with restless hearts

reflections, critiques, comments, and questions of a 20-something catholic in pursuit of truth and justice in a dualistic world


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come now, let us set things right

A significant factor in beginning this blog was that it would be a creative means of holding myself accountable for engaging in regular spiritual reflection and critical thinking. For the past few weeks, however, I’ve shied away from this personal commitment in favor of savoring the present moment.

This past week, after a nearly a month of gradual goodbyes and “lasts,” I transitioned out of a year long post-graduate service program in which I lived in an intentional, faith-based community. This time last summer, we were strangers, but somehow, through the joys and pains, laughter and tears, arguments and embraces, we were transformed into a family.

Even more difficult than the transition out of community, however, is the transition away from the work. For the past year, I have been so unbelievably privileged to have spent myself in the service of disadvantaged and marginalized youth. Day in and day out, I was blessed to spend my hours with kids that did not look like me, talk like me, or think like me, and whose personal narratives I could barely being to comprehend let alone find any detail about which I could claim to relate.

The sad irony in this is that a few years ago, I would have walked past so many of them on the street as quickly as I could without so much as a second glance, except perhaps to fear for my safety or belongings; I would seat myself away from them in movies or restaurants; I would hope that I never found myself alone with them. I’m still not quite “there” yet. I still struggle with making assumptions, expecting the stereotypical norm in interactions, buying into the heavily prejudiced and racialized narrative of humanity that is force-fed to us by the media and even some history books. But thank God, I’m also not who I once was.

It’s not easy to do personal battle with these subtle cultural and institutional injustices, but it is what Christ demands of us. The Gospels are an oft-quoted source of motivation and mandate along these lines, but the Hebrew Scriptures are full of similar summons. A personal favorite comes from the beginning of Isaiah:

Put away your misdeeds before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphans plea, defend the widow! Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD.
Is 1:17-18 (NABRE)

I love the Hebrew Scriptures for the incredible depth, beauty, and context they bring to the New Testament, but at the same time, there is a danger in reading passages like the one cited above, and unfortunately, I think that it’s one that far too many Christians fall into when extracting moral and social instruction from the Old Testament. Namely, there is a tendency to over-historicize it, to disregard the Truth while over-obsessing over the details of context.

Yes, the writer of Isaiah was speaking to a specific people in a specific time and place, but we cannot claim that our work is done simply because orphans and widows occupy a different space in contemporary society. This challenge from Our Lord never expires, the actions and populations named are simply redefined as some injustices are corrected only to be replaced by others. Yes, in some ways it’s a never-ending battle, and we know that we’ll never quite get there this side of heaven (Mark 14), but there are two ways to take that message. We can either allow it to discourage us or desensitize us to Jesus’ radical call or, and I’d highly recommend this choice, we can allow ourselves to take comfort in the knowledge that we can’t do it all on our own, turn our eyes eastward with earnest longing, and in the meantime, keep soldiering on simply because He told us to.

All of this, at least today, brings me back to the youth that were loaned to me this past year – those beautiful, wounded, strong, heartbreaking, inspiring, hilarious, tragic, and joyful kids who have endured every evil imaginable. As I reflect on this summons from Isaiah, my mind is flooded with the faces of these teenagers who taught me where to find the orphan and the widow today, in my own time and neighborhood. These kids may never know the profound depth of the impact they had on my life or that I saw the face of Christ in them every single day. When possible and appropriate, I try to find ways to show and tell them of the inherit goodness I see in them, but I also respect that they aren’t always at a place where they are ready to receive that message of acceptance and love.

Thankfully, I have had the time to prepare them for my transition, and even more thankfully, I will be able to continue working with them in the future, albeit in a very different capacity and with less regularity. And then there’s that additional detail that with the end of the year of service, so too ends the sense of self-sacrifice that I carried with me every day of uncompensated work with them.

Although I find it difficult to let go of the gifts of this past year, I do recognize that this – as the cliché goes – is not a true ending, but rather a new beginning, and I am excited to journey forward in my relationships, work, and schooling. More than anything though, I want to publicly thank my kids for allowing me to journey with them and for changing my life.

Thanks to them, I have gotten a little closer to understanding one of the greatest mysteries in life, how love, true love, is redemptive suffering. I will be the first to admit that at times, all the forces working against them simply seem too big, too powerful and it makes me question if what we’re doing it’s making a difference, if it’s worth the fight, but then, I remember that this is what love is, what love demands. And I will continue loving them, if for no other reason that because it’s what He told me to me do.

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hhs frustrations

Disclaimer: I am not at all an expert on the hhs mandate, the US Constitution, women’s health issues, insurance costs, or contraception costs and needs. But of all the recent Catholic headlines out there, nothing baffles me more than rallying cry for religious freedom that has gone up in the wake of the mandate.

I jumped on the hhs bandwagon relatively late – the regulation was first released in August, 2011, but I didn’t hear much about it until Obama and the bishops began going back and forth on the issue in February and March. I read a few articles, keeping more or less up to date on new negotiations, but no one I knew was really heavily invested in it or interested in discussing it, so I just filed it away in the look-something-catholic-is-getting-national-attention-but-it-doesn’t-really-affect-me part of my brain.

But then, something happened. Two things, really. First of all, I realized that as an employee of a Catholic social service agency that does not qualify for the narrow exemption, this seemingly far-off policy actually does impact me, in a profoundly personal and professional way. And secondly, on perhaps a less ego-centric note, I attended a young adults speaker event and the speaker, a priest that I very much respect, went a bit off topic to touch upon what a pivotal moment this mandate was for the Catholic Church in America.

So with that extra push of perceived relevancy, I started to do some more intentional research. I had heard that the brief filed by Notre Dame was the best piece of writing on this by the “this is a breach of religious freedom” crowd, so I read it. All of it. It’s a legal brief, so obviously it’s dense, but I actually found it very engaging and if you’re even mildly curious about what exactly these Catholic institutions are complaining about, it’s well worth the read. What I like most about it is that Notre Dame makes it explicit that this is not about the morality or accessibility of contraceptives

This lawsuit is about one of America’s most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one’s religion without government interference. It is not about whether people have a right to abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception. Those services are, and will continue to be, freely available in the United States, and nothing prevents the Government itself from making them more widely available.

But this is also precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about this whole thing. Can we really call this a violation of religious freedom? Especially when we have sisters and brothers suffering in parts of the world where there truly are governmental impediments to freedom of religion and worship. Just this week alone, a Protestant church was forced to shut down in Tehran, a Christian leader was arrested for allegedly having “too many conversions,” and a suicide bomber and gunmen attacked Nigerian churches – and that’s just looking at Christianity!

Personally, I do believe that contraceptives and abortifacients are morally objectionable, and I also recognize that that stance comes directly from my religious tradition. I also understand, and agree, that forcing Catholic institutions to pay for that which they find morally objectionable is in itself morally objectionable and does technically “violate” religious freedom. But at the same time, I also understand that for many women and families, contraception has become a normalized and costly part of their lives, and this mandate would in fact ease the financial burden of some of those women. So in that sense, the government should work to make it more affordable. The issue comes in with how they’re doing it – if the government believes that women should have covered access to birth control, fine. It’s not my thing, but fine. But if that’s the case, they should pay for it; use their money to back up that this really is something that our nation is passionate about and should be a “right.”

So in that sense, I suppose I am very anti-hhs mandate, but where my ambivalence remains is in the question of what to do about it. When Franciscan University of Steubenville very loudly and enthusiastically dropped health insurance for students and employees rather than be forced to eventually submit to the terms of the mandate, my first thought was, but what about those students who can’t get health insurance any other way? As an undergraduate student, I was on my college’s health insurance plan, but if that wasn’t there I always had my parents’ plan to fall back on, but I recognize that that was a unique privilege of my class, race, background, and a whole slew of factors that I am ordinarily blind to but depend on to get through my life. And what about those employees? How can they be expected to raise families without health care coverage?

I think that what frustrates me most about this whole thing is that it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation (which the Notre Dame brief brilliantly points to – seriously, if you haven’t, read it). Catholic services and institutions must choose between violating Catholic social teaching regarding either contraceptives OR affordable health care.

So, then, what’s the answer? As much as I admire Franciscan University’s steadfast commitment to its Catholic identity, I do not think that it is a solution that others would be wise to follow. Yes, it sends a strong message they will not compromise their religious identity and beliefs, but it also serves to victimize those who are most vulnerable, those without alternate means to safe and affordable health care. The only real way out of this, at least that I can see, is for the government to expand its definition of which institutions qualify for the exemption and allow Catholic institutions to make atrue choicein the matter. And for that, unless you are into political lobbying, which I am hopelessly not, then I think the best plan of action we have is simply to pray.

The US bishops have declared a ‘Fortnight for Freedom’ from June 21 – July 3 to join in prayer, study, and public action to defend our right to religious freedom, and I’ve already received email notifications for events happening around my city for it. As much as I struggle with framing the HHS mandate as a full-fledged attack on religious liberty, especially considering how many unchecked privileges we as Christians and Americans actually do enjoy, I certainly will be joining in these two weeks, praying that this matter can be resolved in the way that will lead to the victimization and harm of the least number of people.

Do we need marches and speeches and catchy protest slogans? Maybe, but they have their potential for doing just as much harm as good. If making our message louder and more visible is what works for people, than so be it, but what I really believe that we need is more people in this nation on their knees. This whole thing is a mess; I don’t know how to fix it, but I guarantee that God does, and I for one, will choose to trust in that.


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full disclosure

My motivation for beginning this blog is, more than anything, a selfish one. I’m a verbal processor. I love to talk (and write) things out. I’ve also become increasingly frustrated with the trend in popular media and thought in which the Catholic Church, and Catholicism in general, is treated as a monolithic, esoteric, misogynistic, and ultimately archaic collection of doctrines and condemnations rather than as a dynamic, multi-faceted, and never quite adequately defined living, breathing body. And so this will be my own personal attempt to navigate my own Catholic identity in a cultural environment that, I would contend, is not so much interested in true dialogue as it is in imposing its own definition of what it means to be “Catholic” or “religious” in contemporary society.

Before really beginning I want to make a few things explicit. I don’t believe in objectivity, but I do believe in Truth. As an admirer of postmodern anthropological thought, I do think that in naming our own biases and perspectives we are able to move forward in the conversation.

And so, in that spirit, I want to name that the primary lens through which I understand myself, the world, and my place within it is Roman Catholicism. For the record, I can’t stand the labels that pit Catholics against each other (traditional, liberal, orthodox, conservative, progressive, etc.), but I do trust fully in the Church and submit myself to the teaching of the Magisterium, even as I struggle to understand it at times. I harbor no illusions that I speak for the Church or for Catholics or for young “faithful” Catholics, whatever that means.

I am simply one person speaking from one perspective in a specific time and place. It should be stated, though, that in all matters of dogma and infallibility, I defer to Holy Mother Church, so label me as you will.

Thank you for reading.