As I am off the grid today, I am sharing a link to a New York Times editorial from last Friday that you might find helpful in your work: "the Remarkable Shelf Life of the Off-Handed Comment." Funny and true.
The air conditioning in my loft was repaired late yesterday afternoon, just in the nick of time. A significant thunderstorm was bearing down on the serviceman and myself as I paid the bill, and we stood in my open garage to finish the transaction. I’m sure that running through his mind was the thought that he might be killed trying to resuscitate an aging AC unit for a guy who forgets to change his filters; I was thinking to myself that my last afternoon on earth had been spent laboring in sweat reviewing a diocesan policy draft that upon completion will be read by a dozen people, many of them employees at Staples.
The document in question is a revamping of our catechist training program, a copy of which I have been given to review. My text has CONFIDENTIAL DRAFT printed in red on each page; I feel like I am getting first review of Donald Trump’s taxes. My hubris is restrained by the fact that I was involved in the two previous reincarnations of our catechetical program, as well as in the drafting of the original deacon training program for this diocese. The policy document I am proudest of—the one that did change a few lives, I think—involved maternity benefits. A group of us pastors and principals put a new (possibly the first) diocesan package together around 1990. I checked a few years ago and recent administrators had decimated the package several times over. It is true as well that church administrators turn over so frequently that grand policy statements have a short shelf life in general, as a new pharaoh “who remembered not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8; how true, how true) will always want to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic the first day on the job.
It is hard to find an area of pastoral life that is more awash in “official documents” than catechetics and religious education. I came across a summary of them in The Nature, Tasks and Scope of the Catechetical Ministry: A Digest of Recent Church Documents (2008) by Father Berard Marthaler (1928-2014), one of the giants of the American catechetical field. In the contents introduction, Father Marthaler lists individual chapters on thirty-one (!) separate church texts on the catechetical ministry. I have sampled some over the years, and the Catechist Café website devotes Thursdays to the 1993 Catechism of the Church. But so as to avoid being one of those forgetful pharaohs myself, in 2014 I dutifully read the grand-daddy of American catechetical statements from the conference of bishops, To Teach As Jesus Did. (1972)
I returned to the book’s Amazon site today to look at my review of the text two years ago. It is not hard to find because it is the only review, sad to say. The short version of the review is simply that the bishops were either poor analysts of conditions in the field or found it too hard to acknowledge the challenge facing them at the time—the trend toward Catholic school closings and the departure of the backbone of the catechetical process, religious sisters. In 1972 there was no “doomsday provision,” probably because the bishops feared that “the simple faithful” would be disturbed or Rome distressed. Marthaler’s book reminded me that in the 1972 document the American bishops had put considerable stock in the idea of school vouchers to maintain the Catholic school system, an idea that has never really taken effective traction in this country in the 44 years since.
Looking back to the 1970’s, my guess in 20-20 hindsight is that dioceses in this country, to be sure, might have done well to combine the mission of their seminaries into the professional education of clergy and church lay ministers—populations both in short supply in the 2000’s. In that vein, a blueprint for recruiting young lay professionals toward educational church ministries at major Catholic colleges and universities would have strengthened the bench, so to speak, for openings in parishes and chanceries. What has happened instead is a dynamic of decrease. The journey of one parish near my home is instructive. Twenty-five years ago the director of religious education was a religious sister who earned her masters at a major Catholic university in the Midwest. Her successor held a masters from an on-line Catholic school in the south. The next several hires held no religious education degrees at any level, and the most recent was an in-house promotion of a volunteer. This is not a tale from the rust belt, but a parish in the metro region of booming Orlando.
I would love to say that this is an anomaly, but it is not. I would at least like to say that chanceries have not succumbed to this trend, but I cannot. My wife and I experienced this latter point first-hand last night when we attended a program sponsored by our diocese on the subject of human trafficking. There was a very good turnout on a very stormy night at my parish, and we expected a presentation from law enforcement and possibly elected officials on how to engage in activism to thwart the problem. Sadly, the format consisted of five well-intentioned volunteers who read verbatim from power points and offered information and advice that any of you reading this on the internet are well aware of. It was one of the few times we have left a presentation prematurely—although judging from the cars ahead of us, we were not alone. (I have to confess to some additional gauche behavior here—I took several cookies off the table on the way out to eat in the car.)
And so I will return to my CONFIDENTIAL document with one overriding piece of advice—face the fact the bench is not just shallow, it is nearly non-existent. Until we face the problems on the ground, no document is going to save us—and God knows we’ve been down that road at least 31 times before, and with people supposedly a lot more expert than I am.
As I am tied up today, I am providing a link to the PEW research center which provides me with a daily news feed. You may find this useful in your work.
Well, I finally finished Doing the Right Thing: An Approach to Moral Issues in Mental Health Treatment by John R. Peteet, M.D. I have a downloaded certificate recognizing this achievement, though I had to answer a lengthy evaluation of the “learning experience” before the print button kicked in. It was a little hard to elongate easy chair, bare feet, hazelnut coffee, green magic marker, and having a copy of the questions in my lap into the lengthy numerical information the company was seeking. As to the content, I did score 100% on the first shot, but as I say the questions were provided beforehand and the rules allow for two retakes before another payment is required, so this wasn’t exactly a tour de force of my brilliance. Between the course itself and the required book I estimate the cost at about $60.
The next course on the docket starting tomorrow is Borderline Personality Disorder. Trust me, you are encountering BP disordered individuals in your ministry—and worse, you may be working with one or for one—so that will be an interesting sojourn. But I do want to return to Dr. Peteet’s book today. It does not read like Gone With the Wind or even Listening to Prozac, the finest professional work on mental health I have come across in my lifetime. Listening to Prozac, nearly a quarter century old now, was actually a morality-based musing on the ethics of altering mood with psychotropic medication—specifically, continuing to prescribe antidepressants after depressive crises because the patient’s quality of life had improved remarkably. The author, Peter D. Kramer, M.D., essentially confronted his ambiguity of “playing God with peoples’ lives.”
Peteet’s work is more “text-book” style if you get my drift, but his terse and economic prose cuts to the chase. I was struck so often from his case studies by the fact that counselors and church ministers of every kind face parallel dilemmas of choice. Peteet’s work is directed toward the practitioner or counselor, but he cannot help but delve into the moral choices of the patients, too, and whether a therapist has the right to call out a patient for immoral conduct that produces stress. “Calling out” might be too strong a word, but I never felt a reluctance to address the issue. In my notes I would very often write, “the patient seems to have lost a north star for navigating decisions.”
To borrow from Peteet, the Church worker has to determine the propriety of integrating his or her values and moral philosophy into ministry itself. The most obvious point here is the assumption that a church worker has faith and values, or at least struggles to maintain them honestly. The option of doing and saying what you don’t really believe can be a significant mental stressor; it was the great psychologist Carl Rogers who coined the term “congruence” as a cornerstone of mental health, and needless to say for our purposes, the bottom line of spiritual integrity.
Beyond that, our present day Church lingo whitewashes this challenge in a number of ways. The simplest way is to deny that Athens (or the world) has anything important to say to Jerusalem (the Church), or that the social sciences have any meaningful contribution to make to the exercise of Church ministry. Such a belief is not consistent with Catholic scholarship and practice dating back to the great fathers Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who in a variety of ways have maintained the maxim that “grace builds on nature, and nature builds on grace.” (If the Athens-Jerusalem estrangement is true, then why do we spend thousands of dollars on psychological evaluation of seminarians?)
Concurrent with the above paragraph is the erroneous sense that religion brings an entirely new world of reality. There is certainly truth to this, biblically speaking, but the people we serve live in this world and must navigate it daily. All of the answers to reality are not found in the Catechism, nor in the Bible. Neither text can tell us with accuracy how the world was formed—though both are eminently suited to teach why it was formed. It takes a certain seasoning in ministry to understand that there are limitations to propositional Church teaching, particularly in the areas of morality, and that raw imposition of a moral law without sensitivity to the existential life and conditions of the parishioner/student can be symptomatic of a minister’s pride (“I speak for God”), laziness in not exploring the complexity of moral discernment, overzealousness, or incompetence.)
Peteet sketches a number of moral dilemmas that face just about everyone in humanitarian positions. I recall in college that one of my professors put down an international charitable organization (possibly CARE, I just can’t quite recall) because the organization did business with black market and criminal suppliers in some very poor countries to get the maximum mileage out of every dollar of donations. In more recent settings, Peteet discusses the current healthcare delivery system in the United States and whether it is moral to tilt the board a bit to get third party payment approval for treatment. Just one example: insurance companies generally do not cover therapy for the personality disorders because there is no clinical evidence that “talking therapy” does much good. (This is not universally accepted in the mental health community.) But if a borderline disordered patient is anxious, could a practitioner code the service as anxiety treatment? (Did I ever do such a thing? How dare you ask.)
Catholicism is rife with these gray situations; the issue of receiving divorced and remarried adults to the communion table has received a lot of recent news coverage. I am not advocating disobedience to Church law, but anyone who is entrusted to teach it or minister under its provisions must maintain a morality about this responsibility: determining an ultimate sense of the universal good, study of Church teaching, the contemporary scholarship about the law (case study), and courses of action most likely to assist troubled souls rediscover God. This is the challenge of a moral minister of the church; we are not commissioned as evangelizers and faith formation personnel to read off of paper.