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