Insults and Persecution

(Homily for 14th Ordinary Sunday, Year B)

People sometimes have vague fears about the Catholic Church, that we have a sinister plan to restrict their freedom. Since this is Fourth of July weekend (and it fits with our Scripture readings) I would like to address those fears.

Once I had a conversation with a young woman concerned that the Catholic Church was trying to take away her "right to choose." She described herself as "very pro-choice." Fair enough, I told her, but I was curious how far she would take it. "Suppose," I asked, "someone were mistreating their pet (not feeding it properly, allowing it to live in filthy conditions, etc.) would you favor a law to prevent a person from making such a choice?"

She of course saw where I was going. While we both recognized the right to privacy, we did not want it to become a license to harm humans – or animals. We both desired maximum freedom for others, but we acknowledged situations where that freedom should be limited.

That is our nation's dilemma as we celebrate its 227th birthday. It does no good to talk about pro-choice and anti-choice. Every law, when enforced, infringes on someone else's choice.

The correct question is contained in today's readings. They presuppose human freedom, but ask what we will do with it. In the Old Testament God sent prophets like Ezekiel to call people back to the right path. They did not listen because their faces had become hard. (Ez 2:4) Easy to recognize that hardness in others, but more difficult to see when we look in the mirror.

Jesus also received an unenthusiastic reception from his countrymen. "They took offense at him." (Mk 6:3)

That kind of reception will become more common for those serious about their Catholic faith. History professor Philip Jenkins has written an insightful book titled The New Anti-Catholicism. Not a Catholic himself, he analyzes what has become the "last acceptable prejudice." The prejudice shows itself not just in fringe groups who are openly anti-Catholic (Lumen Productions, Bob Jones University, etc.), but right in the mainstream: major newspapers, movies, television, the arts.* One reason for this hostility is our teaching on matters like abortion and homosexuality.**

This is not a bad place for us to be. Jesus said that if they hated him, they would also hate us. Today St. Paul declares:

I am content with weaknesses, insults,
hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ;
for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:10)

Of course, we must be cautious in claiming persecution. No one here is being arrested, tortured and executed for their faith - as is happening in other countries. And perhaps more to the point, you and I (unlike Jesus) are not innocent - nor can we claim a level of integrity equal to Paul.

At the same time, it is hard to ignore that the media have a bias against Catholicism and that their repeated insinuations do have an impact on our young people. Some young Catholics wonder whether they want to belong to an organization portrayed as anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-democratic, anti-science, even anti-Semitic.

We need people who can respond to the more egregious charges such as that, in the face of the Holocaust, the pope remained silent or even collaborated with Hitler. Besides the accusation that Pius XII was Hitler's Pope the media make frequent references to other "black legends": Crusades, Inquisition, Burning Times, Galileo. We can perform a real service by studying these issues and helping people get beyond what "everyone knows" to a more nuanced understanding.

Celebrating the Fourth of July, as Catholics we desire to take our place alongside other citizens. We do not seek to dominate or impose. As Pope John Paul stated, "The Church proposes. She imposes nothing." Rather, in light of the Gospel and in light of our two thousand year tradition, we join fellow citizens in asking: What does freedom means? Where does it come from? And what we will we do with such a gift?

************

*Jenkins mentions a Seattle art gallery which featured a blasphemous depiction of Christ crucified. "Below the cross, two nuns lie on their backs with the end of a coat hanger between their legs." Other paintings had crude representations of priests. He notes that our society would not tolerate similar stereotyping of Jewish rabbis, black ministers, native Americans, etc. For sure Catholic priests and nuns provide rich ground for parody, going back to Chaucer and continuing into productions like Late Night Catechism. But if you imagine that the more vicious variety is an isolated phenomenon, I encourage you to read The New Anti-Catholicism.

**We cannot dodge these questions by saying they are private concerns of specific groups. As Mother Teresa observed, "If abortion isn't wrong, then nothing is wrong." If a society accepts the killing of unborn children, on what moral basis can we hold that any other act is unacceptable? The only thing which will matter is who is the strongest, that is who controls the means of communication and is most clever at manipulating people's emotions. Regarding homosexuality, our desire to accept and support those who struggle with same sex attractions does not require that we redefine marriage.

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From Archives (14th Ordinary Sunday - Year B):

2015: Building on Strength Week 1: Scripture as Word of God
2012: Mary Opens a Window (about "brothers & sisters" of Jesus)
2009: Some Requests
2006: How Jesus Handled a Put Down
2003: Insults and Persecution
2000: Separation of Church & State?
1997: "The Conscience of our State"

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I might want the choice whether or not to buckle my seatbelt, but I keep seeing those click it or ticket signs. They don't take away my freedom to choose in any absolute sense, but warn me if I exercise it I may wind up $86 poorer. However one might feel about seat belt laws, would we gain anything by by framing this - or any legal issue - in terms of pro-choice and anti-choice?*

*A more apt comparison is whether female circumcision should be legal. A family in the Seattle area desired the procedure for their adolescent daughter, who herself was in favor of it. A local physician was willing to perform the surgery in order that it not be carried out in dangerous, unsanitary conditions. Like almost everyone else, I thought the whole thing sounded ghastly, but I could not help notice that there was no talk about pro-choice.