Tag Archives: Catholicism

Invisible fruit: Trust God’s plan, even if you can’t see the point

It’s a bad idea to go places expecting to see miracles, even if you’ve seen miracles in those places before. God always works, but not necessarily according to our schedule or in ways that we can see.

This past weekend, I was a chaperone on a weekend retreat for high-schoolers enrolled in our parish’s Confirmation program. This was my fourth time chaperoning such a retreat over the last year, although this was a new batch of students who had begun taking Confirmation classes in September.

I had been looking forward to the experience. While I knew it would entail functioning on minimal sleep and responding to typical teenage antics, I also assumed there would be moments of awe and inspiration. Upon my first chaperoning experience last year, seeing youth and young adults with faith on fire led me to re-examine my own relationship with God and embark on what has been an ongoing journey of metanoia.

Each subsequent retreat has come with its challenges, but also moments of inspiration in which a youth or young adult will share something so beautiful or even profound that it makes the whole weekend worth it. Sometimes just seeing the change on someone’s faith upon coming out of Confession on the retreat can be inspiring.

This retreat wasn’t quite the same for me. Some of the kids were far more challenging than past groups in terms of being out of control and at times flat-out disrespectful toward the adults. (According to my sons, who are regularly involved with the program, I’m not the first person to make that observation.) And maybe it was me — maybe my own frustration closed me up spiritually so that I couldn’t absorb those moments in the same way — but I just didn’t have any of those moments of grace that I’d experienced in the past.

When I got home, my wife commented that there were probably some good kids there, too. And she’s right, but those weren’t the ones with whom I had to interact. (The chaperones on these retreats don’t lead activities or anything; we’re really just there to keep the kids under control in the cabins at night and to intervene where there’s a problem.) One of my sons asked whether there was any part of the retreat I enjoyed, and I found the question hard to answer. There were some goods moments, but nothing that just spiritually blew me away.

Then THAT VOICE stepped in, asking questions like, Were you there for the kids or for yourself?; Does the fact that YOU didn’t feel spiritually inspired mean that the kids weren’t?; and my personal favorite, What if the kids who were the most difficult were the ones who needed to be there the most?

Sometimes the seeds we scatter bear fruit where we least expect it. None of the kids on last year’s retreat knew that their words and actions would inspire a major spiritual awakening in me. I have no idea how kids were inspired this weekend or how deeply, but if one kid may have been moved as I was last year, wasn’t that worth my time and energy, and perhaps even putting up with a little disrespect?

Once, while contemplating the Mystery of the Nativity, it occurred to me that anyone who passed by that scene would not likely have had any clue that they were passing by the most important moment in human history. (The shepherds knew only because the angel told them.) If anything, they probably just saw a baby being born in a dirty place to a couple of poor people. They might have even looked at the situation with contempt: “Can’t those people get a room at the inn?” Even if they appreciated that the miracle of life taking place, they could not have appreciated its full significance.

Then there is the Eucharist. Physically, no one can see the change that occurs as bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, yet we trust God that this is taking place.

The fact is, miracles happen everyday that we don’t recognize. We may even participate in them and have no idea. Sometimes we need to just do what God asks without expecting to be rewarded, even with the gift of seeing someone’s faith awaken. We need to trust God that if we do His will, good will come from it.

(Incidentally, I plan to blog about this separately, but I did have an incredible spiritual experience of my own yesterday on a day trip to Mission San Juan Capistrano. God doesn’t always speak to us in the places where we’re expecting to hear His voice. Sometimes He likes to surprise us.)

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Filed under Bill Quinnan, Catholicism, Eucharist, Faith, Nativity, Parenting, Sacraments, Youth

Usury and doctrinal development

The other day I found myself once again pondering what, at a glance, looks a lot like a dramatic change in the Church’s teaching on a moral issue. As a Catholic who counts on the Church to be a reliable and authoritative teacher on matters of faith and morals, I’ve always found this matter to be a bit of a challenge.

After all, if charging interest on a loan was once considered immoral but is now allowed, isn’t that a reversal of moral doctrine? And if such a reversal is possible, might not similar reversals be possible on other moral teachings of the Church? And if the Church’s moral teachings are reversible, does the Church have any moral authority to begin with?

I’ve gradually learned not to assume that my inability to answer a question regarding the faith means that no answer exists. Too often people stumble upon some doctrinal puzzle they can’t solve themselves and conclude that they’ve outsmarted the Church.

It is a bit like a beginning violinist concluding that something is wrong with a million-dollar Stradivarius because he can’t make it sound the way he thinks it should. Given the number of brilliant minds who have belonged to the Church over the years, one is very unlikely to come up with a doctrinal question that hasn’t been dealt with at some point. If I’m stuck on a question about Church teaching, it is probably a reflection on me, not on the Church.

Unfortunately, however, my ability to come up with questions I couldn’t answer, and naive assumption that no one else in the Church could answer them either, led me away from the Church for a number of years. Determined not to make that mistake again, when I have a question about some aspect of Church teaching, I assume that there has to be an answer out there somewhere, and I try to find it.

Granted, this is a lot easier to do than it would have been, say, 30 years ago, when you had no search engines to look through thousands of years worth of Church documents scattered across countless websites in a few seconds. For some questions, though, finding a satisfactory answer can still be tricky.

The case of usury was, for me, such a question. I’d looked into the matter on a number of occasions over the years but found only vague explanations that the Church’s moral teaching had not changed, but that the nature of money had, and that this change in the nature of money made the old prohibitions against usury obsolete. (To be clear, these old prohibitions were not merely against charging excessively high rates of interest, which is how we tend to use the word “usury” today – they were against trying to make a profit of a loan at all.)

The other day, I was glad to find a somewhat in-depth discussion of what has really happened with the Church’s teaching on usury over the years. Father Gary L. Coulter has on his website an essay titled “The Church and Usury: Error, Change or Development,” which he wrote as research paper toward his master’s degree in theology. I appreciated that Fr. Coulter sought to explain the matter rather than simply explain it away. I have to admit, I still find the issue a little abstract, but Fr. Coulter’s essay made the water a little less muddy.

In a nutshell, Fr. Coulter explains that while money was once considered a “barren” commodity that only had value as it was spent, it has become a productive commodity in today’s economy, such that ordinary people can use it to generate new wealth.

Basically, as I understand Fr. Coulter’s explanation, if you had $100 in the Middle Ages, you had two options – spend it or save it to spend on some other day. If I loaned that $100 out to someone and got it back, I was out nothing – I would still have the full, one-time use of that $100 upon getting it back. If I charged him $10 for the loan, I was $10 richer and he was $10 poorer, even though I had neither given up nor produced anything in exchange for that $10.

This was the primary moral problem with lending money – that one was taking money from someone else without really giving up anything or producing anything in return.

One point Father Coulter made that I found particularly interesting is that the Church did allow for compensation where the lender could show that he HAD given up something in making the loan, for losses that occurred as a result of making a loan, including lost profits. The catch was that those losses had to be provable, and the burden of proof was on the lender.

The Church also permitted the lease of productive commodities, because it was understood that by lending out such commodities, the lender deprived himself of their productive benefits. For example, if I leased a wheelbarrow to someone, I would be deprived of the use of that wheelbarrow during that time. Presumably, there would also be some wear and tear on the wheelbarrow, too, making it less valuable when I received it back. Plus, as owner of the wheelbarrow, I would maintain some of the inherent risk of ownership, such as the possibility that the wheelbarrow might fall apart due to previous wear or some defect.

The Church also allowed for the investment of money in business enterprises, such that if I provided capital for a business, I could take some share of the profits, even if I was not materially involved in the operation. Of course, I also bore a risk of loss in doing so – if the business failed, I lost my capital.

Today, money has the ability to be productive for an individual even while it is not being spent. Just as lending out my wheelbarrow deprives me of its use for a time, so does lending out my money. There is also a greater understanding of the inherent risk involved in lending money today, and an acceptance of compensating the lender for bearing that risk. Therefore, a lender is assumed to have just title on a loan, where previously it was assumed that he did not.

The moral principles underlying the usury teaching remain intact, however. It is still wrong to try to obtain more from a contract than one has a justifiable claim to, but it is understood that, in today’s economy, one generally does have a justifiable claim to interest due to a change in the nature of money.

If the primary sin of usury is the attempt to get something for nothing, I am inclined to wonder if, while the principle may not apply to the standard practice of charging interest, it might apply to other attempts to get something for nothing, simply because one can. Clearly, if I charge excessive interest on a loan, not simply because the borrower is high-risk or because of opportunity costs, but because I happen to know that the borrower is desperate and has no alternatives, this would seem to be an obvious case of usury.

If I charge someone a higher price for something sheerly because I know that person has no other options – not because the situation somehow imposes a higher burden on me – this would seem to violate the same principle, whether I am a loan shark or an auto mechanic. Insider trading – exploiting another person’s lack of knowledge to sell something for far more or purchase something for far greater than what I know the value to be – would be another example. Frivolous lawsuits, where one tries to exploit the legal system to gain compensation well beyond a wrong he has suffered, might also apply.

I found another article at CatholicCulture.org that also wrestles with this subject, making more or less the same points as Fr. Coulter.

This is not a development in Church teaching that can be summed up adequately in a few words, but I am at least satisfied that it is not a change in moral doctrine, but a change in economic conditions.

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