The other evening, I was canvassing classmates for donations to the annual fund for the Jesuit high school I attended. A classmate I called said he would not make a contribution because he felt the Jesuits were too liberal. Whenever I hear something like that, I have a tendency to back off. We graduated almost 50 years ago, and as an Irish Catholic Spanish-speaking Democrat, I feel as if I might be the last liberal, if indeed I am a liberal, in my age group. Not only do my conservative peers have an axe to grind; they are irrationally passionate about their feelings. There was a time when we were not so threatened by the differences we civilly presented to each other.
I could sense his anger when he asked me what I thought about his view. I felt the need to defend my beloved Jesuits. But I did not want to get into the endless round of arguments and recriminations and deal with sickening superiority like that of the talking heads on the conservative radio talk shows.
I was, however, educated by the Jesuits, so I boldly ventured into the fray. Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead. I stated that I did not think the Jesuits were liberal enough.
My classmate became predictably apoplectic.
He wanted to know where I stood on the sinfulness of homosexuality, the sinfulness of birth control, the sinfulness of subscribing to HBO and MTV and a dozen more forms of sinfulness, most of which are dear to my heart. I am pretty sure I did not answer him in a way to bait him further, although that would have been fun. He kept pressing me on birth control, and I told him it is not a black-and-white issue. It is more complicated than that. I was then told that my conscience was incorrectly formed and because of me sins were mounting all over the place. We then exchanged pleasantries as I maneuvered to a graceful exit, and the conversation ended civilly.
I later reflected on that conversation. I do not like labels. I do not care to be labeled. I am not certain what it is that makes a person conservative or liberal. There has to be a way of having an opinion that does not label a person one way or another. I am definitely pro-life, which includes the avoidance of war and the rejection of capital punishment and violence against women. I am in favor of distributive justice and support the love and care of children and feeding the poor. I do not necessarily support same-sex marriages, although I feel that homosexuals should enjoy the same civil rights as everyone else. Is my conscience incorrectly formed? It may well be. I do not have the certainty of the televangelists or the lions of conservative talk radio. I believe I am on a journey to salvation and my quest is like that of St. Augustine, Our hearts are restless, O Lord, and they will not rest until they rest in thee.
What forms my conscience? I am a voracious reader and am reasonably open to ideas and opinions with which I do not agree. I have even changed my position on some things because of new information. I am reasonably well informed on the teaching of the church and read most of the relevant information that comes from the Vatican and the American bishops. I am one of the few people who have read encyclicals, and I recently read a pastoral letter from my local ordinary on the beauty of human sexuality. This latter certainly required bridging a credibility gap, but I have to admit it was very well presented. I know what my church teaches, and I know how theologians interpret it. I accept most of what my church teaches, and some of it I discard. I do not feel bad about this, nor do I consider myself an arbitrary Catholic, because the church herself has been doing this for centuries.
I read the Scriptures. I read, reflect, pray and take action. Correction: I may or may not take action, but my conscience always bothers me when I do not. That is part of the journey. I am trying to be Christian. I just have not arrived yet. Am I born again? Let me tell you I am born every day, because I have to deal with the Spirit confronting me to give birth to a better person as I read, reflect and pray.
What concerns me is the righteousness of those who condemn others in the name of Jesus. I tried to reflect seriously on the Sunday Gospels during Lent, and I see a picture of a compassionate Jesus. I see a Jesus who relates to everyone, who healed the sick, to the chagrin of the righteous who felt that he violated the Law of Moses by doing good. I see him being compassionate and merciful to sinners in spite of significant criticism from the good and holy people of his spiritual institution. Jesus showed the highest respect for the woman at the well and for the woman caught in adultery. He never ceased to love his disciples, even though they did not stay around for his crucifixion. It is interesting to me that the adulterous woman was going to be stoned to death. Adultery is not unilateral. What was going to happen to her male partner? When I was in grade school, a teaching sister told us that when Jesus traced his finger in the dust of the ground, what he wrote exposed the hypocrisy of the accusers. St. Luke does not say that, but I like the idea.
I am not certain, any more than anyone else should be, about what sin is. There just do not appear to be simple black-and-white definitions of real life. Most of us live in a gray area. There are many things that we accept on authority, but we are perplexed about them. I am far less aghast about sexual behavior or watching HBO or MTV than I am about the lies that have cost thousands of lives, including those of American soldiers. I am repulsed by the greed prevalent in business today. I am horrified by the callous treatment of workers in our country and even more by the treatment of workers abroad. We are shipping approximately three million jobs abroad because slave labor increases our profits. I am concerned about the practices that pollute our environment. I am shocked by the rip-off of the pensions and life savings of workers, not only by the Enrons, Tycos and Global Crossings of this world. It has been happening to my peer group for the last 30 years. I am shocked that the tremendous technological benefits of health care are not available to the poor. I am horrified that we cannot provide prescription medicines to our elderly and that some of us are dying before our time as a result.
I am sure my classmate believes that the Jesuits are too liberal because they have been in the forefront of the quest for human rights, the rights of workers, in concern for the poor, in the effort to educate, in defense of a university’s right to air all opinions, even those that differ from the church. They might be considered too liberal because they minister to all people, including homosexuals, the poor, those who are considered on the lower levels of society and, yes, sinners. They might be considered too liberal because they encourage women to pursue and take their rightful place in society. They might be considered liberal because they produce so many great theologians and spiritual leaders.
They might be too liberal because they promote an intense spirituality among the laity that is suddenly becoming a threat to the hierarchy. They might be too liberal because they encourage full participation in the liturgy. They might be too liberal because they treasure our faith, promote it and defend it so well.
Jesuits spearheaded the Counterreformation in the 16th century, and our church today is in desperate need of an on-going counterreformation.
I might be too liberal because I finally listened to the Spirit and wrote this article.