Pope Francis Speaks About Human Dignity

Any long time followers of this blog should be pretty familiar with my pro-life stance and how it reaches far beyond just opposing abortion.

To call oneself pro-life means to see the dignity and sanctity in all life from conception to natural death. For me, and many Catholics, part of this manifests itself in an absolute rejection of unjust war and the death penalty.

So of course, I’m always happy to hear the Holy Father talk about such issues. Recently, in an address to the International Associates of Penal Law, Pope Francis spoke about corruption, condemnation of the death penalty, and some of the deplorable conditions in which prisoners are forced to live. I’ve posted the full text below:

Vatican City, 23 October 2014 (VIS)Today, the Holy Father received delegates from the International Association of Penal Law (AIDP), addressing them with a speech focusing on the issues in their subject area that have recourse to the Church in her mission of evangelization and the promotion of the human person.

The Pope began by recalling the need for legal and political methods that are not characterized by the mythological “scapegoat” logic, that is, of an individual unjustly accused of the misfortunes that befall a community and then chosen to be sacrificed. It is also necessary to refute the belief that legal sanctions carry benefit, which requires the implementation of inclusive economic and social policies. He reiterated the primacy of the life and dignity of the human person, reaffirming the absolute condemnation of the death penalty, the use of which is rejected by Christians. In this context he also talked about the so-called extrajudicial executions, that is, the deliberated killing of individuals by some states or their agents that are presented as the unintended consequence of the reasonable, necessary, and proportionate use of force to implement the law. He emphasized that the death penalty is used in totalitarian regimes as “an instrument of suppression of political dissent or of persecution of religious or cultural minorities”.

He then spoke of the conditions of prisoners, including prisoners who have not been convicted and those convicted without a trial, stating that pretrial detention, when used improperly, is another modern form of unlawful punishment that is hidden behind legality. He also referred to the deplorable prison condition in much of the world, sometimes due to lack of infrastructure while other instances are the result of “the arbitrary exercise of ruthless power over detainees”. Pope Francis also spoke about torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment, stating that, in the world today, torture is used not only as a means to achieve a particular purpose, such as a confession or an accusation—practices that are characteristic of a doctrine of national security—but also adds to the evil of detention. Criminal code itself bears responsibility for having allowed, in certain cases, the legitimacy of torture under certain conditions, opening the way for further abuse.

The Pope did not forget the application of criminal sanctions against children and the elderly, condemning its use in both cases. He also recalled some forms of crime that seriously damage the dignity of the human person as well as the common good, including human trafficking, slavery—recognized as a crime against humanity as well as a war crime in both international law and under many nations’ laws—the abject poverty in which more than a billion people live, and corruption. “The scandalous accumulation of global wealth is possible because of the connivance of those with strong powers who are responsible for public affairs. Corruption is a process of death … more evil than sin. An evil that, instead of being forgiven, must be cured.”

“Caution in the application of penal codes,” he concluded, “must be the overarching principle of legal systems … and respect for human dignity must not only act to limit the arbitrariness and excesses of government agents but as the guiding criterion for prosecuting and punishing behaviors that represent the most serious attacks on the dignity and integrity of the human person.


The One Where I Defend Vatican II

Though we are one, Holy, and apostolic Catholic Church, we still have our own internal spats. Arguments about this doctrine or that discipline can be found in every spectrum of the Catholic blogosphere. While a great many disputes can be settled by simply referring to the Catechism, there still exist some rifts between the Church faithful — and some of those rifts can become downright nasty.

Perhaps one of the biggest points of contention between Catholics today is over Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II as it is often called.

Vatican II was the 21st ecumenical council (the second to take place in the Vatican, hence the name) and acted as a major turning point in the Church’s history. Taking place from 1962 to 1965, it wasn’t called to dispel any heresy or establish new dogmas — unlike other Councils before it. That’s actually a very important fact to recognize before going any further: Vatican II changed nothing about sacred tradition.

Instead, it focused on different areas of discipline, ecumenicism, and a host of other topics that helped to reaffirm the Church’s role in modern times. However, for the more stubborn, orthodox Catholics, Vatican II was seen as break away from tradition and an attempt to “secularize” the Church—an idea that is still held by many “traditional” Catholics today.

Now, I’m not going to break down every point of Vatican II in order to prove why those who criticize the council are misguided and perhaps overly zealous. Much hooplah has been attributed to Vatican II, and many try to point to it as the cause for some of the Church’s internal issues. Instead, I want to make two points about Vatican II (especially for those of you who joining RCIA this year) that should silence any critic, and satisfy any of those who have perhaps read too much anti-Vatican II jibber-jabber on the internet.

1: Vatican II was supported by an overwhelming majority of the Church authority, including John Paul II and Benedict XVI (both of whom were present at the Council before becoming Pope). That alone should be enough for any member of the laity. If the Church says it’s right, then it’s right. End of story.

2: Perhaps the most important aspect of Vatican II, and the one that I’ll be discussing from here on out: it encouraged and increased participation and engagement with the Mass.

One of the changes made in Vatican II was that Mass could be said in the vernacular, rather than Latin. This meant that people attending Mass who didn’t know Latin would actually be able to hear and understand the prayers and participate along with the priest.

In fact, before Vatican II, it wasn’t uncommon to hear lay Catholics on Sunday say that they were headed to “watch Mass,” because that’s what they did. They watched the priest say Mass rather than actually participate.

Vatican II opened the door for people to engage in the Mass in a way that they previously couldn’t — and that’s a huge deal.

Before and during my conversion, one of the things that really drew me in was that during Mass, Catholics worshiped with their entire body, mind, and spirit. It was an all-inclusive experience—one of constant participation throughout. I’d never been a part of anything like that before. It made me excited to become Catholic and that Holy experience was available to me because of Vatican II.

Those who criticize Vatican II are mistaken. I believe they do more to divide and splinter the Church than bring it together. At the same time, by challenging the nature of Vatican II, they challenge the authority of the Church, and that is a dangerous road to travel. For the rest of us Catholics, old and new alike, I’ll end with this notion. When we attend Mass, we come face to face with the literal Body and Blood of our savior Jesus Christ. Vatican II allowed us the opportunity to come even closer — to not only partake of the Eucharist, but participate in the consecration, the moment that bread and wine cease to be as they are and become the Holy Flesh and Precious Blood.

‘What a treasure there is, dear brothers and sisters, in the guidelines offered to us by the Second Vatican Council… I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century’ there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning.’—Saint John Paul II



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Be A Living Parable

I’ve personally never had a difficult time believing in God, and for that I consider myself blessed. Even in the particularly difficult times of my life, times when God felt eons away, I have never been able to simply relinquish my faith in His existence. For me, it’s all too reasonable.

Yet, for so many, this is not the case. For them, believing in God poses  much more of a challenge, and it’s not so much that they’re unwilling to believe, but rather they are unable or not quite ready.

This is an important point that I think tends to get overlooked when we speak about evangelization. However, if we want to be truly effective in spreading the Gospel, then we need to carefully consider this fact, and approach it with the wisdom of Christ that we find in the Scriptures.

We can get a better understanding of this wisdom by starting in Matthew 13, when Jesus preached to a crowd of people from a boat using the parable of the sower:

And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear.” (Mt 13:3-9)

After he does this, his disciples come to Him and ask Him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus replies, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted.”

While the disciples were willing and able to accept the truth, many others at that time weren’t ready to hear that this carpenter’s son was the promised Messiah. So rather than hitting these listeners directly with the truth, he gave them a story that contained the truth.

(What’s funny is that Christ seems to be telling these people that they aren’t ready to hear the truth through a parable about hearing the truth.)

These passages can help us better understand the troubling question posed above. Perhaps much in the same way the people in the crowd weren’t ready to hear the truth, so too are those who reject God, His Church, and the Gospel in our world today.

Let’s consider the explanation of the Sower’s Parable in verses 18-23:

“Hear then the parable of the sower. The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.

I’m sure all of us can think of friends and family who are like the seeds thrown into the rocks and weeds. For them, belief is not easy.

Talk to any atheist long enough, and they’ll eventually tell you how bible thumpers and over-zealous Christians are more likely to send them packing than cause them to do any true reflection.  That’s why it’s not just evangelization that’s important, but how we evangelize.

At the same time, the secular world is constantly putting the Church in a negative light, making us out to be enemies of liberation, equality, and progress.

We can’t come barreling at these people with the full force of the Gospel, because not everyone is willing, or even able, to accept it.  You can’t tell an atheist that their purpose in life rests with God alone and expect them to just start believing. Simply pointing to the scriptures as proof of Christ’s redeeming power won’t hold much water with the skeptic.

We don’t always have to be so direct with the truth. Instead, we can simply let the truth show through us like a living parable. This starts with simple acts of kindness, friendship, and compassion, small ways to plant seeds in even the most egregious of non-believers.

In December of 2000, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in a letter to catechists and religion teachers on the New Evangelization, reminds us that “large things begin from the small seed.” He tells us that the New Evangelization does not mean immediately reaching all those who have fallen away through “new and more refined methods.” Instead, he says, “It means to dare, once again and with the humility of the small grain, to leave up to God the when and how it will grow.”


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