While there has been much discussion about Q-Anon and its impact on American life and politics, I have seen little—nothing, actually—directed toward a pastoral or catechetical approach toward a conscious embrace of Q and other radical conspiracies. Like many of you, I have family and friends who embraced the Q-anon conspiracy to varying degrees and who have made this known on social media. None has ever approached me personally or on-line to recruit me or to discuss their experiences one-on-one, nor have I engaged in any on-line comments or discussions with them, despite my strong concern about the subject. Social scientists—some of whom have been engaged in on-line chats with Q-anon adherents for months—observe that the members tend to create “new families,” very frequently online, instant camaraderie with individuals who share the same concerns and understand the range of emotions that drove them to identify with Q-Anon in its various forms in the first place.
I can say with certainty that Catholics have embraced the Q-Anon conspiracy to varying degrees, at least in some cases in the mistaken hope that the Pro-Life cause would be strengthened. Q-Anon emerged in social media around 2017 and appears to be a fear of a “deep state,” i.e., a perceived power force that would eradicate Christian identity and patriotic rights and values. Q’s outline of the specifics of the deep state conspiracy carries a certain shock value to anyone hearing them the first time—elements of pedophilia, child trafficking, cannibalism—and has become wedded to the Presidency of Donald Trump and the narrative of the 2020 stolen election, which is probably the reason for the Pro-Life attraction to an otherwise bizarre worldview. We would make better use of our time examining the underlying fears that would attract otherwise common-sense folks to a conglomeration of extreme beliefs.
It may be of some comfort to realize that radical interpretations of the present and future are nothing new. Waves of “anxious heightened consciousness” appear from time to time. Such highly potent emotional waves date to Biblical times, under the term Apocalypticism. The Books of Daniel and Revelation are two outstanding examples of extreme futuristic projections of order and deliverance from the evils of the world. Both books were written during persecution, Daniel during the Syrian desecration of the Jerusalem temple around 150 B.C., and Revelation during a local Roman persecution of Christians during the first century after Christ. Apocalyptic movements developed throughout history, after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., at the fall of Rome in the fifth century [which inspired St. Augustine’s classic, The City of God], during the Bubonic Plague or Black Death in the fourteenth century, the fall of the sacred city of Constantinople in 1453 at the hands of the Turks, and during the “Wars of Religion” from 1524 till 1648. There have been countless smaller waves in the fine print of history.
In every one of these crises, witnesses and victims were forced to reconfigure the way they viewed the world, intellectually and psychologically speaking. This “refiguring” usually had positive and negative outcomes. The shock of the fall of Jerusalem intensified Christianity to embrace its Gentile mission to the entire earth. On the other hand, Christians interpreted the Jerusalem destruction as God’s final judgment of the Jews for failure to recognize Jesus as Savior, a mindset which justified persecution of Jews till our present day. Marjorie Taylor Green, the Q-Anon congresswoman from Georgia, recently claimed that the California wildfires were started by lasers from space under the direction of the Jewish House of Rothschild, the centuries-old banking establishment named after the extraordinarily successful family of Jewish financiers. Antisemitism is usually a significant component of Christian extremism.
Q-Anon adherents, for their part, look at the polar opposite of their world view as “woke.” A 2018 editorial from the Harvard Crimson describes the meaning of “woke” quite well: “The word "woke" implies that to support the liberal viewpoint is to be socially aware. Woke people are heavily informed and actively involved with liberal social issues. If you’re leading a Black Lives Matter protest, you’re probably woke. If you’re calling your congressperson to advocate for Planned Parenthood, you’re probably woke…. This biased nomenclature is rooted in a belief held by some on the left that people are only conservative because they are uneducated. If only people were smarter, more informed, more woke, then surely they would see the Democratic light and switch sides.”
While the details of the Q-Anon conspiracy are dangerous and groundless, it is important to look past the bizarre headlines to the needs of those who embrace the Q community, where their concerns are worthy of consideration and where there is need for fraternal correction for all of us. One can hopefully sense the fear, resentment, and frustration of basically decent people who for many years have been told in a variety of ways that their ideals and way of life are parochial and dumb. The dynamics of the Catholic Church in the United States are as good an example as any. With the advent of the reform council Vatican II [1962-1965] many of us who were privileged to study theology in seminaries and Catholic universities after the Council went into parishes “woke,” so to speak, with the attitude that everything new was good, and the old customs of Catholic devotion and worship were, ipso facto, bad. I confess that many of my pastoral stances were elitist, self-assured, and authoritarian. It is worth noting, too, that “Catholic woke” is vulnerable to the charge of conflating Pro Life with “anti-women.”
My own mellowing over age came with a greater appreciation of the liberal arts tradition of Catholic education, a wisdom I missed in my first flyover in my 20’s. As this past week has marked “Catholic Schools Week,” consider that Catholic Education at every level, and has—where it has met its mandate--enriched its students by immersing them in liberal arts education. Thanks to the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas and his confreres in the 200 universities of Medieval Europe, Catholic education embodies a vision in which full creation is united in the glory of God and the service of mankind. All the arts and sciences, if carried to their frontiers at any point in history, take us to the infinity of God, whether that be the complexity of viruses in the laboratory, the endless lessons of history, or the mystery of human behavior in Shakespeare on the stage. The term “renaissance man” may be dated and sexist, but its truth is as contemporary as ever. The broadest view of worldly wisdom produces a prudence and caution that guided the work of Aquinas and the body of Catholic scholar-saints.
Aquinas understood, too, the moral imperative of learning. We cannot spin opinions out of the air and proclaim them true without grounding, nor can we create an internal universe out of “alternative facts.” The Eighth Commandment holds us to the obligation of bearing true witness, by such standards as Church Tradition, history, due process, and peer review. Due process is appeal to legitimate authority; the riot at the Capital on January 6 was caused, among other reasons, by a failure of some to accept the judgment of duly authorized state officials and courts of law throughout the country on the matter of the 2020 presidential election. Augustine, in his City of God, was a staunch defender of legitimate civil order. By contrast, it is peer review that assures us of the safety of the various Covid-19 vaccines now in use; a claim for any new drug must stand up to strenuous testing by other independent research centers and government agencies entrusted with this responsibility. [Peer review accounts for the delays in the release of newer vaccines, to test for safety before public release, delays which can be frustrating but necessary.]
Even the best educated and best intentioned among us fall prey to hubris, the pride of worshipping the supposed infallibility of our own intellects, an important symptom that our adult learning and reading is self-centered, not God-centered. Aquinas himself once referred to his lifelong body of work as “straw.” The principles of Catholic education across all disciplines puts a person in a classroom, a library, or a reading den for the purpose of being awed. A useful devotional and instructional guide for any adult Catholic is Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina  by the Cistercian monk Michael Casey. Casey speaks of reading with humility. I reviewed this book on Amazon in 2011 when I was “unwoking” and I made this observation:
Casey instructs his readers to embrace Lectio Divina [spiritual reading] with humility. I tend to read critically or pragmatically [as in, can I use this material in a class?] The author advises us to approach the text purely for its own sake, its access to the wisdom of God. We read for grace and guidance, for introduction to a world of the Holy Spirit that to some measure will be foreign to all of us. Casey is cognizant of the human tendency to rebel against new ideas as well as to avoid any trace of the ancient as "irrelevant," that favorite curse word of 1960's Catholicism. He calls to mind that the theology of both Hebrew and Christian Scripture is in fact backward looking, toward the saving deeds of God. A Christian who is not historically minded does not know himself.
Casey goes on to discuss the skill of selecting appropriate works for study. I see a lot in the Q social postings about “doing the homework” and “reading for yourself.” I commend the energy but with one critical caveat: One of the most important fruits of liberal arts education is discernment in self-study, i.e., making sound judgments on the selection of persons, texts, resources, and public discourse one chooses to engage. Reading is not the same as reading judiciously. The monks, of course, would be guided by their abbot and the senior members, and for those of us with liberal arts backgrounds this is one of the skills imparted in research and composition. The rapid transmission of information on social media suggests to me that the skill in separating sources like wheat from weeds is a discernment that desperately needs reinforcement. I can only speak to the arena of institutional religious life, which suffers division and misinformation in the same way that civil society does. I do wish that parishes provided more input on religious reading in Catholic adult education; for example, I always integrated instruction on publishing houses and respected mainstream authors [peer reviewed] in my courses for catechists and church personnel, and I began the Catechist Café some years ago as a resource for adult Catholic education along these lines.
I have been asked by friends if there is some way to meaningfully connect [or more often, reconnect] with family and intimates enveloped in Q-like conspiracy fears and advocacy. I must admit I am at a loss myself, and I do my share of “tiptoeing” with various members of my family. It can be grating and wearisome. There are cultlike characteristics to some Q-Anon adherents, and the certitude and anger are hard to endure at times from the outside; there are none more fervent than the recent convert. It is probably not wise to respond in kind. Jesus prayed that we would all be One. I will risk the charge of naivete with my belief that pain and fear are the fuel for extremist beliefs and behavior and make allowances for that. Remember that all conspiracy theories eventually break the hearts of their sincere adherents. For anyone in pain and disillusionment, the porchlight should always be lit for the homecoming of those who have been through a great deal.
With my counseling offices closed due to Covid-19, I have had a little more time to read and reflect upon the way we “do catechetics” and “form faith.” Some of my reading has been published research, some theological texts, journal articles, and several blogsites devoted to the trials and tribulations of religious educators and, in one case, deacons or wanna-be deacons. I will continue researching, of course—it takes about three days of focused study to produce one post—but this year has shifted my outlook on the very nature of evangelizing and precisely what we think we are doing in our parishes and in the universal Church under the umbrella of “catechetics.”
The earliest biblical texts of the Christian experience speak of our Church as an ecstatic little group which had experienced Jesus as raised from the dead and promising to lead them into eternal glory when He returned in glory. “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” [I Corinthians 15:55] or in Peter’s Pentecostal sermon in Acts 2. For the early church and its converts—Jew and Gentile alike—the radical promise of eternal glory was psychological as much as religious. Baptism meant a destiny that no one deemed possible.
The behavioral and psychological focus of an early Christian was rescue, an experience that an intervention by God in a pouring of cleansing water and invisible grace had rescued one from at best meaninglessness and at worst an eternity of pain or nothingness. Forgiveness, salvation, redemption---think of learning that you are cancer free after years of grueling treatment. Apostolic baptism had that kind of impact upon converts that produced a new way of life and a new take on the world in which they lived.
I read a good number of blogs from religious education personnel in the field who lament that their students—and the students’ parents—“know nothing” when it comes time for pastors to assess competency for sacraments of passage, such as Confirmation. The word to underline is “know,” for the Catechism and pastoral approaches of this era seem to go overboard in defining, at the cost of experiencing. It is more accurate to say that most students—nor their parents--have ever experienced the terms of catechetical shorthand, sin, and grace. The terms become for students just another hoop of data to master before life’s next adventures. Ironically, children, adolescents, and young adults actually do have significant episodes of evil and hope in their lives, but the very limited skills and training of [mostly volunteer] religious educators has limited their catechetical scope of work to the jargon of religion, not the lived experience of it.
In my mental health practice, I have had many discussions with parents, and on occasion their offspring, over family issues of religion. One parent put it quite well: “I wish my teenaged son loved the Mass as much as I do.” I pointed out that there was at least 25 years age difference between mother and son, and I observed that they were looking at life from different points in their human development. The parent responded as I think most church ministers would: “But the Mass is the Mass, it is the same for everyone.” True enough if one is speaking from the objectivity of Scripture and Tradition. Where catechetics habitually drops the ball, though, is the mistake that everyone experiences Eucharist—or any sacrament--in the same way, regardless of age and circumstance. Or, for that matter, that everyone has a common experience of the human tragedy of sin or the euphoria of being saved.
When I was making my bones in the “family business” fifty years ago, so to speak, it was commonly held in my seminary that the conservative moralists were too pessimistic and too preoccupied with sin and hell. The progressive or post-Vatican II moralists opted for a more optimistic theory of baptism and salvation, explaining baptism as birth into the family God. I have lived more comfortably with the progressive school throughout my years as a pastor, teacher, and even therapist. But in very recent years I have come to a place where I can’t argue with the numbers—the numbers of young people who are leaving the Church, and the number-crunching of researchers who are seeking to explore the reasons why these young people leave.
Some examples: In January 2018 St. Mary’s Press and the Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate [CARA] released the results of their benchmark study on the subject, “Going, Going, Gone! The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, and just this week “The State of Religion and Young People 2020: Relational Authority” from Springtide Research Institute was released and will be Primed to my front door in 48 hours. It is amazing to me that the research of the past decade never makes an appearance in Facebook sites such as “Catholic Directors of Faith Formation” or “Catholic Parish Staff,” two very interesting sites if you want a feeling for grassroots frustrations among church workers in parishes across the country. The pain of parish ministers—and many parents, to be sure—is an absence of a sense of developmental psychology—i.e., what we can reasonably expect from a youth at any particular age in his or her march to adulthood.
I have great respect for those who teach religion in Catholic schools and parishes, and equal respect for the small percentage of Catholic parents who integrate prayer, discussion, and good works into the family routine, educating and leading by example. Institutionally we are hamstringing this population by  insisting upon an almost compulsive adherence to the terminology of catechisms, beginning with the big one, and  trying to mold children and young adults into attitudes and emotions when their natural human development has not yet prepared them. Put another way, we rush to give answers to questions yet unasked, while paying little heed to the developmental dramas of the young. Religious narrative about sin and deliverance makes no sense if there is no developed sense of one’s precariousness, or what it is that you are being rescued from.
I think that our dependence upon catechisms at times serves as a buffer to keep us ministers from having to listen to the actual sufferings of young people. We have no language or training to engage with them and discover what they really fear in their lives. About two weeks ago I purchased on a whim a paperback copy of one of the twentieth century’s best selling but most controversial novels, Peyton Place  by Grace Metalious. The term “Peyton Place” has passed into the English language as a metaphor of the sin that lurks beneath the veneer of every human and, in this case, a proper New Hampshire town. The book was banned for a time for its explicit depictions of sex and cruelty. I remember how adults talked about the book when I was in third grade, and through most of my life I was always of the impression that this work was a tale of adults behaving badly.
That part is certainly true, but what struck me to the core was the incredible sufferings and injustices perpetrated upon children and minors, and now that I think of it, just about every woman in the book. Peyton Place—its individuals, families, businesses, schools, institutions—virtually screams for saving grace, the adults from their elected blindness and self-righteousness and the young from their anger, fear, and confusion as they navigate the minefield of their adults’ demons.
I do not recommend reading the book—there are plenty of other American fiction pieces that explore the same theme--but it is a secular lesson that we can hardly use the term salvation till we know the private hells.
There continues to be controversy about the dueling issues of public safety surrounding Covid-19 and the closure or limitation of church services, particularly the Sunday Eucharist. About a month ago I commented on the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, where the archbishop stated the date at which Catholics needed to return to Sunday Mass in person without incurring mortal sin. The Catholic internet is full of questions about how following Mass on streaming devices can be spiritually uplifting last Sunday, but this Sunday could be a mortal sin. Can a bishop arbitrarily make such a statement? In truth, Archbishop’s Listecki’s directive was, for the most part, a restatement of universal current Church discipline; he notes the variety of considerations that excuse one from live attendance at Sunday Mass. It may come as a surprise that a Catholic home provider for a sick family member or spouse is excused from the obligation even if the caregiver is not ill. Archbishop Listecki’s directive that “Fear of getting sick, in and of itself, does not excuse someone from the obligation” is mitigated somewhat. “However, if the fear is generated because of at-risk factors, such as pre-existing conditions, age or compromised immune systems, then the fear would be sufficient to excuse from the obligation.”
The very idea of bishops mandating Mass attendance at all rattled some sensitivities. I got a letter from a gentleman of my generation who inquired something along these lines: “I thought that the Old Testament was the age of laws, but that Christianity is the age of love.” He added that he believed Christian morality was built upon doing the loving thing in all circumstances. I, too, remember being taught that in some way, shape, or form in later seminary years, too. For this post I was able to put a name and a face to that theory of morality, specifically the school of Situation Ethics inspired by the then Episcopal priest James Fletcher [1905-1991]. Fletcher was both hailed and reviled for his 1966 Situation Ethics: The New Morality. Fletcher dared to go where few had gone, specifically in squaring the circle between Biblical codes of morality and the individual Christian’s freedom to make moral choices based on the most loving outcome.
The contrasts between the age of the Law and the age of Love in the Bible are not as clear as some of us would believe. The Hebrew Scripture depicts God as doing many gracious things that He was not bound to do, the primary act being Creation itself. It is easy to forget that there is no natural or scientific reason for us to exist, let alone to exercise some form of dominion over all the creatures God had made. The term “Chosen People” is a clear indication that God loved this small nomadic culture and as early as Genesis 12 revealed this love in tangible, substantial ways, in His encounter with Abram [later Abraham]. A one-sided love, however, is pathology to both parties. The giver is constantly taken advantage of, and the receiver fails to recognize how good he or she has it. From this vantage point, the encounter of God and Moses on Mount Sinai is a betrothal where the terms of the relationship are clarified. How do we show love? Do not let the legalese or the strictness of some of the terms overshadow the heart of the matter including, for our purposes in this post, the example of worshipping as a community on the Sabbath. How many of us travel significant distances to be with our families at Thanksgiving? The tradition of giving thanks to God and breaking bread as a family community on Thanksgiving carries with it more than traces of God’s desire to share the memory of first love for His family.
Regarding the Christian Testament, I believe that the contrast between the Mosaic Law and the Christian ethic is too sharply drawn. Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died a Jew. [I often wonder if antisemitic “Christians” realize this.] Those who read the Gospels carefully note how often Jesus speaks with religious respect and even zeal for the Mosaic Law. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus states that he has not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets but to bring them to fulfillment. He lived what we would call the “Judeo-Christian way” and a close look at the Gospels reveals that Jesus was willing and capable of articulating principles and judgments with the best of the Hebrew social prophets, such as Amos.
Consider Matthew 25: 31-46. As clearly as possible, Jesus draws out the deepest wishes of his Father as expressed in the Hebrew Scripture, with the precision of the Pythagorean Theorem. The hungry are to be fed; the homeless sheltered. The sick are to be cared for. Those who fail to do such things will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. Biblically speaking, we continue to observe [hopefully] a continuous strain of love that permeates both Testaments, a love that rises above feelings into the world of behavioral change and outcomes.
One issue, too, is the meaning of “love.” Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics is built on the premise that Christians are called to do “the loving thing” in making choices about behavior. One can understand why no Christian Church embraced this philosophy as part and parcel of its moral and sacramental practice [though some priests and laity were enamored of the system in its day.] The determination of “the loving thing” in Fletcher’s system is a purely subjective judgment. The Catholic moral tradition has always respected a “well formed conscience” in the confessional, the operative adjective being “well-formed.” Such would assume that the individual has made a studious effort to understand how his or her religious tradition has adopted its various assessments of the good or evil of acts under consideration. Admittedly circumstances do arise where values conflict and the moral dilemma has no desirable options. Traditionally, Catholics have always enjoyed access to a confessor to assist in the determination process.
Which brings us all the way around to the question of the “Sunday Mass Obligation.” In the best of all worlds the Eucharist is the center of our Christian life. The Christian tradition of Sunday Eucharist can be dated through St. Paul’s Epistles as the occasion when the family of believers came together to repeat the command of Jesus to “do this in memory of me.” Sunday Eucharist exhorts God’s greatest gift, the promise of a glorious renewal with Christ at the end of time and an eternity in the reward he has prepared for us.
Admittedly, Sunday Mass does not look or feel this way. I would be the first to admit that attendance every weekend is hard. It takes every ounce of strength to recapture the traditional reason I am there. And yes, there was a point this past May during the lockdown where I seriously wondered if live-streamed Mass from a different location, celebrated in this spirit, would be the better route for me to take. But over the past few months I had to remind myself that love is about behaviors, in my case the behavior of planting myself in the church pew of my regular parish. The “feeling of love” or devotion will follow. And it has, a bit.
I remember hearing in class years ago a quote from a famous theologian: “When a man gets down on his knees, the action adds nothing to God but everything to the man who kneels"
I was in London early last summer—my first visit—where my wife Margaret and I had preregistered to see Winston Churchill’s underground war command. It was a compelling experience, immensely popular with tourists. Be sure to make an on-line reservation before you leave home [whenever that is]. A few hours later we walked to Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square. The tourists around us were talking about the electric current that flows through the statue to keep the pigeons from relieving themselves on the Prime Minister’s stately head. Granted, I am just another soak-it-up tourist, but I had a lingering doubt about this assertion. I had several doubts, too, during a trip a few years earlier, about whether the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul are enshrined in Rome’s Cathedral, St. John Lateran.
The Lateran question will not be solved in today’s post, but the Churchill statue has played a major role in current affairs as a target of English protests responding to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis several weeks ago. Churchill’s statue has been boxed and protected after the word “racist” was painted on it. The wrath expressed upon Winnie’s statue is amazingly simple and complex at the same time, and the rationale of toppling statues and monuments around much of the world raises questions about living with history and the sins of our fathers. It is an issue that Catholicism must deal with because the statues and stories of canonized saints have come under new scrutiny and physical assault as well.
I have no doctrinal answers, but several moral observations on events and movements currently interacting with just about everything we do and think--except statues, as it turned out.
The killing of George Floyd: the outrage at this systematic torture and murder is beyond words. What adds to the pain is the knowledge that this is not an unheard-of practice in altercations between police and persons of color. I must think that a significant percentage of law officers in the United States are practicing Catholics who, hypothetically at least, have been catechized on Catholic teachings—from popes and the Catechism--on the dignity of persons and abuse of civil trust. At least I would hope so. This summer presents every local church with a catechizing moment from the pulpit or on-line programs on the sinful nature of violence as a matter of social interaction as well as the often submerged prejudice we Catholics carry within us, without a thought that this grave sin.
Strangely, Church leadership in this country has been noticeably quiet. Thankfully, several bishops have individually stepped up to provide moral guidance and support to the rising numbers who question the chronic illnesses of the social status quo. In fairness, the Covid-19 virus is probably at the front of the parochial agenda, though even here I notice that some pastors strongly suggest the use of masks while other pastors in my own diocese state clearly on social media that unmasked individuals cannot join the collective Eucharist. There is the political element of “the mask thing” going on, but with today’s [Saturday’s] just-released Florida report of 9,585 new cases, a new record in a week of records, it will be a long time before I attend a Sunday Eucharist, perhaps not until a vaccine is in common use. We presently attend Mass on Thursdays at noon, where the assembly is quite small, but with the escalation, we may rethink that. [Methinks the State of Florida may be on the cusp of another shutdown anyway.]
The public protests: Someone asked me what I thought about all the people in the streets and the sporadic damage and confrontations, and I replied, “For what black human beings have suffered in North America for four hundred years, we’re getting off very, very easily.” As I viewed the coverage, I thought to myself that this is different from 1968. Back then, the fuel was the Viet Nam War…or more specifically, the potential that us college white kids might get drafted and really must go. The 2020 demonstrations are remarkably inclusive in terms of ethnicity and manifest a broader agenda, a plea that all segments of American society enjoy the same rights and protection of law, a true “right to life” cause. The plea of “I can’t breathe” has grown into a commentary on the unnecessary impediments to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Research on young Catholic adults who have left the Church would suggest that the overlap of nationwide young protesting idealists—those we see in the peaceful protests--with disenchanted young Catholics or “Nones” is worthy of comment. We as Catholics are missing golden opportunities to learn about Generations Y and particularly Z. “Generation Z” or those born after 1994 is demographically the future cultural wave that Catholicism will address through much of the twenty-first century. Business and retail studies about Generation Z planning for future marketing ventures agree that this cohort [Z] grew up in less traditional (nuclear) family backgrounds, is more likely to hail from single-parent or same-sex parent or blended families. Generation Z individuals are more likely to have friends from various ethnic, religious, and racial groups. [Italics mine.] They are more averse to risk than Millennials or Baby Boomers, have less confidence in the current economic system, and are more inclined to become small business owners. They are, interestingly, more religious in their own way than the generations ahead of them.
I listened to a fascinating podcast, “Why Do Young People Leave the Catholic Church?” A symposium broadcast by NPR in Minneapolis and based on the groundbreaking study funded by St. Mary’s Press, journalists, clergy, and representatives of cohorts Y and Z, the exchanges were respectful but painfully honest. Y and Z would have considerable difficulty comprehending the action of the Bishop of Indianapolis, who this week banned transgender children from all Catholic schools in the Diocese. Generations Y and Z do not have the disposition nor the interest in blanket labeling “disordered individuals” that Catholic sexual teachings documents seem to do almost reflexively. [The full 49-minute NPR broadcast is available for listening here.] These generations have grown up with a broader “anthropology” and—with credibility—can ask the hard questions that we too often answer with mathematic and dogmatic formularies or vanilla indifference. It is hard for me to understand faith formation programs that begin without frank but friendly dialogue, assuming the best in all generations.
Violence in the streets. The sad incidences of violence against persons and property are morally wrong, violations of the fifth and seventh commandments, respectively. That said, there are three important considerations when assessing 2020 as a learning moment.  Revolutions are never tidy [ask Queen Antoinette] and the heightened emotions can take on an energy that impairs both the long-range goals and the sympathy of the broader public which is necessary for success. I was saddened to see a remarkably peaceful national event scarred to some degree by outlandish acts; in fairness, not all of them were generated by demonstrators.
 Martin Luther King was profoundly inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi. Both men had their “Selma Bridge” moment. King would be 91 had he lived, and the generation of civil rights leaders he inspired are aged or expired. Which leads to the question of how effectively Dr. King’s principles have been passed along to the future generations he died to bring to full freedom. I do not raise this as a racial question or a judgment on black Christian catechetics. Catholicism has a parallel problem. The teachings of Vatican II on peace and justice were supposed to form the backbone of Catholic social teachings, but in the present culture a peacemaker of the philosophy and conduct of a Dr. King or a Pope John XXIII can be downplayed as coming from a “snowflake.”
 The national protests arose precisely because of an excess of violence against Mr. Floyd [and many others over time] by specifically those officers who are sworn to uphold the law. Again, I am not arguing that two wrongs make a right, but with an ironic twist the burning and looting serves as a mirror of how many persons of color view “white justice,” so to speak. Both sides of the mirror are ugly, and the problem of the one will not be contained without addressing the problem of the other. I looked up the Boston Tea Party [December 16, 1773] and discovered that white colonialists disguised themselves as persons of color when they illegally destroyed 373 cases of tea on three merchant ships in Boston Harbor.
Statues. I was all set to wrap this up when I suddenly realized that Catholic of all people should understand the symbols of statues, monuments, and flags. We are a sacramental people. Our worship is about “outward signs” that bestow power and point to the future. So, there is a Catholic philosophy that speaks volumes to the establishment or removal—legally or forcefully—of statues and memorials. That should be enough for a full post in a few days.
One of the dependable pleasures of my life is a regular evening phone call from one of the senior priests of my diocese. He was an established pastor when I arrived in Florida in 1978 and we served on numerous committees together over the years, including one which developed the first policy on maternity leave for lay employees of the diocese. Now well into retirement, he called last night, and our conversation turned rapidly toward the challenges to our Church and diocese presented by the Covid-19. We agreed that there is a sea change across the board, that the “new normal” will take a long time to unfold. Several things resonated strongly with both of us: a sense that a good many of our parishes do not have the resources for a long term shut down for reasons of public safety; and second, that many Catholics who were somewhat borderline about Sunday Mass may never come back.
[I asked him, toward the end, “what would you do if you were pastoring today, and he immediately quipped, ‘I’d suffer along with everybody else.”]
How bad will it be for parishes and parochial schools? Despite the soundness of the prediction, it was somewhat unnerving to see that Central Florida’s economic flagship, so to speak, Disneyworld, may not open until January 2021—at a projected attendance of 25% in the first six months and 50% in the last six months. Disney, as the USA Today story explains, faces some extraordinary challenges in terms of health safety, as anyone who has visited the facility can easily imagine. How do we maintain “safe distancing” in “The Pirates of the Caribbean” or the cozy French pavilion at EPCOT, one of my favorites? The Magic Kingdom is hardly the only industry with such problems, and the forecasts for Disney are quite applicable across the board for all institutions—from meat packing to parish operations.
I received an interesting article by Monsignor Charles Pope in Sunday’s National Catholic Register on some practical steps that parishes can undertake to allow at least some access to the sacraments, depending on local ordinance and intensity of “hot spots.” I do not agree with every one of them, but the thinking was crisp and practical. Monsignor Pope was wise to recommend some flexibility in matters of Canon Law, reminding us that “these are not normal times.” Communion on the tongue, he writes, should not be a viable option for the foreseeable future. Nor will we return to anything close to normal until a reliable vaccine is available, not just in the United States, but globally.
It is a shock to the system when one’s way of life is disrupted. One example will suffice: here in Orange County, Florida, the public-school system announced this week that schools will remain closed for the rest of this current school year. [I am surprised anyone doubted that.] Our Catholic school system follows the public-school calendar, so our schools will remain closed, too, and the homeschooling on-line will continue till the end of May. From what I understand, there is a rather strong backlash about this directed at Catholic school administrators. Someone posted this observation: “To educate a child, it takes a village. To homeschool a child, it takes a still.”
As my pastor noted at the end of Sunday morning’s televised parish Mass, an exceptionally large number of highly charged church and personal events have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely. All our initiation sacraments of the spring remain to be celebrated, including First Communion. Weddings and funerals have been postponed. Even if we can somehow celebrate these events in full ritual down the road, and that is a big “if,” they will obviously be muted by the fact that the planned event—in its proper liturgical and/or traditional time--will be postponed. High school graduation on December 5? Baptizing Catechumens on the 31st Sunday in Ordinary time? St. Augustine wrote that time is linear, it moves with historical energy that we cannot undo. Perhaps Augustine coined the phrase “the moment is lost.”
But the loss of life moments is not the only problem facing the Church, and these may be relatively insignificant when the historians tally the toll of this decade. The major immediate concern is money, period. From funding research to keeping Catholic schools open, the “new economy” will have to be worked with. Presently the unemployment rate in the United States is 20%. At the height of the Great Depression, the rate fell to 25%. Moreover, the federal government has already allocated several trillions of dollars for one-time stop gap aid to individuals and small businesses—a temporary one-time boost. Since the Covid-19 was not budgeted for, the money going out must be gotten quickly in some fashion. One solution is simply printing more dollars, which naturally decreases the value of the dollars you have in your wallet. The other method is borrowing, which places a significant portion of our economy in the hands of banks and other nations. [Ask your financial planner/consultant for a better explanation.]
To return to the local parish setting, cash is running low. Before the virus crisis began, about 20 dioceses in the United States had filed for bankruptcy, mostly due to clerical sexual abuse settlements but also due to poor management and “edifice complex” compulsions. In truth, however, the biggest financial problem facing the American Church is the nature of the day-to-day parish existence. For my entire life, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has been cited as one of the lowest in terms of financial support from members. Christians in general contribute 2.2% of income, Catholics 1.1%. Weekly Catholic church attendance presently runs to the 25%-30% range. During the Corona virus shut down, the Archdiocese of New York is losing $1 million per week. It is unlikely that any church institution will “recapture” what it lost during the pandemic, given that the return of parishioners to Mass will probably be lengthy and protracted…and that assumes no second wave. In the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, two schools--dependent upon diocesan subsidies--are closing due to the virus.
Bishops, by closing parishes and schools, selling property, and laying off personnel at the diocesan and parish level, have been able to shield parishioners to some degree from the outside rail of church financial bad news. But in today's environment, that strategy will be very hard to maintain. In the next post on this stream, I will talk about some of the inventive rethinking it will take to adjust to a very “new normal.”
Who says timing isn’t everything? As I was wrapping up this post, I received an email from my boss at the rural Catholic Charities clinic where I have worked every Monday for four years. She informed me that “during changes and closures needed during the past weeks” her position was being laid off.
For a time in my life I considered an academic specialization in Church Medieval History, and after a few dismal semesters one of my Catholic University professors, Dr. Guy Lytle, pulled no punches in discouraging my continuing along that track. However, I maintained my interest and still stay abreast with books in the field as I can. My medieval readings over a half century bring me over and over to a specific factor of late Medieval history that turned the known world on its head. Both the classic analyses of that age and very recent research go to considerable length to discuss a factor of medieval times rarely discussed in Church history catechetics, Y Pestis, which changed the trajectory of Christianity and contributed in no small way to the Reformation. Y Pestis is the cause of The Black Plague [1347-1352]; an excellent source on this event is The Great Mortality ; my slightly dated 2005 Amazon review is here.
For all its influence in the Church, no Christian soul ever laid eyes upon Y Pestis. In an age before the microscope, it was too small, a bacterium that lived and developed multiple forms in places and ways we don’t fully understand even today. The predominant theory seems to favor transmission by flea-bearing rodents. In the early 1300’s A.D. trade between Europe and the Orient was novel and flourishing. The trade routes which carried Y Pestis agents extended from China over land all the way to Byzantium [modern day Istanbul] and then by ship to all major ports in Europe. That said, very recent research has discovered traces of Y Pestis in the western Roman Empire as early as 600 A.D.; this would correspond to accounts of a mortal plague during the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian [r. 527-565 A.D.]
Y Pestis arrived in Constantinople in 1347 and began to encircle the entirely of Western Europe. Those who were bitten by fleas or breathed upon by human carriers became seriously ill within hours. As one observer records [from a distance, apparently] a man could be infected at noon and dying by sunset. Moreover, the grotesque symptoms brought a special terror: the most frequently reported and longest remembered symptoms were black swellings in the groin area or elsewhere. Reportedly the size of eggs, these swellings were called “buboes” and gave the contemporary name to the affliction, The Bubonic Plague. The exact number of the dead is not known even today, but reputable texts generally agree that a 25-50% mortality rate is a fair baseline, versus the 2% death rate of the Spanish Influenza pandemic in 1917.
I discovered news coverage of a lecture delivered by Dr. William Langer of Harvard University in 1963. Langer, a historian, makes the argument that the social havoc of the Black Plague wrought by Y Pestis is the closest comparison to the impact of nuclear war available to military planners and sociologists. Of particular concern to Langer was the “rather disgusting performance of the leaders of medieval society who fled the cities in the face of approaching disaster. Officials of the towns and the upper clergy fled, professors and students dropped their books, wealthy tradesmen closed their shops.” Catholic history books concur that the most dedicated clergy and religious remained at their posts, celebrating sacraments to be sure, but particularly tending to the spiritual needs of the dying and providing reverential burial, if possible. [An ironic historical twist: when the city government of Philadelphia collapsed under the onslaught of the Spanish Influenza in 1917, the Catholic clergy went door to door in horse-drawn wagons on a regular basis to collect corpses.]
Medieval piety was deeply rooted in a fear of hell; a disease which cut down its victims so quickly would bring a particular terror of loss of recourse to the forgiving sacraments. Fear of gruesome death and loss of eternal reward generated a multitude of aberrant reactions. One reaction, noted above, was flight from the cities and civic responsibilities. Many clerics, for example, fled to the mountains to ride out the plague while their peers and monks died in extraordinary numbers tending to the faithful. Another reaction was hedonism, as many persons, having little or no hope of deliverance in this world or the next, threw themselves into their vices with wanton abandonment. A particularly grim reaction was scapegoating, and Catholics turned to their accustomed targets, the Jews, persecuting and killing large numbers, using the pretense that the Jews had caused the plague by poisoning Christian wells.
The Black Plague devastated European economies, reduced populations for about a century, and turned much of the Christian West from an agricultural society to an urban one, due to a scarcity of labor. The impact upon the Church was immense. The best of Catholic priestly leadership and theological scholarship was dead, and the post-plague religious reactions were diverse. Already traumatized and deprived of quality ministry, waves of mysticism developed among the laity. Some of these groups, absent the restraint of ministerial supervision, took up extreme practices such as self-flagellation or whipping.
Among the men of letters who survived, such as Petrarch and Boccaccio who left narratives of the plague in their letters and literature, and philosophers who had previously embraced the orderliness of St. Thomas Aquinas’s thought universe, a gradual and diverse rethinking of the order of things began to take root. Both the Reformation and the Enlightenment would probably have set roots in European [and eventually American] soil without plague, but the impetus of a catastrophe which no one could understand hastened a discontent to discover the true nature of things.
The issue of salvation itself came under greater scrutiny. As Kevin Madigan explains so well in the conclusion of Medieval Christianity , the late Medieval era on the eve of Luther was divided between a desperate search for assurances of salvation, on the one hand, and a depressive cynicism that no amount of devotion, sacraments, and good works could win salvation. The issue that sparked the Reformation was the propriety and trustworthiness of claims of absolute certainty of heavenly salvation through the preaching and cash sales of indulgences.
Catastrophes of any sort cut to the quick of the human experience, shattering the illusion of control and full understanding of one’s universe. When the barbarian Alaric and his troops sacked and occupied the city of Rome in 410 A.D., the image of the Eternal City as religious and political center of the earth was such a critical wound to collective consciousness that St. Augustine was compelled to write his classic, The City of God.
The increasing incidence of the Coronavirus is occurring in the Christian Lenten Season. And now that we know the drill of washing hands for twenty seconds and avoiding crowds, it may be spiritually useful to spend quality time with ourselves, reflecting upon the sobering truth of our own limitations in this universe to know all and fix all. This humility renders us open to the grace and wisdom of God, to the point that we, too, with St. Augustine, can understand the differences between the passing “City of Man” and the eternal “City of God.”
For catechists looking for discussion material in teaching the Commandments, sometimes the resources fall right into your lap. Consider the Seventh Commandment.
I am told that I was in Forbes Field in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1947 when Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers stole home plate from third base. [I was born a few months later.] I have stayed with the game all my life. In junior college seminary, I was listed on the depth chart as a catcher, though in truth I was the “break glass in case of emergency” replacement on the squad. So, I was intrigued at the breaking news story this week regarding cheating by the Houston Astros and possibly several other teams, specifically the issue of electronic stealing of the secret signals that all teams develop to assist their players in communicating with one another. For those of you who do not follow baseball or its rules closely, the Washington Post has a fine layman’s summary of the scandal in its sport section.
My reaction to the Houston story was surprise. I thought all teams were stealing signs with technology. In the 1950’s I watched the “Baseball Game of the Week” in black and white on Saturday afternoons, and Dizzy Dean and Buddy Blattner, the announcers, routinely instructed the center field TV cameras to hone in on the catcher’s finger symbols to his pitcher. [Old Diz’ won 30 games as a pitcher himself two decades before, when baseball was broadcast only on the radio.] My bigger reaction was the possibility of using this Houston scandal and others like it for catechetical purposes. What an interesting way to teach the Seventh Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Steal.’ I am assuming for our discussions here that we are dealing with competitive sports, where the object is to win by outperforming and outwitting one’s opponent for monetary or other tangible compensation.
Cheating/stealing which brings actual harm to players in competition: Fifth and Seventh Commandment. There have been some scandals in sports where the drive to obtain a competitive edge crossed into moral compromise that few would condone. I think the most egregious offense to athletic enterprise in my lifetime was the “bounty scandal” or “Bounty Gate” plot engineered by 27 New Orleans Saints football players and some coaches. Coaches and players created a pool of money to be awarded for injuring an opposing star player and forcing him out of the game. Bounty Gate was in full swing in 2009 when the Saints won a Superbowl. Saints’ head coach Sean Payton was suspended for one year.
As for baseball, another set of questionable circumstances a century earlier—corporate as much as personal--led directly to the death of a baseball player during a Major League Baseball game. In 1920 a New York Yankee pitcher, Carl Mays, struck Cleveland Indians player Ray Chapman in the head with a pitch that led to Chapman’s death twelve hours later. Historians note that at the time of Chapman’s death major leagues used a minimum amount of baseballs during a game, and pitchers routinely ground the singular baseball into the dirt or rubbed it with tobacco or licorice. As games wore on, the pitched baseball was nearly impossible to see. In addition, Mays threw an “underhand” pitch [or a submarine pitch in today’s lingo] as well as a “spitter,” both of which were legal at the time. That said, baseball authorities rushed through several reforms after Chapman’s death, including increasing the number of clean baseballs and outlawing the spitter [a pitch loaded up with saliva, tobacco, or Vaseline], whose projection is nearly impossible for a batter to pick up in time to protect himself. Mays was not punished and won 200 games over his long career. Protection devices such as batting helmets would come into common use only many years later, though not soon enough to protect the Boston Red Sox's Tony Conigliaro, struck in the eye in 1967 by a pitch from journeyman Jack Hamilton which partially blinded him.
Though not directly related to on the field competition, it is worth noting that many baseball team owners have taken prompt steps to protect fans in the stands with extensions of screenings to avoid contact with foul balls after several recent serious injuries in the stands.
Strategy: It depends how far you go: All discussions of stretching the boundaries of legal or customary strategy must begin with Wee Willie Keeler. Baseball has changed its rules countless times to maintain a competitive balance, on the grounds that competition for money ought to provide both sides with a level playing field, physically as well as strategically. Players and their owners, on the other hand, have been looking for the competitive edge since the game became organized and have worked to create new environments to circumvent these rule changes. In 1899 Wee Willie Keeler, then playing for the Brooklyn Superbas [Dodgers], struck out just twice all year! His secret was an otherworldly expertise at bunting, which he could apparently execute at will. He was so good at it, in fact, that baseball instituted the “third-strike foul bunt rule” to reign him in. But Willie worked his way around this new rule by developing a swing which resulted in an inordinately high bounce in the infield, the “Baltimore Chop,” which provided ample opportunity for a batter to race to first base for a single before an infielder could field the ball. The chop is still legal, though I guess no one could pull it off like Wee Willie.
But at 5’4” the diminutive Keeler needed true architectural assistance in 1903. Playing for the first time on his home field with the New York Highlanders [Yankees] he discovered that the dip in right field was so severe that he could not see home plate. Consequently, the Highlanders built him a wooden platform in right field to allow him a better jump on the batted ball. Tinkering with ballparks for specific team needs continues to this day. The most common adjustment is moving fences in [for more home runs] or out [to assist poor pitching]. Major League Baseball apparently does not dictate the size of an outfield so long as it is within reason. “Reason” can be a loose term. When the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to the Los Angeles Coliseum [1958-1961], the right field fence stood 440’ from home plate, the left field fence at 271’.
Every change brings advantage to some and disadvantage to others. Over the years pitching mounds have been raised [to help the pitcher] and lowered [to help the batter.] The strike zone interpretation is dependent upon league regulations and the discretion of the umpires. In 1973 the American League enacted a rule whereby the weakest batter in the starting lineup could be replaced by a stronger hitter from the bench throughout the game, the “designated hitter” rule.” Professional sports are businesses which need to draw fans to the park and [especially] TV and wireless streaming. A winning team, with a few exceptions, is a winning product for baseball owners and, lest we forget, for individual baseball players whose good statistics put them
In positions to demand higher salaries or navigate to other teams for more lucrative contracts. Which leads us to our next moral dilemma…
PEDS or Performing Enhancement Drugs. While pharmaceutical enhancements have always played a role in baseball and probably all sports, the practice grew wildly out of control after 1994. Baseball players went on strike and no World Series was played. Fan reaction toward baseball was highly negative, and Major League Baseball was desperate for some “good news.” Sure enough, the quest for Babe Ruth’s all-time home run records by Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and others captured the front pages of the sports sections of the newspapers. As new PED’s became available some of baseballs best pitchers and home run hitters began to employ their use to build muscle, increase strength, and recover more quickly from injuries. The drugs themselves, notably anabolic steroids, had been banned from baseball from some time, but many PEDS are difficult to test for, and at the turn of the 21st century, as home run records were eclipsed in almost comic proportions, and players like Bonds visibly beefed up to Herculean size, investigators were dependent upon players’ testimony and a federal investigation of a pharmaceutical supply house, Balco. Those who went to jail and/or were suspended from baseball did so on charges of perjury or obstruction of justice.
As with several other scandals listed above, there is individual and corporate guilt. The players who used enhancers obviously cheated against players who played it straight, both on their own teams and the opposition. They shortcutted the laborious gym work that all successful professionals engage religiously. They “stole”—and there is no other way to put it—the credit of true accomplished record holders, notably Hank Aaron’s career record of 753 home runs. And, as any baseball fan will admit, there is a taint of scandal and fraud hanging over the entire steroid era, such that the accomplishments of truly fine winning teams and statistically exceptional players will always be regarded with a mental asterisk.
And then there was Houston. This is a baseball scandal where the technology ran ahead of the game. Looked at one way, the Astros were attempting to steal signs in the great tradition of baseball. Sign stealing is legal so long as no electronics are used. After World War II, when baseball games began to be televised with center field cameras, owners resisted on the grounds that the catcher’s pitch calls could be recorded and analyzed. However, the commercial TV cameras remained in place as they do to this day. In the 1960’s and 1970’s Lou Brock, probably the best base stealer in history, used an 8mm camera to film pitchers’ deliveries from the dugout in order to time his jumps toward second base. No one objected.
The holy grail of stealing catchers’ signs is a system that makes the stolen code immediately accessible to the batter. The time a catcher gives his pitch sign to the pitcher and the pitcher hurls the ball across the plate is a matter of seconds, around 5 or 10. The Astros installed a camera in their home park in center field, which beamed an instant signal to a TV monitor in the dugout. Baseball allowed the installation of video screens in dugouts a few years ago when the practice of instant replay review by umpires became available as it is in professional football. An unintended consequence of the dugout monitors was the almost instantaneous visibility of the catcher’s signals to the Houston players.
Since the computer age, baseball players and teams amass huge amounts of statistical and visual data on every opponent’s roster. Batters already know pitchers’ tendencies, what their best pitches are, and when they are likely to throw them. One of the true arts of pitching is delivering the unexpected to the plate, and this is the final frontier of baseball espionage, gaining knowledge of what the pitcher is going to throw. The Astros crossed the sound barrier with a surprisingly low-tech solution: having knowledge of what the next pitch will be, players signaled the batter by rapping on the dugout garbage can with a bat. One swat on the can for a fast ball, two swats for a slower breaking pitch like a curve ball. Numerous videos have emerged this past week confirming the [literal] trash talk to the batter. A pitcher on the Astros 2017 championship team, Mike Fiers, was traded to the Oakland A’s and he briefed his new teammates on what to watch out for, later providing a long interview to the baseball news service, The Athletic.
Was the system effective? Probably less so today, now that the system has been publicly confirmed, and very recent accusations involved several major league teams besides the Astros. Many baseball insiders had suspicions of sign stealing before the Astros system was in full throttle during the 2017 World Series with the Dodgers, won by Houston. Was it costly? It is worth noting the psychological anguish caused by the Astros system to just one man, a Dodgers’ pitcher, Yu Darvish. Darvish started two games in the World Series for Los Angeles and was pounded by Astros’ hitting. He did not last past three innings in either start [a World Series record which still stands.] After the Series, to add insult to injury, Astros players told Darvish that he [Darvish] was tipping his pitches. This caused the pitcher to question his pitching mechanics and his general effectiveness. The Dodgers traded him before the 2018 season.
Houston’s 2017 World Series victory will be carried through generations with “the mental asterisk” of baseball fans and historians. While there have been countless instances of moral and technical breakdowns in every institution, including the Catholic Church, a moral crisis is wasted if it does not lead to fruitful discussion, evaluation, and reform. Issues involving the Seventh Commandment demand as much attention as we have traditionally rendered the Sixth. To paraphrase the Gospel, “What does it profit an organization to gain the whole world—or at least a World Series Championship—but suffer the loss of its soul?”
I continue the prowl for updated books and topics for those interested in pursuing contemporary Catholic theological thought, pastoral practice, and catechetics. I am particularly regretful that time to read is so precious that I cannot be timelier on all the Catechist Café posts; the poor “Monday Morality” stream has not seen action since July.
So, I reached back into my past for inspiration, to 1973, when I was required to write a semester paper as a credit elective. The Washington Theological Coalition, as my school was called then, taught a core curriculum for all students for theological masters degrees, but we were permitted to choose a specialty, and mine was morality. In my school, the morality department embraced both Christian ethics and spirituality, somewhat like the Catechism’s organization today. Having been skillfully advised by priest/graduates from the classes ahead of me, I was careful to choose a topic that I figured my professors knew nothing about.
So, for my independent study, I proposed “Women’s Liberation and the Church.” I think my faculty readers were intrigued more than anything else, and when pressed for my objectives, I said that there was a large body of secular literature and certainly much media activism coming forward on behalf of the equality of women, and that I hadn’t seen much Catholic literature or action on the subject in the 1960’s. [There were, in fact, several Catholic women who had published on the subject by the early 1970’s, but I was unaware of that.] I don’t recall setting out to critique the Church, but I was already mindful of Father Andrew Greeley’s observation that “the Church arrives on the scene a little breathless and a little late.” I did have a dim sense that feminism, like the antiwar movement, then at its peak, was something the Church would have to deal with pastorally and academically. And, I was just plain interested.
As much as I loved the Catholic University Mullen Library in my university days, it was not exactly noted for its secular feminist literature, which necessitated my making frequent trips up Rhode Island Avenue to the Maryland Book Exchange, which sat adjacent to the University of Maryland. It was a massive independent textbook/research book dealer, the prices kept very low for us struggling young radicals. The Book Exchange was a great help to me, and I returned home with piles of used copies of the works of feminist thinkers and activists obtained at bargain prices. [I could never understand how, during an anti-war demonstration, the store was later set on fire.]
I was lucky that I was a full-time graduate student of the Coalition. Had I continued at Catholic University, where I obtained my B.A., I don’t think I would have had the freedom to undertake that kind of research, at least under the auspices of its school of theology. CU was more buttoned down, a pontifical university. Its few forays into radical politics had not gone particularly well. In March 1971 several of my classmates attended a lecture by a radical feminist, Ti Grace Atkinson, at the CU student union, who in her comments made a statement about the Virgin Mary that was both tasteless and blasphemous. William F. Buckley’s sister Pat rushed from the audience to the stage and took a swing at Ms. Atkinson; the story subsequently ran in the Washington Post and Time Magazine. The Coalition, which I attended, was formed in 1969 by a consortium of religious orders who pooled their best academics into an academy that seemed more at home with the tenor of Vatican II as we understood it then.
It was not simply the secular crusading for women’s rights that generated my interest, though. I went into this paper project with several real life “givens” from my Catholic life. Attending summer school at St. Bonaventure University for several summers with religious sisters from the Northeast, working retreats for religious in DC and New Hampshire, and working with several Georgetown women’s high schools providing weekend retreats, I came quite naturally to the idea of working with women in ministry. I heard a great deal from them about the struggles of religious women’s communities with local bishops and what today we would call clericalism.
But long before that, as a kid I noticed quite a difference in the lifestyles of priests and nuns. I was in the fourth grade when I was called to the principal’s office. I liked Sister Macrina and we got on well, but a summons is still a summons. In front of her eighth-grade girls’ class [she had no office], she asked if my dad could drive the sisters of the parish convent to the community’s motherhouse in downtown Buffalo for the wake of one of their religious confreres who had died. [I always wondered later how she knew he had just purchased a new 1957 Chevy 9-passenger station wagon for our growing family.] My dad and I took care of business, and after the sisters were dropped off, I told him it was too bad the convent didn’t have its own car. I knew the four priests in my parish each owned a car—I used to get paid to wash them.
But back to 1973 Washington: I read a lot of authors who probably would not be recognized today—Erica Jong, Kate Millet, Simone de Beauvoir, among others—and Betty Friedan, whose 1963 The Feminine Mystique is still respected as one of the best popular analyses of women’s unrest in the United States after World War II. As I recall, Friedan discussed the power of male corporations and institutions in shaping the self-image of American women. In my generation we still joke about TV’s June Cleaver doing her housework in pearls, but Friedan was the first author to critique this stereotype as a form of masculine economic suppression.
Friedan made very good sense to me, as she resonated with protests of other forms of commercialized pressure [e.g., the tobacco industry and the auto industry] and she prepped me for examining the limited Catholic writing available at that time on women’s identity. The two Catholic authors I can still remember are Sidney Callahan and Mary Daly. Callahan’s best-known work at the time was Beyond Birth Control . I regret I do not have a copy of my paper today, but my memory is that the author, a psychologist and a mother of six children, was attempting to hold together “the Catholic middle” in the face of Pope Paul’s teaching banning the use of artificial birth control. The idea of a male authority figure legislating on medical issues of deep concern to women—without their input—was, at the least, questionable to many, and Callahan, who remains a devout Catholic, was attempting to take the debate to a higher plane.
It is quite a leap from Callahan’s maternal and spiritual outlook to that of Mary Daly. Did twentieth-century Catholic higher education produce a more controversial iconoclast of Catholicism’s male history and orientation than Mary Daly? Daly died in 2010 at age 81. Her life, academic history, and writings are truly one of a kind. She began her career as a Catholic theologian at Boston College. Her early work, The Church and the Second Sex, nearly cost her a tenured position. [If you want to see what could get you fired from Boston College, there is a generous excerpt from this book on Amazon here.]
Looking at her career and the development of her thought, can one even call her a Catholic theologian? My professors thought so. Boston College thought so for a long time. There was a long list of theologians exploring the outer edges of the Catholic universe at the time, and Daly would have been one of them. But note that she was among the first women to reach full doctoral and faculty status and join the faculty of a Catholic university. Amazing as this may sound today, Catholic women were not permitted to seek masters and doctoral level degrees at any Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States until after World War II. [Sidney Callahan's advanced degrees were in the field of psychology.]
At the time I read Daly, she was emphasizing the structural and existential struggles of being a woman throughout history in the Church, a reality that more recent historical research has affirmed. Just today Phyllis Zagano raised the historical theological slant against femininity in her reporting on the Amazon Synod now in session in Rome. As her research and speculation later unfolded, Daly turned to new language and concepts of God purified of masculine overtones. At some point she consciously moved from theology to philosophical sociology, plumbing the depths of both universal womanhood and male manipulation of the female experience. She was actually taken to court for her refusal to allow males in her classes; she argued that the collegian women in her classes behaved differently in the presence of boys.
I do think she served the Church well in at least two critical ways. First, she put the troubled past of the Church before the world with her initial books and reminded us that Christianity is not exempt from the adage that “the victors write the history.” This was my biggest takeaway from reading her and formed the basis for my concluding paragraph, that Catholics must approach our common life with the understanding that our tradition is cast by the masculine mind.
Her second contribution is a philosophical error, for want of a better word, that has remained a prod to my conscience for many years. Daly’s method of thought was based on a primacy of female experience. She came to be criticized by women of color, who argued at she, a prosperous and highly regarded white woman, was overreaching, that she could not know the experience of women in multiple cultures and settings. One can see that establishing an infallible primacy of one’s own judgments of moral reality based solely on limited human experience, male or female, is a road to a type of chaos that we are presently experiencing in religion and society.
The basic theological issue in play here today is the forum of personal experience and conscience vis-à-vis a common vision of love and justice, or put another way, my ability to “sympathize” or to “feel with” the suffering and hopes of others. It is common to hear Vatican II Catholics referred to as “cafeteria Catholics,” implying a process of picking and choosing which doctrines and moral teachings to be observed, based upon individual subjective feelings. On the other hand, blind obedience—in this case to a male and clerical structure—has proven the wisdom of Lord Acton’s nineteenth century dictum, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Nearly a half-century later feminism, in the best sense of the word, remains one of our Church’s greatest moral frontiers. It addresses the very heart of how we think and feel in our religious identity. I am pleased to say that much of the best moral writing in Catholic academics is the product of women theologians. In future posts I will be working with Sister Anne E. Patrick’s Liberating Conscience: Feminist Explorations in Catholic Moral Theology  and Sister Margaret Farley’s Just Love  to go much beyond what was available to me in 1973.
I burned a lot of gas and spent a pile of money on books, but I did get an A. I do wonder, though, if in 2019 there is any seminary anywhere that would allow a seminarian to do a project like this. It is a much more button downed church world today. I’m rather glad I had the privilege.
How do we know what God wants? How do we learn it? How do we communicate it? How do we teach it? This Monday stream of the Cafe on Morality has been woefully neglected; this is the first 2019 entry, and I returned to the Catechism’s treatment of morality today, specifically paragraph 2000 and thereabouts on the specifics of justification and on to specific moral directives of right and wrong. Catholic moral theology, as I posted on the Saturday, July 27 stream, has officially maintained a stately code of good and evil. It would be immature to deny the importance of moral direction, with the proviso that the crisp confident judicial language of the Catechism should never gloss over the existential battle to do good and avoid evil. Jesus’ agony in the garden was not play acting for our benefit, but a template of crisis thinking that accompanies doing the Father’s will, and not one’s own.
If we do consciously hold to the Christian creed, we believe there is an ultimate judgment with consequences beyond the grave. I don’t pay attention to discussions about the precise time of the “Second Coming of Christ” in part because Jesus himself said that such speculation is a waste of time (“that Hour is known only to the Father”) but also because my own eternal judgment is a reasonably imminent and predictable event, time wise; the actuarial tables provided by my retirement/financial planner indicate that a death date of age 87 would be financially advantageous for me. So, if the Catechist Cafe should suddenly go silent in 2037, there is good chance I will be able to speak more authoritatively on judgment at that time.
It is true that for many seniors, there is a young person trapped in an old body yelling “what the hell happened?” Unless illness or early dementia shortcuts reflective moral thinking, those of my age cohort find us looking backward toward a panorama we never had in earlier years, a fuller picture of our lives from our earliest memories to our present state of moral consciousness. My personal experience on this score is something that does consume my quiet, meditative prayer time. With the maturity of age, I look back at decades of opportunities and omissions and I wonder how God will judge me.
George Bernard Shaw famously observed that “youth is wasted on the young.” Sometimes I feel that age is wasted on seniors. Recall the touching scene from “The Shawshank Redemption” where Red (Morgan Freeman) sits before the prison review board in his later years and tells the board how he wishes he could go back and talk to his younger self who murdered another man probably four decades earlier. The wisdom of seniority can be painful for seniors but would have been enormously helpful to us in our youth and adulthood, not to mention our children and others entrusted to our care.
I wish there were some way for us to share the trench warfare of moral struggle with the generations behind us. This is, after all, how the Church formed itself over two millennia, struggling with evil, error, and ignorance before bequeathing later generations with principles whose bloodless formulations belie the work of their composition. Every human’s life comes face to face with this crucible of assessment. Ashley G. Miller, in her excellent essay of July 23 in Crisis Magazine, addresses the inevitability of our moment of truth: “Sooner or later, people take stock of life and wonder what it is for—and we ought to prepare them to answer. No matter how successful we become, none of us gets to escape this question, any more than we can escape the questions of how to live, or how to understand the world, or of how to organize our society. The person with the successful job and the nice home will still, one day, be called to make an account of himself.”
Although I have written to this point from the vantage of 70+ years, my intent is to inspire thinking about “moral conversation” across generations. It was inspired when I returned to the morality quadrant of the Catechism and the drift in modern catechetics toward a one-dimensional dependence upon moral teachings so economically taut that human experience and the life of conscience formation is practically extraneous. As early as 600 A.D. the Irish monks, the first true systematic moral theologians, recognized the complexity of human experience and sought to instill penitents with a wisdom of why their actions were wrong and how they might improve their consciences, often by the selection of a unique penance. [The “three Hail Mary” penances are an impoverished vestige from the day when an Irish sinner might be told to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.]
There are cases in the Irish penitential books where a man who kills another man will be instructed by his confessor to assume financial support for the dead man’s widow and children. One might quickly respond that this is simple justice, but the moral intent here was to convey the value of another man’s life and the irreparable grief and damage wrought upon to a family [probably an extended family.] To this degree a man in his relative youth acquires some sense of the evil he is capable of doing and the high stakes of the decisions he makes. I have to think that in our own time when Pope John Paul II reemphasized the priority of individual confession over communal rites, he hoped that wise confessors would also take this tack of teaching and conveying wisdom, but an overly enduring judicial approach to this sacrament [‘legal absolution”] has considerably reduced its ability to convey spiritual insight and moral wisdom. “Hearing confession” is an art; without the art it has the moving power of paying a parking ticket.
The same can be said for catechetics. In the Ashley Miller essay I cited above, the author makes another compelling point: “My own understanding of humanity and the human need for salvation is based more on all of my experience gained from reading about people and their emotions, downfalls, reactions, courage, and tenaciousness throughout history than by the facts laid out in a catechism class. Reading of humanity leads one first to the truth that salvation is needed, and also to the questions and answers of how to achieve salvation.”
“Reading of humanity” can be expanded into the present moment and into the existence of each of us as we assess our lifelong struggle to meet God and know the divine way through the wars we have waged with our sins. If we bear the least bit of insight and thoughtfulness, we would have to admit that we have learned a great deal from God and have amassed a wisdom of considerable value. How do we share that? Perhaps one step is being honest about how hard it has been to attain and live a measure of faith. Two years ago, the Catholic research center CARA released a landmark study, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.” The study noted that a statistically significant number of Catholics have made their minds up to disaffiliate by the age of 10!
This got me to wondering how I would address this phenomenon were I still pastoring today. Something I might experiment with—perhaps in place of post-initiation elementary school aged CCD—would be a circle of five fathers and five ten-year-old sons. Research shows that this youthful population thinks more intently and deeply about the Church than is generally believed. Let them talk. Let them lay out their questions and criticisms. We may not like what we hear, but we would already have accomplished a major goal in proving to them that they are affiliated, something that is usually taken for granted.
A second achievement would be the demonstration that matters of truth and morals can be talked about in language other than “church-ese.” [I dread reading ecclesiastical documents which typically come down in Rococo style.] A third would be the introduction of an adult population to the cultural jargon of the young. As a therapist in private practice I had a thriving “Goth” population; several of them, wearing “sneakers” created from black electricians’ tape, explained to me that the Goth community at the local high school was established to protect themselves from bullying and harassment from other students who were angry at classmates who liked study, the arts, and superior academic performance. I was into my 50’s then but quite naïve about the intensity of bullying.
What do adults bring to the table? For starters, some candid admissions that when we were ten, we couldn’t bear the Stations of the Cross, either. We, too, could barely see the altar, and we were scared, too, of bullies and gangs. We can introduce them, gradually, to grown up life, to how much we worried about how we were going feed them and hold on to jobs that we didn’t particularly like. We can talk about the peace and quiet we found in church when we lit a candle and asked God for help. In other words, share the meat and potatoes of a faith life and the way it got you through. With consideration for age appropriateness, it is fair game to talk about failure and how much it has cost in adult life.
The important point here is that the curiosity of youth has opportunity to intermingle with those who have labored some years in the heat of the day. What we used to call “community” can be better expressed as “talking.” For the foreseeable future I will use the Monday Morality stream to highlight key paragraphs of the Catechism [without the church-ese] in a fashion that allows us to face our ultimate meeting with God, with realism and hope as well as the pain of imperfect humanity we all bear in common.
My wife Margaret returned on December 21 from a week's work in Tijuana, Mexico, assisting refugees seeking legal entry into the United States at the Tijuana point of entry. She had been recruited as a translator for medical and legal personnel also volunteering from the United States, though her work would eventually include numerous humanitarian services. She was profoundly moved by her time there and hopes to return next year, if possible, circumstances permitting.
On her return she put her thoughts on paper for her family, and I thought that passing them on to you on this final day of 2018, and on the "Monday Morality Stream" no less, might be an appropriate way to conclude the Cafe's 2018 year of posting.
A week at the border
A week ago I was home getting things ready for my trip to Tijuana. Right now I am sitting in the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport trying to process all I have experienced. I think it will take quite a while for all I have seen, heard, and experienced to really sink in and settle within me. I don’t think some of it will ever make sense to me.
The organizer of our group had told us not to go with any preconceived notions. She warned that things changed daily, sometimes hourly. I was going as an interpreter, but I wasn’t sure what that would involve. There were two doctors going in our group, so I brushed up on my medical vocabulary in Spanish. I bought a Spanish-English dictionary that emphasized vocabulary from Central and South America. I thought I might be translating documents such as birth and marriage certificates, so I brought some blank templates with me to make translations quicker. Turns out I didn’t need any of this. The two doctors in our group spoke Spanish and the need for interpreters was much greater than the need to translate documents.
Most of my days were spent interpreting. At 7: 00 AM each day I went to Chaparral. It is a public plaza at the foot of Ped West, the major pedestrian border crossing in Tijuana. It is here that migrants seeking asylum go each day to see if it is their turn to speak to a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official and begin the process. Hundreds of migrants go there each morning. Some of them have been waiting for their number to be called for six weeks or more. The scene is usually orderly, but the whole process is abominable. According to US law, anyone who presents at the US border and asks for asylum needs to be given the opportunity to present their case. Why are they fleeing their home country? Have they been victims of a violent crime? Are they being persecuted for their political opinions and actions? All these and many more questions will be asked. Most people will not qualify for asylum, but they do not know all the specifics, so they come trying. It is the only path open to them. The poor, uneducated, and marginalized have no hope of receiving a visa since the US has all but eliminated visas for people coming from these countries.
Thousands of people from Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua arrive in Tijuana. Some also come from Africa, the Caribbean islands, and as far away as Russia. They arrive at the busiest border to the USA, one that routinely allows 3,000 people a day to enter. But for some reason CBP says they can only process a very small number of asylum seekers each day. So a list has been formed. It is against US law to have a waiting list, so the US government does not admit that the list exists. The Mexican government also denies that it is keeping a list. But I have seen the list. I know that CBP communicates to Grupo Beta, a supposed humanitarian group, just how many people they are willing to process on any given day. While I was there the number ranged from 20 to 95. There is no way of telling. So the migrants show up at 7:00 AM each day once their number is getting close. If you are not there when your number is called, you miss your chance and go to the end of the list; another six weeks is added to your wait.
My job at Chaparral was three-fold. I was an observer of the process, a provider of information about services available, and an interpreter. As an observer I walked among the people waiting, being visible to the police and Grupo Beta. I was there to make sure that nobody was harassed, that women with small children were safe, and that this extra-official list was being implemented without negative intervention from Grupo Beta. The list is maintained by the migrants themselves, a group of four who pass management of the list to others once their own numbers get called. I was also there to let the migrants know about services available to them. Al Otro Lado, the group I was there to support, offers a talk every day about the asylum process, and volunteer lawyers do one-on-one consults after the meeting. Free meals are provided each evening at 5. Clothing is distributed to anyone who needs it. My job was to let the migrants know that assistance was available for most of their needs. Finally, I was an interpreter. Many of the volunteer lawyers did not speak Spanish. If those of us who were observers came across migrants who were about to be transported to the initial CBP interview and who had never spoken to a lawyer, we helped the lawyer give a mini-lesson on the asylum process and their rights under US law.
Our group of observers waited among those whose numbers had been called and were now on line waiting to board busses. Most were so upbeat and happy to have reached this point, to have passed this hurdle. Because most had been to the talks at Al Otro Lado and because of the incredible rumor mill in the camps and shelters, they were aware that the next step would be going to a detention center in the US. Even going to a detention center was seen as better than returning to their country of origin. What going to a detention center involved was anybody’s guess. It changes constantly. Al Otro Lado tries to prepare people for the worst case scenario. Mothers and children might be separated from fathers. Fathers traveling alone with children might be separated from them. Some might be tagged with an ankle monitor and simply released into the streets of San Diego with no information about shelters or assistance available. Important documents are taken from migrants when they enter detention centers. Sometimes documents are not returned unless the migrant knows to ask for them. While I was there this week, Al Otro Lado began a new service. They scan the migrant’s documents, store them digitally, and give them a card with directions on how to retrieve them. While most of the migrants do not understand the system, there are aide groups in the States that will be able to do it for them and the documents will not be lost forever.
In the afternoon I worked where needed. Most of the time it was interpreting for law students who were volunteering to do Credible Fear Interviews. This was the crucial juncture where questions were asked of the migrants to see if they were probable candidates for a successful asylum claim. If they were not, they were told what their alternatives were. It was not our right or intention to tell people what to do. We were there to give information so that people could make informed decisions. It was a heart wrenching thing to experience.
One afternoon I was not needed as an interpreter so I found a broom and swept the floors and staircases. They had been bothering me since I got there! Two afternoons I gave English classes in a small shelter. The people there were mostly very young, and the person in charge was looking for ways to keep them productively engaged during their long days of waiting.
Without a doubt my favorite task was acting as wedding coordinator/interpreter. Yes, wedding coordinator. Every day that there is a minister available, weddings are held at 3:00 PM at Enclave Caracol. Enclave is a marvelous grass roots cooperative offering nutritious meals to the poor of Tijuana. They also have an all day coffee bar and lounge where all are welcome to come in off the street and rest a while. They own the four story building where Al Otro Lado is operating free of charge. First floor houses the coffee bar and kitchen. Second floor has been taken over as processing center for clothing donations for the migrants. Third floor is where Al Otro Lado offers its legal services. Fourth floor is where Al Otro Lado has its operations center and a lovely terrace looking out over downtown Tijuana. Weddings take place on the terrace.
I had the privilege of interpreting every day for a Unitarian minister who was volunteering for a week. Migrants wishing to get married signed up in the morning or just showed up at three. A volunteer from New Orleans purchased a few flowers each afternoon, and the bride got to have a simple, one-flower bouquet. Someone purchased some very inexpensive rings so there was a lasting symbol of the vows exchanged. One couple had been together for 29 years and their three daughters ranging in age from 16 to 22 were witnesses. Another couple were married in a civil ceremony in their home country but wanted a religious blessing on their union. I had to keep tissues in my pocket to give to brides and grooms who were moved by actually being able to profess their love and vow to be there for each other in the future just as they had been in the past. It was such an honor to be a part of this. Many of the volunteers came up to witness the weddings and experience the most joyful thing that happened at Enclave every day.
I have been so impressed by the people with whom I came in contact. The group from the Florida Immigrant Coalition with whom I traveled and worked were amazing. Such talented, caring women. They were knowledgeable in their fields and insightful and compassionate when offering their services to the migrants. There were two doctors, a psychologist, a paralegal and two interpreters. And our amazing leader who transported us to various shelters, bought and delivered clothing, shoes, and food for the migrants, and made sure everyone in our group was safe, fed, and never alone.
I was touched by the sheer number of young law students who gave up part of their Christmas vacation to serve in whatever capacity was needed. Most did Credible Fear Interviews, but some scanned documents or offered childcare while parents spoke to legal advisors. Experienced immigration attorneys did one-on-one interventions, acted as legal observers at Chaparral , and trained newly arrived attorneys on how things were organized. All was done from the heart. Not what you usually hear about lawyers.
What can I say about the migrants with whom I interacted? Their faces are etched in my memory forever. Their stories will stay with me always. The very sad young mother sitting on the curb nursing her baby in the cold morning, to whom I gave the devastating news that she would not get to present her case for at least six weeks. The upbeat 15 year old who was sure she would get asylum as an unaccompanied minor, and was not aware that CBP had stopped processing unaccompanied minors because of the bad press their treatment was getting in the states. The married couple who were two of the keepers of the list with whom I struck up a friendship, but with whom I will never be able to communicate again. The 20 year old woman ready to give birth any day who had arrived without a plan; she innocently thought she would get preferential treatment because she was pregnant. The mother who decided to give custody of her nine year old son to her niece because he was a US citizen, and she did not have a strong case for asylum. They came from a part of Mexico where gangs run everything and the police do nothing. She was afraid that he would either die from a stray bullet or buckle to pressure and become a gang member himself. I could go on, but remembering them just makes me sad.
This has basically been a recounting of events as they unfolded for me during the week I was in Tijuana. It does not begin to describe my emotions and what I have learned. It will take me a long time to unpack that and let it reveal itself in my life.
Thanks for all your support and love. I am blessed to have such a wonderful family.