Friday, February 23, 2007

A Bishop Talks Anna Nicole

It may still be news to some people, but, indeed, bishops read the news, and watch it, and digest it as much as -- if not more than -- the rest of us do. And for anyone whose daily diet involves even a pinch of CNN, FOX, MSNBC or practically any newspaper here in the States, it's been near-impossible to get away from the news-channels' latest free-for-all: the death at 39 of the model/reality TV star/former Playmate Anna Nicole Smith two weeks back.

You shouldn't be shocked to hear that the Anna Nicole story's being watched with more interest by more of our people than, say, the wave of parish closings and reconfigurations sweeping the East Coast. (Given the way some of the latter have panned out, however, it's up for grabs as to which has become more of a circus.) And not a few would see the former's developments, like a family fight over Smith's burial spot, warring claims over the paternity of her newborn daughter, and her history of revolving-door relationships and drug abuse, as a bit of a third rail.

In light of all that, there's really been no ecclesiastical engagement of the story... that is, until now.

Writing yesterday in his weekly diocesan-paper column, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison connected the lessons of Anna Nicole's life and death with the wisdom of Tradition and the observance of Lent.

The effort alone is worth a bounty of bonus-points. Here's a snip:
During these days I am praying frequently for the repose of the soul of Anna Nicole Smith and I don't mean in any way to judge her - I do feel sorry and pray for her. But in her tragic life, the marriage bond has been tinkered with repeatedly, in terms of multiple partnerships and lately a quasi-marriage. The result is that her new-born baby could have one of six natural fathers; the rights of next of kin in this case will have to be determined by the courts. There will be custody battles among the candidates for natural father who are still alive, regardless of the identity of the natural father, and the connection between the new-born baby and almost a half-billion dollars from the estate of the deceased husband of Anna Nicole, all of these are in the legal mix.

There is pending litigation about the house in which she lived and even over her human remains, as to funeral arrangements. It has been said that the litigation surrounding her death at this point is going to be the most complex litigation of this sort in all of history. It will take many years, and it will cost millions of dollars.

When the state does not protect and reinforce the marriage bond and the true definition of marriage, everything is left to the courts and there is a lot of money to be made. The civil law was meant to reflect the law of reason - the natural law - and when it doesn't, there can result profound excesses in the litigation sphere as is evident here. When civil law opened the door to no-fault divorce and in-vitro fertilization, civil law started down the slippery slope that led us to the present moment.

Tinkering with the marriage bond and with the definition of marriage empowers the courts to usurp decisions that belong to the traditional family and affords great wealth to eager litigators. The natural law is the guide both to freedom and to conscience in these very sensitive matters. I will try to write more about the natural law during this holy season, because the education and formation of human freedom and of human conscience depend very much on a correct understanding of the natural law.

Of course all the education in the world does not give us a heart rooted in Christ. Prayer, along with works of penance and charity, form the core of our Lenten observance. When we receive ashes, and I am always thrilled at the number of people who want to participate in this beautiful rite of the Church, we are telling the Lord, we are telling the faith community by this public gesture, and we are telling ourselves that our Lenten observance will include more prayer, more works of penance, and more works of charity.
Some might remember that Morlino -- a onetime Jesuit -- gave the keynote at last year's National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington.

The 2007 edition of the breakfast is fast-approaching; this year's falls within Easter Week. Its main speaker doesn't have to travel far at all this time: The Donald will be giving The Keynote.