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Sinners Called to Holiness

This talk,""Fulfiling Our Prophetic Mission,"  by Bishop James Conley, of Lincoln, Nebraska, is one of the best talks on equal dignity that  I've ever seen. 

Money quote:

We’re all sinners. We’re all called to holiness. But our dignity doesn’t depend on achieving it. God wills salvation for us, and we try to follow after him. When we acknowledge our common sinfulness and our common call to holiness, it becomes easier to see one another, not as objects, but as brothers and sisters in need of support, and encouragement, and solidarity with one another. When we are in solidarity with the vulnerable, the culture of life becomes familiar, and essential.

My mother, who spent a long time working in religious education for mentally handicapped children, made exactly the same point about not de-humanizing the mentally handicapped by treating them as "angels."  They don't need to be angels to matter--they need to be human--just like the rest of us.

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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Every day, L’Arche communities pray “to be liberated—to see people with disabilities as God sees them

And this is how we are to be viewed, according to Gregory of Nyssa:

It is true, indeed, that the Divine beauty is not adorned with any shape or endowment of form, by any beauty of color, but is contemplated as excellence in unspeakable bliss. As then painters transfer human forms to their pictures by the means of certain colors, laying on their copy the proper and corresponding tints, so that the beauty of the original may be accurately transferred to the likeness, so I would have you understand that our Maker also, painting the portrait to resemble His own beauty, by the addition of virtues, as it were with colors, shows in us His own sovereignty: and manifold and varied are the tints, so to say, by which His true form is portrayed: not red, or white , or the blending of these, whatever it may be called, nor a touch of black that paints the eyebrow and the eye, and shades, by some combination, the depressions in the figure, and all such arts which the hands of painters contrive, but instead of these, purity, freedom from passion, blessedness, alienation from all evil, and all those attributes of the like kind which help to form in men the likeness of God: with such hues as these did the Maker of His own image mark our nature.



A noteworthy quote from Bishop Conley. I hope it reflects his principal message. In the same talk, he relies on the prophetic rhetoric often employed by Pope John Paul II and many Catholic bishops: the culture of life vs. the culture of death, the Church vs. the world, us vs. our adversaries. Such rhetoric can distort good news and undermine efforts toward solidarity. 


I’m curious. By what measure does Sherry Wedell estimate that “only 3% of Catholics...have ever been really invited into a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ”? What constitutes a real invitation? What are the features of authentic friendship with Christ?


It doesn’t strike me as a particularly helpful evangelical tactic to approach 97% of Catholics with this message: “Whatever you’ve gathered from family and community life, the sacraments, prayer, catechesis, service, virtuous conduct -- it's all beside the point. You’ve been asleep and haven't  really heard the call of grace.”

I think the culture war language is tamped down quite a bit, which is good. On Sherry Waddell's work. I too take a very dim view: I think she is chastising Catholics for not being evangelical Protestants, as I have said before. But this shift away from moral perfectionism in the bishop's talk is all to the good.

I think the quotation cited is admirable, but its value gets lost in the bishop's culture of death rhetoric.  After al he is in Lincoln Nebraska.  You give him too much credit.

Re: culture of death rhetoric.  It's true that it runs through the speech.  I'd note a couple of things, though: while Conley doesn't back off from naming abortion as a serious issue, he does, istm, make a concerted effort to cast the net more broadly - to talk about how we treat the disabled and the elderly as other instances of promoting a culture of life.  This is, in fact, seamless garment language.

Second, it really can't be ignored that one of the reasons that parents choose to abort children in the womb is precisely because prenatal testing reveals that those children have, or are likely to have, serious disabilities.  The nexus of disabled children and abortion is real, and it's a serious issue.  He'd be remiss not to name it.


Cathleen, I note that Conley's theme is prophetic witness; and I've found your published thoughts on Christian prophetic witness to be quite interesting.  I take it from your words of praise in this post that this speech, or at least the passage you highlighted, is an example of 'good' prophecy.

FWIW - I tend to use terms like "witness" and "discipleship" rather than "prophecy" for the sorts of things that Conley describes in this speech.

In the same talk, [Conley] relies on the prophetic rhetoric often employed by Pope John Paul II and many Catholic bishops: the culture of life vs. the culture of death, the Church vs. the world, us vs. our adversaries. Such rhetoric can distort good news and undermine efforts toward solidarity. 

chris loetscher - I don't disagree; yet consider one passage from his speech - a paragraph where he does, in fact, use the word "adversaries":

Our adversaries go to great lengths to deny humanity. In the culture of death, the unborn child is held at a distance—he is never a “baby,” instead he is a “clump of cells,” or a “parasite.” The elderly or brain-damaged person is a “vegetable.” On death row, the prisoner is not a person, but a “monster.”

I'd note, first of all, that this is an instance of "seamless garment" rhetoric.  What is interesting, too, is: who are "our adversaries" in these instances?  Istm that each of his instances may posit a different group of adversaries - i.e. the set of those who deny the humanity of a child in the womb may not be the same set as those who call a person on death row a monster.  

This is an adroit passage in that it illustrates that "culture of death" / "culture of life" doesn't reduce to "Democrats"  / "Republicans" (or, "people who read the NY Times" / "people in Nebraska").  The lack of reverence for life may really be a cultural artifact that attaches to most or all of us who live in that culture, regardless of our political preferences.



Cathleen and Jim,


I concede that Bishop Conley makes some effort to dial down the self-righteous tone of “culture warrior” rhetoric. I prefer a rhetoric of solidarity, with prophetic sting:

Jim P. --

I think it's unwise to use the word "prophesy" with the sense of "witnessing" because people who aren't intersted in theology will likely get the wrong meaning.  (I checked a number of dictionaries, and more often than not the first meaning given for "prophesy" conveys foretelling the future.) 

Ann - you may have noted that Conley defines what he means by "prophecy":

The Second Vatican Council teaches that prophecy is the “power of the Gospel shining forth in daily social and family life” and the “announcement of Christ by a living testimony.” It’s that kind of prophecy for the Gospel of Life I’d like to consider this evening.

I wish he had referenced the Vatican II document and paragraph from which he's quoting here.  I have to say that this definition of "prophecy" doesn't strike me as a primary meaning of the word, either, as I'm not sure how well it describes what Amos, Hosea or Isaiah were up to.  As I said, I'd use words like "discipleship" and "witness" rather than "prophecy" for what Conley seems to be getting at.


Jim P. ==

I think you have chosen the wiser course.  No ambiguity about "discipleship" and "witnessing".  People are often so ignorant of Church teachings these days that the Church needs to meet them where they are, using their terminology.

Ann - in choosing "prophecy", he might have been trying to steer away from "evangelizing", a word that can mean "announcement of Christ by a living testimony", for the reason you note:  "evangelizing" smacks of "proselytizing" in common parlance.


But this shift away from moral perfectionism in the bishop's talk is all to the good.

Oh well, so much for Matthew 5:48.   Hey, anybody know what the special in the cafeteria is today?


See, Matthew 9: 10-13. I'll have what he's having.


Thanks, I especially like verse 12.


Yes, "proselytizing" is another word whose meaning has gone sour.  The worst change of meaning is, I think, that of "religion" itself.  Now for many, many people  it has the added connotations of "rigid, prejudiced, hypocritical, ignorant, stupid, judgmental".  Sigh.

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