Friday, June 29, 2012

Auf Wiedersehen!

In a few hours, I will head off to Innsbruck, Austria, to begin my study of German. Several years ago, I spent time learning how to read German. Valuable at the time, it has struck me repeatedly that I should rather have a developed ear for the language, so the Society of Jesus has been most gracious in allowing me this opportunity for a thorough immersion in the German language.

Near as I can tell, the closest thing I have to an association with Austria is the move The Sound of Music. If you have a twinge of nostalgia when you think of this movie, feel free to watch the video below of "Edelweiss."

How to Be an Atheist, II

Today on The Jesuit Post, the second article in the series entitled "How to Be an Atheist" appears. Decidedly shorter than my last post, this tries to elucidate what is meant when we say that God creates ex nihilo or from nothing. To my mind, this is an endless source of confusion and I've made an effort to make it a bit clearer (that said, I was reading the post this morning in bed using my iPad when it hit me how I could have said one important thing better. Alas.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

It's Pat versus the Bishops

Back in the early 1990's, there was a skit on Saturday Night Live featuring an androgynous character - Pat O'Neil Riley. Each skit involved an attempt to ascertain whether Pat was a man or a woman. I recall one episode where Pat needed to use the restroom and, just as the character took a step toward one of the clearly marked bathroom doors, there was some sort of "interruption" to the broadcast. When the interruption had been cleared, two characters who had seen Pat choose a restroom were remarking after Pat's sex, without giving any indication to the audience what it was.

Yesterday, the Freedom From Religion Foundation carried a story about how Julia Sweeney - the creator of and actor behind the character Pat - had released a 30-second ad directed against the Catholic Bishops. "It's Pat" had an allure because it retained a sense of mystery surrounding Pat's sex; Sweeney's spot leaves no ambiguity about her position:

If you don't want to watch the video, here is a transcript:

"Hi, I'm Julia Sweeney, and I'm a cultural Catholic. I am no longer a believer and I even wrote a play about it called "Letting Go of God." But I wanted to let you know that right now Catholic Bishops are framing their opposition to contraceptive coverage as a religious freedom issu. But the real threat to freedom is the Bishops, who want to be free to force their dogma on people who don't want it. Please join the Freedom From Religion Foundation and help keep church and state separate." 

Just a few quick comments:

  • Yet again, we see the confusion of Competence and Authority. Julia Sweeney is a competent comedian. Does that make her an authority on issues related to faith and doubt or to matters related to the relationship between church and state? Hardly. 
  • Indeed, are we to trust the former Catholic who is seemingly unaware that the Church's stance is part of its doctrine, not its dogma? You'd think a trustworthy authority would strive to be clear in her terms. 
  • At no point have the bishops said that they want to prohibit, or limit, contraceptive coverage to women. They have said that religious institutions should have a right to act according to the tenets of their traditions. The Catholic Church does not permit contraception so it does not think the government should be able to force it to act against its beliefs.
  • Sweeney advocates a separation of church and state, yet seems to advocate for the state to be able to set policy for church institutions. Puzzling, no? 
The content of the ad is confused and neither accurately portrays nor engages fairly with the bishops. "It's Pat" was funny because of ambiguity. Julia Sweeney's inaccurate and muddled ad is simply sad. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

No Longer Politics as Usual?

I read this afternoon the transcript of Carl A. Anderson's address to the Catholic Press Association. Entitled "What Every Catholic Can Do to Transcend Partisanship," Mr. Anderson proposes four steps by which Catholic voters can contribute to the transformation of the American political landscape.

  1. Establish a firm commitment to civility in America's national discourse.
  2. Build up the fabric of American society through a fraternal solidarity based on personal works of charity.
  3. Build a consistent commitment to Catholic Social Teaching among Catholic voters in America.
  4. Based upon a commitment to Catholic Social Teaching, we will be able to transcend partisanship. 
To my mind, Anderson rightly notes that one of the fundamental breakdowns with the so-called Catholic vote has been our failure to live up to Catholic Social Teaching's consistent ethic of life and thoroughgoing recognition of the dignity of each human being. 

Catholic Social Teaching is the Church's gift to the effort to build "a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due..." (Deus Caritas Est, 28). While it is not the Church's job to supplant the State, she is not exempted from taking part in the struggle for justice. The Holy Father continues, stating that the Church "has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper." (28)

For far too long, Catholics in our country have contented themselves with choosing the "lesser of two evils" in voting, particularly when both candidates hold positions that are in some ways at odds with Catholic Social Teaching. I find Anderson's appeal to Catholic voters encouraging, insisting that they "insist that candidates measure their political platforms by Catholic social teaching - especially if they are Catholics." 

To live out boldly the requirements held forth by Catholic social teaching would hardly be politically expedient or painless in a sinful and broken world. Without question, if we have the courage to hew close to these ideals we will suffer for it. Setbacks, endured for the Kingdom, should neither frighten nor deter us. Rather than playing the game of secular politics, surrendering to the ways of the world, it is time all Catholics reacquaint themselves with the central themes of Catholic Social Teaching

It is within our power, today, to transform our political landscape. We don't need pastors endorsing candidates from the pulpits. We need women and men of good conscience to inform their hearts and minds and to demand that politicians robustly adhere to their values. Perhaps the only way around partisan politics is to argue "on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being." (28) By recognizing the dignity of all life and committing ourselves wholly not only to its preservation but also to its enhancement, perhaps we will find ourselves crossing the proverbial aisle and embracing one another not as enemies but as sister and brother. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Want to be an Atheist?

In terms of the argument, I have no claim to originality: Professor Denys Turner, Father Brian Davies, Father Herbert McCabe, and Saint Thomas Aquinas are by far my more able-minded predecessors. Nevertheless, my first of five posts has appeared over at the Jesuit Post in an effort to show just what it is a person must do should he or she decide to be an atheist. If you're inclined in such a direction, please follow along as the series is posted.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Religious Liberty

The 1970's tends to get a bad rap within church circles. In my less-than-charitable moments, I have been heard to remark that the liturgical innovations that took place in the 1970's were but the venom from a many-headed hydra, a beast whose heads could not too soon be severed and the stumps cauterized. Surely, not everything that took place in the 1970's was awful. Indeed, as I prayed this morning, I recalled some words written by my theological hero, Karl Rahner. 

Rahner, writing in 1972, encouraged those in Church leadership toward becoming a "church of morality without moralizing." How can one encourage fidelity to one's vows, to fair and honest practice within broken corporate structures, to integrity in one's life, to ethical integrity, when women and men have not yet come to know God's love? Rahner writes:
We must show men and women today at least the beginning of the path that leads credibly and concretely into the freedom of God. Where men and women have not begun to have the experience of God and of God's Spirit, who liberates us from the most profound anxieties of life and from guilt, there is no point in proclaiming to them the ethical norms of Christianity. Indeed, they would not be able to understand them; at most they would be for them only the source of still more radical constraints and even deeper anxiety. 
Forty years ago, Rahner understood well what many of our bishops appear not to know. If regular women and men do not have a deep and personal experience of God's love, if they do not find themselves being drawn toward the Eucharist and encouraged in their daily lives by the Word of God, then all of our talk about morality will appear to be little more than some added constraint to people's lives.

President Obama and the Democratic Party are hardly the greatest threats to religious liberty. I fear that the Church has become its own greatest enemy. Authentic religious liberty enables and empowers women and men to live out the Gospel lovingly and courageously. A living encounter with Jesus Christ, revealed in Word and Sacrament, impresses upon the hearts of his followers a seal that drives them out into a broken world to live the Kingdom He has promised. Our moral lives flow from this encounter and attempt to embody the shape of the Kingdom here and now in a broken world.

We don't accept the Church's moral teaching because we want God to be pleased with us. We accept the Church's moral teaching because Christ's love has scarred us, marking us forever, and we want to live out that love in a radical and prophetic way. 

I fear that many women and men who have not been evangelized well think that religious liberty is little more than the question "Can the government make a church-affiliated organization pay for contraception?" If that's the extent of religious liberty, then we're all in a great deal of trouble. As a Church, we have squandered our own freedom by playing according to secular rules. Partisanship and polemics rule terrestrial politics. The politics of the Kingdom - our call to dwell now as we will dwell forever with God - demands that we play by different rules.

Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, John Edwards, and the Catholic Church have this in common: they played by human rules and got caught. They played the game of secular politics, of lying-to-get-ahead, and they have been disgraced for it. The Catholic Church failed to take seriously its religious liberty, its call to live out the values of Jesus Christ, and because it played the games of human devising it now flounders and scrambles to regain its balance. Our leadership put finances over the flock, reputation over real people, and now that we've been exposed, we're suffering. The Church has not had its religious liberty taken from it. Instead, it has squandered its liberty much like the Lost Son squandered the gifts of his father on terrestrial pleasures. We played by the rules crafted by sinful humanity and we lost. We failed to be who, by our baptisms, we are called to be.

We, as a Church, seem to be awakening to the fact that we have strayed from our natural home and that we're eating pig slop when we could have a seat at the Father's banquet. Are our hearts open enough to realize how far we've fallen and how much we have lost? Can we allow God's humbling grace reach us and can we summon the strength to say, "Father! We have sinned against heaven and against you...we are no longer worthy to be called your children." Do we have confidence that the Father's love knows no limits and that this love will welcome us back, will restore to us our true religious liberty, and will encourage us to go out again to set the world on fire with the Gospel?

Karl Rahner, pray for us. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Damn You, Jiminy Cricket!

I don't consider myself a tremendously original thinker but I should like to think that one thing I brought to my students these last three years is a way of thinking about God that they found (1) credible and (2) relevant. I used to say that I was offering to them a way of thinking about "God after the death of god." The coupling of "Death" and "god" seemed to titillate a bunch of adolescents and gave me just enough of an ingress to make a case to them. 

When I took over the moral theology course at the end of the semester, I found a new bugbear: conscience. Many students, it seems , have a notion that the conscience is this Jiminy Cricket-esque figure who dwells somewhere deep within us. While it may not sing and dance and lead us out of the belly of a whale, our conscience is the final arbiter of what it is that we do. The Jiminy Cricket conscience is the rule by which we measure all things, the gold standard establishing the level and nature of our commitments. 

Thinking back upon yesterday's post, I am struck even more with how much Bill Keller's reference to 'conscience' strikes me as this type of conscience. "If you are not getting the spiritual sustenance you need, if you are uneasy," he writes, "being part of an institution out of step with your conscience - just go." Jiminy Conscience, that little guiding voice within each of us, infallibly leads us to freedom.

Or does it? 

One thing frequently neglected - not surprising - is the teaching of the Church on conscience. One's conscience is not a stand-alone entity. It is an action, a judgment of reason, and one that can be formed well or formed poorly. Just as one can 'get good' at evaluating art, or wine, or food, so too can one 'get good' at evaluating the moral quality of an action. Contrary to the belief of many - de gustibus non est disputandum (In matters of taste, there is no dispute) - the Church believes not only that it is possible, but mandatory, for each of us to develop her or his conscience. 

A great part of conscience formation demands that we take seriously the role of the conscience in our lives. Undeniable: the Church teaches that one "is obliged to follow faithfully" what one knows to be just and right. Yet, I must ask, how often are we tempted to treat 'justice' and 'rightness' more as a matter of taste than as something objective, something that we can come to know - even if asymptotically - if we put forth due effort? Before decrying the Church, or rejecting its teachings, have very many of us actually made an earnest effort to figure out what the teaching is before we appeal to our consciences to say that the teaching is wrong? 

Father Jim Keenan, in his wonderful text Moral Wisdom: Lessons and Texts from the Catholic Tradition, helpfully lays out how one might maturely go about appealing to conscience in a disagreement with a teaching of the Church. Enumerating them:
  1. We are obliged to know what the Church teaches and, after learning the Church's position, discern whether we still have grounds for disagreement. 
  2. We must be able to say exactly what the disagreement is. 
  3. Not only must we know what the disagreement is, we also need to know why we disagree and how our position is more consistent with the mission of the Church and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 
Very often, I find, people simply don't know what the Church teaches on a given topic with which they think they disagree or they are unwilling (unable) to articulate the disagreement very well. As I said yesterday, I'm not saying that the Church is never wrong but it does take courageous work to learn where the disagreement is and to call the Church back to its mission. Sometimes, that is, disagreement may be the most profound act of love one can demonstrate. 

I curse Jiminy Cricket with a slight roll of the eyes: I still love the little fellow. As a metaphor for the conscience, however, he is profoundly misleading. He is not a stand-alone agent, a separate little voice outside of us. He is, rather, an integral part of who we are, who we have been, and who we are becoming. Each of us is called to form our consciences - think P90X! - and if we feel no option but to dissent, let it be done with charity. Voting with our feet will not help to recall the Church's mission. We must vote with our lives, demonstrating where the Church fails to take account of some information about or some new insight into humanity, and living out that truth boldly and charitably. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Just go?

Not without some interest have I read the New York Times these last few days, particularly the Op/Ed piece penned by Bill Keller entitled "The Rottweiler's Rottweiler." The nature of the Op/Ed piece permits a certain type of tone, a certain style of rhetoric, that can appeal to a reader's emotion without necessarily having to persuade the reader's mind. Meaning, only, that certain stylistic liberties may be taken - sarcasm, for instance - which might not otherwise be appropriate in other forums.

In a particularly dour paragraph, Keller writes:
Much as I wish I could encourage the discontented, the Catholics of open minds and open hearts, to stay put and fight the good fight, this is a lost cause...Summon your fortitude, and just go. If you are not getting the spiritual sustenance you need, if you are uneasy being part of an institution out of step with your conscience — then go. The restive nuns who are planning a field trip to Rome for a bit of dialogue? Be assured, unless you plan to grovel, no one will be listening. Sisters, just go.
It would pay Mr. Keller, as well as many members of the Catholic Church, to recall the wisdom of Father Herbert McCabe. McCabe writes:
...What does not need to be endured indefinitely is the special irrelevance of so much of the behaviour of Church officials. Alongside the actual agony of growth in the Church there seem to be these men playing a private game amongst themselves in which the moves are directives and prohibitions and the players score points for formally going through the motions of docility or of repeating the orders correctly. It seems to me that we should treat this game as we do the phantasies of adolescence of any of the other ways in which men escape from reality; we should combine a firm determination to get rid of it eventually with a certain tolerance of it while it is being played. While Church authorities are occupied with these domination games they are neglecting their true role. It would be quite unrealistic to expect them to be sources of enthusiasm and original thought but it is their basic task to be the link between such sources, the framework within which they are kept in balance. To maintain this balance they must, of course, speak with authority, the real authority that comes with understanding and concern and listening to others; the authority that sees itself not in terms of power but as a service to the community, the channel of communication by which each part of the community is kept in touch with the whole, a whole that extends through time as well as space.
McCabe was no fool - he saw through the nonsense and frippery - and realized that we remain within the Catholic Church because
 ...we believe that the hierarchical institutions of the Roman Catholic Church, with all their decadence, their corruption, and their silliness, do in fact link us to areas of Christian truth beyond our own particular experience and ultimately to truths beyond any experience, that we remain, and see our Christian lives in terms of remaining, members of this Church.
I totally get the frustration people feel. Yet, I cannot help but to diagnose amongst some critics a certain adolescent petulance, a sense that we expect the Church to be made to order according to our own whims. Just as a teenager thinks he knows better how his family should operate, or a student know how a teacher should teach, how many of us think ourselves to be in possession of the answers needed by the Church? I do not suggest that we have no insight, no thought, but it would be folly for me to suggest that my scant 32 years of life trump the institutional wisdom...and ignorance...of the Church.

Without question, the Church today needs its prophets to come forth. In the wake of sex abuse and amidst a crisis of confidence, women and men of good will must raise their voices, recalling the Church back to its mission - to preach the Good News to a hungry world. Mr. Keller gives up too easily, forgets that we believe the Church to be called together by the Holy Spirit. The very Spirit that proclaimed the Messiah's coming is the same Spirit who calls us back to our mission.

Want to be a prophet? You must do two things: (1) Having discerned God's Spirit, critique the current order. Point out where we have fallen short and call upon the consciences of all to recognize these failings. (2) Re-Imagine what could be, showing how your prayerful discernment draws us closer to the mission rather than further from it. Know that it takes patience and time and will not be without cost. Know, though, that if you are acting according to God's will:
"...if the plan is of men, it will be overthrown; but, if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow it. You may even be found fighting against God." (Acts 5:38-39)
 The world doesn't need a good cheap cigar nor does the Church need docile sheep. We need courageous hearts to discern God's will, to recall our mission, and to encourage us to live up to our Christian baptism.

I think the easy way out is to "Just Go." I think an equally unhelpful path is to "Just Stay." Perhaps a middle way, the way of courage, remains: neither to go nor to stay but, rather, to Proclaim. Now, more than ever, we need to raise our voices and call our leadership and ourselves to be what we believe, salt of the earth and leaven for the world. We need to Proclaim in Word and Deed what we believe and who we are. If it is authentic, if it is truly of God's Spirit, what can stand in our way? 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Whether it is snake oil or not, I do not know...

Back in August, I learned that I had arthritis. This wasn't a tremendously surprising diagnosis as there has been arthritis in my family and I had experienced an increasing aching in my hands and joints. My doctor prescribed some anti-inflammatory medication but I didn't care for it at all: one of them left me feeling drunk, the other left me feeling angry. As this was all taking place during the beginning of the school year, I anticipated that it'd not be a good idea either to teach (1) woozy or (2) angry.

So I contented myself with a lot of Aleve. Playing a feis (on the accordion) became an increasing burden and I'd have to take Aleve two hours in to the day, a few hours after that, and then at the end. My hands would be in tremendous pain after each feis and I began to wonder if my music career was slowly coming to a close.

In January, a friend suggested that I try something called Astaxanthin. I began taking it, 10mg each day, starting in January. After about three weeks, I noticed a slight alleviation of pain in my hands. After six weeks, I played a feis and realized half-way through that I hadn't needed to take any Aleve. Last month I played back-to-back feiseanna (two days in a row) and needed to take nothing. Yesterday, I played yet another feis and today have absolutely no pain in my hands.

I don't know if it's all in my head or if there is something to this supplement. I know how frustrating it can be to feel the creeping feeling of arthritic pain and I'm grateful that these symptoms seem to have been addressed. I can't think of any other reason for there to have been such a significant improvement in my hands, so I'm currently attributing it to the astaxanthin. If anyone else has had similar experiences, I'd love to hear about them. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Avoiding the Digital Shadow

In this post, I would like to take up a very serious topic: the implications of social media. Actually, I really want to address some points of etiquette and draw attention to some potential ramifications of improper use of this technology. The reasons are, to be honest, personal: last week, several students took to Twitter to voice their discontent with me and one of my classes, using my name and saying some rather hurtful things about me. Generally, I have very thick skin. This, however, seemed so inappropriate that I contacted the involved students' parents and notified them of the situation. When other students got wind of this, it caused great consternation amongst them: What right does the school have to look at our Tweets?

This is, it seems to me, an important question. Does a school have a right to hold students accountable for things they post to their Facebook or Twitter pages? 

Let me propose the following situation:
What do you think would happen if I met with the parent of a student who felt that her son deserved an B rather than a C in a course. The mother gets angry during our meeting and makes some hurtful comments, accusing me of being an inadequate teacher and biased against her son. Regardless of the fact that her son sleeps in class each day, is rude and disrespectful, and is frequently late with his homework, she believes that I ought to change his grade. When I politely, but firmly resist, she begins to yell and carry on, threatening to call the principal. 
She leaves. I take out my phone, pull up Twitter, and post: "Just met with a B*#%h of a parent. What an idiotic moron. #MrsSoandso."
Do you think I'd face some serious repercussions when Mrs Soandso discovers the Tweet? Of course I would: I'd certainly be reprimanded, a note would be put into my file, and I'd have to apologize to her profusely for my lack of professionalism and rudeness.

Yet, isn't it my private space? Isn't it my own cocoon where I can say anything I want? I am am angry, can't I just take to Twitter? If a student is frustrated with an assignment, or angry at a teacher, should he not be able to blow off steam by Tweeting, "Mr. Xanadau is a F*#@#r. I hate him him. He is fat and stupid and smells bad. #Mr.Xanadau"?

Clearly not. Once the comment is in writing, it takes on its own life. Even if I posted it in jest, or anger, or while intoxicated, the fact of the matter remains that I posted it and I'm responsible for it. As Iris Murdoch once said, "I can decide what to do but I am not master of the significance of my act."

In the wake of being Tweeted about (maliciously) by students, I asked a friend who works in HR for a major firm. "What would happen if an employee Tweeted offensive things about the employer," I asked. "He'd be fired," came the reply. What, then, leads an adolescent to think that he or she can Tweet or post with reckless abandon, with immunity from consequences or responsibility, when the same act could result in the loss of a job?

It turns out the very social network that keeps us so well-connected to one another, which puts unimaginable resources literally at our fingertips, is also something of a liability. Everything we do, or say, or write online leaves a trace, a record of our presence. The social network has an indelible social memory that records, perhaps forever, each and every keystroke. The "slip of the tongue" that can be forgiven through apologies is not as easily erased when the words are commended to cyberspace. Those things we may in the future wish to forget may not be forgotten and things we have said and done may continue to haunt us.

As a Jesuit educator, I feel it is my duty to draw my students' attention to the perils and potential repercussions of Tweeting inappropriate or hurtful things online. I'm no prude and I do have a sense of humor. Yet I have both the experience and the perspective to discern how to use a particular medium well and what is, and is not, appropriate for posting. No one is perfect, but I'm afraid that if we do not challenge our students and form them to use social media appropriately, they will suffer for it in the future.

To the students, I would say this: go ahead and complain about homework, about sports, about the workload, about teachers. We all have done it and it feels good to let off steam. Nevertheless, think twice before you post a person's name to that Tweet. Imagine what would happen if that person idly searched for her name, or if her spouse or mother were to look for it. Would you want your name attached to a scurrilous attack on another person? Would you want to be associated forever with cruel or ignorant comments?

We owe it to ourselves, and to our children, to think carefully on this. Unfortunately, the window for the 'innocent mistake' that can be forgotten is almost entirely shut, and uploaded video evidence and warehoused servers preserve all that we do forever. As our students head out into adulthood, we should equip them to move forward freely and with a clear conscience, rather than with the fear that the digital shadow they created in a fit of hot-headed passion over an assignment or a conflict with a school administrator follows them for the rest of their lives.

Moral Theology: Case #3

Below, please find the third case study I wrote and used on my final exam for our junior-year morality course.

Case Study #2

I'm shocked that it's been quite some time since I last posted. There are less than 24-hours remaining in my regency, as with the conclusion of the second final tomorrow my school year reaches its official conclusion. Without question, I am left feeling bittersweet: a part of me is excited to continue my Jesuit formation, a part of me is sad to leave a school I love.

Over the last two weeks, I have written two further cases for use in my Junior-level moral theology course. I wrote them out of a sense of frustration: too often, moral theology in Catholic schools seems to be obsessed with issues related to sex. I am of a mind that moral theology extends far beyond the area of the body covered by an apron, so I've tried to write cases that would push students to think about issues that are less...well, less sexy!

It's not a long case and I enjoyed spending a class period discussing it with my students. If it's helpful to you, please make use of it!

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame