11.09.04 Works of Mercy
My continuing effort to understand what happened to "moral values":
I was raised a Catholic and I have to give a lot of credit to my religious education for my "moral values." But isn't it funny how the definitions have changed?
I'm look back in time to "works of mercy." According to the Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent:
The corporal works of mercy are as follows:
The spiritual works of mercy are:
These were interpreted to me as issues of social justice. My generation of Catholics flocked into the Peace Corps, flooded schools of social work, and populated the ranks of not-for-profit agencies. Where governments deprived people of their rights, their ability to make a living, and their ability to speak out, then revolution was the way to go. (I was a student of Latin American literature, so the message was doubly loud -- posters of Che Guevara everywhere.)
No one really spoke about homosexuality, but after a while I realized what a high degree of lesbianism there was among the nuns who taught me to work for social justice. It was not an issue.
And when, in a terrible conflux of events, a college friend of mine got pregnant, it was a religious network that helped get her to New York, the only state that offered legal abortions in 1970. No questions asked -- only compassion.
The ranks of social service agencies are still filled with aging Catholic baby boomers, but somehow the definition of "works of mercy" got changed. All you ever hear from the Catholic hierarchy anymore is the cult of the fetus (when you aren't reading about their sexual abuse settlements). A secondary message condemns homosexuality, but we always knew the Church was skittish about sex in general (except when priests found their own exceptions).
Things that were traditionally private became more public as we worked our way through the "let it all hang out" years. Abortion became legal -- and maybe some thought this allowed women to make the decision too casually.
And maybe there was a pervasive kind of disillusionment. Social programs didn't always work the way we wanted. The poor didn't always show up for the jobs we gave them. Sometimes the homeless trashed their subsidized rooms. The Great Society had to face the terrible imperfections of the people it so generously aimed to help. And all those foreign pagan babies we baptized -- they grew up to be nationalists who threw out the missionaries and overthrew colonialist rule.
Religious people serious about doing God's work sought out the truly innocent -- the beings who could not betray them. And they discovered the fetus.
Works of mercy have been pretty much boiled down to admonishing the sinners. Compassion and social justice must be reserved for the deserving and we now know that once you've popped out of the womb your evil nature takes over (crying, demanding, curious, uncontrollable).
Is this what happened?
There was a priest in Rochester -- James Callan -- who revitalized a poor inner city church. Their outreach programs were exemplars of the "works of mercy" and social justice that I was steeped in as a youth. But he made the mistakes of letting women say Mass, letting non-Catholics receive Communion, and blessing gay unions. Rome went ballistic. Our indulgent bishop had to toe the line. Jim Callan was given the choice of signing a paper denouncing his past practice or leaving the priesthood. With enormous sorrow, he left the Church. He and his colleagues and his loyal parishioners went off to form their own little independent church. If only he'd stuck to vandalizing abortion clinics and abusing altar boys, he'd still be a Catholic in good standing.