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

 

 

 

The #2 Thing Anyone Can Do to Help the Church

There are two myth-making forces at work in the McCarrick scandals.  One is denial.  Clinging to the idea that there are a few bad apples, and they are just so very sneaky and that’s why they got away with their crimes.

The other myth is that the good guys can fix this.  We imagine we can run over to Costco and pick up the plenty-pack of Accountability Spray, and with enough elbow grease the house will be squeaky clean again.  Everyone pitch in!

If the Church is a house, myth #1 is that the fridge is a disaster and needs to hauled to be the dump, can’t decide whether to fumigate the couch in the den or just burn it, and let’s rip out that musty carpet in the back bedroom — then everything will be fine again.  A few cobwebs and a squeaky staircase?  Typical old house.  Relax.

Myth #2 is that sure, we belong on an episode of Hoarders, but if we call in the team we can all work together until the junk has been cleared out and the walls and floors are all scrubbed down.

That’s not what we have.  What we have is extensive rot in load-bearing walls.

What does the rot look like?  It looks like this comment from the fabled orthodoxy-wonderland Diocese of Lincoln:

I’m glad someone has finally spoken about this.  A fellow-seminarian (now-priest) and I were tormenetd by MK’s [Msgr Kalin] behaviors for a long while.  Our experience was part of what led +Fabian to order that at least 2 people accompany MK on the stadium walks.  I wish it weren’t true, but it is.

What was happening is that Msgr. Kalin, who was both diocesan director of vocations and director of the University of Nebraska Newman Center, was molesting his students.  The former student explains:

Since you seem to be afraid to read between the lines, I will state it plainly: repeatedly asking to touch and be touched in inappropriate places, asking for “French kisses”, and doing these actions without being given permission — to say nothing of the entire grooming process by which these actions/gestures were normalized.  I finally said something after my friend walked into the chapel literally *shaking* after one of these episodes, because until then, I thought it was just me.  It was at that point I woke up to how twisted the whole situation was and had been for some time.  Now, think about the fact that this is coming from the person who made himself your confessor and spiritual director.

UPDATE: Here is an account of Wan Wei Hsien’s experience that provides a clearer timeline of events.

This is the same Msgr. Kalin who was the picture of a balanced commitment to priestly chastity in an interview for American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church:

When I asked Kalin about homosexuality, he said, “I get to know a candidate pretty well before I recommend him to the seminary, and if I think someone is an active homosexual, I’ll take him aside and we’ll agree that the priesthood isn’t for him.  On the other hand, Bishop Flavin always said that he didn’t care what someone’s inclinations were, as long as he was sincerely committed to a chaste life.”

American Catholic by Charles Morris, p. 387

Predators cover their tracks.

A healthy, sane person would react to such betrayal with shock, despair, and disbelief.   If the lone-predator myth were true,  then when Msgr. Kalin’s deception was uncovered, a clear-thinking supervisor would do a thorough investigation and either exonerate the accused or determine the man was not competent for ministry.

What was bishop Fabian Bruskewitz’s solution to this problem?  Require seminarians to only visit their director in pairs.

That’s right: The bishop understands that the director of seminarians can’t be trusted alone in the room with a seminarian . . . but he still thinks the man is competent to direct the formation of the diocese’s future priests?

This is the behavior of people in abusive relationships.

***

Here’s an interesting article in that it shows you the shiny veneer of a dysfunctional family.  Compare the key players in that happy vocations story to the names in Rod Dreher’s efforts to dig out the facts on the Kalin case (quoted above).  Gives you pause for thought.

***

People in abusive or dysfunctional relationships behave in insane ways.  There is constant blame-shifting, avoidance of responsibility, and generating of excuses and distractions to cover over the real problems.  Anyone who tries to speak reason or point out real problems becomes the enemy.  The status quo must be preserved.  Everyone tied up in the abusive relationship has somehow come to believe that their safety is threatened if anything disrupts their twisted, tormented way of life.

So seminarians are sent to see their director in pairs.

A generation of priests in one of the most boomingly orthodox dioceses in the nation were formed by a notorious lecher who was left in office after his crimes were known to the bishop.

That’s not about McCarrick.  That’s about Bruskewitz.  Different theology, different politics, different dioceses . . . same problem.  All across the nation and around the world, whitewashed pillars of the church are decayed to the core with this rot of abusive and dysfunctional relationships.

***

I and others who have been writing about the McCarrick fallout get letters from church-workers, clergy and laity alike.  We get thanked for our open, outspoken coverage of the bishops’ failure of leadership.  And invariably there’s a coda: “I can’t say anything myself.  I have to be careful.”

Yes, I know about that.  I know about being pushed out of a parish ministry because I held someone accountable for a gross failure of common sense where child safety policies were concerned.  I know about silence and “discretion” that involves never, ever, speaking up with plain answers.  I know about people accused of sexual crimes against children threatening lawsuits if you share public information about the status of their legal case . . . even as they are in the process of inviting your own children to their home.

I know about that.

***

I also know that things are complicated.  I know that false accusations happen.  I’ve been the key witness in a case defending an innocent man against an egregious and absolutely fabricated, revenge-motivated accusation.  I know that decent people get overwhelmed in difficult situations, and we don’t always handle the moment in the best way.  I know that sometimes you are under the gun and you do something really dumb, and you regret it later, and you resolve to never do it again.  I know that sometimes you examine a situation carefully, and you still come to the wrong conclusion about the best way to handle it.  I know that sometimes you just don’t understand how serious a situation is, and you don’t treat it with the gravity it deserves.  Stupid happens.  It happens to all of us.

***

Here’s the difference between stupid and dysfunctional:  Healthy people don’t build their lives around defending and perpetuating stupid.

***

So what can anyone, in any state of life, do in response to the rot of abuse and dysfunction in our Church?

Of course #1 is to fast and pray.  You know that.  You don’t need a blog post about it.

The response that hurts is #2: You have to act like a healthy person.  You have to refuse to be part of the cycle of dysfunction and abuse.

The only way for the Body of Christ to be healthy is for members of that Body to be healthy.  The gangrene stops here.

***

That’s not fun.  It gets ugly fast, because the dysfunctional people will pull out every weapon they have to fight your insistence on sane behavior.  You can expect lying, evading, shunning . . . the works.

What does it mean in parish life?  It means you might not have much of a parish life.  It means that you might become the persona non grata, because you refuse to play along and pretend everything is fine.  It means you or a family member might be denied the sacraments.

***

Oh no!  In that case—

Think about it.  You’re afraid that if you refuse to sin, and if you refuse to be party to perpetuating sin . . . you’ll be cut off from the grace of God?

That’s not how God works.

How God works is that He rewards His prophets by having them thrown into a cistern.  He rewards His son’s obedience with the Cross.  But His grace is right there the whole time.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Praying for Terrible Bishops

Up at the Register: How to Be Catholic When Your Bishops Are Not.  I am not gentle in this one.  A faith that depends on eyes-half-shut and pretending all is well in the Holy Catholic Church will not withstand the present onslaught, unless you’re extremely expert at lying to yourself.  I don’t think lying to yourself is a good option.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about praying for your bishop.  Here’s a thing to understand:  Your bishop was chosen for his cowardice.

Perhaps over the years you have wondered why your bishop seemed unable to accomplish much of anything.  You might have wondered why every statement out of the diocese was more watered-down than a glass of ice cubes on a summer afternoon.  You might have wondered why your parish and diocesan leaders seemed to find the clear and certain teachings of the Catholic faith just. so. difficult. to. praaaaactiiiiiiiiice.

Now we know.  It turns out that in the eyes of the Church’s top leaders, fecklessness in a bishop is not a bug but a feature.

With Cardinals like McCarrick at the helm, it’s a miracle the clergy accomplish anything at all.

Well, God can use that.

Because you know how God shows off? By doing His work through the crappiest instruments He can get.*

Are you a terrible person?  Then God can use you.  You can pray things like, “Lord, I am almost as wretched as my faithless, weak-kneed toad of a bishop, and so I know what dreadful danger he and I both face.  Indeed, were I in his shoes, I might be even worse than he.  After all, Satan hates bishops even more than he hates me.  Under full attack from the enemy, I’m not sure I’d last half an hour.  So if you could somehow spare us both from eternal damnation, and maybe even accomplish a few miraculous acts of virtue through us, I’d be most appreciative.”

Alternately, if you aren’t already praying from the Liturgy of the Hours, give it a look.  A sample from this morning:

Lord, listen to my prayer:
turn your ear to my appeal.
You are faithful, you are just; give answer.
Do not call your servant to judgment
for no one is just in your sight.

The enemy pursues my soul;
he has crushed my life to the ground;
he has made me dwell in darkness
like the dead, long forgotten.
Therefore my spirit fails;
my heart is numb within me.

I remember the days that are past:
I ponder all your works.
I muse on what your hand has wrought
and to you I stretch out my hands.
Like a parched land my soul thirsts for you.

Lord, make haste and answer;
for my spirit fails within me.
Do not hide your face
lest I become like those in the grave.

In the morning let me know your love
for I put my trust in you.
Make me know the way I should walk:
to you I lift up my soul.

Rescue me, Lord, from my enemies;
I have fled to you for refuge.
Teach me to do your will
for you, O Lord, are my God.
Let your good spirit guide me
in ways that are level and smooth.

For your name’s sake, Lord, save my life;
in your justice save my soul from distress.

Chicken Soup it is not.

***

Editing notes on the Register piece:

  • If I could do it over, I’d write “feckless simpering” instead of “simpering fecklessly.”  Sometimes we aren’t perfectly concise in our haste.
  • I regret that I did not write myself out a list of synonyms for the word “putrid,” as it occurred to me I should.  I woke up this morning with the stark realization that I had missed quite a few.

Well, that’s how it goes sometimes.  We live to write another day.

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Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, public domain.  Bouguereau, I had know idea you had this in you!

 

*Hence the existence of bloggers.

 

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.

File:Vincent van Gogh - The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View from the Chevet - Google Art Project.jpg

Artwork via Wikimedia, Public Domain

Holy Week & Easter Indulgences – Do Something Useful for a Change!

Up the Register is a list of indulgences available to you this Holy Week & Easter.   You were probably going to do some of these things anyway.  Now with just a tiny bit of tweaking, your sorry self can get someone out of purgatory.

 

If the idea of indulgences makes you want to nail something to a door, Catholic Answers has all kinds of info here on why you don’t need to panic.

***

In other news, the Babylon Bee wins the Easter Myth-a-thon with “Confirmed: Resurrection Was Complex April Fool’s Day Joke That Got Disciples Tortured, Killed.”  Everyone’s just upside-down with laughter over that crazy where’s-the-body prank the disciples pulled.

Image by Caravaggio, Public Domain.

The Disconnect After You Realize Abuse is Happening

There are two extra torments after you realize you’ve been party to an abusive relationship:

  • You wonder why it took you so long to realize what was happening.
  • You wonder why other people can’t see what is now so obvious to you.

When you realize that you’d been duped for so long, you can end up blaming yourself.  Surely you should have seen the warning signs. Surely you should have been smarter than to get pulled along with all this.

When you experience the frustration of seeing so clearly what others are still denying, all sorts of other, complicated dynamics ensue.

You might second guess yourself: Are you the crazy one?  Are you blowing this out of proportion?  You’ll no doubt hear from others that yes, you’re just “being dramatic” or “making a mountain out of a molehill.”

You might feel betrayed by friends or family members who should be supporting you, but instead are loyal to the abuser and are denying anything significantly wrong has happened.

Unless your friends on the other side of the divide are truly magnanimous, you will probably lose friendships.  Even if you are still civil to each other, it won’t be the same as before.

It is quite likely that you who have called out the abuse, or who have merely refused to cooperate with it, are suddenly under attack.

***

All these things are the fallout of the nature of abusive relationships.

By definition, the abuser has sought to normalize his or her behavior.  The only way abuse gets perpetrated in the first place is by the abuser somehow convincing people the behavior is acceptable.  One of the reasons we don’t recognize abuse when it happens is that the abuser has done his or her best to make sure we don’t recognize it.

Another reason is that abusive behavior falls on a continuum.  Just how far over the line someone has strayed is not always easy to discern.  It can be hard to judge where on the continuum you’re sitting.  We all sin. We all have our weaknesses.  We have to live with one another, and it’s normal to show mercy and give the benefit of the doubt.

And finally, false accusations do happen.  We who are honest rightly want to avoid jumping to conclusions and criminalizing imperfect but not predatory behavior.  Those who are dishonest will in turn exploit every weak spot to cultivate doubt about the seriousness of the abusive behavior, and to cast the critics in the worst possible light.

Oh and then there’s the fact that those who have recognized the abusive behavior are themselves flawed persons who don’t necessarily know the best way to handle the situation.

***

So all this stuff happens.

It is horrible.

But it’s not something you can blame yourself for.  It’s just part of wrestling with the beast.

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Artwork via Wikimedia, Public Domain

Which of Your Friends are Going to Hell?

Someone both lovable and known-to-be-sinful died recently, and a friend posed this question: What does the Church teach about so-and-so?  Is this person now in hell?

This was my answer:

The Church will very occasionally confirm that someone is in heaven, but never makes a judgement on who is in hell.

We can know that certain sins will mortally wound the life of the soul if they are freely chosen by someone who understands their gravity. We cannot know the inner life of another person, and therefore cannot know how culpable they are for a given sin, nor whether they repented (if necessary).

Heck, we barely scratch the surface on our *own* inner lives.

We can, in contrast, appreciate all that is true, good & beautiful in the people around us.

***

On that note . . . I wrote a long rambly post back in August on the complicated lives of us sinners.  There was a relevant section to my friend’s question, so I’ll share that again:

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?

Happy Advent, everyone!

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Detail of a Cross of St. Longinus.  If there’s hope for him, there’s hope for you.  Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Longinuskreuz_1.JPG CC 3.0

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.

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

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.

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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.

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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].