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Seminarian States His Case For a Consistent Ethic of Life

Jeffrey is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston assigned to work at Casa Juan Diego as part of his seminary training. Jeffrey’s ideas are his own.

Much of our modern Catholic discourse is the product of presuppositions of which, too often, we are unaware. Each of us has a particular stance from which we relate to our faith that is, among other factors, the product of culture, upbringing and life experiences. In the living of our apostolates in the Church, these presuppositions ground our approach to particular issues and dispose us to particular ministries in the Church. Throughout the history of Christianity, we can witness how great saints and sinners encountered their faith experiences in various ways according to the presuppositions from which they operated and engaged in the fulfillment of their missions. The diversity of apostolates, therefore, is a beautiful product of the diversity of temperaments, dispositions and, gifts among Christians. The recognition of this reality was a leitmotif of the Second Vatican Council, with its emphasis on the “call to holiness” that is the vocation of every Christian . These last 40 years have been the occasion for a beautiful blossoming of the Christian apostolate—such realities as lay leadership, missionary work, social justice work and the pro-life movement, are fruits of this renewed emphasis on the apostolic vocation of every Christian. While in no way downplaying the beauty and necessity of the growth of apostolates in the Church, I believe that too much of our modern Catholic discourse is characterized by an unnecessary compart-mentalization that has yielded an excessively sectarian mentality among too many Catholics. At the heart of this problem is, I believe, an inadequate appropriation of the concept of integration. We overuse adjectives to describe our particular “brand” of Catholicism. For example, “social justice Catholicism,” is the self-description of many of those involved in Catholic labor movements or those involved in ministering to the poor. “Social renewal Catholicism” refers to those who are involved in the anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage movements. The former are also often pejoratively labeled “liberal Catholics” and the latter, “conservative Catholics.” It seems an anomaly for someone to describe himself as “a Catholic”, pure and simple.

In my own experience as a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, now in my third year of seminary formation towards the priesthood, I have experienced how my own presuppositions have influenced my perspectives on the Church and the apostolate to which I believe I am called.

Five years ago, when I seriously began to discern the priesthood, my self-description was a “conservative Catholic” or, often, “an American Catholic.”

My presuppositions were rooted in a particular understanding of the Church that was largely shaped by American conservative ideology more than authentic Catholic teaching. For example, in advocating the pro-life position, I often appealed more to the evil of Roe vs. Wade than to the positive Gospel affirmation of the sanctity of all human life. I often appealed to the Declaration of Independence and its statement that the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are to be protected for every citizen, rather than to our rich faith tradition that is replete with a consistent Gospel of Life. When I heard the words “social justice”, my conservative ideology would wave a warning flag, indicating that a “leftist agenda” was afoot. When I heard about Dorothy Day, I almost reflexively dismissed her as a “leftist agitator.” When I first heard of the Catholic Worker Movement, I categorized it under the heading “leftist” and was closed to discerning any validity in the positions of the movement. I listened to talk radio religiously, often subjected my family and friends to conservative tirades that I inaccurately labeled as Catholic ones, and often railed against the “liberal Catholics” who were undermining to the True Faith. In short, I was a very myopic Catholic who embraced certain issues of the faith that were palatable to my ideology, and dismissed others that did not fit into my presuppositional conservative framework. All the while, I believed that I was a “true Catholic” defending the faith against those “liberals, socialists and communists” who were “diluting the truth” in favor of a “political agenda” (in retrospect, I recognize the irony).

By the grace of God, I was gifted with friends, spiritual directors and formators who recognized this myopia and charitably called me to task. Particularly poignant was my experience of serving dinner to the poor at a homeless day shelter during my first year of formation. To see the poor up-close widened my field of vision. I recognized, through many discussions with different poor people, that it is very easy to live insulated from the “least among us” and consider them freeloaders in the system, bereft of personal responsi-bility. Their problems were much more profound and their suffering acute. Furthermore, I witnessed how the very “welfare” system that I decried was sometimes the only means of support for the poor. I realized in time that many dimensions of my faith had become subordinated to my ideology. I realized that in order to maintain my narrow ideological stance, I would have to jettison an integral component of my faith: compassion for the poor through social justice ministry. I was now engaged in such ministry, and I experienced some very palpable challenges to my presuppositions that dis-comforted and attracted me simultaneously. Ironically, it was a joy to minister to the suffering because, in a real sense, they were ministering to me, expanding my field of vision, making me more integrally Catholic.

To see Christ in the “least of my brethren” was a slow process of realization, but, by the grace of God, I now realize that in serving them, I am serving Him.

I noticed myself becoming angry when listening to the jeremiads of talk radio hosts against the “freeloading poor” of our society, primarily immi-grants. How myopic, selfish, and ideological! I then slowly began to realize that it was precisely these attitudes that I had held but a short time ago. I also began to be agitated when listening to sonorous “pro-lifers” who were eloquent in their denunciation of the evils of abortion but too often devoid of any intrinsically attractive and positive advocacy of the Gospel of Life. I also noticed that many “conservative” groups used the term veritas more often than caritas in their polemics and literature. I realized as well that to speak the truth without love disserves the Gospel as much as failing to ground love in truth.

I presently help weekly at Casa Juan Diego on Tuesday mornings, assisting in the distribution of food to the poor. I also accompany a seminarian brother to home visits of those who are poor and ill. To see such acute suffering personally, to attempt to minister to those who suffer, to be an advocate for their cause in a society that is deaf to their pleas for justice, to be a genuine Catholic in a politicized and ideological environment—these have been monumental challenges for me. I notice now the injustice of the system to which I formerly adhered. By the grace of God, I believe that my “faith field of vision” has widened, and that I must be faith-driven as a priest, not ideology-driven.

I also notice something else—I am still very pro-life, pro-family and orthodox. As written above, I believe that my field of vision has been widened to a more integrated Catholicism . I feel I am more fully Catholic than I was five years ago. And this last point speaks to the theme I introduced at the beginning of this article: integration.

I recognize in hindsight that my Catholicism of the recent past saw one part of the big picture . Any dimension of the faith that did not complement what I was comfortable with I considered threatening or “liberal.” Just as I was dismissive of so-called “social justice Catholics”, I have witnessed a comparable dismissiveness among some of those involved in social justice ministry. At times such people deny the legitimacy and sincerity of such apostolates as the pro-life movement and pro-marriage movements, for example. We must move beyond an “adjective Catholicism” and towards an integrated Catholicism . We must talk to each other and support each other. Saint Paul aptly describes that each of us has his or her particular gifts. Some are more gifted for immigration advocacy, others for the pro-life movement. Some are more disposed to missionary work in poor countries, others to apologetics. Some are called to participate in Pax Christi , others to follow the spirituality of Opus Dei. Each of these gifts is complementary to the other.

There are a variety of vocations in the one Church that are compleme-ntary, not contradictory. He who has the gift of serving the poor should not look disdainfully on he who focuses his energy on advocating the pro-life message. She who advocates the traditional family should not look disdainfully on she who advocates the human rights of the immigrant. Each of us has his or her unique gifts, given by God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the Mystical Body of Christ.

A feature of the original Pentecost experience was that each of those present spoke different languages but all could understand each other because it was the one Spirit that animated them all. We are unique and diverse pieces grafted onto the one mosaic of faith. Through my experience, I have come to realize that Christianity is bigger than the particular apostolate to which I have been called, but it is inclusive of it. I pray that I may live my mission faithfully in the world as a priest and utilize the gifts that God has given me humbly and faithfully as a priest. I shall also seek to respect and encourage those who are gifted with different gifts. May we all seek to understand and respect each other’s gifts; unity in diversity; one Spirit, many gifts: Catholics, each living his or her vocation to their fullest potential, building up the Kingdom of God. Catholics .
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVII, No. 6, November-December 2007.