On Doing Evil that Good May Come of It (TLDR: Don’t)

So here’s something that happened yesterday: A guy who should have known better, a stalwart defender of virtue and reason, posted a video on Twitter of a group of tween girls dancing in an explicitly sexualized manner.

It was a long clip, to my memory (I’m not going to click on it again, so if my memory is faulty, we’re going to have to live with that) beginning with low-grade “this is not something I’d want my daughter doing.” Gradually the girls’ dancing became increasingly erotic, to the point that it definitely transitioned into “yes, this is blatantly, undeniably sexualized near-porn,” and I didn’t continue watching after that.

(The girls’ costumes, I should note, would have been fine as bathing suits, for children playing sharks-and-minnows or jumping off the diving board . . . but no amount of clothing could cause the dance this conservative Christian posted to be any other than erotic.)

Anyhow, that was my two minutes of previewing Cuties, a film I was willing to consider might not be nearly what Netflix promoted it as, and a film that I still suspect was attempting to be a serious entry in the discourse against the hypersexualization of tweens and young teens.  I even considered that the video this person-who-should-know-better posted was in fact a deepfake designed to hype up the political divide, though alas with a bit clicking around, the reports from those who viewed the film in its entirety confirm the dance sequence was genuine.  IMDB briefly posted a warning, in reference to another scene in the film, the FYI it was technically in violation of US child pornography laws.  Yikes.

So. We revisit a very old topic, and if you like, you can scoot on over to the The Junior Moral Theologian’s DIY Kit, where I lay out all the moral issues in more detail.  Here I’m just going to repeat myself a bunch of different ways:

You may not do evil that good may come of it.

Having a good intention does not make an evil action a good action.

The fact that something good resulted from an evil act does not make the evil act good.

This is the non-negotiable of any viable ethical system.  Might you find yourself in a horrible situation, in which you are forced to choose among several terrible options, and, in your desperation, choose the one with the least-bad outcome? Certainly.  It’s a fallen world and in the worst circumstances we might find ourselves doing the unthinkable.  It happens.

That does not make the evil action right.  It just makes it the thing you did at a time when you didn’t see any other way.

In the case of, say, a Christian commentator with a large following choosing to post erotica, or a secular filmmaker choosing to train and pay young girls to perform that erotica, we are not speaking of desperate persons forced into a corner and struggling to find any way out.

But, and let’s be very clear here, neither of these two is any different from the rest of us.

Both, we can charitably assume, are in fact seeking to accomplish something good.  The commentator was seeking to warn audiences that the film in question was morally objectionable. The director was seeking to warn audiences that the sexualization of young girls is a serious problem in our day — and before you scoff at that, I can attest from my viewing of the excerpt that the girls’ faces as they performed absolutely communicated a sense of being lost, of not understanding, of not liking, and yet of feeling like they had to do the thing in order to be approved.  The stated artistic goal was accomplished in the scene I saw.  The obvious (to you and me) problem, which makes the film unviewable for persons of good will who are duly forewarned, is that the director went about communicating her (valuable) message in a way that was, in fact, harmful to the girls working for her.

In the same way, the commentator who posted erotica in order to warn against erotica was exploiting the victimization of the girls, and also putting erotica in front of his readers, in the name of an otherwise good purpose.

The habit of using evil to do good is absolutely embedded in our culture.  

In theory we consider lying (that would be a direct, explicit violation of the Ten Commandments) wrong, but in reality our culture has long categories of lies that are acceptable because they are done with good purposes in mind.

If Catholics are wacko extremists on medical ethics, it’s because our society considers the killing of innocent persons to be only wrong if it’s done for unpopular reasons.

National Public Radio hosted a non-ironic, softball interview on the justification for the violent destruction and theft of the property of innocent persons.

I’d be remiss in this list not to mention the whole justifying of adultery as if the average man or woman just had “no choice” but forsake their vows? And yet people will say that, and think that, in the most banal of circumstances.

Maybe you aren’t guilty of any of these, or at least not lately.

Before you get too convinced you aren’t like those other sinners: I challenge you to try to get through a full week without doing something you know is wrong — even if it’s just a little bit wrong — with the motivation of seeking a higher good.

Sin is like this.  For most people, most of the time, sin is not fueled by a desire to do something horrible, it’s fueled by the twisted-up quest to experience something we’re convinced will be good.

“Less evil” is not good.

One of the reasons I expect it was so easy for the director of Mignonnes to justify her decision to pay young girls to perform erotica (and in one case, per IMDB’s original warning to viewers, to expose her breast on film) is that her film was about how normal these behaviors have become.

(FYI for those wondering: The acceptability of pornography is far more entrenched in respectable French society than in the United States.  That’s me reporting first hand experiences among the married-with-kids, stalwart-citizen, professional class of the late 1980’s.  Not something I read in a book.  What I have seen in real homes among people who met every definition of “respectable” in their era.)

The director of the film was not asking the girls to perform something forbidden and illegal (though Netflix should know that the reported frontal-nudity scene is in fact illegal in the US, however award-winning it may be elsewhere). She was asking them to recreate what persons like myself got accused of prudery for objecting to when it appeared at the Super Bowl half-time show this year — albeit in the wholesome USA we have adult women do this to show how “liberated” they are, while the girls from the dance companies, the very best girl-dancers, handpicked to perform on the field on the biggest TV night of the year, look up in adoration.  We reserve the actual girl-erotica for dance competitions on other weekends, thanks.  So, from the director’s point of view, she was requesting the girls repeat what they already were willing to do, and may well have done before, only this time framed in such a way that viewers would be shocked into realizing just how wrong and destructive it is.

That good intention doesn’t justify the evil.

And that’s a shame, because there’s every reason to believe the director was attempting to open a very important conversation on sexual exploitation — just like the commentator who posted the erotica was trying to legitimately warn viewers away from the film that fell so badly short of its mark.

Three girls dancing in a field, 1888: Paul Gauguin - Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven

Artwork: Paul Gaugin, Breton Girls Dancing (1888), via Wikimedia, Public Domain

More Background Info on “Cuties” (“Mignonnes”) at Netflix

UPDATE: Having seen a snippet of one of the more salient portions of the film, I can categorically recommend that you not view the film.  (Assuming what I saw, an excerpt shared on Twitter by someone who should have known better than to post such a thing, was in fact taken from the film and not a deepfake. )

Whatever the artistic merits of the film may be overall, based on what I viewed the film violates the fundamental rule decency: If the only way you can film the shot is for the actors to do on camera (which means doing in front of the crew) what they ought not be doing in front any audience, ever, then you are not a director who cares about the well-being of your actors.

–> Find a different way to shoot the scene.

I will update again if I learn that the pertinent excerpt circulating is not from the film, but at first glance it appears genuine.

2nd Update: A little more research confirms that what I saw (excerpted on Twitter) is what multiple reviewers saw when watching the original film.  The film also includes, per a warning at IMDB now taken down, a scene which meets, unequivocally, the definition of child pornography per US law.  Not sure why Netflix isn’t being charged.  No shortages of witnesses.

Interesting side note: My Twitter account is set to hide “sensitive content” which results in all kinds of innocent media being hidden from my view unless I choose to click through — most memorably the time Twitter felt that the view of a priest praying at Mass was, it seems, too risky for tender eyes.  (Um.  It was just some priest.  At Mass.  Doing normal priest things.)  In contrast, I did not have to choose to click on the excerpt of the young girls dancing lasciviously, Twitter did not find that to be “sensitive content” at all. Hmmn.

***

The French film Mignonnes is (rightfully) causing a stir after Netflix ran a provocative publicity campaign and then failed to care very much that decent people don’t approve of sexualizing eleven-year-olds.

If you are looking for more information on the film, pull out Google Translate and get ready for a set of unsatisfying-but-enlightening answers:

Because none of the reviews include spoilers, I can’t give a final verdict (without having seen the film) on exactly where the director takes this.  But here, I think, are the key pieces of info for readers of this blog:

#1 It is in no way a film for children. Don’t let the promotional materials fool you.

#2 Maïmouna Doucouré is telling her own story, and (more below on this) the story of many girls growing up in France (and the US — all over the world, I suspect) today.  For her, the reality is one of coming from a strict, traditionalist, polygamous Muslim family where women were treated as sexual objects and forced into relationships that did not respect their dignity as human beings.  So when Netflix sets up a lazy conflict between “religious family” and the hypersexualized dance world into which Amy, the young protagonist, is pulled, it is important for Catholics and other parents of good will to understand that Amy, like Ms. Doucouré, is not coming from a sane, healthy, dignifying religious background.

–> A major early plot point is that Amy’s mother is charged with organizing the wedding of her still-husband to his second wife, and Amy’s grandmother is aggressively insisting that Mom do her duty and shut up and put up, this is how things are. For the purposes of this film (not the purposes of its promoters or the wider non-immigrant culture receiving it), tween conflict over family-of-origin’s “religion” is not a case of garden-variety boredom with the parent’s conventional, anodyne religious practices as familiar to readers growing up in most of western society.

2nd Update: In this video interview, near the end when asked what she’s viewed lately that made the most impression on her, Ms. Doucouré says with obvious enthusiasm the Swedish television drama Kalifat.  I think it’s a particularly good insight into her own worldview as a director — what she finds resonates with her in other productions out there right now.

#3 The problem of young girls being pressured into hypersexualized dance movement and attire is widespread. How widespread?  Longtime readers may remember my answering this question. Let me emphasize the setting of that question: We are talking about upper middle class (you have to be affluent to afford dance team), religiously-affiliated suburban professional families in one of the most religiously-conservative cities of the Bible Belt, and the question was posed by a guy who knows the family through church.  I cannot emphasize how many times I’ve been party to discussion among nice Catholic moms wondering what to do about the slutty dance routine problem.  Parents rearing daughters in the most religiously conservative corners of the western world have to work hard to find a dance school for their daughters that doesn’t consider sexually suggestive clothing and dance moves to be a normal part of the repertoire.

#4 So, after reading what the director has to say about her film, here’s where she was trying to take it: She grew up in an immigrant household where religion was used as cover, among people her in native culture, to justify the objectifying, subjugation, and sexual exploitation of women.  As a teen she was torn between that world and a permissive hedonism in teen culture that any reader coming of age after 1965 would recognize.  And yet, as a grown woman attending a community event in her home neighborhood in Paris, she was absolutely shocked to see tween girls performing, with no one batting an eye, in a manner that you see in the trailer for the film.

–> The director’s statement of purpose for the film is that she wanted to show how girls growing up in her culture are pressured into choosing among two different kinds of sexually exploitive cultures.

(More below on that.)

#5 One thing Ms. Doucouré says in one of the interviews is that, in fact, she had to use quite a lot of restraint and under-tell just how sordid is the world that real middle school girls are living in today.  In her words: Parents aren’t ready to see this.  In my words: It would be illegal.

Is it morally problematic for Ms. Doucouré to be filming girls doing the dance moves, in the costumes, as she is? Absolutely.  I do not approve.  I do not say to you, “Go watch this film!” I do not say to you, “Subscribe to Netflix!” But understand that, from the director’s point of view, she is literally only having girls perform exactly what they are already doing in real life.  She is having girls perform on film exactly what parents of competitive dancers in affluent, even nominally religious families, already pay buckets of money to have their girls do.

Her stated purpose in doing this (and I cannot confirm how well she pulls it off) is to show the harm that comes from this.  Dance moms? Ms. Doucouré is after you.

#6 Let’s talk about that directorial restraint.

Ms. Doucouré’s research confirmed what I’ve known ever since I first sent an undercover agent into the world of affluent, mainstream suburban middle schoolers here in the Bible Belt: Girls these days expect to have to perform sexual favors for their peers.

Not just girls from poor immigrant families living in tough neighborhoods.  We are talking girls at private schools, girls in club sports (read: thousands of dollars on her sports hobby), girls growing up in McMansions.

How normal is the promiscuity among tweens and teens?  It is so widespread, and so self-sabotaging, that my kid’s class got abstinence talks from the atheist public-school biology teacher — a person with no moral reason to object to consensual sex, no reservations about contraception or abortion, but who could not help but see how teens were destroying themselves with the sheer quantity of premarital sex that had become the norm among the students.

If you are shocked by what you see in Cuties trailer, God bless you.  Yes.  Yes.  It is two inches from child porn.

Why those two inches? Because it is a film about girls who are entering the now-normal world of actual child porn that is your teenager’s daily reality.

#7 Your middle schooler’s porn problem doesn’t come from nowhere.

I have no expectation that Mignonnes (Cuties) resolves in a manner that would win a Theology of the Body award.  Mainstream, traditional French culture is not a culture of chastity.  I love France.  I love many things about French culture.  But this is also a place where adultery is normal and accepted.  What has changed in recent years, in terms of sexual morals as explored in this film, is not a change of kind but of degree. Traditional French culture at the highest, most respectable levels demanded discretion.  Americans who disparage the French president’s having a mistress commit the fault of being uncouth.  From the traditional French point of view, it would be like complaining the president uses the toilet — everyone does, but that doesn’t mean we have to chat about it.

Americans have our own, differently-flavored unchastity problems.  (We, too, have adulterous presidents. For example.)  Keep in mind that the parents and grandparents now approving of their daughter’s participation in Little Ho-House Dance Team grew up believing that Risky Business, Top Gun, and Officer and a Gentleman were all great films.  Classics!  I can remember watching what was supposed to be clean-cut classic Western — and one featuring boys and teens is co-stars in a youth-can-do-it themed film — and turning it off when we hit the Happy Prostitute trope.  The US is the place where sweet old ladies at the antique mall try to convince your kids that porn is just fine.

So no, I don’t expect Mignonnes resolves a story about an eleven-year-old torn between two bad choices by finding the third way that is chastity.  If nothing else, it’s an award-winning French film, and let me tell you, it is hard to find a French film that doesn’t glorify unchastity.  It’s hard to find a French film that didn’t require someone to strip naked on the set in the making-of, and here I’m using the very, very low bar of “if it could have been filmed in a way that kept the naughty bits covered, it might can get a pass, but if there was simply no way to film this scene without the actor or actress actually being required to work nude in front of the camera, then we’re done, movie over.”

So. In conclusion:

  • Per her own words, the director of Mignonnes (Cuties) was attempting to show that the sexualization of tweens is a serious problem;
  • I agree;
  • I have no reason to believe that the film resolves in favor of chastity, though I’m certainly open to being surprised, if anyone who’s already seen the film wants to cough up spoilers.

The Cobbler (mountainous land feature), photo by Ben Arthur, Arrochar Alps, Scotland

Here, have a palate cleanser, courtesy of Wikimedia’s Image of the Day (CC 4.0).  Look here for a detailed description.

White Privilege in a Nutshell

My daughter is, last-minute, looking seriously at a college we had no previous experience with. So Saturday night we drove over to campus.  The place was desolate — everyone’s been sent home due to coronavirus — though a police vehicle roamed the parking lots.  In the waning daylight we parked in a faculty space (no other cars in the lot) and wandered around.

We liked what we saw and grew more curious.  Brazenly we walked right up to the cafeteria window and peered inside.  We passed a dorm, and I crossed the lawn to a window with the blinds open so we could stand there on tiptoes looking into a ground-floor room.  And thus we wandered.

At no time did we fear, at all, that we would get in trouble.  It was possible we’d be approached by security and asked what we were doing and requested to please return on a weekday.  It was, and remains, unthinkable that our interaction with anyone, at any level, would escalate beyond a firm-but-courteous insistence that if we wished to walk the grounds, we park in the visitors’ lot and refrain from putting our noses up to the windows.

That’s white privilege.

***

I write this because Rod Dreher, with whom I often agree, shared a story of white poverty and black violence in “Race, Poverty, and Privilege” that misses the point.

“White privilege” doesn’t mean all white people are born into lives of affluence.  To say racism persists in American society doesn’t mean that black people never commit crimes.

I know that racism persists because I hear it from the mouths of other white people.  Am I to think they are lying to me when they make the comments that they do?  Are they only pretending to believe the derogatory generalizations they spontaneously assert?

What I am to think of stories like “A White Woman, Racism, and a Poodle”?  No matter what possible charitable explanation you can concoct to justify a woman getting repeatedly stopped by the police for a non-offense only when it appears she has a black man in her vehicle, the reality is: She only gets stopped when it appears there is a black man in her vehicle.

What else is that if not racism?

***

A study I think is needed (and may well exist) is the incidence of crime verses the incidence of getting caught, sorted by demographic factors.  Such a study would require respondents to fess up to a reality: We all know people — perhaps even our own self is one of them — who has been spared an encounter with the justice system because they didn’t get caught.

Whether it’s over-dramatized trespassing charges (those noses on windows) or minor traffic violations or an officer following-up on a “hunch” and thus uncovering some more serious charge (drugs, weapons, outstanding warrants), if you are more likely to be policed, you are more likely to get caught. And thus: You are more likely to be considered a criminal — even though other people who did exactly what you did continue to hold positions of honor and power in our society.

(White person can verify: Plenty of leading bankers, physicians, politicians, etc., are guilty of assorted misdemeanors involving drugs, alcohol, and weapons offences that are only ever uncovered if the police decide to do some thorough searching, and therefore said persons now in power never get caught and thus go through life on the Upstanding Citizens Track while so-and-so who did get caught slides onto the Ne’er-Do-Well Track.  The difference isn’t in bad behaviors, it’s in whether you get caught.)

***

White privilege is the freedom to go through life being presumed innocent until you make a concerted effort to prove to the police otherwise.

I am well aware that there is more than just a question of race wound up in the privilege of being presumed innocent.  Being female increases your odds.  Being well-dressed and well-spoken increases your odds.  Having the social skills to fit into your milieu in a way that puts people at ease increases your odds.

Still, when everything else is equal, being white works in your favor.

***

Police brutality does affect white people.  It’s an issue that transcends race and class.

Likewise, violence against law enforcement officers is a real thing.  An epidemic of murders and suicides among our young men is a real thing.  The breakdown of the family, with its significant repercussions on all aspects of social life, is a real thing.  Lack of protection for victims of domestic violence is a real thing.  Lack of social support for vulnerable persons across the spectrum is a real thing.  There are many, many different ways that human beings hurt themselves and others terribly.

Acknowledging that racism is real does not erase any of that.

Seehof Phoenicurus ochruros female - grey bird holding green worm, perched on branch

Wikimedia Image of the Day by Reinhold Möller, CC 4.0.  The only relationship between this image of a female Phoenicurus ochruros and this blog post is that they lived on the internet on the same day.  But I’m confident skilled readers can find some way to read non-random significance into it.

On How You Get People to Kill Other People

I went on a brief social media fast for a personal intention, and, magic!, finished a book.  Go figure.  The book was On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Dave Grossman.

It is the first book I’ve read on the topic (and I lack any pertinent firsthand experience), so I’m not knowledgeable enough to critically assess.  I did check the reviews and there seem to be a fair number of combat veterans who found the book to be on point.

I can tell you, caveat lector, that the author spirals through his arguments and evidence as the chapters progress, though I think at least some of that repetition is an essential part of laying out his thesis.  Personally I found it helpful to have him recall for me information I read previously that was needed again as he moved on to a new topic that built on previous concepts, though I did eventually wish he’d pull out some new data to freshen up with.

I can also tell you that this is not a book to read if you, for whatever reason, don’t need to be putting unvarnished descriptions of deadly violence into your head.

That said, here’s a short version of Lt. Col. Grossman’s thesis:

  • Studies that have looked at evidence from battle outcomes and from anecdotal experience demonstrate that consistently, across centuries and cultures, humans are reluctant to kill their own species.  (As can be said of other species.)  He makes a careful distinction between aggressive posturing, which soldiers do willingly, and the decision to personally kill another human, which soldiers do much more reluctantly.
  • There are various circumstances that make people more willing to kill, as well as managerial decisions that increase the likelihood someone will obey an order to kill regardless of their personal willingness.
  • Furthermore, in order to increase the willingness of soldiers to kill, and thus increase the firing (etc.) rate in battle, there are types of training the military can use to cause soldiers to overcome their natural reluctance to kill.

He concludes his book with a final section on civilian violence, which is a sobering bit of opinion-piece worthy of consideration, but not the primary point of my posting this review.

More pressing today: If you are puzzling over police violence, the information throughout the book pretty much answers your questions about what types of training and circumstances increase the likelihood of police brutality, and what types of training and circumstances would increase the likelihood of minimal use of force and increased use of deescalating techniques.

It seems to me that our present problem with police gratuitously killing civilians does not come from nowhere.  Possibly there are even handy infographics throughout the book to assist in reminding you how to cut down on all the bloodshed?

***
Dave Grossman is not a moral theologian, so plan to bring your own critical thinking skills to the book. But if you wish to understand how one might hope to curb police brutality, the info is there.

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by [Dave Grossman]

The Prepper Life

So it appears that the US’s response to the coronavirus thus far is, “Good luck with that.” The saga of non-testing continues, with standard procedures still continuing to assume that travel to an outbreak area is required in order to catch the virus, and no real plan in place to do serious triage and infection control before exposing other patients and staff.

A few token patients get identified and quarantined, and everyone else gets a generic “stay home if you’re sick” message that in no way takes into account the reality that American society is almost entirely built on not staying home when you are sick.  School attendance policies don’t allow for it.  Workplace attendance policies don’t allow for it.

To make the spread of the virus even more certain, many school and work attendance policies require the provision of a doctor’s note in order to excuse absences and thereby avoid truancy charges or termination — thus the booming urgent-care industry, where you can pop in during extended hours and spend five minutes with a doctor who will write you an excuse.

Barring a major public health campaign to change these factors, people who value their jobs and their good relationship with the department of social services are going to carry on as usual.  Even with a public health campaign in place, unless there are serious provisions made for assistance covering lost childcare and lost wages, people are going to make the hard decision to continue faking their way through the day, as we do now.  Which means we continue to live behind the curve. Call it Italian-style.

***

The good news is that South Korea, which is testing vigorously and thus has the most reliable statistics, is showing only a half of a percent overall mortality rate (.62% at this writing).  That’s awesome news for the general public.

Italian-style, though, does not bode well for nursing home residents, people at high risk of complications, and Walmart employees.  Thus, prepping: If you buy your extra pack of toilet paper this week while you aren’t coughing and sneezing, you won’t need to run to the store in a pinch when you do come down with the thing, and thus go around infecting the people who cannot afford to be infected.

***

I do not have good prepping advice to give.  I am not a minimalist.  My house is cluttered.  My hoarding instincts have been steadily reinforced over the years thanks to hurricanes, ice storms, dam breaks, water main breaks, almost-a-snowstorms (you want to never truly *need* groceries, lest you get stuck going to the store the day before the snow doesn’t come), guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner and “by the way I need _________ by tomorrow morning.”  So maybe I have a closet we call “Prepperville”?  Yes I do.

But these are things that I know:

#1. Bleach.  It does so, so many useful things.  Good for all kinds of emergencies.  Get the plain stuff.

#2. You know you’re a born prepper if you hate going anywhere without dish soap.  It can be used on bodies of many species, clothes, dishes, your bathtub, your car . . . whatever needs to be washed.  You actually *can* put it in a laundry- or dish-washing machine, if you manage the dosage properly.  Gets the grease out.

#3. Duct tape and contractor bags, individually or in combination, can be used to solve so many different problems I can’t imagine you don’t keep both on hand at all times.  In a crisis, it’s therapeutic to go ahead and top off.  It doesn’t really matter what kind of crisis.

#4. My son buys the wrong coffee.  Actually every member of my family buys the wrong coffee, but 4/6ths of those people are not my problem, because they can just cope.  In a crisis, nobody wants the boy and I going cold turkey on the caffeine.  He buys this stuff:

Aldi brand dark roast coffee from Columbia

Photo penance of the day: Me holding a package of Aldi brand dark roast coffee labeled “Colombia.”

This is wrong.  In the same box from Aldi you can get either “Colombia” or “Sumatra.”  Both are dark roast.  Both are fair trade.  But one of them is just not as good as the other.  I confirmed this by accident this morning.

First week of any disaster, he and I are going to have the coffee we want.*  We can slowly adapt to our circumstances as we toughen up gradually.  Everyone will be happier that way.

#5. Your three teenage daughters do not want to adapt to improvised feminine hygiene products the first week of the disaster.  Give them at least a month into the apocalypse before you lay that one on them.

#6. Yes.  I know that most people throughout history did not have toilet paper.  Many manage just fine without even to this day.  I don’t care. Quit making fun of people who binged on toilet paper this week.

#7. Other people’s ideas of good prepper-food are usually disgusting.  You have to figure this one out on your own.  I go with ingredients that already feature in our regular menu, are pretty durable in a weather event, and can be consumed either uncooked or else can be cooked over an alternate cooking source (propane stove, charcoal, wood fire, etc). You’ll be pleased to know that the best popcorn recipe ever stands up to this rule.

In conclusion: In the face of any disaster, I’m totally prepared to live on coffee and popcorn.  We’ll be fine.

 

*The ability to improvise coffee-making** under nearly any circumstance is my chief super-power.

**I did not say you would like my improvised coffee.  Indeed, I prefer that you do not.

Lenten Metaphors for Non-Gardeners

So there’s this image circulating in my diocese, which I will not publish lest I propagate weeds, that shows a seedling and a Ven. Fulton Sheen quote. It’s not a bad quote.  Here’s the latter part of it, which does not accompany the seedling:

A person is great not by the ferocity of his hatred of evil, but by the intensity of his love for God. Asceticism and mortification are not the ends of a Christian life; they are only the means. The end is charity. Penance merely makes an opening in our ego in which the Light of God can pour. As we deflate ourselves, God fills us. And it is God’s arrival that is the important event.

Absolutely true.  And with that conclusion attached, the beginning makes perfect sense:

We can think of Lent as a time to eradicate evil or cultivate virtue, a time to pull up weeds or to plant good seeds. Which is better is clear, for the Christian ideal is always positive rather than negative.

The trouble is that if you have just the beginning portion, and also you garden, the incomplete quote is nonsense.

You have to weed.  You have to prune.  Sometimes you have to irrigate, sometimes you have to anti-irrigate. You have to mulch, and you have to rake away would-be mulch that harbors disease.  You have to select the right plants for the right micro-climate, and sometimes that means moving a plant to a better location.  Sometimes you need to thin out plants that have grown in too densely, and other times you allow a plant to fill in copiously so that it suppresses weeds.

Sometimes you want to have annuals growing in that enormous planter by the front door, but the cat keeps sleeping in the dirt and rolling on your flowers, so you have to find a little flower pot to put inside the big flower pot, so that you can have your cat and your flowers too.  Definitely a metaphor for the spiritual life, because the cats aren’t going away any time soon.

Lent means spring, and in spring we do all these things, and also we worry about cold snaps getting the plum blossoms, so . . . probably that is the only applicable Lenten metaphor that stands on its own: Quit worrying about your plums, there’s nothing you can do and anyway they always get some nasty rot in June if you do get fruit, so why do you even bother? — Attributed to St. Francis, St. Augustine, and of course Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Ven. Fulton Sheen is absolutely right, the goal of weeding is so that your garden can flourish.  The goal is not to create sterile ground, free of all life.  So make sure your Lenten weeding, if that’s what your soul needs this year, is ordered towards cultivating your love of God.

The feel-good abridged version? Makes one sound like one of those ignorant types who imagines farming unskilled labor.  It is not.

Obviously you need to plant the good seed of faith or else your weeding is to no purpose.  Obviously you need to be careful in your weeding so you don’t uproot your fragile faith.

And here’s an advanced gardening tip: With enough years experience, you can start making educated decisions about what weeding to prioritize, because you understand better which weeds propagate when and how, which are most likely to cause serious problems, what times of year (or weather-week) each are easiest to root out, and which plants that seemed like weeds will actually help your garden flourish.

Thus we get to the moral of today’s rant:  If you can tell a weed of vice from the seedling of faith you are trying to cultivate, feel free to root out the vice this Lent if you so discern.

Up to you.  It’s your Lent.  To quote GK Chesterton some smart person on Catholic Twitter (not me): The Internet is not your spiritual director.

Me holding a vase with mint rooting in it.

Photo: Continuing with our photo-penance at least one more day, here’s me holding a vase with mint in it.  I was weeding the mint bed and accidentally pulled up this cutting, so I stuck it in water and let it root, and soon I’ll put it in the ground.  “Soon.”

Meanwhile, here is your deep spiritual metaphor from the garden for today: If you root mint or basil or any other easily-rooted plant on your kitchen windowsill in the summer, every few days you need to dump the glass jar, rinse it out, and thoroughly rinse the roots of the plants as well.  Otherwise you’ll have mosquitoes.*

You have to rinse even the plant roots because the mosquito larvae will stick to them.  And that is a perfect metaphor for __[fill in the blank] __.  I’m sure you can think of something. Probably related to Pentecost.  Since it’s a summer** metaphor.

 

*Unless you live someplace without mosquitoes.  If that’s you, kindly give up gloating for Lent.  We don’t want to hear about your magical land.  I bet your plums don’t rot either.  Hush.

*By “summer” we mean “when the mosquitos are.”

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.

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.

Need Your Help: Stories of Equal Access

I need your help with getting a door unlocked.

I’m a parishioner (and at last check parish council member) at a large and historically-significant parish.   Thanks to renovations over the years, there are three wheelchair-accessible entrances feeding the parish church.  Unfortunately, since November of 2017 all three of those doors have been locked.  The only way to get into the building during Sunday Mass or Saturday Confession is to either walk up a short flight of stairs (seven if I counted correctly) or wait around on the sidewalk hoping to flag someone down who will go unlock an accessible door for you.

Unfortunately, the pastor of the parish doesn’t seem to understand that it isn’t okay for someone with a disability to have to make advanced arrangements in order to be able to get inside the building for Mass or Confessions.  He’s otherwise a fairly stand-up guy, but he seems genuinely shocked that I would be angry about this issue.

I’m not above launching a massive public shame-storm, but that’s a weapon of last resort.  What I’d like your help with is attempting to show Father (and I tell you again: he is otherwise a pretty sane guy) that equal access matters.

Here is a form where you can share your story.  Can you share with him an example (or multiple if you’ve got them — fill out as many entries as you’d like) of how equal access, or lack of it, has affected your life?

My plan is to pass on to him your stories so he can see, person by person, just how painful it is to be the one stuck out on the sidewalk wondering how you’ll get in.  I’ll also put in a Mass intention for the collective intentions of those who share their stories (so Father L. gets to pray for you, cause that’s his job), and of course I’ll pray for you individually and I think he will too.

I’m not looking for angry.  He’s gotten plenty of angry from me, and believe me, I’m not as nice in regular life as I am on the internet.  I’m looking for your personal story of how being able to participate in parish or community life made a positive difference for you or someone you love, or how being excluded by needless barriers did the opposite.

The reality is that barriers keep people out.  After a year and a half of locked doors (in a previously accessible parish), the only regulars with disabilities are the few who are okay with the new status quo as second-class citizens.  Everyone else has disappeared.  If you showed up as a tourist (the parish receives many out-of-town visitors at weekend Masses), you’d follow the signs to a locked door and maybe succeed in waving someone down, or maybe just give up and move on.  As a result, Father L. no longer sees the people who are most affected by his decision: You’re all gone.

I need you to make yourself visible to him again.

Thank you so much.

I’ll post updates as I get them.  Also: If you choose to let me share your story (and only in that case — opt in or your story remains completely private), I’ll pick a few to post here and elsewhere, so that your voice gets heard far and wide.  Thank you!

File:No Accessibility - Alternative Handicapped Symbol.svg

Image: No Accessibility Icon, courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain

Ableism Entrenched

Up at the Register: Are People with Disabilities Welcome at Your Parish?

Ableism is the counterpart to “racism” or “ageism,” the often-insidious discrimination against people with disabilities.  Ableism is happening when a parish that has three wheelchair-accessible entrances decides to lock all doors except the one with the stairs.  No malice, just complete indifference.

When you park in the handicap spot even though you don’t need it, that’s ableism.  It’s also ableism when you assume the person with the tag must be faking just because you can’t identify an obvious disability.

Here’s an example of how pervasive ableism is:

We’re at the “atrium” of the children’s hospital today, a big sunny play space where kids can do fun stuff.

Children's Atrium, MUSC Children's Hospital

L. is in the teen corner doing arts and crafts, and it gets to be a few minutes before closing.  The other family there is a patient with her dad and a sister.  The dad calls clean-up time, and I get up and go help with putting away all the craft supplies.  I’m not really paying attention to who is doing what, other than that I start with putting away the things we personally got out (because I know where they came from) and also I tell L. to go sit in her wheelchair and hold all our junk for the trip up.

Here’s the entrenched-ableism mindset: In my brain I compose an explanation for why my kid is not helping clean up.

My child has a broken sternum from open-heart surgery less than 3-days earlier, and I am feeling the need to be ready to explain why she can’t walk around putting things away.  In a children’s hospital.  Where everyone else is there with a kid (or is the kid) who also can’t do all the things.

Mind you, not a person batted an eye.  But you know you are used to living in an abelist world when you just automatically prepare to fend off stupid accusations against a kid with an invisible (and thankfully temporary) disability.

Which is why we have parishes that lock people out of Mass if they can’t climb stairs.  And that’s a problem.