Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the 1st Reading and today’s Gospel passage we have cases of heated differences of religious opinions. Ezekiel calls the Israelites "a rebellious house." And Jesus is amazed at the "lack of faith" among the townspeople where he was raised. And, although it’s never stated, we can presume that their opponents held equally critical views of Ezekiel and Jesus. These are cases of differing religious opinions. We face such situations as well in our own day, especially in the Catholic Church in the United States. The question is always: how do we deal with those?

It’s a very important question. There was a recent editorial in America magazine that deplored the "lack of respect and courtesy among differing Catholics over any number of issues in recent years." The case of President Obama visiting Notre Dame University was the latest of them. The editor wrote: "This rhetoric has threatened the credibility of the church, as the Catholic tradition of trust and toleration has been de-emphasized. Even a few bishops have made statements like ‘We are at war’ and ‘Tolerance is not a Christian virtue,’ suggesting that any notion of the common good has given way to a sharply defined ‘us versus them’ mentality." (June 22, 2009). Some forty-five years ago the Second Vatican Council turned the Catholic Church towards the direction of a dialogue with those who disagree with us with the intent of finding a common ground that can serve as a starting point. I think that’s still a valuable direction to take.

I wanted to give you an example of how that happened in my life. I’ve always been opposed to abortion, but an event some thirty years ago caused me to pause in how strongly I considered those who disagreed. In connection with the Jewish Studies course I was teaching, I viewed a video series on "The Jewish Way of Life." One of the videos dealt with the sources of Jewish morality. The rabbi who gave the lecture chose to deal with the topic through a specific example. In 1942 in the city of Kovno in Lithuania the German Nazis who controlled the town issued an ordinance that said, "Any Jewish woman who is found to be pregnant is to be executed." So the Jews of Kovno sent a question to the main Lithuanian rabbi (a man named Oshri) and asked if it was permissible to induce an abortion if a Jewish woman became pregnant in order to save her life. The video then showed all the sources that Rabbi Oshri used to compose a response. Rabbi Oshri began first by going to the Bible, the Torah. There in the law code of the book of Exodus it says: "Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death." (21:12) The text then goes on to give specific examples of this. One of the examples says: "When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, the one responsible shall be fined, paying as much as the judges determine. But if harm also follows to the woman, then you shall give life for life." (21: 22-23) So in this text the fetus is not taken to be a person. Rabbi Oshri then went through all the major religious sources from Jewish history----the Misnah, the Talmud, the medieval law codes—and explored other themes connecting them to the Exodus text. Rabbi Oshri decided that it is permissible to have an abortion to save the mother’s life. If I were in the Rabbi’s shoes, I’m not sure what I would have done. But I do have to respect anyone who so carefully and diligently studies the sources of his faith tradition for what is the moral thing to do. And I have to listen to him.

Make no mistake: to listen patiently is the first step in honest dialogue. You have to listen to things you don’t like to hear and things you strongly disagree with. But I hope that all of us will do what we can to avoid any "lack of courtesy and respect" and seek the way of honest dialogue.

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