I wrote a chapter in a book


I was very grateful and humbled when Liguori Publications asked me last Fall to contribute an introductory “theology of the family” chapter in a book on family life. The book to be published soon is wonderfully entitled, The Family, the Church and the Real World, and includes well-known contributing authors like Dr. Sean Reynolds, Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak, Lisa Hendey, Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, Don Paglia, Christopher West, Fr. Andrew Wisdom, and Greg and Jennifer Willits. I can’t wait to get a copy myself to feast on its riches!

When they first asked me, I confessed to them that I’m not a theological specialist in that area. But when they told me they were not looking for a specialized theological treatise, but rather an accessible Catholic theological meditation on the nature of family written in a familiar style by someone who is theologically literate, I felt more at home. Though I am a theologian, I’m not a scholar’s scholar. Rather, I consider myself more a public intellectual whose primary vocation and mission is to reveal intelligently and faithfully the Word made fresh. That’s my guiding ideal, at least.

To help me keep the tone of my chapter a bit more intimate, I decided to write it as a personal letter addressed to dear friends of mine who were married this last June (whom I mentioned in an earlier post): Mr. & Mrs. Jordan and Shannon Haddad. Just thinking of them makes my heart leap for joy — watch here and see why:

My chapter offers a brief look of the Church’s theological vision for family life.  It draws from Scripture and Tradition, and was influenced by my own experience of being married to Patti Ann Neal, and of being the father of Michael Anthony (19), Nicholas Patrick (17), Maria Thérèse (15) and Catherine Elizabeth (13), as well as of our six miscarried babies. As I wrote, in my mind’s eye also were countless witnesses to marriage and family life from my own family, my wife’s family, and among our friends and many acquaintances over the years, as well the bishops, priests, deacons and religious we have been privileged to know. These have convicted, rebuked, exhorted and encouraged us to live out a faithful marriage and family life, and to not despair in the face of weakness and failure. In that last category, I’d like single out the Brotherhood of Hope, whose love and devotion to marriage and family life has had an unparalleled influence in our lives. These extraordinary Brothers embody the complementarity of vocations in an exemplary way.

Okay! As I don’t want this to be longer than the chapter itself, let me end by sharing with you here a few of the energetic opening lines and then some of the more sober closing lines from this chapter:

Dear Jordan and Shannon,

What a privilege it will be for the Neal family to be part of your upcoming wedding day! I thought, as a gift to honor your marriage, I would offer you some of my own theological and personal reflections on the Church’s magnificent teaching on marriage and family life.

I remember vividly our wedding day back in 1995, on October 14th. It was also the feast of Pope St. Callistus I, who was martyred in 222 A.D. during a time of fierce hostility toward Christians in the Roman Empire. To be openly Christian in those days was a risky choice to make! But imagine – without those many men and women who did take the risk and choose to publicly proclaim the Gospel, where would we be? We need more daring witnesses! In fact, I’d say the Church is always in need of new martyrs, and your choice to give yourselves to each other in holy wedlock – freely, exclusively, totally, faithfully, irrevocably and fruitfully – is itself an heroic act in this day and age! Christ, the Bridegroom of the Church, will consecrate your free act of self-gift by joining it to His own martyrdom as a Sacrament, i.e. a living and effective sign to the world of His saving death and glorious resurrection! The two of you, with hands joined, will become fountains of Christ lavishing graces, everything you will need to remain faithful to your exalted vocation.

Educating your children is a tall order! But the beauty is that we never have to do it alone. We are part of a Church that is a Family of families, a living Body of Christ in which all are concerned for the well-being of all. At least that’s our mission. Rely on the support of others, and pass on to those less fortunate than you the good things you have received. We are made in weakness that we might supply for one another. Be sure to consult often with your wiser elders, and teach your children to do the same. Remember your Baptismal anniversaries and use plenty of holy water to keep grace fresh. Frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation – together, and one day as a family – and stay close to the Holy Eucharist, which is the source and summit of your lives. See yourselves as architects of wonder who encourage the love of learning, and strive to build a home transparent, like a sacrament, to the presence of God. Read the Scriptures daily, pray together as often as possible and often intercede before God for your children, offering up for them many secret sacrifices. Give alms to the poor and teach your children to do the same. Keep close to the Mother of God and your patron saints, and talk often about saints on earth and in heaven. Practice hospitality, cultivate domestic stability, nurture a strong work ethic by giving out chores, practice frugality and generosity as stewards of God’s manifold gifts. Practice discipline of the tongue, bless your adversaries, speak well of others and criticize only when required by justice or charity…

Promo: Feminine Geniuses in NOLA

The Church sees in the face of women the reflection of a beauty which mirrors the loftiest sentiments of which the human heart is capable: the self-offering totality of love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows; limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work; the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement. — St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater

The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling — Closing Message of the Second Vatican Council 1965

I’d like to promo an event here in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It’s a series sponsored by Notre Dame Seminary, University Ministry at Loyola University, the Women’s Resource Center at Loyola University and the Loyola Institute for Ministry that will be held in Metairie at the Retreat Center of the Archdiocese of New Orleans on September 17, 24, October 1, 8, 2015, from 7:00-8:30 pm.

Five extraordinary women will be offering a series of reflections on the God-given dignity and unique vocation of women, as drawn from the wisdom of St. John Paul II’s 1988 papal apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women).  Each part of the series includes reflection on the theology and spirituality of this document, as well as opportunity for prayer and discussion.

I cannot recommend this event highly enough. Full details can be found here: http://dzsj18.wix.com/noladignityvocation

I know each of these women, and can attest each brings a unique gift, depth, beauty and experience of the gift of femininity lived out in faith. Here they are:

Jill Cabes

Sarah Denny

Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, Ph.D


Susie Veters

Jennifer E. Miller, S.T.D.


Affair of the Mind

Re-post from 2013

Taken from townnews.com

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials. — CCC #2354

I spoke with a woman recently whose husband had indulged in pornography for several years of their marriage. She gave me permission to share the general lines of her story.

It was crushing to listen to the pain she suffered.

What stood out most to me as she recounted its disastrous effects on their marriage, was this statement:

What suffered most was my sense of personal worth and dignity. I felt demeaned and betrayed … The greatest harm was the immediate erosion of trust, and the terrible feeling of being insecure and worthless. I was clearly not enough for him … Having happened on some of the filth he’d been viewing gave me a vivid awareness just how vile the images and sounds were, and so knew this was what was in his mind each time he looked at me. Once I discovered it, his every gesture of physical intimacy toward me made me physically nauseous.

Eventually he got help in a 12-step sex-addict program, she forgave him, he rebuilt trust and their marriage has been renewed.

I thought about it over the next several days. I collected various thoughts in my journal.

+ + + +

In a Christian culture men are gentlemen, careful to honor the dignity of each woman and promote her feminine genius. St. JP2 says that every man, like St. Joseph, is called to be a “protector of every woman’s honor and dignity.” Men honor every woman because every woman is held in honor in the heart of God.

The stats show that a staggaring percentage of men, and growing percentage of women, consume pornography regularly. Porn breeds isolation and self-absorbtion, trivializes and degrades the sexual act as a covenant sign, rewires the brain with an addict’s neuro-grid and enslaves the imagination. As theologian David Hart says well:

The damage that pornography can do — to minds or cultures — is not by any means negligible. Especially in our modern age of passive entertainment, saturated as we are by an unending storm of noises and images and barren prattle, portrayals of violence or of sexual degradation possess a remarkable power to permeate, shape, and deprave the imagination; and the imagination is, after all, the wellspring of desire, of personality, of character. Anyone who would claim that constant or even regular exposure to pornography does not affect a person at the profoundest level of consciousness is either singularly stupid or singularly degenerate.

I once wrote an email to an acquaintance, a Catholic married man who struggled with porn addiction. I remember agonizing over how to respond to his honest and tortured confession. Among other things, I wrote:

God loved your wife before you ever did, and He loves from all eternity each and every one of those women who are exploited in porn. High price for a cheap thrill. God loves them far more than you ever could, and will judge you one day on how you handled these pearls of great price — His daughters.

Along with links to resources for overcoming addiction, I included in the email Michelangelo’s painting of the creation of Adam. Under the picture, I wrote:

Note who’s held tight under the arm of God as he creates Adam. It’s the woman, Eve, whom God has not yet drawn from Adam’s side and entrusted to Him as His gift and image. She is still God’s dream awaiting creation … Pope John Paul II has a powerful comment in a letter he wrote on the dignity of women (Mulieris dignitatem) to this effect: “The dignity and the vocation of women find their eternal source in the heart of God. Consequently each man must look within himself to see whether she who was entrusted to him as a sister in humanity, as a spouse, has not become in his heart an object of adultery; to see whether she who, in different ways, is the co-subject of his existence in the world, has not become for him an ‘object’ — an object of pleasure, of exploitation. Christ’s way of acting, the Gospel of his words and deeds, is a consistent protest against whatever offends the dignity of women.” In invite you, my friend, to join the protest.

Sub specie aeternitatis — in the light of eternity — one sees everything differently.

Porn culture calls for the evangelization of imagination, which means the purification of imagination — not merely by a renunciation of porn’s graven images, but by an encounter with icons that uncover the true dignity and beauty of the human body made to glorify God.

The Christian gentleman stands on the front lines of the New Evangelization. Let God’s chivalrous revolution, once conceived in eternity, begin in time. In you.


Word Made Face


Repost 2012

Breaking News: the father’s role in a child’s life is crucial.

When I was made aware last year of a study that found the average American parent spends fewer than 3 minutes a day in non-directive communication (directive meaning “do this, don’t do this”) with their child, I thought of the dangers built into a culture that discourages frequent real-time, in the flesh communication within a family. TV face, screen face often replaces face to face. Having face time with the ones you love is an irreplaceable dimension of being human, of fostering communion — and it is an irreplaceable means of forming, “getting into” the mind and heart of your child.

God’s pedagogy in the Bible followed this pattern, as God’s incessant pleading with man for face-time in prayer found its completion in the Incarnation. In Jesus we see God’s human face, we see God pursuing a face-to-face encounter with us. That blows my mind. And remember that Jesus spent three long, intimate and uninterrupted years building a face-to-face friendship with his disciples (cf. John 15:15).

Stealing Back Time

A family asceticism must include a regular, rhythmic setting aside of computer and media technologies — activities that steal away family face time — in favor of engaging in close-range activities of all sorts. In our family, every Sunday is a “screen free” Sunday, meaning we put away every electronic device and rediscover the world as it was millennia before computers, iPhones, social media or internet existed. We do make exceptions for football or edifying movies. Our children think “edifying” is code word for torture, but we are working hard to change that.

On the nights I’m able, when our children go to bed I lie down on the floor between their beds and talk about the day. I ask lots of questions and offer subtle commentaries that hopefully help them think through life in the light of faith and good common sense. Even though these conversations often end with my falling asleep, or speaking some gibberish as I nod off, I’ve found these nighttime exchanges have been the most important (and special) moments of parenting. Helping form their minds and hearts seems somehow much easier at night. It’s hard sometimes to choose to disconnect from everything else  to be with them. My grandfather taught me how to do that when he would say, “Tommy, come waste time with your Pop talking about things that don’t really matter.” But they did matter because as we talked I felt that I mattered.

Here’s a study to that effect…

Adolescent kids retreat to their rooms when you try to ask them how they are and hide out with their friends so often that they spend less and less time with family, right? Read more…

Undefeated 4th


Happy Fourth of July! Let me share today St. John Paul II’s prayer for the U.S. back in 1995. Please join me:

Mary Immaculate, conceived without sin: Patroness of the United States! From the first moment of your existence you were called by God to be the Mother of His Incarnate Son. Model of our faith, you watched over the Incarnate Son of God as He grew in wisdom, age and grace. Look upon the people of this great nation, so richly blessed by God with material and spiritual resources. May they draw fresh inspiration from the highest ideals of their democratic tradition and contribute to the building of a world of solidarity, justice and peace, a world in which everyone is welcomed as a fellow-guest at the great banquet of life.

Mary our Queen, you stood beside your Son at the foot of the Cross and rejoiced in His Resurrection from the dead. Model of our hope, you awaited the fulfillment of Christ’s promises at Pentecost and now share the fullness of life in His eternal Kingdom. Look upon all who are united to your Son in Baptism and are called to share in His royal mission. May they be a leaven of the Kingdom of God in American society, humbly serving the needs of their brothers and sisters and bearing faithful witness to the splendor of Christ’s truth and to the saving power of His Gospel.

Mary, Mother of the Church: Mother of Christians! The Lord has entrusted all His disciples to you, to be our Mother (cf. John 19:27). Model of Christian love, you contemplate your Son in glory and intercede for the members of His Body on earth. Look upon the Church in the United States at the approach of the Third Christian Millennium. Through penance, prayer and active charity, may Christ’s followers meet the challenges of the new evangelization and work for the authentic renewal of human society in accordance with the truth of God’s Word. As they work together with all men and women of good will, may they be joyful heralds and servants of the Gospel of Life!

Today, I’d also like to encourage you to watch the documentary, Undefeated. It’s about a losing football team turned around by the uncommon leadership of coach Bill Courtney. My wife and I watched it last week, and both said in unison at the end of the credits, “Wow.” It’s truly a testament to the power of sports to forge — or better, reveal — moral character and to allow great leaders to influence (in the case of this movie) young men’s lives for the better. The core message of “team first” is a magnificent witness to the heart of Christ’s teaching on love as the guardian of the common good.

The song that played at the end, Let the Redeemed of the Lord Say So (hear here), beautifully captured the essential theme of the movie: the redeemed reveal that goodness is the soul of greatness, and that the soul of goodness is love.

I will definitely be encouraging the seminarians I serve at Notre Dame Seminary to learn from coach Courtney’s exemplary style of fatherly leadership, moral character and selfless love.

Here’s info on the documentary: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1860355/

Religion-free Zone


Repost from 2012. Seemed timely. I did not have time to edit it down, so sorry for the untidiness I am sure it contains.

The following reflection came as a result of a question my wife asked me the other day about the Democrats’ debate over the words “God-given.” I had taken a few moments to email her my response, but since then I have been thinking more and more about what’s at stake in this debate. My thoughts are a bit tangled and dense and partial, but it seems worthwhile to toss in my 2 cents as it becomes increasingly important to shed more light than heat in these pre-election days.

DNC and Secularism

The vigorous debate during the Democratic National Convention over whether or not to remove “God” from its platform is related to the Party’s more general adoption of a certain conception of what role religion should/should not play in a secular State. Their position, regardless of one’s  judgment of its truth claims, is an attempt to intelligently respond to an unavoidable and complex question: How does a religiously diverse and pluralistic democracy negotiate among seemingly irreconcilable differences while preserving social and political unity?

In highly simplified form, the liberal democratic view argues that creating a political context for religious pluralism to flourish requires faith-based reasoning (i.e. arguments drawn from the sacred texts or the worldview of a religious tradition) to be considered as a non-public form of reason which, therefore, cannot serve as the basis for the laws that govern public life. In this view, faith-based arguments are disqualified from possessing any publicly binding force by the very fact that they arise from a distinctive theological tradition. Within in a pluralistic society, they argue, this would allow the part to determine the whole.

This premise, carried to its logical conclusion, leads to a progressive excision within the socio-political order of all explicit forms of “religious reasoning” in defining rights and duties. What replaces such religious reasoning?  A secular form of reason that is considered to be truly rational, critical and objective, freed from the irrational/supra-rational biases religion is said to bring. Here “secular” means a God-sanitized worldview devoid of any transcendent or theological meaning. Such a God-sanitized view of justice and human fulfillment is to be based, the argument goes, on a “reasonable consensus” funneled through a legislative or judicial process. Such prevailing consensuses are understood to be invested with the binding force of “public reason,”arrived at by a thoroughly secularized, and therefore reasonable people.

It is this last claim to a truly rationally grounded justice that really becomes for secularists the sticky wicket, as it begs the question (as Alasdair McIntyre phrased it), whose justice and which rationality gets to be considered the enforceable one, as there are many competing claimants to these titles. Do majority groups claiming reason on their side determine truth claims?

Naked Zone

This version of the secular State attempts to solve the challenges found in a religiously pluralistic democracy by cleansing the temple of public life from all vestiges of religious reasoning and rhetoric and putting in religion’s place an alternative ideology that — it is argued — is capable of bearing a sufficient neutrality to allow for a peaceful and fair coexistence. Religion is privatized and hemmed in by the truth claims of “public reason,” punished when it transgresses its carefully traced out ghetto walls. Such secularists argue that their approach alone is capable of negotiating the seemingly irreconcilable differences among religious traditions by leaving, as the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus called it, a Naked Public Square where all are welcome to engage in non-religious reasoning without distinction or judgment (sic).  In the religion-free zone, tolerance, the Queen of the Virtues, allows religious people to be themselves in the privacy of their own heart and personal opinion.

Imposing Faith?

In a culture dominated by this form of secularism, the social-psychological effects tend, as I said, toward the radical privatization of religion, cultivating a mindset among religious practitioners that religiously-based language and worldviews are to be seen as a strictly personal and private affair. Such a culture levies stiff social sanctions on anyone who attempts to proclaim or argue for truth-claims that arise from reason informed by faith. Evangelization becomes proselytizing, and faith-inspired arguments are deemed intrusive, aggressive and intolerant impositions of private and non-binding reasoning on the naked public square. Religious truth is seen as a threat to the inviolable integrity of pluralistic worldviews that are, by their very diversity, the soul of a truly democratic society. Truth, it is argued, transgresses the neutral safe-zone that buffers a rival Church and State. Because it makes universal and binding claims on reason, truth makes those who’ve rejected it feel unfairly “judged” by its purveyors. Only the contemporary incarnations of secular reason, garnered by a democratic consensus, can claim authority to judge.

I’d argue that this nearly invisible cultural air we breathe is far more important in effecting the progressive elimination of religion from public life than is the highly visible political/legal battle. Cultural revolutions precede and empower political and legal revolutions.

It’s About Morality

In addition, it is the moral dimension of religious traditions’ reasoning that comes to the fore in the struggle for dominance in the public square, especially in regard to the Big Three moral battlegrounds: life-issues, marriage, sexuality. Moral questions serve as the prime subjects of the naked public square’s ravenous appetite for total control. That’s an important point to make, as the moral assertion of the inviolable dignity of all human life or of marriage as heterosexual, indissoluble and monogamous historically originates in the Judeo-Christian tradition and its belief in a God who created humanity in the divine image and established a determinate moral order that is known both by divine revelation and right reason. So anyone who wishes to deconstruct these moral arguments in favor of, for example, abortion or same-sex marriage knows they must contend with their theological associations.

Now, these arguments can, a Catholic would say, be persuasively made apart from theological sources because faith and reason are harmonious. But because our culture usually abhors such fine distinctions it’s usually quite easy for critics of faith-associated moral arguments to make a slam dunk, guilt-by-association argument, bringing a swift end to the hegemony of Judeo-Christian morality in America. Throw a “fanatic” epithet here, “fundamentalist” there and “bigot” over there, and the case is closed. Genuine dialogue is over.

This point reminds me of an interesting perspective a seasoned priest once shared with me. It went something like this:

A Catholic parent recently pleaded with me to speak to her son who had returned from his first year of college claiming to be an atheist. My first question to him was, “What’s the name of the girl you’re sleeping with?” In my experience, the rejection of organized religion or the idea of God is often arrived at through the back door of a morally dissonant life. My chosen lifestyle is incompatible with my faith, so I can either give up my immoral behavior, live in guilt or reject the faith. Not a tough choice for many. I say that many atheists or agnostics begin not as atheists but as amoralists who need atheism to sustain their desire to be unhindered.

Final Vatican Thoughts

I will end my considerations with a quote from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome that weighs in on this debate with some keen insights:

In democratic societies, all proposals are freely discussed and examined. Those who, on the basis of respect for individual conscience, would view the moral duty of Christians to act according to their conscience as something that disqualifies them from political life, denying the legitimacy of their political involvement following from their convictions about the common good, would be guilty of a form of intolerant secularism. Such a position would seek to deny not only any engagement of Christianity in public or political life, but even the possibility of natural ethics itself. Were this the case, the road would be open to moral anarchy, which would be anything but legitimate pluralism. The oppression of the weak by the strong would be the obvious consequence. The marginalization of Christianity, moreover, would not bode well for the future of society or for consensus among peoples; indeed, it would threaten the very spiritual and cultural foundations of civilization.

In Summary…


This icon, when I posted it in 2013, was by itself (with no commentary) a complete daily Blog post titled, In Summary. The day after I posted it, I received an email from a long time friend. His reaction so moved me that I asked if I could post his email anonymously. I felt his reaction demonstrated eloquently the very point I was trying to make: the image of Jesus crucified surpasses all of my words, because it is truth, goodness and beauty perfectly fused into the one “word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18).

Here’s what my friend’s email said:

My dear friend!

I habitually open your blog when I feel hungry for inspiration in the morning. This morning I am preparing for a hard meeting amid a series of other difficulties that have made me cry out to God, “Basta! Enough!” out of dryness.

When I saw your simple post of the cross this morning my raw reaction was to let out an an expletive.

Then I started laughing. Then I started crying.

Ave crux, spes unica! Hail the cross, our only hope!

Keep teaching me from afar!

His email brought to mind the Peruvian St. Rose of Lima’s impassioned proclamation of the word of the Cross. She taught me through her words that the Cross is not only to be the supreme beauty that informs our contemplative gaze, but is to become the beauty that informs our whole existence. Here are her words, taken from the Divine Office for her Feast Day:

Our Lord and Savior lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: “Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.”
When I heard these words, a strong force came upon me and seemed to place me in the middle of a street, so that I might say in a loud voice to people of every age, sex and status: “Hear, O people; hear, O nations. I am warning you about the commandment of Christ by using words that came from his own lips: We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions. We must heap trouble upon trouble to attain a deep participation in the divine nature, the glory of the sons of God and perfect happiness of soul.”

That same force strongly urged me to proclaim the beauty of divine grace. It pressed me so that my breath came slow and forced me to sweat and pant. I felt as if my soul could no longer be kept in the prison of the body, but that it had burst its chains and was free and alone and was going very swiftly through the whole world saying:

“If only mortals would learn how great it is to possess divine grace, how beautiful, how noble, how precious. How many riches it hides within itself, how many joys and delights! Without doubt they would devote all their care and concern to winning for themselves pains and afflictions. All men throughout the world would seek trouble, infirmities and torments, instead of good fortune, in order to attain the unfathomable treasure of grace. This is the reward and the final gain of patience. No one would complain about his cross or about troubles that may happen to him, if he would come to know the scales on which they are weighed when they are distributed to men.”