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Practicing Mercy

Jessica Keating_headshotJessica Keating, M.Div.
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives,
University of Notre Dame

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For those of a certain generation, the word mercy will forever conjure the image of a leather-clad, feather-haired Uncle Jesse, exclaiming, “Have mercy.” If not, you can watch a 2-two minute summary here.

Somehow, I don’t think this is what Pope Francis had in mind when he declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy, set to begin tomorrow on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In the papal bull announcing the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, Francis writes:

Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. . . . Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God. We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness (§§1–2).

In some ways the declaration of a year of mercy seems hopelessly inadequate. The pragmatist in me scoffs at mercy. Mercy is too dangerous; it is too costly.  In world beset by violence and terrorism, where it seems all the news is bad news—bombings, shootings, kidnappings, natural disasters—mercy seems, well, not quite up to the task. Mercy seems reckless and imprudent. When things are better, when the world is safer, then it will be time for mercy. For now, mercy can wait.

But mercy doesn’t wait. It runs out into the danger; it bears the cost. Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium anticipates Misericordiae Vultus. Francis avers that Christ, the sacrament of salvation, is God’s work of mercy (cf. EG, §112). God’s mercy comes out to meet us, while we bear the weight of sin. God doesn’t wait for things to get better, for the world to be safer before sending his beloved Son. God enters into the quagmire most imprudently as an infant needing a home—as a helplessly needy, nearly blind infant. The eternal Word becomes speechless. The one through whom the entire cosmos is created and sustained in being is now hidden. Mercy is enthroned in the obscurity of the manger.

The recklessness of God! In The Portal to the Mystery of Hope, French poet Charles Péguy captures the audacity of divine mercy:

Terrible love, terrible charity,
Terrible hope, truly terrible responsibility,portal

The Creator has need of his creature, put himself in need of his creature.
And can’t do anything without it.
A king who has abdicated into the hands of each of his subjects
Merely absolute power.
God needs us, God needs his creature.
. . .
What rashness. What confidence.
Well or misplaced confidence, that all depends on us.
What hope, what obstinacy, what one-sidedness, what incurable strength of hope. (84–85)

God places himself in our hands. In his reckless and inefficient mercy, God hopes in us. We are called to show mercy because mercy has been shown to us in the person of Christ Jesus (cf. MV, §9). As an expression of the God who is love, mercy is always personal. It resides in the immaculate womb of Mary. Mercy heals the sick and forgives sinners. Mercy flows from Christ’s open side. Mercy welcomes the prodigal son home; mercy searches for the lost sheep; mercy endures for our sake. In the flesh of love, Christ’s flesh, mercy comes into the world to embrace, heal, weep, pray, and delight with us.

Mercy is never abstract. It is a practice of love, and like all practices, it is concretized by doing something somewhere. It takes place in the michelangelo_caravaggio_30_the_seven_works_of_mercyshadows, on the peripheries, and in the mundane realities of daily life. Yet in its hiddenness, mercy is the antidote to despair; it is the work of hope which remains “impossible to extinguish; as that little flame in the sanctuary” (Péguy, 7). Mercy is a form of life that flows from the pierced side of Christ. It is a form of life that puts us at the disposal of another. By practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy— feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the stranger, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, burying the dead; instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses, comforting the afflicted, praying for the living and the dead—we participate in form of life that renders present the work of mercy in every age.

Dorothy Day on Abortion and Mercy

Jessica Keating_headshot

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

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“Don’t you care about anything other than abortion, like U.S. military plans to invade Iran?,” a middle aged man asked a women holding a sign that read, “Abortion Hurts Women.” I happened to overhear this question a few weeks ago, when I participated in the nation’s largest Planned Parenthood protest in history.

The problem with this question and others like it (don’t you care about poor, don’t you care about the environment, don’t you care about the plight of the immigrant, don’t you care about
homelessness, don’t you care about human trafficking, etc., etc.), is that they attempt to limit the horizon of conversation to predetermined and falsely constructed dichotomies. Such questions are not neutral; rather their framing fossilizes the narrative about human dignity in our country through the unrelenting rehearsal of 11951995_10152931926825793_3853225836498330680_nslogans and arguments. These questions, whether expressed on Facebook or Twitter, in the media, or by presidential hopefuls in what seems like endless election cycles, are nearly always linked to the desire for power, to get candidate X elected. The not-so- hidden implication of such questions is that one cannot care about the unborn and militarism, or human trafficking, etc., etc. I have also heard the question inverted, so as to imply if one is really against abortion, all other human dignity issues must recede from view. In either inflection, there is a lack of nuance, distinction, and vision.

In light of the absurdity of this set-up, I have found myself reflecting on Servant of God Dorothy Day as a particularly important icon for Catholics in America who are daily tempted to fall prey to disjointed “issues”-based politics and to cultivate a comparable “issues”-based gospel. She confounded such tidy divisions and simply declined to engage the American political milieu in such predetermined ways.

Day actually rarely spoke or wrote directly on the topic of abortion. Scour her journals, articles, letters, and books. Search her prolific corpus, and one will find scant reference to that ordeal of which she had a most intimate knowledge. She wrote a fictionalized account of her own abortion in an early work, The Eleventh Virgin, and obliquely gestures to the experience in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness. Indeed, she expended her considerable journalistic talents denouncing state sponsored militarism, detailing the rhythms of Dorothy_Day_1934family life, describing the scandal of the works of mercy, writing letters, and advocating for a new social order. In part, no doubt, this had as much to do with the historical fact that abortion was not available and practiced on the scale it is today until the end of her life, but I also suspect her relative silence on the subject had something to do with Day’s own deeply painful experience of abortion.

In addition to the references to abortion in The Eleventh Virgin and The Long Loneliness, Day speaks of her abortion again in a tender letter written on February 6, 1973 to a young woman named Cathie whose own abortion left her in deeply wounded and contemplating suicide. To Cathie she speaks of pain and hope, healing and prayer. “In a way,” Day writes “to use old-fashioned language, I feel you are a victim of souls, bearing some of the agony the world is in, Vietnam, the Third World, ‘the misery of the needy and groaning of the poor’”(All is Grace, 397).

Day again mentions abortion in a reminiscence to mark her 75th birthday that appeared in the August 10, 1973 edition of Commonweal Magazine. Writing of her conversion, The Imitation of Christ, and Bartolome de las Casas, she writes:

God forgive us the sins of our youth! But as Zachariah sang out, “We have knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of our sins.” I don’t think anyone recognizes the comfort of this text better than I do. I have not yet been attracted by the present tendency to bring everything out into the light of day by public and published confessions. Were we not taught by Holy Mother Church to respect the modesty of the confessional? Or is that a silly expression? But oh the joy of knowing that you can always go there and be forgiven seventy times seven times. (Even though you wonder, in your distrust of yourself, whether you really mean or have the strength to “amend your life.”) I hope your readers can read between the lines from the above and recognize what my positions on birth control and abortion are.

In the same “letter-article,” she recounts being asked by reports in
Australia about her views on abortion and birth control. To these 2251719973_01c2c3fd40questions, she explained matter-of-factly:

My answer was simplistic. I followed Pope Paul. . . . Thank God we have a Pope Paul who upholds respect for life, an ideal so lofty, so high, so important even when it seems he has the whole Catholic world against him. Peter Maurin always held before our eyes a vision of the new man, the new social order as being possible, by God’s grace, here and now, and he so fully lived the life of voluntary poverty and manual labor.

There is a striking similarity between Day’s straightforward answer and Pope Francis’ first interview with America Magazine where, when asked about abortion, contraception, and gay marriage, he said simply, “I am a son of the Church.” And yet, such simple answers are far from simplistic. Rather, they speak of a life lived according to a particular form of life and a particular logic of love and mercy.

Day’s most formal statement about abortion appeared The Catholic Peace Fellowship’s “Statement on Abortion,” which she co-signed with six others on June 28, 1974. Here the authors write:

We make this statement to protest a policy and a practice, not to condemn any individual for a tragic decision she or he may have felt forced to make, just as in our protest against war and its destruction of human life we pass no judgment upon the individual who acts in good conscience.

. . . For many years we have urged upon our spiritual leaders the inter-relatedness of the life issues, war, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia and economic exploitation. We welcome the energetic leadership our bishops are giving in the abortion controversy and we are proud to join our voices with theirs. At the same time we must point out that, ultimately, the sincerity of our words and theirs on any of these issues will be measured by our readiness to recognize and deal with the underlying social problems which turn many people to these deadly womalternatives, to condemn all forms of social and economic injustice and to work for their elimination and the establishment of a social order in which all may find it easier to be “fully human.”

What are we to make of these three references? The first appears in personal letter in which Day recalls her abortion and the healing grace of God. The second appears in a self-described “letter-article,” wherein she speaks of abortion in connection to the mercy and authority of the Church. The third reference appears in a formal statement, in which the authors denounce the policy and practice of abortion and call for a new social order, one which makes human flourishing easier—a society that, in the words of Peter Maurin, “makes it easier to be good.”

Taken together, Day’s remarks on abortion offer two essential insights.

1) Mercy capacitates us to see more. In her “letter-article” for Commonweal, Day quotes the Benedictus: “We have knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of our sins.” The mercy of God, fully disclosed in the person of Christ, and Day’s encounter with God’s mercy enabled her to see more of reality. Indeed, it is a life prayer, of participation in the sacramental life, that forms such a vision. Grace elevates and penetrates even that which is available to reason. It enfolds us into the logic that knits together all “life issues.”

If this sounds similar to a seamless garment life, it is because it is. But let me be clear, such a vision must avoid conflation. The image of the seamless garment like the image of the Body of Christ, with Christ as the head, is a hierarchical image. Abortion, the willful termination of human life, is simply not the same moral act as capital punishment or even economic exploitation. Rather, such a vision requires the careful and precise distinction evident in Evangelii Gaudium, when Pope Francis explained why the protection of the unborn takes primacy of place in the Church’s teaching on human dignity.

Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with
particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless pope-francis-im-not-a-marxistand innocent among us. . . . Defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. No. 213

A society that fails to defend its most vulnerable members will soon find that it is unable to defend other human rights, that indeed, what is considered a “right” increasingly will be determined by the powerful.

At the same time, such a vision can see the inner connection of all life issues. We do well not only to remember that the realities of war, migration, and economic exploitation often disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us namely, children, but also that all offenses against human life, in different ways and at different levels of gravity, participate in a logic of violence, in a logic that produces a throw-away culture. We also do well to remember that the realities of war, migration, and economic exploitation often disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us namely, children. Day expresses this when, in her letter to Cathy, she sees the acute particularity of Cathy’s suffering and its universality. It is precisely because of the Church’s teaching on abortion (and euthanasia) that enables her to to speak and act with clarity, conviction, and authority on all issues related to life, to labor tirelessly against an economy that kills (53). This kind of vision is elevated and expanded by an encounter with God’s fierce and tender mercy.

  1. Mercy is a habit that requires concrete forms of practice. Peter Maurin was famous for saying that the aim of the Catholic Worker was to build a new society in the shell of the old, one that made it easier to be good. In her “letter-article” to Commonweal, Day seems to make a non-sequitur from her affirmation of Pope Paul’s upholding of respect for life to Peter Maurin. As I read over the passage a second time, however, it struck me that her abrupt change in subject was only an appearance. Indeed, for Day (and for us) Maurin is living witness to the gospel of life. He provides, as does Day, a particular enactment of a life conformed to Christ, to the one who reveals the breadth and depth of human dignity, which is made known to us again and again through the tender forgiveness of our sins. It is a life lived within the horizon of mercy.

In his concrete practices of prayer and the works of mercy, the vigorous exercise of his mind and enactment of his vision for an agronomic university, Maurin (and Day) worked to build a “social order in which all may find it easier to be ‘fully human.’” By daily practicing the way of mercy, they labored for a society in which it was easier to be good, easier to choose life, easier to say no to the will to power and violence in all its many forms.

I stood on Grape Road, with my jeans rolled up and my hair pulled back, with the young and old, with men and women who had also come to plead for justice and mercy for unborn, to call for a new 11879275_10152927735535793_2395403451959082158_osocial order, one that makes human flourishing easier—a society permeated by mercy. This work on behalf of the unborn is not exhausted by protesting, though that is critical. It is not exhausted by legal changes, though these are necessary, as the law shapes the imagination. It requires more; it requires concrete practices of care and support for mothers and their children—health care, paid maternity leave, a living wage, etc. Mercy does not choose its own way. It does not say, I will do this work of mercy but no other. Mercy is a bridge, it has wholeness, a breadth and depth that makes it easier to choose life.

Political Speech, Bull*$!%, and Human Dignity

Jessica Keating

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

A couple of weeks ago I suggested that decadence is a disease of the eye that trains us to see and un-see reality in a particular way. Decadence forms and distorts our vision, not unlike the way cataracts distort and blur one’s physical capacity to see. At this point, I would like to suggest that the widespread use of ‘bullshit’ in public discourse functions as decadence’s corollary with regard to speech. Indeed, decadence and ‘bullshit’ are one another’s helpmates, each mutually reinforcing and cultivating a profound lack of concern for truth.

What precisely is ‘bullshit?’ In his masterful book, On Bullshit, Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt interrogates the term and finds our current definitions wanting. He concludes that ‘bullshit’ is a programmatic form of speech which is unconcerned with truth. On BullshitFrankfurt explains that the proliferation of ‘bullshit’ is a profoundly problematic aspect in much of modern public discourse, which has largely dismissed the very possibility that one can accurately identify the truth. Such a position could lead to total silence, the refusal to make any assertion about the way things are. Yet, modern public discourse has not fallen silent; in fact, there seems to be more to say than ever. Though we have largely eschewed the possibility of accessing truth beyond the subjective and personal, we continue to make “assertions that purport to describe the way things are” (62).

Herein lies the essence of ‘bullshit.’ It is not simply that the ‘bullshitter’ plays fast and loose with the truth; it is rather that the ‘bullshitter’ refuses to submit “to the constraints which the endeavor to provide an accurate representation of reality imposes” (32). Unlike a liar who must believe he knows the truth in order lie, the ‘bullshitter’ engages in a program that is less deliberative, one that is wholly unconcerned with truth. Indeed, ‘bullshit’ is not the limited insertion of a falsehood the way a lie is; it is a program of discourse in which one “is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well” (52). It is a form of speaking that sells a vision of reality which, though it may sometimes be true or sometimes be false, is wholly unconcerned with truth.

As Frankfurt notes, ‘bullshit’ exists in the tension of discipline with regard technique and laxity with regard to correctness (23). In few places do we find more paradigmatic instances of bullshit than in advertising and in politics, insofar as the latter increasingly takes on the form of the former.

Thank you for smokingAdvertising campaigns for tobacco provide one such classic example, so paradigmatic, in fact, they made a movie about it called Thank you for Smoking. In the film we see that tobacco lobbyists never quite lie to the public, but neither do they submit the discipline of accurately representing reality. It isn’t as though the men and women crafting cigarette campaigns fail to get the facts right, it is that they filter them in order to create an attractive aura around smoking. They are prepared to “fake the context.” In short, whether what they say is true or false is irrelevant. What matters is selling cigarettes. According to Frankfurt, it is the ‘bullshitter’s’ disregard for the truth that makes him a greater enemy to truth than the liar.

Political speech often functions in the modality of ‘bullshit’ for two reasons. First, politicians are frequently required to speak about issues that exceed their knowledge. This will, Frankfurt observes, will nearly always produce ‘bullshit’ (63). Secondly, because American politics are irreducibly ideological, politicians can never be too concerned with truth or they won’t be re-elected. They must be more nearly concerned with pandering to voter opinion, power, and money.

Those concerned with issues of human dignity ought to be particularly concerned with the expansion of ‘bullshit’ in political 17trump-web-master675discourse. Like so much political speech on both sides of the aisle, particularly political speech that has to do so intimately with human dignity, both parties demonstrate an utter lack of concern for the truth. Republicans often provide classic instances of ‘bullshit’ when speaking about immigration reform and policies that make it easier to welcome life (see Carly Fiorna’s opposition to government mandated paid parental leave or anytime Donald Trump speaks about immigration reform), while Democrats provide us with equally paradigmatic examples when speaking of abortion.

A particularly timely example of ‘bullshit’ came two weeks ago, when Massachusetts’s Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a rhetorically impassioned defense of Planned Parenthood on the Senate floor. Though the Senate vote was motivated by the recent release of videos showing possible illegal activity on the part of Planned Parenthood executives and doctors, Senator Warren’s speech was more nearly a defense of abortion as such.

The following morning, clips of her speech popped up all over social media with tags branding her a feminist hero. She was touted in Salon as a “badass” for “slamming” the GOP, her two pro-life Democrat colleagues, and by extension anyone who has the temerity to disagree with her.

Recall that unlike lying, ‘bullshit’ is not so much a discrete intervention as it is an overarching program. Yet, concrete examples of ‘bullshit’ are discernable, and Senator Warren’s Planned Parenthood apologia provides us with at least two arcs of ‘bullshit.’

Insofar she is unconcerned with submitting to the kind of
constraints that would provide an accurate representation of reality,
Warren acts in a way similar to the advertiser, the pundit, the lobbyist, and the pollster. She engages in misdirection and deflection, employs information in order to try to sell us a vision of the way things are, a vision that is unconstrained by the demands of truth.

From her use of statistics to her underlying, though unstated (and, indeed, unimportant for the ‘bullshitter’) duel claim that it is better Elizabeth Warrenfor some human beings not to exist or that to be a feminist requires embracing the systematic program of killing the unborn, Ms. Warren’s speech provides us with an excellent example of bullshit. Her argument turns entirely on the rhetorical sincerity, sincerity which itself is rendered bullshit by its very presumption to give an account of reality unconstrained by correctness. In fact, Ms. Warren, like many of her colleagues, trades on a kind of antirealism that pervades modernity, insisting that we cannot reliably access objective reality or know how things really are (Frankfurt, 64).

Ms. Warren rehearses the standard Planned Parenthood tropes, citing the 2.7 million Americans served annually at Planned Parenthood facilities, as well as the 3% statistic, which asserts that abortion only comprises a minuscule fraction of the organization’s overall health care services. Senator Warren isn’t lying by citing these statistics, but she also isn’t concerned with the overall context or correctness of these figures. In fact, these pieces of information are carefully chosen, while others left are out in order to sell Planned Parenthood. Ms. Warren fails to account for statistical data which demonstrates that federally recognized Community Health Centers dwarf Planned Parenthood in terms of numbers served. CHCs provide care to over 21 million Americans a year, offer more robust health care services, and yet receive a fraction of the federal funding that Planned Parenthood receives.

She also goes onto assert that Americans, and American women Beyond the Abortion Warsmore specifically, are sick of the attack on women’s health care
(read: abortion rights). Though it is easy enough to imagine that Americans are, indeed, sick of the vitriolic ways abortion is discussed in the public sphere, Ms. Warren’s assertion seems more nearly to imply that Americans favor liberal access to abortion. This is not, however, correct. As Charles Camosy demonstrates in Beyond the Abortion Wars. Americans are trending pro-life, and women are more likely than men to regard abortion as morally wrong (3, 110-129).

Warren further implies that access to cancer screenings and birth control are somehow irrevocably tied to unfettered access to abortion, and claims that any attempt to unlink abortion from other health services constitutes an attack on women. Abortion is simply the collateral damage we must put up with in order to preserve access to pap smears, cancer screenings, and condoms.

She even wonders aloud if her Republican colleagues had fallen on their heads and woken up thinking it was 1950 or 1890. This sound bite has positioned Ms. Warren as a feminist voice, leading the way against the misogynistic backwardness of anyone who dares to question the practices of Planned Parenthood. But hers is a ‘bullshit’ kind of feminism because it operates only according to ideology (albeit, sincerely held) of freedom of choice. Such an adherence to an ideological context actually attenuates one’s ability to see evidence to the contrary. It makes it impossible to change one’s mind.

Like many elite feminists, Warren does not deeply engage questions such as whether abortion actually solves any of the economic, social, or educational problems that are used to legitimate the practice or how free the choice actually is.

Speaker of the House John Boehner addresses the 113th Congress in the Capitol in WashingtonIn fact, as Camosy astutely observes, 64% of women seeking abortions in the United States feel pressured to do so (126). For this, as well as other reasons, there are feminist scholars who propose that because abortion actually functions within a social matrix of consumerism and power, the rhetoric of choice that surrounds abortion is not merely disingenuous, but functions to benefit and sustain the elite and powerful (121-6).

Why, then, did Senator Warren fail to account for this? Precisely because her intervention on the Senate floor was not intended to represent reality accurately or to engage in a careful or nuanced conversation about abortion. Her purpose is to sell an account of reality and a vision of feminism that creates and sustains a perceived need for Planned Parenthood and legitimates its practices.

The practice of ‘bullshitting’ also has long-term effects. It increasingly weakening one’s capacity to attend to things as they actually are (Frankfurt, 60). The habit of ‘bullshitting,’ which is often the mode in which politics functions, actually renders reality more difficult to know because its sustained in political discourse surrounding any number of human dignity issues, from abortion, to paid parental leave, to immigration reform, to euthanasia, actually corrodes our ability to know the truth and therefore the value of the human person.

Unto Us a Child is Born

Jessica Keating_headshotJessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

As part of our preparation for Christmas, the Institute for Church Life invites the Notre Dame and South Bend communities to a “Crèche Pilgrimage” this Sunday, from 2:30–4:30pm. quimper_saintsBeginning at the Eck Visitor Center, pilgrims will make the make their way to five locations on campus where a total of thirty crèches are on display. On loan from the Marian Library International Crèche Collection at the University of Dayton, home to thousands of crèches, the thirty crèches currently on display at Notre Dame invite us to meditate on the profound mystery of the Nativity and to encounter the ways in which men and women around the world have welcomed the intimacy and mystery of the Incarnation into their hearts.

In his lecture introducing the Notre Dame exhibit, “The Crèche: A Celebration of Christmas and Culture,” internationally renowned Marian scholar, Fr. Johann Roten, R.M. proposed that nativity scenes, as visible images of the mystery of the Incarnation, provide a deeply theological and cultural way of seeing. The Catholic tradition is a visible tradition; thus men and women of faith continually strive to make visible the Incarnation. Originating from icons of the Nativity and influenced by mystics and saints, such as St. Bridget, crèches communicate rich theological and ecclesial vision within their very structure.

The variety of ways in which the nativity has been depicted present particular facets and insights about the mystery of the Incarnation. According to Fr. Roten, the tradition of representing the nativity at the bottom of a mountain developed as way of visually representing that “in order to come into the world, all of creation had to become his.” Hans BladungThe Italian tradition of depicting the birth of the Christ-child among the city ruins, as Hans Baldung does in “Adoration of the Child” (see right) demonstrates the supersession of the pre-Christian world by Christ in the Incarnation. Nativities set against a vast landscape, such as “Nursing Mother Painted by St. Luke” (below) by Rogier van der Weyden, are intended to extend the viewer’s vision beyond the small audience gathered in adoration and to see that the entire world is called to adore the infant Christ. With fruit-laden trees, Giovanni di Paolo’s “Nativity and the Annunciation to the Shepherds” (below) shows us that even nature participates in the miracle of the Incarnation. Canadian crecheThe French tradition of depicting the entire village processing to adore at the manger, which is found in “The Santons of Charlevoix” (below) depicts ecclesial communion, the in-gathering of a diverse people—sailors, farmers, the local clergy, children—in unity around the infant Christ. Finally, some depictions of the nativity anticipate Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Like the Gospel narratives which were composed in light of the mystery of Christ’s Crucifixion and raising from the dead, these visual representations include elements which make available the multivalence of the incarnational mystery. The triptych panel at Saint Clare Cologne in Munich, for example, shows Mary and Joseph kneeling and pointing to the infant Christ, who lies swaddled in the manger. Interestingly though, the manager in this panel is also representative of the tomb and the altar. Saint Clare triptychThus in the piece below, the Incarnation of Christ is seen to anticipate His death and His presence in the Eucharist.

In the vast variety of nativities, we encounter the global inculturation of the Gospel, the welcoming of the Good News of Christ into the human heart. Fr. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., the founder of the University of Notre Dame, expresses our awe and wonder at the crèche:

The month of the Holy Infancy brings us in close contact with the Crib; Bethlehem is becoming daily more and more a delightful rendezvous to our faithful souls – a House of Bread in which every want of our eager and panting hearts is satisfied. Each time we approach it, in silence and in faith, we find in it the Divine Babe lying in the Manger, stretching out to us his loving little hands, soliciting our love and, as it were, saying with an accent of heavenly sweetness which none can resist: ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. …’ Here is what fastens us to the mysterious Crib.  (Octave of the Epiphany, January 13, 1882)

We are invited into this most intimate and tender moment of family life, to draw close to the crèche and to meditate on the mystery of Word of God Who became a speechless infant, who took on our flesh, not in appearance, but in its fullness so that we might become like God.

Christ the King of the Universe…and the Mundane

Jessica Keating_headshot

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

Dorothy Day passed the winter of 1948 on her daughter Tamar’s West Virginia farm helping her with the daily tasks of country life and children as they awaited the birth of Tamar’s third child. Included in a volume of Day’s diaries, On Pilgrimage, her entries from that winter show the beauty of smallness. She writes of the trials and delights of living close to the land, the pains and joys of child-rearing, and the hidden life of the family; nothing falls beneath her notice.  Noting the activities of the day on January 20, 1948, she writes:

25036143-36A3-491E-B33A-849222667E73_mw1024_s_nBreakfast of sausage, hotcakes, apples and coffee. Dishes, water heating for clothes, bread-baking. That was today. Yesterday it was pumpkin pies. These things do not take all morning so I have time for writing letters. Then there is the arrival of mail, at 11:30 in the morning, always something to look forward to in the country, with a book arriving from a friend, a package of food from my sister. Yesterday it was fish balls, cheese, baby food, candies, and two toys. (On Pilgrimage, 78)

She writes of other matters, too: of capitalism and communism, of poverty and destitution, of the “fear and distraction these days over the state of the world,” and of the duty of delight and wonder (85).

It is in the midst of one such entry, as she reflects upon the realism of joy and the paradox of the Christian life, that Day observes, “we can suffer with others, we can see plainly the frightful chaos, the unbelievable misery of cold and hunger and bitter misery” (85). Yet all the while, Day observes, we know the truth of St. Paul’s words “that the sufferings of this time are not to be compared to the joy that is to come” (85; Rom 8:18). Indeed, “if we pray enough, the conviction will come too, that Christ is our King, not Stalin, Bevins or Truman. That He has all things in His hands, that ‘all things work together for good to those that love Him’” (85; Rom 8:28).

Sizing2_800Christ the King of the Universe holds all things in His wounded, glorified hands: angels and saints, sun and moon, stars of heaven, shower and dew, fire and heat, frost and chill, hoarfrost and snow, night and day, light and darkness, seas and rivers, mountains and hills (Dan 3: 52-87). The whole of the cosmos resides in the crucified hands of Christ. These very same hands that hold the entirety of creation also hold the bread-baking and the bitter sufferings of this age, the washing of dishes and the making love, the cleaning and clothing of children, the caring for the sick, visiting of the imprisoned, the feeding of the hungry, the burying of the dead.
angry-kidsChrist’s kingship baffled the disciples and continues to overthrow our own paltry notions of kingship, whether they are notions of political messiahs or nationalistic fervor or more nearly the small realms of power we aggregate for ourselves and protect like tyrannical children. Thus we often bend the stunning reality of Christ’s reign as King of the Universe to our own pedestrian imaginings of political kingship, envisioning the vast and majestic implications of Christ’s power as King and the eschatological judgment of the Son enthroned in glory surrounded by the heavenly court as little more than a glorified president with a well-functioning congress.

Yet the one who holds the scroll in his right hand, the one who sparkles like jasper, is also the King who laid His divine prerogatives, naked, hungry, needy (Rev. 4:3; 5:1). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI notes the paradox of the Christ’s kingship:

Jesus, the Son of Man, the ultimate judge of our lives, wished to appear as one who hungers and thirsts, as a stranger, as one of those who are naked, sick or imprisoned, ultimately, of those who suffer or are outcast; how we treat them will be taken as the way we treat Jesus himself. We do not see here a simple literary device, or a simple metaphor. Jesus’s entire existence is an example of it. He, the Son of God, became man, he shared rouault-crucifixionour existence, even down to the smallest details, he became the servant of the least of his brothers and sisters. He who had nowhere to lay his head, was condemned to death on a cross. This is the King we celebrate! (Christ the King Homily, November 20, 2011)

This is the King whose reign extends over all that is seen and unseen. This is the King who sparkles like jasper. This is the King of glory who descends into the small and mundane obscurities of human existence in order to glorify them—the baking of pumpkin pies, the writing of papers, the weeping of tears—that all may shine like jasper and diamond. This is the King who sits on the throne of the Cross, whose seat of power is crucified love.

A Child unto Death

Jessica Keating_headshot

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

Being born is a tough business. Naturally our thoughts bend toward the mother, the one upon whom we gaze, and to the intense toil of childbearing. In pain she brings her child into the world.Yet rarely do we contemplate the tough business of being born. At least, until recently I had not considered it.

IMG_7408 (1)About a month ago I had the privilege of witnessing the birth of Esther Marie. Arriving at the hospital at quarter to four, I served as an unofficial (and untrained) doula for my friends who were preparing to welcome their second child. My tasks included driving back to their house to make sure that in their exhausted delirium the computer hadn’t been left on the curb (it wasn’t), bringing a sack of food cobbled together from my cabinets at 3:00am, and getting ice, a spoon, and a straw from the nursing staff. Mostly I tried to stay out of the way while midwives periodically checked in and mother and father stole some much needed sleep.

All the while, unseen by us, Esther was inching her way forward one contraction at a time, little by little undertaking the tough business of being born. At 6:52am on the memorial of St. Vincent de Paul, this tiny person who until this moment had remained utterly mysterious, hidden in the shadow of her mother’s womb, was now present in the world in a new way. She was now present to the loving gaze of her parents, and she was also present for the first time to the pangs of hunger, the chill of cold, and the burden of near blindness.

The child comes into the world physically naked and vulnerable, totally entrusted to the care of another. It is within this concrete milieu of love’s gaze that the child will, writes Hans Urs von Balthasar in Unless You Become Like This Child, “experience his absolute neediness as something other than a threat” (18-19). Rather, the absolute neediness of the child opens the possibility of the concrete encounter with the love of another. It is this, the original form of our human existence that is also our end. At birth the child enters the world stripped of all power and handed over as total gift. At death, naked and vulnerable once more, we are handed over and entrusted to the Father.

Being born is a tough business, and Christ, the eternal Son of thecrucifixion Father, enters into this tough business. The eternal Wisdom of the God, who stood by the Father as “he marked out the foundations of the earth,” who was “daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men,” who becomes a speechless, helpless infant, blindly searching for his mother’s breast (Proverbs 8:30-31). And it is the eternal Logos of Father, who cries out upon the Cross the question so often on the lips of the child, “Why?” Indeed, it is the eternal child who “came down from heaven not to do my own will be the will of the one who sent me” who shows us what it means to be a child unto death, who reveals to us, writes Balthasar, “that the significance of being born is not merely anthropological but theological and that a more than temporary blessedness lies in receiving one’s being from the generative, birth-giving ‘womb’”  (John 6:38; Balthasar, Explorations in Theology Volume V: Man is Created, 215).

That ’00s Church: What Kaveny Gets Right and Wrong

Jess's Awesome Head ShotJessica Keating
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

The 90th Anniversary edition of Commonweal Magazine, on newsstands today, features a piece by longtime contributor Cathleen Kaveny, cleverly entitled “That ‘70s Church.” As an occasional viewer of That ‘70s Show, I appreciated the pop culture homage. In her article, Kaveny calls attention to a problematic trend that has emerged among some Catholic intellectuals and commentators. For nearly a generation, catechetical programming in years following Vatican II have not only endured sustained and unsympathetic assessment, but also have often been the subject of cantankerous critique. These critiques often indiscriminately judge an entire generation, and whether it is a generation of Catholics specifically, or Americans more generally, such one-dimensional judgment often obfuscates a more complex reality. Indeed, as Kaveny points out, these critiques often also fail to account for the sweeping social change of the late ‘60s and ‘70s—the rise in divorce, the sexual revolution, the entry of middle-class women into the work force (it should be said thatAfrican American women and working class whites had long been members of the work force), the Vietnam War, and political scandals, etc. These changes accompanied upheaval specific to the Church—the loss of parish personnel, relocation from cities to suburbs, the decline in Catholic schools, etc. This was a era of dramatic social change.

51hor0rJ9OL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In his 2014 book, Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out Of, and Gone from the Church, sociologist Christian Smith offers a robust analysis of the socio-cultural realities that American Catholics coming of age in the late 1960s and ‘70s inhabited. His remarks are particularly helpful because he seeks not merely to describe the past as a historical phenomenon put to bed, but to appreciate the past in order to understand the ways today’s emerging adults have carried its effects forward. Why, for instance, do young adults in the 21st century leave the Church with so little regret and, contrary to popular wisdom, why do they not return at major milestones (ie marriage and children) (59)? Smith confirms Kaveny’s observation that the ‘60s and ‘70s were far more complex than catechetical critics often acknowledge. In fact, he describes the era in which Catholics of Kaveny’s generation came of age as a “perfect storm” of socio-cultural change (24). Summarizing its impact on American Catholicism, he writes:

[D]uring the very period that America Catholics became “structurally available” (through their entry into the mainstream) and “organizationally vulnerable” (due to the turbulence in the Church after Vatican II) to be highly influenced by the surrounding socio cultural forces, American society itself underwent a series of profound revolutions and movements that were in many ways at odds with received Catholic teachings, morality, and culture. All of this, in fact, “unleash[ed] a traumatic identity crisis for American Catholic by the end of the twentieth century.” (23)

In many ways Smith’s insight confirms Kaveny’s assessment of the cultural climate of American Catholicism in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and in fact helps explain why, according to Kaveny, in learning to “juggle secular and sacred responsibilities […] the former began to crowd out the latter,” and how the two came to occupy two entirely distinct spheres. Far from dismissing an entire generation, his work demonstrates the deep connections between the last three generations of Catholics in America. Noting that Catholics of the generation that came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s merely “rode the breaking wave” of their parents’ upward mobility, Smith observes that Catholics of my generation (millennials) are carrying forward the socio-cultural realities of their parents in new and complex ways (Smith, 24).

comune12The generation Kaveny describes was indeed, according to Smith, “submerged into the new, heady atmosphere of openness, experimentation, uncertainty, hesitation, disagreement, misunderstanding, and growing conflict and polarization that was set into motion unintentionally by the Second Vatican Council and its arguable less-than-ideal translation in the American Church” (24). She is thus right to reject flippant and uncritical assessments of catechesis in the period after the Second Vatican Council, particularly when those critiques fail to take adequate account of the enormity socio-cultural change at the time.

By the time I finished the essay, however, I found myself dissatisfied. I was particularly disappointed with the way her use of narrative foreclosed the possibility of a robust conversation regarding the uneven reality of catechesis in the American Church. Narrative can function in a number of registers. It can entertain. It can draw us more deeply into the poetics of truth. One need only read Brothers Karamazov or the Divine Comedy to experience the profound power of narrative to open new vistas of possibility. Narrative can also be used gloss over complexity and distract from substantive exchange.

Kaveny begins her essay with a descriptive account of her experience of “a demanding two-year [confirmation] program.” Though at first her use of narrative serves as a productive critique to the often-scathing narrative of 1970’s catechetical formation, a narrative that has served to reinforce polarization in the church, the narrative ends up advancing polarization.

It indeed sounds as though Kaveny had a rich and deep formational experience, one which integrated the objective realities of the faith with our affective and contingent lived experience of faith. While she correctly observes that her “generation wasn’t lost because of religious miseducation,” she fails to acknowledge that the inconsistency of religious education worked alongside a host of other socio-cultural changes to unleash an identity crisis among American Catholics. For every experience like the one Kaveny describes, there people who express sincere regret over the thinness of their catechetical experiences and sadness over the fact that they were not exposed to the richness of Church’s tradition in such a way as capacitate them to engage an unstable and changing world as Catholics.

CT_20070209_046Though Kaveny asserts that “the goal of post-Vatican II catechesis was to cultivate responsible men and women who were shaped by the Catholic Christian vision, sensitive to our debt to the Jewish people, and independent enough to stand up to injustice, even if sanctioned by the church or state,” its unclear how successful the American Church was in meeting these goals. According to sociologist Mark Mass, during this era many American Catholics become unrecognizable from non-Catholics by embracing “the liberal mainstream values of the postwar world with a fervor and devotion that were, if anything, far too uncritical and far too celebratory of American culture” (Massa as quoted by Smith, 24).

One can make such observations without condemning the young wives and mothers who took up the task of catechetical formation after the Second Vatican Council. This is precisely what I find most objectionable in Kaveny’s use of narrative: it is employed to back the reader into a corner. By failing to recognize that catechetical programs in the era after the Second Vatican Council were and continue to be uneven, she constructs a false dichotomy. Either the reader uncritically accepts catechesis as has been done for the past 50 years or the reader is afraid of history and desires a return to the Baltimore Catechism and the days of rote recitation.

Facilely critiquing the revised Catechism as presenting “Catholic belief in the manner of a tax code,” Kaveny implies that the hemorrhaging of young Catholics from the Church is due to a return to pre-Vatican II catechetical formation models. She does not substantiate this claim, nor does sociological research bear it out. In fact, Smith reports that “the single most important measurable factor determining the religious and spiritual lives of teenagers and young adults is the religious faith, commitments, and practices of their parents” and like their parents, Smith has found that many of today’s emerging adults are unable to articulate much about the God they pray to (which is usually when we want something), nor are they able, as Kaveny puts it, “to think within the context of a tradition” because many are not encountering the living tradition of the Church (Smith, 27).

In our parishes and dioceses we need to start thinking creatively about catechesis. The goal of catechetical formation is not to produce good citizens (though hopefully it does this); the purpose of catechesis is to invite people into a vital, living relationship with Christ and his Church through an encounter with a knowledge unlike any other, with a knowledge that transforms us. If we hope to stem the tide of young Catholics leaving the faith, the American Church must stop thinking of Kaveny’s generation as the “lost generation” and reach out to them with renewed charity and concern.