Reflections on a Terminal Diagnosis

I have a brain tumor. Actually two. I was diagnosed last year five days before Christmas. My youngest son was not yet a month old. And my tumors are terminal. Unless something else kills me, my tumors will. I don’t know when. It is not unreasonable that I will see my 35th birthday. It is significantly less likely I will see 40. There are lots of people—I know they are well-meaning—who say God didn’t will this. This is not his plan. I can’t accept this. This gets God off the hook for something I need Him to be a part of. It makes God absent, except in the most incidental way, from the most significant experience of my life. I want to argue with God, cry out to Him, and maybe eventually, accept what He is doing. We would not the infused virtue of faith if evil in the face of a good God could simply be explained away. I am a Thomist, through and through. But evil does not have a rational answer. It has an encounter. And in our confronting of evil, faith gives us the eyes to see Jesus, the hope to see God’s plan. This is a grace. This experience, as awful as it is, is God’s will. I think often of Joseph being sold into slavery. “You meant it for evil but I meant...

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Help Us See More Clearly

Possibly the most important work in Christian ethics in the last decade has been Oliver O’Donovan’s trilogy of books subtitled “ethics as theology.” In researching for an essay I am writing on the importance of the final judgment in ethical debates, I draw on O’Donovan’s work, and it seemed the recent events in the Church might be helpfully illuminated by his claims. O’Donovan makes a distinction between our “purposes” – the limited sense of what our actions will accomplish in “the future beneath our feet” – and the actual “end” of our action – which we can only know after the fact via reflection, and we can only know ultimately in the light of God’s reflection. O’Donovan insists that all our historical endeavors, whether for the self or the neighbor, however important they are, must recognize the limitations involved in judging according to standards of “utility” or (he amusingly notes) “impact.” “Impact” matters; but we are sorely deceived if we think the final court of judgment is measurable “results” or (worse) online likes. The grave danger is to think the measurable, immediate future IS the future, is “what matters” about our actions. This is what eschatology – and more precisely, the notion of a final judgment – does for ethics: not give it a final “metric” we can grasp and righteously measure ourselves by, but rather “discloses and confirms...

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Pastoral Perspectives: Preparing for Aging Parents (and Where are the Books on This?)

Frequent guest blogger, Father Satish Joseph, offers the following thoughts about aging parents: Think about it! There are countless books on preparing people for their pregnancy, their first child, and for the perils of parenthood. Young parents devour every information they get so that they can be good parents. However, once children leave home, there is no book that prepares them to nurture their aging parents, in return. There are ample books that help children prepare their parents for aging, but there is barely any help available for children preparing themselves for aging parents. For me, it was a...

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Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! The Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

DT 6:2-6; HEB 7:23-28; MK 12:28B-34   Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.   These words — the first commandment given by the Lord, the initiation of the covenant — these words ring out in both the first reading and the Gospel for this week. They tell us to approach God with a single-minded focus. This is all the more important to take to heart this week as we mourn the...

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Overcoming the Fear of Beggars

Strange but true: the OED has no word for the irrational fear of poor people. Perhaps we have assumed that fear of poor people is more rational than fear of spiders (arachnophobia) or mushrooms (mycophobia) or the number thirteen (triskaidekaphobia). More than ten years ago, I published a book called The Fear of Beggars. It argued that fear of poor people, particularly the ones who do not endure their lot quietly at home but publicly ask for help, is more important than we’ve realized to our economic thinking. That fear influenced both modern economic thought and shaped Christian talk about “stewardship,” both of which claim that responsible ownership, not redistribution of property, is the way to deal with poverty. And poor people who want change should wait (gratefully) for owners to bring that change about. I did not think much about migration at that time. I did not imagine a caravan of migrants walking from violence and life-damaging poverty toward the US. I would have thought it hyperbolic fantasy to think the US would respond to such a move by deploying the military at the border. I didn’t understand the reach of vicious misinformation. It never occurred to me that in the US an anti-Semitic nationalist would kill Jews at prayer because they were, as Jews, associated with an organization that resettles refugees. I had, in truth, no idea...

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No Seriously, There’s a Synod Going On

In some ways, it is a breath of fresh air to realize that the synod of bishops can gather in Rome without much fanfare. This says something about the ways we are embracing the vision of collegiality that has been a hallmark of Pope Francis’s leadership, for we can say it’s just another day at the office, so to speak. Nevertheless, I still find it striking that the 2018 Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment is receiving much less attention than the 2014-2015 synods on the Family. I don’t think the shift is entirely illustrative of a new...

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Scholasticism and Sanctity

Sanctity is not often associated with the intellectual life of theologians, perhaps because the intellectual life is so public while prayer, fasting, and almsgiving aren’t to be published. Few, if any, news stories are written about a theologian as such helping a poor person in need. Yet theologians, even moral theologians, are at risk of forgetting about sanctity in the midst of busy teaching, writing, and speaking schedules. The importance of almsgiving in particular can fade from view, veiled with the memories of poverty during graduate school. I was therefore delighted to be challenged recently by an example of...

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Our Response to All God’s Vulnerable People: Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Isaiah 53:10-11 Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22 Hebrews 4:14-16 Mark 10:35-45 One of the common central themes in our scripture readings this week is the theme of the powerful taking on the experience and concerns of the poor, the lowly, the distressed, and the oppressed. The Old Testament and Epistle readings are usually read in light of Jesus. Jesus is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, the one who bears our guilt through his suffering [on the cross]. Jesus is also our great High Priest, the one who “sympathizes with our weakness” and who has been “tested in every way.”...

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Rethinking the (Political) Apocalypse?

In the wake of the debacle of the confirmation hearing for Judge Brett Kavanaugh and the ensuing feverish jockeying for position in the upcoming midterm elections, it is easy to despair about the extreme polarization of American politics. To despair is to be unable to see any possibilities for an alternative or an escape from our condition. More than one person has mentioned the 1850’s to me as an apt analogy for our age. It can seem as if the differences are so great – and the built-up animus so large – that the country could become ungovernable. So...

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