CNEWA
ONE Magazine
God • World • Human Family • Church

Sacred Cows

Ideas to which we cling may be sacred cows – obstacles on the path to God.

There are 500 whimsically decorated, life-size sculptures of cows scattered all about New York City this summer – but, good New Yorker that I am, I take it in stride and barely notice them.

That’s probably how the real cows that still wander about Indian cities are treated. Although in the Hindu tradition they are venerated as sacred, for the most part people do their best to ignore them, even prodding them gently out of the way when they interfere with passage.

We all have our sacred cows, figuratively speaking. Sometimes they’re people – sometimes, ideas or plans – sometimes they’re policies or programs – sometimes, structures or institutions.

Lots of families have one. Usually it’s someone who’s just plain eccentric, but everyone patiently tolerates the eccentricities and, as occasions warrant, pretends they’re not even there.

Occasionally it’s a more serious matter. A family member has a personal problem, maybe alcohol abuse. There doesn’t seem to be much anyone can do about it. So, the rest of the family has learned to turn a blind eye and live as though the problem – and the person with the problem – isn’t really there.

Usually the policy works, until the problem gets so much in our way that we have to change our course to get around it or gently try to nudge it out of the way.

A favorite idea can become a sacred cow, too. Whether it’s out of blindness, laziness, or fear, lots of times we let certain uncritical assumptions drift through our minds and hearts, impeding our clear thinking and getting in the way of fully living out the life to which we aspire.

Politics has its share of sacred cows. Sometimes millions, even billions, are spent on unrealistic and foolish projects that are the perpetual favorites of certain interests – who often don’t even realize the damage they are doing.

Some policies seem to get in the way of justice and the common good, but no one dares to abolish them. For example, the United Nations’ embargo of Iraq isn’t achieving its original geopolitical objective, but in some political circles it’s sacrosanct. As the popular refrain says, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

Even the Church has its own share of sacred cows. I’ve been present at professional discussions where the canon law of the Church is held in such veneration – even if it isn’t apt to the situation it is trying to address – that some canonists would rather adjust the reality to fit the law than vice-versa.

The Pope himself doesn’t want the papal office to fall into this category. He has repeatedly asked Orthodox and Catholic leaders to help him find new ways of exercising his special Petrine ministry. He doesn’t want to become an obstacle on the way to Christian unity.

When Moses came down the mountain, he found the people, in desperation, imaging the Lord as a golden calf. He destroyed it; it was an obstacle on the way to the invisible God.

Holy cow! Maybe I have one too.

Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA

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