Friday, March 10, 2006

Feast days on Fridays always get me down...

Via the Coalition, concerning St. Pat's and Lenten observance. On Fridays during Lent, Catholics share a pretty simple sacrifice - we all forego meat. (I'm eating a little pasta primavera even as we speak.) Then on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we also fast.*

These aren't very hard to do. Fridays used to be meatless for the whole year, until the Church decided to relax that particular discipline. The idea remains the same, though - the mortification of physical desires is meant to make us mindful of the One who gives good gifts, and make us appreciate them (and Him) more. It's Biblical basis is the Temptation of Jesus in the desert.

Not everyone digs it.

That's what I don't get about Catholicism - you need some authority extraneous to the Bible to tell you what's moral and what isn't? An authority that doesn't participate in the most vital function in society (family life)? An authority that covers up heinous crap within their own ranks? WTF do they know about life? They can take their dispensation and stick it - if I'm doing something wrong, I'll take it up with the Lord myself on Judgement Day - and if I am doing something wrong, who are they to make it right with some BS penance?
John's welcome to his opinion, and to urge all and sundry to go Protestant. But it's only fair to point out that in this case, most of the opinion is based on misapprehension. need some authority extraneous to the Bible to tell you what's moral and what isn't?

Two errors, here. First, the authority of the Church is not extraneous to the Bible but contained therein, most specifically where Jesus tells Peter that he will build His Church on him (Matthew 16:18-20). In general, it's hard to picture Christ wasting His time in building a Church that had no function. Ah, but aren't we all the body of Christ, and therefore the Church? Yes. Exactly so. We are all of a piece, not individual units but pieces of a large, intricate puzzle.

This brings us to the second objection, that the Church (meaning, just the clergy) is telling us what's moral. In this case, the thing in question is the corporate worship of God's people - what they do together to observe the Forty Days before Easter Sunday. Individually, of course, you're free to do as you like in addition, according to your conscience - "What did you give up for Lent?" (I gave up chewing out other motorists, to cultivate more charity and patience. Ironic, right?) But together, there has to be some sort of consensus, and it does legitimately fall to the clergy to help organize it - that's why they're here. ("What you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.") God deals with us as a body, a people, not solely as unconnected persons, so it is fitting that we offer something to Him in the same manner. If nothing else, it shows that we're trying to look at ourselves the way He Himself designed us to be.

To revisit the first objection - do we need a moral authority? It's like asking if we need human nature. We have it already. That's how we're made. On the spiritual level, well, we ARE a Church, like it or not, and the shepherds of that Church by necessity have to have some authority if we are to intelligently and coherently live as one body in Christ.

An authority that doesn't participate in the most vital function in society (family life)?

This puzzles me greatly. Priests didn't grow up with mothers, fathers, siblings? Were they grown in pods? Further, some eastern Catholic rites do permit married clergy. It's a discipline, not a doctrine, and can be changed at discretion.**

An authority that covers up heinous crap within their own ranks?

Well - let the guilty be punished. There's no question what happened in Boston (and dozens of other parishes) was heinous. But to declare that therefore everything the Church says must be wrong is akin to saying that math must be bunk because one can't do a sum. "They sit in the seat of Moses - do as they say, but do not follow their example," to paraphrase the opening of Matthew 23. And this makes sense. Nixon covered up Watergate - does that mean that we should stop electing Presidents? Teachers have been known to seduce underage students - should we shutter every schoolhouse in the state? Of course not, but people think that such a standard should apply to the clergy - and that assumption itself demonstrates that they are not merely some helpful extra, but serve an intrinsic role in our life and worship.†

WTF do they know about life?

The clergy obviously know more than they get credit for. St. Pat's day is a huge cultural celebration to all Americans, not just Catholics (Irish or not), and so the clergy have made provision to permit celebrations to go forward as is customary. St. Joseph's Day celebrates a more important figure than Patrick: Mary's husband, foster father to Our Lord and Savior. In the order of the Church that would call for a bigger party (and I daresay that St. Patrick himself would agree - Joseph is every Catholic's patron saint at least three times). But when San Guiseppe falls on Friday, you don't get nearly the fuss because that feast day isn't a cultural phenomenon. The Church accordingly takes a different approach.

They can take their dispensation and stick it - if I'm doing something wrong, I'll take it up with the Lord myself on Judgement Day - and if I am doing something wrong, who are they to make it right with some BS penance?

Wow. I'll simply chalk this up to frustration, because it's not at all close to Christian thought no matter how you slice it.

First - if I'm doing something wrong, I'd much prefer to take it up with the Lord long before I have the final reckoning. Why would any Christian want to spend forty or more years continually screwing up? St. Paul has so many admonitions about living according to the spirit and being a new creation that it's astonishing that anyone could let this statement pass the same lips that profess the faith of Jesus Christ.

Second - we've already established "who are they to make it right" - they are the shepherds of the people of God chosen by Christ. It is their job to offer guidance on moral choices. We still have to decide how that applies to us personally, but it is no light matter to presume that a common observance is not binding on us individually. Do people decide to scrap the Book of Common Prayer for no reason? For that matter, do people decide to scrap the Book Itself? Lenten observance is a small example of the larger pattern of living as a single people called to the Lord, with a particular way of conducting ourselves in concert. ‡

I won't quibble with other denominations' forms of collective worship. The issue here is the casual assumption that, if it doesn't suit one's personal tastes, that one can choose to ignore one's brothers and sisters - acting as a discouragement and obstacle to them in word and example. We all do things in a family that we don't prefer in order to show that the family itself is more important than our whim of the moment.

This may not be a whim to some people observing from the outside. Fair enough - we all find issues worth mounting the ramparts for. All I ask is recognition of the reverse, that it's no whim to us either, and that there may be larger issues than whether corned beef is a vegetable for Lenten purposes. (Besides, as the Coalition well know, the meat of the meal is poured, not carved.)

* And by fast, I don't mean "eat nothing." The Church has loosened the definition considerably; healthy adult Catholics are asked to limit themselves to one full meal. And ill health, age, youth, or medical standing (pregnancy, for example) would confer automatic dispensation. It's not like we're trying to clear an impossibly high bar.

** For that matter, fast and abstinence are also discipline, not doctrine, and can be changed at discretion - but that discretion doesn't lie in the whim of the individual believer any more than the individual seminarian can decide to go to the drive-thru chapel before ordination.

† We can also get into another Coalition discussion here, on forgiveness. Unquestionably pedophilia among priests is a graver sin than most of us face. But if we then decide that we deserve forgiveness more readily than they because of our venial faults, are we asking forgiveness or trying to justify ourselves apart from God's mercy? Also remember that forgiveness doesn't preclude punishment for those faults - in fact, true repentance for the sinner involves restitution, i.e. turning oneself in for a lengthy jail term, even as the Church's repentance is involving a good deal of paying settlements and submitting to lay review, all welcome developments.

‡ "Concert" is intentionally chosen - we in the body are meant to operate like an orchestra, each playing its own part with individual excellence, but also in cooperation and not competition with the other parts. The violins must not only play on key, but must not drown out the oboes; and the second viola can't suddenly decide to break out with "Devil Went Down to Georgia" halfway through the Beethoven. Like them, we have a written score (the Bible) and a conductor (the clergy), and neither can be dispensed with.

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