What We Cannot See

Homily preached by the Rev. Jonathan A. Mitchican at Our Lady of Walsingham Cathedral in Houston, Texas on Sunday, January 10, 2021 – The Baptism of Our Lord

(Mark 1:7-11)

C.S. Lewis wrote an essay in 1946 that argues strongly that people need to read old books. He didn’t believe all modern books were bad, but rather that old books have a corrective power that new books don’t have. Lewis said, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” He argues that even those who are sworn enemies in their own time are formed in the same cultural waters and therefore make the same errors that neither one of them can see, but which become glaringly obvious in the long arc of history.

Lewis is right that we never quite manage to see the errors of our own age. It’s the water we swim in. If you were a particularly intelligent fish, perhaps you could determine which side of the bowl you prefer to be on, the side that faces the wall or the side that faces the window. You might even be able to make a good argument to your fellow fish. “The window side is clearly superior! It’s warmer and there’s so much more light.” But would you even notice the water? Probably not anymore than as humans we notice the air we breathe. Of course, you’d probably notice if the water suddenly went from crystal clear to a murky brown. But would you notice if that change happened more gradually, with the water getting just a little bit dirtier and a little harder to swim in every year? Or would it be imperceptible to you until one day you look up and suddenly realize that you’ve been choking?

This is the situation in which we now find ourselves. Like so many Americans, I watched with shock and horror on Wednesday as protesters broke through a police line and attacked the U.S. Capitol building, threatening elected leaders and their staff, causing the deaths of at least five people, including a police officer, and in the words of President Trump in his statement on Friday, “defiling the seat of American democracy.” It was an unthinkable display, like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime, and it seemed to shake a lot of people out of complacency, including some members of Congress who were huddled under their desks as the assault was carried out. How did we get here? How did we become so utterly divided as a nation that violence has become a legitimate means, in the eyes of some, for overturning an election and overthrowing the rule of law?

The situation we find ourselves in isn’t going to get fixed by debate. It’s not going to go away because of a new presentation of facts that’s going to change anybody’s mind. This isn’t actually about that. Yes, we have serious questions that need to be debated, and serious issues that pull us apart culturally and politically, but the reason we’re now at a place where we’re ready to tear out each other’s throats isn’t because we disagree about issues. It’s the stuff that we can’t see that’s killing us. It’s the water that we swim in. It didn’t get polluted all at once; it’s been happening slowly but steadily, over a long period of time. We’ve adopted, little by little, without even realizing it, a whole new moral structure, a whole new way of seeing the world that would be indecipherable to our ancestors. That new morality is shaped less by books, as in Lewis’ time, than by Twitter and YouTube and Tiktok and cable news, by technology that we were told would connect us and make our lives better but instead isolates us and transforms us from people into products. It’s a worldview that’s developed right along with time-saving appliances, televisions with Netflix subscriptions, and wristwatches that keep you connected to your work email even in the middle of the night. 

Whether or not you use any of that stuff, all of it has been shaping us and changing us for a long period of time. And I can’t tell you exactly how. I wish I could. I can’t see the whole board, because I’m on it. I’m not some impartial observer. I’m swimming in this dirty water, just like you. It’ll probably be many years before our great grandchildren look back at this period with the clarity of history and put together exactly what happened to us. But from where we sit today, none of us are going to be able to diagnose the problem fully. And yet, friends, there is an answer.

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Baptism is an antidote to sin. It washes away the pollution of our hearts and minds. Jesus didn’t need any of that. There was no sin in Him that needed to be forgiven, no pollution that needed to be washed away. So why did He wade out into the waters of the Jordan and allow John to baptize Him? Because He came into the world to change the waters that we swim in. Throughout His life, Jesus didn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince anyone of anything. He made moral pronouncements that completely baffled the people of His day, but He refused to argue about them. When one group or another tried to bait Him into taking sides on a contentious issue, He would tell them a story that they didn’t understand that revealed the foolishness of the entire debate. The water didn’t change Jesus; Jesus changed the water. He doesn’t convince us to join Him by laying out the facts. He convinces us to join Him by joining us, by jumping into the water with us and taking all the pollution out of it and into Himself so that we no longer have to suffer from it.

Old books are helpful, to be sure, but Jesus is the only long term solution for what has us ripped apart. Yet even in the Church today, we often seem more interested in swimming in our own water than in His. We take our petty squabbles into the Church with us, forming different factions, following the latest dilettante who tells us what we want to hear, even if that means throwing out the pope and the magisterium to get there. If we try to bring our polluted water with us into the Church, that’s a surefire recipe for drowning. We need to swim in water that’s been purified by Jesus, to let go of our pet peeves and our need to be seen as holier than the person in the next pew. Jesus is the only way out of this mess. We must put everything else aside and focus our minds and our hearts only on Him: obeying His words, imitating Him, and allowing Him to pour into us the grace that can change us from the inside out.

The papacy and the call to Christian unity


Jesus says in Matthew 16:13-20, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Peter is being given the authority to govern the Church. Catholics understand this to be about the papacy, but my Protestant friends often point out that the reason Peter is given this authority is because of his faith, because he confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, not because of anything particularly wonderful about Peter himself. Faith, they say, is what should govern the Church, not some man sitting in a building in Rome, claiming to be Peter’s  successor. Faith in Jesus Christ, built only upon the Word of God in Scripture, should be sufficient. Yet there is another way of looking at the papacy that avoids this unhelpful division. What the papacy gives to us is not merely a means of governing the faithful, but a focal point for expressing our love and gratitude.

The pope does, of course, carry out a very important governing function. He’s the pastor of pastors, the bishop of bishops, and we need that kind of accountability. The buck has to stop somewhere. Otherwise, if every person is his or her own authority, we end up with chaos. Even if we say that the individual must be directed by the clear teaching of Scripture – how do we adjudicate disputes when my idea of “clear teaching” conflicts with yours?

Contrary to popular belief, the pope does not have unlimited power. He cannot just say something and then it becomes so. He exercises his authority through established means that make clear the difference between when he’s speaking with the full teaching authority of his office, backed up by centuries of precedent, and when he’s only offering an opinion or sharing an idea. And yet, guided by the Holy Spirit, he’s able to speak a word that settles an argument. He’s a living authority, capable of making sure that the Church never strays from her true teaching.

All of that is often where discussion of the papacy gets stuck, but the role of the pope is much more than that. He’s the embodiment of the Church.

Over the course of two thousand years, most Catholics haven’t been reading papal encyclicals. In fact, for most of history, in most of the world, about the only thing that the average Catholic knew about the pope was his name. But knowing the Holy Father’s name was a big deal, because it meant that you could pray for him. Popes are just human beings. Like Peter himself, they have all had their foibles. Some have been good, some have been bad, some have been downright scoundrels who kept mistresses, had their enemies murdered, etc. But the pope is always a living, breathing man, which is what allows him to stand as the embodiment of the Church in any given age. Just as every priest is an icon of Christ, the pope is an icon of the Church.

I was living in Philadelphia in 2015 when Pope Francis made his famous visit to America, celebrating Mass in front of the steps of the Philly Art Museum. I was with the throngs of people who made their way through the security checkpoints. They say there were over a million people. I’ve never been in a crowd that large before. Yet there was so much joy, even though we were packed in like sardines. Some of the Dominican sisters from Nashville were leading people in singing “Ave Maria,” “God bless America,” and whatever else happened to pop into their heads. When I finally saw the Holy Father, from a great distance but still unmistakable in his white cassock, I felt a great swell of love in my heart. It was love for him, but it wasn’t really about him. It was love for Jesus, love for the Church, love for the grace and blessing that God pours out for us in the Sacraments, and most of all just immense gratitude. Here before me was all of that, in a living man who I could see and hear, who prays for me even as I pray for him. And I knew in my bones that this is what it means to be Catholic.

I love the Bible, but I cannot be grateful to it, nor can I expect it to love me back. I love the sacred tradition of the Church as well, but the great genius of the Catholic Church is that she is alive, organic, real. The pope is not a concept. He stands in Peter’s place as an actual living out of the apostolic calling that Our Lord gave to Peter when he was first handed those keys.

It isn’t about choosing between being governed by faith or by a man. It’s about recognizing that as human beings, we need more than just abstractions. We need flesh and blood. We need solid symbols that point us towards the unity and healing that we can only know in Jesus Christ.

Note on the text: This was originally written to be a homily for Sunday, August 23, 2020, however I have been in quarantine since Wednesday because of a possible Covid exposure. Nevertheless, I wanted to share this brief reflection.

 

Face Masks: Charity vs. Liberty


Wearing masks in public places is now strongly recommended by public health experts. It could significantly reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 to somebody else without knowing it. Therefore, in Catholic terms, choosing to wear a mask in public right now is an act of charity and a work of mercy.

Nevertheless, many Americans are opposed in principle to wearing masks, some expressing their opposition vehemently and even violently. The reasons offered vary quite a bit, but many of the arguments seem to come down to liberty. Wearing a mask is uncomfortable, unlikely to be much of a deterrent to my own getting sick (and may even make it more likely since I will be touching my face more), and infringes on my rights.

I will leave it to the courts to decide about the thorny legal issues surrounding enforcement of policies that require the wearing of masks. As a Christian, and particularly as a Catholic, I am much more interested in the theological question that this issue raises. Assuming for a second that it is both true that the wearing of masks can help slow the spread of the disease and that it infringes upon our liberty to wear them even in a voluntary capacity, which one of those goods should win out? If both charity (love) and liberty (freedom) are things that Christians ought to practice and value, which one is more important?

First, a couple of definitions.

For Christians, charity refers not merely to any sort of altruistic action but to what St. Paul points to as the greatest “abiding” gift of God in 1 Corinthians 13. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, charity is “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” Unlike other virtues, such as prudence or temperance, which human beings can develop within themselves simply through the building of good habits, theological virtues require the grace of God to become effective. We cannot just will ourselves to be loving. God has to plant love in us. Yet our love grows when we cooperate with God’s grace. It is the greatest of all the virtues because God Himself is love. Jesus specifically calls us to “love one another” as a way of becoming more like Him and thereby participating in the divine life (John 15:9-12).

In Scripture, the Greek word eleutheria can be translated both as “liberty” and “freedom,” two words that are not entirely interchangeable in English but close enough to be more or less synonymous. Liberty is not a virtue like charity is, but it is a gift from God. According to the Catechism, “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility… Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.” In other words, we may have the ability to make choices about how we live our lives, but we are not truly free until we choose to live in union with God.

Are liberty and charity in competition? Perhaps on the surface they seem to be. Certainly, when we engage in acts of charity, we necessarily accept limits and make sacrifices. If I give my money away to the poor, I cannot then use that same money for my own personal benefit. If I choose to get married or have a child, I am bound by love to tend to the well-being of those other people and must give up some of my own liberty in the process.

Nevertheless, if this offering up of our liberty is done not by coercion but voluntarily, as an act of love for another human being, it does not ultimately diminish our freedom but rather allows us to become free at a far deeper level. “The more one does what is good,” says the Catechism, “the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just.” When we seek the good of others ahead of our own, we become more loving and therefore more free to be fully human. Or as St. Paul puts it, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another” (Galatians 5:13).

Regarding the wearing of masks then, the question cannot be whether we privilege liberty or charity. We have to have basic liberty in order to be able to choose to be charitable, but only one choice actually leads to the fulfillment of both. It is only when we accept the duty to be charitable that we arrive at true freedom. The well respected microbiologist and theologian, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP, made a lengthy post earlier this week explaining the science behind how transmission of Covid-19 takes place and why masks are effective as a deterrent. In referring to the decision of the White House to require the wearing of masks internally to stem an outbreak, he said, “This is morally justifiable, and some may even argue, morally obligatory once you know that masks could minimize viral spread from respiratory droplets.”

Of course, life is more complicated than that. There are always exceptions. Some people are not able to wear masks for medical reasons. There also may be times when the good of wearing a mask is outweighed by some other pressing good, the need to communicate in an emergency for instance. Individuals and private entities, including churches, will have to make prudent choices about just when and how to make use of masks for the safety and well being of others.

Still, the basic theological and moral principle at play is clear. We cannot grow in knowledge and love of God without also growing in love for other people, including strangers. Jesus models for us the greatest exercise of human freedom when he freely chooses the cross for the sake of the world.

Photo by Nickolay Romensky. Used under Creative Commons License.