‘Tinder’-ing & the Lies We Tell Ourselves

The search for meaning goes beyond a left or right swipe.

Photo credit: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock.com

“Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false Self. We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves.”

– Thomas Merton

The Bruins were up 2–0 against the Lightning, but the college kid sitting in the row in front of me last night at Boston’s TD Garden couldn’t care less. Among the many flashes of excitement on the hockey rink that come with attending one of the last games of the NHL season, none were apparently exciting enough to take his attention away from his smartphone. At one point, his entire row of bros were captured on the Jumbotron, and it was only when his buddy grabbed him by the shoulder, shaking him & screamed “WE’RE ON!!!” that this kid looked up from the illuminating, seductive phone screen. Intrigued by his dedication, I shamefully peered over his shoulder to see what all the fuss was about. It was then that I saw a picture of a very pretty brunette girl, green-eyed with a perfect smile, holding a red solo cup. He then scrolled down, and there was yet another picture of the girl, this time in a bikini, posing with friends at a beach. I watched as this kid cycled through her 4–5 pictures before swiping right — a sign of approval — and when he did, her photo disappeared into nothingness. Immediately, upon his screen came a picture of new girl, this time blonde… rinse, repeat.

While the Boston Bruins clinched a playoff berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last night, my dude secured a few Bumble matches himself. My eyes went from watching the fast-paced NHL game to occasionally glancing down and watching the process. He would come across a girl’s profile, examine her pictures for about 15 seconds, quickly glance at her bio for less than half of that, and swipe right. More often that not, his swiping went unrequited, at least for now. Every now & then, though, he would receive a notification on the screen saying that person ‘X’ matched with him. At one point, he went into the messages tab, and then I saw a list of girls with whom he had previously conversed with — there were about 6 or 7. However, he kept going back to this one particular conversation thread he had with one girl, and although he was the last one to reply (he actually ‘double-texted’), he kept re-reading their previous exchanges. Eventually, he closed out of the app, and went on Instagram, scrolling down the feed, before getting a notification that he has a new Bumble match.


Tinder. Bumble. Happn. And now Yellow, which has been dubbed controversially as “Tinder for Teens”. In the year 2017, the Internet isn’t that scary of a place anymore, at least not as scary as my mom warned me about, the days when Internet ‘chat-rooms’ were still in popular parlance and the thought of meeting up with someone you met online was horrifying. Social media grew, from the Myspace days to Facebook, from Twitter to Instagram, and as a result, the online ‘dating’ scene changed. Yes, Match.com still exists. There are online dating services such as Plenty of Fish (PoF), OkCupid, Black People Meet, Christian Mingle, etc. But none of them can really match the sexiness of the ‘apps’, as they are called. Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, etc. are not necessarily ‘dating’ apps, although you can probably get a date or two out of them. They aren’t ‘hooking up’ apps, strictly-speaking, although they can be used for casual sex. Apps like Tinder are so seducing precisely because their purpose is so ambiguous. Some people use them ironically. One girl I know who has Tinder downloaded it just to see what kind of weird, creepy pick-up lines guys come up with. Some people have these apps to meet new people, make new friends… but if anything should happen, so-to-speak, so be it. Whereas Match.com and other dating sites are quite clear about their intent (although they can still be misused), Tinder, Bumble & company thrive off of the ‘labeless-ness’ of contemporary, Millennial dating culture. Gone are the days of courting, “going steady”, and for some, even marriage. And so, in comes the world of label-free ‘dating’. The purpose of these apps are often clouded in mystery, and that in fact is what so many of us love.

I’ll flat-out just say it: Tinder is exciting. It’s exciting because it connects us to other people (albeit artificially). Whether these people are (1) looking for a serious relationship; (2) DTF; or (3) just on it to meet new friends, Tinder is the digital playground where users can roam, explore, and search for meaning — even if such an endeavor is done in vain. Tinder also places a sense of control in the palm of your hand. You think the person on the screen in front of you is hot? Swipe right. Does the dude have too much acne, is a bit too fat, seems like a loser? Swipe left. Once you swipe left on a person, his or her existence is essentially wiped from your concern. There is a (false) sense of empowerment given to the Swiper, that they can filter out the ugly & undesirable people from their lives… something that is harder to do on a blind date.

Beyond the initial excitement of getting your first match, Tinder & co. eventually gets weird. There are those who swipe ‘right’ to everyone, see who ‘likes’ them, and then blocks all the ugly/weird/meh people. Don’t believe me? Here ya go. At some point, those with a basic moral compass will ask themselves: “What the hell am I even doing?” There is nothing more postmodern or commodifying than turning actual, flesh-and-blood human beings into objects we can ‘like’ or ‘dislike’, ‘accept’ or ‘return to sender’. Don’t get me wrong — I am NOT saying that every person is entitled to a date or a hang-out sesh. All I am saying is that, when you reject a person at the bar, there is still a form of authentic encounter, even if it’s a drunken one. There is still a recognition of the ‘Other’, even if the recognition goes only as far as “Sorry, I’m not interested”; even such a rejection involves an actual experience of someone as entirely Other. Tinder, on the other hand, is a self-enclosed circle where the Other is not encountered, but rather acquired. Those persons who would typically get a rejection at the bar are rejected anonymously. Have you ever wondered who you swiped right for and yet who didn’t do the same for you? Tinder treats human persons like any other object that, given a blemish or two, can be thrown out and replaced. And the difference between that & a rejection at a singles’ bar is this — one allows for authentic human interaction, and the other is Tinder.


Tinder also enables us to hide behind our “false selves”, to hid behind the masks we wear to present ourselves as desirable on social media. We become so enchanted with our online persona that we never actually stop and ask ourselves if we are being our truest selves. Instead, we live from distraction to distraction, from swipe to swipe, bathing in a pool of lies and self-deception, a pool party sponsored by Tinder & the like.

What are the lies that we tell ourselves? I’ll offer three, although I am sure there are many more.

  1. A person’s value comes from his or her physical appearance, ‘cool’ factor, & life as presented through those 5–6 Tinder photos displayed.

As human beings, we desire beauty. There is nothing wrong with finding one person attractive and another person, well… not attractive. I have many friends whom I find as physically attractive, while others less so. Is this wrong? No. However, if I established my social circle to only those finest, most beautiful people, then I would be treating human persons like an art gallery instead of people intrinsically endowed with dignity & respect by virtue of their very existence. Tinder does not care for that, nor really encourage it. On Tinder, you’re given a small presentation of a human person as displayed through a handful of photos. Obviously, these photos will most likely be pictures the subject finds the most attractive, funny, or appropriate for online ‘dating’, although that is not always the case. Regardless, in the few seconds one examines another’s profile, the focus from the start is on the pictures. Is the person attractive? Ugly? Tall? Short? Fat? Skinny? What kind of life do they live? Are all of the pictures taken in his or her room? Is that them in NYC? Wow, do they travel a lot? And then, if one is somewhat on a deeper level of interaction, the swiper checks out the bio. Are they funny? Do they try too hard to be funny? What sort of stuff are they offering as info? Eventually, our internal clock (guided by the demands of instant gratification) sounds its alarm, and we make a judgment. Do we swipe left or right? Then, afterwards, we are onto the next… and the next, and so on. At what point does the swiper ask themselves the crucial question: “Is it possible for me to make a sound judgment on whether or not I wish to meet this person based off of the trivial and shallow process of elimination?”

2. My value comes from how many people I match with, the quality of people who match with me, or how many people I can get to sleep with me.

The first lie, we see, is about the value we subconsciously attribute to the Other. The second lie, then, is about the value we attribute to ourselves. If I make a Tinder account and swipe ‘right’ to every single person in a 5 mile radius, would I not expect some to return the love? What if, after 400 swipes to the right, I check back a week later and receive 0 matches. What would it do to me emotionally? What does it mean when I essentially ‘approve’ of every person and have none ‘approve’ of me? Even if I do get a match or two, was it with an ugly chick? A hot guy? Someone who looks like he or she has options besides me? These are the questions which a person asks in their heart as the mindlessly swipe ‘right’ and ‘left’. There is also the issue of cultural/social norms & expectations. Aren’t college guys supposed to have lost their virginity by age 20? Isn’t there a subconscious rule that a guy’s desirability is made manifest in the number of girls he slept with? Indeed, there are countless pages dedicated to guys who were rejected on Tinder, such as here. For what reason would men act in such a vile way, if not for the illusion that their worth is somehow determined by a woman’s reception of them?

3. “It’s just Tinder”/Tinder has no real-life consequences.

This is probably the most insidious of lies, precisely because it seems to be so hard to refute. “But John,” you say, “why the hell are you making such a big deal about this? It’s just an app.” Perhaps so. But whether we realize it or not, how we act online is a reflection of what is going on inside of us. If I am an ass on the Internet but somehow act like I’m Mother Teresa in the school hallways, who is the real me? The line between “IRL” and the Internet is so blurred these days, especially given that most of our waking moments “IRL” are saturated with the Internet’s presence. If I am swiping ‘left’ to every ‘ugly’ girl I see, what are the chances that I start to view the ‘ugly’ girl on the bus as someone whose presence I can easily be disposed of? Do I let her sit next to me, and if I do, am I less likely to be as friendly to her as I would be if she was a total 10? At what point do I start to view the women I am in class with, work with, or even go to church with as a ‘right’ swipe or a ‘left’? You cannot objectify human beings from 11 p.m. — 1 a.m. & then treat the Other with respect & dignity at 8 a.m. Such a lifestyle is schizophrenic and deceptive at best. Our Internet behavior, especially in regards to approving & disapproving, was masterfully captured by the techno-dystopian series, “Black Mirror”. In an age where Yelp reviews can determine a business’ success or failure, are we that oblivious to think it won’t eventually spill over to human interaction/worth as well?


Iam not saying Tinder & similar apps are intrinsically evil. What I am saying, though, is that these apps can be used in a harmful way.

Since the beginning of recorded history, philosophers have largely held the belief that human life is a quest for meaning. Even philosophers who deny the existence of meaning are still, by their very denial, attempting to put forth an objective claim, a claim that they assert because they believe is true. So yes, even if we disagree about where it is to be found, we still search for meaning. Also, as humans, we are animals. We require nourishment, have the ability as a species to reproduce, we avoid pain and maximize pleasure. Is this all there is to us? Of course not. We have something different within us. As humans who seek meaning, we are different from the local goldfish. No squirrel sits on a hill at dusk and admires a colorful sunset. No woodpecker asks itself the question of why it even pecks wood at all. No penguin has composed an oratorio. We humans are endowed with a sense of the spiritual, a sense of self-awareness that no other animal can match. And this often frightens us.

It is an inescapable fact that we as humans search for meaning in all that we do, even if our actions don’t correspond and fulfill this need. The alcoholic went to alcohol the first time for some reason. Those who shoot up heroin are looking for a high they cannot seem to find without the needle. The sex addict goes from bed to bed seeking an embrace that will satisfy his or her deepest yearnings. One one hand, Tinder affirms our needs, whatever they may be — the need to be appreciated, affirmed, desired, wanted, and loved. On the other hand, Tinder offers us a mask to wear, enabling us to lie to ourselves and to each other. Our bodies and the bodies of others become tools for self pleasure. We begin to view people’s worth by what they present themselves as rather than who they truly are. With Tinder, we lie to our minds which seek truth, we lie to our bodies which seek fulfillment, and we lie to our souls which seek rest.

We live in an age of commodity, or in what a certain wise man once called the “throwaway culture”. You like something? Keep it. Don’t like it? Throw it out, and get something new that you do like. Every single person reading this piece is doing so from a piece of electronic equipment that certainly isn’t their first — whether cell phone or computer. Is that to say that buying a new phone or preferring a certain model of laptop is wrong? Absolutely not. It only becomes “wrong”, so-to-speak, when we apply the same standards to human beings. It becomes wrong when we feel that we are the arbiters of another’s value. That ‘ugly’ person you swiped left at has his or her own story, a tale of victories and defeats, hopes, joys, anxieties and worries. And yet, you will never get to know that story, nor remember his or her name or appearance. This is not to say that every single person you meet deserves you to take them out on a date. But when you pass someone on the street without interacting, there still is a sense of encounter. You don’t devalue his or her existence quite like you can do on these ‘hook-up’ apps.


Inother words, our inevitable search for meaning goes beyond swiping ‘left’ or ‘right’. We cannot find meaning when we look at a person’s picture for 15 seconds and read the bio in even less time. We cannot find meaning when we disintegrate the “Other” into an object of our own pleasure, arousal, or need. We cannot find meaning when we choose to entertain illusions that distract us instead of engaging tough realities that challenge us. We cannot find meaning in the meaningless… but that doesn’t mean we still don’t try.

The 20th-century Scottish writer, Bruce Marshall, once wrote that “the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” Similarly, when we are snuggled up in bed, bored/lonely/hungry/horny, and feel the urge to swipe left or right, we are looking for something to satisfy our deepest longings. Will we find such fulfillment on Tinder? Probably not. But if you still choose to log onto that app in the late hours of the night, take a note from Reddit etiquette & “remember the human” — after all, that’s the only subject you will encounter on there.

A Reluctant Rosary

 

IMG_20170319_185634-01I have a confession: I don’t pray the rosary. I know, I know. A Catholic who doesn’t pray the rosary? That’s like an American who doesn’t eat apple pie (a point of contention somewhere on the Internet, I’m sure). But yeah… I don’t pray it. I think, in the past two years, I have prayed the rosary six or seven times- of those times, I prayed it because I was at a pro-life event, participating in a parish retreat, or at a voluntary gathering with seminarians. Don’t get me wrong- it’s not like I don’t pray– I certainly do and make every effort for intentional daily prayer… but the rosary? Ugh… just not my thing.

For those who don’t know, the rosary is quite an honorable Christian practice- arguably dating back to the 13th century. The concept is simple: as Christians, we hold the Virgin Mary in high esteem, and thus are warranted to honor and venerate her among the highest of heavenly friends.  Mary is the Mother of God, the Theotokos, etc. and so pray that she intercedes for us, leading us ever closer to her Son, Jesus.

Why I wasn’t I into the rosary? I’m not too sure if there was one strong reason besides the fact that I just found it repetitive, noisy, and too structured. My ideal type of prayer is sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament in silence, speaking to God from my heart, and allowing His Presence to fill my soul. Sometimes I use words. Other times, I read Scripture and meditate. I have a little prayer corner in my room, filled with images of my favorite Christian devotion- the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

But the rosary? I avoided it like the damn plague. Until today… today was different.

 

Sunday Morning Blues

I direct/teach RCIA at a parish in the North End of Boston. Usually, I take an Uber. Also “usually”, I get to the church for mass like, five minutes before it begins. Today was different- I surprisingly woke up with plenty of time, so I requested an Uber, who got me at the church for 8:24 a.m…. when the mass didn’t start until 9 am.

I got out of the Uber and was greeted by a cold blast of wind. It felt like it was in the low 20s this morning. Hurriedly, I stepped inside the church.

When I walked in, there were only three other people inside. Two of them were older Italian women, conversing quite loudly in their native tongue. One man, probably in his 60s, was sitting in a pew with his head down.

I dropped my jacket and backpack in the classroom adjacent to the sacristy, and checked my phone. 8:26 am. Stomach growling, I figured this would be a good time to grab coffee/light breakfast at one of the nearby North End breakfast joints. Then, I realized two things- the first being the mandatory one-hour fast to be observed by Catholics prior to mass, and the second being the fact that it was pretty darn cold out. Disappointed, I went back into the church and slinked into a pew. I couldn’t exactly pray in my ideal way (silence in front of the Blessed Sacrament) because those elderly Italian women kept chatting. I looked around. The older man was just staring at the statue of the Virgin Mary. Begging for time to have flown like an Air Force One, I checked my phone for the time- 8:29 a.m.

I consigned myself to the fact that I, a techie/noise-obsessed Millennial who couldn’t even pray in his ideal way, was going to spend the next thirty minutes hungry, annoyed, and prayer-less.

Suddenly, the chatter stopped. The man picked his head up. I then heard the sound of pew kneelers clunking on the ground. In one motion, they all knelt. “In the name of the Father…”

“Great,” I thought, “now I’m stuck with the rosary.”

An Unexpected Gift

I’m not sure what happened next. Maybe it was the statue of the Sacred Heart in front of me. Maybe it was my Catholic guilt at not wanting to participate in such a “Catholicky” devotion. Whatever it was, I pulled down my kneeler and knelt in solidarity. After all, I didn’t want to look like an ass.

“For an increase in the virtues of faith, hope, and charity…” – “Hail Mary…”

Praying for an “increase” of the virtues of faith, hope, and charity implies that all three of these theological virtues can be an area of spiritual growth. I thought to myself, “How am I lacking in any (or all) of these?”

I started to think about my experience of the past week. I had a lot going on between school, work, family, and relationships. I got pissed and swore at a friend (-5 points in charity). Hope? With everything going on in our country, I confess that I haven’t been as receptive to this theological virtue whatsoever; I haven’t truly viewed heaven as my true home and this life as a pilgrimage. Faith? Hm.

My internal questioning continued. Was there any time during these past 7 days when I lacked faith? Hope? Love? What were my attitudes, actions and behavior- both good and negative- pointing to?

I was musing on my responsiveness to God’s grace so deeply that I completely missed the fact that we were on the Second Sorrowful Mystery- the “Scourging at the Pillar”: Our Father…

I put my head down. Among the many images of Jesus, Him being scourged at a pillar is not one that I am very fond of. I can even tolerate the image of Christ Crucified more than I can stand His scourging at the pillar. The cross is such a common image- people have it around their necks. It’s found in every single Catholic church. Heck, even my home city has a massive cross which illuminates the night sky.

But the scourging is different. The scourging reminds me that Jesus was actually tortured. His very flesh was torn and ripped apart by a whip with leather thongs, bits of sharp bone attached to the tip of each one. No one has an image of this around their neck. Urban Outfitters cannot sell a shirt with this image as a design. The scourging reminds us of Jesus’ actual pain and suffer-

“O my Jesus, forgive us our sins…”

Holy crap! We just hit the Fatima Prayer. “What have I been doing all this time?”, I wondered. Then, silence filled the church. My head was still bowed down, but my curiosity got the best of me, so I picked my head up and opened my eyes. One of the older ladies who was leading the rosary was walking towards me, smiling. When she got to my pew, she asked, “Would you like to lead the next one?”

“Sure,” I responded. (Meanwhile, I’m kneeling here wondering if I even remembered the structure of the rosary so that I didn’t commit any devotional faux pas)

“Do you have a rosary?”

Looking down at my bare hands, I shook my head ‘no’.

“Would you like one?”

I stared blankly at her, painfully aware that I was wasting her and the other two people’s time. But I felt… stuck. I mean, what the hell else am I going to say to a 70+ year old Italian lady in church on a Sunday morning? “No, I don’t want you dumb rosary?”

“Uh… sure,” I reluctantly responded.

She handed me this plastic rosary which looked like it was held together only by a flimsy string and hope.

Clearing my throat, I began.

“Hail Mary…”

Mary, Prayer, and Me

The Hail Mary is such a lovely prayer. The opening line echoes the Angel Gabriel who came to a teenage Mary to announce God’s plan of salvation. We begin the prayer by greeting this woman who is so “full of grace”… a woman who is blessed above all others, for she was the one chosen to bear God’s Son, Jesus.

Then, we pray for her to lead us to her Son. We implore her intercession for us to model her radical discipleship, her loving submission to the will of God. Then, finally, we ask her to watch over us and pray for us both at the current moment, and during our last breath.

Each “Hail Mary”, I prayed as if Mary herself was standing in front of me. I acknowledge her strength, her dignity, her beauty, her special-ness before God. I acknowledge her Son, who saved me from my sins. I ask her to pray for me and those around me.

Eventually, my turn ended, and it went to someone else to finish the 4th and 5th Sorrowful Mystery. By now, though, I was in the ‘zone’. I was comfortable, at least as comfortable as someone who had avoided the rosary like an annoying inconvenience could be. It was nice. Peaceful. It required a certain discipline on my part (remember, I was hungry and a techie-obsessed Millennial)… but anytime I started drifting in my thoughts, I felt a bit restless… as if someone was in the room and I wasn’t giving he or she my full attention. “I can eat & play with my phone later,” I reasoned. Now, I’ll offer this to God. And onto the next prayer, and the next, and the next. I began to see time as a gift, the debit card in my wallet as a gift, my loving family friends as a gift- everything became seen as a gift, a gift that was given to me by God and given to me so that I can return it all back to Him. How could I give so little to my Lord? Where am I in these meditative scenes of the Sorrowful Mysteries? Do I actually believe He suffered and died… for me? Me, insignificant John, was in the presence of God and His Mother, offering my time and energy to meditating on the mysteries of salvation as mediated through the life of Christ and the intercession of His Mother. This is why we have the rosary- not to simply rattle off a “to-do” list of prayers, but rather to participate in a rhythmic  hymn of petition, veneration, praise, contrition, hope, and healing. As a student of theology, I of course “know” about God, Jesus, Mary, the saints, and the like. But now more than ever, a quote by Padre Pio rings true: “Through the study of books one seeks God; by meditation one finds him.”

About ten minutes later, we finished up with our last “Hail Mary”. Making the Sign of the Cross, I picked my head up, only to find the once-empty church now filled with congregants. I got up from my pew, and went into the sacristy to speak with the Franciscan pastor before mass began. On my way there, I greeted that older woman who gave me the rosary. I thanked her, and she smiled. She invited me to help lead the rosary next week- same time, same place. I’m not sure what happened this morning, but I’ll say this- that little, plastic rosary is now hanging on my car’s inside mirror, a reminder for me not to be so reluctant about talking to Mama Mary.

In the Footsteps of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin: Day 1, “The Middle Ground”

In the Footsteps of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin: Day 1, “The Middle Ground”

“To go on pilgrimage is not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art or history. To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendor and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.” (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, 11/06/2010)

I have gone on pilgrimage a couple times before: during my spring break in 2015, I went with a few classmates to El Salvador, to walk in the footsteps of the famous Archbishop Oscar Romero, a Salvadoran bishop who was a staunch opponent of violence & injustice, a fierce defender of the poor and downtrodden. Romero was murdered while celebrating mass on March 24th, 1980. I visited his place of birth, his places of ministry, the seminary which he had oversight of, the cathedral & many parishes he had direct contact with, and of course, the Hospital of Divine Providence where he served and was assassinated in. Given my love for social justice and desire to serve God’s people in areas of nonviolence & solidarity, I found Romero to be a good model of faith, life, and ministry.

A few months later, in July 2015, I went on another pilgrimage- this time to New York City, which is about an hour & a half away from my hometown. I went on July 31st, the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, and visited different Jesuit parishes & institutions in the city, culminating in a “healing mass” that evening at St. Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan. As someone who has explored Ignatian spirituality for a number of years now (and currently studies theology at a Jesuit university), I used that time in NYC as a personal retreat during a long and tiring summer, a time to really sit back & spend in prayerful reflection with the Lord.

Currently, I am in Chicago. Admittedly, this was my second choice. I originally wanted to go on an Ignatian-style 5 day silent retreat, but there was no room remaining, and the other retreat I could’ve attended was during the academic year & conflicted with my weekend work schedule. Needing a spiritual recharge before the spring semester, I decided to look elsewhere. Given a fortuitous turn of events (a cancelled Memorial Day trip which gave me airline ticket vouchers I needed to use by February 2017, meeting an Xavierian Missionary priest with connections in Chicago, the hospitality of the Spiritan Fathers here, etc.) I am currently writing this in a cozy, warm room in the St. Ambrose Church rectory, in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chi-town. Why am I in Chicago during a near-polar vortex, where temperatures are a balmy 10 degrees?

My experience of 2016, and a deceased cardinal of the Catholic Church.


I don’t think I will shock anyone but stating that 2016 was a tumultuous year, especially in the American political arena. Whatever your political inclinations are, the fact remains that our country is as divided as ever. Republicans vs Democrats, “liberals” vs “conservatives”, mainstream media vs the ‘alt-right’ Breitbart- all of these point to deep divides among the American people, making some wonder what is so “united” about the United States of America.

I was at work one day, and a random thought crossed my mind- the gentle, smiling face of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. My mother, being a huge fan of his, of course had books written by him scattered throughout my house, which became familiar sights as I was growing up. But who the heck was he?

Appointed as the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1982, Joseph Bernardin immediately became the shepherd to one of the largest cities in the country. Home to nearly 2.5 million Catholics, Chicago is one of the most prominent places of American Catholicism, given the city’s illustrious history of European immigration and now diversity of peoples. Even today, you can walk into the hundreds of Catholic churches in Chicago, where you will experience masses celebrated in several languages, including English, Spanish, Italian, German, Polish, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Swahili, (etc.) to name a few.

Cardinal Bernardin entered the Catholic spotlight at a very turbulent time, a time not too different than today. Culture wars began to grow stronger, as the reception of the Second Vatican Council (held in the early 1960s) grew more controversial. How the Church was to engage the modern world was something that had a variety of opinions. “Liturgy wars” emerged as guitars, folk music, and contemporary innovations crept into Catholic worship. Outside of the parish, however, there was no respite from the battles. Political and religious debates raged on, especially on issues regarding abortion/contraception, drugs, capital punishment, Cold War, and a general ‘coming to terms’ with shifting demographics in urban and suburban areas.


Cardinal Bernardin is most well-known for two things- his ‘common ground’ initiative, and his famous “seamless garment” ethic of life. Cardinal Bernardin, seeing the Church grow divided over issues of theology, liturgy, and culture, desired to unify the Church faithful on both sides of the spectrum. He represented the “middle ground”, where dialogue could be cultivated, while not surrendering unchanging Catholic truths. As a proponent of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, Bernardin sought to bring healing, bridging the increasingly-polarized groups in the Church/

He was met with resistance from both sides of the ecclesial-political spectrum. For conservatives, Bernardin represented a dangerous position, one rooted in fear & mistrust. Some cardinals, such as Cardinal Bernard Francis Law of Boston, thought that by establishing this “Common Ground Initiative”, liberal groups would seek to dismantle Catholic doctrine in a world already and increasingly hostile to the Catholic faith. Law’s position was complemented by Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, who, after the establishment of the initiative, said “ We cannot achieve church unity by accommodating those who dissent from church teaching.”

For liberals, reception of Bernardin varied. Some viewed him as not going “far enough” . Others thought his views on abortion and euthanasia (fierce opposition) were too “antiquated”. As mentioned before, Cardinal Bernardin’s other claim to fame was his defense of the “seamless garment”, a consistent ethic of life which held issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, torture, poverty, racism, nuclear war, and other violations against the dignity human person as fundamental to ANY discourse regarding the “pro-life” movement. Bernardin won liberal support in some of these areas, but many disagreed with his views on issues of sexuality & “reproduction rights”, by being unflinching in his opposition to the direct termination of life in the womb.

Ultimately, Bernardin’s dream of a united Church in America was never fully realized. His efforts were also curtailed by allegations of sex abuse by a former seminarian (which were later proved false). His health declined, and he suffered from pancreatic cancer- losing the battle in 1996. His writings on his own suffering and coming to terms with death was made famous in the work, “The Gift of Peace”.

Even in death, he is still the target of ad hominem attacks — a quick Google search of “Cardinal Joseph Bernardin” results in at least two major attacks against him, including one accusing him of being a “satanist”. In 2011, popular culture commentator George Weigel applauded the “end of the Bernardin era”, an era of “culturally-accomodating Catholicism”, an obvious pot-shot to Bernardin’s work in inter-religious dialogue, ecumenism, and social justice. These results and more articles, commentary, and blogs seek to discredit his seamless garment ethic and common ground initiative. Archbishop Gomez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, for example, was met with Internet applause from conservatives when he criticized the “seamless garment” approach to life issues, saying that abortion and euthanasia “stand alone”… “among the evils and injustices in American life in 2016.”

And yet, hope remains. With the election of Pope Francis to the papacy, the seamless garment has been given new life. As the Catholic news website “Crux” reported earlier this fall, both Pope Francis and his pick for cardinals & bishops signal a return to Bernardin’s example. Nowhere is this more evident than in Chicago itself, with the appointment of Cardinal Blaise Cupich, an American prelate who is considered “progressive” by many conservative websites, including Life Site News, which criticized him for barring his seminarians (when he was Archbishop in Seattle) from protest-praying in front of Planned Parenthood, as well as calling issues of unemployment and hunger as areas of “pro-life” concern. Pope Francis and his picks for the Cardinlate both reflect a return to the “Bernardin era”, where bishops are to act as shepherds first and judges second, where priests and those involved in pastoral ministry are called to “smell like the sheep”, and where the Church becomes a place of mercy & reconciliation before a place of dogmatic pronouncements & exclusion.

Regardless, my 2017 New Years resolution stands, which included my resignation from Internet/Church “gossip” & polemical debates. I won’t go into the different areas of issues facing the Church, but I will say one thing- Bernardin’s legacy is something that current American bishops should take note of and follow.


As mentioned before, I am in Chicago. I am here to both spiritually “recharge” before the requirements & responsibilities of the spring semester emerge. I have retired from the “Church gossip” game, and am trying to grow closer to Jesus, who is the merciful face of the Father. My desires to go deeper into theological studies and pastoral ministry are being cultivated by the wonderful professors, student colleagues, and programs within my current graduate school at Boston College. My discernment continues, albeit slowly & gently, to see where God is drawing me to serve Him and His people. And now, more than ever, as 2017 begins, I hope to model Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in my academic, social, and pastoral work. And so, I journey through Chicago, to churches, shrines, places of pilgrimage, and will spend time in prayer & reflection. For my guide, I have “The Journey to Peace”, by Cardinal Bernardin & edited by Alphonse P. Spilly, C.P.P.S and Jeremy Langford. I have faith & trust in God that He will be present in these upcoming five days and will guide me closer to Him as I meditate upon the personal reflections of such a holy and venerable cardinal.

I invite you all to join me spiritually, as I walk in the footsteps of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Please pray for me and all those involved in pastoral ministry, that we may experience Christ with the same enthusiasm as this late Chicago cardinal did.

Cramming for Christmas

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I’ll admit- I’m not ready for Christmas. It feels like just yesterday I was stuffed from eating turkey  & mashed potatoes with gravy, laying on my living-room couch back home in Connecticut, watching the Detroit Lions play football. Then, it seems that I drove back, had some classes and papers to do, and here I am, with Christmas staring me in the face. Yes, I went to mass every Sunday, and yes- I heard the readings & prayers. But to be honest, Advent flew by in a whirlwind, and somehow I ended up here. I am, in fact, cramming for Christmas.

All of those Advent devotional books I was given went unread. Those prayer services went unattended. The discipline of daily mass, the Divine Office, and a daily Rosary loosened. While I did the bare-minimum of  attending mass weekly, it was largely at a different church depending on the week, and I cannot tell you what the homilies were about. I woke up, went to class, read books for class, wrote papers, submitted proposals, ate like trash, did my nightly “scroll on the phone until midnight”, and woke up the next day. My schedule (both work and school) intensified this past month, and while I kept up a (minimal) prayer life, I can say with certainty that I am not ready for Christmas.

What does one do when a liturgical season flies by without any real, tangible experience of God? How can I celebrate Christmas when I barely prepared the “way of the Lord”? Do I simply shut myself in my room and listen to Handel’s “Messiah” on repeat until December 25th?

I think my experience of Advent can be likened to the way the people of the Old Testament “prepared” for the coming of the Lord. When reading the OT, it seems like it’s a game of “Icy Hot”. For every person “on fire” with the Lord, preaching the coming of the “Messiah”, there’s a dozen instances of people whose hearts grew cold- they are asleep at the wheel, going about their daily activities, breaking the covenant God had established with them.

For me, it’s too late to “catch up” with those seasonal devotional books. No amount of Advent Hymn Pandora can make up for lost time. I am less than a week away from Christmas, and I am going to have to celebrate it with what I have. I long for Christ but this past Advent, my longing has been interrupted by things which I placed before the Lord. Thankfully, the Church has something that can be a spiritual buoy for me these last few days of the Advent season: the “O Antiphons”.

As the USCCB writes,

“The Roman Church has been singing the “O” Antiphons since at least the eighth century. They are the antiphons that accompany the Magnificat canticle of Evening Prayer from December 17-23. They are a magnificent theology that uses ancient biblical imagery drawn from the messianic hopes of the Old Testament to proclaim the coming Christ as the fulfillment not only of Old Testament hopes, but present ones as well. Their repeated use of the imperative “Come!” embodies the longing of all for the Divine Messiah.”

And here they are:

 

December 17

O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!

December 18

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

December 19

O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!

December 20

O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!

December 21

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.

December 22

O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!

December 23

O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!

What if I used these as my prayer each day until Christmas Eve? Do not these antiphons, which uses ancient expressions of messianic expectation, speak to my heart today? I desire salvation, order, life, and light. Who else can save me, besides the Key of David (Dec. 20th), who opens the gates to eternal life? Who else can order my life in the way of God besides the Wisdom Incarnate (Dec. 17), who orders all creation? (Proverbs 8:30, c.f. John 1:3)

Or, in an academic comparison, if Christmas is a final exam, then these “O Antiphons” are my SparkNotes. I will pray with them and reflect on what the coming of Christ means- and how it has consequences for my life, my priorities, my relationships, and my worldview.

Come, Lord Jesus, and be gentle on grading me!

 

Post-Election Fatigue, Advent, and Preparing for Something “Better”

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I woke up this morning to my daily dose of email notifications, and saw a very relevant one from Medium’s daily picks for my reading. “I Don’t Know How to be on Medium Right Now”, a short piece by Ms. Molly S. Hill, can very well describe my own feelings regarding social media for the past few weeks- even the past few months. I’ll never forget my first EDM concert- it was loud, bright, and exciting. However, that’s not why it was unforgettable. My first EDM concert will never leave my memory mostly because I wasn’t able to hear anything the next several days following. For about a week straight, morning, noon, and night, all I heard was a perpetual clang, a nonstop ringing in my ears. What was fun at first (loud, percussive beats; bass drops, electronic melodies) became the bane of my existence, the assailant against my sanity. Similarly, this year of 2016, especially during these past few months leading up to the US Presidential Election, has become an unforgettable ruckus of clamor, especially through the medium of social media. What began as fun (sharing memes against Trump, getting that ‘first’ comment on CNN’s Facebook posts, etc.), quickly became the source of my angst. I look back at what I posted. My newsfeed is still littered with political rants and debates. I cannot go on Facebook, log onto Twitter, or even spend a decent time on Instagram anymore. I am experiencing post-election fatigue.


You see, I’m tired. I’m a graduate student in the last few weeks of the fall semester. Regrettably, I feel like I put more effort and time following every little detail of the 2016 US Election than I did to any one course I was registered for. Yes, I did my work. I showed up to class. I wrote the papers. But I oftentimes did my daily obligations in a spirit of absent-mindedness, as almost a respite from the place where I put the majority of my energy- time spent arguing with Trump supporters on Facebook comments, or seeing how many ‘retweets’ my tweet under the hashtag #DebateNight got. Between Hillary’s emails, Trump’s xenophobic, ableist, and misogynistic comments, and Gary Johnson’s inability to pass fifth-grade geography. When I cheerfully brought in the new year with excited friends back on December 31st, 2015, little did I expect that by December 2016 I would be a worn-out, tired, angry mess. Despite very little of my own personal life changing due to the results of this presidential election, I feel within myself a decaying, a general “icky-ness” to my soul. And this gross feeling is a direct result of my conduct this past year, especially online. What have I said, in anger and frustration, to random strangers on the Internet? How many souls have I judged for their political views? How has my social media obsession this past year actually helped my local community. Do I really think that the homeless man asking for spare change on the Boston Common really cares about my political beliefs? How many people have I ignored, turned away, and discarded because I was too busy writing a damn thesis on every Facebook status? Sure, I can say that I suffer from post-election fatigue, but the real world also suffers due to all of the misplaced energy I spent campaigning for different people who I have never met, all while disregarding the needs of those persons whom I encountered on a daily basis. And what’s even worse for me is the neglectfulness I harbored towards my spiritual life, my prayer life. How can I welcome Jesus in the manger in a few weeks when I spent the past few months ignoring Him in the chapel, on the streets, or even in tweets?


This is where Advent comes in. For those who may not know, Advent (from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming towards”) is the liturgical season where Christians prepare for the coming of Christ- both in the manger at Christmas, and at the end of time at the Second Coming. The season of Advent is popularly characterized by “Advent wreaths”, a wreath containing four candles- three purple, one pink, with one lit each week preceding Christmas. And while Advent is not always seen as a season of penitence (like Lent), there is a sense of repentance involved. Take for example, the Scriptures chosen for this season. On this upcoming Sunday, the Second Sunday of Advent, the Gospel chosen discusses the coming of Christ as foretold by St. John the Baptist. Here is an excerpt:

“John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea
and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths
.” (Matthew 3: 1–3)

John the Baptist foretold of Christ’s coming. Christ was the promised Messiah who was to save the world from sin and to usher in the Kingdom of God. As the writer of the Gospel according to Matthew points out, John the Baptist was also an object of prophecy: he was the “voice of one crying out in the desert” as prophesied by Isaiah. Of course, he was proclaiming the coming of the Messiah to a people who long-expected one- the Israelites. Their understanding of “Messiah”, however, differed greatly from the one that was sent. For the ancient Jews, the messiah was to be the warrior-king, the anointed ruler of Israel who would take back much of the land that was stolen from them in years past, and lead their nation to a glorious rule. And, of course, Christ was none of that. It is safe to say that many people rejected Jesus because their understanding of “messiah” was still too small, too narrow, too limited. I once saw one of those relationship memes circulating on Facebook; it was a cartoon of a woman slumped over the bed, crying, while her (presumed) lover was walking out of the room, with a silhouette behind him that revealed devil horns. The meme was captioned “Expectations lead to disappointments.” While it is a poignant picture, I would argue differently- expecting something from the wrong thing leads to disappointment.


I think a large reason why I came “off” the election season so drained was because for months, I was putting my trust and faith into a political system which has, through the years, revealed its many flaws. I put faith in my politics and my social views, and while these are not erroneous in and of themselves, they do not contain the fullness of truth and infallibility as the words of Christ do. I expected something (ultimate meaning) in the wrong thing (the 2016 US Presidential Election), and what I got in return was an emotional face-plant (my current ennui).

In other words, I was looking for the Messiah in all the wrong places. I placed effort and energy into political discourse, arguing ad nauseam over political issues, typing furiously on my smartphone, constantly checking for notifications and updates from those who disagree with me. And once that energy was devoted to that project, I simply had no energy to head to the chapel and pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament, where the true answer to my well-intentioned desires were. For months, I acted as if salvation came from the election of my preferred candidate, and not through the outstretched arms of my Savior, hung upon a tree. As Sacred Scripture reveals, the Messiah was not to be found in political power, but instead in the manger- cold, defenseless. The same applies to today. Jesus is found, not in a megalomaniac ruler seeking the Oval Office, but rather in those vulnerable persons seeking to defend their sacred land from yet another white, imperialist exploitation. The “worldly” understanding of the Messiah as the “anointed one”, the one who would be a powerful military ruler, conquering his enemies and “making Israel great again”, was exactly the understanding that Jesus rejected. The Christ-child in the manger identifies more with those Syrian refugees seeking safe haven from a sectarian civil war than the Vice President-elect who vowed to bar those same refugees from asylum in Indiana. I missed the grace-filled forest for the Facebook-rant-tree. Whereas I could have used my desire for social justice and solidarity for good these past few months, I instead decided to place my loyalty to partisan politics, and abandoned Christ the King. And when you abandon Christ the King, you abandon the poor, the lonely, and the suffering. Ultimately, Christ was in the faces of all of those whom I disagreed with, who I cursed and scoffed at, and all of my political adversaries. And so, I have no one to blame for my post-election fatigue than myself. But on the bright side (if there even is one), it outlines a good project for me this Advent.


This Advent, I do not simply want to just be “better”. I want to expect “better”. If Advent is a season of anticipation, then I want to anticipate and place my hopes in the ‘right’ thing. I want to prepare a highway in the desert of my sins so that the Lord can push through and bring me closer to Himself. I want to expect better conduct from our elected officials, church leaders, and of course- myself. I will be returning to daily mass, daily prayer. I’ll spend less time on social media, endlessly scrolling, looking for sustenance, and instead will be getting more involved with Pax Christi, the international peace & justice group in the Catholic Church. I will cultivate the gift of music that Lord has given to me by singing in choirs for Lessons and Carols, cantoring masses on weekends, and continuing to study voice. My schoolwork will be seen as a way for me to get to know God and humanity better, instead of being a tool used to promote my own agenda. In all of these things, I will be preparing for something better- the coming of Christ. If the election season was preparation for that fateful day in November, then the Advent season is a preparation too- not only for December 25th, the date of Christmas, but also for that day which we do not know (Mt 25:13)- when Christ will come back to judge the living and the dead. And hopefully, whenever that day comes, I am prepared.

Strive to be Saints

 

I’ll admit, sainthood freaks me out. I sometimes read the “Lives of the Saints” and wince through it. St. Augustine, rebellious in his youth and early adulthood, had a radical conversion (helped by the prayers of his mother, St. Monica, no doubt) and dedicated his life to study, writing, and deep prayer to the God he sought for in all the wrong places years prior. St. Francis of Assisi renounced all of his worldly possessions and a rich inheritance in order to live a life of austere poverty, preaching, prayer, and ministry to those whom the world viewed as gross & diseased. St. Ignatius of Loyola sacrificed a life of nobility, honor, and impressing women to take up the armor of God, living a life that sought to discern God’s will, and leading a company of men (known as the Society of Jesus) who sought to give the greatest glory at whatever cost. In more contemporary times, we have St. Therese of Lisieux, who entered the convent at a young age despite numerous obstacles, and who, when faced with physical frailty and realizing she could never do “great things” for Jesus, realized that she could give Him all she had and walk the life of holiness through the “Little Way”. Padre Pio spent hours before the Blessed Sacrament in prayer, celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with incredible devotion, and was the recipient of the stigmata, painful wounds in the hands which correspond with the wounds of Christ on the cross. And of course, we have the example of Mother Teresa, who ministered to the “untouchables” in Calcutta, opening hospitals and caring for the sick and most vulnerable, despite the incredible interior darkness and desolation she felt.

As I said, sainthood freaks me out. While it is comfortable for me to lob up a prayer to one of these saints and ask for their intercession to find a lost shoe or to do well on a test, it is not as comfortable for me to imitate their lives. If I am being honest, while I like the idea of being a saint, putting that idea in practice is another story. I sometimes wonder how the saints went to Confession and felt sorrow for their “little” sins when I screw up big time and can oftentimes justify my sins in my stubbornness of heart. Becoming a saint, for me, seems damn near-impossible.

I also look at this world with wary eyes and wonder how sainthood can really be achieved, when one can inflict violence on another simply by writing a crude comment on Facebook, or where lust has found a champion in the internet pornography culture. Greed, avarice, and envy are only a click away- I remember once following the Tumblr page, “Rich Kids of Instagram”, and marveled at how nice their lives must be when they can afford anything. Busy work schedules and our pleasure-first, prayer-second culture have resulted in a vast number of empty churches, and with each boring & uninspiring homily I hear, the temptation to hit the snooze button on Sunday mornings grows. “Sure”, I think, “sainthood is a great ideal, but that was back when life was easier and there were less distractions.” Ah, yes- the old nostalgic view of the past strikes again.


And yet, there is hope. As one Franciscan priest once told me in the confessional, the only difference between the saints & us is that the saints realized their need for radical dependence on God, and leaned on Him- while for many of us, we either don’t see/feel a need for God, or if we do, we tend to procrastinate asking for help as we sin to the tune of “I Did it My Way”. Thomas Merton, the famous monk and spiritual writer, once said that “To be a saint means to be myself”. Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish existentialist philosopher, once wrote that “Purity of heart is to will the one thing”- the “one thing” of course being God. For me, the journey and example of the saints in heaven bring me back to one thought- that to become a saint is not something we do, but rather something we allow. Sainthood happens when we simply get the hell out of the way of God doing something new & exciting in our lives. Sainthood is us saying, “Okay, God, you know my strengths and my weaknesses. Use me for Your glory, and help me to love You and my neighbor- despite of myself.”

The thought that the saints were perfect is misleading. While, of course, there is a sense of repentance to their lives and “doing better”, we Catholics sometimes do a disservice to the saints by focusing solely on their victories and never their post-repentant failures, which, of course, were plenty. For example, I sometimes wonder if St. Augustine regretted leaving the pleasure-filled lifestyle of sex behind. I speculate whether St. Francis of Assisi ever lost his temper at his fellow brothers in Christ (hint: he did). I question if Mother Teresa ever sighed in frustration when a person she was ministering to smelt like a foul odor or was hard to work with. These musings are not meant to deconstruct the lives of these holy men and women, nor are they an attempt to de-mythologize their authentic Christian witness. But, of course, as humans, they were susceptible to daily temptation and did sin from time to time. The difference is that they relied on God during these moments, and when they did eventually slip, fall, or make a mistake, they turned to the merciful face of God, confessed their sins, and asked for His help to “do better”.


And so, how does one strive to be a saint in November 2016? Here are my three suggestions:

  1. Find a particular strength of yours, bless God and use it for Him.

Maybe you are a good listener to a particular friend, or maybe you have a desire to work with the homeless and those in need as the winter months approach. The examples are endless, but find your strength, and thank God for it. “Thank you, Lord, for giving me the ability to lend a listening ear to my friend.” Then, offer the gift back to God for His glory. “Lord, when I listen to my friend’s issues, help me to remind them of Your presence and to be a voice of compassion in their time of need.”

2. Identify your weakness & area for growth.

None of us are perfect, but we can only become better by identifying our areas where we fall short. It does our self-development no good when we do not admit our faults and stop rationalizing them. Perhaps we “sleep in” on Sundays because it’s our only day off, and we figure God understands and doesn’t really care. Maybe we have been using profanity lately and want to clean up our language. Maybe our hearts have been less pure than they should be, and we have succumbed to objectifying others for our own sexual pleasure. Whatever our faults and failings, admit them, and … realize who they affect. Our Sunday “sleeping in” and failure to attend mass spiritually starves us and is violating the 3rd Commandment- “Keep the Sabbath holy”. Looking at someone as a potential sexual conquest prevents us from seeing them as a child of God, and a brother or sister in Christ. This is why, when we pray the Confiteor at mass, we say “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned”. Our sins do not simply affect us; their consequences extend to others as well.

3. Find a particular saint who is relevant to your life & your life mission.

Have a desire to work with schoolchildren? Read more about St. John the Baptist de La Salle. Do you want to become a successful journalist? Check out St. Francis de Sales. Are you an artist seeking to make a career out of your passion? Check out St. Catherine of Bologna. Similar to the Apple-trademarked phrase, “There’s an app for that”, we can say that “there’s a saint for that.” When you find a particular saint relevant to your life and your needs, develop a spiritual friendship with him/her. Ask your chosen saint for their prayers daily. Read the story of her life. Talk to them throughout the day, and develop a devotion to them. God gave us saints as our spiritual friends, so that wherever we go in life, we are not alone in our desire to be a better person.


What would our political arena look like if politicians followed these three guidelines? More importantly, what would we look like if we did the same? These past few months have been filled with hate-speech, vitriol, and anger. Fear and distrust dominate our political discourse. While I do not seek to explore the reasons why here, I do believe this- if we gave as little as five percent as much time and energy into our pursuit of holiness as we do into our obsessive following of the presidential candidates’ errors, then we would be a much different (and sanctified) society. If our presidential candidates are not trying to be saints, the least we can do is become them ourselves, and pray for the current state of our political arena.

The Scandal Christians Cause by Supporting Trump


The Scandal Christians Cause by Supporting Trump

(Source: Gage Skidmore, https://flic.kr/p/9hHrit

Here we are. At the time of my writing of this piece, we Americans are 19 days, 11 hours, 58minutes, and 3 seconds away from arguably one of the most controversial presidential elections in our country’s relatively short history. In case you have been living under the proverbial rock, you probably already know what makes this presidential election so controversial. News headlines blaring, radio pundits yelling, presidential candidates debating, and the rest of the world commiserating– these have all characterized the 2016 race for the presidency of the United States. If we are being honest, we know that every presidential election brings with it a host of issues- the potential candidates are put through the strainer, past sins are brought up, polemical attacks typically suppress fruitful dialogue, and so on. This is commonly found wherever American politics exist. Different groups support different issues; in recent years, the Democratic Party has moved towards greater efforts at gun control, pushing for same-sex marriage equality, advocating for reproductive rights, as well as highlighting a need for universal healthcare, and for tax cuts for the poor while increasing taxes on the wealthy. The Republican Party has pushed for a greater emphasis on individual liberties, a strong protection of the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), opposition to abortion and gay marriage, ‘religious freedom’, and tougher stances on illegal immigration. While these are general characteristics, different candidates fall under different points of the political spectrum. Usually, for Americans, we are given a choice between two (often contrasting with the other on a number of issues), and the task for Americans is to vote who they believe is the best candidate for the job. Of course, we Americans are guided by our own political beliefs, biases, morals, and convictions. Some American citizens are influenced to vote for a certain candidate or party by purely political motives- Republicans often demonstrate resistance for government-mandated regulation of universal health care and oppose greater restrictions on who is allowed to purchase firearms because, they argue, it won’t stop criminals from obtaining and misusing firearms in the first place. Similarly, out of a strong environmental defense ethic, Democrats push for a need to protect the environment and combat global warming, which includes a rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline. And, of course, there are people in between- the independent, unaffiliated voter is the fastest growing demographic currently in America.

The Role of Religion in the Voting Booth

Speaking of demographics, a crucial part for any presidential candidate is to convince people holding religious convictions of any sort that he or she will be the best choice for the religious voter’s particular faith community. While there is indeed a separation between church and state (so as to protect the rights of both institutions), the role of religion within a voter’s decision still has a significant role, albeit a decreasing one. A Pew Research Center survey found that in 2008, “72 percent of voters said it was important for a president to have strong religious beliefs”, while “that number is down to 62 percent today.” Confirmation of religion’s declining influence in the lives of American citizens can also be found in a recent Gallup poll which found that only 65% of Americans answered “yes” when asked if religion is an important part of their daily life. Still, this number is extraordinarily high when compared to other Western countries who also took part in the survey, such as Sweden (17%), Denmark (19%), and even the United Kingdom (27%). Dr. Nigel Barber, author, professor, and contributor to the popular website “Psychology Today”, wrote an interesting piece on the question of why religion continues to play a major part in American politics today. One of his theories regarding the ongoing influence of religiosity on American politics includes the “push” by the conservative, Evangelical right during the 1970s to assert a moral platform in the face of the “Sexual Revolution” and other changes. As a reaction to this push, Democrats, for fear of losing voters, decided to insert religion into their political debates and rhetoric, so as not to lose the influx of immigrant-voters, who brought with them their own religious traditions from their homeland. Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that religion, even in 2016, is an important factor in a voter’s choice between candidates.


I, myself, am a practicing Roman Catholic, studying theology on the graduate level, discerning where in life I believe I am being called next. I come from a particular religious tradition, with a particular set of beliefs, practices, and customs, and am held to certain expectations within the public and private sphere. I am expected to attend mass weekly, to live a moral life joyfully, and to love God & my neighbor unconditionally. Also as a Catholic, I am bound to participate in the public life, to promote the dignity of the human person, to work towards the common good, and of course, to participate in the salvation of souls by my life, words, and deeds. Above all, as a Catholic Christian, I am called to follow Jesus Christ in all that I do & in all that I say. For the Christian, if life is a race, then the imitation of the life of Christ is the goal. And one can only imitate Jesus when they know Him, pray to Him, and follow Him. Jesus is seen as the Divine Teacher, the Incarnate Word of the Father, and the object of a Christian’s love and devotion par excellence. Contrary to the belief of some Christian anarchists who believe that Christ calls for us to reject all authority, Jesus Himself believed that in this temporal world, political rule has its place. However, He also taught that all authority, even political authority, derives from the ultimate authority of God (John 19:11). As the “both-and” cliché in Catholic theological circles goes, the Christian is to respect both the authority of the legitimate political leader, and the authority of God.

Now, what happens when a Christian is faced with a political authority whose policies directly conflict with the Gospel? Ah, welcome to the 2016 presidential election! Plenty of articles have been written on both Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton’s fittingness for the Oval Office, and this is not going to be one of them. A number of bloggers and speakers involved in religion have also presented the case for voting for X or Y, and no, this is not one of them either. Without hyperbole, this election has been arguably the most frustrating and conflicting for the voter’s conscience in the history of American politics, and my intention here is not to tell you who to vote for- my intention is for you to realize how supporting Donald Trump on the basis of Christianity is false and dangerous, resulting in a direct assault on both the Gospel message and those who earnestly try to live it.

Put simply, Christians who support Trump are committing one of the greatest sins in Christian theology: scandal. In the Bible, a book hopefully familiar to many Christians, the word ‘scandal’ is written in the Koine Greek language as “σκάνδαλον/skandalon” literally meaning “stumbling block”. Jesus is recorded using the word four times: three times in the Gospel according to St. Matthew (Mt. 13:41, 16:23 18:7) and once in the Gospel according to St. Luke (Lk. 17:1). Of all the occurrences of this word, perhaps none is as poignant as when Jesus uses the word while rebuking Peter in Matthew 16:23: “But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” This occurs when Jesus is foretelling of His eventual suffering in His Passion & Death; Peter hears this and immediately rejects any notion that his friend, teacher, and master will have to suffer at the hands of authority. Jesus, who reveals throughout the Gospel that He has not come to do His will but the will of the Father, rebukes Peter for being a “stumbling block” to His mission- that is, the salvation of humankind. Peter is ‘called out’ for his misguided attempt to shield Jesus from imminent suffering. Jesus also uses a derivative of the word ‘scandal’ later in the 18th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, when He says “…whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt. 18:6). Throughout the centuries, Christians have had to come to terms with this powerful warning of Jesus. The Catholic Church categorizes ‘causing scandal’ under the violations of the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shall not kill.” Here, the Church defines scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” (CCC #2284). The person who commits scandal becomes a source of temptation to his or her own neighbor (#2285). And, in one of the most sweeping statements on this matter, the Church proclaims:

“Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice, or to “social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible.” This is also true of business leaders who make rules encouraging fraud, teachers who provoke their children to anger, or manipulators of public opinion who turn it away from moral values.” (CCC #2286)

Re-thinking Trump as the “Pro-Life” Candidate

Donald Trump has made headlines ever since the announcement of his campaign, and very few of them have been positive affirmations of his humane proposals, upstanding moral character and strong family values. Actually, it would seem that it is the opposite. Take, for instance, the time he publicly mocked a man with disabilities. Or the time he said that he would ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Or the time he insulted the entire country of Mexico and the Mexican people. Or the time he claimed that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and wouldn’t lose voters. Or the time he expressed his desire to punch a protester in the face. Or the time he insulted nearly every political rival of hisand one’s wife. Or when he stated that there must be a “punishment” for women who choose to abort their fetus. He discredited the heroism of a P.O.W., he asserted that he would authorize methods of torture as well as murder the families of terrorists (a war crime), insulted women time and time again, lusted after his own daughter on-air, and, as recently revealed, bragged about sexual assault, and tried reducing it to being “locker-room talk”.

To defend voting for Trump under the illusion that he is somehow “pro-life” is to the definition of asininity. And yet, it is a mantra often chanted. Father Frank Pavone, National Director of the Priests for Life, has endorsed Trump, and encouraged his faithful followers to do the same. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, however, takes a more theologically-nuanced view. In their document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”, state that Catholics are not “single-issue voters” (no. 42). The U.S. bishops also reiterate the fact that abortion is of the gravest sins of our day, but also state that:

Catholic teaching about the dignity of life calls us to oppose torture, unjust war, and the indiscriminate use of drones for violent purposes; to prevent genocide and attacks against noncombatants; to oppose racism; to oppose human trafficking; and to overcome poverty and suffering. Nations are called to protect the right to life by seeking effective ways to combat evil and terror without resorting to armed conflicts except as a last resort after all peaceful means have failed, and to end the use of the death penalty as a means of protecting society from violent crime. We revere the lives of children in the womb, the lives of persons dying in war and from starvation, and indeed the lives of all human beings as children of God. We stand opposed to these and all activities that contribute to what Pope Francis has called “a throwaway culture.” (no. 45)

And, while many Catholic commentators on social media & blogs will assert correctly that abortion holds preeminence among all violations of the human person and that one can never do evil to promote good, they tend to leave out this point: according to Catholic theology, there is such a thing as formal vs. material cooperation, and that Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), arguably the most theologically-conservative of post-Vatican II popes, understood this well. While Catholics may not vote for a pro-choice candidate on the grounds that the candidate is pro-choice, a Catholic is permitted to vote for a candidate who happens to be pro-choice when all other options are exhausted. M. Cathleen Kaveny, Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Boston College theology department, writes about this at length here. And, for skeptics of this claim, one need not traverse far from the previously-mentioned USCCB document on Catholic participation in the public life, where again they state in number 36:

When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.

While his counterpart, Hilary Clinton, supports abortion (understood by Catholics as an intrinsically-evil act), Trump also supports the use of torture- an oft-forgotten “intrinsic evil”, as so clearly stated by Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Francis, and the USCCB here. And therefore, now, the Christian is faced with a daunting task- which candidate is “more likely to pursue other authentic human goods”? Well, because I realize that oftentimes women do not choose abortion arbitrarily but rather because they are victims of societal sin, injustice, racism and poverty, I would probably choose the candidate- if any- who seems to promote social justice- not detract from it. As Eric Sapp wrote in The Christian Post, while she supports a woman’s right to choose, Hilary’s policies can very well lift women out of these rough situations where abortion is even seen as an option, anyway. He points out that under the two “most pro-choice” presidents, Clinton and Obama, abortions reached their lowest point since Roe V. Wade. Also notable is that when President George W. Bush was in office and the GOP controlled the House of Representatives, the Senate, and 2/3 of the Supreme Court, absolutely no motion was made to overturn Roe V. Wade. None. But yet, we are somehow supposed to believe that Donald Trump is “pro-life”, when he still allows for abortion in certain circumstances? We are somehow believed that Trump is “pro life” and is going to appoint “pro-life” judges, when he suggested that his sister, a federal judge, would make an excellent choice for the Supreme Court? (The same sister who publicly opposed a partial-birth abortion ban in New Jersey, but hey, Crooked Killary or something, right?)

The Gospel of Jesus Christ vs. the Gospel of Trump

Now that Trump’s claim of being “pro-life” has been effectively struck down, is there any reason for the Christian to support him on basis of the faith? Of course, Christians who supported him since the start of his troubled campaign in June 2015 and still do to this day remember the words of Jesus, right? The words proclaimed in His famous “Sermon on the Mount”, where He taught His disciples how to conduct their lives? “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20)… “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5)…“Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8)- have any of them been primary ways many a Christian have decided who to vote for? Apparently not. While the outcry against Trump was most vocal after the revelation of his recent comments towards women, the religious right have been at best, sheepishly criticizing his comments and at worst, absolving a man who claims he has no need of forgiveness.

The credibility of Christianity is at stake here. Which unbaptized person in this country considering Christianity would want to enter a faith community in which the vast majority of members in the United States view Donald Trump as a legitimate option? How does support for Trump translate into the Gospel message? How are we leading others to Christ by supporting this rising demagogue? The Christian right has all but canonized Trump, and it is quite creepy.

In this, the hypocrisy of the religious Christian ‘right’ is tenfold. Not only are the majority of them sticking by Trump, but they dare to masquerade their support of him as “Christian forgiveness”. Trump can (and did) say that he grabs non-consenting women “by the pussy”, and the Christian right will tweet “It’s fine, we are all sinners”, and yet if I posted “#ImWithHer”, I’d receive a direct message stating “you’re going to hell”. The conservative right who blindly supports Trump even after his lewd comments are now using a language of reconciliation and mercy when they have shown none to those who feel differently than they. Christians who support Trump not only commit scandal, but they also do so at the risk of denying Jesus’ own words. For millions of Christians in the United States, the infallibility of Scripture has been denied in favor of an infallible ideology. To them, Trump- and not Jesus- is the Messiah. It is Trump, not Jesus, who will lead this country back to prosperity. It is Trump, not Jesus, who will grant us peace & safety. It is Trump, not Jesus, who guides their attitudes towards their enemies, or even to their neighbor.

Why would Christians, even after all of his disgusting comments and behavior, tolerate the thought of voting for him? The support of Trump by Christians usually follows a particular and awkward trajectory. Since Trump is against abortion (sort of), he is “pro-life”. And because he is “pro-life”, he is the obvious choice for the presidency. And yet, one must ask: how “pro-life” can one claim to be when he has advocated the use of torture (an intrinsic evil, according to Catholic moral theology), or who chooses a running mate who supports electrocuting gays until they become heterosexual, or who mocks persons with disabilities, or who supports unrestricted capital punishment, or who wants to increase militarism, who threatens to jail his political opponents, who doesn’t think abortion is murder, who claims abortion is “okay” in certain circumstances, who has bragged about adultery, who has said absolutely nothing regarding assisted-suicide, who criticizes gun control, or who has literally amassed a fortune at the expense of not paying a fair wage to those under his care?

Exhortation

Can we please stop pretending that Donald Trump is the “Christian” choice for president? The people who actually believe that are not following the Gospel of Jesus Christ- they are following the Good News of Trump. Instead of putting their faith in God, Christians in this country have fearfully hid behind the intimidating figure of Trump. And yet, how can they reconcile their choice with the Gospel? Hint: they cannot. Christianity Today, a leading evangelical magazine, said in an editorial that Christians should not support a man whose life is based around “idolatry, greed, and sexual immorality”. “The revelations of the past week of his vile and crude boasting about sexual conquest — indeed, sexual assault — might have been shocking, but they should have surprised no one,” wrote Andy Crouch, editorial director.

While I applaud the decision by certain Christians who have abandoned the Trump Train, it’s a golf clap. What took you all so long? I’m astonished that it took a man bragging about sexual assault and objectifying women to splash the cold water in the face of delusional Christians, making them say “Hm.. maybe he isn’t a good choice.” As the well-known Christian hymn often sung on Good Friday goes: “Were you there, when they crucified my Lord?”

Now, I ask the Christians who support Trump:

  • Were you there when Trump insulted a reporter with a disability?
  • Were you there when Trump bragged about sexual assault?
  • Were you there when Trump expressed his love of war?
  • Were you there when Trump championed “getting even”?

As Jesus stated quite clearly in the Gospels, “Whatsoever you do for the least of these brothers of mine, you did to Me.” (Matthew 25:40), and therefore, if you were there supporting Trump when he did the unfathomable, you are the whips that flogged Jesus in His Passion. If you were compliant with Trump’s obviously misogynistic comments, or his words about refugees, or his business practices which exploit the poor for the gain of the rich, you are the nails put into Jesus’ wrists on the Cross. In Matthew 25, when talking about the Final Judgement, Jesus asserts that in the end, we will be judged by how we treated the poor, the sick, the downtrodden. How a Christian treats the marginalized is a direct reflection of how they treat Jesus Christ. And so, to support a man who regards strength and power as the highest virtues and calls the poor, the lowly, and the defeated “morons” and “losers”, is one thing. To support the same man under the auspices of him being the “Christian” choice is pure, unadulterated scandal. Will Donald Trump become a saint one day? I hope so. Saints are canonized as a public sign that they are those who led others to Christ. But as for now, Trump isn’t a saint. He is a stumbling block- as are those who continue to support his bid for the presidency. As a Christian, I am called to seek the holiness and salvation of all. No Christian rejoices in the death of another, and of course, we leave the Final Judgment up to God.

If you want to support and defend Donald Trump, hoping he becomes the next president of the United States, fine. That is entirely your prerogative and your civil right. Just please, for the love of God (literally), do not use Christianity to justify your choice. You’re causing others to stumble.