John Corr: Exploring the source of our values


Published: Monday, April 22, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 19, 2013 at 7:25 p.m.

I liked Nathan Crabbe's Feb. 24 column, “Bye bye, Benedict,” because Nathan brought up what we express daily but don't often talk about publicly: values.

It made me think of my experience with Catholicism, growing up in the Bronx, where I attended a Catholic elementary school, Cardinal Hayes High School and Fordham University. I mostly took for granted what was happening to my thinking in those years and did not think analytically about it until years later, when I was trying to identify my values and their source.

In that process, I saw that I took for granted living in a mostly loving community, surrounded by helpful and holy nuns and priests. Their good deeds and those of my fellow parishioners demonstrated to me, without my then fully realizing it, the happiness that comes from helping others. In that community, one could of course see familiar human defects surface; however, these defects were often restrained by the spirit of the Christian message.

Our pastor in elementary school days was a kindly, no-nonsense Irishman whose engineer father had travelled the world building bridges. This pastor could have enjoyed the material benefits and positions offered by the secular world; however, he chose to become a priest. As one of his Sunday altar boys, I noticed people coming in after Mass to thank him without saying why. (I later learned that he was operating a discreet welfare service, helping people in obvious need even without their asking for it.)

One Sunday, after Mass, I saw a woman, perhaps a widow, come in to the sacristy to thank the pastor. As she did, I saw something that commandeered my attention: the face of the pastor lit up with a light I never had seen before. His face shone with light and, I think, the happiness of a love of God. Years later, when I was wondering why saints are often represented with halos, I realized that perhaps the halos represented the type of light I had seen radiating from the face of the pastor.

I stayed Catholic because I experienced tangible benefits: I felt a spiritual and physical “boost” after receiving Holy Communion, I felt quieter and more connected to life in prayer, I felt spiritually and physically better after confession, to name a few. Yet, I still had questions, sometimes more inarticulate doubt than question, about life.

What helped so much in this situation was studying philosophy with the Jesuits at Fordham. What I learned there was that science and reason can tell us only so much about reality. We all come, I believe, to the point of knowing we do not have certain knowledge about reality. Yet we must live and make decisions every day. By what standards do we order our decisions? This is a question, that, in my view, needs more attention in contemporary thinking. I think the question is the point at which we seek belief systems, be they traditionally religious or secular.

My answer to the question is that I have found that following the rationale of Catholic teachings gives me practical benefits in all areas of my life. I do it because I agree with the rationale because it makes sense in terms of what I experience and because it increases my happiness. I feel centered spiritually and intellectually. I don't think my church is the only center of spirituality. The important thing is that it works for me.

It is interesting that many Communist leaders in the Soviet Union were carried as infants by their mothers for covert baptism in the Orthodox Church. Their mothers had learned, from their own daily experience, that the ethic of the Christian message betters our lives in observable fashion. Their experience outlasted Communism.

I find that some critics of Catholic teachings have not read the teachings. I would like the church to do more to express the rationale of its teachings to the world, especially in the media and in education. At times, people are prone to do what they want to do no matter what the church and other constructive voices say. At other times, societies are inclined to listen to the church, especially when the church is up to the task of communicating effectively. In this connection, I recommend the books of Jesuit James Martin, especially his “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life.” Martin relates spirituality to everyone.

People sometimes say they love the Catholic Church, “warts and all.”

I don't love the warts. For instance, the church's institutional inability to detect and resolve the clergy sexual abuse scandal without media pressure points to a vast defect in governance and spirituality. Like Nathan, I hope that the church will do more to resolve this shameful problem.

We have said goodbye to Pope Benedict. Whatever one might think of Benedict's pontificate, it seems clear to me that he had decided that the church needed change. He produced this change by resigning, with faith, thus opening the way for Francis.

John Corr lives in Gainesville.

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