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Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 14, 2011 (20A)
By Fr. Phil Bloom
Bottom line: The Canaanite woman shows the difference between profound and superficial faith. The difference can be seen today in a Catholic's approach to marital fecundity.
Today we hear about one of the truly magnificent women of the Gospel. She is a Canaanite (part of the pagan people to the west and north of Israel) - and she has one goal: the healing of her daughter gripped by a demon. When Jesus passes through her territory, she pleads her case with him. The disciples want to stop her and even Jesus seems to brush her aside. "It is not right to take the food of the children and give it to the dogs."*
Here is where we see her true greatness. She could have been discouraged, she could have been sidetracked by a seeming offense and said: "Don't call me a dog." But the word "dog" admits a positive as well as negative sense, like in English we speak for example about a "lucky dog." So she takes it in the best sense and says, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master's table."
She then receives from Jesus his highest praise: "Woman, your faith is great!" He healed her daughter.
Jesus always sees beyond the surface. He knows what is in the heart of each one of us. He sees us not as focus groups, but as persons.
A few years ago a national study tried to lump Catholic women together as if there is no difference between surface faith and a deeper faith. The Guttmacher study of some 1000 women who had abortions said 29% of the abortions were procured by Catholic women. The study then attempted to make a connection between that statistic and the Church's teaching on birth control.
They downplayed, however, some facts from their own study. A woman who describes herself as religious, that one is who practices her faith, whether Protestant or Catholic, is only 25% as likely to seek an abortion. That is, she is four times less likely to abort her baby. There is a big difference between superficial and deep faith, between a cultural Catholic and a practicing Catholic.
Let me make a comparison: Sometimes we Americans say "I am Italian" or "I am Croatian" or "I am Irish." Our grandparents came from one of those countries, we know a few words and we have tasted a version of the country's foods. Nevertheless, if we meet someone brought up in that county, we readily recognize the enormous difference between the real thing and the American counterfeit. :)
It is similar between someone who calls himself "Catholic" and the one who is living and breathing his faith. Now, we don't reject cultural Catholics. We are glad that they acknowledge their baptism, but we want them to live their baptism: to attend Mass and return to the full practice of their faith. That makes all the difference.
A deep relation to Jesus through the Church he founded is what we offer. As he did for the daughter of the Canaanite, Jesus can free us. Jesus did not come to condemn, but to save. That applies even in the case of abortion. Some people have heard that abortion is one of the very few sins that incurs automatic excommunication. That is to underscore its seriousness - the taking of an innocent human life. But do not be afraid: Almost every priest has authority to lift that excommunication in the sacrament of confession. In that sacrament Jesus gives complete forgiveness and deep healing.
One of the encouraging things today is that so many young people are coming to Jesus, particularly through Confession. You can see that at the World Youth Day in Madrid: Thousand of youth examining their lives and then seeking renewal and healing by confessing their sins to Jesus' representative - the priest. Our goal is that the new generation will have a deep faith, that they move beyond cultural Catholicism - that they will live, breathe and practice their faith. That they will know Jesus, his saving, healing power.
We do need healing. One symptom of our sickness is abortion - over one million each year in our country. But I want to be clear. The solution to abortion is not more birth control. We will not solve abortion by throwing more birth control at our young people. I mentioned the Guttmacher study on abortion. That same study showed that 57% of the women who had abortions were using birth control in the month before they got pregnant.
Some of us can remember when the birth control pill was first introduced in the late 50's. They presented the pill as the solution to our problems: overpopulation, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, child abuse and above all marital tension between husband and wife.** After 35 years years of massive use of the birth control pill and other forms of artificial contraception, I believe we are ready to ask: Is birth control really the solution or is it the problem?
An interesting article came out in U.S. News and World Report (not exactly a Catholic magazine). Lionel Tiger who is an evolutionary anthropologist asked why there has been so much family breakdown, male irresponsibility, single parents and abortion since the 1960's. He answers with two words: the pill. He connects the dots - the more we built our lives around contraception, the more male irresponsibility, the more family breakdown, the more single parents, the more abortion.
There is an alternative. A few years back, I had the opportunity to take the Creighton University course on Natural Family planning which they offer for doctors, nurse, clergy and NFP practitioners. There have been tremendous advances in Natural Family Planning since the 60s. Here in Seattle we have excellent NFP teachers and our new archbishop has published a marriage preparation booklet titled "Everything I Have Is Yours." Archbishop Sartain presents Jesus teaching on marital fecundity - how young married couples can use NFP to open prudently open themselves to the gift of life.
When I was in Peru I worked with a married couple and an obstetrician to teach Natural Family Planning. Some 100 couples participated. We also offered a class for young adults (singles) who wanted to be Instructors or Promoters. Not only young women, but young men attended. Of course the boys could not keep a personal chart as the girls could. So they asked their moms if they could do a chart for them. The course lasted six months and when it was over I asked one of the boys what he had learned. He said to me, "Father, I learned respect for women."
That is what our society needs--and that is what Natural Family Planning promotes. I am convinced that Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Church he founded are the solution to the problems of our society - and our own deepest personal needs.
Like the Canaanite woman we come to Jesus with personal needs and the needs of those we love. If we had her humility, we would also hear Jesus loving words, "Your faith is great. Your prayer is granted." The Canaanite woman shows the difference between profound and superficial faith. The difference can be seen today in a Catholic's approach to marital fecundity. Amen.
************It is beyond the scope of this homily, but person might ask why was Jesus so reluctant to give the Canaanite woman a hearing. One part of the answer is that he did not want to give the appearance of approving her religion. Like many coastal peoples the Canaanites tended toward syncretism - a blending of Egyptian, Greek, Roman and other gods. This inclusivity is a natural tendency, but it often has a bad aftertaste. (Like male cooks who try improve a dish by adding every spice they find in the cupboard.) Worse than the flavor of syncretism were the practices it tolerated. In this case, child sacrifice and temple prostitution. It might seem beyond imagining, but parents actually offered their babies and small children in sacrifice to a god named Moloch. Their rituals included sexual enanctment involving both female and male (homosexual) prostitutes. In light of these beliefs and hideous practices, one can understand why Jesus said that his mission was to lost sheep of the house of Israel. Concentrate on the people who worship the true God so they can be a leaven to the nations.
**Birth control has taken care of "overpopulation" but at a high cost. Consider the aging population in the U.S. and its implications for medicare and social security.