Software, Moral Formatting, and Living in Sin


While I was doing graduate studies in Belgium, I lived at the American College in Leuven. On staff there at the time, in the housekeeping and maintenance department, was a wonderfully colorful woman whose energy brought oxygen into a room but whose history of marriage somewhat paralleled that of the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel. None of us knew for sure how often she’d been married and the man she was living with at the time was not her husband.

One day an Archbishop was visiting the College and there was a formal reception line of which she was part. The Archbishop would shake each person’s hand and engage him or her in a brief exchange. When he came to her, she gave him her name and told him what she did at the college. He shook her hand and, by way of greeting and conversation, asked her: “Are you married?” She wasn’t quite prepared for that question. She stammered a bit and replied: “Yes, no, well, kind of.”  Then, breaking into a grin, said: “Actually, your Grace, I’m living in sin!” To his credit, the Archbishop grinned as well. He got what she was saying, not just her words, but too the nuance that her grin conveyed.

Living in sin. Acts that are inherently disordered.  What’s Catholic moral theology trying to say with this kind of concept when so many people today, including many Roman Catholics, find such concepts unintelligible and offensive?

To the credit of classical Roman Catholic moral teaching, these concepts have an intelligibility and a palatability inside a certain moral framework within which their proper meaning and nuance is predicated on the overall system. In a simpler language, they make sense within that system. In today’s language, classical Roman Catholic moral theology might be compared to a highly specialized software; indeed one which was honed, nuanced, and upgraded through centuries so that, as a system, it has smooth internal coherence. The problem, though, is that today so much of our culture and so many of our churches no longer use, nor understand how to use, that software. As a consequence, its formatting and language are misunderstood and can appear offensive. Not everyone, like the Archbishop just described, has a sense of humor about this.

So what’s to be done? How do we move forward? Do we simply abandon a lot of classical moral teachings because so many people today are taking offense at its concepts and language?

Admittedly it’s a huge problem, with a lot of sincere people weighing-in very differently on the issue, as was seen at the recent Synod in Rome on Marriage and Family Life. How do we hold authentic Christian moral ground and, at the same time, properly account for the actual, existential reality of millions and millions of people, including many of our own families and children?  How do we name the moral reality of people who are living in situations that, while clearly life-giving, are not in line with Christian principles? How do we name the moral reality of so many of our own children and loved ones who are living with partners to whom they are not married, but are drawing life from that relationship? How do we name the moral situation of a gay couple whose relationship is clearly life-giving?  And how do we name the moral situation of the Samaritan woman and the woman I mentioned earlier who, while irregular in terms of the Church’s teaching on marriage, bring life, joy, and oxygen into a room? Are they living in sin? Does their situation include some intrinsic evil?

We need a new software within moral theology to answer those questions, or at least to format them in a language that our culture understands and can be challenged by. And it won’t be a simple or easy task, as the tensions and polarizations within our churches and at our dinner tables highlight. The task is to hold our moral ground, challenge a culture which no longer understands or accepts our former way of understanding these things, and yet, at the same time, not bend the truth to the times, nor the Gospel to the world, even as we better name the moral situation within which so much of our world and so many of our loved ones find themselves.

The truth sets us free, but God often works through crooked lines. I’m a student of classical moral theology and truly believe in its principles, even as I am daily humbled and challenged by the love, grace, faith, and wonderful oxygen I see flowing out of people whose situations are “irregular”. How can the good be bad? At this stage in time, along with many of the rest of you, I suspect, I am forced to stay with the ambiguity, to live the question.

We need a new software, a new way of morally formatting things, a new way of holding truth in empathy, a new way of holding the essential within the existential.

Indulgences Revisited


When Pope Francis launched the Holy Year of Mercy, he promised that Christians could gain a special indulgence during this year. That left a lot of present-day Roman Catholics, and even more Protestants and Evangelicals, scratching their heads and asking some hard questions: Is Roman Catholicism still dealing in indulgences? Didn’t we learn anything from Luther and the Reformation? Do we really believe that certain ritual practices, like passing through designated church doors, will ease our way into heaven?

These are valid questions that need to be asked. What, indeed, is an indulgence?

Pope Francis in his decree, The Face of Mercy, (Misericordiae Vultus), says this about indulgences:  “A Jubilee also entails the granting of indulgences. This practice will acquire an even more important meaning in the Holy Year of Mercy. God’s forgiveness knows no bounds. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God makes even more evident his love and its power to destroy all human sin. Reconciliation with God is made possible through the paschal mystery and the mediation of the Church. Thus God is always ready to forgive, and he never tires of forgiving in ways that are continually new and surprising. Nevertheless, all of us know well the experience of sin. We know that we are called to perfection (Mt. 5, 48), yet we feel the heavy burden of sin. Though we feel the transforming powered of grace, we also feel the effects of sin typical of our fallen state. Despite being forgiven, the conflicting consequences of our sins remain. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God forgives our sins, which he truly blots out; and yet sin leaves a negative effect on the way we think and act. But the mercy of God is stronger even than this. It becomes an indulgence on the part of the Father who, through the Bride of Christ, his Church, reaches the pardoned sinner and frees him from every residue left by the consequence of sin, enabling him to act in charity, to grow in love rather than to fall back into sin.

The Church lives within the communion of the saints. In the Eucharist, this communion, which is a gift from God, becomes a spiritual union binding us to the saints and the blessed ones whose number is beyond counting (Rev. 7, 14). Their holiness comes to the aid of our weaknesses in a way that enables the Church, with her maternal prayers and her way of life, to fortify the weakness of some with the strength of others.  Hence, to live the indulgence of the Holy Year means to approach the Father’s mercy with the certainty that his forgiveness extends to the entire life of the believer.  To gain an indulgence is to experience the holiness of the Church, who bestows upon all the fruits of Christ’s redemption, so that God’s love and forgiveness may extend everywhere. Let us live this Jubilee intensely, begging the Father to forgive our sins and to bathe us in his merciful ‘indulgence’’’.

What’s the pope saying here? Clearly, he’s not teaching what has been for so long the popular (and inaccurate notion) that an indulgence is a way of shortening one’s time in purgatory. Rather he is tying the idea of indulgences to two things: First, an indulgence is the acceptance and celebration of the wonderful gratuity of God’s mercy. An indulgence is, in effect, the more-conscious acceptance of an indulgence, that is, the conscious acceptance of a love, a mercy, and a forgiveness, that is completely undeserved. Love can be indulgent. Parents can be indulgent to their children. Thus whenever we do a prayer or religious practice with the intent of gaining an indulgence the idea is that this prayer or practice is meant to make us more consciously aware of and grateful for God’s indulgent mercy. We live within an incredulous, ineffable mercy of which we are mostly unaware. During the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis invites us to do some special prayers and practices that make us more consciously aware of that indulgent mercy.

Beyond this, Pope Francis links the notion of indulgences to another concept, namely, our union and solidarity with each other inside the Body Christ. As Christians, we believe that we are united with each other in a deep, invisible, spiritual, and organic bond that is so real that it forms us into one body, with the same flow of life and the same flow of blood flowing through all of us. Thus inside the Body of Christ, as in all live organisms, there is one immune system so that what one person does, for good or for bad, affects the whole body. Hence, as the pope asserts, since there is a single immune system inside the Body of Christ, the strength of some can fortify the weakness of others who thereby receive an indulgence, an undeserved grace.

To walk through a holy door is make ourselves more consciously aware of God’s indulgent mercy and of the wonderful community of life within we live.

From Paranoia to Metanoia 


Sometimes we’re a mystery to ourselves, or, perhaps more accurately, sometimes we don’t realize how much paranoia we carry within ourselves. A lot of things tend to ruin our day.

I went to a meeting recently and for most of it felt warm, friendly towards my colleagues, and positive about all that was happening. I was in good spirits, generative, and looking for places to be helpful. Then, shortly before the meeting ended, one of my colleagues made a biting comment which struck me as bitter and unfair. Immediately a series of doors began to close inside me. My warmth and empathy quickly turned into hardness and anger and I struggled not to obsess about the incident. Moreover the feelings didn’t pass quickly. For several days a coldness and paranoia lingered inside me and I avoided any contact with the man who had made the negative comments while I stewed in my negativity.

Time and prayer eventually did their healing, a healthier perspective returned, and the doors that had slammed shut at that meeting opened again and metanoia replaced my paranoia.

It’s significant that the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in the Synoptic Gospels is the word, metanoia. Jesus begins his ministry with these words: “Repent [metanoia] and believe in the good news” and that, in capsule, is a summary of his entire message. But how does one repent?

Our English translations of the Gospels don’t do justice to what Jesus is saying here. They translate, metanoia, with the word, repent. But, for us, the word repent has different connotations from what Jesus intended.  In English, repentance implies that we have done something wrong and must regretfully disavow ourselves of that action and begin to live in a new way. The biblical word, metanoia, has much wider connotations.

The word, metanoia, comes from two Greek words: Meta, meaning above; and Nous, meaning mind. Metanoia invites us to move above our normal instincts, into a bigger mind, into a mind which rises above the proclivity for self-interest and self-protection which so frequently trigger feelings of bitterness, negativity, and lack of empathy inside us. Metanoia invites us to meet all situations, however unfair they may seem, with understanding and an empathic heart. Moreover, metanoia stands in contrast to paranoia. In essence, metanoia is “non-paranoia”, so that Jesus’ opening words in the Synoptic Gospels might be better rendered: Be un-paranoid and believe that it is good news. Live in trust!

Henri Nouwen, in a small but deeply insightful book entitled, With Open Hands, describes wonderfully the difference between metanoia and paranoia. He suggests that there are two fundamental postures with which we can go through life. We can, he says, go through life in the posture of paranoia. The posture of paranoia is symbolized by a closed fist, by a protective stance, by habitual suspicion and distrust. Paranoia has us feeling that we forever need to protect ourselves from unfairness, that others will hurt us if we show any vulnerability, and that we need to assert our strength and talents to impress others. Paranoia quickly turns warmth into cold, understanding into suspicion, and generosity into self-protection.

The posture of metanoia, on the other hand, is seen in Jesus on the cross. There, on the cross, we see him exposed and vulnerable, his arms spread in a gesture of embrace, and his hands open, with nails through them. That’s the antithesis of paranoia, wherein our inner doors of warmth, empathy, and trust spontaneous slam shut whenever we perceive a threat. Metanoia, the meta mind, the bigger heart, never closes those doors.

Some of the early church fathers suggested that all of us have two minds and two hearts. For them, each of us has big mind and a big heart. That’s the saint in us, the image and likeness of God inside us, the warm, generative, and empathic part of us. All of us harbor a true greatness within. But each of us also has within us a petty mind and a petty heart. That’s the narcissistic part of us, the wounded part, the paranoid part that turns self-protective and immediately begins to close the doors of warmth and trust whenever we appear threatened.  Such is our inner complexity. We are both big-hearted and petty, open-minded and bigoted, trusting and suspicious, saint and narcissist, generous and hording, warm and cold. Everything depends upon which heart and which mind we are linked to and operating out of at any given moment. One minute we are willing to die for others, a minute later we would see them dead, one minute we want to give ourselves over in love, a minute later we want to use our gifts to show our superiority over others. Metanoia and paranoia vie for our hearts.

Jesus, in his message and his person, invites us to metanoia, to move towards and stay within our big minds and big hearts, so that in the face of a stinging remark our inner doors of warmth and trust do not close.