Practical Charity, Bad Theology, and Why I Don't Call Myself a Feminist (Not Even a Catholic One)
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Deus Caritas Est Study, Week 6
Read: Sections 19-24
For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.” Benedict XVI
If you study enough theology, you will hear one analogy over and over again: the analogy of the three-legged stool.
Whether Catholic or Protestant, someone is always comparing some aspect of the faith to a three-legged stools: the Trinity, the Gospel, the Church. It’s a popular metaphor. But it’s popular because it works, especially when it’s used to describe what Benedict writes about here: the Church’s three-fold responsibility to proclaim the Gospel, administer the sacraments, and exercise the ministry of charity.
The analogy is about the necessity of each part to the whole. Just as a three-legged stool can’t stand without all its legs, the Church cannot fulfill her duties as Christ’s Body on Earth, unless she is preaching the Gospel, administering the Sacraments, and loving people as the Father loves them—providing for their spiritual AND material needs. If one is neglected, she’s not doing her job.
Humans, being humans, tend to forget this. Particularly when it comes to the Church’s responsibilities. We take a liking to one leg and decide it’s the only indispensable one. Then, that’s where our energy goes: to the teaching of the Gospel or the celebrating of the Liturgy or the caring for the poor. And as we focus on that one dispensable leg, we often neglect the others. The Gospel is not preached or preached poorly. The sacraments are not celebrated or celebrated reverently. The poor are ignored or forgotten.
And all the while, we pat ourselves on the back, thinking we’re the ones getting this Christianity thing right, but not seeing all the work that remains undone.Different ecclesial communities do this. Catholic parishes do this. Individual persons do this.
Yet the Church is clear and always has been. She stands on three legs: preaching, celebrating, serving. Each is essential. Each is indispensable. She neglects any of those legs to her peril. And we neglect them to our perdition.
Do you tend to think of caring for the poor as the Church’s responsibility or the State’s responsibility? Do you think of it as your responsibility? Or do you think of it as the poor’s responsibility? What has shaped those beliefs?
Do Benedict’s words challenge you in any way? If so, how?
What do you personally tend to give more energy or attention to: preaching, liturgy, or service? Is your attention balanced or imbalanced? If imbalanced, how could that be hurting you and others?
Read Sections 26-29
Is it true that the Catholic Church thinks it’s a sin to use contraception, but not to abuse your spouse?
Short answer: No! Not at all!
Long answer: I’m guessing this question (or at least the source of the confusion) relates to an essay published last week in America Magazine, in which a sitting U.S. cardinal complained that the Church considers contraception an “objective mortal sin,” but does not consider things such as spousal abuse, a parent abandoning their children, or the exploitation of workers “objective mortal sins.”
There are so many problems with the essay, but one of the biggest is the phrase “objective mortal sin.” Which isn’t a thing. There are no objective mortal sins. At least, not according to the Catholic Church. Because mortal sin, by its very nature, is subjective, not objective.
For those not familiar with how the Church talks about sin, broadly speaking there are two categories: mortal and venial. Mortal sins are serious sins that kill the life of grace in the soul, then harden the heart in sin. Venial sins weaken the life of grace in us and make us more inclined to commit serious sins. What makes a sin mortal, as opposed to venial, depends upon three things: 1) It must involve grave matter; 2) It must be freely chosen; and 3) It must be committed with full knowledge of how wrong it is (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1857). Only one of those requirements is objective (grave matter). The other two are subjective. And so, while two people can commit the exact same sin, involving the same grave matter, for one person it can be mortal and for the other venial. It depends upon the person—upon their freedom and knowledge.
All of which is to say, there are no objective mortal sins. Mortal sins always have a degree of subjectivity to them.
It’s possible that what the cardinal actually meant by “objective moral sin” was “objective grave matter.” And grave matter is indeed objective. What’s seriously wrong is seriously wrong, regardless of a person’s knowledge or freedom. Nothing can make right that which is intrinsically evil. But, if that’s what the cardinal meant, his argument becomes even more convoluted because the Church absolutely considers spousal abuse, child abandonment, and the exploitation of workers grave matter. All those acts are intrinsically evil, and bishops and popes have written whole documents saying as much, from provisions in Canon law condemning abandonment and abuse, to the USCCB’s letter on domestic violence, “When I Call for Help, to an entire body of Catholic Social Teaching condemning the unjust treatment of workers and which spans nearly a dozen encyclicals.
So, yes, back to the short answer: The Church does not think it’s okay for anyone to abuse their spouse. And it’s a profound head scratching mystery that any well-educated cardinal could, in good faith, assert otherwise.
Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
No. I haven’t and don’t. Although, my objections to the term are more about semantics than theology. I think feminism is a word that has come to encompass so many different ideas, movements, and goals, that it has lost its meaning. It always has to be qualified with an explanation of what type of feminist someone is. So, for example, when I first hear someone call themself a feminist, I’m never sure if they mean:
Women should be able to work, own property, and not be abused by their spouse (First Wave Feminism);
All women should work outside the home, abortion is a human right, and a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle (Second Wave Feminism);
Women should seek their own “sexual empowerment” and reject the sexual mores of a heteronormative culture (Third Wave Feminism);
Women are created in the image of God, equal to men in grace and dignity, possessing a unique feminine genius that the world needs, and deserving of care and protection under the law (Pope Saint John Paul II’s “new feminism”);’
Biological males can and should be recognized as women (Transfeminism);
Or some combination of the above.
All words are metaphors. They sum up an idea or a thing’s nature. And I think “feminist” has become a bad metaphor. It’s come to mean so many things—so many loaded things—to so many people, that by itself it means nothing. It needs too much explaining and qualifying to adequately convey meaning, and half the time the word has alienated someone before those qualifiers can even be given. It just doesn’t do its job well anymore.
That being said, I know, like, and admire women who describe themselves as feminists. In all those cases, the women’s understanding of the word is generally in line with First Wave Feminism and John Paul II’s new feminism. I don’t have a problem with those women or those ideas. I hold them myself. They’re part of the Catholic Church’s teaching on women. It’s just the word itself—“feminist”—which I don’t find particularly useful.
Also, this is just a personal opinion. Maybe the word still has its uses. Maybe I’m the one who is wrong. I don’t know. Either way, it isn’t a ditch I want to die in. I’m not going to use the word to describe myself, but if a Catholic woman who deeply adheres to the goals of Susan B. Anthony and the vision of John Paul II wants to use that term, I’m not going to worry too much about it. I’m too busy worrying about cardinals using phrases like “objective mortal sin.”
I like to pray the Office, but Mary says to pray the Rosary every day. How can I possibly find the time to do both?
The Divine Office (or Liturgy of the Hours) is beautiful. It’s the prayer of the whole Church and a wonderful way of praying through Scripture. But it definitely takes some time. That’s why I do the abbreviated form of it in the Magnificat app. That allows me to pray some of the Office, go over the daily Scripture readings, then pray my Rosary, all in about 30 minutes time. My husband does pray the full Morning Office, so he doesn’t pray the Rosary in the morning. He will either pray the Rosary on a short walk in between classes, in the car on the way home from school, or at night before bed. (I cannot pray it before bed or I will be out by the second decade).
The great thing about the Rosary, though, is that you don’t have to be sitting down with a book to pray it. You can pray it while walking or driving or cooking or folding laundry or rocking babies to sleep. Fingering the beads can be helpful, but if the only time you can pray it is when your hands are otherwise occupied, you can try an app, like Hallow or The Holy Rosary (on Android) to track the prayers for you. You also don’t have to pray it all at once. You can break up the decades and pray different mysteries throughout the day. Finding 20 minutes to pray it in the morning might be impossible, but finding a few five-minute increments is a lot easier. It also can help if you just start with one mystery. Make a habit of finding five minutes once a day to pray a decade. Then, after a week, try to find five minutes twice a day. Build up slowly from there.
Praying the Rosary daily isn’t a requirement for Catholics. You don’t have to go to Confession if you miss a day. But it’s a powerful prayer, and the world needs powerful prayers right now. So, even if one decade is all you can manage, try to work that in. Just do what’s possible. God will take care of the rest.
I’m considering becoming Catholic and want to understand Mass and liturgy more. Book recommendations?
There are so many books out there on the Mass, but when I was coming back to Catholicism after six years of worshipping in Evangelical churches, Tom Howard’s Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament was hugely helpful for me. For a deeper biblical understanding of what is happening in the Mass, I’d recommend Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth and Brandt Pitre’s The Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper. Also, when Pope Benedict XVI was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he wrote a wonderful book on the essence of liturgy called The Spirit of the Liturgy. That is maybe my favorite of all his books and helped me articulate why I connect with more traditional forms of the liturgy and not the more contemporary ones I experienced a lot of in my childhood.
Five Things I’m Loving This Week
1. J.D. and Ed’s interview with Bishop Paprocki over at The Pillar. It’s a little bit on the canon law wonky side, but really helpful for understanding more about the emerging struggle lines within the Church.
2. Love is probably not the right word for how I feel about this article from the Plough: “Where are the Churches in Canada’s Euthanasia Experiment.” (h/t Christy Isinger) It is both chilling and depressing. But it’s also an important read, especially for Americans who don’t fully know or understand what is going on north of our border and what will likely be coming here soon enough.
3. The Netflix movie “Murder Mystery” starring Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler came out in 2019 (and a second one is coming out soon), but Chris and I just got around to watching the first one this week. It was fun and campy and echoed the screwball comedies of the early 1960s. Not for little kids due to some language, innuendo, and one crude scene (no nudity) and it wasn’t overly witty, but we both needed something light this week, and this fit the bill.
4. Beautycounter’s amazing 10 birthday promotion. Through Friday, March 10 (tomorrow), they are giving away over $280 in free products and perks. Spend $125 and they will send you a full size bottle of their best selling Vitamin C Serum. Spend $250 and they’ll send you the C Serum plus a full-size jar of my favorite product, the Reflect Effect Mask. Add on a Rewards Membership at the discounted rate of $10, and you’ll get a whole slew of perks, plus a free welcome gift that includes the Overnight Resurfacing Peel. If you’re looking to start a skincare regimen, switch to safer makeup, or restock on some favorite products, this is a great way to get free products that will leave you with healthier, smoother, more even, and more glowing skin.
5. My recipe for Fried Gnocchi Aglio E Olio. It’s been a couple years since I’ve made this fast and meatless dish, and I don’t know why. It’s the perfect fast and easy meal for Fridays in Lent (or really any day). If you want to add protein to it on a Friday, try tossing in some Cannellini beans at the very end. Outside of Lenten Fridays, it’s also a great side dish with steak or grilled sausages. I had bought the ingredients to cook it last Friday, but then we ended up grabbing takeout on the way home from a friend’s wake. So, I made it Monday instead, with the addition of the Cannellini Beans, and a side of roasted Brussels sprouts. So good.
In Case You Missed It
The Deep Work of Homemaking: On Acknowledging the Difference Between House Work and Heart Work (Full Subscribers Only)
Welcoming the Wholeness of Women: The Catholic Vision of Feminine Dignity (Unlocked for all subscribers)
Debranding Catholicism: Labels, Divisions, and the Mess that is the Church on Earth (unlocked for all subscribers)
I will up my subscription for unadulterated McElroy thoughts!