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January 23, 2009

Is hope possible in times of lessened optimism? - Pastoral advice of the pope to parents: baptismal insights - The bishops and the new president -- Society's fresh opportunity to take stock of itself - and more!

In this edition:

-- U.S. bishops' eve-of-inauguration letters to the new president.

-- Also on the pro-life agenda at this moment: health care reform.

--Society's fresh opportunity to take stock of itself.

-- Current quotes to ponder:
  1. The pope's Jan. 20 telegram to President Obama.
  2. The power in our words.
  3. To speak or to listen: prayer.
-- In the world, but not of the world: A nondefensive stance toward our world.

-- Finding hope when it is hard to be optimistic.

-- A little pastoral advice from the pope to parents: baptismal insights.

-- The kind of family one enters with baptism.

Bishops' Eve-of-Inauguration Letters to Obama

"We seek to work together with our nation's leaders to advance the common good of our society, while disagreeing respectfully and civilly where necessary for preserving that same common good," the U.S. Catholic bishops said in a letter Jan. 13 to then President-elect Obama and the U.S. Congress.

The letter, outlining a wide range of issues that concern the bishops, was offered "as an agenda for dialogue and action." Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, signed the letter.

It is the bishops' intent to "offer a distinctive, constructive and principled contribution to the national dialogue on how to act together on issues of economic turmoil and suffering, war and violence, moral decency and human dignity," the letter said.

Several days later Cardinal George addressed another letter to the incoming president. In the second letter, dated Jan. 16 but made public Jan. 19, the cardinal said:

"I am writing today on a matter that could introduce significant negative and divisive factors into our national life at a time when we need to come together to address the serious challenges facing our people. I expect that some want you to take executive action soon to reverse current policies against government-sponsored destruction of unborn human life. I urge you to consider that this could be a terrible mistake -- morally, politically and in terms of advancing the solidarity and well-being of our nation's people."

The Catholic Church "teaches that each human being, at every moment of biological development from conception to natural death, has an inherent and fundamental right to life," Cardinal George wrote. He said, "We are committed not only to reducing abortion, but to making it unthinkable as an answer to unintended pregnancy."

The cardinal's second letter also addressed such issues as human embryonic and nonembryonic stem-cell research and a Bush Administration regulation defending the conscience rights of health care professionals.

In his second letter, Cardinal George said he hoped the new president would "consider these comments in the spirit in which they are intended, as an invitation to set aside political pressures and ideologies, and focus on the priorities and challenges that will unite us as a nation." He said:

"Again I want to express our hopes for your administration and our offer to cooperate in advancing the common good and protecting the poor and vulnerable in these challenging times."

In the cardinal's earlier letter, the moral dimensions of the economic crisis and abortion were among issues addressed with particularly forceful words.

The bishops "support greater accountability and oversight to address irresponsible abuses of the system that contributed to the financial crisis," said the letter.

The nation "faces economic challenges with potentially tragic human consequences and serious moral dimensions," it stated. The bishops made clear their desire to work with Obama and the Congress "to support strong, prudent and effective measures to address the terrible impacts and injustices of the economic crisis." That will mean, in particular, advocating "a clear priority for poor families and vulnerable workers in the development and implementation of economic recovery measures," the letter explained.

It said: "Most fundamentally, [the bishops] will work to protect the lives of the most vulnerable and voiceless members of the human family, especially unborn children and those who are disabled or terminally ill. We will consistently defend the fundamental right to life from conception to natural death."

The letter said: "We will encourage one and all to seek common ground that will reduce the number of abortions in morally sound ways that affirm the dignity of pregnant women and their unborn children. We will oppose legislative and other measures to expand abortion."

Health care, immigration reform, the definition of marriage and international affairs were among other issues the letter addressed. "Access to decent health care is a basic human right and a requirement of human dignity," the letter said. The bishops urge "comprehensive action to ensure truly universal health care coverage which protects all human life, including prenatal life, and provides access for all, with a special concern for the poor."

The nation's bishops "will work with the new Administration and Congress to fix a broken immigration system, which harms both our nation and immigrants," said the letter. The comprehensive immigration reform that is needed "must be based on respect for and implementation of the law," and must equally "defend the rights and dignity of all peoples, recognizing that human dignity comes from God and does not depend on where people were born or how they came to our nation," the letter said.

It said the bishops stand firm in their "support for marriage which is a faithful, exclusive, lifelong union of a man and a woman, and must remain such in law." Marriage, it said, "makes a unique and irreplaceable contribution to the common good of society, especially through the procreation and education of children. No other kinds of personal relationships can be justly made equivalent to the commitment of a man and a woman in marriage."

The Jan. 13 letter turned at one point to climate change. It said, "Recognizing the complexity of climate change, we wish to be a voice for the poor and vulnerable in our country and around the world who will be the most adversely affected by any dramatic threats to the environment."

Also on the Pro-Life Agenda: Health Care Reform

"What possible excuse is there for not giving a child basic health care?" That is Sister Carol Keehan's question in the January-February edition of Health Progress, the journal of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. Sister Keehan, a Daughter of Charity, is chief executive officer of the CHA.

"To continue to have 9 million children without even basic health insurance is a scandal we cannot allow," Sister Keehan writes. She calls this situation "utterly incompatible for those of us who claim a pro-life position."

She cited a recent study showing that "only 7 percent of the people in [the U.S.] are confident of their ability to continue to afford their health care." This, she said, causes great suffering. Furthermore, "it is clear that the fears are well-founded when more than 50 percent of personal bankruptcies are due to medical debt."

The present moment offers "a historic opportunity to give health security that is accessible and affordable to everyone," Sister Keehan wrote. The election of the first U.S. African-American president represents a "huge milestone" for the nation, she said. However, she continued, "it is now time to bring about a second event that many have believed they would never see in their lifetime, and that is health care for all in our country."

Sister Keehan acknowledged that some wonder what effect the economic crisis will have on health care reform. Many have asked if in light of economic conditions, health care must be put on the back burner, she said. But she believes "that would be a huge mistake for health care and for the U.S. economy." She said, "We can never return to a strong, vibrant U.S. economy without fixing our health care delivery system."

The CHA official said: "We must find a way to achieve health care reform that is worthy of the American people and compatible with our cultural values. If we call on the American creativity and genius, we can build a health care delivery system that is more efficient and effective and covers everyone."

Society's Fresh Opportunity to Take Stock of Itself

The global economic downturn is a crisis, but it presents an opportunity for society to take stock of basic values and to renew itself, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, England, proposed in a Jan. 8 article for the Daily Telegraph newspaper. He wrote:

"It seems to me that the crisis may be an opportunity for stocktaking -- for a conversation within society about what we understand by the common good; about what it means for a society or a nation to be successful; about what it means to be human. And an opportunity, at the same time, to recognize that ensuring social justice cannot be left to governments, politicians and the market, but depends on day-to-day decisions taken by each of us.

"The stocktaking forced on us provides an opportunity for a conversation in which all of us can explore the extent of the common ground. If we can do that without rancor and with mutual respect, the crisis will have been a cause for hope rather than gloom."

As the economic crisis penetrates the lives of more and more people, religious leaders are assessing its moral dimensions. In his assessment, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor noted that those hardest hit by the crisis will be the poor - people "struggling to survive." Commenting, he said:

"The biblical concept of justice implies that the justice of a community is measured by how it treats the powerless. Therefore, any new dispensation of the world economy which does not address the marginalization of rich and poor does not merit consideration."

The market economy neither is canonized nor condemned by the church, said Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor. Christians know "that the market, like money itself, is an essential element in the conduct of human affairs." However, said the cardinal, the laws by which the market operates "are not blind, like the law of gravity; they follow from (and can be moderated by) human actions and decisions."

Thus, "as the economy revives, it must be operated in a way which helps to create new jobs with adequate pay and decent conditions which contribute to sustaining family life," the cardinal wrote. He said that "those who operate the market have an obligation to ensure that they act in ways which promote the common good and not just in ways which maximize the profits of those most adept at exploiting it."

He said, "Governments and regulators have a part to play, but all of us -- not only bankers, business leaders and financiers -- have to bear in mind the moral implications of what we are doing."

Current Quotes to Ponder

Excerpt From Pope Benedict XVI's Telegram Offering "Cordial Good Wishes" and Assurance of Prayers to President Obama on His Inauguration Day: "Under your leadership may the American people continue to find in their impressive religious and political heritage the spiritual values and ethical principles needed to cooperate in the building of a truly just and free society, marked by respect for the dignity, equality and rights of each of its members, especially the poor, the outcast and those who have no voice. At a time when so many of our brothers and sisters throughout the world yearn for liberation from the scourge of poverty, hunger and violence, I pray that you will be confirmed in your resolve to promote understanding, cooperation and peace among the nations, so that all may share in the banquet of life which God wills to set for the whole human family (cf. Isaiah 25:6-7)."

Considering and Reconsidering Words. "We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider. In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun." (From the poem written by Elizabeth Alexander and read by her at the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Obama; Alexander is a poet, essayist and playwright teaching at Yale University.)

To Speak or to Listen: Prayer. "When we come before the Lord to listen to his Word, our deepest prayer and cry of the heart should be, 'Speak Lord, your servant is listening.' But is it not true that that cry often turns out to be, 'Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!'" (Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, executive director of the Salt and Light Media Foundation based in Toronto, Ontario, writing Jan. 16 in the Salt and Light Blog)

In the World, But Not of the World: A Nondefensive Stance

While a person of mature faith "needs the courage to make difficult choices," which may mean going "against those currents of our surrounding culture which diminish our humanity and block out the voice of God," this does not mean such a person should fail "to acknowledge the many signs of God's presence in our culture," Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, Northern Ireland, said in a speech Jan. 13 in Killarney.

Faith often will be countercultural, said the cardinal. Yet he cautioned against "retreating to a defensive or aggressive stance, judging the new culture to be utterly astray and decadent."

Christians "are in the world but not of the world," he stated. But he asked, "How should we live this tension with our surrounding culture?"

Some groups, the cardinal said, adopt the "defensive or aggressive stance" that he critiqued, and he called this "an understandable reaction." It is a stance that "may be based on fear of all the new complexity," he said, though "it might be tinged with a kind of fundamentalism and therefore be unworthy of the call of faith."

Yes, it is necessary "to critique the dehumanizing aspects of the culture around us," said Cardinal Brady. But this should be done "with the aim of rescuing the deeper human aspirations for God," he added.

"We have to understand before we can judge," said the cardinal.

Finding Hope When Optimism Appears Out of Reach

"Where things are not objectively optimistic, then it is foolish to be optimistic, but that does not mean that it is foolish to have hope," Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, said Jan. 9 in an address at the National College of Ireland.

The archbishop was commenting on a book titled "Beyond Optimism - Hope," by the late Msgr. Luigi Giussani, founder of the Communion and Liberation movement.

What is hope? Archbishop Martin said that hope is not just "some sort of narcotic which helps us to bear with it when times are not so good." Actually, "hope is a way of life," he stated. From Archbishop Martin's perspective, "hope is true realism. It is a realism founded on what is true and real." However, he added, "this truth and this reality are often not what we expect."

Hope, he said, "does not come from having and possessing and being powerful or being in control. Hope is not just the fruit of our own endeavor." The archbishop viewed hope within the context of God's power.

Hope "is not about me attaining just what I want for myself." Rather, hope springs from the encounter with "an Other who changes me," Archbishop Martin said.

He believes it is vital to realize "that the foundation of hope involves recognizing the demands of the identity" of God and doing so in the context of "the realities of the world in which we live." This, he said, involves discovering what God's power is all about "and what all power is about. It is about saving and protecting, caring and nurturing and radically transforming humankind."

The path to follow - in times when optimism is difficult, but hope is needed -- "is not one which rests on our own devices," but at the same time "it is not something entirely passive," the archbishop said. He added, "Following the light requires us at least to take the risk of setting out on a journey," even though "we have no idea where" that journey will lead.

Hope, in other words, will be found where it is least expected. Discussing how to discover hope when optimism ebbs low, the archbishop said it is necessary to "strip ourselves of all the human additions and short-lived supports and the fleeting empty hopes which we tend to build around ourselves to create our own self-image, our own identity." He said, "Our true humanity requires no image making."

A Little Pastoral Advice From the Pope to Parents: Baptismal Insights

Parents need to discover "the proper balance" between believing, on the one hand, that their children are their "property" and therefore at their disposal, and, on the other hand, allowing their children to develop without sufficient parental guidance, Pope Benedict XVI said in his homily Jan. 11 for the baptism of 13 infants at the Vatican. Understanding the sacrament of baptism can help parents with this, he suggested.

It has become customary for Pope Benedict to baptize children on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord; each year, in his homily for this occasion, he seems to expand his presentation of a theology of baptism.

In baptism "we restore to God what came from him," the pope said this year. The newly baptized child, he said, "is not the property of the parents," but is "entrusted to their responsibility by the Creator" in such a way that parents might help their child become "a free child of God." Having made this point, the pope said:

"Only if the parents develop this awareness will they succeed in finding the proper balance between the claim that their children are at their disposal, as though they were a private possession, shaping them on the basis of their own ideas and desires, and the libertarian approach that is expressed in letting them grow in full autonomy, satisfying their every desire and aspiration, deeming this the right way to cultivate their personality."

Baptism does "no violence" to children, said the pope. They are not lessened as persons by becoming adoptive children of God. "Rather," he said, baptized children "are given the riches of divine life in which is rooted the true freedom that belongs to the children of God, a freedom that must be educated and modeled as the years pass to render it capable of responsible personal decisions."

Pope Benedict called baptism "the bridge [that Jesus] built between himself and us, the road on which he makes himself accessible to us." Baptism, the pope said, is "the door of hope."

The Kind of Family One Enters With Baptism

Reiterating a point he has made previously on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Pope Benedict XVI told parents this year that baptism introduces their children "into a new family, larger and more stable, more open and more numerous than your own."

This family, said the pope, is the church, "a family that has God as Father and in which all recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ." Those who are baptized into this family will not, "even amid life's difficulties," ever "feel abandoned if they stay united" with God, the pope insisted.

This same point - that people are baptized into a community that never will abandon them - was made in 2006 when Pope Benedict baptized 10 infants on this feast day. In his 2006 homily, which seemed to be extemporaneous (since it later had to be transcribed and posted in its new version to the Vatican Web site), the pope said:

"Through baptism each child is inserted into a gathering of friends who never abandon him in life or in death because these companions are God's family, which in itself bears the promise of eternity. This group of friends, this family of God, into which the child is now admitted, will always accompany him, even on days of suffering and in life's dark nights; it will give him consolation, comfort and light."