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.

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.

The Civil Rights Issue of Our Age

Homily preached by the Rev. Jonathan A. Mitchican at St. John XXIII College Preparatory on Wednesday, January 23, 2019 – Memorial of St. Vincent

(Mark 3:1-6)

This past Monday was Martin Luther King day. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. has long been a personal hero of mine – and I want to emphasize the reverend part because I think that often gets forgotten these days. He was a Baptist minister and a follower of Jesus. His letter from a Birmingham jail references St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as Scripture. The reason that he spoke out against the injustices in this country that were being perpetrated against African American people was because he believed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dr. King wrote, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He believed that, as Christians, we’re required to stand up against injustice in all its forms, and especially to stand with those who are weak, those who are oppressed, and those who can’t speak for themselves.

Dr. Alveda King is the niece of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1973, shortly after Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal in all fifty states, Alveda King had two abortions in quick succession. She did it because she was told it was the right thing to do by her doctor, by her friends, and especially by the men in her life. It’s not an uncommon story. A lot of young women get abortions because they don’t know what else to do, because they’re scared, and because the men who should be stepping up to be fathers of their children instead say that they’ll be happy to pay for an abortion, but that they won’t be paying for anything if the child is born. So Alveda King aborted her children. And for several years after that, she became a pro-choice activist. It was the only way, she says, that she could come to terms with what had happened to her. She believed and repeated the lie that abortion was the only way that women could be free and that a child in the womb is nothing more than a clump of cells.

But then, in 1977, she became pregnant again, and this time the man in her life said to her, “This is my child. Please don’t kill it. I will be there for you and for our baby.” And King says she suddenly saw abortion for what it really was: not a tool of liberation but a tool of oppression. Today she’s the mother of six living children and a proud advocate for the cause of life. And she sees that cause as deeply connected with the cause for which her uncle fought and died decades ago.

In the Gospel reading we heard a few minutes ago, Jesus is confronted by a group of Pharisees who want to see if He’s willing to heal a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath so that they can get Him for it. The Sabbath is a law of God, not a law of man. But the Pharisees want to twist that law and use it for their own purposes. Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” The purpose of the law is to save life, not to take it away. A law therefore that tells us that some lives are more valuable than others isn’t a just law, and it’s our responsibility as Christians to resist such a law by speaking the truth in love.

Yesterday was the Church’s annual day of prayer for the legal protection of the unborn, and last week was the annual March for Life in Washington, DC. Many Catholics participated in that march, including our own Sr. John Michael. I participated in the march myself back in 2012. Many people, though, including some Catholics, object to the Church’s involvement in these things. “The Church has no business being involved in politics,” they argue. And indeed, politics is the lens through which most people see this issue. Increasingly in our society, that’s the lens through which we see every issue. Politics has become the new religion of our society. And it’s a very dark, unforgiving religion – You’re either good or you’re bad; it’s us vs. them, take no prisoners. But the Church’s objection to abortion has nothing to do with modern American politics. The Church has been on record opposing abortion since at least the writing of the Didache in the late first century. Does the Church’s teaching have political implications? You bet. But that’s always true. It was true when Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up against segregation laws in the American south. It was true when Jesus stood up against the Pharisees.

You guys may think there’s nothing you can do about this because most of you aren’t old enough to vote yet, but there are so many ways that you can witness for life in our culture, not just by speaking out when the opportunity presents itself, but also by sharing your time, your energy, and your love with people in need. Stand up for young mothers and young families. Volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center or at another organization that supports single mothers and poor mothers. Work to eliminate poverty, which is one of the major social causes of abortion. Pray the rosary for the victims of abortion – which include not only the children who have died but also the women who’ve been lied to and used as pawns in a political chess game.

In 1958, black people in this country could not vote in most of the south, could not drink from the same water-fountains as white people, and could not even show their faces in many establishments. In 2008, a black man was elected president. And we’re nowhere near done fighting racism in our society, but that’s a heck of a lot of progress in fifty years. It didn’t happen by magic. It happened because many people–and particularly many Christians–stood up and fought for what’s right. It’s time for us to do the same thing with abortion. An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. In the name of Jesus, may the voice of your generation be a cry of justice for the millions of your brothers and sisters who aren’t here to cry out with you.

Sex is great

Everyone is interested in sex. That, to me, seems reasonable. Sex is interesting. But is it great?

I do not mean by that the now common usage of the word great – something that we really like – but the older sense of the word great: something that is larger than life, something that far surpasses the ordinary, something that is truly amazing and breathtaking, worth treating with a certain reverence and awe.

Throughout most of human history, this is how sex was understood, around the world, in various cultures and religions. Ancient pagans invented fertility cults that included ritualized sexual acts. Their approach was not what we might call virtuous today, but it was nevertheless predicated on an understanding that sex is powerful and that it somehow connects us with the divine.

The Bible elevates sex as well by elevating the whole institution of marriage. We see in the Scriptures not only a regulating of sex within marriage but an understanding that in the sexual act is an image of the relationship between God and humanity. The metaphor most often used in Scripture to describe God’s relationship with us is that of marriage. An entire book of the Bible—the Song of Solomon—is an exploration both of sexual love between a husband and a wife as well as the relationship between God and His covenant people. Ephesians 5 speaks plainly of the “mystery” of how Jesus relates to the Church as His “bride.” And of course, there’s this from the book of Revelation:

Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:7-9)

The culmination of the whole of human history will be the union of Christ and His Church in marriage. This is not a sexless claim. Sex itself is the seal of the covenant. This is why, repeatedly in the Old Testament, the image of sexual infidelity is used as a metaphor for the infidelity of the people to God. Sex is seen as the ultimate act of joining. “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her?” says Paul, “for, as it is written, ‘the two will become one flesh’” (1 Corinthians 6:16, quoting Genesis 2).

There are certainly examples of Christian leaders and teachers throughout history who have said unfortunate things about sex and the body, but they are outweighed by both the Biblical witness and the far clearer tradition of depicting sex as something sacred and worth preserving as such. One of my favorite icons is that of St. Anna and St. Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Our Lady was conceived in the usual way, through the marriage bed of her parents. The icon–shown above–depicts the two saints embracing in front of a bed. Herein we find the fulfillment of the doctrine of the immaculate conception, that no original sin was passed on to Mary in her conception, no hint of sin tied to the sexual union between her parents. What could be more of an endorsement of the greatness of sex than that?

Yet today, as our culture increases its march into a belligerent secularity, sex is not seen as great. It is still interesting to people, to be sure, as any beer commercial proves. Our culture is obsessed with sex and with the strange and ill defined concept of “sexual freedom.” But sex is not great anymore. It does not inspire awe, let alone reverence. It is ordinary, recreational, blasé. We treat it as if it is as casual as a handshake, something we should engage in “safely,” by which we mean through contraception, protecting ourselves from one of the main purposes of sex while keeping at arm’s length its power to unite us as one with each other and with God.

That this is so can be seen most clearly in the western cultural assumption that sex is a precursor to marriage. For thousands of years, across cultures, sex was understood to be the seal of marriage, the great beacon at its center that made marriage different from every other relationship. Of course, there has always been sex outside of marriage, viewed with varying degrees of stigma and shame, but the sex of the marriage bed was the apex of the marital relationship, the place where it went from simply human to divine.

Now, however, there is such a strong expectation that sex will happen before marriage that the very notion of “waiting” is ridiculed as a retrograde barbarism, when it is even addressed at all. The average sitcom today during prime television viewing hours has unmarried characters engaging in casual sex without even a nod towards some kind of discernment on their part over whether or not this is a good idea. That would not have been true even as recently as thirty years ago.

Marriage itself is still treated with a certain degree of awe, but it is at another level than sex. It is not uncommon for someone considering marriage to say, “The sex is great, but I don’t know if I’m ready for that level of commitment.” The very words of the second clause disprove the first, at least on a grammatical level. Sex that does not have a commitment of the binding together of two as one flesh is not great at all, even if it is pleasurable to the senses. In the modern west, sex is impotent.

The secular orthodoxy that says that sex must be fun and free of constraint is a major part of what keeps people today out of the Church. When people come to investigate the Christian faith, questions about sex are usually at the top of their list. The wise priest or pastor knows though that such questions cannot be quickly answered. The answers that the Christian tradition offers are not going to make sense to most people who have been brought up to think of sex more as a marker of identity and personal choice than as a sign of the love and faithfulness of God.

We have to learn what it means to be human beings again. Only then will we be able really to understand why sex is great. Like so much else of value that is being tossed into the fire in our age, the greatness of sex must be protected and preserved in the Church if nowhere else. We must become the custodians of the holiness of sex until the day finally comes when the world, exhausted by its ever-fruitless search for greater sexual freedom and expression, will once again wonder just what it was that made us think sex was so darned interesting in the first place.