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Observing contradictions during Lent

Gary Caruso | Friday, March 25, 2011

It is an unfortunate fact that greedy, self-serving, mean-spirited people abound around us daily in our society. Personal contradictions range from the subtle to the outlandish. For example, twice yearly — during the Christmas season and Lent — a humanist organization purchases advertising titled, “What Humanists Think,” and places it on the Metro buses in Washington, D.C. Their message proclaims that some people do not have to believe in God to be good. Yet during the past two years, as routinely as those posters appear on the divider wall behind the driver’s seat, intolerant so-called “good” Christians inevitably deface and destroy them by adding biblical citations or crossing off the words, “do not.”

Undoubtedly, Lent is a personal contradiction for me. I usually transform into a 40-day curmudgeon as I attempt to forego treats, change habits or lose weight. This year I unwisely tackled all three goals, and fear that this column may sound more like an Andy Rooney rant than an inner self-examination. Try my best; I sometimes forget to order fish on Fridays. Most interestingly, several events thus far have heightened my awareness as though a greater power spread icing on my Lenten proverbial cake. Regardless of my initial expectations and goals, the unseen paths of Lent forever twist within my current trek.

On Wednesday, the worlds of life and death — central to our Lenten sacrificial awareness — collided for two of my close, fellow Notre Dame alumni. While Mike Paulius (‘73) celebrated another birthday, Bill Delaney (‘76) traveled to a hospital following the death of his mother. For me, and many Catholics, the cognizance of living and dying simply lurks, mostly unnoticed, in the corners of our consciousness until we lose someone we love. For some, only organized religion seems to periodically prod serious notions of life and death from within the depths of our souls to the forefront of our thoughts.

But is organized religion the only catalyst? Others would argue that the mere humanist movement’s fights against what they perceive as religious bias, strategically unveiled to coincide with Christmas and Lent (like when the early Church created Christmas to coincide with the Pagan Winter Solstice), also elevate serious universal notions for good living and of the consequences of dying. Surely my Baptist coworker who hums religious hymns daily at her desk but oftentimes crashes other divisions’ pizza lunches to pilfer two plates of food could use any Christian, Pagan or Humanist self-awareness sessions that are open-minded and inclusive.

However, in my experience, most Catholic religious purists prefer to purge progressive-thinking members with a “take it or leave it” attitude. They walk a rigid line seeking to return to the theological history embodied in neo-scholasticism and biblical literalism. They stood in opposition to the Second Vatican Council reforms that embraced modernism and sought to renew the Church by restoring unity among all Christians and a dialogue with a contemporary world.

Today, they too oftentimes contradict themselves for political expediency. They praise the professed pro-life stands of some politicians who oppose abortion but who send convicts to their deaths by refusing requests for clemency. Specifically, 1976 Notre Dame graduate and current Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell last year refused to grant clemency (life) for convicted murderer Teresa Lewis, evaluated with an IQ of about 70. In his statement to deny clemency, McDonnell cited “no compelling reason to set aside the sentence.”

If life itself is not a compelling reason to spare the life of even a prisoner, it is no wonder religion is on the decline throughout the globe. Recently, the American Physical Society met in Dallas where it unveiled the study, “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation.” A group of mathematicians analyzed available (not asked in the U.S.) census data trends throughout the past century. They predict that in the future, organized religion will nearly vanish from nine Western-style democracies — the Netherlands, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Finland, Austria and the Czech Republic.

They found evidence of a herd mentality among respondents who are drifting away from religion, not unlike the majority of churches in our hemisphere with less than 200 worshipers who conversely only favor their style of pure doctrine. As obvious contradictions and scandals unfold worldwide within various religions, religion generally is losing importance. Trends show that as religious affiliation declines to nearly nonexistent numbers in the countries studied, it is more attractive for those citizens to be part of the majority rather than a minority — more popular to not be a churchgoer.

On the most basic level, it really comes down to each individual’s level of acceptance of others, regardless of how imperfect an individual. It also helps before ordering Friday’s lunch to remember that a Cuban sandwich is meaty, not fishy.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.