Friday, December 30, 2011

Non-Catholic relatives and the "hard stuff"

My fiance and I are both converts to Catholicism. My family is a mix of non-practicing Catholic/Protestant while his is a mix of Protestant and Jewish. In addition, we both have friends on various journeys of faith. As we are both pretty orthodox in thinking and in practice, disbelief about our lifestyle does come up, as well as questions about our opinions on various topics. Because there often is a lack of understanding, sometimes, seemingly innocuous questions come off as endless at best and difficult at worst. How do we face it? Here are some tips.
  1. Don't assume everything is oppositional: Not every question requires a drawn out defense of Catholic teaching and practice. Most of the time, even cradle Catholics don't always understand aspects of Catholic living, especially when it comes to issues of morality. When it comes to living out the Church's teachings on sexuality, for example, people may have an image of the Duggars or another extremely conservative family with many children, a stay-at-home mom who homeschools, where girls aren't encouraged to have a career, etc.* They may not understand that it is possible to live a modern lifestyle while also obeying the Church's teachings.
  2. Be honest about what you don't know: As a convert, I had to do a lot of intense study in order to figure out whether Catholicism was right for me. As such, I often am the "Catholic resource" for both Catholic and non-Catholic family and friends. However, there is still much I don't know. I can't pretend to be an expert on everything and I know that people don't expect me to be. Also, honesty may encourage others to look up different things themselves so that they can better understand.
  3. Laugh it off: While we may know our faith pretty well, some aspects of Catholicism seem downright strange to people. Whether it's our stereotype about "no sex but drink as much as you want"**, taking your temperature every day and analyzing your body to decide when it's OK to have sex, why the old ladies still put Kleenex on their heads, and why, out of all our strict morals, timeliness is not one of them, we seem absolutely crazy. Laughing it off and noting that, "We Catholics can be crazy some times" helps break tension and puts all parties at ease. It also gives us humility: while it's not easy having to explain so much about our faith, it's also not easy to see your otherwise intelligent son/daughter/friend make decisions that drive you batty.
  4. Preach always, use words if necessary: Often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, this quote serves as a reminder to be a good example without getting preachy. No one wants to hear long-winded explanations about the origin of misconceptions and why one has to be stupid to believe them without looking at sources. That's both condescending and arrogant, two things no self-respecting Christian should become. What helps is to live our lives according to the Gospel and to be compassionate and understanding while living with integrity. That impresses people and inspires them. Another way to look at it is that you attract more with honey than with vinegar.
  5. Acknowledge faults: Yes, the child abuse scandal is horrible. Yes, clergy and laity alike have done horrible, horrible things in the name of God/Jesus/the Holy Mother/the Church. Yes, women were oppressed, leaders did endorse slavery of Africans/Native Americans, Muslims/Jews/Protestants/non-believers were burned at the stake on orders from Catholic leaders. No, a torn mother should not have been excommunicated for seeking an abortion for her nine-year-old little girl who was raped by her stepfather and pregnant with twins (if anything, the rapist should have been excommunicated). Yes, the Rwandan Hutu priests who had all their Tutsi parishioners killed during the genocide were in the wrong. We can still believe our Church is true, point out misconceptions and defend our teachings while admitting that those who worked for or otherwise represented our faith have done horrible things. One virtue we stress, even to the point of having a Sacrament for, is accountability. I do not apologize for acts I have not committed personally so, no, it's not my responsibility to atone for those sins. At the same time, I will not pretend the earthly representation of the Church is blameless. It is a sin to lie.
  6. Sometimes, you just can't discuss it: Even if people agree with you on everything else, there are certain issues that are just extremely touchy. Yes, I'm talking about sex again. While I'm willing to discuss my choices if people are simply curious and want some education, I'm not going to answer snide comments or extreme emotion, especially when I have a tendency to get really emotional about certain topics. I understand that I will probably never see eye to eye with my family and friends on most things related to sex and fertility. On those issues, I simply have to do what my fiance and I think is best for ourselves, each other and our relationship with God. Other people may not understand and that's OK.
  7. The choice to convert sets you apart: I'm guessing that, when our parents held us in their arms on the days we were born, neither set dreamed, "Maybe, one day, he/she is going to become a Catholic and do great things for God!" While our families did leave the choice of religious practice up to us, they never imagined that Catholicism would factor in. My dad jokes that it was my "teenage rebellion" whereas others, while they appreciate the significance it has for us, still scratch their heads about it. In our society, religion is still seen as something chosen for you by your parents while the image of liberal, intellectually curious people is seen as tied to secularist beliefs. Especially as I tend to espouse a politically progressive stance and come off as a strident feminist, people often get confused when they find out I espouse traditional Catholic beliefs as well. While, in the eyes of serious, educated Catholics, orthodoxy can go with liberal politics and an egalitarian perspective on gender, they don't seem to blend well in the eyes of others. Again, a lengthy lesson in apologetics is not the answer. People do have misconceptions and may be shocked that you'd choose the faith. Be gentle
  8. Pray, hope, and don't worry: Padre Pio was onto something when he said this. It's natural to want others to share in your faith and the joy that it gives you. However, worrying about your loved ones' salvation, constantly bringing up faith related matters, and trying to get people to agree with you is just not going to work. You believe God is an omnipotent being, right? Leave those concerns to Him. He'll take care of it.
Living the faith is not easy. All you can do is be the best example you can be and pray to God for the rest.

Genetic Counseling-OK for Catholics?

This post is more personal than anything else. I'll admit, I have not consulted the Catechism or USCCB (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) about this, so if you're looking for something more official, this isn't it. However, as my fiance and I both carry an interesting set of genetics, it's been suggested by friends and family that we undergo genetic counseling. I've come to the conclusion that such can be licit for Catholics, as long as it's for knowledge only.

I would like to undergo it, simply to understand the health history of our families better. If we are carrying risks for certain disorders, knowing how likely we are to pass certain traits can help me better prepare if we did have a child with any of those disorders. For me, it would be like learning that your child has Down's Syndrome (in the womb). It would help me better prepare for the future and learn what resources exist for children with different disorders. This would help me understand whether I'd likely have to stay home (as opposed to taking maternity leave and returning to work), hire medical attendants, or figure out special education, as well as how early a child I have can be tested for certain things.

However, there are certain recommendations I'd never be able to take as a Catholic. One, I can't decide to simply not have children if I'm married. While I am allowed to use fertility awareness as a method of birth control, I still have to enter into marriage open to having a biological child (so, no, I can't get sterilized and neither can my husband). If I happen to not have children by mere circumstance, I'm not obligated to put in extra effort (whether through pills or adoption). I simply have to be open-regardless of what my genetics tell me.

I also cannot terminate a pregnancy. As a Catholic, that's self-explanatory. While I do have options if my life and the baby's life were in danger (and the doctors can only save me), I can't directly kill a child within my womb. This isn't simply religious teaching for me, it's an ethical one. While some may say it's more merciful or that you can't expect parents to change their lives so drastically, it's not an acceptable decision for me. Every life is worth living and, in an age where people with disabilities can live longer, happier, productive lives than ever before, there really is no excuse for certain disorders. Also, a child or adult can become disabled later in life. The difference here is that I'd have time to prepare and make arrangements.

In addition, I can't go through extraordinary means to have a kid. Assisted reproductive technologies (different from treatments that simply stimulate ovaries or increase sperm production) are also not allowed for any reason. Some genetic counselors suggest in vitro fertilization so that only healthy embryos would be selected for implantation. As in vitro is forbidden and it would mean that unhealthy embryos would be destroyed, I can't licitly choose that as an option.

It sounds like there are a lot of restraints for me to plan a family, even with genetic counseling. However, choosing to have a child is a sign of hope for the future. I would have my child regardless of whether or not he or she had disabilities. I choose to love any child that comes into my house, biologically or not, simply because I believe that there is a future for anyone who lives on this planet. At the same time, with this love, I'd choose to be prepared so that I could be the best parent I could be. So, yes, I do think genetic counseling can be licit for Catholic couples, so long as they abide by moral responsibilities in terms of family planning.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

In a Catholic wedding......

The things the Church could care less about:

1. Whether or not you change your name: Women are not obligated to change their family names in the Catholic Church. In fact, Catholic documents feature the name a woman was born with, regardless of whether or not she changes her name. In Latin American cultures, women actually keep their names and couples pass both on to their children. If you want to change your name, change it, but you don't have to.

2. What color dress you wear: White dresses do not mean the woman is a virgin. In fact, in our society, most women wear them whether or not they are virgins or otherwise committed to chastity. It was a custom made popular by a queen and most Catholics didn't wear white simply because they could not afford it. If you want to wear a white dress, fine, but it isn't mandated by any Catholic tradition. Wear any color dress you want. Just make sure it's modest.

3. Being "given away": Contrary to popular belief, women are NOT given away in Catholic weddings. The bride and groom are ministers of the Sacrament, which means the priest is simply witnessing (he does perform a Sacramental role in consecrating the Eucharist if you have a Mass but during the vows, it's all the bride and groom). While the Church lets fathers escort the bride or parents escort both spouses if that's what they choose, they would actually prefer for the bride and groom to walk together. Marriage should be a free choice made by both spouses so being "given away" runs contrary to our beliefs.

4. Men being "providers": The Church leaves the choice up to the couple. In his encyclical Mulieribus Dignitatem, JP2 praised women who had careers. While a couple needs to be open to having children and we do have teachings regarding abortion and contraception (no on abortion and only NFP as birth control), the choices about how to raise a family are left to the couple. If man working, woman staying at home works for a couple/family, that's fine. If not, that's fine too. You have to do what you're called to do and that choice is going to be different for each couple.

5. If you like sex: Actually, the Church wants you to like sex, so long as it's not illicit sex. You can use natural methods of birth control (they do work, as long as you're using it properly/no cheating, though none is 100% and you have to be very diligent). Outside of that, as long as you're not degrading your spouse or violating commandments (such as adultery-so no threesomes or "open marriages"), do whatever you want. The Song of Songs is in the Bible, right? Besides, if God didn't want us to enjoy sex, why is it the hardest thing to wait till you're actually married to make love to your spouse?

6. Engagement rings: Again, that's a society thing. It may actually be more responsible to not buy an engagement ring, due to vicious mineral conflicts and the state of the economy. I do have an heirloom ring and he also has a ring (a manly Catholic one, too). What, men can't wear engagement rings too? Show me the exact verse in the Bible or Catechism/piece of Canon Law. I don't think any Pope has made an infallible statement.

7. Needing to finance a huge shindig: Like engagement rings, it may actually be more responsible to not have a huge party. Should you be reasonably stable? Yes, that would be prudent. I don't want to be living paycheck to paycheck. I also don't think I should wait till I can afford a designer gown and an open bar (besides, I don't want people getting drunk at my wedding). Also, people get so swept up in luxury and elaborate plans that they forget the actual significance. If you don't have a ton of money, you can still have a beautiful and simple ceremony. In fact, it may be more profound than one swept in luxury.

Harsh words or tough love?

When my future spouse and I went to Mass over the summer, the priest spoke of how people should not expect to simply do what they want in terms of getting married in the Church or baptizing their babies (like changing key words in vows, using music not suitable, or having people who don't meet basic criteria serve as godparents). He even went as far as to say, "No, you're a narcissist," when describing the attitudes. At first, I thought he was harsh but now, while I wouldn't come out and say someone is a narcissist, I feel I understand his frustration. At a time when 2/3 of Catholics don't even know the fundamentals of their faith and most simply "go through the motions" when it comes to Sacraments, I think a bit of tough love is needed.

It's not necessarily the fault of the parishioners. They can't be blamed for a couple generations of poor Catholic education. However, I do think we have the responsibility of changing the way we handle Sacraments in most parishes. When it comes to such enormous steps as marriage and the baptism of one's child, people need to be prepared. I think that, when a couple comes to a priest with either request, a conversation about the couple's faith, motivations, and knowledge should take place. If a couple needs to work on any, I'd recommend that they take an accelerated course on Catholicism in addition to pre-marriage and pre-baptism classes. I also believe a couple should be active in the parish and develop their spiritual lives. If they're not willing to do this, they shouldn't be allowed to get married in the Catholic Church and they shouldn't raise their kids Catholic.

Of course, when you mention this, people say, "But they should be happy! It's their choice!" No one is stopping these people from "being happy." If they want to get married, they can do so in a civil ceremony. They can have kids and have whatever secular ceremony they feel appropriate (some couples do secular naming ceremonies for their kids). However, Catholic Sacraments are rites, not rights, of passage and come with responsibilities to God as well as to the community. When you commit to one person in marriage in the Catholic Church, you are promising to help that person get into heaven and you're promising to uphold Christ's command for marriage. That's not something you can take lightly. When you have your baby baptized in the Church, you're promising to keep that child away from evil and help them on their path to God (you're also making sure your child is bound to Catholic teaching). If you can't do these things or don't even believe in these things, why would you do them?

Marriage and raising families are both adult decisions. The decisions you make about either of these things need to be ones you are willing to follow through on, regardless of what others say. You need to be able to do both for the right reasons. If you don't believe in the significance behind the Sacraments of both, why would you be dishonest with yourself and go through with them? People need to be honest about what they believe and if all they see in the Church is an opportunity for a party and a pretty backdrop, as well as an excuse to avoid Grandma's guilt trips, then no, they shouldn't be allowed to go through with such an enormous step within the building. The Church will guide you if you seek it, but it won't bend over backward for you. If you can't make yourself believe in the core teachings, that's fine. Just have a little integrity when you're planning the biggest events of your life.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Empowered, Female, and Catholic

I am here to proclaim that yes, I am empowered, female and Catholic and that I intend to take over the world with nothing less than my charming smile. OK, I'm slightly kidding (about the charming smile part) but I do intend to live my life, a life pleasing to God and full of adventure, with or without everyone else's commentary.

It never ceases to amazed me that people's definition of "female empowerment' consists of conforming to someone else's norms. As a Catholic and a feminist, I feel I hear no end to it. First, I get criticism for wanting a traveling career, then I get criticism for being young and engaged (in what people see as a fairly young relationship). I get criticism for following the Church's teachings, yet for not necessarily wanting a "traditional" wedding and emphasizing egalitarian principles, values, and symbols. I just don't understand.

It amazes me that we tell our kids to break the norm, to not be like everyone else and that following the crowd can be dangerous ("If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?), yet, as adults, we interrogate those who choose not to conform. The sad thing is, most of these decisions we criticize are decisions that really have no effect and certainly no harm on the general population and usually, they are also personal decisions. For me, I choose to break the norm about certain things because I have been forced to consider what my values are and, if something does not reflect them or contradicts them, I am not maintaining a superficial image to please people. I still have to walk with integrity and do what's best by God, myself, and my future family.

The fact that I do make these choices makes me empowered. I refuse to let the crowd dictate my decisions, even if some members of that crowd are people I love very much. I believe in God, I believe that He gave us His Son and His Church, I also believe He made male and female in His image (Her image?), equal before Him. I've vowed to live my life, my vocation of marriage, and my career according to these principles. Why should the small things in my life not follow?

If I didn't truly believe in these ideals, I would not choose it. As I have, however, no one can say that it wasn't my choice.