Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Trading in Human Bodies and Lives


Over in the District of Columbia, there is a proposal to legalize prostitution there.  If enacted, such a law would facilitate grievous and lasting harm to those involved in the practice, cause injury to our neighborhoods where the public nuisance of the sex trade would be plied and to the greater community as the District becomes a hub for sex tourism, and legalization would also contribute to destructive and discriminatory attitudes that view other people as mere sexual objects.

Believing that each of us possesses an inherent dignity as human persons entitled to respect as created in the image of God, it is part of our Christian mission to defend and promote human rights and dignity against all forms of exploitation, manipulation and domination. This includes prostitution, which treats the person as chattel, reducing her to a plaything, an article of commerce to be bought in the marketplace, sexually invaded and used for another’s base gratification, and then discarded when one is done with her.

The trading in sex is objectively and inherently contrary to the dignity and truth of the nature of the human person, as well as the truth of the sex act itself.  It advances the lie that sex is for personal satisfaction alone, and instead of a positive sexuality that is authentically human, it fosters a negative sexuality that is utilitarian and mechanistic.  Such trafficking in human flesh is rightly seen as a species of slavery, even when there is no owner (pimp) and when it is asserted to be consensual.  It is inherently exploitive of the customer as well, inasmuch as he objectifies himself and dehumanizes sexuality by reducing it to a commodity.

On the specific matter before the District Council, Catholic teaching is clear – the commercialization of sex is an infamy that insults human dignity, harms all those who engage in it, and poisons human society.[1]  And far from condemning those women and men, girls and boys who are prostituted, they should rightly be seen as victims themselves of injustice, exploitation, duress and/or desperate circumstance that might lead some to turn to prostitution in order to obtain money to survive.  We should be protecting and helping them with services, not enabling their continued exploitation and degradation.

These are principles Catholic social teaching, yet they are not exclusively religious principles.  As Pope John Paul II noted, treating prostitution as a business or industry which necessarily trades in human bodies is “an affront to fundamental values which are shared by all cultures and peoples, values rooted in the very nature of the human person. . . In particular, the sexual exploitation of women and children is a particularly repugnant aspect of this trade, and must be recognized as an intrinsic violation of human dignity and rights.”[2]

Protecting against the inherent harm that results from the sexual objectification of prostituted persons, as if they are commodities in the marketplace, as well as feeding the culture of exploitation of women, girls and other vulnerable persons who are marginalized – these are not uniquely “Christian issues.”  They are human issues. They are fundamental, universally recognized human realities, as exemplified by the many people and groups that often differ with the Church, but on this matter are in agreement in recognizing grave evil of legalization of the sex trade.

Far from an act of empowerment, survivors of this injustice will tell you that legitimizing in law the use of people sexually for profit will only perpetuate a system of domination where there is no real freedom of choice.  Overwhelmingly, the persons who are prostituted are not engaging in it because they truly want to.  Vulnerable and defenseless, they are either desperate for money or they have been coerced or manipulated, or are otherwise in crisis situations.[3]  And the sex trade only makes things worse, with studies showing that over two-thirds suffering post-traumatic stress disorder[4] or other psychological harm, and many of them turning to substance abuse to numb themselves.

Commercialized sex is not a “job” or “work” where there is mutuality between employer and employee.  It is a system of inequality and dehumanizing working conditions where “managers,” i.e. pimps, and “customers” have power over another to demand intimate sexual conquest and performance – often a dozen or more sexual acts a day – and the prostituted person is daily subjected to a hostile workplace where sexual harassment and discrimination are the norm.

Moreover, as is often seen, the law is a teacher.  Many people simply conclude that what is legal is right.  If we normalize the sex trade through legalization, what does that say to our culture and young people? Former President Jimmy Carter put it quite well in 2016 when he said, “Normalizing the act of buying sex also debases men by assuming that they are entitled to access women’s bodies for sexual gratification. If paying for sex is normalized, then every young boy will learn that women and girls are commodities to be bought and sold.”[5]   With legalization, the practice of human exploitation through the selling of bodies for pleasure will also increase because people who do not buy sex now because it is illegal will become new clients. 

What we rightly condemn in the office, classroom, the #MeToo movement, and in the District’s own human rights policies – not to mention the evil of the bodies of women of color being sold for the enjoyment of others 160 years ago here in the District – Bill 23-0318 endorses.  Furthermore, with legalization, probable cause would no longer be a tool for law enforcement, making it much harder to combat violent trafficking and sex slavery, not easier.  It is shocking that this proposal would even be considered.

Legalization is not the solution to the grave injustices, degradations of human dignity, and the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual harm experienced by persons who are prostituted. These victims deserve better than a callous empowerment of those who exploit and use them.



[1] Gaudium et Spes, 27, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Second Vatican Council (1965); see also Catechism of the Catholic Church 2355.
[2] Letter to the International Conference “Twenty-First Century Slavery - The Human Rights Dimension to Trafficking in Human Beings” (May 15, 2002).
[3] Astonishingly, one open letter states in support of Bill 23-0318 states that “around 20 percent of trans people have engaged in sex work in their life, and this number increases to nearly 40 percent for Black trans people.” Joint Letter to the Council of the District of Columbia, etc., published at https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/07/02/joint-letter-council-district-columbia-regarding-supporting-b23-0318-community. This is not cause to legalize prostitution.  On the contrary, it is a sign of a population in crisis that is in need of humane and compassionate assistance.
[4] Farley, Melissa et al. (2003). “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” Journal of Trauma Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3/4: 33-74; and Farley, Melissa. ed. (2003). Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress. Haworth Press, New York.
[5] Jimmy Carter, “To Curb Prostitution, Punish Those Who Buy Sex Rather Than Those Who Sell It,” Washington Post (May 31, 2016).

Monday, September 09, 2019

At the School of Bernadette


With the end of summer, young people are returning to the classroom for another year of learning.  A quality education is essential for a good, happy and productive life, and, of course, our schools play a crucial role in this.  But it is only one role among many.

While schoolteachers have a certain expertise in academic subjects, it is actually parents who have – or are supposed to have – primary responsibility for the education of their children.  This means more than making sure that kids do their homework.  It means teaching them many critical life lessons that are needed in the formation of the person, including virtue, caring for one another, and fostering a love of learning to develop their intellectual, moral and physical gifts.  Brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins have a role to play as well. Thus, the family is recognized as the first “school” for children.

Likewise, just as schools play only one part in education, so are the traditional school subjects only one component of needed learning.  Math, reading, writing, history, the arts, economics, science, technology and vocational skills are all very useful for a well-rounded life – and are essential in obtaining a job to support yourself and your family, and in doing routine things like spending money wisely.  And they can lead to one having a big house, fancy car, fame and fortune.  But they are not really the key to a successful life.

We often think of success in material terms.  But making money is not the measure of success. Even if we have all the riches of the world, there will still be something missing, and it profits a man or a woman nothing to gain the whole world, if his or her soul is not saved (Matthew 16:26).

Even more important than material things in happiness and being a true success is becoming closer to the transcendent reality that is God.  Sadly, studies show that many, many people – even many who go to church every week – do not know or otherwise understand some fundamentals of the faith.

For example, many people do not know that the Eucharist is, in truth, the real presence of Jesus.  This Blessed Sacrament is not just a symbol, but is in some mysterious way the actual Body and Blood of Christ.  Every Sunday, there are also many people who do not receive Holy Communion because they have not been instructed or are otherwise prepared in the faith.

It is imperative then for parents to see that their children learn these lessons about being close to God – and that they grow in learning themselves.  This can be done many ways, such as family prayer, reading the Bible, lessons from catechisms, and learning from the saints.  In these ways, we learn to grow in holiness and be saints ourselves.  In particular, “we are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves,” Pope Francis has said, and “let everything be open to God; turn to him in every situation” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 14, 15).

This was certainly the way of Saint Bernadette and we have much to learn from her.  “I shall spend every moment loving. One who loves does not notice her trials; or perhaps more accurately, she is able to love them,” she teaches us.

Above all else, Bernadette saw the value of humbly joining her life to the life of the Lord, and the wisdom she imparted to her little sister who had a young daughter is a lesson for all parents: “You understand the care that you must take in bringing up this dear child.  Teach her to know and love the good Lord and the Most Holy Virgin as soon as possible, to respect you and to abhor evil; by doing this, you will fulfill your responsibilities as parents,” Bernadette wrote. “Yes, children, love God well during this life.  This is the greatest source of happiness on this earth and the only thing that will make us eternally happy in heaven.”

As vitally important as reading, writing, math and other academic subjects are, a life of faith, purity, love and truth is even more important in the greater scheme of things.  In striving after these, Jesus gives Himself to us to dwell in our hearts.  And there is no greater success in life than that.

After all, Bernadette recognized, “Where can you find a friend like Jesus?  He knows how to sympathize with us and how to soothe our pain at the same time.  Jesus, and Jesus alone, can do that.  Let us love him and cling to him with all our hearts.”

Saturday, August 10, 2019

A Question of Faith


Lourdes is the place where young Bernadette Soubirous said that our Blessed Mother appeared to her on 18 separate occasions.  Did Mary really appear to her – and did the Virgin of Guadalupe appear to Juan Diego centuries earlier?  Or is there some other explanation?  Ultimately, it's a question of faith.

After spending a week in Lourdes and praying each day at the Grotto, my mother and I traveled to Nevers, France, where Bernadette spent the rest of her life as a Sister of Charity.  Partway on our three-leg journey though, as my mother was exiting a train outside the city of Tours, she fell and smashed her head on the pavement, causing a bleeding bump on her head the size of a golf ball and pain along her face.

In addition to our concern of a serious injury, neither of us knew the area and we had great difficulty communicating with the emergency responders and with the staff of the hospital where she was taken for examination because neither of us speak French and they didn’t speak our own language.  We were strangers in a strange land.  And we spent the next several hours anxiously wondering if she might have a brain bleed and have to stay at the hospital (or worse), where or even how I could find a hotel to spend the night, or how we were going to get back to the train station either to continue our trip or head straight to the airport and go home.   It was all very scary.

Thankfully in the end, my mother was not seriously hurt and, with the help of a French phrase book, we were able to get a taxi in time to catch the last train to Nevers.  We spent the next few days on retreat at the beautiful convent Espace Bernadette, where the saint lived and died and where her incorrupt body now lies in repose.

Were my mother and I just lucky?  Or was it something else?

The incident recalled my first time in Rome, when an older man in my tour group collapsed near the Vatican after a morning of walking up and down hills by the Forum and Colosseum.  They started working on him, but his color was really, really bad – his face was a mixture of deathly green and orange and purple.  The ambulance came and took him to the hospital, where he went into intensive care and the prognosis was poor.  With great concern in our hearts, but realizing there wasn’t anything the rest of us could do, we continued on.

As the group went to St. Peter’s Basilica, I left to go on a special tour of the scavi (excavations underneath the Basilica), which contain not only early Christian tombs from 2,000 years ago, but what is believed to be the grave of the fisherman Apostle himself directly beneath the main altar.  When we arrived at that place where some bone fragments of Peter are displayed, it was astounding. We were there in the very presence of the Apostle upon whom Jesus said He would build His Church, the Apostle to whom Jesus gave “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

Our seminarian guide led us in a quick prayer, and then asked if there was anyone to say a prayer for.  I mentioned the gentleman in my tour group, whose name I did not know and for all I knew was dead, given the condition in which I had last seen him. We said a prayer, asking Peter to intercede for him, and that was the end of the tour.

At the end of the week, as we were all gathered in the hotel courtyard and grimly wondered how the man was doing, suddenly he walked in – and he looked fantastic, the picture of health.  He was smiling and beaming with vibrant color, not the picture of death we had seen earlier.

Maybe the gentleman’s condition was never really all that critical. Perhaps my mother was never really in much danger and we just received a scare.  Those are perfectly reasonable explanations.

Or, maybe, just maybe, my mother’s situation was really very serious.  And maybe the man was, in fact, near death and probably should have died.  Maybe, just maybe, St. Bernadette and the Holy Virgin came to my mother’s side, and maybe the most Holy Peter interceded for the older man. And God, hearing their prayers, healed my mother and him.

The working of God is often explained away.  Maybe it was all just a coincidence.  Or maybe they were each touched by the hand of God.

I know what my mother and this man restored to health believe, and I know what I believe.  What do you believe?

It’s a question of faith. 

Sunday, July 28, 2019

A Pilgrimage to Lourdes, Our Lady and Bernadette

The French town of Lourdes in the Pyrenees near the border with Spain is one of the most popular destinations in the world. Each year, six million visitors come from all corners of the world. Some come as tourists for a day or two to see what all the excitement is about. Others come in hopes of a physical cure of some illness or disability – there have been 69 cases that have been recognized as miraculous cures and thousands more cases of claimed miraculous physical healings. Then there are those, like me this month, who come merely as pilgrims seeking to spend some time being close to the mystery of holiness and, perhaps, find some measure of spiritual healing and peace.

Much of what draws me to Lourdes, of course, is the Grotto at that part of Lourdes known as Massabielle, where in 1858 the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to the young peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous, just as the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego. What also attracts me is Bernadette herself. In fact, it might be said – all honor rightly given to Mary, the Mother of our Lord – that the real Message of Lourdes is Bernadette Soubirous herself, or more specifically, the simple faith and love of Bernadette.

Growing up, Bernadette was often sickly and physically weak due to severe asthma and other maladies, not to mention undernourishment due to poverty. Yet, one could say that the words of the Beatitudes rightly apply to her – “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God” (Mt. 5:8). Meanwhile, as she would write in her later years, “How blind man is when he refuses to open his heart to the light of faith!”

Bernadette lived in a time of ideological hostility to religion, including the constricted prejudices of intellectual elites who rejected religious faith as superstition and believed instead that “seeing is believing,” that if something could not be subjected to scientific measurement and testing, it did not exist. Bernadette, though, was no intellectual elite. Rather, for her, believing was seeing.

Because of her faith, her simple modest faith of the heart, an innocent and humble love for the Lord, the lowly Bernadette was able to see what others could not: She who is “our life, our sweetness, and our hope” – our Blessed Mother Mary. Innocence tends to allow one to see a higher truth. At Massabielle, Bernadette was able to see what others could not see. She was able to see what some others refused to see.

One problem that we have in this fallen world is that we have become infected with a disease – a disease that leads us to see ourselves and others with the world’s eyes – eyes that are false. We see superficial appearances, and not the truth of a person or thing. When we see with our eyes, our human and worldly eyes, we see a false reality, a false world, a false beauty. Our human eyes deceive us. We are often blind to true beauty, and other times we think that what is truly beautiful is abhorrent. In the resulting darkness, those who see in worldly ways are unable to perceive either truth or love – they struggle to find their way and are oblivious to the needs of others, especially those who are most vulnerable.

The fallen world consistently seeks to have you disbelieve and have doubts. The world whispers in your ear, imitating the voice of your subconscious, “God doesn’t exist. And if He does, He has abandoned you. He cannot be trusted. You can only trust yourself.”

However, not everyone is blind, not everyone is unable to see. The Virgin Mary was and is able to see, and Bernadette was able to see her. That is because Bernadette did not seek to see merely with the eyes of the head, that is, merely with worldly eyes. Because of her simple humble faith, she also saw with the heart, which in turn allowed her to see the truest beauty God has ever made.

That is why the lowly Bernadette, ignorant in the eyes of the learned, was much more wise than the intellectual elite of her time who were, for all their learning, ignorant. By their arrogant pride and hubris, by promoting extreme secular ideologies that have no need or want of God, these intellectuals had learned to be stupid.

If we too want to see truly, we must seek to emulate the lowly Bernadette, rather than the prideful. We must believe, we must want to believe, in truth. We must have faith in God, rather than faith in ourselves as “gods,” so that we might see with our hearts.

When we see with our hearts with eyes of faith, with our souls illuminated by the true Light, we are able to see reality as it truly is. We are able to truly see, and see God’s presence in the world and in the lives of others.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Chapel of the Convent of Saint Gildard at Espace Bernadette in Nevers



The Infirmary Where Bernadette Worked and Suffered



Sister Marie Bernarde in Nevers

Visiting Espace Bernadette in Nevers -




Seeing with Eyes of Faith

What is the message of Lourdes?

The Lady of the Grotto spoke of penance and praying for sinners, as Our Lady of Fatima and the Virgin of Guadalupe had. She identified herself, "I am the Immaculate Conception." And through the visible sign of water, a sacramental sign and symbol of life, miraculous healing of the sick has occurred.

These events certainly happened, but are they the message of Lourdes?

Perhaps one of the messages of Lourdes is Bernadette Soubirous herself, or more specifically, the simple faith and love of Bernadette.
"When we follow the Jubilee Way in the footsteps of Bernadette, we are reminded of the heart of the message of Lourdes. Bernadette is the eldest daughter of a very poor family, with neither knowledge nor power, and in poor health. Mary chose her to transmit her message of conversion, prayer and penance, which is fully in accord with words of Jesus: 'What you have hidden from the wise and understanding, you have revealed to babes' (Mt 11:25)."
(Homily of Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Journey to Lourdes, 14 September 2008)

At Massabielle, Bernadette was able to see what others could not see. At Massabielle, Bernadette was able to see what some others would not see.

One problem that we have in this fallen world is that we have become infected with a disease – a disease that leads us to see ourselves and others with the world's eyes – eyes that are false. We see superficial appearances, and not the truth of a person or thing. When we see with our eyes, our human and worldly eyes, we see a false reality, a false world, a false beauty. Our human eyes deceive us, so much so that Satan himself would be fantastically beautiful to us, rather than the corrupted being that he is, and as depicted in art with horns and a tail.

Our ability to see and know what truth is has been corrupted and distorted, so that even those who have a good faith desire to know and live the truth often times are instead living a perversion of the truth. Even when, deep down in our gut, we know that something isn't quite right, we still cling to the lie, thinking it is the truth, indeed, wanting it to be the truth.

Conversely, we are often blind to true beauty, and other times we think that what is truly beautiful is abhorrent. The Lord walked the earth for 30 years before beginning His ministry and practically no one recognized Him. The world demands prove from God, putting Him to the test, but when He sends us signs and signals and performs mighty deeds to get our attention, the world pays no attention to Him.

There are those who cannot see truly, and there are those who will not see truly, who obstinately refuse to see. There are those who have been made blind, those who have unwittingly followed others into the dark cave, and those who have plucked out their own eyes and seek to blind others. The fallen world consistently seeks to have you disbelieve and have doubts. The world whispers in your ear, imitating the voice of your subconscious, "God doesn’t exist. And if He does, He has abandoned you. He cannot be trusted. You can only trust yourself."

However, not everyone is blind, not everyone is unable to see. The Virgin Mary was and is able to see, and Bernadette was able to see her. That is because Bernadette did not seek to see merely with the eyes of the head, merely with worldly eyes. Because of her simple humble faith, she also saw with the heart, which in turn allowed her to see the truest beauty God has ever made.

Innocence tends to allow one to see a higher truth. Eating the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge does not necessarily give you greater sight. It merely infects you with a disease that blinds you. It is paradoxical, but often times, ignorance is learned.

The intellectual elite of Bernadette’s time were, for all their learning, ignorant. By their arrogant pride and hubris, by promoting extreme secular ideologies that have no need or want of God, these intellectuals had learned to be stupid. In their willful blindness, they refused to open themselves up to be able to see.

If we too want to see truly, we must seek to emulate the lowly Bernadette, rather than the prideful. We must believe, we must want to believe, in truth. We must have faith in God, rather than faith in ourselves as “gods,” so that we might see with our hearts. When we see with our hearts, which is to say, our souls, as illuminated by the true Light, we are able to see reality as it truly is, we are able to see true beauty, which may not correspond to what our human eyes find aesthetically pleasing. What is repugnant and ugly to our human eyes may be seen to be truly beautiful when viewed with our hearts.

But being able to see with our hearts is not easy. And it almost certainly cannot be done by our own efforts. We most likely need a little help. But if we at least want to be able to truly see, to be able to see with our hearts, and we seek that help, then we will begin to receive the grace to be able to do so. And the real beauty that we see will be more astounding than we could have ever imagined.

"How blind man is when he refuses to open his heart to the light of faith!"
-- Sister Marie-Bernard Soubirous

Bernadette Reliquary Chapel in the Crypt of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception

 
 
 

View of Esplanade and Medieval Fortress in Background



The Requests of Our Lady -- Penance and Procession


 




 


Le Cachot, Hospice and Baptism

Le Cachot, the abandoned prison cell where Bernadette and her family lived at the time of the apparitions:



 

The Hospice, operated by the Sisters of Nevers, where Bernadette lived after the apparitions and went to school:


The Baptismal font in which Bernadette was baptized -- the original parish church where she was baptized no longer exists:



Where Bernadette Was Born, part two




The Boly Mill - Where Bernadette Was Born





Lourdes - June 2018

Visiting the Sanctuary