Tripping Over the Church

View-of-the-dome-of-the-Vaticans-Saint-Peters-Basilica-from-Borgo-Santo-Spirito-672x372“Only, when he has entered the Church, he finds that the Church is much larger inside than it is outside.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

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Of Brain Death and Climate Change

It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Now, mostly dead is slightly alive.
~ Miracle Max

As you bundle up, you can’t suppress the wry grin.

First, there’s the plummeting temperatures which never seem to make it back up to seasonal lows. Then, the snow keeps coming down, and down, and down. And that old pair of long underwear in the dresser somewhere? You’re digging it out, and maybe buying a second pair. And then a third.

At  this point, you can’t help grinning – maybe even chuckling – because the conditions outside are in such stark contrast to all those dire warnings we used to get about global warming. “Bring it on,” we say to ourselves now – but not out loud. Our shivering and senses might suggest that global warming is a bunch of malarkey, but we keep such thoughts to ourselves. I mean, we don’t want anybody thinking we’re nut jobs or intellectual cretins! No, sir!

But this isn’t a rant about climate change in any case. People way smarter than me think it’s legit, and I’ll grant them the benefit of the doubt. Still, it is difficult to take them too seriously in the winter – at least ’round these parts. Al Gore and the government, researcherFrigidColdLows_2Day.pngjan3s and the media keep telling us one thing; our numb fingers and toes tell us another. That’s not very scientific, I know, but it is experience – it is real – and it does affect our willingness to buy what the experts are pushing.

Put another way, my cold-consciousness coming up against the global warming ascendancy represents a significant aesthetical reservation – aesthetic in the old sense of the word, denoting sensory experience as opposed to abstract knowledge. What my senses tell me seems to contradict reason – or at least the reason of those in the know. And that’s why those in the know have to keep telling us global warming is real, because our senses are telling us something so different.

This is the very same dilemma I face when considering so-called ‘brain death’ – a phenomenon that has been in the news a bunch lately. ‘Brain death‘ is shorthand for death determined by neurological criteria, and unlike the traditional definition that relied on cardiopulmonary evidence – no heart beat, for instance, and no breathing – declaring death neurologically is downright tricky. It relies on human judgement to make a decision regarding an ailing individual’s brain function: Is it there? How much? Is it all gone? And then, there’s this kicker: Even if it is determined to be all gone (the essence of brain death criteria), the person’s heart will keep beating on its own, as long as the lungs are mechanically assisted to breathe.

We’re left, then, with a ‘dead’ brain in a body being perfused with oxygen-rich blood by a living heart. The individual is non-responsive, but his limbs are supple, and his skin, pink and warm – it even heals when it’s wounded. Is such an individual really dead? It’s hard to believe, and that’s why the experts have to keep telling us such people are ‘dead’: Just like climate change, our senses tell us the exact opposite.

This surreal realm of defining death neurologically regularly leads to the kinds of absurd situations that we’ve been hearing about in recent weeks. For example, there’s the ‘brain dead’ pregnant woman in Texas whose family wanted her taken off ‘life’ support, but whom the hospital ‘kept alive’ until recently for the sake of her unborn baby. And it was the reverse problem for the ‘brain dead’ teen in California whom her family wanted to take home and care for, but whom the hospital insisted be taken off ‘life’ support until a court intervened.

Note that I keep bracketing words and phrases with mini-quote marks. That’s because the semantics of brain death don’t lend themselves very well to deliberation without constant clarifications and re-definition of terms. ‘Life support’ is a good example. Think about it: If a person is dead – really dead, ‘gone to meet her maker’ dead – then what purpose does ‘life support’ serve? It’s grisly, almost Frankensteinian, to consider what kind of ‘life’ is being supported.

The quotation marks are also necessary because, even after almost a half-century of neurologically defined death, nobody is quite sure when it applies. Consequently, and not surprisingly, ‘mistakes’ (there’s those quote marks again!) are made all the time – including, most recently, that teen girl I mentioned above. Her name is Jahi McMath, a thirteen-year-old from Oakland who suffered complications following a tonsillectomy. Declared brain dead by physicians, the hospital demanded that her plug be pulled. However, once the family finally got her home, and began providing care denied her in the hospital, she started to make definite progress – and was apparently very much alive.

We can’t blame the hospital, forprincessbride11 Jahi was ‘technically’ dead according to the experts – and hospitals are meant for living people, not dead ones. Instead, one can legitimately ask: Did the docs who declared her dead make a mistake? Or was she miraculously revived? Who knows?

In any case, situations like Jahi’s – and there are plenty of them – throw the whole brain death idea into doubt, and personal aesthetic experience only further undermines trust in the abstract assertions of diagnosing authorities. As a former oncology and hospice nurse. I’ve been around a lot of dead bodies, and I can assure you that there’s no question they’re dead. Cold and stiff, corpses can make you uncomfortable, but you don’t wonder if they’re ‘slightly alive.’

‘Brain dead’ bodies, though, aren’t like that, and consequently defining death has become quite controversial. The Magisterium understandably defers to the medical community when it comes to defining death, but that itself is the crux of the problem: The medical community is divided on the issue, as are Catholic bioethicists and moral theologians.

Nobody doubts the old death criteria – lack of heart beat, lack of spontaneous breathing, and other obvious, objective signs – but there’s a worrisome lack of unanimity among Catholic authorities when it comes to brain death. There are physicians and ethicists adamantly opposed to the criteria, and plenty who are just as adamant in affirming them. Yet if there’s a such a pronounced lack of unanimity on such a critically important subject, shouldn’t we err on the side of caution? Shouldn’t we err on the side of life when considering a brain death declaration, especially when our senses tell us that life continues? Arguments about integrative function and proportionality aside, it seems more aesthetically fitting, more seemly – more humane, even – to allow a brain-injured person to die utterly and completely (i.e., no heart beat, no mechanical breathing) before proceeding with grieving and whatever else comes next.

So, back to the aesthetics of climate change for a moment. Our senses tell us that global warming is a farce – we feel like it just can’t be true – and we bring that sensory experience to bear when we examine the evidence, pro and con. I imagine even diehard environmentalists can see the humor in talk of global warming when the mercury stubbornly hovers around zero – it’s funny because they’re out in it themselves! But the preponderance of scientific evidence does seem to come down on the side of climate change models that can account for steadily rising temperatures around the world. Again, I’ll concede the point.

That being said, what I do about it – whether I heed the warnings and make adjustments to my driving and other habits to reduce my carbon footprint – is another thing altogether, regardless of what I might conclude regarding the merits of the climate change case. Global warming, as a theory, has significance for researchers, political leaders, and policy makers, but not for average schlubs like me. It’s just fodder for jokes when I’m revving up the snowblower. Even assuming global warming – and our contribution to it as fossil-fuel consuming humans – my actions today won’t have much affect on organ_donormy world tomorrow. In the aggregate and over time, yes. But as an individual, right now? No. It’s cold and I have to get to work, so I’ll drive, global warming or no global warming – until some bureaucrat decides I can’t any more.

But I’m reluctant to take brain death so lightly. The aesthetics are too disturbing – and the ‘mistakes’ too numerous – for average folks to leave it to the experts and authorities. Let me put it this way: When my teens get their driver’s licenses, there’s always that awkward moment when they’re asked for the first time about organ donation preference. They’re old enough to decide for themselves, but if they ask for my input, I tell them to skip it.

Yes, we should be generous, I tell them; yes, John Paul II instructed us to be unselfish with regards to organ and tissue donation. But most vital organs can only be transplanted from ‘brain dead’ donors who are being kept ‘alive’ on ‘life support’ – qualifications which seem to fly in the face of Pope Benedict’s insistence that “individual vital organs cannot be extracted except ex cadavere.” The Latin for ‘cadaver’ is left untranslated in the original as if to underscore that there should be no question whatsoever that a human body is really dead before its vital organs are removed. And he also spells out the implications for brain death declarations as well:

In an area such as this, in fact, there cannot be the slightest suspicion of arbitration and where certainty has not been attained the principle of precaution must prevail (emphasis added).

With so much up in the air about this stuff – so much confusion regarding how death is defined and how those definitions are applied – I’ll avoid volunteering as a whole organ donor as long as they’ll let me.

In other words, short of a definitive declaration from the Magisterium, it’ll be a cold day in hell before I encourage my children to be vital organ donors. And that’s climate change we’re unlikely to see for a long, long time.

_____________________________________________________

Versions of this story appeared on Crisis and LifeSiteNews.

An Archaeological Thriller

jonesMy guess is that “archaeological” and “thriller” are two words that were rarely linked prior to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Generations of moviegoers have grown up on Indiana Jones’ exploits, spellbound by his death-defying feats, and enthralled by his (usually) noble sacrifices on behalf of his museum, his profession, and, more broadly, the entire civilized world.

Yet, even with three sequels, a TV spinoff, and constant exposure via DVD, Netflix, and cable reruns, Jones’ fictional output is still shy of overcoming the assumption that actual archaeology is basically dull.

Maybe so, but I know of at least one exception.

Right around the time that Harrison Ford was supposedly liberating the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, a real-life adventure took place that also featured relics, intrigue, and ancient tombs: The hunt for the final resting place of the Fisherman, the first pope. John Evangelist Walsh wrote a book about it, The Bones of St. Peter (1985), and recently my wife presented me with a reprint as a gift. “I remember you talking about this once,” she remarked, “and I thought you’d enjoy reading it again.” She was right.

Many years ago, my pastor gave me a copy with the suggestion that every Catholic convert should know the story. “It’s all true,” Fr. Simon murmured mysteriously. “We have his bones.” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but he got my attention, and I dived in.

The story sounds plain enough, but it reads like a cliffhanger. Longstanding Catholic tradition had always placed the Apostle Peter’s martyrdom and burial on the grounds of the Vatican, with the final resting place of his bones somewhere beneath the Basilica’s high altar—a fitting testament to Jesus’ declaration that He would build His church “on this rock (petros).” During renovations to the basilica’s crypt in 1939, a series of ancient tombs and grave markings were discovered, and Pope Pius XII authorized further investigation.

No doubt, the Holy Father would’ve been cautiously optimistic that the experts would discover Peter’s remains where tradition had always located them, and that there would be enough empirical evidence to make a solid case that went beyond faith and piety. Still, he was willing to take a risk that the science might prove tradition wrong—itself surely an act of heroism and fortitude perhaps rivaling anything Indiana Jones attempted.

As the diggers made their way through the underground pagan necropolis, they encountered more and more Christian imagery and graffiti, but they encountered obstacles as well. One big problem was water, seeping into their excavations from leaky conduits deep in the walls. Plus there were personality conflicts, rivalry among the researchers, minor mishaps, major blunders—not to mention the commencement of a world war.

In time, the Apostle’s remains were indeed discovered, and in the very spot tradition led the team to believe they would be—directly beneath the high altar. In 1968, Pope Paul VI joyfully announced to the world that the Apostle’s remains had been found.

Of course they were found under the high altar,” the skeptics cry. “Where else would Catholic archaeologists working at the behest of the pope find St. Peter’s bones? How convenient!” What’s more, unlike the opening of the Ark in Raiders, there were no meteorological theatrics, no apparitions or ghostly terrors accompanying the tomb’s discovery—so no supernatural verification, you might say. In terms of human second opinion, there were plenty of naysayers, and scholars continue to squabble over the authenticity of the grave and its contents to this day.

So. Does it matter?

Let me shift gears a bit—to a children’s book, the Newberry classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967). It’s a story of runaway siblings that uncover what they think is a secret regarding a controversial Michelangelo statue. Is it a fake? Is it real? Claudia and Jamie think they know, and they seek out Mrs. Frankweiler, the original owner, to confer with her.

In the end, their definitive evidence isn’t so definitive, and even Mrs. Frankweiler’s more solid proof is open to doubt, as she tells them:

What they’ll do is start investigating the authenticity of the sketch…. They’ll analyze the ink. And the paper. They’ll research all his illustrated notes and compare, compare, compare, compare. In short, they’ll make a science of it…. They’ll poll all the authorities, and probably the majority will agree that the note and the statue are really the work of Michelangelo…. But some stubborn ones won’t agree, and thereafter the statue and the sketch will appear in books with a big question mark.

basil-e-frankweiler-cover_thumb

After digesting this, and sensing Frankweiler’s resignation, Claudia probes further and asks why she doesn’t want “the last little bit of doubt cleared up.” You can almost hear the art patron’s heavy sigh as you read her negative reply and simple justification: “Because I’m eighty-two years old. That’s why.”

Now, back to Peter’s bones: Are they genuine? Is it really his tomb? The evidence is compelling, the Pope confirmed it, and I believe it—I have no reason not to.

But would my faith be shaken should new discoveries shift the weight of evidence in the other direction? Would we have to doubt the Pope’s authority? Doubt the Church Herself? Don’t we need to know for sure—that is, in Claudia’s words, to have the last little bit of doubt cleared up?

No. Why? Because the Gospel is not about extinguishing doubt. New Testament translator J.B. Phillips wrote of this in his comments on historical Christianity:

I am not in the least concerned with what may or may not be proved by the dexterous manipulation of texts. Indeed, I think we are all of us indoctrinated more than we know by being led tendentiously from one text to another in our impressionable years. But I am concerned with this new quality of living which has as its spearhead the personal visit of God to this planet in the Person of Jesus Christ.

In other words, the Church has another agenda—an agenda of faith, hope, and love. We can’t prove those are Peter’s bones or that Peter was the first Pope; we can’t prove Apostolic succession or Transubstantiation; we can’t prove the Incarnation or the Resurrection. But why would we Luca Giordano, The Crucifixion of St. Peter (c. 1660)want to? A faith of mere proof isn’t really faith, and, besides, the Gospel is primarily about love—and you can’t prove love.

You can show it, though, and that’s Peter’s true legacy. After screwing up royally over and over, Peter finally met up with his risen Lord at the seashore. Three times Jesus asked him to confirm his love, and three times the Apostle did so, but words were not enough—action was required, ultimate action.

‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’ (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, ‘Follow me’ (John 21:15-19).

As Peter tells Jesus elsewhere, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Love invites us to follow as well, bones or no bones. Our own thrilling tale awaits.

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A version of this story appeared on The Catholic Thing.

The Eighth Sacrament

There comes a moment in every Catholic convert’s life—a watershed, a fork in the road, a Rubicon, if you will. It can be premeditated and long considered; it can just crop up out of nowhere and surprise us. But it comes, it seems, to all of us sooner or later.

It’s this: Do I hold hands with my neighbors during the Our Father? Or do I keep my hands clasped, close my eyes, and pretend to be heedless of the angry glares and raised eyebrows.

I mean, who would refuse to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer? Am I a bigot? A selfish prig intent on snubbing my fellow worshipers? Don’t I know what the Our Father is all about?!

Here I stand, to borrow from Martin Luther: No hand holding for me.

When I was first attending Mass as a restless Evangelical—looking for something, I wasn’t sure what, but knowing that I wasn’t finding it in the Protestant churches I attended—the liturgy swept me up in its solemnity and beauty. The movement (standing, sitting, kneeling), the sounds (bells, organ, Scripture, prayer), the smells (incense mainly, but candle wax and wine as well), and the sights (icons, statuary, vestmhandsents, altar furnishings, even the architecture) all directed my attention outside of myself—outside of this world, really, outside of the temporal plane altogether.

I loved the sameness of the Mass regardless of the parish or priest or congregation, so I took full advantage of Chicago’s pervasive Catholic culture and visited many different churches for weekday and Sunday liturgies. At some point during that period—I can’t remember the date or the circumstances, although I might’ve had I known what it foretold—I had a rude awakening when some well-meaning congregant grabbed my hand at the beginning of the Our Father and wouldn’t let go until the priest intoned, “Let us offer each other the sign of peace.” I’ve been awkwardly fending off hand-holders ever since.

Not that I’m against it in principle, mind you. I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so I knew hand-holding as a staple of youth groups, campfires, and plenty of other venues. And I love to hold hands with my wife and kids—in fact, I insist on it when the younger ones are crossing streets or following me in crowds. I hold hands, I hug, I even kiss my family in public.

But during the Our Father at Mass? I fold my hands and pray, and I urge my children to do the same.

Why?

For one thing, there’s nothing about hand-holding in the rubrics. Not one word. Nada. I already mentioned the 60s and 70s, and I suspect that the hand-holding experience of all those youth groupers and youth campers was simply adopted wholesale after the Council. Many liturgical abuses have been addressed since then—the English translation of the Missal most recently, but music and other issues as well—but hand-holding isn’t going anywhere.

So, what’s the big deal then? Here’s my second objection: It’s a major distraction.

The hand-holding takes place at a key moment in the Mass—after the Consecration, with our Eucharistic Lord present on the altar, but before Holy Communion, when we are privileged to receive Him—as we recite the prayer Our Lord Himself taught His disciples. The mood, liturgically, is intense, almost somber, as we call to mind all that occurred the night of the first Mass and all that followed, and we are directed to focus on God Himself by enunciating His very words.

Then, out of nowhere, my hand is grasped by a total stranger—a brother or sister in Christ, no doubt, and likely a disciple further along the path of sanctity than me. But, still, when I’m trying to pray? and focus on the Lord?

Instead, here is what really happens more often than not—see if it doesn’t resonate with your experience.

The unsought hand may be big or delicate, dry or damp, warm or cool—all characteristics that our brains automatically note, categorize, and assess, taking us well into the second clause of the prayer. Then, if the person on the opposite side hadn’t already taken your other hand, you have to decide whether a hand grasp of your own is in order, to sort of balance things out.

If both hands are engaged, the challenge is to focus on the rest of the prayer as you anticipate the conclusion and the possibility that your hand-holding neighbors are “arm-lifters”—the uncomfortably common practice of lifting entire pew-lines of attached hands and arms at the words, “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.”

So, you unclasp your hands, maybe after getting a little squeeze or two, and of course, now it’s time to offer the sign of peace. This you do gladly, but wouldn’t that have been enough to demonstrate your love of neighbor? Must we also feel compelled to be in bodily contact with each other throughout a prayer that’s meant to direct our attention to the Father Himself?

HandsFolded-PrayerI say no. Cranky? Maybe, but why not give it a go? Next time you’re at Mass, stand apart a bit, and avoid holding hands during the Our Father. It might take a couple times to get used to it, but I trust you’ll find that you’ll really start praying that prayer in a more deeply personal way.

And next time you see me at Mass? I hope you won’t avoid sitting near me. I’ll smile and nod and give you a warm handshake at the Sign of Peace. But don’t hold your breath waiting for my hand at the Our Father. Hopefully, I’ll be busy praying.

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