In Search of the “Real America”

There’s a meme going around right now about what “real Americans” are like.  We see pictures of heroic rescues in the Texas floods contrasted with recent racist or fascist violence.  The “real America” is the good one.  The real America is where people pull together, act bravely, and give everything to help their neighbor, no matter who that neighbor might be.

I don’t disagree.  America really is that, and we have the pictures to prove it.

The difficult bit is that we aren’t only that.

***

I have some assorted friends whom I profoundly love and respect, and to whom I owe a perpetual debt of gratitude for the goodness they have brought into my life.

These friends are like me, though, in that they are noticeably flawed.   (Like me in kind, not degree – evidence is I’m more flawed than they are.)

I don’t want to hear about that.  Even if I do sometimes notice their weaknesses, I want everyone else to shut their mouths.  What I see in them, what I want everyone to notice, is the beauty and goodness and truth they bring to this world.   I want to shout: Do you not understand what they did for me? For you?!

***

This instinct to see the good in our friends is how we get to an All Dogs Go To Heaven theology.  It’s a good instinct.  We can see that our friends are made in the image and likeness of God, inherently lovable and worth loving.  That’s an accurate view of who they are.  The thought of such a person going to Hell is unthinkable.  We’re not alone there.  God Himself has been quite explicit about His desire to save the world rather than condemn it.

***
Mercy is the thing that makes us see the part of our friends that must at all costs be saved.

Yes, yes, we know about the immense weaknesses and deplorable lapses and insufferable habits — but we know the other side!  We have seen selflessness to make your mouth gape, and virtues so indelibly marked on our friends’ souls that they track in purity and joy on their shoes even when they try their hardest to wipe their goodness off at the door.

***

Some people get so despicable that it’s hard to see the parts worth saving.   God can see those parts though.  The question of salvation isn’t how much nastiness needs to be removed to get down to the person you were created to be.  The question of salvation is: Are you willing to be saved?

***

We aren’t supposed to like nastiness.  It isn’t supposed to be easy and comfortable to live with horrid people.  We should want to be surrounded by peaceful, loving, generous folk who fully live out the commandments.  (Never ever forgetting Proverbs 27:14, but of course there are others as well).

So it’s understandable that we have low patience for certain sins.

***

What is lost in our national discourse is the appreciation of the complexity of other humans.  Someone can be terribly wrong in some ways and entirely right in others.  Someone can both commit serious sins and carry out marvelous good works.  (I’ve got the first part down, thanks.)

You can be a racist nationalist who risks your own life rescuing total strangers.

You can give away your fortune aiding the poor, and also devote yourself to killing the unborn.

You can be a notorious philanderer and also an unshakable civil rights martyr.

The combinations are unlimited, and Americans seem, collectively, to be trying out all of them.

***

Where our national discourse goes wrong is in trying to mount the opposite of the ad hominen attack — call it the ad hominen defense.  If my side is right, my men must be perfect.  An attack on my ideas is an attack on me and mine.

We are unable to admit the possibility of human weakness and complexity, nor to properly rank the seriousness of our failures.  Thus we end up in bizarre situations both divisive and falsely “unifying.”

Sometimes, out of fear of hurting somebody’s feelings or overlooking their virtues, we’re afraid to condemn their serious sins.  Better to get along and smooth things over for a day that never comes when somehow we’ll dialog our way past the impasse without ever opening our mouths.

Other times, out of fear of seeming to approve a vice or a poorly-formed conscience, we feel compelled to commit a course of Total Condemnation — economic, political, and personal.

***

Let me show you a video of the way of peace.  This is South Carolina removing the Confederate flag from the state house grounds.

It came down because of decades and decades of peaceful protest. Did it take too long? Yes.  The remedy for sin always takes too long.  Do people suffer injustice in the course of the long, slow path of peaceful protest? Yes.  But people suffer injustice from violent protest, calumny, and vicious personal attacks.  There’s not an option for waving the Fix Everything Wand and presto-change-o the world is magically better.

Peacefully refusing to accept injustice works.  It has worked marvels of healing and change in a place where you would never have said fifty years ago that all this would come to pass.  It worked in a place where people are still fallen.  Sinful people who do wretched things made that flag come down.  Gracious people doing their best to make the image of God shine in the darkness made that flag come down.  They were the same people.

File:Texas National Guard (36916700965).jpg

U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Martha Nigrelle: “Soldiers, fire fighters, paramedics and neighbors ensured more than 1,000 people and hundreds of dogs and cats were safe, evacuating them to dry ground and local shelters.”  Courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain].

What Memes Mean

Here’s something interesting about the social media reaction to the racist violence and demonstrations in Charlottesville: People felt the need to assert that racism is wrong.

It was a specific kind of assertion: Not just anger or frustration or sadness, though there was that.  Rather, there were many assertions that seemed to be purely about the need to affirm that yes, in fact this is evil.

Contrast this with, say, the announcement (I saw several over the past few days) that someone’s child had died of a terrible accident or illness.  Those announcements spur people to offer their prayers and condolences, and often in the wake of certain kinds of deaths there will be some venting of how much we hate suicide or drowning or cancer or whatever the source of the problem was.   There might, later at a less sensitive time, be links shared on how to cope with that problem or ways to prevent it in the future.

But no one feels the need to wave a flag saying, “Guys! Drowning is bad!”  or “Cancer isn’t glamorous!” or “It’s time we put aside our love of fatal traffic accidents!”  There are no links to inspiring stories about people who campaigned to persuade the world that being crushed in a landslide is in fact undesirable.  There will be no hopeful mention of the man who used to just love the prospect of dying from massive burns and smoke inhalation, but thanks to a profound change of heart, he now realizes that’s not what people should want out of life.

These evils are self-evident.  You might disagree over the extent to which they can or should be avoided (close all the mountain passes!), but you don’t disagree that these things are bad.

 

***

People can’t shut up about the evil of racism because it is still a pressing topic for them.

Perhaps your friend who daily asserts that skin color doesn’t matter can remember a time when he did think it mattered.  Maybe he wasn’t that bad, but he was bad enough.  He looked down on people of other races, or he felt that somehow his own people were superior, or that there was some justification for certain types of discrimination.  Maybe he theoretically believed in human equality, but in practice he felt that most people of this or that race were not, in practice, as educated and moral and generally deserving as people of his own race.  Maybe he still struggles to shake off the vestiges of prejudice.

Or perhaps your other friend grew up in an openly racist culture (if she’s old enough, she almost certainly did), and she still has memories of segregation and overt discrimination.  Maybe she remembers the callous things some people used to say, and the downright mean things other people used to do.

And perhaps that other group of friends who are always asserting racism is wrong are doing it not because it has ever been an issue for them, personally, but because they are regularly encountering people who are racist.  Maybe they see racism in action.  Maybe they overhear racist comments.  Maybe they get into arguments with others who try to make the case for racism.

***

This is why people post those memes.  The repetition grows tiresome for us who aren’t at that point.  We don’t need anti-racist reminders anymore than we need reminders that air should have oxygen and diesel fuel doesn’t belong on your drinks table.  We wish you would quit posting pictures of different-colored kittens all snuggled up together in a display of racial solidarity, and get back to sharing the plain old non-polemical kittens for which the internet was invented.

But we’ll be patient.  Because if you are a recovering racist, or you spend your day with not-yet-recovering racists, maybe you need an outlet.   If Solidarity Kittens help you, then please: Be helped.

***
In the making of this post, I looked through many kitten photos on Wikimedia, because I’m committed to social justice that way. Other things you might like to know about:

Enjoy.

File:Poes zoogt jongen.JPG

Kitten photo by: Onderwijsgek at nl.wikipedia  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Netherlands.  

File:Kittens.jpg

Cute Kittens poster via Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Castles in Alsace, Part 3

Do not trust me if I say to you, “I know there’s a castle around here somewhere . . .”

Unless you want to be taken for a ride.

A long ride up a windy mountain road, and then back again by a different way, with a stop for photos in a picturesque village because it isn’t fair that the children get to take all the photos out their windows while I keep my eyes on the road, so humor me we are going to stop and park so the mother can get out and take pictures . . .

Eventually we did end up in Katzenthal (also picturesque), home of the Château de Wineck.  FYI, Wikipedia seems confused about this castle, in both French and English.  The place we visited, as you’ll see, is the one I’ve linked to — hit the Google translate button and scroll down for some history.

I’m not sure whether I would have marched myself up the hill or not, but a tired child dug her heels in at yet another evening-after-a-long-day castle hike, so the two of us walked the other siblings as far as the trail at the edge of the village, then ambled back towards our car.  We were halfway across the village when the two hiking children raced back and intercepted us excitedly: “There’s a road!  We can drive up!”

Foolishly, I believed them.

We loaded up and headed towards where I’d left them.  The “road” begins with a teeny-tiny alley between two buildings, ample for pedestrians and more than sufficient for those narrow tractors that the farmers drive through the vinyards, but not the sort of place Americans drive automobiles.  Warnings from the rental contract flashed in my head.

Conveniently, I have rented a French car.  It knows the way French drivers behave, and so it has sensors that beep ruthlessly at you if you get anywhere even vaguely French-like in your parking habits.  I really wanted to see this castle.  Possibly an addiction is forming.  So I sucked in my gut (as if that would help) and thought French thoughts, and threaded the needle.

No furious beeping.  No scratches for the rental car guy to charge to my credit card.  Apparently it is a road.

Except that the “road” never turned back into a full-sized road.   As we wound our way up, I grew increasingly suspicious that I was on a private road belonging to the vinyard owner.  Also: I wanted to see that castle, and anyway there was no place to turn around.  So up we drove, and sure enough there was a wide spot for parking right at the castle, and that, too, was probably meant for castle custodians and not for us, but the place was empty because it was late, so if we were supposed to get in trouble the villagers were slacking off on that job.

***

The remains of Wineck are small – here’s the keep and tower.  You can go inside on the occasional opening hours, but we declined to trespass (we’re like that — our ambiguous vehicle situation not withstanding).

Castle Wineck Keep

Here’s a detail from one of the walls at the base of the structure:

Castle Wineck - Wall detail

And here’s a wall cross-section:
Castle Wineck - Wall Cross-section

There are some slight but distinct differences, you’ll note, between this wall cross-section and the cross-section of wall from the Eguisheim castles in Part 2 of this series.  If you are just joining us on the castle tour, Part 1 is here.  The last thing I  have planned for the  (Alsatian) castle series is a look at the furnishings in Haut Koenigsbourg, coming next.

The Epic Vacation Archives:

Alsatian Castles Part 1
Alsatian Castles Part 2
World War 2
Alsace Scenery

 

Castles in Alsace, Part 2

Part 1 is here.

The next place we went after Ribeauvillé was the Ecomuseé  d’Alsace, outside of Mulhouse.  (Say it: Moo-Lose, as in, “the first cow to moo loses the game.”  Resist the natural urge to prounce it “Mull-House.” You are not mulling the house wine, you are playing the quiet game with cows.  Also recall: Google Translate is your friend.)

There are no castles at the museum, but there is a strong house – une maison forte – built on site from salvaged 15th century components rescued from Mulhouse.

Medieval "Strong House" reconstructed at the Ecomusee d'Alsace

The tower is not a perfect reconstruction.  The curators took the remains of the original building parts and gave their best rendering of what it might have been used for, and what would be most interesting or educational for museum-goers.  Like Kaiser Wilhelm’s reconstruction of Haut Koenigsbourg, it’s an interpretation, not a replica.  It’s useful for thinking about how fortifications were made for various purposes.

After a full day at the museum (topic for another post or two), we drove north towards our home village and of course we spied castles on the western horizon.  There was no other choice but to hop off the autoroute and pick a departmental road that pointed in the general direction and try our luck.  After several missteps we succeeded in the following the promisingly named Route des Cinqs Châteaux to the parking lot for Les Trois-Châteaux du Haut-Eguisheim.

There are two trails out of the parking lot, one of which will take you in five or ten minutes to the three castle ruins above the town of Eguisheim.  The other trail will take you all kinds of places far, far, away.  It was only obvious in retrospect which trail we should have tried first.  Eventually, however, we reached our goal.

As you come up the trail from the parking lot, the first castle is this rectangular tower.  We’re viewing it in this photo from the north, standing in the ruins of the second castle, but you actually arrive on the site from the west.  (These photos are from about 6:30 in the evening, beginning of July, so the sun is informative for directions.)

Rectangular tower of the first of the three castles of Eguisheim

To the right of all those low walls of Castle #2 in the foreground are two towers.  Below you can see the remains of the northern of those two towers.  Both are closed (for safety reasons) but trespassers with decent climbing skills do go up to recreate. (Not us, thanks for asking.  All these easily-accessible high places along the edge of the Vosges are popular with local teenagers.)

One of the towers of the second of the three Eguisheim castles

You can see in the above photo a bit of broken wall between the sites of Castles #2 and #3.  Here’s the cross-section of that wall:

Cross-section of a wall between Castles 2 & 3 at Eguisheim

In case you tend to wonder, like I do, how the insides of walls are built.  And finally, here are the foundations of Castle #3:

Foundation of the third ruined castle at Eguisheim

The three castles are right up on top of each other.  It’s more like a castle complex.  Or one of those castle-subdivisions where the neighbors all complain about how they have no side yard and you can see into each other’s kitchens.   It’s enough, though, to make you wonder about the other two châteaux implied by the road name.  There was plenty of daylight, so we decided to keep driving up the mountain.

The parking lots at Château du Hohlandsbourg were all packed at 7pm, which at the time we resigned ourselves to hiking up from the farthest of the parking lots seemed like no big deal.  What do we know about castle popularity?

So we haul ourselves ten minutes straight uphill, which after already having walked around all day took a lot of castle-hunger, and were rewarded by this massive impenetrable edifice:

Entrance - Chateau Hohlandsbourg

Wait.  Except that we’re looking at a wide open door, right?

What you don’t see is the hired security guy whose job is to inform us that under no circumstances can he let us inside, because it is now 7:15, and the castle closes at 7:00, and there’s a big government meeting going on inside.  Ah.  So that’s why all the parking lots are full.

We resigned ourselves to staring out at the view of Colmar in dazed dejection at our fifteen minutes of misfortune, and took photos for a bit, because we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave.

View from Chateau Hohlandsbourg

The security guy was, however, fine with us walking around the exterior of the building.  After enough landscapes and selfies and group portraits and eavesdropping on the sorrows of other rejected hikers, we were feeling energetic again.  We scrambled up an informal trail and started our tour of the walls.

For the most part, Holandsbourg looks like long stretches of blank wall, which make for horrible photos, and a few of these on the corners:

Corner of Old Holandsbourg

You can, however, look in through the arrow slits down at ground level, which from some angles gives you a view of the governmental party-tents, and into other holes you see things like this:

View into Hohlandsbourg castle

Honestly I think we had more fun scrambling around the perimeter of the castle than we would have had if we’d been let inside.  We never would have circumnavigated the place if it hadn’t been our only choice.

Jen looking into the Forbidden Castle (Hohlandsbourg)

Me, looking into an arrow slit of the Forbidden Castle.  There is glass behind this particular slit, hence my reflection, but you can see into the meeting space that’s been created within.  Two more castles still to come in this series.  And for those who are wondering, all the photos in these posts are mine, all rights reserved.  See the copyright notice in the sidebar.

 

Castles in Alsace, Part 1

After Haut Koenigsbourg, we transitioned to compulsively hiking up to any ruined castle we saw from the road.*

Castles tend to be built in sets, it turns out.  The first group of ruins we visited were the three castles above the town of Ribeauvillé.  You park at the base of the mountain and walk up through the woods, and though the trails are well-marked, if you aren’t sure which trail you are supposed to be following, that can create a nagivational difficulty.  But we eventually got to all three.

Giersberg is the lowest, smallest, and you can’t go into it.  But it’s pretty satisfying if you’re not from around these parts.  (Tip: For any of these links that take you to French-language sites, Google Translate does pretty well. Just hit the magic button in Chrome and you’re set.)

Giersberg castle as seen from St. Ulric castle

Giersberg seen from the trail.

St. Ulric is next to Giersberg, and you can go inside and climb all over the place.  We did that.

St Ulric castle seen from Giersberg

Here are details from above and below of that room full of windows.  You can see where timbers were supported to make a floor.

Hall, from above, St Ulrich

Hall, from below, St Ulrich
This is a view looking up to the main tower from within the castle.

 

 

Tower, Haut Ribeaupierre

Here’s looking down from the tower into the valley.
Tower view St Ulrich

And here is looking down from the tower into the other parts of the castle.
Interior Birdseye St Ulrich

Here are wall details.  You can see there are multiple construction techniques going on over the years.

Wall detail St Ulrich  Wall detail #2 St Ulrich

 

After that we took the wrong trail towards Haut-Ribeaupierre, but quickly figured out that going down the mountain was not going to gain us any elevation, and turned around and picked the correct trail the second time.

Haut Ribeaupierre main non-entry

Canon hole? Haut Ribeaupierre

Wall detail with contrast, Haut Ribeaupierre

Goth arch side entry Haut Ribeaupierre

Haut Ribeau Pierre round tower.

After that it was late and we were pretty happy to descend and go home.  Here’s a view of our car from about 2/3rds of the way up the mountain:

View of Ribeauville from St. Ulrich

Yes, I walked all that!  I know!   Part 2 of the Alsatian castle tour coming in the next post.

 

*Tourism tip: An advantage of visiting Alsace during June or July is that you have until nine or so to be off the mountain each evening, which means you can head off on a hike anytime you see something interesting as you’re driving home from your main event activity that closed down at some civilized hour.   FYI this practice can interfere with dinner.

 

What It Takes Not to Be a Nazi

Fourth of July a fellow on a bicycle saw me photographing the parish war memorial in Sigolsheim.  He asked me where I was from, and I told him the US, and he proceeded to thank me for coming.  Periodically throughout the conversation he thanked me again, and before leaving he repeated merci about seven times.  There was a reason for that, which I’ll get to.

A typical way of inscribing a war memorial in France is to write Mort Pour La France, but in Alsace that’s not usually the case, for the obvious reason.  A Nos Morts is the common alternative that glosses over the whole question of whom you died for, and gets to the point: You died.  Here’s the memorial outside the parish church in Uffholtz, A Ses Enfants Victime de Guerre:

Uffhotz War Memorial

Here’s Sigolsheim, in two parts.  You’ll notice WWII was disproportionately bloodier than WWI for Sigolsheim, including a significant number of civilian deaths:

Sigholsheim War Memorial 1

Sigolsheim War Memorial 2

That’s because the Nazis dug in and held hard, and a giant set of battles were held in the village itself, which you can read about in extensive detail here.  When German empires decide to assert themselves, annexing Alsace is the default method.  (And why not throw in Lorraine while you’re at it?)   This is the reason that headquartering European postwar peace initiatives in Strasbourg is so symbolically important.

Persuading the Third Reich to retreat from Alsace was bloody-difficult, and American soldiers played a major part in that work, which is half the reason the fellow on the bicycle was so profuse in his thanks for my coming to visit and taking an interest in the local history.

Here’s the village of Kayserberg’s thank-you plaque:

Kaysersberg Allies LIberation Memorial

The American flag flies above Sigolsheim at this war memorial:

US War Memorial Sigolsheim

Everything in red on this map of the the Allies’ Alsatian offensive is American forces:

Map of the Allied Offensive to Retake Alsace

American soldiers aren’t buried at the Sigolsheim memorial (there are American war cemeteries elsewhere).  There is a cemetery, though, for the French forces killed in battle in the immediate vicinity:

French war cemetery Sigolsheim

You’ll notice in the picture above that most of the graves are crosses, and a few are not.  Here’s a detail of the rounded-rectangle gravestone in the bottom right:
Detail of Jewish headstone

It would obviously not be kosher (pun intended) to use a cross to mark the grave of a Jewish soldier.   It is not only American and native-born French soldiers, however, who were instrumental in liberating Alsace.   The Zouave soldiers buried at the Sigolsheim war cemetery have grave markers like this:

Detail of Muslim headstone

In other words, if you’re grateful France is free, don’t just thank an American — thank a Muslim.  Ah, but how much did those Muslim soldiers contribute?  About like this:

As the video shows, the cemetery is built on a hill in a half-circle, and the graves are laid out in four equal sections.  The two flanking sections are Muslim graves, and the center two sections are mixed Christian and Jewish graves.  History is complicated.

Whether the fellow on the bicycle would have thanked me so profusely if I were a North African tourist I couldn’t say.  I’m not one.  What we do get mistaken for in Alsace is German tourists.  We look the part and come by it honestly, if distantly.  German tourists come up and ask us directions, in German, which doesn’t get them very far.  Locals either attempt to speak German with us or else apologize that they have no German (neither do we — how about French?).

So here are a couple of my cute German kids walking towards the gate out of the KL-Natzweiler Concentration Camp, up near the village of Struthof in the Vosges mountains:

Walking towards the gate - KL-Natzweiler (Struthof) concentration camp

People who didn’t walk out might have died here in the cell block:

Cell block, Natzweiler-Struthof

At which point they would have been incinerated in this crematorium:
Crematorium Natzweiler - Struthof

When we talk about concentration camps and the evil of the Nazi regime, the usual thing is to tell kids, “If you were Jewish . . .”

Struthof, as KL-Natzweiler is often called locally, is different, in that it was chiefly used not for eugenic purposes but for those who resisted the Nazi regime.  Thus more to the point for our nice German boy in the photo above: Let’s talk about the draft.

His great-grandfathers were all about his age (17) at the start of World War II.  They had the luxury of being second- or third- or more-generation Americans, and they all volunteered and served in the War for the US.  It was not a difficult decision.  They were the age your brother is now, I told the girls.

Had he been seventeen and American, the boy would have signed up too, I’m fairly certain.  But what if he had been seventeen and German — which, after a week of being mistaken for a German tourist (or an Alsatian local), is not at all a stretch of the imagination?  He would have had to decide between going into the Nazi army, or going to Struthof.

Which is why a guy on a bicycle, about my age, resident of a nearby village, passing by on July 4th evening outside the war memorial in Sigolsheim couldn’t stop thanking me for being an American who came to Alsace.  He saw I was interested in history, and started suggesting sites.  “Do you know there’s a US war memorial up on the hill?” he said.

Yes.  Just came from there, actually.

“And have you seen the three castles down by Eguisheim?”

Yes.  And the other one, and some other ones . . .

“Let’s see, so maybe you should go to –”

“Well actually,” I tell him, “we only have a few more days here.  We’re going to try to go to Mont Sainte Odile and to–” I try to remember the name —  “Struthof–?”

He stops.  “Oh.  Struthof.  That’s hard.”

I know.

But you can’t really appreciate the significance of the war unless you know the whole story.

“The concentration camp,” he says.  “Struthof.”

“Yes.”

“My grandfather was there.”

White flowers with red centers.detail of white blossom with magenta-red center.

Flowers at the Sigolsheim war memorial, in bloom on July 4th.

Why Big Parishes are a Bad Sign

In the past few weeks I’ve gotten to visit two of the Diocese of Charleston’s newest parish church buildings.   St. Paul the Apostle in Spartanburg and St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken are both well worth a look.  (Our Lady of the Rosary is still on my sightseeing wish-list; meanwhile, for something fun, go see the stained glass at St. Andrew’s in Myrtle Beach — there is more information about those windows available at the church when you visit.  If you’re off the beaten path, Our Lady of Lourdes in Greenwood is charming and bright — the photos don’t do it justice.)

We are fortunate to live in a diocese where good design is flourishing.  I don’t for a moment wish to naysay any of the hard work and sacrifice that went into creating these beautiful new buildings.   On the contrary — I am grateful beyond expressing.

But let’s not delude ourselves: The very existence of some (not all) of this new construction should be an elegant, delightful, but shocking warning sign.

The Myth of the Flourishing Parish

Let’s look at St. Mary’s as a case study.  The original St. Clare’s chapel, now devoted to perpetual Eucharistic Adoration, was succeeded by the first St. Mary’s Help of Christians parish church early last century.  You can read an insightful history of Catholicism in the region — dating back to the 16th century — here.  The historic St. Mary’s parish church is still in use.  It wasn’t replaced because it was no longer habitable.  It was replaced because there were too many parishioners to fit into the building.

This sounds like a good problem, right?  It is, in a way.

It would be more accurate, however, to say: There were too many parishioners for the number of priests.

The Catholic population in Aiken, SC, as with the rest of the diocese, has grown significantly due to retirees moving south (we get your empty church parts to refurbish our buildings), professionals moving here from other parts of the United States, immigrants arriving from around the world, a certain number of conversions, and of course old-fashioned human reproduction.  Some of this represents spiritual growth; some of it is just other parts of the world sending us their Catholics.

But regardless of the cause, an unavoidable fact is now set in stone, brick, and concrete: We are not producing priestly vocations in adequate numbers.

A Faith Not Even Worth Living For

The Diocese of Charleston has a good vocations program going.  There’s always room for taking any initiative to the next level, but over the past twenty years the diocese has gotten conmendably serious and hard-working about reaching out to would-be seminarians.  We do have vocations flowing.  We have some superb new priests, and more on the way.  Fr. Jeffrey Kirby didn’t receive the state’s highest civilian honor for nothing.

Still, the arithmetic doesn’t lie.  Some parishes are on fire with the faith.  Some Catholics — in every parish — are wildly in love with Jesus and have the fruit to prove it.  But mostly we have to make larger buildings because we have pewsitters who love the pews, but who wouldn’t want to get carried away with any craziness.  Catholicism is legit here these days.  Church-going is civilized.  If you’re nicely married, it’s a wholesome place to raise the kids.

We feel good about our faith and we do good works, but it’s not the kind of thing you’d really give your life over for.  We pat ourselves on the back if we get the teens to Adoration for ten minutes.  We’re wildly excited if a young couple gets married in the Church — the idea that most young adults would remain Catholic after high school is a rich fantasy.  Some statistics, via Brandon Vogt:

  • 79% of former Catholics leave the Church before age 23 (Pew)
  • 50% of Millennials raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic today (i.e., half of the babies you’ve seen baptized in the last 30 years, half of the kids you’ve seen confirmed, half of the Catholic young people you’ve seen get married)
  • Only 7% of Millennials raised Catholic still actively practice their faith today (weekly Mass, pray a few times each week, say their faith is “extremely” or “very” important)
  • 90% of American “nones” who left religion did so before age 29 (PRRI)
  • 62% leave before 18
  • 28% leave from 18-29

If you’re not even Catholic, you are highly unlikely to become a Catholic priest.

Old Warning Signs

For as long as I’ve been talking to catechists and faith formation leaders, the refrain has been the same: “The kids in religious ed don’t even go to Mass.”  Some do, of course (mine, and quite a few others I know), but a surprising number of children are dropped off for CCD but never taken to Mass.  The situation is so dire that some parishes have resorted to requiring children preparing for sacraments to provide hard evidence they attend Sunday Mass, such as getting a bulletin signed.

Here’s another example by way of a personal story. My daughter’s would-be confirmation sponsor is an ardent young Catholic well known by many in the local Catholic community. As we put together paperwork, however, we discovered that due to an oversight when the family purchased a new home, they are not presently registered at the parish they attend most.  We’ll get it all straightened out one way or another, don’t be scandalized because there is no scandal.

But the underlying situation is this: It is now the rule that the way we “prove” someone is a “practicing Catholic” is via a set of papers and financial transactions.  Get registered, turn in collection envelopes, and you qualify for a “Catholic in Good Standing” letter.  The idea that one could simply be a faithful Catholic known in one’s community is utterly foreign to the present practice.

What if you trusted people when they said the godparents or sponsor were good Catholics?  We have come to fully expect people would outright lie as a matter of course.

Thus we live with a different set of lies.  We as a Church are so alienated from any sense of real community that we depend on bureaucratic proxies that supposedly indicate a practice of the faith, but everyone knows that they don’t.  Everyone knows that teenagers go through confirmation to make their parents happy, and then drop out at first opportunity.  Everyone knows that the confirmation class is composed of kids who last attended Mass at their First Communion.  Everyone knows that when we teach the Catholic faith assiduously, the kids whisper to themselves, right there in class, which parts they think are bunk.

The parts they think are bunk are almost invariably the parts their parents likewise think are bunk.  The Catholic Church is the stronghold of people who know how to shut up, smile, and get along.

Repeating Ourselves to Death

Any student of Church history can attest that things have always been shockingly bad.  The behavior of Catholics is the incontroveritble evidence that God must be holding this institution together, because it sure isn’t us.  That is not, however, an excuse to keep on behaving badly.

I write this today because I’m concerned that our beautiful new buildings will lull us into continued complacency.  We will persuade ourselves that what we’ve been doing is working.

It isn’t.

The buildings themselves cry it out.  We shouldn’t have mega-parishes.  We should have enough priests that when the parish overflows, we’re ready to form a second parish nearby.

The lack of priests isn’t some mystical aberration.  God isn’t suddenly pleased with the idea of men exhausted from administering multiple parishes and saying half a dozen masses in a weekend and having to rely on collection envelopes to know who comes to Mass because they couldn’t possibly meet all the parishioners they are supposed to be pastoring.  Nonsense.

We have no priests because we are very good at getting along and forming lovely clubs, but we are terrible at being Catholic.

If we don’t change this, St. Mary’s beautiful new building in Aiken will enjoy a brief sojourn as a Catholic Church, and then go the way of Sacred Heart across the river, no longer a church, now just a lovely but Godforsaken building.

File:Sacred Heart Church, Augusta, Georgia (8342846689).jpg

Artwork: Postcard courtesy of Boston Public Library (Sacred Heart Church, Augusta, Georgia) [CC BY 2.0, Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

St. Thomas Becket, Pray for Us! (Post-Election Thoughts from Me & Other Smarter People)

When I saw this photo of President Obama and President-elect Trump shaking hands [click the link, it’s not public domain], this was my reaction:

They look like men shaking hands at a funeral.  And I mean that in a good way.

It is possible to undertake an unpleasant task with both seriousness and good grace.

Here’s another photo that is public domain, from the same meeting.  If President Obama can be cheerful, surely we can put off our gloom?

Obama meeting with Trump, both men in good humor
A more cheerful moment – as one also sees at funerals. By Jesusemen Oni / VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Erin Arlinghaus writes here about the difficulty of making the post-election adjustment after actively campaigning against Trump. Readers will recall that I was ardently 3rd party (Any party but these!! Please!) and wrote both here and at Patheos about why one should not vote for Donald Trump.  I have not changed my mind.

My initial reactions Wednesday morning were threefold, and fourth quickly followed:

  • I was astonished that Donald Trump had won.  Truly astonished.
  • I felt great relief knowing we would not, therefore, be experiencing a Clinton presidency.  I was surprised at how strong my sense of relief was, when I had essentially accepted that reality as what we were going to get.
  • I was consoled that at least we could now hope for a working fourth estate.  Please, ladies and gentlemen of the press, do your work.
  • I was pleasantly surprised by reports of the sobriety with which Mr. Trump transitioned into office-elect.

My thoughts immediately turned to another politician who did what was needful when the moment came:

It was just at this period that King Stephen died and the young monarch Henry II became unquestioned master of the kingdom. He took “Thomas of London”, as Becket was then most commonly called, for his chancellor, and in that office Thomas at the age of thirty-six became, with the possible exception of the justiciar, the most powerful subject in Henry’s wide dominions.

. . . Archbishop Theobald died in 1161, and in the course of the next year Henry seems to have decided that it would be good policy to prepare the way for further schemes of reform by securing the advancement of his chancellor to the primacy.

. . . A great change took place in the saint’s way of life after his consecration as archbishop. Even as chancellor he had practised secret austerities, but now in view of the struggle he clearly saw before him he gave himself to fastings and disciplines, hair shirts, protracted vigils, and constant prayers. Before the end of the year 1162 he stripped himself of all signs of the lavish display which he had previously affected.

St. Thomas Becket proceeded to exasperate his friend the king at every turn by the unexpected seriousness with which he took on his new office.  That exasperation eventually led to the saint’s martyrdom.

Donald Trump could surprise us just as wonderfully.  Pray that he will — though without the martyrdom, Lord willing.

 

File:Thomas Becket Murder.JPG
The murder of Thomas Becket, from a manuscript circa 1200, courtesy of Wikimedia.

Related:

Brandon at Siris on the implications of protesting a free and fair election:

But the anti-Trump protests people are having in various cities are annoying me. Are they protests of specific voting injustices? No. The protesters are protesting voting itself. I have no sympathy whatsoever for this. It is, frankly, revolting, as if the United States were some tinpot fresh-from-dictatorship little country, without any sense of due process or the importance of elections, both essential to American honor. Good-faith negotiation is one of the key principles of a free society; and if you have a problem with the fact that you can be outvoted by people whose views are distant from your own, protesting the fact now is a sign that your participation in the election was not in good faith.

Jim Curley at Bethune Catholic as usual sums up what I do think (and when not that, what I *should* think):

In other words, (my interpretation), if we as a people live our lives correctly, the country will be taken care of, including having good choices at the ballot box.

 

What we had this year is the two major candidates who reflect who we are and how we live as a people. Think on that for a bit. Angry, immoral (or amoral), bigoted, sexually immature, animalistic, liars, and cheaters.

 

. . .  we will go a long way for the future of the country if we as citizens reform our own lives.

 

One other (final) point. I have gotten many emails throughout the election season saying I need to vote for Trump because this priest or that priest gave a homily or talk saying so. (“Hilary is evil, Trump is just bad”). The problem is that politics is mostly in the realm of the laity. We should follow guidelines on voting from the Church, but how to play the political game is the laity’s. So many people hid behind the cassocks of clergy to justify a vote for Trump. I still don’t believe there was any justification. I hope I am wrong.

And here’s what I said to my good friend and colleague Kathy Schiffer, who endorsed Trump (So wrong! But I love you anyway!), in discussing the election results:

One thing I *won’t* do is attack a politician for something that’s not actually happening.

It’s one thing to inform yourself in an election based on past behavior. But I won’t be slinging criticisms for the dark joy of it. If he wants my disapproval of his presidency, he’ll have to earn it 🙂.

May our president-elect marvel us with unexpected wisdom, diplomacy, and integrity.

***

My main response to the post-election riots and Calexit is in the form of a bit of satire over at Patheos.  It upset some people; if you don’t like dark humor, please read some other blogger. To keep abreast of my list of recommended reading, follow either my @JenFitz_Reads account on Twitter or the corresponding (and essentially identical) JenFitzWrites page on Facebook.  I nearly never converse at those locations, but I do feed a lot of interesting reading, both from my feed reader and links other people suggest.

For civilized conversation on all the dark and heated topics I cover on both blogs (and the odd pleasant topic as well), the place to look is my blog discussion group on Facebook. I am not always there, but if I’m active online, I look when in I can.  Readers are welcome to post non-spam links of interest and converse without me, that’s the point of the group.

You can find links to all these places in this blog’s sidebar.  If you turn off your ad-blocker, you can also find out who sponsors the Catholic Conspiracy and consider giving them a bit of your business this holiday season. We never post annoying pop-up ads, so it’s safe. The mix varies, but at this very moment the three sponsors showing are the Shrine of St. Anthony, Rugged Rosaries, and a service that provides profanity-free movies.  Thank you to these and all our supporters who keep this blog on the air!

50 Shades of Donald Trump

Among conservative Catholic Republicans on Facebook, there’s a meme being passed around that keeps ending up in front of people like myself and Scott Eric Alt, though neither of us can possibly be the intended target.  The argument is that the popularity of novels such as 50 Shades of Grey proves that women don’t, in fact, object to Donald Trump’s lewd behavior; any objections are political calculus.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss responds to another variation — same argument, different famous incident:

“But Bill Clinton…”

Oh yes. And I opposed him, and criticized him, at the time. Anyone else who did so must, in order to be morally consistent, do likewise with Trump. If you don’t, it just sends a message that you never really cared about sexual abuse of women, but were just appropriating morality in order to make your opposing team look bad.

Before my next sentence, let me reiterate: I do not think you should vote for Donald Trump.

Next sentence: There is some validity to the observation that Donald Trump’s lewd behavior is indeed representative of the American public at large.  I said so here.  This is a representative democracy, and our two candidates do in fact represent America.

Dear friends, if Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump represents you?  You can change that.

You can’t change the candidates, but you can change yourself.  You don’t have to be a person who winks at sin.  You don’t have to be a person who creates convoluted defenses of BDSM. You don’t have to be that person who justifies exposing kids to porn.

You can stop that now.  You do not have to be enslaved to the person you were yesterday.

***

Pro-life friends, another minute of politics: When people give sorry mealy-mouthed justifications for voting for a pro-abortion candidate by explaining that solving poverty or immigration or global warming will somehow fix abortion, those people are dangerously deluding themselves.  There exists a hierarchy of priorities, and cold-blooded murder is a far graver and more pressing issue than good roads or good tax policy.  When someone says I don’t like abortion but I’m voting for the person who advocates tirelessly for abortion, what I hear is: Actually, I’m fine with abortion.

I understand, therefore, the Republican Impulse.

I have grave reservations about Donald Trump’s sincerity on pro-life issues, however, because his life is one long series of promotions of the actual, real-live causes of abortion.

Food stamps don’t cause abortion.  Adultery? That causes abortion.

***

Quick aside on modesty.

When people like me talk about “modesty” we tend to hit a few topics related to girls’ clothing.  That matters, of course.  But for those who are trying to get their heads around about what immodesty looks like in someone who is neither female nor scantily-clad, Donald Trump is the poster boy.   He models immodesty not just with regards to sexuality, but also with regards to wealth, power, and personal accomplishments.  

It is easy to excuse his unseemly boastfulness by saying that he needs to prove his leadership potential or share his legitimate accomplishments with voters.  Not so.  It is possible to communicate one’s ability to lead without behaving immodestly.

Below in the links I include some examples of SC’s governor Nikki Haley in action, for other reasons.  But in her hurricane Matthew press conferences, she’s a vivid example of the counterpoint: A leader who is both a strong, decisive, competent leader, but who also conducts herself with modesty.

***

Link Round-up.  Here are all kinds of loosely related links.  At the bottom are a few of mine, but first here’s the pile I extracted from my reading list.

Timothy Scott Reeves, an evangelical Anglican philosopher with strong ortho-catholic leanings writes on our tendency to rely on chariots and horses instead of trusting in the Lord.

Simcha Fisher has an excellent piece on why consent alone is not sufficient.

Nathaniel Peters at Public Discourse writes:

Many young conservatives have been disheartened to see the leaders of their movement endorse Donald Trump. I am one of the disheartened ones. Let me explain what these leaders taught me and why their endorsement of Trump betrays those principles.

Faithfully Catholic, orthodox, conservative Katie O’Keefe catalogs her series of encounters with so called “locker-room talk” sexual abuse, and how she learned from an early age that protesting was futile:

5 years old – In my own backyard. I was stopped by a man in a car in the alley behind my house who showed me “what (he had) in his pants” and then offered me the opportunity to put my mouth on it. I declined but never told anyone because I had no idea that it was anything but just gross. . . .

12 years old – On my paper route, I was collecting for the monthly bill. An old man who had been very kindly toward me and had several grandchildren that he looked after, grabbed my breasts (which were more impressive than they were when I was 8) and humped me. He told me I was a good girl and he’d take good care of me. I quit carrying papers that month. I never told anyone because I figured that no one would believe me. . . .

Father Longenecker has sensible, hard-nosed advice on what to do after the elections, which promise us four years of disaster no matter what.

And here is a short, heartening story on seminarians already following that advice.

Erin Arlinghaus writes about:

Mary Pezzulo writes about the bad news for feminism that will come with the election of our first female president.

To which end, here’s a refreshing antidote: Watch a conservative, pro-life female governor in action, successfully managing a natural disaster. I don’t know how long the SCETV archives will be up, so here’s a link to the governor’s YouTube channel where you can find most of the videos.

(Tip: If you skim ahead to the Q&A’s with the whole executive branch team, a few of the press conferences contain striking examples of the linguistic diversity among educated, standard-English speaking southerners.  And that’s just a beginning.  Armchair linguists, this place is a treasure trove.)

Here’s Meg Hunter-Kilmer saying what many of us are saying:

A friend of mine attempted to defend Trump by pointing to his daughter’s respect for him and saying that he must be a good father. I don’t care what she says. I don’t care how marvelous he was every single time he was with her. Owning strip clubs makes you a bad father. Being a serial adulterer makes you a bad father. Treating women like objects for your sexual gratification makes you a bad father. And it will make him a bad president.

To round out the reading, from a man who’s no slouch on Catholic faithfulness, Archbishop Chaput shares his thoughts on faithful citizenship:

But 2016 is a year in which two prominent Catholics – a sitting vice president, and the next vice presidential nominee of his party — both seem to publicly ignore or invent the content of their Catholic faith as they go along.  And meanwhile, both candidates for the nation’s top residence, the White House, have astonishing flaws.

This is depressing and liberating at the same time.  Depressing, because it’s proof of how polarized the nation has become.  Liberating, because for the honest voter, it’s much easier this year to ignore the routine tribal loyalty chants of both the Democratic and Republican camps.  I’ve been a registered independent for a long time and never more happily so than in this election season.  Both major candidates are – what’s the right word? so problematic – that neither is clearly better than the other.

And finally, a few links from my own archives:

Adultery is Not the Only Option: Five Things You Can Do to Keep Your Vows Intact

Here’s a patron saint for those who’ve fallen for the idea that Catholics need to be all sophisticated and cosmopolitan.

And to close, here’s my report from the field on how our Trump-Clinton society plays out among middle schoolers. In Sexual Bravado vs. Sexual Maturity, I share some of the real-world evidence parents like to ignore, then discuss the underlying issue:

In our popular culture, sex-status is the big thing.  The kids have learned from their parents that the purpose of sex is to gratify one’s desires, and that a girl’s worth is measured in sexiness.  The kids have adopted that philosophy wholesale. . . .

. . . Why is there such a market for teenage girls in a sleepy Bible Belt town, to the point that pimps are willing to risk kidnapping charges and worse in order to abduct upper class girls and sell them locally?

You can almost hear the eighth grade boys scoffing at those pathetic men who have to pay for what they can get the girls to give them for free.

There is no magic remedy that will guarantee your teens will live chastely and stay out of harm’s way. But you can be certain that if your understanding of human sexuality is all about the quest for gratification and sexual status, your children are going to learn that from you.

 

File:New York Primary 2016 (26517842356).jpg

Photo Collage by DonkeyHotey (New York Primary 2016) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Presidential Candidates, Internet Life, and the Company You Keep

The latest on Donald Trump’s lewd exploits have unleashed a flurry of “all guys talk that way” defenses from desperate supporters.  When it was Bill Clinton extorting sexual favors from interns, we heard roughly the same thing.

All men are not like this.

While every one of us sins, there are differences in behavior among persons.  That’s why some people can be trusted to watch your children, or your money, or your new car, and other people cannot be.

As voters, it is our job to be discerning.  The right sinner for the job is the order of the day, as I discussed on a different but related question of fallen men and women in positions of authority.

Here is a related fact: Not everyone on the internet is a pompous boor.  I have a fairly active presence on Facebook, and my friends list runs the gamut politically, religiously, and socially.  I have friends who, in this election, are posting strong political opinions that also happen to be terribly, terribly wrong.  (They feel the same way about me.)

I have friends on the internet who promote the products they sell to make cash on the side.  I have friends on the internet who post endless pictures of their crafts or their kids or their favorite inspiring-quote-du-jour.

None of these people are narcissists.  None of them are bent on stirring up drama.  All those horrible things you hear about, and perhaps experience, in social media relationships?  Not happening among my friends.

Another related fact: This doesn’t happen among my real-life friends either.

It isn’t because I live in some special protected bubble.  It isn’t because fairies and unicorns circle around me every day, keeping out the criminals and crazy people.  Real world nasty situations find me just the same as they find anyone else.

And yet I and other men and women I know manage, all the same, to avoid surrounding ourselves with toxic, dangerous people as a matter of course.

What’s the secret?

Refuse to cooperate.

That means you can’t be so concerned about your career that you’ll tolerate the lewdness of a Bill Clinton or a Donald Trump because you desperately hunger for the glamour or the promotion that comes with it.  When someone behaves badly towards you, that’s on them.  Your virtue will not deter someone determined to violate you.  But when you realize someone is a dangerous person, you can make choices about how to respond.

You can choose to resist and to avoid.  You can choose to cultivate an awareness of warning signs so that you are less likely (not guaranteed — just less likely) to be preyed upon in the future.

You can choose not to be friends on social media with that toxic drama queen.  When some guy thinks he’s got a right to grab your genitals?  You can show him what knees are for, thanks.

Yes, I said that.

I didn’t just say it, I’ve done it.  I don’t tell a lot of personal stories, but here’s one: I was staying with another family as a teenager, and the teenage son, same age as me, got the idea that he should to come to my bedroom and inform me he’d arrived for intercourse.  The tone was a little difficult to read — was he joking? He claimed afterwards he was.   But the words were not difficult to understand at all, rather unequivocal, so I kneed him in the groin.

(The fact that he was close enough to be on the receiving end of that response tells you a little more.  I didn’t have to disturb myself and cross the room to carry out the counter-offensive.)

He proceeded to get upset at me for doing that, and to inform me that I needed to be more careful, as such behavior on my part could cause serious injury.

Well, darling, that behavior on your part is what got you injured.

Another word was never said.  I’m sure I immediately garnered the reputation among our mutual friends as the resident prude.  I also never had another untoward advance during the time I was staying with that family.  Guess what?  My reputation was deserved and earned.  Call it prudery or call it clear communication, do not present yourself in my bedroom even jokingly soliciting sexual favors.

Nothing I did brought on that advance.

Whatever caused that young man to think he could get away with that behavior, it wasn’t me.  Not every intern who’s been groped by a Clinton or Trump was “asking for it.”  People who want to get away with deviant behavior aren’t sitting around wringing their hands waiting for an invitation.  You cannot control the fact that there are people like Trump out there in this world.

You can control whether you tolerate their behavior.

Your options may vary, but you can choose to use the ones you have.

There’s not always a quick, easy way to stop an aggressor.

You have to assess the situation and do the best you can.

But among your limited options, choose to resist in whatever way you can.

Don’t settle for excuses.

People who make themselves lists of the reasons they need to tolerate bad behavior are people who invite continued bad behavior.  Don’t act so shocked you’re surrounded by evil when you keep choosing to surround yourself with evil.

You do not have to cooperate with the people who want you to put a crude, immoral, inept candidate into office.

If your state’s ballot includes third party candidates, vote third party.  If there is no moral choice on the ballot, write-in a moral choice.

As a last resort, if your state offers neither of those options, protest by going to the polls and participating in all the elections that have moral options, and abstaining only from those races where there is no moral choice.  Follow-up by publicly voicing your opposition to the slate of candidates and pointing to the better options.

There Exist Decent People in the World

There are men who treat women decently.  There are women who stand up for the lives and rights of all women, even the very young ones. There are politicians who follow the law in all matters, and do their best to act in the interest of the public good.  There are principled men and women who would go into politics, or go farther into politics, if they knew they were wanted.

There are even unprincipled people who would back any likely winner, and so if they knew that what it took to win the power game was an honest candidate, they’d back an honest candidate.

Stop shutting up and putting up.  This year and every year, refuse to be screwed.

 

File:Stamp US 1977 2-cents Americana.jpg "Freedom to Speak Out - A Root of Democracy"

Image courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain].