Good news after a very bad year

There is no need to belabor the awfulness of the year of lockdowns, shutdowns, and other downers that began in mid-March 2020. Among the failures that will bear serious scrutiny going forward are those of inept local governments. If Americans can fly an SUV-sized robotic rover to a planet 292 million miles away, and then soft-land it on a dime, why can’t we distribute vaccines rapidly? (Perhaps the vaccination program should be led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one agency of government that seems to know what it’s doing.)

But enough complaining is enough. Good things have been happening this past year, and as the Church heads into Holy Week it’s time to recognize some of them; to be grateful for the exemplary Catholics who make these important initiatives possible; and to pray for their flourishing in the future.

The “Nones” who claim no religious affiliation because they think science has rendered religion useless – as well as those who know that the science-and-religion conversation is one of the most fascinating encounters on offer today – should have a look at the website of the Society of Catholic Scientists (https://www.catholicscientists.org).

From a standing start in 2016, the Society has grown to over 1,300 members in 50 countries. As a forum for exchange among scientists, the Society fosters Christian community. As a resource for the Church, the Society offers accessible, credible materials to those charged with transmitting the faith in a culture that often imagines science to be the only font of truth. As an association of leading scientists in their fields, the Society’s very existence demonstrates the compatibility of scientific rigor and religious conviction.             

The Society’s website is a treasure trove of fascinating materials, including biographies of prominent scientists who were Catholics, a section on “Common Questions” about science and Catholic faith, and longer articles aimed at a general audience. Every Catholic high school religion or theology teacher in the English-speaking world should be aware of the Society, its website, and its invaluable materials.

My friends at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington have made a resounding success of Aquinas 101, a brilliantly conceived and executed series of animated YouTube videos that explain the truths of the Catholic tradition in an engaging way. 

When Pope Leo XIII urged a close study of Aquinas as a resource for the Church’s response to the cultural and social acids of secular modernity, he certainly didn’t have YouTube in mind. Still, the Dominicans in charge of Aquinas 101 have given 21st-century form to Leo XIII’s 1879 hope for a Thomistic revival in the Church. And the fact that over 54,300 people have signed up for Aquinas 101 courses, which have gotten well over a million views, suggests that Aquinas 101 is satisfying a thirst for real learning and deep understanding at a historical moment too often dominated by the shrillest, least thoughtful voices. Join the learning and the fun at this intellectual feast by signing up at the Aquinas 101 website: aquinas101.com

The Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv is a miracle. More than 70 years of communist brutality left Ukrainian society morally and culturally shattered. But the great 20th-century leaders of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Metropolitans Andrey Sheptytsky and Josyf Slipyj, had long dreamt of a Catholic center of higher learning in Ukraine. And under the dynamic leadership of a Harvard-educated Ukrainian-American, Borys Gudziak (now the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archeparch of Philadelphia), that dream has been realized in this dynamic university with a mission of cultural renewal. Because UCU understands that true education involves human formation, spiritual formation, and service to society as well as intellectual engagement, it has become a model for Catholic higher learning in the 21st century. Everyone who cares about the life of the Catholic mind and the education of Catholic leaders for the future will be heartened by watching the university’s story here: https://youtu.be/2KDi_SvdMNE. (Be sure to click CC at the bottom of the screen for English subtitles if your Ukrainian isn’t quite up to speed). 

Then there is the Person and Identity Project, led by Mary Rice Hasson and a team of brilliant Catholic women (personandidentity.com). As it becomes clear that “gender theory” is the most aggressive force in what only the obtuse will deny is a culture war, the project offers schools, parishes, and dioceses full-day workshops and individual presentations to assist Catholic educators and pastors in meeting gender theory’s assault on the biblical and Catholic view of the human person. Many have profited from this thoughtful project. Many, many more should.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.