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Conformed to Christ: Four Reflections

By Juli Loesch Wiley


This article was originally published in Caelum Et Terra, Summer 1991, Volume 1, no 1 and is used here with the author’s permission. To obtain permission to republish this article, contact the author by clicking on the author's name link above.



Sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death.

James 1:15


            On December 21 --- on the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year--- I went out with a few friends before dawn to collect garbage bags from the dumpsters behind some Washington, D.C. businesses.  We hauled our "take"--- eight bags--- to a secluded area and went through the contents.  And we found what we were looking for.  There, amidst cigarette butts, newspapers, and half-eaten hamburgers, we found the battered bodies of children.


            I was not shocked.  I'd seen the pictures and I knew what to expect.  Still, something made me catch my breath as I held in my hand the severed shoulder, arm, and hand of a child who was perhaps 10 to 12 weeks into life at the time of death.  The arm, which was intact from shoulder to fingertips, measured about the length of my little finger: the hand alone was as long as the end of my own finger up to the first joint.


            No, we were not shocked, my friends and I; we hardly spoke.  We prepared the remains as respectfully as we could, said a brief prayer, and buried them.


            But that arm stretching the length of my finger, and that delicate, sensitive hand, continue to haunt me.  They are a blunt kind of evidence --- like traffic-killed raccoons gummed with red, or the mutilated body of an Indian on a Guatemalan roadside ---- that we are being steadily diminished.  Something is tearing us apart.




Be not conformed to this world,

But be transformed in the newness of your mind.

Romans 12:2


            As Pope John Paul II observed in Dominum et Vivificantem (Lord and Giver of Life), our world is filled with signs of death.  Children in their teens and younger are slaughtered in the fury of insurgency and counter-insurgency terrorism in Ireland and Israel, in South Africa and Latin America, in Iraq and Ethiopia.  Huge numbers of animal and plant species are disappearing, just as many tribal people were exterminated  when technologically adept civilizations colonized new lands.


            We have taken to applying poisons to the very sources of life:  to our farmland, to our food, and even to the intimacy of the sexual embrace. Even as one corporation declares bankruptcy from lawsuits brought by women maimed by their deadly Intra-Uterine Device, other manufacturers rush in to announce new injectable and implantable toxins and hormones, especially (and this excites them) their new early-abortion "death pill," RU486--- all of these "breakthroughs"  breaking through women's bodies, as usual. The HHS Secretary announces that in some areas the AIDS epidemic could dwarf the Black Plague; meanwhile, 40% of American women are sterile, subfertile, or incapable of bearing children without painful and expensive repair technologies.


            Reform movement falter. Hands Across America, the anti-hunger effort, saw most of the millions of dollars it raised evaporate into organizing costs.  The anti-abortion movement, at the peak of its political power, couldn't even get a Human Life Amendment out of committee.  And the anti-arms-race movement a few years ago pushed a Nuclear Freeze resolution through Congress, just to witness that same Congress fund the MX missile and the Trident II.


            Nor does this evil exist only in external structures of injustice:  the National Security Council, Planned Parenthood and the International Monetary Fund.  Each of us can think of our own neglect of prayer, our avoidance of the poor, our own obsessions and compulsions (over-eating, over-talking, over-stimulation, overwork).  The "structures of injustice" are an all too accurate projection of our own interior disorders.


            With hearts like these, how do we survive?



Thus saith the Lord,

Who made and formed thee from the womb,

He who is thy helper….

Isaiah 44



            I'm not among those who say the human race is a bad species.  Certainly my own people are not a bad lot:  all eight of my great-grandparents were farmers, wine-barrel-makers and draft-dodgers from Bavaria.  I grew up with the strong intuition that I was meant to explore the world, to find delight, and to play a part in some mysterious grand design.  This intuition was wonderfully confirmed by my Catholic Catechism, which bade me know, love, and serve a great and gracious Being, the Gardener who planted Paradise, the God Who Is.


            So existence is good (and how the word punctuates early Genesis: "good," "good," and "very good.") but the sunniest of pagans must admit that something has gone wrong.  I didn't need the Church to tell me that.  But I would be quite lost if the Church hadn't told me that God in His wisdom knows exactly what went wrong, and God in His compassion is drawn to our very lostness.  And it was the Church which held up before me Jesus Himself, the Compassion of God, who joined all flesh, and who will never, in time or in eternity, be separated from flesh.


So the Church's mission to America is not a matter of its professional personnel, its sociological positioning,  its conceptual paradigms (which do seem a shifty lot) or its political influence.


            Without Jesus, the Catholic Church would be a fraud.  We'd be, as Flannery O'Connor wrote, the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, "where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk, and what's dead stays that way."


God  traced with His finger the veins of our hands and arms, forming us; and it is Jesus, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, who can transform us.


Jesus Christ is the only contribution the Catholic Church can make to the transformation of American culture.



He destined them to become transformed

To the image of His Son. 

Romans 8:29


            In some intellectual gatherings, Catholicism is accused of being the main vehicle for males who are alienated from the sources of life, and who, in their anxiety and hubris, feel driven to dominate and control everything they can get their atom-splitting, gene-tinkering hands on (and to destroy what they cannot control.)


            Ten or fifteen years ago, I called that syndrome "patriarchy," but now using that word as a pejorative doesn't come so easily.


            I'm from Pennsylvania.  The folks in my state who are the most classically patriarchal ---- men and women having separate roles, the men being heads of families and representing them in public, and the women centered on the care of family and the domestic arts ---- are the Amish and Old Order Mennonites: not renowned for ecological or military violence, and hardly the locus of alienation in the Western world.


            "Patriarch" also calls to mind the Eastern Orthodox clergy:  bearded, cassocked men representing religious cultures which, like sturdy wild plants growing in the cracks of a paved universe, have survived repression and massacre and  have borne forward to  us the beauties of sacred icons and liturgies.  They are not the forces of repression in the East.


            "Patriarch" makes me think also of our father Abraham, who had the chutzpah to argue with God Himself to save the city of Sodom.  He informed God that it was not godly to destroy the innocent: if only ten just souls could be found in that rich and brutal metropolis, the city should be spared. Abraham is not the archetype of  violence in Judeo-Christian culture.


            So I avoid using the word "patriarchal" to name the dominate-control-destroy  pattern lamented by feminists (and anybody in their right mind.)


            But whatever you call it, that pattern is not an optical illusion.  Real and deadly, it operates at the level of statecraft and war;  in the medical abuse of women, unborn children, and men without money; and in the domestic life of families who are subjected to predatory or domineering members.


            It exists in women, too, sometimes in the same and sometimes in different forms.  But men still predominate in areas where the alienation and the destructive power are most menacing: foreign and military policy, businesses and industries which "externalize" their real costs in family displacement and environmental disruption; sexual degradation as entertainment; and medical-technical assaults on human dignity.  Men, and feminists--- defined as women who insist on simultaneously condemning, and emulating,  the most disturbing masculine traits -----

need a different model for living.


            Jesus the Man is the "sign of contradiction" who decisively confronts the alienated-male syndrome.  And the Church founded by Christ contains within itself the specific antidotes for the sins listed (somewhat misleadingly) under the term "patriarchy."  Here's just one example among many, and a cheering thought it is:  how the "patriarchal" vices --- the drive for possessions, the lust of the flesh, and the will to power--- are met and vanquished with the Church's gifts of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience!


            There are some--- Richard John Neuhaus comes to mind----  who say that Catholics could be a leaven in the United States: through our schools, hospitals, social services and other institutions; through public advocacy and lobbying; through Catholic lay leadership in he arts and in acts of resistance to the Culture of Death.  But just to read this paragraph is to review what is (for the most part) a litany of fumbled opportunities.


            The most powerful way we can transform American society is by fully, faithfully, forcefully and persuasively transmitting Christ's teachings which have  been handed down to us by the Apostles; and to live lives of holiness through prayer and the sacraments. As St. Seraphim of Sarov said,  ``Acquire the Holy
Spirit, and thousands around you will acquire salvation.''


            Must we not live in a startlingly different way?  Must we not become "a new creation"?  Only this will enable us to make our "institutions,"  our "politics,"  our "art" and "culture" radical enough, Christian enough, to make a difference.



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