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Prayer Opens Us Up to God
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

What Does 'Praying Hard' Mean?
Am I Obliged to Boycott That Store?
Papal Names
Can God Hate Anyone?

 


Q: An ad during a recent congressional primary said that a certain candidate “works hard and prays hard.” Is there any theological validity to the concept of “praying hard”? I know that people can pray with greater intensity over some personal or family crisis, but is that really “praying hard”?

A: Although that campaign slogan works well as a play on words (“prays hard” instead of “plays hard”), it fails to describe accurately what prayer involves. In praying, we honestly acknowledge our relationship to God— and by extension to other people.

Perhaps the problem with that phrase is most obvious from Jesus’ story about the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple (Luke 18:9-14). Is the Pharisee “praying hard” in that story? Would he have prayed even “harder” if he had continued along those lines for another 30 minutes? For another two hours?

If someone answers “yes” to any of the last three questions, he or she has missed the whole point of Jesus’ story. Prayer is not a mini-audit, a way of updating God’s records about us. That Pharisee sounds worried that God might overlook his twice-weekly fasting and paying taxes even beyond what the Law of Moses required.

Unfortunately, the Pharisee could have prayed in that style every day for 50 years and never drawn any closer to God. Why? That prayer emphasized the Pharisee rather than God, serving mostly to enlighten God and “set the record straight.”

Honest prayer opens us up to God’s grace and prepares us to make whatever changes that greater openness may require. Prayer should reflect our openness to God’s grace and our willingness to cooperate with that grace.

Even though the tax collector in this story has a very short prayer, Jesus highly praises that man’s honesty. I hope that the congressional candidate mentioned in your question prays both honestly and hard.

Jesus’ story reminds us that, like it or not, our prayers reflect how we see ourselves in relation to God and to others.

If we have blind spots about either relationship, “praying hard” in that sense will simply enlarge them. Such prayer will falsely suggest that we are drawing closer to God when, in fact, that prayer is a way of keeping God’s grace from influencing every aspect of our lives.

Perhaps Jesus was telling us something about the danger of “praying hard” when he cautioned against drawing a great deal of attention to ourselves while praying—as if the sheer number of words makes a prayer good (Matthew 6:5-8). “Praying hard” never creates a greater obligation for God to do things as we consider best.

The concept “praying hard” is theologically acceptable only if it reflects a person’s growing openness to God’s grace and a greater generosity in responding to that grace. May all of us “pray hard” in that sense!

Am I Obliged to Boycott That Store?

Q: A boycott has been urged for companies that support Planned Parenthood. The grocery store where I shop, part of a chain, is on that list.

I am a widow on Social Security and have big medical bills. My nest egg is dwindling rapidly. This store is the cheapest in the area and has what I need. Under these circumstances, must I boycott this store?

A: The moral issue here is described as “cooperation in evil.” Are you promoting artificial contraception or abortion if you continue to shop at that grocery store? The fact that you raise this question indicates that you want to act in a morally good way.

Moral theologians speak of “formal cooperation” (direct) and “material cooperation” (indirect). Formal cooperation means making someone else’s immoral action one’s own, willfully joining in it. In a sense, material cooperation contributes to another person’s immoral action without truly assenting to it.

If an abortion is performed in a hospital, those who willfully assist a doctor in performing it are involved in formal cooperation with evil. A lab technician in the same hospital could be involved in material cooperation if he or she unwillingly participates.

People who manufactured Zyklon-B gas, used to murder Jews and others at Nazi concentration camps, were involved in formal cooperation with evil if they knew how that gas was being used. People who bought other products from the company that manufactured Zyklon-B gas were involved in material cooperation—unless they chose that company precisely because it made the gas used to murder people (in which case, theirs was formal cooperation in evil).

A person’s moral responsibility is proportionate to how direct the connection is to the immoral action, how much the person knows about that connection and what other options are available to this person.

In our increasingly interconnected world, it has become very difficult to avoid all material cooperation in evil. The drug company that has a patent on a life-saving medicine that I need may also make drugs intended to cause a spontaneous abortion.

Some people even buy stock in companies that they do not support—in order to have the right to initiate a stockholders’ resolution about some product or procedure to which they have a moral objection.

Must you boycott this grocery store chain? Not every call for a boycott creates a moral obligation to participate in it. That is a prudential judgment about which conscientious people may disagree.

On the other hand, no decision is simply economic—without moral implications. Some boycotts have resulted in more just compensation for workers or greater protection for their rights and safety.

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (475 Riverside Drive, Room 1842, New York, NY 10115) can be a valuable resource in these matters. Their Web site is www.iccr.org.

If at some future date you can do your grocery shopping at another store without great hardship to yourself, I encourage you to do so—as long as there are valid reasons for a boycott. For the present, however, I cannot say that it is sinful for you to shop at that chain store.

I am grateful to my confrere Father Donald Miller, O.F.M., a moral theologian, who assisted me in crafting this response.

Q: The election of Pope Benedict XVI last year got me to thinking about papal names. Is it strictly a personal choice to change one’s name?

Has there been only one Peter who was pope? Could a new pope choose the name Peter?

A: No one who is elected pope is obliged to take a new name. According to the list in the Annuario Pontificio (the Catholic Church’s annual and official list of popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops and people who work for the Holy See), Pope John II (533-35) was the first pope to take a new name. He considered his given name, Mercury, inappropriate for a pope because it is the name of a pagan god. Name changes next happened in 955 (John XII) and 983 (John XIV).

Except for Hadrian VI (1522-23) and Marcellus II (1555), every pope elected since 996 has taken a new name.

Could someone already named Peter keep that after being elected pope? Yes. I have, however, counted nine men named Peter who were elected pope since 1009. Each one chose a new name—apparently out of respect for the Apostle Peter.

Can God Hate Anyone?

Q: In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul reflects on God’s free choice of people. Paul presents God as saying, “I loved Jacob but hated Esau” (Romans 9:13, quoting Malachi 1:3). Can God really hate? What help can you offer on this?

The New American Bible’s footnote for Romans 9:13 reads: “The literal rendering, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,’ suggests an attitude of divine hostility that is not implied in Paul’s statement. In Semitic usage hate means to love less; see Luke 14:26, with Matthew 10:37. Israel’s unbelief reflects the mystery of the divine election that is always operative within it. Mere natural descent from Abraham does not ensure the full possession of the divine gifts; it is God’s sovereign prerogative to bestow this fullness upon, or to withhold it from, whomsoever he wishes; see Matthew 3:9 and John 8:39. The choice of Jacob over Esau is a case in point.”

Jacob was Esau’s twin (but younger) brother. God chooses people for God’s own reasons.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.


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