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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Less evil” is not good.

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

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

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

That good intention doesn’t justify the evil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

–> Find a different way to shoot the scene.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(More below on that.)

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

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

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

#6 Let’s talk about that directorial restraint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So. In conclusion:

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

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

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

On the Glory of St. Blog’s Parish

This is not a nostalgic look at the good ol’ days of Catholic blogging.  I first started blogging in late 2006, and sometime after that I met Dorian Speed, who gamely agreed to pose yesterday of our combined Monday-Tuesday penitential photo.  She is as fun in real-life as she is online, and since what we have in common is Catholic blogging, yesterday over coffee she posed the question: Do I miss the old days?

Yes and no.  I’m grateful for the old days.  There are things I miss about the old days.  But also I’m happy with Catholic online life in 2020.

***

I started the century by discovering an online discussion forum that was mostly Catholic-moms, and twenty years later that group of friends is still together and still periodically meeting up in real life.  The old discussion forums were a great place for people who like debating, and I am one of that breed.

With that in mind, here’s some irony: As Facebook and Twitter have become the preferred stomping grounds for Catholic pundits of a certain age and sensibility, I find myself less interested in debating, and appreciate that those platforms are better suited to other types of conversations . . . and simultaneously I see other people make themselves miserable by immersing themselves in conflict there where they could so easily avoid it.

I say ironic because what I love about Facebook, Twitter, and other popular platforms I don’t use but which are similar in this regard, is that you can choose your conversation partners.  The old discussion forums and blog comboxes didn’t afford that luxury.  Now I can customize my discussion experience to avoid the people who make me crazy and spend comparatively more time with the people who make my life better.  I wish I had more control (I would like to see more photos of my nieces and nephews, less sloganeering), but I definitely don’t miss the days of the all-or-nothing online social experience.

It puzzles me that other people don’t just hit the “mute” or “hide” button when they tire of some acquaintance’s constant ranting. Then again, my favorite part of blogging is that no one has to read what I write.  It’s there if you want it, but I’m not imposing on anybody.

***

One of the marks of a longtime internet presence is that you end up with all these weird artifacts of your changing use of the machines.  I like to read online.  There was a time when Google offered G+, a fantastic way of gathering and sharing online reading.  When that shut down I migrated to Feedly, but Feedly doesn’t offer a free tool for sharing your favorite things.  So I started @JenFitz_Reads on Twitter, not for the purposing of twittering, but just as a convenient way of keeping track of articles that I found useful in some way.  The feed sits in the sidebar of this blog, and it’s meant to be a source of interesting links for people who are bored.

BUT, guess what, it’s a pain to switch between Twitter accounts.  So over the past couple weeks as I have been entering into conversations on Twitter (which I do not normally do, but call it spring fever or additional penance or whatever you like), it’s been easier to use my “alternate” account rather than my “official” account (on which I do almost nothing other than automatically forward posts from a couple blogs).  So, um, that’s twisted and backwards.  We’re just going to live with that for a while.

***

Now let’s talk about those good ol’ days on St. Blog’s.

One thing I miss, as I told Dorian yesterday, are the days when Catholics of good will might be comparatively more liberal or conservative, but they were not quite so bitter. Angry? Oh yeah.  Outrage is the fuel that makes the internet go ’round.  We are not gentle people.  If we were peaceful souls, we’d clean our kitchens and paint landscapes and get dinner on the table on time for a change.  By definition St. Blog’s has always been the fortress and refuge of opinionated hotheads.  Over the past several years, though, unfortunately that superpower has taken on an unfortunate flavor for some otherwise decent folk who, I believe, do mean well.

I get the frustration.

It is hard to be a person who works for change — not just by writing, but by putting in hours of work on the ground in real life, day after day, year after year — and watches decades pass with large parts of the Church still locked up in the same old cluelessnees and corruption.  Good things are afoot in the Catholic Church, but if you don’t have a front seat on that work, or if you have too many dysfunctional (or in some cases even abusive) realities shoved in your face too often, it can eventually harden into jaded cynicism at best.  “Be the change you want to see” becomes the taunt of sacred overlords to their subjects.  It is a constant battle not to become bitter in such an environment, and far too many on St. Blog’s have surrendered to the temptation.  I get it.  I completely get it.

***

There is another topic that Dorian and other friends reminded me of in the last couple days: There was a time when people blogged for sheer love of it.  My favorite bloggers still do.

I’ve been writing since I was eight years old.  Used to drive my grandmother batty with my constant scribbling in the notebooks I carried around.  On those occasions when I find myself without a computer, I resort to a spiral notebook.  If there is no spiral notebook, I write on scrap paper.  I am honestly unclear on how people survived before the ready availability of writing materials.  Did you just go insane?  Or probably got the chores done, I guess. Until you went insane.

***
I like the state of the internet in 2020. Some people make themselves miserable by failing to use the mute button.  Some people make themselves miserable by obsessing over their “success” on the internet.  But none of that is necessary.  I’m very grateful for the many friends I’ve made online over the past twenty years. I’m very grateful for the many “real life” friends and family I can keep up with online who otherwise live too far away to stay in touch.  Life is good.

Me standing with Dorian Speed.

Our Photo Penance for Today: Dorian Speed and I standing together after coffee yesterday, early in the day before I devoted the next ten hours to wrestling with the beast.  It’s back in my editor’s hands this morning, Alleluia.

 

How to Look Like a Saint While Heading to Hell*

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

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

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

#1 Stealth Predators Test the Waters

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

What to note:

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

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

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

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

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

#2 Toxic People Choose to Surround Themselves with Enablers

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

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

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

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

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

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

#3 The Devil is Prowling and Sinners Lie to Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

There is no easy solution to all this.

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

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

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

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

That’s what you can do.

File:Bataille Waterloo 1815 reconstitution 2011 cuirassier.jpg

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

Related: Repentance, Mercy, and Prudence

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

Solemnity on a Friday!

December 8th is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. In addition to being a holy day of obligation (translation: Go to Mass!), its status as a solemnity means that on years when the day falls on a Friday, the usual obligation to do penance on Fridays is lifted:

Can.  1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.

Can.  1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

Can.  1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Let the bacon be served.

If you live in the US, your bishops already gave you the bacon-option, but it’s penitential bacon:

Can.  1253 The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.

Way back in 1966, the US bishops determined that if abstaining from meat isn’t penitential enough for you, outside of Lent you are free to substitute some other penance:

28. In summary, let it not be said that by this action, implementing the spirit of renewal coming out of the Council, we have abolished Friday, repudiated the holy traditions of our fathers, or diminished the insistence of the Church on the fact of sin and the need for penance. Rather, let it be proved by the spirit in which we enter upon prayer and penance, not excluding fast and abstinence freely chosen, that these present decisions and recommendations of this conference of bishops will herald a new birth of loving faith and more profound penitential conversion, by both of which we become one with Christ, mature sons of God, and servants of God’s people.

The whole document is worth reading.  But not tomorrow!  On solemnities, we feast.

Other Immaculate Conception Links

In 2015 I wrote What My Dog Knows About the Immaculate Conception.  Get the whole story at the original post, including the bit about why my dog, when she wants to go outside, comes to the one person who is not going to get up and let her outside.  But here’s the thing:

My dog and I, therefore, are no typological figures of Marian intercession, get that idea out of your head right now.  Yes, Jesus would let the dog out if Mary told Him to.  But no, Jesus isn’t too busy showing St. Joseph the Russian Priests with Cats Calendar that he fails to notice the dog needs to pee, that’s not what it’s about.  There are other reasons asking Mary to intercede for you is a good, noble, worthwhile part of a healthy Christian lifestyle, and we’ll leave it at that for now.

The Immaculate Conception, which we commemorate today, is about this:

“We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”

Ineffabilis Deus, Apostolic Constitution issued by Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854

The Immaculate Conceptions is about the order of things.  It is about the re-ordering of broken humanity.  For the new Adam we have a new Eve.  Curiously, the new Eve isn’t the wife of the man about to fall, but the mother of God-made-man who’s going to save you from your fall.

Humans, fallen as we are, tend to overlook the order of things.  We have a picture in our heads of how things stand, and when reality doesn’t match that picture, we tend to elbow aside reality and stick with our imaginary world, the one we made, not the one God made.  The one we prefer, because we’re at the center of it, little gods with our little fake worlds.

The dog, in contrast, lives in no such imaginary world.  She needs to be let out at night, so she has a pressing interest in understanding the real order of things.

I’ve written about the Immaculate Conception at least one other place: The Catholic Mom’s Prayer Companion.  At this writing, Google Books is including what I have to say in the preview-pages for that book.

When I was searching for “Jennifer Fitz Immaculate Conception” two other links came up that caught my attention:

If you know a catechist who’s about to quit in despair, you might consider investing a few dollars in my purple book of how not to die in agonies teaching religious ed to a room full of hooligans.  The publisher gave it a more formal title, but you can call it that.

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Our Lady of Visible Forebearance is my preferred image for this week’s feast. Via Wikimedia, Public Domain. Her whole life she never ate bacon, and now she rejoices in heaven with many crowns, and presumably also all the bacon she wants.

Lent Day 43: Not Doing It

Wednesdays are traditionally the glorious mysteries.  I finally got back to praying the Rosary today after a gaping hiatus caused by a succession illness (it is a physical act, and thus requires one or another physical abilities), chaos, and inertia.

What was on my mind as I prayed was my inability to accomplish certain tasks before me, and thus my reliance on God to take care of them.  This is a good problem, because relying on me is not the wisest course, and in any case the tasks are God’s.

Here is a miracle, to give you an idea of the scope of the whole thing: I made a craft.  Not just any craft; one that required both bright colors and straight lines.  Also, I had to do it with supplies that I didn’t have spares of, which meant everything had to be done exactly right the first time.  No sane person assigns me a job like this.  Just never.

So anyway, I get around to the fourth glorious mystery, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Do you know what our Lady did during that mystery?

Nothing.

Just laid there.  Didn’t lift a finger.

God did it.

This seems to be the way it works.  Want me to conceive the Messiah? I can’t do that Lord, but however you want to handle this go ahead.  Out of wine?  Son, could you take care of this please?  So you’re saying the plan is that you’re going to die on that cross–? I’m just gonna stand here, and you figure out what the system is.

It’s not that Mary does nothing.  It’s that she does only the part she can do, and lets God worry about the rest.

 

***

Request: If you have a charism for bringing empty jars to the attention of our Lord, please consider joining the newly-formed Catholic Evangelization and Discipleship Intercessory Prayer Team group on Facebook.  It’s a closed group, but any member can add new members.  If you are in the work of discipleship or evangelization and would like people to pray for your mission, please join and post your requests.  (Also: Introduce yourself and I’ll add you to the pinned post of who’s who at the top.) Thank you!

 

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Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain].

 

The Unbearable Sameness of “Cool”

When you study buzzwords or fad words from each generation, very few stand the test of time. “Groovy”? “Hep”? “Tight”? “Gnarly”? (Really?) Nope. All of them – gone from our lexicon. However, one has stood strong for at least 3 generations. That is “cool”.

I don’t know why this specific word has lasted for so long, but I think I understand why what the word represents has endured. The idea is that you not only fit in, but that you fit in very nicely. Cool is comfortable. It fills that 3rd level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It means we are accepted and maybe even respected by the tribe.

Long ago, ‘cool’ meant being different in some sort of interesting way. The ‘differentness’ is what made the person (or the action) ‘cool’. However, ‘cool’ wasn’t usually associated with virtue or engaging in something ‘good’ or particularly healthy or virtuous. And that’s the downside – the dark side – of ‘cool’. It was never about becoming fully alive. It was never about growing as a person or being the best version of oneself. It was typically about wearing masks and aspiring to something that wasn’t worth the effort.

That differentness imbued with a general lack of goodness or virtue has become sameness. When you look around these days, ‘cool’ is about blending and conformity. Challenging traditional values was once considered ‘cool’. Now, if you don’t challenge them and conform to the ‘new normal’, you’re likely to be marginalized with visceral enthusiasm. Wearing underwear on the outside of one’s clothing (or in place of outer garments) used to be reserved for Superman. (Probably not the impression he was trying to give, though.) Now, if you leave anything to others’ imagination, you’re prudish. Getting a tattoo was once a unique thing to do. Now, it’s not a matter of getting a tattoo to express individuality – it’s that you’re kind of strange if you don’t get one. (This is not a judgment on tattoos, by the way – just saying that they hold no inherent ‘goodness’ or value.)

This new definition of ‘cool’ doesn’t just lack virtue, though – it’s not even cool. It’s now about fitting the beautiful diversity of what every single person brings to the table into a very small box – and a boring box of sameness, to boot.

But perhaps herein lies opportunity to rekindle ‘cool’ in a whole new way – a way that makes goodness and virtue desirable as something ‘different’. Recall those words from 1 Corinthians 12 where St. Paul says, “For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.’”

There is a reason each of us is different. We all have unique talents which aren’t always appreciated by others, but that shouldn’t stop us from fully developing them for the good of mankind and for the glory of God. We’re meant to strive for goodness and virtue. Becoming more virtuous means becoming more like God. Anything else is disordered and a waste of our efforts. It’s just not ‘cool’ (in this new sense, of course).

Dare to be different. Dare to be the best you imaginable. Dare to let others see God through your actions. How cool would that be?

Vincent married up more than a quarter century ago and is a proud father of 5 wonderful daughters. He teaches business classes at a college in Greenville, SC, but thrives on discussing controversial topics, especially as they relate to Church teachings on sexual morality.

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

Physician Assisted PTSD – When Bad Medicine is Disguised in a Mental Health Diagnosis

Rebecca Frech wrote last year about her doctor-induced case of PTSD:

And in that moment, I can tell by her face that no one has updated the chart. It still says Conversion on the line for diagnosis. Nobody has put in the test results and new diagnosis from last October. I can see it as plainly as I can see that her eyes are brown. We’re still suspect, and this still isn’t over.

This week she updated with the news of the definitive diagnosis for the medical reasons behind her daughter’s paralysis.  It would be easy to think that Ella Frech’s case is an anomaly.  We might think that it’s unusual for a serious medical condition to be dismissed as a pscyhological disorder.

It isn’t.  It is woefully common, and there’s a reason for it.

The Diagnosis that Doesn’t Discriminate

It isn’t only Acute Motor Axonal Neuropathy that gets the nutcase treatment.

Stephen Gaudet writes here about being accused of faking his severe asthma:

Feeling proud about what I had accomplished through daily exercise, I shared my marathon story with one of the intern doctors who was assigned to me. Rather than congratulating me, he basically accused me of faking my asthma. His words were ” There’s no way you could’ve walked a marathon if you have severe asthma.” I found out later that in my chart he actually wrote, “patient presents with factitious asthma, claims he walked a marathon“. That probably explains why some of the nurses were treating me so strange during the hospitalization. A rumor had spread that my asthma was very mild and probably psychosomatic in nature. I remember some of the medical staff trying to convince me that my breathing difficulties were all in my head and that I had some kind of generalized anxiety disorder. Are you freaking kidding me! And even scarier, this happened at a well respected teaching hospital.

That incident caused me a lot of grief and took over 3 years with lots of letter writing by my pulmonologists to have that false information removed from my medical record. The reality is that these are the kinds of screwy preconceived generalizations that people have about the way sick people should look and behave. And if I want to be completely honest here, there have been times when I’ve guilty of the same.

For background: Gaudet is a respiratory therapist who is treated by one of the top pulmonologists in the nation.

Here’s Dr. Michelle Roger, a neuropsychologist, writing about the mental health misdiagnoses of patients with dysautonomia:

Just about every Dysautonomia patient with whom I’ve spoken over the last few years has, at one time or another, been told that the symptoms they were experiencing were all in their head. Diagnoses such as Anxiety disorders, Depression, Conversion or Somatoform disorders, and even Bipolar disorder are haphazardly applied to patients when no clear aetiology can be discovered to explain their symptoms. Normal reactions to abnormal situations, and purely medical/physiological symptoms are over-pathologised or misdiagnosed with alarming regularity, and to the detriment of the patient.

When unfounded these diagnoses leave a mark on the patient, a wound which if left untended will follow and influence all future relationships with the medical professionals. It also leaves a glaring mark on medical records that will be incorporated into future investigations and the overall diagnostic process. Even when unsubstantiated or proven to be untrue following psychological assessment, it can prove extremely difficult to remove such diagnoses from a patient’s medical file.

Here’s a summary of Dr. Alex Flore’s presentation on the problem of mitochondrial disease being misdiagnosed as Munchausen syndrome by proxy:

It is possible that what may be interpreted as “red flags” of Munchausen’s may alternatively  be attributed to the demands and anxiety related to care of a very sick child.  For example, anxious parents may not give a good history, or may “doctor shop” because they are unsatisfied and may be unhappy with the care their child is getting, especially when they feel that no one can actually diagnose, treat or understand the problem.  Certain conditions, especially mitochondrial disease, will present with intermittent symptoms, and it will take a skilled and patient clinician to arrive at the right diagnosis – one that is an illness not Munchausen’s by proxy.

Psychologists have described that the population of patients and parents of children with Mitochondrial Disease are much more vulnerable to a false Munchausen’s by proxy accusation simply due to the nature of the disease.  In fact, a hallmark characteristic of mitochondrial disease is the presentation of several unrelated symptoms that together, “don’t make sense”.  Clinicians who feel that a parent is intentionally making symptoms appear, is behaving to insure that the illness continues, and consults multiple physicians may suspect Munchausen’s – but should still “trust, then verify.” In other words, believe the parents, run appropriate diagnostic tests, seek the input of every part of the child’s team, and take very seriously the responsibility to the child to act as an advocate and do no harm.

Non-psychiatric misdiagnoses happen, too, of course.  It is frustrating when a physician (or team of physcians) flubs a diagnosis through honest error — we humans aren’t ominiscient, so it’s bound to happen.  It’s galling when the misdiagnosis involves dismissing serious serious symptoms as some much more benign illness that doesn’t fit with the case history.  But pushing off a poorly-substantiated mental health label on a patient with an atypical presentation is both physically and emotionally harmful to the patient.

Unfortunately, this dangerous habit is actually enshrined in medical practice.

I Guess You’re Just Nuts, Then?

Many misdiagnoses are just idiocy.  Some popular lazy-diagnoses include fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety disorders.  All of these disorders have specific criteria you can use to evaluate yourself (or your patient) and see if they apply.  It’s almost helpful when a physician throws out with confidence, “I think it’s probably just ________” and inserts some illness utterly outside his or her specialty, and which a quick Google search would immediately rule out. Then you know you have a stupid doctor, done.  It’s wearying, and can put you off the medical profession for a while, but it’s possible to come to a definitive conclusion one way or another.

There’s at least one mental health diagnosis, however, that can’t be ruled out by logic and good medicine.

Conversion Disorder, which is what Ella Frech was persistently misdiagnosed with (despite presenting with symptoms of a known side effect of one of the medications she was taking), is where modern medical practice bares its hubris.

Here’s the Mayo Clinic describing how Conversion Disorder is diagnosed:

There are no standard tests to check for conversion disorder. The tests will depend on what kind of signs and symptoms you have — the main purpose is to rule out any medical or neurological disease.

In other words, and you can read the whole page and see for yourself, if you’re definitely sick but no one can figure out why, then conversion disorder.

That’s it.

Dr. Allen Frances writes at Psychology Today about the failed effort to get the DSM to attempt even a modest stab at valid diagnostic criteria above and beyond heck if we know:

Many of you would argue that I didn’t go nearly far enough- that there should be no ‘Somatic Symptom Disorder’ at all in DSM 5 because there is no substantial body of evidence to support either its reliability or its validity.

. . . I am sympathetic to this view, but realized that it would have no traction with the work group and chose instead to lobby for what seemed to be clearly essential and relatively easy changes that would solve most, if not all, of the problem.

. . . My letter cautioned DSM 5 that it was invading dangerous territory. Here was my warning to the DSM 5 work group:

• ‘Clearly you have paid close attention only to the need to reduce false negatives, but have not protected sufficiently against the serious problem of creating false positives. You are not alone in this blind spot—in my experience, inattention to false positive risk is an endemic problem for all experts in any field. But your prior oversight needs urgent correction before you go to press with a criteria set that is so unbalanced that it will cause grave harms.’

• ‘When psychiatric problems are misdiagnosed in the medically ill, the patients are stigmatized as ‘crocks’ and the possible underlying medical causes of their problems are much more likely to be missed.’

• ‘Continuing with your current loose wording will be bad for the patients who are mislabeled and will also be extremely harmful to DSM 5, to APA, and to your own professional reputations.’

I also raised the point that this could lead to a boycott of DSM 5. Pretty strong stuff, I thought. But totally ineffective.

Somatic Symptom Disorder (which is the umbrella term in the current terminology under which Conversion Disorder falls) is thus a particularly hazardous diagnosis because it has no symptoms of its own.

It is literally a disorder whose defining symptom is, “We the physicians don’t know what you have.  Therefore, it must be psychological.”  This is an awkward assertion for a profession that has evolved more in the past century than any other field of human endeavor.  The developments in medical research just in the past twenty years are astonishing and marvelous.  My children’s high school biology textbooks are utterly different than mine, because the depth and scope of our knowledge about human cells and the chemistry of the human body is orders of magnitude past what we knew a generation ago.

It seems, therefore, ludicrous that any sane person could hold that our knowledge of medicine is now perfectly complete.  But this is the implicit assertion of somatic symptom disorders.

***

I sometimes joke that idiopathic means that you and your doctor both agree the other person is an idiot.  But really it just means we don’t know.  That happens.  Humans aren’t all-knowing.   What is the sane response to ignorance?  It isn’t to fabricate some fanciful explanation to cover over your lapse.  The sane response is to humbly admit, “I’m sorry I don’t know.”  And, where the stakes are high, the sane person adds, “And we should keep investigating until we get a solid answer.”

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Illustration contains a bit of humor in the fine print, [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Chastity in a Box? (with a Glimpse at YOU from Ascension Press)

Continuing with Book Week.  Box #2 raises a question that doesn’t get asked often enough: What part do chastity-education programs play in teaching teens (and grown-ups) about the right use of their bodies?

My thoughts follow, but first you should show know what was in the box:

YOU from Ascension Press.  I reviewed AP’s Theology of the Body for Teens: Middle School Edition some years ago, and liked it immensely.  A first glance at YOU is similarly positive.  It’s a much bigger and deeper program, and from everything I’m seeing among teens in the circles I run in (church-school-sports), YOU looks like a solid answer to a very serious need.

As I flipped through the books the other night, several things caught my eye:

  • The advice for how to teach teens is dead-on.
  • The parent booklet gets right to first things first.  It’s like they know they only have a paragraph to win us parents over.
  • The curriculum, as will the best Theology of the Body presentations, starts with the bigger picture, lays the essential groundwork on the dignity of the human person, and leads from there into a positive message about the goodness and appeal of chastity.
  • YOU is working off ideas that have been tested with teens over and again and found to work.  (Not surprising, given who the authors are.)

It’ll be a while before I get a chance to read the leader’s guide and parent guide (leader’s guide contains the full text of the student book) cover to cover, as well as watch the whole DVD series.  Thus I wanted to flag this series now, because I’ve got a very positive impression at first glance, and if you’re planning programs for your parish you might want to request your own review set rather than waiting on someone else’s opinion.

Where do ready-made chastity programs fit into the big picture?

If you phoned me this afternoon (please don’t) and asked me what I recommended for taking your generic typical-American-parish from zero to full-steam-ahead on teaching teens chastity, here’s what I’d recommend:

1. Start with a good parent-centered introduction to chastity, such as Family Honor’s Leading and Loving program.  There are lots of options for meeting formats, but (using L&L as an example) I strongly recommend investing the time and energy into spreading the program out over six weekly sessions rather than doing a single big-weekend event.  This gives you time for parents to get to know each other, to have time to talk with the leaders in detail, and to begin to form a small group atmosphere.  It lets parish leadership begin to identify the parents who are in the best position to help other parents.  It also gives lots of time for listening, and thus for learning where parents in your parish are coming from and what questions or difficulties they are having.

–> Make sure you’ve got the depth of back-up resources to assist parents with their concerns.  At a minimum: NFP instruction, good pastoral help with thorny marital irregularities, some resources for dealing with pornography, and access to support for parishioners grappling with same-sex attraction (personally or via a friend or family member’s situation) such as Courage. It’s no fair telling people they need to radically change their lives, then wishing them good luck and washing your hands.

2. When parents are ready to start sharing the message of chastity with their teens, do a parent-teen joint program.  There are any number of options, and many of them (Family Honor is an exception) assume parents won’t be present. Don’t go there.  You need the parents totally involved and on board.  Your six hours in front of an eighth grader are nothing compared to the influence of the parents.  Even if the program you select doesn’t call for parental presence, adapt it to make it a parent-teen program.

3. Keep working discipleship on all the parts of the Catholic faith.  Salvation isn’t about sex-ed alone.

Hint: Check out the Jesus is Lord program, which works for college students too.  Just sayin’.

4. Programs like YOU will have the most impact if you roll them out after you have a critical mass of parents who are actively seeking to foster chastity in the home, and a critical mass of parishioners and parish leaders who are disciples.

I’m not saying there is no fruit that comes from grabbing a random teenager who’s fully immersed in the wider culture and subjecting the child to a few weeks of Catholic teaching.  Good things can happen.  But the reality is that an hour of your life in alien country rarely makes you want to join the aliens, if you were heretofore perfectly happy back home in Depravityville.  More likely, you’ll go home thinking you met a bunch of crazy people and thank goodness you’ve escaped.

Making disciples is work.  YOU looks like it’s got loads of potential as a help in that work, which is why I mention it now.  But making disciples is long, slow, constant work.  There are no short cuts.

Related:  Registration for the Theology of the Body Congress (9/23-25/2016) is still open.

YOU by Ascension Press - Catholic Teen Chastity
Image courtesy of Ascension Press.