Catholic Teaching: Counter-Cultural and Necessary

(by John Baldino)

Many of the teachings, traditions and practices of the Catholic Church are in contrast to the beliefs, habits and norms of modern American society. The Church’s teachings are rooted in sacred scripture, philosophy, and theology developed over the past 2000 years. While these teachings have evolved with science and society, many of those who oppose and/or disagree with the Church’s ideology still believe its teachings to be antiquated and out-of-touch with the changing modern world.

In order to understand how these counter-cultural teachings are still relevant and indeed necessary for a society of justice and faith, we must first understand how the Church’s teachings, traditions, and practices are in contrast to modern society.

For the purposes of this study, we will focus on a few major issues including some of the most contested. We will look at the Church’s pro-life stance in multiple aspects and the Church’s call to holiness, humility, and charity among its faithful.

It is also necessary take a close look at present-day social norms and legal statutes, and how they are in stark contrast to the Church’s teachings. We will explore the reasons behind the Church’s positions. We’ll see how the norms and laws of today’s world contradict the Church, and explore why they do.

The unwavering pro-life position of the Catholic Church is both contested and, in many ways, not fully understood by the average American – even the Catholic faithful. Many see it as a black-and-white position that focuses exclusively on abortion. The Church’s position is not as black-and-white as many believe, nor is abortion the only aspect of the pro-life stance of the Church. However, since abortion is one of the most contested parts of the Church’s pro-life position, let us begin there.

In 1973, in the now historic case of Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a state law banning abortions was unconstitutional. The court’s ruling forbade states from regulating abortion in any way during the first trimester of pregnancy (McBride). This ruling was in direct contradiction to the position held by the Catholic Church: That every deliberate procedural abortion is a moral evil. Specifically, the Catechism of the Church has this to say:

Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law (par. 2271).

The contradiction in positions is a result of the Supreme Court and the Catholic Church looking at the issue from vastly different points of view. The court made its ruling based upon the rights of the pregnant woman and her “zone of privacy” (McBride). In contrast, the Church holds its position based upon the rights of the unborn child, maintaining that a human being has a right to life from the moment of conception (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2273).

The term “pro-life” is often considered to be synonymous with “anti-abortion.” In fact, in many contexts, such as the political arena, it does mean just that. The Catholic Church has a much broader, even all-encompassing definition of the term. From the standpoint of the Catholic Church, abortion is only part of the pro-life position (in our current situation, the central part.  Editor). The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is very clear in stating, “As a gift from God, every human life is sacred from conception to natural death” (“Life and Human Dignity”). That is the pro-life position of the Catholic Church, how the Church defines the term.

So, every human life is sacred from conception to natural death. This extends far beyond the unborn, and is why capital punishment is a pro-life issue for the Catholic Church. To truly understand the Church’s position on capital punishment and how it relates to the pro-life stance, let us turn to the words of the Catholic Church’s leader, Pope Francis. In an address to the International Association of Penal Law in October, 2014, Pope Francis said the following:

It is impossible to imagine that today (there are) states which cannot make use of means other than capital punishment to defend the life of other persons from unjust aggressors. Respect for human dignity must operate not only to limit the arbitrariness and the excesses of state officials, but as a criterion of orientation for the persecution and the repression of those behaviors that represent grave attacks against the dignity and the integrity of the human person (qtd. in Schneible).

The Holy Father is saying here that today’s society has means of justice and punishment, and ways of protecting the innocent without killing the guilty. He drives home the Church’s position that even the life of a convicted criminal is sacred and not for man to take. (The Pope may be extending things a bit here; cf., Evangelium Vitae, 56 and CCC, 2267 for the Church’s current official teaching on this topic, maintaining, in theory at least, the State’s authority to take life, if the defense of the nation so requires. Editor)

For the Church, being pro-life is about having respect for the dignity of all human life. Priests for Life, a pro-life organization of Catholic priests, says the death penalty undermines the sacredness of human life and does nothing to help survivors or lessen any loss (“Choose Life”).

Presently, the death penalty is legal in nearly two-thirds of the country. As of this year, 32 of the 50 states have laws upholding the death penalty, which has only been abolished in 18 states and the District of Columbia (“States With and Without the Death Penalty”). This is a clear reflection of the country’s position on capital punishment, which is in stark contrast to that of the Catholic Church.

On December 3, 2014, a federal appeals court stayed the execution of Scott Panetti, a diagnosed schizophrenic convicted of killing his in-laws, and sentenced to death in 1995. In response, the Dallas Morning News opened a discussion on their Web site posing this question: “Is it right for the state to execute Scott Panetti … despite his mental illness?”

The respondents were overwhelmingly in favor of executing Panetti. More than 90% of those who responded to the question wanted to see Panetti put to death. This is, of course, not a scientific study, but a good sampling of the public’s position on capital punishment even when extenuating circumstances exist (“Sounding Off”).

Here’s how the Church responded to the planned execution: Catholic Mobilizing Network, a national group of Catholics working to end the death penalty, launched an online campaign to prevent Panetti’s execution. The organization’s website offered an online petition to sign, and a form letter people could personalize and send to the Texas Board of Pardons. “We need to keep working to ensure that Mr. Panetti’s execution never takes place,” said the site. “Don’t allow the state of Texas to execute a severely mentally ill man” (“Urgent Action”). This is the Catholic Church / modern society clash in action.

The Secular Franciscan Order, a religious order made up of members of the laity, defines the virtues of holiness, humility and charity as the secular equivalent to the vows nuns, monks and priests of Religious Orders take: Those of poverty, chastity and obedience. These secular virtues and religious vows are tied closely to the Church’s position that all persons have an inherent right to human dignity (Pope Benedict XVI, par. 6).

Human dignity is both another dimension of the Catholic Church’s pro-life position, and an underlying theme of most of the teachings of the Church. Thus virtues of holiness, humility, and charity are intertwined and often not fully understood in and of themselves, or as pro-life values. Understanding these values helps us understand their connection to dignity of life.

In the context of Catholic virtue, holiness is using God’s gifts to do what He and the Church expect of the faithful. Clarified in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

In order to reach this (Christ-like) perfection, the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ’s gift, so that doing the will of the Father in everything, they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor (par. 2013).

At a recent synod of bishops called by Pope Francis, Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas had this to say on the virtue of humility:

The gospel cannot thrive in pride. When pride seeps into the heart of the Church, the gospel proclamation is harmed. Humility is truth. Humility is seeing ourselves the way God sees us. Humility is solidarity with the rest of wounded humanity. The Church is holy because of Christ. The Church is a community of sinners because of us. Simplicity of lives and humility of heart are indispensable tools for evangelization (Villegas).

Being humble opens a person to see the needs and the humanity in others, to look beyond himself and his own needs. Humility is the beginning of charity. Charity, too, has a particular meaning when it comes to Catholic virtue, as opposed to the common meaning of, “The act of giving money, food, or other kinds of help to people who are poor, sick, etc. (“Charity”).” This definition is really a simplified version of a larger concept described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Charity is the greatest social commandment. It respects others and their rights. It requires the practice of justice, and it alone makes us capable of it. Charity inspires a life of self-giving: Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it. By charity, we love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. Charity … binds everything together in perfect harmony (par. 1844, 1889).

Understanding these virtues, and considering the Church’s position that all human life is sacred, the dignity of that life comes into play. In a statement issued in September, 2012, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo clarifies the Church’s position:

How can people coexist, much less flourish, in a society lacking the shared belief that we are called to care for those unable to care for themselves, not to neglect, abuse or kill them? Such basic moral principles have served civilization well for millennia … Only a love that seeks to serve those most in need, whatever the personal cost to us, is strong enough to overcome a culture of death and build a civilization worthy of human beings made in God’s image (“Statement for Respect Life Month”).

His Eminence speaks of serving those in need, and not neglecting them. Placing oneself in a position of service to another is not only a charitable act, but one of humility. Doing so is directly fulfilling the expectations of the Church. It is therefore, by definition, a holy act. Sacred scripture points out many examples of this service and humility, including those carried out by Christ Himself. While Christ’s disciples were His followers, Christ humbled himself by washing their feet. The Gospel of John recalls the story:

During supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into His (Christ’s) power and that He had come from God and was returning to God, He rose from supper and took off His outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around His waist. Then He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet (John 13:2-5).

A more extreme example of humbling oneself with an act of charity is stated in John’s Gospel, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Christ personifies this humbling act of charity in His crucifixion.

Such an act is in contrast to modern inclinations toward self-preservation. Naturalist Charles Darwin asserted that self-preservation is among the strongest of human instincts. He argues that this instinct can be so strong that one might not be able to force himself even to save his own child if it means endangering his own life (Darwin, 110).

An example of this instinct in today’s world is present in the events of October 24, 2009, in Richmond, California, where a 15-year-old girl was gang-raped in front of 20 witnesses at a school dance. Not one of the witnesses intervened (“Police”). This action (or lack thereof) brings up the question a question. Why? Why would no one intervene? Karen G. Weiss explores one possible answer in her book, Party School: Crime, Campus and Community, and the answer is close to the root of the problem. She explains as follows:

A … reason for nonintervention (on college campuses) is that students, taking their cues from other students who are doing nothing, may not want to stand out. Nonintervention in this manner is about conforming to group norms. It is also about self-preservation (Weiss 70).

Conforming to group norms is the same as conforming to what society expects or does, even if that means allowing evil to happen to others, and not intervene. Yet, the Church calls us to do just that, to serve each other, to take on suffering to spare that of another.

Critics of such a sacrifice might use Christ’s divinity to argue man’s inability to sacrifice his own life or safety. Christ, after all, is believed by Christians to be the son of God. He, however, is hardly the only one in history to choose death to preserve the life of another. Let us look at the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest from Poland who found himself in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, and the German occupation of Poland.

During Fr. Kolbe’s time at Auschwitz, a prisoner either escaped from the camp, or died trying. History is uncertain. In response, the commandant of the camp selected ten prisoners to be locked in one cell without food or water until they died. One of the ten, Francis Gajowniczek, pleaded for his life, stating he had a wife and children who would never see him again.

Fr. Kolbe stepped forward and requested to take Gajowniczek’s place. When asked who he was, Fr. Kolbe replied simply, “I am a Catholic priest.” His request was granted, and he and nine other men were locked in a single cell, left to die. During his two weeks of condemnation, Fr. Kolbe was often heard praying aloud. When the camp doctor came to deliver a lethal injection to the priest, the only man still conscious in the cell, Fr. Kolbe blessed and forgave the doctor – his final act on this earth (Stone, 80-85).

The actions of Father (now Saint) Maximilian Kolbe personify the Catholic belief in the preservation of life, even at the sacrifice of one’s own life. While in contrast to recent actions and the psychology described above, it is what the Church calls its faithful to do.

We have examined many of the teachings, beliefs, and practices of the Catholic Church, and how they differ from social norms, psychological inclinations, and legal statutes. We now know these teachings, beliefs, and practices are in contrast to modern social norms, but questions remain. Why? Why is the Church counter-cultural? Why is a system which upholds dignity, charity, and self-sacrifice considered to be taboo in today’s world?

Consider that 1.) Pro-abortion legislation cites the rights of the mother above all else, 2.) Capital punishment seeks to console survivors, and even enact revenge, and 3.) People witness violent crimes and, out of self-preservation, do not intervene.

When one examines these examples, one finds an underlying theme: A theme of self-service, an agenda of selfishness. Dr. Jean M. Twenge and Dr. W. Keith Campbell point out in their book The Narcissism Epidemic:

The United States is currently suffering from an epidemic of narcissism. Understanding the narcissism epidemic is important because its long-term consequences are destructive to society. American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy (2-4).

This is the difference. The Catholic Church calls upon its faithful to put others before themselves, even to the extent of sacrificing one’s own life. Modern society is about self-promotion and self-preservation.

Choosing self-centric values and actions, by definition, leads to the exclusion and ignorance of others and their needs. Though counter-cultural, the “other-centric” teachings of the Church remain as vital today as they were 2000 years ago. Men like Christ and Kolbe have proven the tremendous value of respecting dignity of all human life.

The Church asks us to resist self-centric temptations. Following the teachings, practices, and beliefs of the Catholic Church results in dignity and justice for all men. Resisting temptation, and going against the norm creates a stronger individual and community faith.

Though not easy to follow, these teachings and virtues – which have consistently been a part of Catholic culture far longer than modern norms and statutes have been in place – are necessary if we expect to set an example, and bring dignity, faith, and justice to all men. The solution is for the Church to continue its unwavering positions, but communicate them in more effective ways. Bishops, priests, deacons, religious, lay religious and other church leaders and catechists must communicate the meaning behind the Church’s teachings at every opportunity.

Catholic education begins in the home, grows in parish formation programs and continues at Holy Mass. This, however is not enough. If all parishes, dioceses and religious communities followed the Pope’s example of using social and digital media, the Church could educate even more people. Education is key, and it must be done everywhere in every way. The faithful must lead by example, and influence others to follow that example.

John Baldino, OFS, MALS, is a professed Brother of Penance in the Secular Franciscan Order of the Roman Catholic Church. He earned his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communication Arts at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. John also holds a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies with a concentration in philosophy and religious studies from Excelsior College in Albany, New York. John teaches philosophy and communications at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Catholic studies at SS. Anthony & Rocco Parish in Dunmore, Pennsylvania.



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