Sunday, February 28, 2010

Pick Grain and Die

One of my part time jobs is evaluating transcripts at a local community college. Every now and then I will get a transcript for an engineering or computer science student who has taken and passed calculus. But for the most part it is a slew of D's and F's in courses as fundamental as beginning algebra or "math concepts." Most people hate math because most people suck at it. Math is hard.

Does this mean that schools like M.I.T., Princeton, etc. should 'lower the bar' to accommodate students who are not able to cut it in such rigorous, top-notch programs--to be more inclusive? No, because this would not be fair to those students who are looking to be challenged and excel in such programs. These top schools keep the bar high as a matter of academic integrity. If you can't make the cut...look elsewhere for your college experience.

After Jesus told his followers they must eat his flesh and drink his blood if they would have life, many grumbled against him and called the teaching hard, asking who could accept it. And it is written, "from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him." The acceptance of the reality of the Eucharist was a non-negotiable for Jesus.

Then again, Jesus re-examined the "rules" of the religious institution against people's actual lives--like picking grain on the Sabbath, or stoning someone caught in adultery, and made adjustments accordingly. Jesus was compassionate towards people who could not 'make the cut,' but he did not water down his teaching to accommodate any standard lower than God's standard. The expectation was that people would change their lives to conform to God's teaching, not the other way around. And yet he made accommodations for the human experience which fell outside the bounds of the religious jurisdiction (ie, picking grain on the Sabbath).

In the same way that most people hate math because it is hard and does not come naturally, most people find distasteful rules and discipline designed to make us people of exemplary holiness. In this way the Church is criticized as being too strict, holding the bar too high, as to what kind of life each member is expected to live.

Yet despite my moral failings and my embarrassingly low threshold for suffering, I would not want the Church to change Her teachings to accommodate my lifestyle--or anyone else's lifestyle--assuming the Church's teachings are sanctioned by the Holy Spirit. I want the Church to continue to hold the bar high and continue to condemn fornication (homo and hetero alike), adultery, pre-marital sex, masturbation, abortion, murder (state sanctioned or otherwise), theft, idolatry, pride, etc., and uphhold Truth. I have no problem calling a sin a sin when it is, in fact, a sin.

If my future wife and I practice artificial contraception when we are married, I pray God will have mercy on us, and that the Church will reconsider Her teaching on this matter, what feels to me like a matter of "tieing up heavy burdens and laying them on men's shoulders." Is artificial contraception a sin in the eyes of the Church? Yes. Do I believe it is a sin? This is besides the point. Is it a sin in the eyes of God? I don't know, but I know that God looks at the heart, and when I die I know I will be judged by God alone, not the Church, and so all I can ask is mercy.

And so when the Church teaches about the sinfulness of using artificial contraception, I find myself on that other side of the line, with those disciples who were complaining, "this is a hard teaching...who can accept it?" But did this teaching come from Jesus himself? No, it did not. Am I a bad Catholic....well, I don't seem to qualify as a good Catholic, a title I doubt I will ever earn. Is this then the alternative title? Should it matter? I have no good way to end this post, and so I'll just sign off with these questions unanswered, a reflection of my moral life as a whole, I suppose. Comments welcome.


Rob Peach said...


Good post. Though I must admit that it sounds like you're speaking out of both sides of the mouth.

You do reconcile the issue of personality morality--in all of its complexities--vis a vis Church teaching by willingly admitting your own weaknesses in following established doctrine. By the same token, your thinking seems overly dualistic in how you treat your own perceived weaknesses. Perhaps your own weaknesses are not so much that as disciplined and thoughtful decisions to establish and abide by your own moral code--one that is not so "bad" as you think.

Granted the Church has established her laws with due process and sincere theological investigation. Yet it's important to be wary of the fixity of dogma. It can be too inflexible for its own good and stagnate in its own dictates, further divorcing itself from the nuances of human experience.

I agree with you about your assessment regarding Christ's teaching. And I think it's especially important that you distinguish between his mission and his mission as interpreted by the Church (which you do).

Moreover, I think it would befit the argument to recognize not only those issues of personal morality with which the institutional Church seems so preoccupied, but also those issues of social morality upon which Catholic Social Teaching so adequately addresses. Indeed, I think it is the message of social justice that is at once Christ's and the Church's best kept secret.

Laws are important, for sure. But before there was ever a dogma to proclaim the difference between right and wrong, there was simply praxis, i.e. practice. On that tip, I believe it was Christ's desire not so much to establish an organized religion--with a series of Pharisaical laws--as it was to inspire us to simply love each other and thereby establish such as the norm from which all dogma extends.

I don't think that's a watered-down assessment either. Because love is a damned hard thing to live by. It requires its own discipline. We can easily forget that in our own self-righteousness, or equally as detrimental, our self-defeating piety and scrupulosity.

Wow. I'm not sure if that makes sense. I fear that I just tried to square some big circles.

Signing out,

Rob Peach

Rob Peach said...

Or is it circling squares?

Michael said...

Not being a Catholic, I don't know if any comment I leave would be relevant. But my go-to advice on troubling matters in marriage is to let the woman decide on that one.