How to Look Like a Saint While Heading to Hell*

Head’s up: This post is not g-rated, and it does dissect the allegations in a real abuse case.

To all but those few who knew his secrets, the news about Jean Vanier comes as a complete shock.  (Count me among the shocked).  How can this guy who did so much good — a guy who was seriously being considered for canonization — have been guilty of such crimes?

This is a question we can’t just set aside as impossible to answer.  It is not impossible to answer, and since sin didn’t go to the grave with this latest scandal, we have a responsibility to understand and act on the answer.  So, unpleasant though it be to launch into this topic right now, here are the three things that make it possible for an evangelist to live a double life.

#1 Stealth Predators Test the Waters

It doesn’t matter whether we are speaking of consensual affairs among willing adults or the most nefarious rape, if you want to live a double life, you have to move carefully.  Read this account of an abuse-survivor’s story to see how it’s done.  I chose this story in particular because it shows you exactly how a predator avoids detection (though in this case he got caught sooner rather than later), because we’re looking at a case where the predator tested the waters, fish got away, man had to move on.

What to note:

  • The predator (priest in this case) starts by building a trusting relationship.
  • Early on, the idea of secrecy or covert-ops is introduced (“tell your mom you’re seeing me for spiritual direction”).
  • The first abuse is an action that can be explained away.

Hence the insistence by the predator’s superiors that the abusive encounter was merely a “boundary violation.”  Let’s be clear: A man pressing his erect penis against a woman’s body, even through the barrier of clothing, is engaging in sexual activity.  No decent man will know he has an erection (this is not something men are unable to detect) and choose to physically press his pelvis against the body of a woman who is not his wife.

Legit foreplay for a married couple.  Not legit under any other circumstance, and no sane adult man is going to let a teenage girl become aware he has an erection by physically putting her in contact, even through clothing, with that part of his body.  Nope.

And yet we see in this sample case that the behavior gets excused.  Why? Because it was chosen by the predator for the ease with which he could wiggle away from the charges.  The girl was mistaken.  Either she doesn’t know what she’s talking about (because how does a young teen know what an erection is), or if she does know, then obviously she’s a hussy and she’s making a false accusation — bad family, dontcha know.  I’m concerned someone might be abusing her, and that’s why she’s acting out.  And gosh, I shouldn’t have hugged her, I shouldn’t have let her sit on my lap, it’s just that she reminded me so much of my niece, and she really seemed like she wanted a hug, and listen guys, I realize I had a lapse in judgment.  I’m so sorry.  I realize my mistake, and I’m not going to let it happen again.

A predator who gets away with his or her crimes is someone who operates carefully.

#2 Toxic People Choose to Surround Themselves with Enablers

Obviously the predator has to move beyond those initial tests.  So how do you get away with your abusive behavior when sooner or later word is bound to get out?  You do this by making sure that no one close to the facts is going to report.

To a toxic person, there are two types of people in the world: Those who will tolerate the abusive behavior and those who will not.  The non-tolerators are systematically removed from the toxic person’s circle of friends.

Much of this is self-chosen by the healthy person.  If you have a boss who underpays and overworks, the simplest thing to do is look for another job.  If that friend is always dragging you down with gossip and drama, you start hanging out with different friends.  If a relative is taking advantage of your generosity, you set firm boundaries.

In ministry, self-respecting volunteers and paid staff don’t stick around long if toxic people are in charge.  They move on early. Gradually, without ever having been caught at any serious crime, the predator-in-charge finds him or herself surrounded only by those who will, for whatever reason, look the other way at sinful behavior.

And of course the career-climbing predator has additional tools available to help clean out the org chart.  Whereas a holy person will not lie to sabotage a fellow employee, a skilled predator is well able to build a case against those who need to be eliminated.  An insinuation there, a careful retelling of the facts here, and next thing you know that volunteer who wouldn’t shut up about actually following child safety procedures is out the door.  Once you are in charge of a ministry, it’s easy enough to find some pretext for making a staffing or organizational decision to unload the contingent who gets in your way.

Reality to consider as we pray for our priests?  It is almost impossible for a pastor of souls to know what is really going on in his parish or diocese.  Unless he makes a powerful effort otherwise, his life is going to be saturated by the company of people who revel in winning the game of being part of the priest or bishop’s inner circle, and people who want to play that game are not healthy people. Thus even a holy man is likely to end up enabling toxic behavior — and it’s hard to be a holy man.

#3 The Devil is Prowling and Sinners Lie to Ourselves

Allow me to quote the St. Joseph’s Baltimore Catechism: Venial sin is worse than the measles.

As an expert sinner, let me tell you, it is very, very easy to talk yourself into sin.  Venial sin, mortal sin, all sin.  The smarter you are, the better you can be at making up rationalizations for why this sin here is not a sin at all, and that one over there is maybe just a teeny tiny sin, especially after you consider all the mitigating circumstances.

The degrading nature of sin is plain as day to those who aren’t caught up in the self-built snare of lies used to justify the sinful behavior. That’s why sin hates daylight.  When you suspect you are sinning, you work hard to hide to the sin.  Sometimes you do this by acting in secret; other times you camouflage the sin so it passes as no-big-deal. If it must be discussed, you come up with words and phrases that make the sin sound like something harmless, or perhaps even something healthy.

This does not mean that adultery is just the same as making a frowny-face at your husband when he interrupts your phone call.  This does not mean that abusing a child is the same thing as that time you let the kids have brownies for dinner.  What it means is that the more intentionally we engage in the battle against even our smallest sins, the more easily we can understand how people who are dedicated to a life of good can also be deceiving themselves into committing serious evils.

The teeny-tiny devil who helps us justify our little sins is just a miniature, cute-faced version of the big devil haunting the peripheries.  To commit a little sin, tell yourself a little lie. To commit a big sin, tell yourself a big lie.  Same process.

There is no easy solution to all this.

What we want is to be able to say, “Now that I understand how this happens, I can prevent it from ever happening again!”

Not so much.  All we can really control is our own behavior.  We can choose not to be complicit in corrupt activities.  We can grow in our own holiness so that we are more aware when someone else is pulling out the excuses to justify a sin. We can teach our children and other souls in our care how to recognize and avoid sin in ourselves and others.

To the extent that we have authority to do so, we can take steps to battle against the structures and excuses that enable serious sin to flourish.

Meanwhile, free will’s a bear.  Be as good as you can, help fight evil where you can, and then fast and pray.

That’s what you can do.

File:Bataille Waterloo 1815 reconstitution 2011 cuirassier.jpg

Photograph: French cuirassier during a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, courtesy of Wikimedia CC 3.0.

Related: Repentance, Mercy, and Prudence

*Lord willing, Jean Vanier repented of his sins and is now enjoying the delights of Heaven.  May we all benefit from the bountiful mercy of Jesus Christ who will do anything He can, even die for us, that we each might be saved from our two worst enemies.

The Other Book on Evangelization You’re Gonna Want

I’m usually a quick writer, and usually pretty accurate in my estimates of how long a project’s going to take me.  Not so with the latest round of edits on the book, which if we were to measure in terms of laundry backlog would be described as: Now forced to wear the socks I hate but never quite manage to donate, thank goodness, because it’s too cold for sandals.  In fact we might even go so far as to say: Been wearing socks I hate so long I’m starting to accept them as part of my life.

So I’m gonna start some laundry now.  Meanwhile, there’s this other book I just found out about, and you are going to want to get a copy.  It’s The Contagious Catholic: The Art of Practical Evanglization, and it’s by Marcel LeJeune of Catholic Missionary Disciples.  I haven’t read the book, so I can’t tell you how much crossover there is between his book and mine.  What I know is that Marcel LeJeune knows what he is talking about.

If you are in parish leadership and want to learn what really works in evangelization and discipleship, go get yourself and a couple colleagues signed up for the next available CMD training group.  He does the thing you need in order to acquire the skills it takes to evangelize in your parish and beyond.  So sign up for that.  Don’t spend your money on other junk, sign up for that.  Did I mention you should sign up for that?

If you’re an ordinary Catholic, stalk the book release and pounce when the moment comes.

As soon as final edits are done on my book, I will be reading Marcel’s.  Then I’ll be able to tell you what’s the same and what’s different, but honestly? You’re gonna want both.

Book Cover: The Contagious Catholic by Marcel LeJeune

Cover art for The Contagious Catholic by Marcel LeJeune courtesy of Ascension Press.

 

Related: If you’re wondering why Marcel’s name rings a bell, previously on these pages I recommended his book Cleansed: A Catholic Guide to Freedom from PornIf you haven’t read it yet, hit up Lent-a-Claus for a copy.

Request for Contributions: Effective Communication on Parish Access for You, a Person with a Disability

Hey everyone, I am looking for help, quickly.  My awesome editor of the new book surprised me by wanting more, not less, info on making parishes accessible to persons with disabilities.

The question we need to cover: What is the best way for a parish to communicate with you, and vice-versa, so that your disability (medical condition, etc – so celiac, diabetes, severe allergies, chronic illness . . . all that can have parish-life implications too) can be accommodated right from the start?

Leave your comments at the blog discussion group, or message me on Facebook or Twitter @JenFitz_Reads.

We’re envisioning here both scenarios where the accommodations might already be present but you still have to know about them, and situations where you show up and have to start the process (however simple or complicated) of getting full access to parish life.

I’m looking for firsthand experience from the user-end, not stories of what your parish has provided to accommodate someone else, but what you as the person being accommodated (or the parent, etc., if appropriate) find most helpful in terms of effective communication to make the accommodation happen. Anything at all relevant to that topic.

[Include here also anything related to overcoming human stupidity, when your disability is not something that should be an access issue at all, but weirdly it is because people are dumb sometimes.]

Although I do not know what our total word count for this section will be (and therefore how many detailed stories or quotes I can use), please indicate with your comment whether you are up for being directly quoted or whether you are providing background info only. If you are game for being quoted, let me know what to call you in the book. If you need to be quoted anonymously, PM me (so it doesn’t show up in a public FB feed).  You can refer to yourself by full name, job title, and credentials, or you can give me something descriptive but vague such as “Mary, a retired accountant on the Gulf coast,” or “John, a new convert working with an inner city ministry to street performers,” or whatever suits.

If I already have your story, we’re set, just remind me I’ve got it and give me permission and quoting info if you haven’t done so already. But you might have more to say, or particular details that are pertinent to this specific question. If so, repeat with fresh info or emphasis, please.

***

Related: If you have more stories of excellent examples of being a person with a disability who is involved in evangelizing* (discipling) ministry in some manner in your parish or the community you serve, I’d be interested in hearing two things:

  • The big-picture story of your work (who you serve, how you serve, stories of people growing closer to Jesus), which will just as likely end up *elsewhere* in the book, not related to disability at all.
  • Possibly to be put in the same quote or possibly to be used as info elsewhere, stories on the details of making access happen, whether that be something already built into your ministry or something that had to be organized.

*If you’re doing it right it’s all evangelizing. Don’t get hung up on vocabulary.

What doesn’t make the book will end up getting used somewhere, if you give me permission to do so.  Let me know that.

Thank you!

Cover Art/ Image Description: This is the cover of the book I’m asking you to contribute to, The How to Book of Evangelization, coming out in June 2020 from Our Sunday Visitor.  FYI for those who don’t know, publishers come up with book covers all on their own, without the author’s input on the design (they get info from the author all about the book, of course).  So it’s magical that they chose a shade of purple I love, and a big ol’ crucifix splashed across the cover that looks an awful lot the like one I have a view of from my office.  God provides.

7QT: Anatomy of a K5 Bible Lesson

Prologue:  Do you who makes this world a better place?  Editors do.  I finally opened the edits on the manuscript for the new book, and with great pleasure observed that (a) my editor knows exactly what she’s doing and by the end of the month, therefore, a far better book will be headed towards production, and (b) it turns out only one of my chapters needed to be scrapped because it was . . . not what would be helpful to the reader.

This was a good experience, because it means I got to write my mad rant, sit on it for a year, and then come back and write a fresh take that will be pretty awesome, if my notes pulled together during time-outs at a basketball game last night are to be believed.  So that’s fun.

What might I have foamed at the mouth about?  Oh, you know, catechesis.  Shock shock.

#1 It was good that I was writing up notes on catechesis yesterday, because today I was subbing K5 at the kids’ school.  Subbing all-day kindergarten is God’s way of periodically reminding me that fulltime early-elementary teachers possess heroic superpowers.  But a day in kindergarten is the path to making you look forward to working with the 8th and 10th graders again, but also be reminded that five-year-olds are so much fun.  They really are.  Exhausting, yes, but also magically fun.

#2 So we make it through the morning and right after lunch it’s time for a Bible story.  The kids were learning the story of  Esther this week; the other K5 teachers assured me that my chief goal was to reinforce.  I glanced at the teacher’s manual and noted that bravery was the big theme for the day, and that we had Romans 8:28 for a our Bible verse to fit with the theme.

#3 When you have to call a sub at eight at night, you aren’t necessarily able to get everything laid out the way you’d hoped.  My colleagues clued me in to hunt the room for the Bible story card that goes with Esther, and I found it hanging on the wall.  When I pulled it down, there were four other stories behind — two from David, plus the Nativity.  These were super props: Large format, laminated, full-color illustrations of the key moment in a Bible story; on the back side the story is printed ready-to-go.  Good thing, if you’re the sub who needs to be prompted on what story you’re teaching, heh.

And here’s thing about teaching religious ed: You are almost always going to have to assess the mood of the room, see what resources you have, and make quick decisions.

We had these big pictures.  We’ll be using the big pictures.

#4 So we started with the first picture, and I asked who remembered what story this one was.  I called on a raised hand to narrate (I’m sorry I can’t call on you unless you are sitting quietly), got a decent retelling of key points, and called on a second student to add any missing details.  I gave it a one-sentence summary (we’re just reviewing here), and per the lesson plan emphasized the theme of bravery.

Quick move to the second card, repeat with two different volunteers.  Third card showed Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in the manger.  First volunteer talked about them traveling to Bethlehem and asking for a room at the inn.  Second volunteer talked about the flight to Egypt, because king Saul wanted to kill baby Jesus.

Oops.  No dear, Saul was the one hunting David, previous story.  This time it’s Herod.  No big, and then emphasize again, in teacher-recap, the bravery of Mary and Joseph.

All that was review, and it let the talkers get some talking done and got everyone thinking about those pictures and therefore churning through whatever they could remember of Bible stuff they’d learned in the past.

Then onto the fun bit.

#5 You can’t keep talking and talking.  These are five-year-olds.  Time for some action.

Our key idea is bravery.  The kids were able to remember something about the bad guy in the picture wanting to kill Esther, and that she was the queen.  I reviewed (two or three sentences, max) the key facts of the story, and then had a volunteer come up to the front and sit on a chair and be a king on his throne.

Something that makes Esther brave is that she approached the king without permission, which was a capital offense.  I explained that if the king calls on you, you can come to talk to him.  I let the king call on three volunteers and give them permission to speak to the king.  Each in turn approached the throne, said, “Hi King,” and then went back to their seats.  Perfectly safe.

Good.  Now someone needs to die.  That requires expertise.  I explained to the class that now I was going to approach the king without asking, which means he can have me put to death.  I walked up to the king, and prompted him to tell me, “Off with your head!”

He did.  I promptly dropped dead dramatically, with much more noise and rolling on the floor than decapitation might usually involve.

Kindergartners love it when you do that.

So you calm the class back down, tell them no one else gets to die right now, except maybe . . . Esther.

Pick another volunteer to be the queen.  Explain that your husband the king doesn’t know you need to talk to him, and you have to, because the bad guys want to kill your people.  But of course he could order your head chopped off — we all saw it happen just a minute ago.

So Esther approaches the king, I give the prompt for her line, “Can you please save my people from the bad guys?”

And then as the director here I ask the kid playing the king, “Did the king say, ‘Off with your head’ or did he say ‘Yes, I will save them.’?”

He got the line right and gave a nice clear answer to his stage-wife, “Yes, I will save them.”

#6  I wrap up with a tie back to the Nativity, and how the people saved by Esther’s bravery were the nation God chose to be the family of Jesus, our Savior.   David, Esther, and many other people were called by God to be brave, and all of them saying yes to God led up to the day when Jesus was born.

Now time to wrap up with a closing prayer.  My intuition was that it was time to go Ignatian.  This is K5, so you don’t have a lot of time.  I had the kids close eyes to pray, and then in my prayer thanked God for the bravery of His saints, the gift of salvation (“coming to be our Savior and opening up Heaven so we can be with you forever”), and His promise to be with us and give us strength and courage when things are scary.

Then, still praying, and making sure all the eyes were closed, I told them to imagine something scary that happens in their life, and then imagine Jesus being there with them, providing help and encouragement and the ability to be brave.  Now quietly imagine telling Jesus, who is there with you, thank you for being with you. Amen.

#7 That dropping dead thing?  Big kids like it too.

File:Book of Esther Chapter 7-4 (Bible Illustrations by Sweet Media).jpg

Artwork: Illustration from the book of Esther, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0.

Q&A: What Does it Take for a Rosary to “Count”?

On another forum the question was raised, and if it’s being asked there then it is probably of interest elsewhere: What does it take for a rosary to “count”?  If you want to be able to honestly claim you prayed the rosary, what is the minimum that must be done?

My answer . . .

There are some very limited situations where it matters whether your rosary “counts”:

  1. If it is the penance assigned to you in Confession. If so, follow the instructions in a booklet or similar resource on how to pray the rosary; presumably the priest who assigned the penance has such a thing on hand or else confirmed in advance you knew how to pray the penance.
  2. You are committed to praying the rosary daily because of your affiliation with a religious order or apostolate, such as being an auxiliary member of the Legion of Mary. If so, follow the instructions set forth by the organization to which you belong.
  3. You’ve pledged to say a rosary on someone’s behalf, and you were quite specific it would be a rosary, not just prayers in general. If so, go with booklet instructions as above.

Otherwise: Doesn’t matter. It’s you and God spending time together loving one another. Think of it as going on a date . . . you wouldn’t spend your time wondering whether the date “counted”.  I hope?

UPDATED

Over in the discussion group, a reader kindly reminds us that if you wish to receive a plenary indulgence for praying the rosary, there are instructions on that.  Which you’ll want to keep straight.

Two nice links to go with the update:

Enjoy.

Transplaining J.K. Rowling

Quick update: Rod Dreher has excerpts of the ruling against Maya Forstater, if you wish to know what all the fracas is about.  Read it.  Forstater’s crimes are thought crimes and speech crimes.  Is this the society you want?

***
For insight into the state of the culture war, here’s Katelyn Burns at Vox explaining that J.K. Rowling, the poor dear, just doesn’t know any better because she’s been raised by those dreadful backwards British feminists.  Holds onto these horribly unscientific ideas about gender and biological sex, dontcha know.

Full Disclosure: I am one of seven people on the planet who have no opinion whatsoever about the Harry Potter books.  Haven’t read ’em, don’t plan to, don’t care if other people do or don’t. Not my genre.  As a result, I’m in that rare position of not caring, one bit, whether J.K. Rowling and I agree on issues dear to my heart.  But weirdly, she’s been caught holding an opinion not unlike* my own:

Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill

So let’s talk about her need to Woke Up!

Feminism is a Big Tent

The group of people (and I’m one of them) who believe men and women should have equal rights is an extremely large and varied population.  We have, at times, different ideas about what “equal rights” looks like in both theory and practice.  There are sharp divides over questions such as whether women should have lots of children (I think women should be free to do so), whether they should stay home to rear those children (I think women should be free to do so), and whether one ought to practice distinctive gender roles within marriage (I think women should be free to do so).

So it is no surprise that the varied group of persons calling themselves feminist, and holding in some general way to a belief in equal rights for women, would be divided on the question of where male-to-female transgender persons fit into this equation.

Are There Things Only Women Experience?

One of the divides among feminists is about what exactly the female experience is, and how it plays out in society.  Are there power imbalances between men and women?  If so, where and how do they occur?  How does one’s experience of being a woman vary based on social class, race, wealth, education, political power, physical ability . . . all these questions are dealt with by feminist thinkers in varying ways.

And most importantly, feminism has from its inception looked at the question of What does it mean to say someone is a woman?  What does it mean to say someone or something is feminine?

One answer, and the answer to which I and many other women (and men) hold is that something is feminine by simple fact that a woman experiences it.

The Fight Against Gender Stereotypes

We who hold this view do so for logical reasons, but also for reasons seated at the very foundation of the feminist movement.  In fighting for equal rights, a significant hurdle to overcome was the challenge that xyz items (legal status, political power, equal pay, certain jobs . . . and the list gets longer and more absurd the more restrictive the culture) were not open to women, or appropriate for women, because it wasn’t “feminine.”

This leads to experiences like my beautiful, stylish, teenage daughter dropping in at Lowe’s Hardware this week to buy more flashing tape for the construction job going on at our house . . . and being directed to the command hooks.  Yes, she is in the middle of a DIY project  — but it’s not hanging knick-knacks, thanks.  She eventually helped the employees find the product and showed them how to scan the barcode on the box, because she knew what she wanted and they’d never heard of it.

Is construction a “feminine” activity?  Well there’ve been female contractors on all the crews that came to our house, and the parts we’re doing ourselves keep involving me and my daughters . . . so I say yes.  The fight of the feminist movement is to not be told Honey you need to leave that dangerous, dirty construction stuff to the men, it’s not for people like you.

The Experience of Being a Woman is Distinctive

Some of what feminists write about is experiences like this one, where, due to societal prejudice, people still assume girls like my daughter couldn’t possibly know what flashing tape is or how to use it.  Other experiences are distinctively feminine regardless of culture: Menstruation, intercourse as a woman, childbirth, breastfeeding, weaning, menopause . . . these are uniquely feminine experiences.

Cultures vary, and so do the experiences of individuals within a culture.  When we look at situations like the hardware store example, there may well be men who can relate in some way to my daughter’s experience; there may also be women who never experience that low-level bless your heart prejudice.

Likewise, not all women experience their reproductive sexuality in the same way.  There are situations where a given man and a given women might find more in common with each other than they do with some other men or other women.  It happens.

Still, and this is the assertion of the strand of feminism that I and J.K. Rowling appear to have in common, there are certain experiences that are distinctive to being female, and should not be explained away.

Where Does This Leave the Male-to-Female Transgender Person?

Here is an interesting story from those who are old enough to remember a time when transgender wasn’t a thing, we just had drag queens and transvestites and dinosaurs: Back in those days, no one was paying attention to who used what bathroom.  If you looked like a woman, you used the ladies’ room, done.

Passing was everything, of course.  “Success” was the friends sitting out on our porch, he a man of variable sexual interests, his date a man in drag, and our housemate coming in late, chatting for a few minutes, and the next day asking, “Who was that?  A couple from church?”  Well, no.  Good friends, but not church-friends, heh.

Now it is clearly on record that I do not hold that the correct treatment for gender dysphoria is an attempt at a sex change.  But allow me to assert something that I think is important in respecting people who experience gender dysphoria, whether they consider themselves transgender or anything else: Other people who have not been there don’t know what it’s like.

Other people might be able to relate, to some extent, because they have had analogus experiences in some other context.  But to be a man who feels strongly that he is a woman? To be a man who undergoes any number of personal changes in a sincere attempt to embody the womanhood he feels is his own?  That is a unique experience.

It is not the same as having the privilege and ease of being born with a female body.  It is not the same as growing up with a firm sense of your masculinity or femininity.  It is not the same as going through life with the whole world agreeing with you about what your gender is or should be.  It is not the same as showing up in the ER and doctors just know what to expect from your body where sexual differences are concerned.

Can Harry Potter Feminism Serve Transgender Persons?

Among the many strains of feminism in the big tent, there’s a brand that I and many women have rejected.  This brand says that “equality” means men and women must be the same. I need to surpress my fertility, pretend not to have a period, show indifference to motherhood, and all the while prove to the world that I’m just as strong and mathematical and scientific as any man.  (In fact I am more mathematical than most of the men I went to grad school with, but that’s not what confers equal rights — theirs or mine.)

I find this abhorrent.  My equal worth as a woman doesn’t depend on my ability to pass myself off as smaller, pudgier, breast-laden man.  My right to equal pay for equal work doesn’t depend on my supressing my fertility or weaning my baby prematurely.  I don’t deserve to be treated with respect only if I can somehow prove that I don’t experience “girl” emotions or “girl” interests.

We who hold that the experience of being born a woman is distinctive, valuable, and deserving of equal rights and equal respect don’t subscribe to the “woman are defective men” theory of gender differences.  Femininity informs many aspects of our lives, but it is not what gives us equal rights.  Being human is what gives us equal rights.

I assert that for transgender persons, this kind of feminism is not the enemy.  This is the path to genuine respect and genuine equality.  On this path, the unique experiences of being transgender are not brushed away.  Your worth as a human being is not measured in how well you “pass” as the gender you identify with.  To openly acknowledge that being a male-to-female transgender person is different from being born female is to get off the hamster wheel of forever having to prove yourself “woman enough.”

Shall We Cancel Harry Potter?

I don’t expect many beyond my ordinary readership will find this point of view persuasive.  We are living in an age of soundbite philosophy.  Logic and the examined life are, at present, out of fashion — and the fashion police are vicious.  The idea that one could have an honest opponent, or even an opponent whose freedom of speech is worth preserving? Unthinkable.

So J.K. Rowling may or may not hold up in the twitterstorm.  If she does, perhaps Harry Potter becomes one of those embarrassing franchises now requiring the cultural-safety warning.  Perhaps, in one of those twists only our warped times can produce,  Chik-Fil-A starts issuing wizard cows.  Who’s to say?

But I’m grateful there are still a few voices championing the strain of old-school feminism on which I was raised, because I believe it’s a point of view that serves all men and women well.

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Photograph of Sojourner Truth, whose “Ain’t I a Woman” speeches should be mandatory reading on this topic, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

 

*I am somewhat flexible on the question of whom you sleep with, but I think you ought to save sex for your faithfully wedded spouse.  But let’s not get into the co-sleeping debate, okay?

Catechesis vs. Evangelization in the Pediatric Hospital for Sinners

So the US Bishops have assembled again, and following a hot tip I watched the session with Bishop Barron’s report on evangelization.  You can view the whole thing here.

It is worth watching if you have the time.  I started jotting down a few of Bishop Barron’s points on post-it notes for reference as the new book goes into final edits in December, and ended up annotating the whole transcript instead.   [FYI for those tempted to create snarky hierarchy-themed bingo boards, ahem, YouTube’s auto-generated captions and transcript do some fascinating things with the words ad limina.]

There were many valuable points raised, but the one I want to talk about now occurs around the 46-minutes mark. Bishop Daniel Conlon raises the question of evangelization versus catechesis. In his comments and Bishop Barron’s reply, a thorny problem for catechists is discussed: How do we both provide the rigorous catechesis that young people need (discussed extensively earlier in the presentation), and evangelize the barely-Catholic youth in our parishes?

As the bishops’ review of the state of evangelization rightly points out, it is no good throwing a pile of commands and directions at someone who is still asking basic questions about life, the universe, and everything. But at the same time, for the young person (or older person) who has largely accepted the Catholic faith, and in a different but crucial way for the young person whose mode of grappling with the faith is headily intellectual, the hunger for theology is a survival drive.  Serious examination of the faith for some young people is life-saving nourishment.

And yet that same theologically-intensive approach to the faith would absolutely drown a different kid also sitting in the circle at the youth group ice-breaker.

So what do you do?

The present solution — parish food fight, and last man standing gets to organize the youth program along his or her favorite lines — is not a good solution.  It’s not just a bad idea because yelling at your pastor is poor form (so I’ve been told, more than once), but also because “young people” are not a homogenous lump of catechetical tumor.

The young people who attend your parish are not identical to one another.  They have differing academic abilities, differing faith backgrounds, and differing spiritual needs.

Imagine if pediatricians organized conferences where they attempted to hash out a single mode of treatment for every child. Imagine showing up at your child’s doctor’s office, and the appointment went like this:

Parent: My kid has a badly swollen knee.  It started about three weeks ago.

Doctor, nodding gravely: Ah yes.  I see.  You will definitely want to start our regimen of asthma treatments.  It’s a shame you didn’t come in sooner, but it’s not too late.

Parent: I don’t think you understand.  It’s the knee.

Kid: My knee really hurts.  I can’t play soccer anymore.

Doctor: Yes!  It’s impossible to play soccer if you can’t breathe well!  What we need you to do is come in once a week for breathing treatments.

Kid: I can breath just fine.  I don’t need breathing treatments.  It’s my knee that hurts.

Doctor: Well, it never hurts to improve your breathing.  Many children have undiagnosed asthma, and so it’s important that we focus on making sure you can breathe well first.  When you’re older there will be plenty of time to look into your knee, if that’s important to you.

Parent: But if we don’t treat the knee, isn’t my child likely to get out of shape and have a worse time keeping up?

Doctor: Yes.  Exercise is so important!  That’s why we require all patients to receive weekly breathing treatments, to make sure they can exercise well.

Parent: I don’t think that we want to do the weekly breathing treatments.  We’re looking to understand why the knee is swollen.

Doctor: I’m sorry.  With an attitude like that, obviously your child is not going to get any better.  In all my years of medical practice, I’ve found that if we don’t require breathing treatments, children with undiagnosed asthma can get seriously ill, and even die.  I’m concerned you don’t take your child’s health seriously.

Parent: Could you refer us to a knee specialist, perhaps?

Doctor: Of course!  After you child finishes college, it might be possible to find a doctor’s office with a knee program. Though honestly, most Singles Doctors and Young Adult Doctors don’t do knees.  We did have an OB-GYN who treated a sprained ankle once, though.  Knees are more likely to come up in the Seniors treatment center.

Kid: I hate doctor’s offices.  Last year I had to spend six weeks in a cast because four of the kids in our treatment group had broken wrists.

Doctor: Oh yes.  I’m so glad your group was treated for that! Many children hurt their wrists skating or climbing trees.  In any case, I doubt it’s your knee.  We have extensive research showing that breathing treatments are far more effective at keeping young people in your grade alive and healthy.  Let’s just go ahead and sign you up, and you can give it a try, and I think if you have a good attitude it will work wonders for you.  Remember, you only get out of treatment as much as you put in, right?  Big smile for me, okay?

Disaster.  But before you lay into the “doctor” in this situation, keep in mind the doctor is only doing what we’ve asked. We’ve spent generations now commanding youth ministers and faith formation directors to develop a single program that somehow effectively treats every patient in the pediatric hospital for sinners — and then we heap on the blame when an overworked, underpaid staff member isn’t able to magically cure all the youth of the parish in that sacred hour a week of instructional time.

There’s an alternative to this approach, and your pediatrician is already doing it, and interestingly it’s the same thing the Church prescribes: Parents as primary educators, passing on the faith in the domestic church.

What would happen if we abandoned the orphanage-model of faith formation and operated the hospital for sinners more like a good doctor’s office?

We’d quit scolding and start educating parents.   When public health professionals notice parents aren’t getting their kids treated, they don’t rely on general admonitions to “Take your child’s health more seriously!”  At my doctor’s office there are posters on the wall and racks of pamphlets explaining common medical problems, and signs to look for, and treatments to pursue.  Does your parish educate parents on the common spiritual illnesses of youth, and how to prevent and treat them?

We’d give parents realistic ideas for how to educate their children in the faith, and expect them to follow-through. At the annual well-visit, the nurse runs through a list of age-appropriate potential concerns.  The advice that goes with is concrete.  Not a vague: Are you protecting your child from head injuries? but Does your child wear a helmet when bike riding?  The best doctors take into account the family’s resources and limitations, and the child’s true needs, and work with parents to find solutions when, say, the kid won’t eat fruits and vegetables, or constantly unbuckles in the car. [Duct tape? Not kidding.]  Parents usually will rise to expectations if the medical team can find a solution that the parent can reasonably hope to carry out.

We’d focus heavily on helping parents instill everyday spiritual health habits, but train parish staff in the diagnosis and treatment of serious problems.  Our pediatrician is an excellent cook as it happens . . . but it’s not her job to feed our family.  That’s my job.  Do I sometimes slack on that job?  You bet.  But even on days when my kids have popcorn and ice cream for dinner, it’s better that our doctor focus her time on becoming as knowledgeable as she can on detecting and treating (either herself or via referral) the serious problems.  Most appointments will end up with our doctor prescribing a simple course of treatment at home; every now and then, one of the kids will need more advanced care.

What would happen if we didn’t divide-and-conquer this way?  I’d probably have a dead kid, thanks for asking.  My pediatrician would be so bogged down with the weight of attempting to somehow feed our family a balanced diet (and do it in one weekly dinner twenty-five nights a year) that she’d never have the time and energy to stay current in her specialty and schedule one-on-one appointments.  She’d never have discovered, in a routine five-minute check-up before a vaccine, the thing that could have killed my child.  But because she specializes in treating the hard stuff, and leaves the day-to-day to me, when we need her expertise, she’s able to give it.

But the parents are neglectful! We lament.  Well, yes.  The parents are dropping like flies themselves, and Bishop Barron’s presentation addresses that.  You can’t care for someone else when you yourself are dead.

Build Better Orphanages! is not the solution to the spiritual death of the adults in the congregation.  You cannot bypass the parents.  There are not enough youth ministers in the world, and never will be, because that is not God’s plan for the human family.  Evangelize the parents, catechize the parents, and deploy the parents to do likewise for their children.

This is a constant, all-at-once process.  Our pediatrician is effective because she assumes the goodwill of parents.  We parents might know nothing at all about medicine, but we do love our kids.  That’s all she needs for a start.  If a parent is coming to your parish, that parent is ripe for the Good News.  Who doesn’t want eternal life for themselves and their children, if only they know it’s attainable?

The How-To Book of Evangelization: Everything You Need to Know but No One Ever Taught You

Here, enjoy this book cover.  I am. Last round of edits starts in December, speak up at the blog discussion group if you have any final requests.

Smart Rosary Helps Users Overcome Distraction, Excuses, Family Harmony

ConspiracyPress – COLUMBUS – When Kaden Zimmer received the Vatican-promoted “Smart Rosary” from his confirmation sponsor at Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church, he wrote a polite thank you note and promised to use it every evening when his parents lead a family Rosary.  “I figured it would announce the mysteries and help you keep from slipping into the Nicene Creed instead of the Apostles Creed by accident.  I had no idea what we were in for.”

Heather Zimmer, Kaden’s mother adds, “Father Scott, our parish priest, is always trying to reach out to young people.  So Kade’s uncle was excited to get a coupon code for a parish discount on this new product that was supposed to help liven up our prayer life.  We all downloaded the app for our phones. Little did we know.”

The family was enjoying the meditations on world peace and concern for the poor.  “Basically it was just like being in religion class,” Kade says.  “I’m pretty good at writing short-essay answers for that.  I figured I was set.”

Then one evening Kade begged out of the evening family Rosary.  As Joel Zimmer, Kaden’s father recounts, “It was a Thursday night, and Kade had been at practice until seven, and he told us, ‘I’ve got all this homework to do, and also we had the school Mass today, and Father always leads a Rosary while the choir is practicing.'”

“That’s when my phone began buzzing,” Heather recounts.

“Giant PANTS ON FIRE icon lit up,” Joel says, shaking his head sadly.

“We were horrified.  Needless to say, Kaden was grounded,” his mother says. “We told him that behavior was unacceptable, and he’d be marching straight to confession Saturday afternoon.”

Mr. and Mrs. Zimmer report that while they were disappointed in their son, they were pleased that the Smart Rosary’s honesty-detector had prevented spiritual disaster.  The family privately shared with close friends how the accountability functions were bringing about renewal in their spiritual life.  “We were excited.  We encouraged other families to purchase the Smart Rosary and download the app.”

Then came what the couple now refers to as their spiritual u-turn.

“We’d all gathered in the living room,” Joel says, “and I remember Heather had such a peaceful, prayerful expression on her face.  But we began to pray, and the Smart Rosary kept re-starting us at the Second Joyful Mystery.”

“We thought it was a glitch,” Kaden explains.  “I told my parents to restart their phones.  But when they did . . . it updated.”

“We were just launching into the second ‘Hail Mary’ when the notifications started,” Heather recounts.

Mr. Zimmer shows screen shots of the messages the Smart Rosary app began displaying:

RESTART PRAYER: Stop making grocery list.

RESTART PRAYER: Quit replaying final three minutes of yesterday’s game.

“It was a little too smart for them,” Kaden says, recounting the feeling of victory he experienced at his parents’ comeuppance.  “I asked them, ‘Do I need to ground you, too?’ And that’s when my phone buzzed.  CONFESSION ALERT: Violation of 4th Commandment.

With no way to go back to the older version of the app, the Zimmer family quickly uninstalled the Smart Rosary features, and turned off Alexa and Siri just to be safe.  Unfortunately the damage was already done: Father Scott at Our Lady of Good Counsel had already been copied on the notifications.

An exhausted Father Scott describes how the scheduling feature of the Smart Rosary quickly overwhelmed parish life.  “In the early versions, there was just an option for the Legion of Mary to get their weekly meeting announcements sent out.  Perfect.  With the second update, we were able to share parish prayer requests, and with the third update, Smart Rosary would make suggestions on, say, remembering to pray for Joyce Hirschel’s cancer surgery during the Sorrowful Mysteries.  It was great.”

Unfortunately, the CONFESSION ALERT feature was designed to coordinate with the pastor’s schedule.  “Next thing I know, my calendar’s showing six hours of Confession on Saturday afternoon.  Six hours!”

Father Scott admits he fibbed to parish staff. “I told them I’d just go ahead and make myself available in the confessional, and use the downtime for prayer and Bible reading.”  What he failed to mention: “It’s possible I took breaks between prayer sessions to check a few headlines on my phone. Next thing I know, the bishop’s calling, because Smart Rosary is blowing up his phone with notifications.”

By Sunday morning, Our Lady of Good Counsel parish had officially banned Smart Rosary. “Sure, it’s fine if the Vatican wants to promote this thing,” Heather Zimmer says.  “But from now on, we’re using those cheap plastic rosaries you get from the table by the brochure rack.”

Electronic Rosary bracelet and phone with app

Photo courtesy of clicktopray.org, where you can learn about the real product, which cannot read souls and will not examine your family’s conscience for you.

Mind Your Narratives!

Here’s an article with a fascinating finding on ancient European social patterns that also showcases a modern western social pattern.  What DNA and isotope sampling from ancient German cemeteries has found is that it was customary, four thousand years ago, for adult sons to remain with their family of origin, but for adult daughters to leave home and marry into family groups elsewhere — groups that were far away in distance and distinctive in culture.

This is a pretty interesting discovery, because: Who does that?  Right?  Neat.  Lots of fodder for thoughts on what that ancient society might have been like.

Sooooo . . . where should our imaginations head?  We could take it any direction we want, and in so doing we’d learn more about our imaginations than we would about ancient societies.

Notice how the otherwise objective and informative article subtly adopts the narrative of poor, oppressed, rejected adult daughters.  We see the illustration of that sad, lonely girl looking back in misery as she’s pushed out of her home and forced to march towards an unknown fate.  The text tells us that the girls are “sent away” and that “you have to give away all your daughters.”

Well, that might have been true.

Or: Maybe girls looked forward to the adventure that awaited them?  At seventeen I was pretty happy to hit the road and see the world.

Maybe women were considered more capable of the emotional and social task of cementing extended networks of relationships across distant tribes?

Maybe wealthy young women (the social class that traveled, per this set of findings) appreciated not being stuck in the expectations of their family of origin, who would always remember their childhood foibles, and were privileged to be able to forge for themselves an adult identity uniquely their own, among a people who expected the new daughter-in-law to bring with her distinctive customs and perspectives, and who valued the combination of innovation and energy that an older teen brought to the community?

Maybe, because she was likely joining a society that was not completely unfamiliar, as there would have been older women in her own community who came from the culture she was traveling to, it could have been best-of-both-worlds?

Or maybe not.  Maybe it sucked being a teenage girl in early bronze-age Europe.  Maybe you got buried with all your arts and crafts from your native tribe because your nasty father-in-law didn’t want too look at your ugly foreign figurines one minute longer, and you were counting the days until you were dead and buried because your mother-in-law resented you for being part of this vast cultural norm that caused her to lose her beloved daughter and get you instead, and also you overcooked the cabbage every. single. time.

We don’t know.

In the study of history, we have to be careful not to foist our own narratives on the blanks in our limited trove of evidence.

File:Desenka meadow 2016 G1.jpg

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Confirmation as a Near-Baptist Experience

As promised, up at the Register: Is Your Parish Bogged Down in a Pay-to-Pray Evangelism?

Feedback on this topic has been about 90% AMEN from people who have lived the experience of getting priced out of parish life, 5% Doesn’t Happen Here from people who live in awesome parishes and dioceses where making the sacraments accessible to all is the central goal (looking at you, Wichita), and 5% But How Would We Pay Our Staff???

If you’re in that last group, consider aiming for some doable, baby-step Non-Scale Victories in the serving-the-poor department.  Change is hard.  Keep pointing yourself in the right direction whenever you can, even if you can’t transform your parish overnight.

And on that note, here’s a thought that came up in a private discussion of the pay-to-pray problem:  What the heck is Confirmation???

For most of us Latin-rite folk, our experience of Confirmation happens sometime between 3rd and 12th grade, and involves taking classes and doing service projects and attending retreats in order to “prepare” ourselves for the sacrament.  A friend and I both observed that the whole scheme was much more pared down back in the day (1990’s).  My best guess is that with each new crop of fallen-away college students, bishop-panic escalates and graduation-requirements become more stringent.

(Recap: Confirmation is not “graduation.”  It is a free gift of God that can only be obtained by paying tuition, attending classes, completing assignments, and undergoing an evaluation once you have accomplished all your check-off requirements.  If you don’t do the things, you can’t be confirmed, and there’s a form for you to sign stating you understand you have to do the things.  But it is definitely a free gift. That you earn the right to receive by doing the things.)

For non-Latin-rite folk, though, the experience of Confirmation is typically quite different: You’re born, your parents haul you to church, and you bob around wiggling and fussing while your infant self receives all three sacraments of initiation in one fell swoop.

Interestingly the Latin-non-Latin divide extends into the wider Christian community.  If you are Orthodox, you probably received confirmation (chrismation) as an infant.  If you are part of the Protestant communiy, and hence your congregation traces its lineage back to Latin-rite western Europe, you probably experienced confirmation, or a non-sacramental equivalent, as an age-of-reason, formally and publicly pronounced, personal decision to follow Jesus Christ.

Catholics across the Rites maintain the course on infant baptism, pointing out that there’s nothing like it for underscoring the “free gift” aspect of salvation.  Catholics and Orthodox agree with Protestants that once someone reaches the age reason, he or she must make the on-going decision to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

What is troubling in the Confirmation Prep arms race is that by out-Baptisting-the-Baptists Catholics are increasingly turning, lex vivendi, a sacrament of initiation into a sacrament of service.

Marriage and Ordination are sacraments of service.  They are sacraments that commission a vocation.  While we would hope that growing up in a Christian home, being properly educated by one’s parents, and carrying out the appropriate course of discernment would go far in preparing someone for either vocation, it is reasonable that we take certain steps to ensure those embarking on their lifelong vocation are as equipped as possible to begin the task.

What seems to be happening with Confirmation in the Latin rite is that because we have (for now) the practice of delaying the sacrament until after the age of reason, we are losing hold on the free gift of the Holy Spirit reality of what this sacrament of initiation is.  We are instead treating it like a sacrament of service.  We are demanding proof of our young people not that they wish to receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, but that they are already able to use them.

This is not what the sacrament is.  Confirmation confers the gifts that we need to live our Christian vocation.  Furthermore, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are limitless and divine.  We don’t have to fear, like handing a child an enormous check on his eighteenth birthday, that he’ll run out and spend the money foolishly for lack of adequate budgeting skills.  You aren’t going to blow all your gift of piety in one wild afternoon of Adoration and be left broke and wondering what you’ll pray tomorrow.

Confirmation Prep as typically prescribed, though, isn’t usually about cultivating a spiritual state of desire for intimate union with Holy Spirit.  Rather, our bishops look at the results of Confirmation — the fruits — of the Spirit, and prescribe a set of lessons and practice exercises to prove the child already possesses what the sacrament is supposed to confer and unleash.

Frankly, this verges on spiritual fornication.  You say you want to be a fully-initiated disciple? Well act like one by doing these requirements that put you through the paces of disciple-activities!  Show yourself able and worthy!  To freely receive something you can never deserve, and which is about God’s action in you, not you working of your own power, we’d like to see ten hours of it accomplished and documented!

This is not the way God’s glory is made manifest.  Repentance, the calling of sinners, the invitation to sit at the table of the Lord . . . these are preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The sacraments of service are vocations to love our neighbor as Christ loves us.  They come after the sacraments of initiation because the ability to love our neighbor flows from Christ.  First we receive from God, then we give to others what we have received.  Confirmation is a sacrament of receiving.

Rather than a checklist of activities proving we are worthy and able to give what we do not yet possess, the question for those us of tasked with preparing young people for Confirmation is: How can I help you open your heart to receive this gift for which you were created, and which, so hard to believe in our meritocratic society, you can never earn?

File:Brooklyn Museum - God the Father with Four Angels and the Dove of the Holy Spirit - Giovanni Francesco da Rimini.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.