Monday, October 4, 2004

Can a Catholic vote for John Kerry in good conscience?

Published in the Alton Telegraph--October 4, 2004

With the presidential election drawing near, this is a vital question for a large segment of the voting populace. However, the prior and more interesting question is whether John Kerry is really a Catholic. I do not ask this question lightly, nor am I the only one asking.

A Catholic is someone who believes in the teachings of the Roman church and lives his life accordingly. This includes participating in Mass and other sacraments, praying regularly, doing charitable works, and avoiding sinful behavior, for starters. Being a Catholic is relatively easy to discern simply because it entails a set of behaviors and many clear positions on social and moral issues.

This is sadly not the case with Protestantism. There are pro-choice and pro-life Protestants. There are pro-gay and anti-gay Protestants. There are Protestant drinkers and Protestant teetotalers. There are Protestant pacifists and Protestant hawks. There are Protestants who hate divorce and those who think it perfectly acceptable. There are even some Protestants who don’t capitalize the term, if you can believe it. And these contrasts only begin the list.

For Catholics, however, these and many other issues are settled. Catholicism is anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-divorce, anti-homosexuality, anti-pornography, anti-premarital sex, and anti-war (generally speaking anyway). So if a person believes in abortion, contraception, divorce, gay behavior, pornography, cohabitation, and war, he is diametrically opposed to the bulk of Catholic social teaching. Since John Kerry is a divorced and remarried, pro-choice, pro-gay legislator, I’m not sure what he means when he labels himself Catholic.

The real problem with so many Catholics, John Kerry included, seems to be a mutated belief system I call “Catholic,but…-ism.” Whereas Catholicism is very clear, Catholic,but…-ism is supremely vague. For instance, someone might say, “I’m a Catholic, but …I don’t attend Mass.” Since taking the Eucharist is the central religious practice in Catholicism, this has always seemed odd to me. Others might say, “I’m a Catholic, but…I have sex with my fiancĂ©e.” For a religion which is so staunch about marriage and sexuality, one might easily be baffled by such a statement. My personal favorite is the oft-parroted, “I’m a non-practicing Catholic,” which I suppose everyone has heard at some time or another. But Catholicism is fundamentally a way of life. To not practice it is to not be it. All these Catholic,but…ists are essentially saying, “I’m not a Catholic,” which is why Archbishop Burke and others have raised the possibility of denying communion to them.

Fundamentally, such a decision comes from acknowledging that certain beliefs and practices place a person outside the state of grace necessary for partaking the Eucharist. It’s not about punishing them or about coercing them to change or even about violating the separation of church and state. It’s actually a way of protecting the person in question, because if a person who is not right with the Lord partakes of communion, the Bible clearly teaches that he causes himself injury, even perhaps risking death. (1 Corinthians 11:27-30) This is why Catholics quite properly deny communion to people who are unbelievers. It’s also why segregationists were denied communion and even threatened with excommunication by Bishop Rummel in 1956.

Being a Catholic is difficult and often inconvenient. It requires many sacrifices. That’s what makes it meaningful. As a Protestant, I have tremendous respect for serious Catholics, but mostly contempt for Catholic,but…ists because they, like the foolish subject of the old proverb, want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want the benefits of saying they are Catholic without incurring any of the costs.

I just wish people would make a commitment. Either be a Catholic, and follow the teachings of the Church, or leave it and do your own thing. Heck, there are plenty of Protestant groups that embrace just such “individuality.” I’m not trying to convince you or the politicians to leave your faith. I just want you and them to take it seriously; seriously enough to either follow it or forsake it. Because doing neither is actually a form of forsaking, even though it never seems to be.

It was just such fence-sitting that Jesus had in mind when He said He’d rather have people hot or cold, not lukewarm. Yet lukewarm seems to be the most accurate description of John Kerry’s religious devotion, and serious Catholics should ask themselves whether voting for such a Catholic,but…ist is really consistent with their own sincere faith. I certainly don’t know his heart, and I’m in no position to comment on the status of his personal salvation. I am simply pointing out that he shows very few signs of being committed to social principles which the Roman church has been proclaiming for over a thousand years.

In this particular election, the alternative to Kerry is a man who is United Methodist but fairly conservative within that particular denomination. As such, Bush is certainly not a Catholic. However, other than the war in Iraq (which Kerry also supported), President Bush is almost perfectly in line with Catholic social morality. If we looked at practice and proclamation, one might even say he is more Catholic than the junior Senator from Massachusetts.

In the final analysis, one thing is clear. The sort of concern people had the last time a Roman Catholic ran for president is a non-issue in this election. When JFK was elected, people were terrified that the Pope would be running the White House. They turned out to be wrong. I think it’s quite clear in this year’s contest that no one needs to worry about John Kerry being too loyal to the Vatican. In truth, the real concern for serious Catholics is whether he is loyal enough.

Sunday, July 4, 2004

Love it or leave it? I say fix it.

A shorter version was published in the Alton Telegraph--July 4, 2004

In a popular song, Lee Greenwood proclaims, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” Surely if anyone disagrees, he is a misfit or a lunatic or worse, unpatriotic. But on this day of national self-congratulation, I’ll risk such labels by contemplating what once was an easy question for me.

Am I proud to be an American?

I am not asking whether I love America. That, indeed, is easy to answer. To love something means wanting it to prosper and grow, caring about it, and being concerned when it is not doing well. Love is unconditional. Pride, in contrast, is something we only have toward things of merit. Unlike love, which cannot be earned, pride must be. Love is about what you desire something to be, whereas pride is about what it already is. I still love my dog when he chews up my books, but I am not proud of him. In fact, we often love things and people in spite of being ashamed of them. I ask the pride question precisely because I care deeply about my country and want it to be great, an inspiration to its citizens and aliens alike.

I’m proud of my wife. I’m proud of my son. I’m proud of my church. I’m proud of the impact my teaching has on people’s lives. I’m even fairly proud of my cooking, most days. But am I proud of America? Interesting question. What are my alternatives?

Perhaps I could be embarrassed by America, like a 14 year-old boy whose mother kisses him as she drops him off for football practice. The other boys laugh, but secretly they all wished their mothers loved them so obscenely.

Perhaps I could be indifferent toward America, the way a cashier feels at McDonalds. He’s grateful to have a job and all, and the benefits there aren’t so bad, but maybe one day he’ll find something better.

Perhaps I could be ashamed of America, the way the employees at Enron felt about Ken Lay. Even though they didn’t do the crimes, they surely felt a certain collective guilt about the whole ugly fiasco.

So which one is it? For perspective, imagine a slightly different case. If I told you that my uncle is a priest, my sister is a 2nd grade teacher, and my cousin is a doctor who runs a clinic for poor people, you would probably say I should be proud of my family. But if I then told you that my other uncle is a convicted rapist, my aunt embezzled from her company, and my brother is a part-time pimp while he works on his career as a crack dealer, would you still say so? It seems odd to be proud of any group that includes a rapist, but isn’t it equally odd to eschew pride about a group that includes my cousin the doctor? If your son gets A’s in math and history, but fails science and English, are you proud of his grades?

Unfortunately, America is just like my hypothetical family, only multiplied a thousandfold. I love bragging about some parts of our nation, while others make me violently ill. What sort of person could possibly be proud of it all?

Consider gay marriage. Conservatives can’t be proud that it exists, and liberals can’t be happy that it’s so hated by the majority of people.

Then there’s Iraq. I’m proud we liberated millions of Iraqis, but a bit ashamed that it was self-interest and not humanitarianism which made us do so.

I’m proud of the America which says it believes in marriage, but ashamed of the fifty percent who then get divorces.

I’m glad women can vote and work if they want to, but I’m saddened that we objectify them in movies, magazines, and strip clubs.

I guess I’m proud that every American can go to high school, I just sort of wish this education produced people who didn’t have alcohol and methamphetamines at their social gatherings.

I’m proud of a country which allows so much leisure time, but I don’t think I’m proud that practicing carjacking and murder in a video game is considered a good use of that leisure.

I’m certainly not proud of America when Janet Jackson gets symbolically raped at halftime of the Superbowl, spiking TiVo usage like nothing since Britney Spears. But I am proud when thousands of people write complaint letters to the FCC, and media outlets all over the country tone it down at least until sweeps week.

As my list grows, I start fearing there are more negatives than positives. Our schools promote intolerance of the Bible. We play God by contracepting and then cement the role by aborting 1,400,000 babies a year. We watch “Who wants to be a gay temptation island bachelor?” And mockery seems to be the national language, as spoken by the gurus of modern communication: Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman.

But, just when I’ve embraced despair, I remember that people still try to cross the ocean from other countries on cardboard boxes just to come here and enjoy the freedom I was born with. I am allowed to write a critical column like this. My pantry is regularly full of food Rwandans would literally kill to have once a year. And I never have to wait in line twelve hours to buy a pair of socks.

Which America do I think about when I ask myself whether I am proud of it: the country which fights terrorism and hunts Osama bin Laden or the country which trained him in the first place? The country with more prosperity than anywhere else or the country which is so selfish that we have to resort to using the force of law to help the poor, treat the elderly, and educate children?

We give more than any other nation, and yet the average person gives less than five percent of his gross income. The Constitution is wonderful, I just wish the Supreme Court followed it. It’s great to be a Christian nation, but it’s unfortunate that less than ten percent of all Americans have even read the Bible. We all proclaim the Ten Commandments, but wouldn’t it be nice if people actually knew what they said.

We are despised by Muslims around the world because the American flag stands for pornography and blasphemy, and I must side with them on this one. But we are also hated by them because we treat women as equals, encourage intellectual diversity, and proclaim religious tolerance. On that score I’m with us.

Some will say this is the nature of a democracy. Nobody raves about the results, but no one is so dissatisfied that he starts cleaning his rifle either. They’ll say that democracy is like Goldilocks’s porridge, it’s neither too hot nor too cold. My problem is that, unfortunately, it’s also not “just right.” I’m worried that America is a country of which no one can be proud anymore except those who refuse to think about the rampant and endemic contradictions in “our” way of life.

So in the end, I suppose I stand firmly on the fence. Part of me is as ashamed of my country as I believe most Germans were ashamed of their own in 1940, but another part of me is proud that, for all its flaws, America remains the best country in the world.

Like Reagan, I still believe in that shining city on a hill, it’s just sometimes hard to see that light from the city we inhabit right now. So, I guess I’ll say what everyone else says, plus a bit that’s different.

God bless America. Please, Lord, help us make it better.

Sunday, April 4, 2004

Just a little harmless entertainment?

Published in the Alton Telegraph--April 4, 2004

I was casually ignoring the advertisement on the radio because I needed to be somewhat less casual in my attempt to merge into traffic from the on-ramp. Then a single, stunning, potent phrase caught my attention. The robust voice of the invisible man in my dashboard enticed me with the claim that I could enjoy “hundreds of movies and thousands of emotions” simply by purchasing his 968-channel satellite dish system. I was captivated.

What enraptured me was not the magnetic appeal of the offer itself but the startling fact that someone in the entertainment industry was being so brazenly honest. They had finally admitted it out loud: my television is an emotional drug dispenser, and this guy wanted to be my pusher.

His proposal was genuinely appealing. He would bring a greater variety of drugs into my living room with such potency that I would feel no need to leave my recliner and seek pleasure in something as mundane and frustrating as real life. I could laugh with my virtual friends, cry at the vicarious pain of artificial people, be excited by the explosions of digitally manufactured cars, and experience late-night arousal the likes of which no ordinary house-wife can possibly provide. And all this for only a small monthly fee. Plus installation costs, of course.

As I recklessly grabbed my cell phone and prepared to credit card my way to emotional bliss, I paused. Sure, it all sounded great. I’d get everything my boring life could never hope to provide, and they’d get a pittance in compensation. But something inside me gently balked at the ravenous id desperately wanting me to order by phone today. I wondered if maybe there wasn’t some unseen hitch in the path to ecstasy so plainly laid out before me. I knew millions of other civilized Americans had been down this road before. Surely they couldn’t all have been wrong. I knew that the clinical trials for the system I might purchase had gone smoothly: not one unexplained death, and the FDA said the pharmacological side-effects were minor.

Still something was bothering me. It all seemed so easy. Perhaps too easy. Sure I could develop new friends, but would they ever comfort me when I needed to talk about my problems? My make-believe buddies would never give me a hug after a car wreck or watch my children in an emergency. Sure I could laugh and cry, but with whom would I share these joys and tears forty years from now? Would I really want to sit and reminisce about events that never even happened except on the lot of studio 27? Sure it would be great fun to watch the explosions and gunfights of outer space in a galaxy far, far away, but after winning the war I’d still be a philosophy teacher in a galaxy within commuting distance. Sure it’s grand fun to watch hundreds of different women parade around and pretend I am as arousing as that camera surely must be, but these imaginary women would never hold my hand at sunset or need me to make chicken soup for them when they became ill. Is the kind of intimacy I want in my marriage compatible with committing mental adultery via satellite whenever my wife comes home exhausted? Something about all of this started to disturb me.

More and more the price in dollars seemed like the very least of the costs in this Faustian bargain. Would this service make me happier? Or would it only make me temporarily forget how unhappy my ordinary life was by comparison? Would it inspire me to achieve great things for God and country? Or would it inspire me to compile a video library of my three hundred and twenty-four favorite previous emotional cocktails? Would I become a better person? Or would I learn there is no need to improve myself because my fictional friends in the little glass box are doing well enough for the both of us? I found myself wondering whether a person whose life is spent watching others imitate life is even really alive himself.
In the end, I made the choice which none of my neighbors can comprehend. I put the phone back in the glove box, drove home, and shocked the entire big-screen, surround-sound world by spending the evening cuddled up next to my wife. She appreciated the quiet time, and I enjoyed the pleasantly smooth pulse of reality for an evening. Oh, and by the way, my wife’s cold has gotten better. The chicken soup seems to have done the trick.

Friday, January 9, 2004

What Should You Read In the Bathroom?

Published in the Alton Telegraph--January 9, 2004

I suppose to a few people the very question will seem odd, since it has never occurred to them that anyone would choose to read while completing the digestive process. To many, the notion that others would even consider visiting the smallest room in the house unaccompanied by reading material is equally strange. No matter. I and many other decent Americans like me choose to read before we wash our hands.

But what makes for a good bathroom book?

This is no idle question.

Some books are clearly unsuitable, and the vicious merry-go-round of frustration, guilt, and stoic perseverance which can attend a poor choice is enough to justify this discussion. Entering into such a long-term relationship is lightly done only at one’s own peril.

Then there’s the whole book/magazine/newspaper controversy. Personally, I’ve always found the newspaper’s size and flimsy tensile strength too difficult for my skills. I never quite acquired the knack of getting the pages to fold properly without the aid of a decent table. Then when I try to flip a page, the middle sections invariably slide down, sometimes all the way to the floor. This is not a relaxing process, and in my bathroom experience, I need no added stress. Hence, I am decidedly anti-newspaper in my outhouse outlook.

As for magazines, well, I guess some people do go this route, but we talk about them in hushed tones at church, and most likely those people aren’t reading this anyway. Reading isn’t really their objective. Magazines, of the decent sort anyhow, do have one advantage over books: you can discard them without regret. There is perhaps some ancient wisdom in the practice of only reading things in the bathroom which you will never sell to a neighbor in your annual garage sale.

On a related note, my normal cleanliness standards seem breached on the subject of books. No matter whence it comes, I always feel like a book is clean once it is in my possession. I’ve never washed off a book, but I sometimes wonder whether a more sanitary person might not do so.

In spite of their merits, magazines nonetheless are just a smidge too large for the top of the tank. Also, the glossy ones are all too slippery on the porcelain, which means you must invest in some contraption to store them safely out of sight (and splatter), yet within reach. There is nothing more frustrating than knowing you have prudently stashed some reading material under the sink but that this stockpile is at least one good arm’s length beyond your most gymnastic lean.

Me, I’m a book man. But of course this is only the beginning of the problem, for there are many kinds of books. Novels are clearly out, although I have fallen into this trap, as the expression goes, many times. The two basic problems with a novel are obvious.

First, there is something moderately unnatural about craving a trip to the bathroom. Yet when a good novel is waiting there for you….

Second, you stay too long. Anything which can seduce you into sitting there until you no longer feel your legs is probably not the ideal choice. Besides, novels encourage you to read them for hours at a time with interruptions only to refill your coffee and stoke the fire. I like to immerse myself in a novel, and, well, immersion is never my goal in the activity under discussion.

So then it’s non-fiction for me, yet still our discussion is not resolved. Full-length books are not appropriate because they require serious and continuous study. It’s simply too hard to maintain fidelity to the author’s ideas when the breaks are longer than the action. I might carry such a book into the bathroom with me if I am already reading it elsewhere, but this is precisely so that I may return to my original location afterward without losing intellectual inertia.

No, for my money there is really only one ideal sort of book for the bathroom: a compilation of an author’s best newspaper columns. Such editorials are the ideal length for a visit to my other office. There is no intended continuity between segments, and if I happen to find myself with more event than 900 words will occupy, I can always read two in one sitting, so to speak. I get the benefit of the newspaper without all the effort, and if the particular column is not a satisfying one, well, it was over quickly anyhow.

So, in closing, I hope this has helped you gain perspective on one of those vaguely unsettling problems which seem to endlessly plague thinkers like us. If you are like me, you’ll be reading this at the kitchen table. Perhaps, if it ever sees its second life in a book, you’ll read it again elsewhere.