Mind Your Narratives!

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

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

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

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

Well, that might have been true.

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

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

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

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

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

We don’t know.

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

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

How Clerical Trust is Rebuilt

A friend wrote in anguish to ask: How do I know what priest I can trust?

It’s a question borne of damning evidence:

  • Cardinal McCarrick promoted through the ranks and honored by the nation’s top Catholic universities despite the “open secret” that he was using his power to get away with molesting seminarians.
  • The Diocese of Lincoln failing to protect its college students and seminarians from the vocations director who molested them.
  • Cardinal O’Malley wisely canceling his appearance in a panel on protecting children and young adults at the World Meeting of Families because the seminarians at Boston’s St. John’s Seminary have spoken up about the sexual harassment they endured.
  • The Pennsylvania grand jury’s massive report on the covering up of sexual abuse — even to the point of Cardinal Wuerl approving a monthly allowance from his diocese for a priest removed from ministry because of his sadistic molestation of altar boys — and the report doesn’t even cover the whole state.

It goes on and on.  The hushing up of the immorality is rampant and entrenched.  It infects not just the United States but clergy at every level, all around the world.

And yet you know in your heart that at least some priests are good. At least some of them are trustworthy.  Who are they?

The Stakes are Life and Death

One of the consistent themes in reports of victims — children and adults, men and women, across the nation and over several generations — is the use of god-language to placate the victims.  God wants us to do this. Blasphemy in the extreme.

If sexual abuse in general is terribly damaging, it is all the more so when the abuser twists the victim’s relationship with God — cursed if you do, cursed if you don’t.

In a cover-up culture, the victim is abandoned and forsaken.  What should be a source of support in a time of suffering is now the death blow.  It is no wonder that victims attempt suicide, and that some succeed.

So the question of trust matters.  You need to know before pouring your heart out to your priest: Is this guy gonna see I’m vulnerable and take me for an easy mark? Is he going to realize my kids are easy prey because they live in a home where the adults are struggling with some serious issues?

How do I know whom I can trust? is a life or death question.

Less terrifying but still serious: We have learned that many priests who aren’t themselves predators have been complicit in the cover-up culture.  Do you want to walk into a counseling session with a guy who is a lifelong practitioner of denial and gaslighting?

When you are already vulnerable, you need to choose your counselors wisely.

We Can’t Live Alone

Trust no one.  That’s how it feels right now.  That feeling is not misplaced paranoia.  That feeling is the result of the fact that all across the United States and around the world our clergy who should have been trustworthy have shown themselves not to be.

But the Trust No One way of life isn’t tenable.  Human beings are made for community.  We are made to know and be known, to love and be loved.  Interdependence isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

Extending trust to other humans, even in our most vulnerable moments, is necessary for our own good.

But to whom can that trust be given?

Trust is Earned

In a private conversation, a colleague who would know said to me, Bishop X is a good guy.  I don’t know Bishop X from a shelter pet.  Backwater diocese, doesn’t make the news, Bishop X is just this guy who has worked with my colleague long enough that they’ve gotten to know each other and Bishop X has shown himself to be trustworthy.

I thanked my colleague for saying so, because right now there is nothing Bishop X could say that would prove his innocence.

Right now, our clergy have no credibility — and many lay employees have no credibility either.  They cannot speak up in their own defense, because lying and dissimulating are such entrenched habits in the administration of the Catholic Church that you simply don’t know who is telling the truth.  We’re living in the world’s largest Agatha Christie novel.

And yet Bishop X has someone vouching for him.

How’d he get so lucky?  By his actions.

Trust Isn’t Instant

The trouble with trust is that it takes time to prove.  You don’t really know how your priest will handle a difficult situation until he’s given a difficult situation to handle.  You have to actually see him admit to mistakes, or hold the painful conversation, or step in and forthrightly bumble his way through complexities that have no one right answer, but can at least be faced bravely and without flinching.

Can you trust your teen to call you if she needs a ride home because her friend started drinking at the party?  You’ll never know until the night when she’s stuck out at the party with the drinking friend.

We build a hope of trustworthiness on many small things.  Does your priest always prioritize smoothing things over, even if it means tolerating small-scale corruption?  Is maintaining a good reputation his most important value?  Are complainers dismissed as cranks?

Don’t trust that guy.

As with our children, the way we extend trust to our clergy is by giving them little chances to prove themselves.  If you can look back over the years you’ve known your parish priest, or your bishop if you spend that much time with him, and you can see a track record of honesty and integrity — despite whatever his garden-variety flaws might be — there you go.

If you have no such relationship, then start building that relationship.  Contact him about a problem — something that isn’t going to devastate you if he fails to address it properly — and see how he handles it.  Are his actions consistent with someone who really wants to solve the problem (even if it can’t be solved easily), or does his priority rest with good PR and making sure nothing gets in the way of his personal ambitions?

Watch over time: Does he keep “loyal opposition” involved in parish or diocesan life, or does he sideline anyone who doesn’t shut-up-and-put-up?  When a staff member does something wrong (it’s going to happen, to err is human), does he correct the error or does he try to act like his staff are above reproach?  Does he himself openly acknowledge his own mistakes, or does he blameshift and gaslight?

It’s a slow process.  Trust is proven over time.  If your clergy have already shown themselves, over and over again, to be stand-up guys who can be counted on to do the right thing — thank God!

If guarded optimism is the best you can offer right now, then try to find a sane balance between the “guarded” and the “optimism,” neither too fearful nor too over-trusting.

And if you have no evidence of your priest or bishop’s trustworthiness, allow it to be just that: No evidence.

Maybe he’ll prove himself down the road, and that will be good.

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Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 3.0 photo by  Fondazione Cariplo

 

 

 

What Doesn’t Protect the Church

I’ve been writing about the allegations of sexual molestation against Cardinal McCarrick over at Patheos:

Soldiers for Christ Hiding Under the Bed is about the connection between covering up for sexual predators and the inability of the Church to be an effective witness to wider society.  Not a surprising connection, but one that needs to be made.

Promiscuous vs. Predatory: How to Tell the Difference is a response to the suggestion that McCarrick was guilty of simple sexual immaturity, not predatory molestation and sexual harassment.  It contains links to my growing collection of essays related to the topic of abuse in the Church.

Rod Dreher has been covering this topic as well, from the point of view of a journalist who investigated McCarrick in the past, but was unable to pull together a story he could break.  In Uncle Ted & The Grand Inquisitor, he shares a disturbing comment he received from a reader:

We MUST protect our brand, our shield, our faith!

I fully support Pope Francis and his softened tone, and even swipes at capitalism because the media love him. And image is everything.   Similarly with Cardinal Dolan, I will fight to the death to defend him, and would go to extreme lengths to protect him because he is so well liked in the leftist NYC media.

In short, we must handle these issues swiftly, legally, but privately!  As a successful advertising executive in NYC I am looked up like an alien because I am a weekly mass attender, and a conservative. I am respected by my liberal media friends because I loathe the Trump-Palin-Brietbart wing of my party, and trumpet my cause in a more Bill Buckley.

Image is everything, and when it comes to the One True Church we MUST protect her!

Dreher’s reader is wrong.

Let’s see what the Bible has to say about fighting the Church’s enemies:

11 Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. 13 Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. 14 So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, 15 and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:11-16

What are our weapons?  Truth, righteousness, the Gospel, faith, salvation, and the word of God.

Covering up for sexual predators does not fit on that list.

If the allegations against Cardinal McCarrick are true, the man should have been removed from pastoral ministry decades ago.  By all means, when you see a priest, or anyone, doing what they ought not be doing, if no laws are being broken, begin by confronting the sinner privately.  We all sin.  Would that we were all given the chance to quietly confront our own failings and rectify them.

But when you have evidence of decades of predatory behavior, with untold hundreds of clerics at every level of the hierarchy complicit in silence and cover-up, and how many lives of young men ruined by the crimes inflicted upon them . . . there is no quietly cleaning this up.  “Discretion” does nothing to help the Church.  There is a time for genuine public penance, and now is that time.

Dreher’s reader is correct: the Church’s image matters. But when we hide behind some limp notion of “handling things privately,” the rot festers.  No one is fooled.  The public rightly views us as hypocrites of the worst sort.

So let us instead make the Bride of Christ holy, without blemish, and irreproachable before Christ.  That image, and that image alone, is the one for which we should strive.

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Artwork via Wikimedia, Public Domain

The Patron Saint of Fat-Shaming Victims

The man you want on your side Blessed Isnardo of Chiampo, feast day March 22nd. From Butler’s Lives:

Isnardo, we are told, in spite of the fact that he led an extremely ascetic life, was very stout, and physical exertion of any kind was a matter of much difficulty for him. . . . On one occasion a scoffer ridiculing the speaker’s corpulence shouted out, “I could no more believe in the holiness of an old porpoise like Brother Isnardo than I could believe that that barrel there would jump of itself and break my leg.”  Whereupon, we are told, the barrel did fall upon his leg and crush it.

He wrought other miracles as well, but that’s the one that everyone remembers.

 

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Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 3.0

When You’re Failing at Lent

Here’s an actual thing I prayed Sunday morning at Mass: “Jesus, please help me stop failing at Lent.”

I wouldn’t say I’m a pro at Lent any year, but this year is hitting new lows in the spectacular failure department.  One of the particularly depressing features is that things I used to be good at in previous years — this prayer routine, that bit of self-denial, those important tasks — I’m not hitting them like the imaginary composite “perfect Jennifer” does in my head.  Pick the best Jennifer features selected over 30 years of Lents, feasts, and ordinary times, mash her together into a collage called “You Should Be Able To Do This No Sweat,” and then stand back and despair.

That’s not the point of Lent.

For those of us on the Lent Failure Track, this is the point: Discover again how much you need God.

Hidden Years in the Spiritual Life

Over the last week I’ve been proofing the paperback version of the new book.  For those who aren’t familiar with it, the book walks you through an examination of your life with respect to the four ways of loving God — heart, soul, mind, and strength. (There’s a review here — thanks Patrice!)  So here it is Lent and I’ve written this great retreat that is ideal for use during Lent, and I’m thinking to myself: If there is one thing Jennifer does not need to be doing right now, it is this retreat.

I have been thinking because my life is already very full, and I don’t need to think up new things.

But I’ve been proofreading the paperback version, and as a result I sort of ended up doing an abridged version of the retreat in my brain.  The abridged version consisted of me noticing select passages that scream JENNIFER LISTEN TO THIS!!!! and then me getting an extremely clear idea, after reading all the words in the book, of exactly what it is I need to be working on in my relationship with God right now.

What I need to be working on is not glamorous.  God asks us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and some corners of those four parts of ourselves are not impressive.  I don’t think, “Wow, I would be SO HOLY if only I worked on _[thing that needs attention]_.”  Foundational issues don’t amaze.  It’s like a building.  The bulk of the technical genius is hidden from sight.

The Things You’ll Miss If You Don’t Have Them

Yesterday was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon around here, perfect for getting out for a bike ride or a walk in the woods or doing something fun with the kids.  Instead, the Superhusband spent his few hours of time off work replacing the toilet in the kids’ bathroom.

He could have gone out and done some Dad-activity that was easy for everyone to appreciate.  If you’re the dad playing soccer at the park or pitching balls, everyone’s like, “Wow! What a great dad!”  Replacing the toilet is like, “Wow!  Look where the toilet used to be!  It’s another toilet!”  You do all that work and there isn’t much to show, because that work is an investment in nothing happening in the future.  You’ll know the new toilet was worth it because: Nothing.  There’ll be a lack of toilet-related drama and that’s it.

Lent-Lite

That’s what it’s like in Remedial Lent.  Lent is falling apart because you need to make some adjustments.  A good penance will bore and annoy you, but it works.  You suffer a little, but mostly you just suck it up and do fine.  When you’re failing at Lent, something needs to change.  Probably something you don’t really feel like working on, because if you felt like working on it, you would have dealt with it from the outset.

So God is good, and He lets you try your thing.  And then you start failing at Lent, and when you finally break down and beg for help, God reminds you of the other thing.  The more important thing.   You can’t believe it’s the more important thing, because surely something as small as that, or as ugly as that, or as intrusive as that, isn’t what Lent is all about, right?  But you were failing at Lent.  It’s because God needs you to work on loving Him in this other area you’d rather not.

When you decide to give your whole self to God, you have to give the not-so-shiny parts too.

 

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Artwork: Christ in the Garden, Jeremias de Decker, 1656.  Via Wikimedia [Public Domain].

 

One Weird Trick for Understanding Homeless People

Over Thanksgiving the topic of services for the homeless came up at dinner, and last night the subject again resurfaced.  In my experience, there is no such thing as a “typical” homeless person, because people are complex and their stories are unique.  You can speak of common factors among this or that sub-group (mental illness, lack of a personal social net, etc.) but the intricacies don’t satisfy.  People want to “understand homelessness” as if it were a tricky lock in need of the right key and combination.

Finally I told my husband that if he wanted to understand why someone would be persistently homeless, despite the many social services available in our area (which help!), here’s what you do:

Think about something that you, personally, absolutely stink at.  The part of your life where you just can’t seem to get your act together.  Other people manage to do this thing just fine, but you don’t.

[In my husband’s case: Keeping the garage clean.  We could say the same about my desk and my inbox and let’s not even talk about the state of my refrigerator.  Other people might struggle with family relationships, or road rage, or over-eating, anorexia, compulsive shopping . . . whatever.]

You persistently, year after year, struggle with this thing that ought to be simple.  Sometimes you make progress, and other times you fall back into the pit.

Other people who have this problem are sympathetic; those who don’t have this problem wonder why you can’t get your act together in this area.  You’ve got so much else going for you — what’s the big deal?

Think about that problem.  Think about all the things that contribute to that problem.

Some of things might be outside your control: Your health, your work schedule, your family dynamics.  Some of the things that contribute to your problem are just your own personal collection of weaknesses and foibles.  Many things are a combination — your circumstances work against you, and you work against you, too.

Be really honest about acknowledging your problem and all the many things that make it so persistent.

***

And that’s it.   Now you know.

 

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Artwork via Wikimedia, public domain.

Memento Mori

While All Hallow’s Eve is no day to be dabbling in the demonic (no day ever is), it’s as fine a time as any for pondering one’s mortality.  A little artwork for the season:

Danse Macabre from the Domincian cemetery in Bern
:

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Stained glass from the Bern cathedral, photo by Andreas Praefcke CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons:

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Fresco: The Triumph of Death, on the external wall of the church of Disciplini, photo by Paolo da Reggio via Wikimedia, CC 2.5:

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And for those who have been pondering the blog silence of late (including a few overdue book reviews, sorry there): It’s due to a distinct lack of death in these parts.  Camping, volleyball, children studying music, adults studying the Bible, children and adults putting on an All Saints Play, a writer posing as a literature teacher beginning this Friday, friends visiting from out of town, friends visiting from in town, a Quiz Bowl around the corner — life is good.

The Blessing of Incompetent Theologians

Darwin Catholic has a long response to Melinda Selmys’s also-long concerns about the moral theology behind the Church’s teaching on contraception.  Ferret out the details if you like, I’m not headed into long explanations of he-said-they-said where the documents behind Humanae Vitae are concerned.  Read the final product, it’s readable common sense that covers all you really need to know.

Here’s what I do want to say, though, about the opinions of theologians: Theologians are sometimes wrong.

The charism of infalliability is extremely limited.  Basically it keeps the pope from royally screwing up when it especially matters most, and that’s about it.*

I like to think my theology is sound.  I know for a fact that I fail spectacularly at many other tasks that ought to be wildly simple.  I could really do with a secretary, a housekeeper, and a more vigorous conscience, thanks.  That others have faults therefore comes as no surprise.  So when you encounter something that seems like dubious reasoning even though it comes from someone who ought to know better . . . maybe it is, in fact, bad reasoning.

It is entirely consistent with history, doctrine, and a charitable disposition to consider the possibility an otherwise reputable theologian might, on some or many points, be haplessly incompetent.

It happens.  Don’t stake your salvation on the smartness of mankind.

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Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia.

 

*Yes, infallibility also applies to the bishops teaching in union with the pope . . . which just brings us back to the important bit, which is that the Holy Spirit protects the pope from the very most disastrous errors.

Funniest Parish Rumor Ever

This morning after Bible study one of the ladies asks me, “What are your degrees in?”

It’s a good question, and one I occasionally have to clarify.   I studied economics and I have a degree in economics are two different things; in my case the former is true but not the latter.  Every now and then an author blurb goes to print without my clearing it, and I cringe at the odd inaccuracies.

So I answered, “I have a BA in international studies, with a not-quite-a-minor in economics.  My master’s degree is in business administration, with the bulk of my coursework in accounting with a little bit of finance.”  Again, I don’t have an accounting degree, though I did graduate with enough upper-level courses to work professionally in accounting.  But I’m not a CPA, which people ask me whenever they hear I studied accounting.

“Oh,” the lady at Bible study says.  “So do you have a PhD in theology?”

Pardon me?  “No.”

“Oh.  Someone said you had a PhD in theology.”

No.  No no no.  “Nope.  Business.  Master’s degree in business, no PhD in anything.”

“Sometimes Father Whippersnapper seems to defer to you during Bible study.”

“That’s because he has a graduate degree in theology, which I do not, but I am more experienced with arguments among non-academics bickering on the internet.”

***

As parish grapevine experiences go, it was more amusing than horrifying, so it worked out.

–> I got to share a little bit of mine and my husband’s conversion stories (answer to the follow-up question of “How come you seem to know so much?”), and I conceded I do write a bit of Catholic non-fiction

More better: I got a few minutes of living vicariously through one of the other Bible study ladies, who overheard the conversation and shared with me about her experience in internal audit and fraud detection, which is one of the coolest things accountants get to do and I’d be totally looking into that if I were looking for an accounting job.

It was a good day.  And to my credit, I read just far enough into Love and Responsibility to know, as any good Junior Moral Theologian who happens to be married should know, the answers to these sex questions over at the Aggie Catholic blog,* which topics I alluded to in the rough cut of my most recent NCRegister post, now up: “What Do Priests Know About Marriage?”  My very smart editor removed the explicit references (which the Aggie post answers succinctly, so you’re set if you have those questions) to keep it PG rated.

*I do not write for the Aggie Catholic blog.  I have been to Texas three times, though, so it’s practically the same, for parish rumor-mill purposes.

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Artwork: Young Nun at Prayer by Sergei Gribkov.  I’m not a nun either, in case anyone is asking.

PS: Parents, this is a grown-up blog.  I teach children in regular life, but on the internet I cover adult topics.

Four Ways to Avoid Becoming a Bitter Catholic

Up at the Register this morning, I’m talking about ways to not become a person you hate being, in the aftermath of other Catholics being truly horrid:

Bitterness isn’t born ex nihilo. Bitterness is the festering of a spiritual wound, and many Catholics are infected by bitterness because they have suffered real, penetrating, stinging wounds at the hands of their fellows.

When you see someone being rabidly ugly, that didn’t come from nowhere.

When it’s you being rabidly ugly, it often feels like “righteous anger.”

Hmmn.  Are you filled with a sense of peace? Do people generally agree that the way you speak and act is gentle and life-giving?  Do even some of your opponents speak of you respectfully, because your are well-known as someone who is rational, calm, and has good sound reasons for your beliefs?

Or is it maybe possible that, fault of the hurt you’ve endured at the hands of people who had no right to treat you that way, you’ve started to get a little bitter?

Maybe a lot bitter.

It isn’t easy, but there are some things you can do to help yourself heal.  These are some of the things.

And then there were ducks . . .

FYI it’s my editor Kevin Knight at NCR who wins the award for my favorite photo caption ever.  That’s his genius, not mine, concerning the ducks.  But he is so, so, right.  Ducks, guys.  Make that #5.

Related:  Do you you know Catholics who have grown parish-shy? This fine cat photo was my illustration for Taming the Feral Faithful: How to Lure Serious Catholics Back to Your Parish.  You can find an index with this and many other articles about discipleship and evangelization at my D&E index over at the Conspiracy.

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Photo: w:User:Stavrolo [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons