Archive for January, 2013

The Basis of a Human Being

Love every person, regardless of his sinful state. Sin is sin, but the basis of a human being is one and only: the Image of God.

St John Kronstadt

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The Mennonite Worker


Mark Van Steenwyk

“…(W)e found ourselves walking within two traditions. In addition to Mennonites, we’ve rubbed shoulders with Catholic Workers. We’ve discovered that while our theological convictions often line up with our Mennonite siblings, our politics and our practices look like the Catholic Worker movement. ”

So what to do? If you are Mark Van Steenwyk,  you start a “Mennonite Worker” community. Says Van Steenwyk, “We are committed to following Jesus’ way of simplicity (seeking a sustainable life with a healthy relationship to possessions), hospitality (inviting friends and strangers to share life together), prayer (being rooted in life-giving spiritual rhythms), peace (breaking our addiction to power as we get in the way of violence and injustice) and resistance (naming and challenging oppression wherever we find it as we seek to embody an alternative). We chose all these by consensus. Hospitality is our ‘mother value’—it shapes and informs the other values. And communal discernment is the practice that animates all our values.”

Mr Van Steenwyk, who calls himself an anarchist, makes the point that anarchism is a natural fit with the Mennonite faith, which is traditionally separatist and friendly to small community and cooperation. Indeed, one could make the point that anarchism is much more at home among the anabaptist faith than the Catholic one, with its hierarchical order.

At any rate, this is fascinating, and you can read the rest, from The Mennonite, here.

And if you are interested in this story, you may well be interested in Bridge Folk, which calls itself ” a movement of sacramentally-minded Mennonites and peace-minded Roman Catholics who come together to celebrate each other’s traditions, explore each other’s practices, and honor each other’s contribution to the mission of Christ’s Church” and whose website can be seen here.

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On Compassion for Sinners

“When someone has no compassion for another’s transgressions, but pronounces a severe judgement on them, it is an obvious sign of a soul not yet purified of evil passions.”

– St John Cassian

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SDS Council, c. 1963

Much has been written, especially last year, at the fiftieth anniversary of the Port Huron  Statement, on the many ways that the early New Left embodied here is kindred to the more thoughtful kinds of conservatism (think Andrew Bacevich), with its emphasis on “participatory democracy”, decentralization, and the alienation of modern industrial society. Here is a passage from the beginning of the Statement (obviously written before the advent of inclusive language):

We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love. In affirming these principles we are aware of countering perhaps the dominant conceptions of man in the twentieth century: that he is a thing to be manipulated, and that he is inherently incapable of directing his own affairs. We oppose the depersonalization that reduces human beings to the status of things — if anything, the brutalities of the twentieth century teach that means and ends are intimately related, that vague appeals to “posterity” cannot justify the mutilations of the present. We oppose, too, the doctrine of human incompetence because it rests essentially on the modern fact that men have been “competently” manipulated into incompetence — we see little reason why men cannot meet with increasing skill the complexities and responsibilities of their situation, if society is organized not for minority, but for majority, participation in decision-making.

Men have unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity. It is this potential that we regard as crucial and to which we appeal, not to the human potentiality for violence, unreason, and submission to authority. The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with image of popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic: a quality of mind not compulsively driven by a sense of powerlessness, nor one which unthinkingly adopts status values, nor one which represses all threats to its habits, but one which has full, spontaneous access to present and past experiences, one which easily unites the fragmented parts of personal history, one which openly faces problems which are troubling and unresolved: one with an intuitive awareness of possibilities, an active sense of curiosity, an ability and willingness to learn.

This kind of independence does not mean egoistic individualism — the object is not to have one’s way so much as it is to have a way that is one’s own. Nor do we deify man — we merely have faith in his potential.

Human relationships should involve fraternity and honesty. Human interdependence is contemporary fact; human brotherhood must be willed however, as a condition of future survival and as the most appropriate form of social relations. Personal links between man and man are needed, especially to go beyond the partial and fragmentary bonds of function that bind men only as worker to worker, employer to employee, teacher to student, American to Russian.

Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man.

As the individualism we affirm is not egoism, the selflessness we affirm is not self-elimination. On the contrary, we believe in generosity of a kind that imprints one’s unique individual qualities in the relation to other men, and to all human activity. Further, to dislike isolation is not to favor the abolition of privacy; the latter differs from isolation in that it occurs or is abolished according to individual will. Finally, we would replace power and personal uniqueness rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity.

As a social system we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.

In a participatory democracy, the political life would be based in several root principles:

  • that decision-making of basic social consequence be carried on by public groupings;
  • that politics be seen positively, as the art of collectively creating an acceptable pattern of social relations;
  • that politics has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community, thus being a necessary, though not sufficient, means of finding meaning in personal life;
  • that the political order should serve to clarify problems in a way instrumental to their solution; it should provide outlets for the expression of personal grievance and aspiration; opposing views should be organized so as to illuminate choices and facilities the attainment of goals; channels should be commonly available to related men to knowledge and to power so that private problems — from bad recreation facilities to personal alienation — are formulated as general issues.

The economic sphere would have as its basis the principles:

  • that work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival. It should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; selfdirect, not manipulated, encouraging independence; a respect for others, a sense of dignity and a willingness to accept social responsibility, since it is this experience that has crucial influence on habits, perceptions and individual ethics;
  • that the economic experience is so personally decisive that the individual must share in its full determination;
  • that the economy itself is of such social importance that its major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation.

Like the political and economic ones, major social institutions — cultural, education, rehabilitative, and others — should be generally organized with the well-being and dignity of man as the essential measure of success.

Read the whole thing here.

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You may have seen the headlines: “Michael Moore defends Zero Dark Thirty” (That is the controversial film that many say justifies torture). Going to the source, though, I find that what Mr Moore said was far more nuanced than that, and in fact in one statement gets to the heart of the matter, which is rejecting consequentialism:

But back to the controversy and the torture. I guess where I part with most of my friends who are upset at this film is that they are allowing the wrong debate to take place. You should NEVER engage in a debate where the other side defines the terms of the debate – namely, in this case, to debate “whether torture works.” You should refuse to participate in that discussion because the real question should be, simply, “is torture wrong?” And, after watching the brutal behavior of CIA agents for the first 45 minutes of the film, I can’t believe anyone of conscience would conclude anything other than that this is morally NOT right. You will be repulsed by these torture scenes because, make no mistake about it, this has been done in your name and mine and with our tax dollars. We funded this. 

If you allow the question to be “did torture work?” then you’ll lose because yes, if you torture someone who actually has the information, they will eventually give it to you. The problem is, the other 99 who don’t know anything will also tell you anything to get you to stop torturing – but their information is wrong. How do you know which one of the 100 is the man with the goods? You don’t. 

But let’s grant the other side that maybe, occasionally, torture “works”. Here’s what else will work: castrating pedophiles. Why don’t we do that? Probably because we think it’s morally wrong. The death penalty sure works. Put a murderer in a gas chamber and I can guarantee you he’ll never murder again. But is it right? Do we accomplish the ends we seek by becoming the murderers ourselves? That should be our only question.

What Moore does say, and which is not apparent, is that the film will affect anyone the same way that it did him. It’s pretty obvious that this is not true, and that defenders of torture see it as justifying their (consequentialist) contention that “torture works”. Nor is it obvious that the filmmaker and the actors see the film as denouncing torture (why, Jessica, why?)

Now if only Mr Moore, who is Catholic, can bring the same insight to abortion, another act of violence that is justified by a consequentialist argument….

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A Catholic Priest in Egypt

Maryknoll Father Douglas May, from One magazine:

Coptic Catholic seminarians

Father Douglas May grew up in a small town near Buffalo, New York, but now serves as a Maryknoll missionary in Cairo.

When an American, Latin rite Catholic priest finds himself living and working with Eastern Catholics among Muslims and Orthodox Christians, he is bombarded with emotions from awe and puzzlement to déjà vu and arrogance.

As a seminarian at Maryknoll 33 years ago, I found dogma, church history and liturgy boring as academic subjects. Since my first direct encounter with the Coptic and several other Eastern Catholic churches in Egypt 30 years ago, what I found boring on paper has been anything but boring in real life. As an “outsider,” there is so much richness to experience, history to fathom, wisdom to ponder, controversy to understand and a global church vision to offer.

The Coptic Church traces its history to ancient Alexandria and St. Mark the Evangelist. Egypt is the land of many prophets and church fathers. The monastic movement was founded in Egypt by two great monks, Anthony and Pachomius. Theologies and heresies battled here, causing schisms in the church that exist in some form even to this day.

One of the first schisms in Christian history regarded the essence of Jesus: Was he “true God and true Man?” The bishops of Rome and Alexandria parted ways after an ecumenical council in 451 offered a solution; which the church of Egypt largely resisted. What little remained of the Catholic Church in Egypt after that time was Greek-speaking and of the Byzantine tradition. And this disappeared after the Great Schism of 1054. Near the end of the 18th century, the Catholic Church tried to reestablish itself, but little happened until a group of Orthodox Copts entered the Catholic Church and formed a Coptic Catholic rite, which was later recognized by the Egyptian government in 1900. The first Coptic Catholic seminary was opened in that same year.

Since the seventh century, Islam in Egypt has grown — slowly — at the expense of the church. Egyptian churches struggled to preserve their identities while being tempted to “ghettoize” themselves.

Working with Eastern and Latin Catholics in Egypt, combined with having Muslim friends, has put me in a unique position. First, I felt like a “space invader” intruding into the many subcultures of Egypt as an unwelcome outsider. Now, I feel more like a “bee” buzzing from one subculture to the next, picking up “pollen” from one and leaving a little bit of it on another as well as on myself.

I find myself challenging some of what I encounter and being challenged by much more. In many ways, the reforms of Vatican II have just started to work their way into the Eastern churches. Vatican II was originally perceived as a Latin rite council that had little to say to the Eastern churches. Only in the last decade or two have the Eastern churches really had to deal with the social and ecclesial issues that the Western church has had to deal with for the last five decades.

For a decade, I often struggled with the clericalism and the rigidity of the formation-education style at St. Leo the Great Coptic Catholic Seminary. There was a sense that the Coptic Catholic Church must live in the shadows of Islam, Orthodoxy and Latin Catholicism. When John Paul II came to Egypt in 2000, my friend, Amir, ran up to me after Mass all excited, saying: “This is the first time in my life that I have been proud to be Christian and Catholic at the same time!”

John Paul’s visit gave Egyptian Catholics a sense of global identity they had never experienced.

The Eastern Catholic churches of Egypt are beginning to emerge from these shadows. They are ready to offer their contributions to the world. A former Syriac Catholic bishop of Cairo and professor at the Coptic Catholic Seminary was, until recently, the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches in Rome. As a former patriarch, Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud’s outreach to his Orthodox counterpart was cited by some observer’s for his selection to the post by Pope John Paul II in 2001. They would often refer to themselves as “brother patriarchs” and “co-patriarchs,” which is seldom heard in Eastern church circles.

The former Armenian Catholic bishop in Cairo has been the Armenian Catholic patriarch for well over a decade, and he is following the lead of his Syriac Catholic colleague. The former Coptic Catholic Patriarch Cardinal Antonius Naguib (who resigned earlier this year for reasons of health), has encouraged the renewal of the Coptic tradition, maintaining for example the Eastern Christian tradition of a married and a celibate clergy; in the Eastern churches, celibacy is seen as part of a “monastic call” that does not always aid a diocesan priest in living a pastoral life of service.


My challenge in Egypt, since the January Revolution began last year, is to encourage seminarians, priests and bishops to step out into the perilous world of social justice concerns. In Egypt, there are long-held traditions of religious and sexual discrimination in society along with denying the laity an active role in church affairs.

Acknowledging first the faults of my own country and church, I urge local church leaders to speak out and act on these issues. For example, 13 years ago I helped Bishop Ibrahim Sedrak, the former rector of the seminary, attend the Vatican II Institute renewal program in Menlo Park, California. It was a rewarding experience, and one I hope will help him in his new role as patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church.

During my ten years at the Coptic Catholic seminary, I would introduce social justice issues into all of my teaching and get the seminarians to view Egyptian issues in a more global and ecumenical context. I often exposed “blind spots” of injustice that may have been only visible to me as an “outsider,” and they often confronted me with my own personal, national and ecclesial blind spots.

I tried to bring Muslim, foreign and female friends to the seminary so that the seminarians could view my interactions. In my homilies at both the seminary and expatriate parishes where I still help out, I habitually insert justice and peace issues that seem to relate to the readings.

Over the years, I have drawn pictures of an Egyptian church building having all its doors and windows bricked up for fear of the outside world. Now, the Coptic and Eastern Catholic churches of the Egypt need to knock down these protective barriers and be new witnesses to what they can offer at home and be old witnesses in what they can offer to the world.

It is an exciting adventure to be part of the process of a church risking its security and taking its place in the global Catholic community. Egypt’s Eastern Catholic churches are very much part of the mosaic that forms the Catholic Church.

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On Praying for Evil Men


“The man who cries out against evil men but does not pray for them will never know the grace of God.”

-St Silouan the Athonite, icon by Janet Jaime

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The Field Trip

I accompanied my 7 year old Cub Scout, Michael, on a field trip the other night. I usually work too late to attend his Scout meetings, but it was my day off. Not that I am eager for the awkward moment when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance. We stand in the back, silently trying to avoid attention.

The field trip was to the local police station. Two friendly officers greeted us, and after an introduction showed us around. They took us to the holding cell, telling the children “Don’t touch anything. Really bad people stay here and they are dirty.” I heard the one cop tell a woman that he had worked for a while in a county jail, and that “Those are not human beings. Those are animals.”

My heart sunk at this, and I was glad my son didn’t hear it. This did not erode my belief that even the incarcerated are in fact human, but it did raise doubts about the humanity of certain police officers.

After the initial tour we were taken outside, where a cruiser was parked. The scouts were allowed to operate the radar gun, taking the speeds of passing cars, and to use the siren, which scared a couple of motorists into pulling over. They also used the loudspeaker. When it was Michael’s turn, he said “THIS IS A VIOLATION!” which got a good laugh.

Then we returned to the station, where the children tried on bulletproof vests and then were shown the gun room. I was a little stunned to learn that my local police have a rack of fully automatic weapons; probably twenty or so. I knew the military had such things, but had no idea that local cops did. I wonder what, short of a zombie apocalypse, they are anticipating.

Surely this should sober our militant gun enthusiasts, who respond to any attempt to limit assault weapons with the declaration that the Second Amendment exists so that citizens can resist a tyrannical government.

Good luck with that. Bringing your semiautomatic, with a 30 round clip to a conflict with these guys is like the bringing the proverbial knife to a gun fight.

And that is not even considering taking on the feds, with their even deadlier weapons and drones.

Good old Tom Tomorrow on the latest gun control bru ha ha:

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With the Pentagon’s announcement that it is lifting the ban on women in combat you are now so equal that you, too, can kill some poor farmer uprooted from his village by the local draft board. You, too, can bomb “social infrastructure”, ie, cities and their inhabitants. You, too, can be brought back in a body bag. You, too, can kill and be killed in the name of the State, or of Freedom or of whatever other lie you are told.

Remember the promise of feminism, the idea that it would be a humanizing force on an over-testosteroned society?

Me neither.

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