Sunday, November 3, 2013

We Only Keep the Photos We Like

Yesterday, my family went to a park, and we took many photos. The photo above stood out, however, as particularly beautiful in how it captured the expression of pure joy as my daughter, Miriam, experienced swinging for the first time.

Later in the day, my wife and I sorted through all our shots and kept the few that we really liked. This particular shot stood out as beautiful. I recalled how during my childhood years my family would occasionally look back through photos and I would see pictures of myself as I grew. I started to look forward to giving my daughter this opportunity to look back at some beautiful pictures of her childhood.

Through all this, a simple thought struck my mind that really made me think: We only keep the photographs we like. Out of all the photos my wife and I took, we only kept the ones that were beautiful--that moved us in some way. The ones that were blurry or had awkward poses or strange faces were moved to the trash. I thought back to the first time I purged my collection of photographs from boxes and albums. At that time, these were actual, tangible photographs, taken with film and printed on paper. Now, it is simply a matter of deleting an electronic file. I realized then that I didn’t have to cling on to every single snapshot of my past. I have taken thousands and thousands of photos throughout my life, but I only have certain ones that I have retained--only the best ones, the most beautiful and/or the most important.

God’s Photos
Just as we only keep the photographs we like, God desires to keep only the good memories of us. He wants only pictures that He likes, and He offers us the opportunity to get rid of those less-than-stellar shots through Confession. In this act of repentance, we choose to accept His opportunity to turn away from whatever evil we have committed in thought, word, action, or omission. He said to His Apostles (the first Catholic priests): “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20:22) God continues to give us Catholic priests today, who are given this power to act as His instruments of forgiveness. God wants to get rid of those blurry, awkward shots from our lives. He wants to only see a life of beauty in each of us, but we have to take Him up on His offer. We have to admit we have done wrong and try to not sin again.

Our Photos of Others
We also have to do the same for others. God said that in order to be forgiven, we must forgive others. 
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us . . . For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Mt 6:12, 14-15, emphasis mine) 
So, God wants to get rid of the bad pictures of us, but we first need to get rid of the bad pictures we have of each other. He wants us to look at the good in others. 

Rather than focussing on the crazy times when Miriam’s teething drives her to bouts of crying that seem unconsolable or focussing on how many hours of sleep we have lost (Amanda more so than me), my wife and I are called to focus on the good in Miriam (like re-viewing this picture of her) . . . and those aren’t even sins! We have to be willing to get rid of those bad photos we hold against others for their offenses. I have to recognize that I’m still holding a grudge against someone: my wife, my brother, my sister, my parents, my relatives, my friends, people at work, in the community, etc. What have they done that I still hold against them? In justice, I naturally want to see something done about this, but in mercy, I need to follow God’s lead and forgive these people. I cannot condone sinful activity, but I must love sinful people (like me).

The Final Album
Eventually, God willing, we will be with God forever in Heaven. In that state there won’t be any bad pictures, only the best. Before we can get there, however, we must go through a final touch-up, a final purging of bad pictures, a purification. St. John told us that nothing unclean can enter Heaven. (Rev. 21:27) So we cannot enter without these pictures being removed. This final purging of the stains of sin is what we call Purgatory.

In the end, those who have “feared God and done what is right” (Acts 10: 35) will be with Him forever. All in Heaven will glorify God’s mercy for forgiving their offenses. They will marvel at His mercy, for He has kept only the best photos.

Trying to keep the best photos,

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Would A Human Clone Have A Soul?

One of my previous students recently wrote me, asking about human clones:
If a person is ever cloned, does that living being have a soul? Can we say that God made that person, and that despite being cloned by man, is still a unique individual? Should a clone of a person have the same rights as a person who is, well, the original? Would it be a sin for a person to allow themselves or to allow others to be cloned?

The following is my response with some additions:
To answer your question: every human person has a unique, unrepeatable soul, no matter how he/she came to be. The means by which a human clone came into existence would be evil (assuming that scientists are actually able to figure this out, and one day do), but the person him/herself would still have all the rights as anyone else (just as a person who was conceived in a test tube or in rape would have been conceived in an evil way, but would still have his or her own unique soul with all the rights as anyone else).
If a human is alive, he must have a soul, and souls only come from God. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:
the soul is defined as the first principle of life of those things which live: for we call living things "animate," [i.e. having a soul], and those things which have no life, "inanimate." (Summa Theologia I.75.1)
the human soul is produced by God (Summa Theologia I.75.6)
Like all moral situations God gives us free will to do things the right way or the wrong way. Rape, artificial insemination, sex outside of marriage, and cloning are all wrong ways of bringing a human being into existence. God also allows all the consequences of our actions (good or evil), so He just might allow these evil situations to be effective in their natural consequences (creation of a new human life) by creating a soul to animate the body these people are forcing into creation--even though these means are against His design.
Yes, you're right. People who practice things like artificial insemination and cloning are (knowingly or unknowingly) trying to be as great as (or greater than) God. They're taking a place that belongs to God in the human reproduction process. Every human being has the right to be the fruit of the loving act of his/her mother and father (c.f. CCC 2378). God designed humans to be the natural result of a loving marriage, not the result of scientific processes. Any act that creates a human being outside of the marital act, then, is evil (contrary to God's design). It would also be a sin for a person to willingly have him/herself cloned (for the same reasons).
The only exception for this is, obviously, natural cloning (a.k.a. twins). If I remember correctly, I think I heard somewhere that identical twins (or was it fraternal twins?) are considered clones of each other because of the way they develop in the womb. That's something about which an embryologist would a have much better understanding, so don't quote me on it.
Some might try to argue that if clone has a soul, and God created the soul, this must be proof that God thinks cloning is okay. Again, we refer back to the fact that God allows the natural consequences of all of our actions (good or bad). If I jump off a tall building, God will let me die (no matter how good or evil of a person I am) because death (separation of the soul from the body) is the natural consequence He has set up for things like falling from high places. If I steal food from a restaurant, it will still taste the same as if I had bought it honestly. God would not be allowing it taste good because He condones my theft; rather, He would allow the experience of the good taste of the food to be a natural consequence of putting good tasting food in my mouth. Too often, people try to excuse their evil actions because they do not see an immediate reaction by God (like lightning bolts shooting out of the sky to kill them for doing whatever they did). They're just fooling themselves into thinking their activity is okay.

[P.S. It's been over 6 months since I posted because things have been a little busy: I have a 5 month-old daughter, I moved from Texas to Kansas, and I switched from teaching theology to farming--see also the New Catholic Land Movement]

Saturday, February 16, 2013

How is the Pope Holy?

A friend wrote to me on Facebook, asking the following question:
 . . . how is the Pope considered a 'holy man' when he is elected by a group of individuals? It seems too Democratic a system to be pure and holy.
I enjoy when friends ask questions because they often ask questions that go beyond the scope of what I have already studied, so I have to do more research to learn exactly what the Church teaches on that particular topic. I was intrigued to begin to formulate an answer to this question, because I had been wondering about part of it myself--specifically, what the Church taught about God's role in the election of the Pope. I believe I was able to make a good start, but I think there is probably much more I can learn about this topic. Feel free to comment if you know any more than I have already listed.

What follows is my response:

1) How is the Pope a “holy man?”

Photo Credit:
First, it will help to understand the word holy. We use “holy” in multiple ways, particularly to describe the following:
  • A: God Himself
  • B: A person, place or thing consecrated to God (set aside as belonging to God)
    • Gen 28:16 - the place God appears
    • Ex 19:6 - God’s people
    • Ex 28:43 - the Tabernacle
    • Is 48:2 - Jerusalem
    • Lev 10:17 - the sacrificial goat
    • Rom 1:7 - what Christians call each other
  • C: Someone who has an outstanding relationship with God and lives an exemplary moral life. (This is probably the most common use in our ordinary vocabulary.)

We also use other words that mean holy: sacred, saint, hallowed, blessed, etc.

We call the pope “the Holy Father” because of his particular position (his office). In Mt 16:18-19, Jesus said to St. Peter that he was “Rock” [Jesus changed his name from Simon to Kephas (Aramaic for “rock”) --> Petros (Greek feminine for “rock”) --> Petre (Greek masculine for “stone”) --> Peter (English transliteration)] and on this “Rock” He would build His Church. At this point Jesus also promised to Peter the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven [a symbol of Jesus’ authority being handed on to Peter to be “in charge” after Jesus ascended--when the Old Testament King was going away, he would give his prime minister the keys to the kingdom to show that he had the authority while the king was gone (see Is 22:20-22)]. Catholics see this as Jesus establishing Peter as the head apostle, who after the Ascension would have Jesus’ authority to lead the Church. Peter left James in charge as the “bishop” (from the Greek episkopos or “overseer”) of Jerusalem and moved on temporarily to Antioch. Peter eventually settled in Rome, where he spent the rest of his life. Peter helped to begin and grow the Christian community in Rome. After Peter was crucified, the remaining Apostles and other bishops knew that someone needed to take Peter’s place just like Matthias had been appointed to take Judas’s place (see Acts 1). Linus was appointed to take Peter’s place as not only the bishop of Rome, but also the new head of the whole Church. Since then whoever was the bishop of Rome was considered the head of the Church (Benedict XVI is the 265th bishop of Rome).

Because his position is to lead the faithful closer to God, he is called the “Holy Father” --> the “papa” --> the “pope.” This corresponds mostly to definition B (above) for holy. He is “holy” by virtue of the fact that his office dedicates him totally to God, and he is acting with God’s authority in that position. He acts in the person of Jesus as the earthly head of the Church, so we also call him the “Vicar of Christ” (vicarius is Latin for “in the person of”).

Ideally, we can also apply definition C to the pope: that he is a moral role model. We have been very fortunate to have recently had a string of some very definition-C-holy popes. Some popes have not been very morally upright (Leo X comes to mind), but the REALLY cool thing with that is this: even though there have been some really morally lousy popes in the past, God has prevented all of them from changing official Church teachings to say that those bad things are good. God wants His people to always have access to the correct teachings about Him (faith) and how we ought to act (morality), so He prevents the popes from changing the teachings that Jesus handed on to the Apostles, who handed it on through history to us today. The popes don’t necessarily get any extra knowledge, but because God wants us not to be led into error, the Holy Spirit prevents the pope from changing the teachings. This can be seen in that same passage from Matthew: both in the authority of the keys, but also when Jesus told Peter that whatever he “bound on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever he loosed on earth would be loosed in Heaven” (“binding” and “loosing” were terms used by rabbis both for doctrine and for the forgiveness of sins). This is what Catholics mean when they say the pope is “infallible.” He is not made “impeccable” (without sin), but he is prevented from changing the truth that Jesus handed on. It has been such a blessing that Benedict XVI and John Paul II were such holy men in all accounts, but not every pope has been that way.

2) Does the election of the Pope make him holy? Isn’t it a rather fallible human system?

Photo Credit: Fotographia Felici
Analogously to Jesus Himself, in the election of the Pope there is a certain combination of the human and the divine. Yes, the cardinals are men, electing the next pope, but they are called to pray for God’s help. Pope Paul VI described it in his document on the Election of the Roman Pontiff (#84):

Like Our predecessors, We strongly exhort the cardinal electors not to be guided by likes or dislikes in electing the pope, nor influenced by the favor or compliance of anyone, nor moved by the interference of persons ... nigh places or pressure groups, or by the suasive language of the masters of the communications media, or by violence or fear or love of popularity. Instead, with God's glory and the good of the Church as their sole guide, and having asked for divine help, let them vote for him whom they judge most fit to rule the universal Church in a fruitful and useful way.

In the next paragraph, Paul VI also recognized that all the Catholic faithful around the world are called upon to pray for the cardinals in the conclave, so that they may be open to listening to God’s direction. While it is open to human fallibility, the conclave of cardinals electing the new pope is called upon to open themselves to God’s direction. And even if they don’t, and the worst pope in history is elected, we can trust in Jesus’ promise to Peter in that same quote that the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church. Whomever they elect will be the new bishop of Rome, and God will help him in guiding the Church. Even if the man is not definition-C-holy, he will be by default definition-B holy. We pray for both B & C.

UPDATE (3/1/13): A friend linked me to this article at the Deacon's Bench, quoting Cardinal Ratzinger 8 years before he became pope:
I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope. … I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined . . . There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!

I hope this helps. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.

Again, if any of you have any good quotes on God's guidance of the papal electors, please share.

Praying for our current and future Holy Father,

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