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Five Avoidable Lies

Father Richard Rohr once described five essential truths:

  • Life is hard.
  • Your life is not about you.
  • You are not in control.
  • You are not that important.
  • You are going to die.

If those are the essential truths that set us free, then these must be the avoidable lies that trap us:

  • Life should be easy.
  • My life is only about me.
  • I am in control.
  • I am all important.
  • I am not going to die.

I recently read an article about the psychology of evil. The author defined evil as something that disintegrates or tears apart:

We are the primary progenitors of evil: we not only define it…we wittingly or unwittingly create and perpetuate it.

How often do the we tell ourselves one of these avoidable lies? How do these lies wittingly (or unwittingly) create and perpetuate evil–that is, how do they destroy and tear apart rather than create and unify?


Religious Liberty and the Freedom of Conscience

Last August, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced new rules and regulations aimed to improve women’s health. On January 20, the DHHS announced a revision to its religious exemption clause that exempts health plans provided by religious employers that primarily employ and serve people who share the employer’s religion.

It is this exemption clause that concerns many people, since it would force organizations (such as Catholic hospitals and universities) to spend their money on something that violates their conscience.

Am I concerned about religious liberty and freedom of conscience? We all should worry about attacks on people because of their faith:

  • A menorah on the lawn of a private residence in the town of Plainview, NY was vandalized during this past Hanukkah
  • A church’s Nativity scene that included depictions of gay and lesbian couples was vandalized in Calrmont, CA.
  • In New Jersey, three adults and two juveniles were charged with bias intimidation and harassment after they allegedly pelted two Orthodox Jewish teens with eggs and told them, `You better move on you Jew boys.`
  • In Los Angeles, a Korean church was set on fire and racist graffiti was scrawled nearby.
  • The increasing number of anti-Muslim hate groups, such as Stop the Islamization of America.

Do I think the Obama administration is waging a war on religion in pursuit of a secular socialist agenda? Not so much.

More likely, the administration is trying to do the most good for the most people. In a nation as large and as diverse as the United States, this is a difficult task. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail (of course, “success” and “failure” is relative–if you  are a Republican, anything this administration does will be a failure, almost by definition.)

At worst, the administration made a bad policy decision that is pissing off a lot of people, myself included.

But I accept Secretary Sebelius’ reasoning for what it is. I may disagree with her, but I believe that she is a good person who is simply trying to do the best job she can. But I also agree with my bishop,  R. Daniel Conlon, of the Diocese of Joliet:

Now, it is no secret that many Catholics dissent from the Church’s longstanding teaching on artificial contraception, elective sterilization and abortion. However, pursuing old arguments on these issues will sidetrack us from the real one at hand. The Health and Human Services directive is a violent breach of the wall of separation between church and state. For the government to force a religious body to pursue a course of action that contradicts its beliefs, particularly where no public interest is at stake, is completely unacceptable.

But I don’t think the half-time entertainment at next year’s Super Bowl will include Christians being fed to lions. We must be careful to distinguish between public policy decisions with which we disagree (however strongly) with serious attacks on people because of their faith. Failure to do so subjects the victims of such crimes to a double indemnity: the crime itself, followed by the crime neglect.

Here is a copy of a letter I sent to President Obama, Vice-President Biden, and Secretary Sebelius. Not that I think it will have much of an effect. But at least I am trying to do something constructive.

I am writing to express my concerns about the new HHS rule regarding religious exemptions. Religious liberty is necessary to achieve the common good. However, religious liberty is more than just the freedom to worship in safety and security. Religious liberty also includes the freedom to teach the faith and live the faith.

Jesus instructed his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” and “[teach] them to observe all I have commanded you.” (Mt 28: 19, 20). Jesus instructed his disciples not only to preach the Gospel to all creatures but to also serve the world: “He summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.” (Mk 6: 7).

This ministry of mission is a key element of our faith. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? [Faith] of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (Jas 2: 14, 17).

The Department of Health and Human Services will require religious institutions like Catholic hospitals and universities to spend their money in ways that contradict their faith, thereby limiting the Church’s ability to do good works. It is an attack on the faith itself. “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (Jas 2: 26). In no way does this protect religious liberty. In no way does this promote the common good.

In his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington explained the importance of the freedom of conscience: “All possess a like liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. . . . For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

To the extent that the Catholic Church supports the interests of the Government of the United States in promoting the common good of all its citizens, the Department of Health and Human Services must respect its liberty of conscience. The new religious exemption clause fails in this endeavor. The religious exemption clause must be expanded so that religious institutions may exercise their faith in freedom and liberty.

Thank you for your service, and may you and your family be blessed with peace and all goodness!

An Open Letter to Speaker Boehner, et.al.

I would like to share with you my reasons for opposing the Keystone XL pipelinewith the hope that, after thoughtful reflection and prayer, you will join me in my opposition.As a Catholic who identifies with the teachings and example of St. Francis of Assisi, I have come to understand that humanity is part of Creation, which is a special and precious gift from God that helps us to know and love Him. Wrote Thomas of Celano, “[Francis] rejoiced in all the works of the Lord and saw behind things pleasant to behold their life giving reasons and cause. In beautiful things he saw Beauty itself; all things to him were good.”

The Keystone XL pipeline is incompatible with my Franciscan view of the world. The pipeline presents serious environmental and health risks. The Keystone XL will transport thick, toxic bitumen from the Alberta tar sands. Extraction of oil from the tar sands fragment and destroy the Boreal forest, killing migratory birds and many other species. Toxic waste from mining operations are stored in tailings ponds that already cover 65 square miles, resulting in higher rates of cancer among the Fort Chipewyan First Nations community. The destructive effects of tar sands extraction are so great that Luc Bouchard, Bishop of St. Paul in Alberta concluded that “…the integrity of creation in the Athabsca oil sands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain. . . . The present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oil sands cannot be morally justified. Active steps to alleviate this environmental damage must be undertaken.”

The Keystone XL pipeline will only transport this destruction into the United States. Between 2000 and 2009, pipeline accidents resulted in almost 3,000 significant incidents and over 160 deaths. In 2010, Enbridge pipelines spilled over 1 million gallons of tar sands into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, 275,000 gallons in a suburb of Chicago, and 126,000 gallons in North Dakota. If the Keystone XL were to leak, the environmental effects would be devastating.

Blocking the Keystone XL pipeline is one step we can take in alleviating the damage to Alberta’s Boreal forest, preventing future disasters in the United States, and exercising our duty to be good stewards of the environment.

“The earth is full of the steadfast love of the lord.” (Ps 33: 5) In a spirit of reciprocity, we must return that love. As Pope Benedict the XVI explained in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, “The envrionment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole. . . . The protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet.”

Scripture tells us that we are our brothers keeper (Gen 4, 9-10); the Lord instructs us that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22: 39). Like St. Francis, I have come to understand the truth that all of Creation–the Boreal forest of Alberta, the waters of the Athabasca River, the migratory birds and other species, and the Fort Chipewyan First Nations–are our brothers and sisters. We have an obligation and responsibility to them that far outweighs any possible economic gain realized by the Keystone  XL pipeline.

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1: 31) I hope after considering my words and the wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi, you will reconsider your position on the Keystone XL pipeline and block its approval.

Thank you for your service, and may you be blessed with peace and all goodness!

The Spiritual Vision of Faith

Then he touched their eyes and said, “Let it be done for you according to your faith.”Mt 9: 29

We see what we want to see, and it is that desire to see only what we want to see that blinds us from the truth.

Without faith, I cannot know God. I cannot know God only through philosophy. I cannot know God only through science. I cannot know God only by doing right by others.

Not that these things do not have value. Of course they do. It would be absurd to suggest otherwise. Everything can help see the truth–that is, to help us distinguish between reality and shadow–provided that we have faith. We see and understand to the extent that we have faith. A person’s lack of belief–his or her blindness–results simply from a lack of faith.

It is from a lack of faith that inspires an atheist to argue against the existence of God from the problem of evil. (On the contrary, the argument makes no sense to a person with faith.) It is from a non-believer’s lack of faith that evidence from the fossil record suggests that the story of Creation is a nothing but a myth. (To me, evolution illustrates that God’s creation is a work in progress.) It is a physicist’s lack of faith that leads him to conclude there is no God, not string theory. (In fact, is our pursuit of science nothing more than man exploring Eden as described in Gen 2: 19-20?) It is a lack of faith that leads people into immorality, not Lady GaGa.

Thus, it is not reason that leads one away from God. It is a lack of faith that leads one away from God. And reason cannot diminish a person’s faith, since faith and reason derive from the same source.

Faith gives man sight. But, given the frailty of the human condition, our sight can go bad. Even those who can see need glasses. Fortunately, we have reason, science, the arts, philosophy, and so many other great gifts that help us maintain the spiritual vision of our faith.

Hence, there is no need to repeal the Enlightenment.

Peace and all goodness!

In Defense of Troy Davis

The impious act because they do not understand.

The State of Georgia will execute Troy Davis on September 21, 2011 for a crime he may not have committed. He was convicted of killing a Savannah police officer in 1989, based on eye witnesses testimony. Several of those witnesses have since recanted, claiming that they were pressured by the police to blame Mr. Davis. One of those who did not recant may have been the real murderer, and that he implicated Troy Davis to save himself. No physical evidence links Mr. Davis to the crime. Judge Rosemary Barkett of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals offered her opinion of this case:

To execute Davis, in the face of a significant amount of proffered evidence that may establish his actual innocence, is unconscionable and unconstitutional.

Where a defendant can make a viable claim of actual innocence is facing execution, the fundamental miscarriage of justice exception should apply.

Yet the 11th Circuit still denied his appeal, Mr. Davis awaits death, and the State of Georgia risks executing a many who may very well be innocent.

With so much doubt as to Troy Davis’ guilt, how can the State of Georgia proceed with his execution? “As I Live, says the Lord, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man’s conversion.” (Ez 33: 11). Indeed, “God did not send his son into the world to condemn, but that the world may be saved through him.” (Jn 3: 17) If, then, God does not wish to condemn the wicked, then who are we execute someone who may very well be innocent? Should we model our behavior on the instructions that Cain’s descendant Lamech gave to his wives?

Wives of Lamech, listen to my utterance: I have killed a man for wounding me, a boy for bruising me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold. (Gn 5: 23 – 24)

Or should we model our behavior on Christ?

Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him, As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Mt 18: 21 – 22)

The State of Georgia has the duty to inflict punishment in order to provide for the common good of its citizenry. The friends and family who mourn Officer MacPhail have the right to see the interests of justice served: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Mt 5: 4). But punishment also serves to correct the guilty party; the finality of death penalty precludes this hope:

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. (Bl. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 56)

Troy Davis, a man who may very well be innocent, will be executed by the State of Georgia. His execution will serve no purpose, other than to condemn ourselves and our society. “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” (Mt 5: 21)

The reliance on the death penalty as the “ultimate form of justice” is one that we as a civilized society need to reject. Rather, we should embrace the vision of justice that Saint Francis of Assisi showed to us in dealing with the wolf who terrorized the city of Gubbio:

But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will never be harmed by you, and they will dismiss all your past offenses, and both men and dogs will no longer pursue you….But, Brother Wolf, for me to obtain this favor for you, I want you to promise me that you will never harm any animal or person or dare to harm anything.

I am Troy Davis, because I share with him the same beginning. You are Troy Davis because you share with him the same end; we are all Troy Davis because we are made in the same image (Gn 1: 26, 27; 2: 7; 3: 19). Now is the time for clemency; later will be the time for justice.

Now you understand. Now you can act.

To read more about Troy Davis and his case, you can read these articles from Forbes, The Atlantic, and Mother Jones provide excellent background and opinion.

To take action, the Innocence Project and Amnesty International provide opportunities for you to stand in solidarity with Troy Davis.

Peace and goodness!


“Doug, I just had an epiphany.”

Great.  A quiet, morning jog appears to be out of the question. He just had an epiphany, and now he insists on sharing his revelation with me. I prefer our morning runs to be relatively quiet affairs. The only sound I want to hear are of our feet striking pavement  in rhythmic unity with our labored breathing. But he decides to exercise his mouth as well as his body, drowning out the harmony of the birds who herald the waking world.

“Have you ever thought what it means to belong to a group? What it means to have an identity?”

We stop for a few seconds at an intersection as a blue sedan tears around the corner. We resume our jog.

“I just realized that we define ourselves not by who we are but what group we find ourselves a part of. And when we define our identity solely by our group, we separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters.”

Oh great. Here he goes with that “brothers and sisters” crap again.

“When we define what we are, we also define what we are not. Thus, in creating identity, we create boundaries. The question then is how do we create these boundaries in such a way that they remain permeable? Identity helps define who we are, but it seems that if our identity separates us–” He turns his head over his shoulder and discharged the saliva that has been accumulating in his mouth during his monologue, “Well, what good is that? How can identity and belonging serve the common good, build respect for each other, and promote peace if it divides us?”

It’s too early for this. He is making my brain hurt.

“And so, if identity, by its nature, breeds division, then our language and our actions must build bridges so that identity does not separate us. Rhetoric, then, must promote reconciliation and unity, not anger, scorn, or divisiveness. How can we love our neighbors if the words we choose do nothing to facilitate respect for the dignity of the other?”

Identity? Belonging? What is he talking about? I’m a dog. I only recognize the existence of two types of things: other dogs and food. What do I know about dignity? I eat my own poop.

We get home, he takes off my leash and I run and slurp up water from my dish. He pats me on the head.

“You’re a good boy Doug. I love my runs with you; they can be so insightful. Let’s get a treat!”

I meet him at the the pantry and sit at attention, wondering why he is the alpha of this pack.

I Am What I Am

Masks can serve two purposes: They can hide our true selves, or they can bring out our inner self, by which I mean, “that which we wish we were.” And that’s why costume parties can be so much fun. There is the fun part of creating our costume. Will we choose a costume that hides our true personality, or will we create a costume that reveals that which we wish to be? When we arrive at the party, what do we see? We no longer see our friends; rather, we see their hopes and desires. Maybe we see their fears. Or maybe we just see a fat man in a pink tutu smoking a cigar.

Carved into walls of the temple of Apollo at Delphi is the phrase that has been whispered throughout the centuries, “Know thyself.” But, yet, when we put on our costumes of daily life, we must ask, “Are we simply hiding from ourselves?” When I go to work, I could say, “Today, I am going to be a model employee. I am going to dress up, wear a tie, and act professionally.” But that’s not who I am. I’m not a model employee (to which my Rules for surviving the workplace testify). All my ties have cartoon characters on them. Act professionally? I barely act like an adult, let alone a professional.

No, that’s not who I am. So, I’ll throw on a pair of worn jeans, hoping nobody notices the tears in the seam at the crotch, a T-shirt, and a sweater covered in my Siberian husky’s fur. I’ll work hard at completing the daily tasks required of my job, but never forgetting to be as goofy as I can be. I respect my coworkers, but I always try to remind them not to take themselves so seriously. That’s who I am.

And that’s the second part–the unsaid part–of Wisdom’s eternal advice: it is not enough to know myself. I must be myself. And how can I be myself if I am constantly wearing a mask? How can I be Bob when I am constantly pretending to be Batman? Indeed, what role will I play in the drama of life?

We are soon going to share in the Passover….[L]et us take our part in the Passover prescribed by the law, not in a literal way, but according to the teaching of the Gospel; not in an imperfect way, but perfectly; not only for a time, but eternally….If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up your cross and follow Christ. If you are crucified beside him like one of the thieves, now, like the good thief, acknowledge your God….If you are a Joseph of Arimathea, go to the one who ordered his crucifixion, and ask for Christ’s body….If you are a Nicodemus, like the man who worshiped God by night, bring spices and prepare Christ’s body for burial. If you are one of the Marys, or Salome, or Joanna, weep in the early morning. Be the first to see the stone rolled back, and even the angels perhaps, and Jesus himself. (Saint Gregory Nazianzen, quoted from the Liturgy of the Hours, v. II, p. 392. New York: Catholic  Book Publishing Corp., 1976)

I am not Simon of Cyrene, the repentant thief, Joseph, Nicodemus, one of the Marys, Salome, or Joanna. I’m simply Bob, trying my best to live a Gospel life. More often than not, I find myself stumbling and falling down. And I have learned that the trick is not to “not stumble.” Rather, the trick is to get back up. After all, stumbling is a given, especially if you are wearing a mask that obscures your vision.

A wise man once said, “I yam what I yam.” True words indeed.

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