and government, missionaries, scholars and diplomats in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. From all these groups, which include Chinese Catholics, both "official as well as underground," there was a common note of "amazement" and widespread appreciation and hope about the Pope's gesture.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said at a subsequent press conference,

"China intends to examine the message very carefully. China has always wished to improve relations with the Vatican. In the past China has always underlined two principles, which are still valid: 1. The Holy See must break relations with Taiwan and recognize the Peoples' Republic of China as the only representative of all China. Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory. 2. The Vatican must not use religion to interfere in China's internal affairs."

The perceived "interference" has to do (at least in part) with the fact that the government, rather than the Pope, appoints bishops to the government-registered church. Voices within this "official" church maintain that many of their bishops are faithful (although secretly) to the Holy See, even though they are obliged to take direction from the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a kind of government liaison between China's Religious Affairs Bureau and the government-registered church.

Pope John Paul II has often expressed great esteem for Chinese Catholics, taking special note of those under persecution for the faith. The "underground" Church faithful to Rome has borne a large measure (though not all) of these attacks and remains particularly vulnerable. The Pope has made it clear that his goals for the Church include reconciliation among all Chinese Catholics. In the end he wants unity among all those who would call themselves Catholics, and he knows that that unity will necessarily require his ministry as Vicar of Jesus Christ. "Where Peter is, there is the Church." One might assume that if there is any way that the Successor of Peter can find to get to China and preach the message of Christ, he will find it and take the opportunity.

Our own prayers for the intentions of the Holy Father may well be directed in such a way that the Peoples' Republic - which so much wants the support of the global community as it prepares for the Olympics - will be helped to negotiate an opening for the Pope to come to Beijing.

Authentic definition of the person

Human life is sacred to us, not just because it is a good, but because human life is precious to God. As the end of this month of October draws near, a month dedicated to the cause of life, we do well to reflect upon this fundamental tenet upon which the Christian pro-life movement rests. The true origin and destiny of human beings are so basic to the Christian witness for life that to ignore them is to lose sight of the reason for the cause. Every aspect of our pro-life activities should be permeated with an ever-growing awareness of the origin and meaning of the human person as the image of God, and the glorious destiny of the human person restored to this likeness by the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ and Savior of Man.

Human beings, male and female, are God's delegates. Out of love, and in his infinite goodness, God chose to create a creature that would be his royal representative, his own image on the earth. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, every human being reflects some aspect of God uniquely. The image of God presents a kind of revelation of God himself. The likeness is beyond anything merely physical. It is a matter of having the capacity to represent God, who calls each person into being to continue the work of creation.

God created with the intention of making human beings the only persons in his entire creation with both a supernatural soul and body. While we live, from conception to death, each human being manifests himself or herself in and through the body. This truth has two implications which must be emphasized, perhaps today more than ever. The bodily life of every living human being is sacred from the moment of conception, regardless of one's capacity to reason. And, beginning at the time one can reason, the actions performed in and through the body have moral significance and eternal consequences.

No combination of all the scientific information known can capture the meaning of God's human creation. Christians know from the truth of faith the falsity of the abortionists' claim that the embryonic human and human fetus constitute nothing more than a grouping of cells or a mass of tissue. We know that personhood is not established on the basis of an individual's ability to function. Our biology can be studied and compared to other similar beings. But the biology of the human being does not exhaust the full meaning of the human person who is, at the same time, both physical and spiritual.

Thus, it is of significant consequence that the law and many schools of ethical thought are founded upon erroneous notions of human personhood which are irreconcilable with the authentic view of the human person revealed by God. In all matters of justice, attempts at securing rights that lose sight of the authentic definition of the person, inevitably lead to gross violations of human dignity. None more serious has occurred in the United States than the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision with its political, moral and intellectual consequences.

Peace in the Mideast

In a plea to "shut the gates of death, hatred and terror" and stop "the Mideast's spiral of violence," Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem called for an end to the clashes in the West Bank that have resulted in so many deaths and injuries. In the most recent escalation of military action in Bethlehem following the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet member, Church leaders said Israeli armed forces were restricting the movements of Palestinians, preventing residents in the Palestinian territories from going to work or school.

"It is enough with the bloodshed; it is enough with the fighting," Patriarch Sabbah said in a letter released Oct. 21, insisting that the way to bring an end to this circle of violence is to restore "the occupied land to the real owners." Indeed the real owners must include both Palestinians and Jews, as the Catholic leader readily acknowledged. "To the Israeli people we say: You merit also security and peace. In everybody and in every one of you we see the dignity that derives from that of God, which is a gift to every human person, Palestinian or Hebrew," he said.

The question remains: Who will stand with Patriarch Sabbah to represent a legitimate and authoritative voice for the Arab-speaking people of the Holy Land? How will radical terrorist elements be contained so that the necessary logic of dialogue can bear fruit in peace?

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