5 Things to Look for in Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love)

Pope Francis has released his much anticipated apostolic exhortation on the family and it’s 263 pages!! Before you give up and just turn to Chapter 8 for the “juicy stuff,” like divorced and remarried Catholics or treatment of LGBT persons, let me offer 5 points to note and urge you to stick with the 269 pages.

1. Biblical Reflection on Marriage, Family, and Humanity

“The Bible is full of families, births, love stories and family crises. This is true from its very first page, with the appearance of Adam and Eve’s family with all its burden of violence but also its enduring strength (cf. Gen 4) to its very last page, where we behold the wedding feast of the Bride and the Lamb (Rev 21:2, 9)” (8).

It is no surprise that Francis begins with the Bible and weaves biblical reflection throughout the 263 pages. He literally begins with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. And it is significant that he includes Cain and Abel, because the Bible is not a fairy tale or romantic comedy.  Pain, suffering, even violence are woven into the biblical narrative and human life.  Highlighting biblical truth and the revealed word of God, highlighting the Good News requires two things: facing the reality of the text in all its complexity and facing human existence in all its messiness. Francis does this artfully when parsing out the influence of patriarchal cultures in St. Paul while lifting out the revealed truths contained within the text.  A full evaluation of the biblical exegesis requires a biblical scholar, and I am a mere moral theologian…but his pastoral use of the bible is something to pay attention to.

2. 1 Corinthians 13: Rethinking the worlds most popular wedding reading

OK, so we all know the text: Love is Patient, Love is Kind….we’ve all heard it read at almost every Catholic wedding we’ve attended.  1 Corinthians is a beautiful text. Yet, it often feels played out or trendy – everyone uses it and so we stop really listening to it.  Refocusing our attention, Francis chooses this passage as a major section of Amoris Laetitia.  Weaving Greek and biblical exegesis, Francis lays out a vision of love beginning with marriage but expanding to love within the human community.

Love is not jealous includes “Love inspires a sincere esteem for every human being and the recognition of his or her own right to happiness. I love this person, and I see him or her with the eyes of God, who gives us everything “for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17). As a result, I feel a deep sense of happiness and peace. This same deeply rooted love also leads me to reject the injustice whereby some possess too much and others too little. It moves me to find ways of helping society’s outcasts to find a modicum of joy. That is not envy, but the desire for equality” (96).

3. Who is my family? Towards the One Human Family

Catholic “family” conversations often drive me crazy. Too often our discussions of family are driven by contemporary American society and its obsession with the nuclear family (marriage and parent/child). My friend and fellow theologian Kathryn Getek has highlighted this as a cause for the seeming disconnect internalized by many between teachings on the family and Catholic social teaching, which begins with the image of the one human family as equal brothers and sisters in Christ.  Looking at Life within the Wider Family, Francis examines the importance not only of parents and children but also siblings and grandparents.

I was blessed to know my grandparents and they were a profound influence on the person I became. I appreciate Francis’ call to care for the elderly but also to recognize the importance of grandparents within the family. He cautions, “A family that fails to respect and cherish its grandparents, who are its living memory, is already in decline, whereas a family that remembers has a future” (193).

Similarly, he attends to the importance of siblings and the role of siblings in teaching us how to live in a community. Finally, we are all part of a wider family – the one human family which includes our neighbors and in-laws and is an ever-expanding community.

4. Discernment and Conscience: A Reminder Our Pope Is a Jesuit

This document is an important reminder for the Church and moral theology to realign its priorities. Early on he states, “We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life . . .  We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.” (37). The call not only to form consciences but to respect and trust the consciences of married couples is an important aspect of this document. This does not change Church teaching, but Francis clearly asserts it is not enough to just state that those not conforming or living up to the rules are just in a state of mortal sin. (check out 42, 222, 298-301…to name a few).

Discernment is the crucial tool when discussing conscience and it may be where Francis is at his most Ignatian.  Throughout the long section dealing with pastoral concerns and “irregular situations,” Francis spends the most time on discernment—recognizing the individual persons and complexities of each context—and turns to Thomas Aquinas. He writes, “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being” (304).  He does not change specific doctrinal rules, but failure to live up to that rule in itself does not signify moral culpability, does not negate the persons conscience, discernment process, or that one is a member of the Body of Christ. For this same reason, he clarifies, “At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.” (304). The entire Chapter 8 (which is most of the “hot button questions”) is treated through this attention to the call of discernment.

5. Don’t Put the Mercy of God in a Box

Finally—in what is clearly the overarching message of the Jubilee of Mercy—we don’t get to put God’s Mercy in a box.  He explains:

“At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. It is true, for example, that mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth. For this reason, we should always consider “inadequate any theological conception which in the end puts in doubt the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy”(311).

This is the logic of pastoral mercy as the section is titled.  If you’ve been watching and listening to Pope Francis on mercy for the last year…a very clear, integrated vision has emerged. When reading the final section of the exhortation, I could not help but envision the culminating scene to Dirty Dancing. If there is one overarching message Pope Francis is hammering home, it is that no one puts God’s mercy in a corner.


Remembering the Oppression of the Irish and Rejecting Injustice Today

There is something deeply appropriate to me about celebrating St Patrick’s Day in the midst of Lent. Celebrating the resilience of my ancestors’ faith and spirit in the face of colonialism, imposed starvation, and forced migration seems fitting during this season. May this make today’s Irish-Americans pause and remember that today is not about green beer or bagels but a long and painful history of oppression and community. May it remind us to reject the injustice and oppression present in the world today (at a time when few Syrian refugees are free to enter this country to escape repression) and stand for the dignity of all.

The Poisoning of Flint: How It Happened

There is a massive and ongoing injustice occurring in Flint, Michigan. As I sat down to write this blog post, I honestly didn’t know where to begin. The men, women, and children of Flint have been poisoned. Their water continues to poison. And those charged with protecting the public are morally culpable—at best morally complicit and at worst criminally responsible.

What we know:

At the end of 2011, Flint, Michigan was taken into receivership by the state. Removing control from the elected mayor and city council, Governor Snyder appointed an emergency manager. From this point onward, the people of Flint did not have democratic representation in decisions as the emergency manager could override in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”

Fast forward to 2014 and the beginning of the Flint water crisis (and you can read more here), following Mother Jones’ reported timeline:

April 25: To save money, Flint changes its municipal water source to the Flint River rather than the Detroit water system. The switch is overseen by state emergency manager Darnell Earley, who, like other emergency managers around the state, is able to override local policies in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”

Summer: Residents begin complaining to local leaders about tainted, foul-smelling tap water—and health symptoms such as rashes and hair loss from drinking and bathing in it.

August/September: E. coli and coliform bacteria are found in the Flint water supply. The city instructs residents to boil tap water before drinking.

October 1: General Motors says it will stop using Flint River water in its plants after workers notice that the water corrodes engine parts.

It is important to note that the complaints of General Motors were answered, and the Governor “quietly spent $440,000 to hook GM back up to the Lake Huron water, while keeping the rest of Flint on the Flint River water.” It is also important to point out that previously, the emergency manager had rejected switching the water source to the Flint River because of its corrosive nature, and when the decision was made to use the Flint River, many of the issues could’ve been avoided with a treatment costing $100/day for 3 months.

January of 2015 began with an admission that something was not right, but they still insisted the water was basically safe:

January 2: Flint issues an advisory warning that its water contains high levels of trihalomethanes, byproducts of water-disinfectant chemicals. Over time, these byproducts can cause kidney, liver, and nervous system damage. Sick and elderly people may be at risk, the advisory notes, but the water is otherwise safe to consume.

Within a week, state buildings started bringing in clean bottled water for themselves and the emergency manager rejected an offer from Detroit to hook Flint up to water from Lake Huron, treated in Detroit. By the end of January, the residents of Flint were publicly complaining about serious health problems and expressing concerns about the water. Starting in February 2015, one mother, Leanne Walters, noticed her children were breaking out in rashes during baths, losing hair, and experiencing other disturbing reactions. She began complaining, demanding that her water be tested, and organizing. When her water was finally tested for lead, it tested at 400 parts per billion (there is no SAFE amount of lead, but EPA regulations list 15 parts per billion as toxic). All of her children’s tests showed lead exposure, with one child testing positive for lead poisoning.

The more you dig into this situation, the more you see horrifying, ongoing deceit by public officials—from continuing to “pre-flush,” despite EPA warnings that this temporarily lowers test results, giving residents a false sense of the real lead amounts in the tap water, to a new emergency manager overriding a city council vote to switch back to Detroit water system. (At this point we’re only at March 2015!) As Mother Jones reports:

April 28: Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech and an expert on lead corrosion, conducts new tests on the Walters’ home without flushing the taps first and finds lead levels as high as 13,200 ppb—more than twice the level the EPA classifies as hazardous waste. . . .

September 15: Edwards determines that Flint River water is 19 times as corrosive as Detroit tap water and estimates that one in six Flint homes have elevated lead levels. A MDEQ spokesman disputes the findings.

When we look through this timeline, a few things are clear. Leaked emails show that the people of Flint were being ignored and blown off by the highest levels of State Government and abstract decisions about fiscal responsibility trumped any consideration of public health. In September, they were pushed to finally issue a lead warning but it was full of misinformation, and, in October, Governor Snyder’s office was still lying to the people of Flint, claiming that the water complied with federal safety standards. The same week Snyder’s office issued this press release, water fountains in Flint schools were found to have high levels of lead. Finally, the government announced they would go back to Detroit water. Yet after more than a year of unsafe, corrosive water flowing through the pipes, significant damage was done. Lead is still present in tap water in Flint, Michigan. The most recent water tests—conducted at the end of December, after the switch and after starting anti-corrosion treatment—remain well above what the water filters can filter out (150 parts per billion.) Clean water is now being pumped into the Flint system; however, the pipes are so damaged by the last year of corrosion that lead is still contaminating the tap water. Water and filters are being distributed by the Red Cross and National Guard; however, there has been controversy as to whether the most vulnerable (the poor and the undocumented) have sufficient access to this. On January 27, a lawsuit was filed asking the federal court to step in to provide safe, clean drinking water. Protests are also ongoing to stop residents from Flint from continuing to receive water bills for unsafe drinking water. Today it remains unsafe to use tap water in Flint, Michigan.

Key Points:

  1. The poisoning of the population of Flint, Michigan did not just happen – it was caused.
  2. Democratic processes were overridden in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”
  3. Those in positions of power (General Motors and State officials) were provided with safe, clean water quickly once the problem was noticed. While the residents of Flint, the majority of whom are African-American and 40% live below the federal poverty line were repeatedly lied to and blown off.
  4. Lead poisoning leads to significant brain damage and other irreversible health damage to children. Every child in Flint Michigan under the age of 6 has been exposed to toxic levels of lead. This is known and indisputable. The effects of lead poisoning often take years to show up and properly evaluate. From child development to impulse control, the long term effects for the community in Flint will not be known for some time.
  5. Lead is not the only poison being found in the water.
  6. Flint is not the only city in America where corrosion and disintegration of lead pipes is a concern; it is only the beginning.


Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home

It’s here! A new social encyclical! As a Catholic moral theologian, I feel a bit like a child on Christmas morning. While I know that most of you were not setting your alarms for the 5am Vatican press conference, we have all been anxiously awaiting Pope Francis’ “environmental encyclical.” And, let me just say – you will not be disappointed. The Holy Father has delivered an amazing tour de force in a jam-packed 100+ (!) pages. Pope Francis invites us to work together, challenges us to take a long hard look in the mirror at our relationship to the earth, and reminds us the Lord hears the cries of the earth and the cries of the poor, and so much more.

To get you started – here are 5 things to note in Laudato Si: Read More

Must Reads for Your Social Justice Book Club

Are you interested in starting a social justice book club? Choosing books that will interest and encourage participation from a wide group of people can be difficult. One of the most challenging aspects of teaching is choosing texts that will engage my students—pique their interest, but also challenge them to think deeply. Narratives can activate our imagination and invite us into human complexity that otherwise escapes us. During the Synod, a number of the married couples who spoke criticized Church documents and theology for being incomprehensible to the average Christian; this does not have to be true. Moral theology can provoke us all to think more deeply about our relationship with God and neighbor, such that we discover the deep challenge and promise of discipleship. Blending these categories, here are some books to help you start a social justice book club in your parish, community, or campus ministry group:

Mercy in the City by Kerry Weber (Loyola Press, 2014)

Weber’s book should be mandatory reading for everyone involved in parish social ministry. She begins with a perennial Catholic discernment: what should I give up or do for Lent? She writes, “I wonder: what does it say about me that I’m giving up the same thing at age twenty-nine that I did when I was twelve? . . . And that’s not to say I haven’t tried to make Lent more meaningful, but somehow my sacrifice always sounds like a second attempt at a New Year’s resolution” (21). Rather than replacing “giving up” with the vague “more” that often accompanies our “do something” Lenten resolutions, she sets out to concretely practice the seven corporal works of mercy in New York City. Mercy requires us to let down our guard and enter into the reality of others. In her short narrative, Weber tells her own story with a self-reflective grace that gives voice to the ups and downs many of us feel in trying to figure out how to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty….and keep our day job. It is the perfect way to start a social justice book club.

Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle, SJ (Free Press, 2010)

Founder of Homeboy Industries, Fr. Greg Boyle has spent the past twenty years living and working in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Tattoos on the Heart tells the story of Homeboy Industries and Fr. Boyle’s ministry to counter gang influence and culture in LA through a collection of moving, heart-breaking, and heart-warming stories that challenges how we usually think about God, love, mercy, justice, and redemption. Who is God? What is compassion? Boyle’s stories demand that we examine the way we set up and maintain divisions and challenge our traditional definitions of success and failure. This book made me laugh and cry, and reminded me that “Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified – whichever came first” (172).

Living Justice by Thomas Massaro, SJ (Rowan& Littlefield, 2008)

Often called our best kept secret, the Catholic social tradition provides the strong foundation for Catholic social justice work. Building on a two-thousand-year tradition of Christian reflection on poverty, peace, and justice in light of the Gospel, modern Catholic social teaching engages the complexity and specific social problems of the modern world. Unfortunately, it is a tradition that seems academic and inaccessible to many. In Living Justice, Fr. Thomas Massaro, SJ, a moral theologian and dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara, provides a rich and accessible overview of Church teaching on social justice. Complete with questions for discussion, this book provides the vocabulary, background, and principles for connecting one’s social justice experiences to Catholic beliefs and theology.

Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) by Pope Francis

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation probably made a bigger splash than any apostolic exhortation of the past. Reflecting on the internal life of the Church, Pope Francis reiterates, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out in the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (49). Aimed at renewal within our parish ministries and personal discipleship, the Joy of the Gospel challenges and invites us into deeper reflection about what saying YES to the Gospel means and what it demands we say NO to – making it a perfect text for a Catholic social justice book club (even though technically, it is not a book).

In The Company of the Poor by Paul Farmer and Gustavo Gutierrez (Orbis, 2013)

This book is a conversation between two social justice giants: Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, founder of liberation theology, and Dr. Paul Farmer, human rights activist and founder of Partners in Health. How do we say to the poor that God loves them, when everything in the world around them tells them they are worth nothing? How do we insist that healthcare is a human right when much of the world’s population is denied access to this right? Through these chapters, Farmer and Gutierrez offer deep theological and ethical reflection on structural violence, accompaniment, and solidarity. As we think about the ongoing Ebola epidemic, few social justice texts are as immediately relevant as this one.

Just Water by Christiana Z. Peppard (Orbis, 2014)

We cannot live without fresh water. We know that millions living in poverty do not have access to clean drinking water. Dr. Peppard explains the importance of this, writing, “Fresh water is interwoven with the most pressing realities that populations and regions will face in the twenty-first century, from agriculture to climate change to political stability, and more. . . . If fresh water scarcity isn’t the definitive ‘sign of the times,’ then what is?” (67). Dr. Peppard’s tour de force will inspire and challenge your understanding of living Catholic social justice. After reading this book, you will never look at a bottle of water or the living waters of baptism the same way again.

Ice Bucket Challenge: Why I Did It & You Should Too

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is all over Facebook and Twitter. Even Kermit the Frog and Mr. Met have done it. So far, it has raised more than $30 million dollars for ALS charities – the largest of which is the ALS-Association. As with anything trending on Twitter, the Ice Bucket Challenge is not without its haters. Perhaps the most frustrating came earlier this week on Vox, which questioned whether a donation to ALS is “cost-effective charity.” While people do have limited funds, it is disingenuous to set up a dichotomy in which it is assumed someone must choose between ALS and a global health charity (as if donations are all or nothing in one instant decisions). Second, the article offered good advice for investigating charity ratings, but seemed to not do its homework as the ALS-Association actually has a four star charity rating…but this is not a post about the haters. In this post, I want to share why I did the ice bucket challenge and why I hope you will too.

ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge is not a trendy fad for me or my family; it is personal. In August 1999, my Aunt Judy was diagnosed with Bulbar-ALS. She had gone for a round of tests because she was slurring her speech and by the time the results were in, we knew there was only one possible diagnosis: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Virtually everyone knows Lou Gehrig but very few actually know anything about the horrific disease that took his life. ALS is a motor neuron disease which progressively spreads throughout your body paralyzing you. Eventually, ALS paralyzes your diaphragm and you can no longer breathe. Most commonly, it starts in your hands or feet, patients can live 10-15 years with this form of the disease. Judy had bulbar-ALS which started in her mouth; she was given 18months-3.5 years to live. In October 2002, 3 years and 2 months after diagnosis, Judy died. She was 46 years old.

I am not exaggerating when I say that ALS is the diagnosis I fear most. I had a front row seat as ALS took away my aunt’s ability to speak, to walk, and to eat, and, ultimately, took her life. The horror of ALS isn’t that it takes away your independence; it’s that it takes away your ability to communicate, all while you are fully conscious of what is happening. From the moment of the diagnosis, you know exactly what is coming. Physically, emotionally, and financially this disease weighs heavily upon patients and their families. We were lucky. Judy was a school teacher with good health insurance, who, because of her terminal diagnosis, was able to cash in benefits. ALS is expensive. Over $100,000 was spent on her care in only 3 years (and that is not counting medical bills). $30,000 for a wheel chair. $500/month to lease a wheel-chair lift van. My mother is an accomplished medical professional, so we had someone to navigate the healthcare and insurance process. I don’t know how much the communication devices cost, but thanks to my mother’s advocacy, very little was denied by Judy’s insurance. In addition to an extensive network of family and friends, we had an amazing team of caregivers. It is physically demanding to care for an ALS patient in advanced stages of the disease; I learned how to properly lift and transfer Judy without hurting myself. I learned what it meant to accompany the dying.

We had resources to make sure Judy lived and communicated as long as possible and died with dignity. What are patients and families without these privileges to do? Navigating the medical world is difficult without a trained advocate. Even with Medicare and Medicaid, medications and equipment are expensive. Respite care is a necessity. This is where the ALS-Association comes in. The ALS-Association of Greater New York has support groups, resources for patients and families, advocacy support for dealing with insurance and equipment needs, and the list goes on. The ALS-Association is there and they are the only “full service” ALS group. People like funding research – science is sexy, taking care of the dying isn’t. While many advocates for the ice bucket challenge are focusing on research and awareness, I want to draw attention to the amazing work the ALS-Association does to protect the dignity of ALS patients. It is the only ALS group which has as its mission research, advocacy, and care. For me as a moral theologian, part of freezing out ALS is making sure those dying of ALS and their families are included, supported, and visible.

So why should you dump a bucket of ice on your head? Don’t do it because Justin Bieber or Derek Jeter did it. Do it because ice water stings and its uncomfortable. The Ice Bucket challenge asks us to step out of our comfort zone and draw attention to something we would all rather not talk or think about: a horribly painful death. As we click to see Conan O’Brien or the NY Jets, we are talking about ALS. If you watched Peter Frates’ or Anthony Carbajal’s courageous videos, then you’ve heard first hand from ALS patients. The Ice Bucket challenge, I propose, can be a gateway action opening the door towards accompanying ALS patients and their families. Every ALS headline and Google search raises awareness and brings ALS into the conversation. Charity and solidarity are not all or nothing actions. But if you’ve read through this post, chances are you know more about ALS and the ALS association. And if you’re willing to dump ice water on your head and post a silly video, then hopefully you are willing to learn a little about ALS in the process. Let’s help protect the dignity of those living with and affected by ALS.*

*For those who may be concerned with the fact that the ALS-Association has previously funded embryonic stem cell research (according to RNS reporting there is only 1 such study coming to the end of its project right now), I encourage you to investigate ALS Association’s research page and the one on stem cells and to contact your local ALS-Association chapter to donate to their care programs.