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 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

The Problem of Evil Revisited

I always carry a knife sharpener, this one, when I travel, because I abhor dull knives.  In the US when I travel I either bring my own chef’s knife and cutting board, or anticipate buying one at my destination if necessary. I didn’t need any of that in France, I discovered happily and without too much surprise.  The French are civilized and value good meals.

In Chamonix on the Epic Vacation, while the boy trekked away at summer camp, two girls and I invested in lift passes for the valley and spent the week riding up mountains.  At the Aigulle de Midi lift, they check your bags before they let you into the cable car

The amount of profiling going on at the security checkpoint was blatant.  A group of climbers were waved through at a glance.  I opened my backpack and the security guy noted the heavily bagged, unidentifiable object within.  “What is this?” he asked.

“Picnic,” I said.  Cutting board, a good sharp knife, sausage, bread, cheese, and so forth.  I was concerned that after a long wait we’d be sent home because of the knife. I prepared to open the inner bag and see if I couldn’t talk the guy into holding the knife for us to pick up when we came down at the end of the day.

But the guy never even saw the knife.  I said picnic and he didn’t bother to look further.  Middle aged lady with a couple little girls in tow.  If I say it’s my picnic, it’s probably a picnic.  He assumed, rightly, that neither I nor the climbers, though they too of course were equipped with sturdy knives, had any intention of stabbing our fellows during the long ride up the mountain.

An Armed Society . . .

Security in France is pretty good these days.

This is a photo of the TGV station at Charles de Gaulle airport:

In the foreground you see a seating area and reputable coffee machines (I’m not sure how good they are).  Look deep in the center of the photo.  That’s one of a group of four heavily armed soldiers who were doing the rounds outside the secure area of the airport.  They are, in this photo, all standing guard looking down towards the platform while the TGV from Marseille arrives and unloads.  Once the train emptied without incident, they continued their patrol.

There are groups of soldiers like this throughout the country at key spots (the Strasbourg cathedral had its share), and armed police stationed elsewhere. When we visited the shrine of St. Odile, an officer (with back-up on the grounds) was stationed at the monastery entrance all day.

Officers like these are the reason that the stabbing in Marseille earlier this week was limited to just two victims, instead of becoming a mass-casualty rampage.  This is one of the reasons we preferred to vacation in France.  The torpor with which the UK has begun to rearm its police officers did not inspire confidence.

What It Takes to Feel Safe

The reason I feel safer when a group of French soldiers is patrolling the train station is the same reason the security guy at the ski lift let me pass without looking too closely at my bag.  I have no reason to suspect the French military or police are going to harm me.  I could not say that about every group of soldiers around the world.  These officers — four strong men, heavily armed — are capable of unspeakable evil, but they don’t commit it.  Those climbers and I, working as a group, would have been capable of holding a cabin of tourists hostage and murdering them all, but we didn’t.  We had no desire or intention to do so.

Security works when you manage to make the good guys stronger than the bad guys.

France attempts this via security profiling and a strong police presence, combined with fairly strict gun laws.  The success of this strategy is variable.  You can see a summary of French terror attacks here.   Note that since the 2015 attacks in Paris, off-duty police officers are now allowed to carry firearms — the reasoning behind that is self-evident.

The laws themselves, though, are not what makes security work (when it does).  We can think of nations where the local citizens need to arm themselves specifically against the police and military.  What makes security work is when the law is ordered towards giving the upper hand to the people who can be trusted with it.  The French police generally do not go around terrorizing the populace.

Are Americans Safe People?

Last week I had the chance to listen to Representative Cezar McKnight tell a story from his childhood.  I’ll blog more about the context of the story another day.  But here’s what he remembers:

His parents, a black couple who by McKnight’s telling were sometimes mistaken for a mixed-race couple, owned a nightclub-liquor store in rural South Carolina.  One day his mother, alone with the children, was in the store when men in KKK garb gathered outside.  They had no idea what these men wanted or what their plans might be, but there was plenty of reason to be afraid.  His mother took the shotgun they kept behind the counter and prepared to defend her children and herself if necessary.

She had sound reason to trust neither her fellow citizens not to harm her nor the authorities to come to her aid.

By and large Americans share this sentiment today.  The impulse to arm or disarm America is rooted in the essential equation: How do we make the good guys relatively stronger and the bad guys relatively weaker?

This is a practical question that should not be entirely put off.  Attacks such as the recent massacre in Las Vegas, the Boston Marathon bombing, or the 9/11 attacks are particularly vexing because they pose, in their time, new problems that the (then-) current modes of security have not anticipated.    How shall we anticipate such problems in the future, preventing them when possible and curtailing them when not?  How do you give the good guys the upper hand?

This is not, however, the only way to study the equation.

On the Art of Being Good

What is necessary to make any law work is for people to be good.

It’s paradoxical, since of course if people were actually good, you wouldn’t need the law.

“Just make people good,” furthermore, sounds even more far-fetched than “disarm the bad guys” or whatever other security plans people are devising.   And yet, weirdly, it is the one thing that actually works.

There are police officers who do not shoot innocent civilians. There are soldiers who protect their citizen rather than terrorizing them. There are ordinary people who, though capable, refrain from evil and sometimes even rise to heroic virtue.  Unremitting goodness is the reason you can go buy groceries without being raped and murdered.   Where that decency is lacking, death reigns.

This is hopeful, because we can see that even though nobody is perfect, we can also see that there are places where the people are generally good enough for the purposes of peace and safety.  This is discouraging, however, because evil cannot be fixed with a law or an executive order.

What must be understood in the face of a horrifying crime is that the relationship between good laws and good people is inextricable.  A good law is designed to protect good people and ward against evil people.  The law cannot depend on human goodness alone for its strength, though — it must anticipate abuse of the law, because people will try to abuse it.  But the law itself is not sufficient.

The bulk of the work in creating a safe, civilized society is not in the work of the law, but in the work of helping each other become people who do not do evil things.  Our mission is nothing short of overturning the present culture of narcissism and death.

That is a long road — an unending road. But it is also something that we as ordinary people can work to accomplish.

In Search of the “Real America”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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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].

Catholics Talking About Sex This Week

This week I’m in Orlando, Florida (on vacation), and everywhere you turn, there’s some kind of rainbow-themed promotion of this or that deadly sin.

Pride is the one being touted most.  The stores chiefly profit from envy and avarice, but why should those two get all the limelight?  Gluttony reigns in the food courts; given all the theme parks and tourist attractions vying for attention, around here sloth gets short shift.  Wrath is virtually ignored by comparison to the others, and lust, curiously, continues to fixate on the bodies of scantily-clad thirteen-year-old girls — you might celebrate attraction to every body and its brother, but advertisers play it conservative with consumer tastes.

Three good articles (one of them mine) that are variations on the theme:

As Father Longenecker observes, the whole question of Catholics vs. Gay People is dreadfully simple:

Therefore when we consider those people who are attracted to people of the same sex, the church teaches that they too are to be celibate.

What else is there to discuss?  Further discussion on this particular point is an attempt to wiggle out of the Church’s tough expectations.

The only other thing we have to discuss is how to minister to all the people in our care who, for whatever reason, are not able to enjoy sexual intimacy with another person. How to live chastely and how to deal with celibacy is the challenge–not just for homosexual people, but for anyone who is unmarried.

Vincent Weaver, who sometimes blogs here, writes at The Register about authentic kindness towards people struggling with gender-dysphoria:

This honesty shouldn’t be reserved for those with GID or same-sex attraction, though. Cohabitation, contraception, and pre-marital sex among heterosexual couples all have significant, damaging side effects. We should study these and be familiar with them so we can fully love those who are considering or are in the midst of such lifestyles.

To fail to love someone in any of these situations is failing in kindness. But, to say nothing or to not be honest with people is false kindness.  In some cases, we may literally be killing them with kindness of this sort. Jesus told us not to judge (people). But, he also obligated us to address harmful behaviors and told us that “The Truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). Let’s practice a religion of kindness that is the real deal. Gentle. Caring. Helpful.

Also at the Register, here’s some early NFP-awareness from me: Please Don’t Ask Me About My Sex Life.

The goal of contraception is to separate sex from fertility. It’s a goal so thoroughly achieved that people get shocked and offended if you suggest that pregnancy is the normal, predicted, even desirable outcome of sexual intercourse.

We now of course separate fertility from sex as well, thanks to IVF, artificial insemination, and surrogacy.

The result has been a traffic in children fueled by a newly-acquired conviction that offspring are something you order off a menu – and send back to the kitchen if the dish doesn’t appeal after all. Even for pro-life, Christian couples, the idea of not using contraception is radical and foreign.  “Family planning” is so ingrained in our mentality that we consider it irresponsible or simply unthinkable that one would plunge into parenthood with no particular strategy other than to welcome the children God sends.

Why wait for the last week of July, when you have the marital privilege of being NFP-aware all year long?

nfp

2017 NFP Awareness poster courtesy of the USCCB, where you can find lots of useful information for your awareness purposes.  The models were chosen based on their ability to best communicate the theme of “Hahaha we have no idea what we’re getting into!  But we can’t help ourselves!  What? There’s a class we’re supposed to take that will hopefully sober us up long enough to seriously consider what it is we’re about to commit to for the rest of our lives?  Hahahaha have a drink, okay?”

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.

Emergency Confirmation Class Reboot

So next up on the dashboard is a post sharing parents’ confirmation class experiences from around the country.  But meanwhile, Margaret Rose Realy — yes, this Margaret Rose Realy — let me in on the secret about The Lake of Beer.

No one told me about this.

We have a Lake of Beer.

Catholics get a Lake of Beer.

People: Christian Mysticism –> Lake of Beer.

I don’t understand why we’re not taking advantage of this situation.

I mean, yes, “Infinity Mercy” is a fine theme for Confirmation class.  Sure sure sure.  But there outta be an asterix and fine print on the bottom of the t-shirt that says and also a Lake of Beer.

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Catholic mystics do it right.

Artwork: Stained Glass of St. Brigid of Ireland via Wikimedia [Public Domain]

Can a Good Man Sin?

I do not know Fr. Frank Pavone, but I have friends who hold him in high regard.  There can be no questioning the sincerity of his devotion to the cause of ending abortion.  I agree with the sentiment that we who are pro-life are not vocal enough in our opposition to the massive slaughter taking place in our country.  While it is evident that I disagree with Fr. Pavone concerning certain tactics, I am not one to confuse squeamishness with righteousness.

Zeal can at times cloud our judgement.  I am an expert in rash behavior, and the decision to place a deceased infant on his chapel’s altar was, I firmly hope, an act of miscalculated passion.

It was certainly a sin.

Have you been to confession lately?  Fr. Pavone is human, and like you, he is capable of sinning.  Like you, he is capable of acting in willful disregard of the law of God.  He’s also, like you, capable of acting in culpable ignorance.  We who view from the outside cannot know the state of Fr. Pavone’s soul; we can, however, inform our consciences to the point that we can perceive when an objectively sinful act has been committed.

Now it is likely that in his tactics Fr. Pavone sinned against the virtues of prudence and temperance; certainly his bishops have found it so. For the remainder of this essay I’m setting that aside, already dealt with extensively elsewhere.  We are going to look only at the sin against the cardinal virtue of justice.  Did Fr. Pavone give God His due?

What is the Purpose of the Altar?

In our spiritual lives we often invoke the image of the sacred altar.  We speak of uniting our sufferings with Christ on the Cross, and Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  When we offer up a Mass for a given intention, we might say that we placed that intention on the altar.  You’ll often notice when you attend Mass that the priest will have a card right there on the altar reminding him of the intention for that Mass.

Thus we can understand how someone — anyone — might have the natural instinct to place some significant object on the altar in an act of devotion and offering.

To avoid sin, however, requires obedience to supernatural instincts.

The altar of the Mass is the place where heaven meets earth.  We who enter a Catholic church are entering the Holy of Holies.  We are people who, at the moment of the Consecration, see God and live. We are so used to this sacred privilege that we forget how unspeakably privileged we are.  The daily duty of caring for the parish church can create an over-familiarity with sacred things, to the point that we  start to forget they are honest-to-God sacred.

Our Strength is in the Lord

Time and again in the Old Testament, we see the Lord do valorous deeds for the people of Israel.  That miraculous action didn’t end with the Incarnation: We can cite miracle after miracle in the long history of the saints down to our present day.  These miracles are not mere emotional adjustments.  God acts in the physical and social world, at times miraculously delivering physical healing, political victory, and military protection.

These miracles happen not on our schedule but on God’s.  They also follow a pattern, and it’s a pattern that illuminates the nature of Fr. Pavone’s error.  Step 1: We turn to God for His miraculous provision.  We acknowledge our complete dependence on God’s saving hand, and abandon ourselves entirely to His divine will.  Our help is the Lord who made heaven and earthStep 2: God intervenes for the good of His people when and how He pleases.

In so doing, we often experience the Lord’s sacred paradox.  We put our trust in the Lord, not in chariots and horses — only to turn around and see the Lord using chariots and horses to deliver us.  The order of the operation is the hinge on which the whole of salvation rests.

In the beginning there was God, and then He made heaven and earth.  The sacred altar belongs to that First thing.  It is a holy place set aside for the Presence of God in the shockingly same way God Is, outside of all time and space.

Righting the Sacred Order

God wills the protection of all innocent lives.  He wills an end to abortion.  It is the desire of God that men would freely act to end this atrocity.  It cannot but be the desire of God to come to our assistance in the work of protecting and defending the most vulnerable among us.  These facts are incontrovertible.

But there is another incontrovertible fact: The altar is reserved to divine worship and nothing else.

We must charitably assume that Fr. Pavone’s recent actions were motivated by a sincere desire to serve God.  All the same, he committed an act of sacrilege.  We can defend him with mercy, for who among us is not also a wretched sinner, but we can’t defend his action with approval.  To do so would require contortions along the lines of proposing that first God made heaven and earth, and then the next day He Is.

No no no.  It must always be the other way around.  It is unable to be otherwise.

The objective gravity of Fr. Pavone’s sin was in putting a second thing first.  He failed to remember the supreme sacredness of the altar.

You have probably done that once or twice, if only in thought if not in word or deed.  You may have heard about, if not witnessed yourself, reprehensible violations along these lines committed by clergy and others who ought to know better.  We humans are woefully fallible.

Mercy and Reparation

Fortunately, there are remedies.  Begin by forming your conscience as to the sacredness of the altar of the Sacrifice of the Mass.  If you do not live in a parish where the sacred altar is treated with due reverence, make a pilgrimage to a place where it is.  Lex orandi lex credendi.

Then proceed with prayer and fasting for the reparation of every rent in the sacred relationship between God and man.  Contemplate our Lord’s mercy on us sinners.  One of the missions of Priests for Life is bringing healing to those who, knowingly or unknowingly, committed a grave offense against God and man in the act of abortion.  As it is for abortion, so it is for every sin: No one who desires to repent is beyond the reach of the Lord’s infinite mercy.

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Life and Death Decisions Made Beneath the Pedestal

The other week when I posted my rant-o-rama about the misuse of the label “amazing,” John Hathaway went right to work at the blog discussion group pulling out of me the what’s really going on here??  We managed to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, and below I’m going to explain what I think is the biggest, most deadly part of going around thinking other people are “amazing.”

But first, a few side issues that deserve some resolution:

  • We quickly agreed on the usual explanation for surly bloggers: I was being cranky.
  • I do concede that the word “amazing” has shifted to take on a second, diluted meaning of generally “nice” or “good.” I’ll spare you a long talk about how we already had words that meant those things.  (To wit: nice and good are still around.)
  • Furthermore, I generally don’t care if other people have the odd shoddy linguistic habit — don’t we all?  If you’re itching for a fight, you’ll get more fervor out of me if you bring up the Oxford Comma.

(Yes!  Even though I am a convicted comma abuser!  We pundits would have nothing to do all day if we sat around waiting for our holiness to arrive before we opened our mouths.)

Now, on to the Pedestal of Death.

Superman is Amazing

Let’s talk about Superman.  He stops speeding bullets.  He leaps tall buildings in a single bound.  He’s the guy you look for when you need something done that ordinary people just can’t do.  He’s called “amazing” because he does things you and I never could.

Ordinary people of course are “amazing” in the sense that we are each the precious and intricate handiwork of God.  Spend half an hour learning about the things we’ve discovered to date about, say, the way a human nerve cell functions, and you’ll be rightly amazed.  Furthermore, our loved ones bring all kinds of invaluable gifts to the world simply by being themselves.  Despite my cantankerous headline the other day, your children are in fact amazing even when all they’re doing is drooling over their baby food.  There’s that.

But sometimes we call someone “amazing” not out of simple wonder at the marvel of human worth and dignity, but more in the Superman-sense of amazing.  We have gotten to where certain classes of people who happen to be doing hard things are given the Superman label.

Doing this isn’t just over-enthusiasm.  Such labeling actually causes humans to die.

Hard Things Don’t Require Superman

Life is hard.  Humans — all of us — are called to do hard things.

When somebody is dealing with some tremendous difficulty, they aren’t being Superman. They are experiencing human life.

Lately though, our society has gotten that idea that difficulties are only for Very Special People.  We consider suffering to be the sole province of amazing superheros, and do all that we can to excuse everyone else — people who are “like us.”

If you have a baby with an adverse prenatal diagnosis and you don’t choose to abort that baby, people call you “amazing.”  Only special superhero people can do that; ordinary people would have to abort, because they just can’t take it the way Amazing SuperParents can.

Thus it follows that if you happen to be raising a child with a serious illness or disability, or you happen to be such a person yourself, surely you are “amazing” for experiencing such a life.

If you reach a point where your family member’s illness or disability becomes overwhelming, you’re “amazing” if you continue to care for that person rather than opting to go ahead and put the sufferer to death.  If you yourself are the one directly suffering and you choose not to commit suicide, again you are “amazing” for enduring what “ordinary” people just couldn’t do.

No! No! No!

Not Killing Innocent People is an Ordinary Person’s Job

There’s just nothing “amazing” about not committing murder.  Ordinary old you is a person who is called to man-up and do your best to muddle through difficult circumstances.

Some people endure their hardships with admirable fortitude and good grace, while others of us aren’t winning any prizes for Sufferer of the Year.  But all of us, by mere dint of our humanity, should anticipate the time when we, too, will bear our share of hardship.  We don’t have to seek it out; it will find us.

When it comes, we will not be Amazing Supermen.  We’ll feel the sting of the bullet and the penetrating wound and the leaking of life from our bodies in an unstoppable river of blood.  Suffering hurts.  Suffering is difficult.  Suffering eventually robs you of this mortal life.

Death by Admiration

The going expression is that if you put someone on a pedestal you’ll see their clay feet, but I don’t think that’s the gravest risk anymore. Anymore, the pedestal is where we put people we want to admire from a safe distance.  If you keep far enough back from someone who’s working through a difficult part of life, and you squint so you don’t see the messy parts, you can convince yourself you’re looking at Superman.

You can say to yourself, “I could never do that.  I’m not Superman like that person is.”

You can say to other people, “I don’t expect you to do that difficult thing, because if you’re not Superman it’ll be just too hard for you.”

You can say, “Well, they are the ones who chose not to abort or euthanize — if they’re having a hard time, it’s not my fault they tried to act like Superman.”

These are lies.  The people you know who are doing hard things right now? They are ordinary people.

If you admire someone’s fortitude or good grace, don’t say, “Wow you are so amazing!” as if your friend were from another planet, possessing super-human attributes.  Rather, say, “Wow. When my time comes to face some similar trial, I hope I’ll have learned enough from your example to be able to do you proud.”

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By Matrakci Nasuh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Movies for Grown-Ups: Room

People will tell you that this or that deplorable book or show or song requires depraved content in order to explore “mature” themes.

So here’s a tip: Watch the film Room.  (Wikipedia has the full plot synopsis here.)  It’s the story of a teenage girl whose kidnapper keeps her in a storage shed for years, and visits nightly to rape her.  We meet her as the twenty-something mother of a five-year-old son, still locked in that shed and now raising her child in captivity.  Movie topics don’t get a whole lot darker than that.

Do not watch this film when your little kids are home.  (Do watch it with your teenagers – parental guidance required).

But guess what?  In the hands of a good director, you can swim deep into some very nasty, brutal crimes without anything of the gratuitous voyeurism that so many lazy producers lather on like cupcake frosting.   You can have your (plot-essential) rape scene without actually having to watch someone get raped.  You can show terror, desperation, and suicidal depression without morbid violence. The very light touch on the use of foul language is a textbook case study in when and how such words might properly belong in a script.

***

In addition to being a study in How to Handle Extremely Dark Topics, the film is also, as any good film should be, about the true, beautiful and good.  If you are a writer, you should watch this film for its genius use of the breadth of the English language.  For any human, the very last lines of the film are stunning in their ability to sum up one of the greatest struggles of the human heart with piercing simplicity.

FYI – It was streaming for free on Amazon Prime when we watched it.

Room Poster.jpg

Film poster via Wikimedia, used per fair use guidelines.