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.

What Genre is Genesis?

So we’re at ladies’ Bible study the other morning, and the topic of literary genres in the Bible comes up.  Not everything is a scientific treatise (this blog post is not, for example), and we aren’t obliged to read Genesis as if it were one.

Which got me thinking: What genre is Genesis?

It’s not exactly poetry, though it has plenty of poetry in it.

I’ve seen arguments for calling it “myth,” but those arguments always involve long explanations of why the word “myth” doesn’t mean what everyone thinks it means.  I’m not sure that’s what is anyway, even after all the explanations.

A romance, maybe?

It is one, but it isn’t just that.

The defining feature of Genesis, it seems to me after two hours of new discoveries in just chapters 1-3 — and I was pretty sure I’d already gotten the bulk of the discoveries out of Genesis on the previous seven zillion readings — the defining feature is that you just keep learning more, and more, and more about God and His relationship with man.

Which leads me to my new name for the genre: Theological Concentrate.

Related: Julie Davis at the always-excellent Happy Catholic blog has some good notes on Genesis today re: Joseph, Potiphar’s wife, and avoiding temptation.

The book we’re studying is Courgageous Women: A Study on the Heroines of Biblical History by Stacy Mitch.  So far so good. Doesn’t play around in going right to the thorny topics in Genesis 1-3.   Cover art courtesy of Amazon.com.

Who Owns “Social Justice”?

One of the news sources I flip through occasionally is Al Jazeera It’s not the only place I’d turn for information (goodness gracious!), but for coverage of Middle Eastern politics it’s a bit more thorough than the average American paper, go figure.  Al Jazeera also has good human rights coverage sometimes, such as this investigation into Britian’s modern-day slave trade.  Catholics are big into human rights.

The most painful fallacy I see among Catholics is the false dichotomy between “social justice” and “life issues.”  It’s moldering baggage from the Church’s political divisions over the last fifty years or so: We know that a branch of dissenting Catholics labeled themselves “social justice” warriors, and so our alarm bells go off whenever we hear someone talking in vague terms about peace and justice and not much clear doctrine.

We have to cut this out.

Catholics who believe the entirety of the Catholic faith are not obliged to hand over a portion of our faith to agnostics-in-Catholic-clothing.  We get to own the whole package: the Trinity, the Church, the Sacraments, Scripture, and the entire Christian moral life.  We don’t have to settle for our slice of the “pelvic issue” pie and doggedly shun any topic we fear might have somehow, somewhere, been enjoyed by a Democrat.  We certainly don’t have to swallow the line that justice with regards to immigrants, the environment, workers, prisoners, or any other category popular on the Left can thereby only be solved by the Left.

The Church proposes a beautiful, sensible, logical, theologically-sound way of looking at social issues, and it’s ours to love and cherish.  Enjoy it.  Own it.  Don’t let anyone deny you your right to the entirety of the Catholic faith.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain]

Four Ways to Avoid Becoming a Bitter Catholic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe a lot bitter.

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

And then there were ducks . . .

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

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

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

Conspirators Unite! #Dogmatags

All ready for my senate confirmation hearing.  Instructions on how to get your own are here.

Image description: Me in my black t-shirt with large yellow lettering that says “The Dogma Lives Loudly Within Me.” Below in smaller print is the TCC logo and “CatholicConspiracy.com.”

Loud Dogma? Get the T-Shirt.

My editors here at the Catholic Conspiracy have succumbed to my pleading and issued a The Dogma Lives Loudly Within Me t-shirt that suits my aesthetic demands:

The Dogma Lives T-Shirt

The best link for the moment if you want one of your own is: http://www.cafepress.com/mf/110941637/the-dogma-lives_tshirt .  From there you can choose a variety of size options including maternity, kids’ and baby options.  The editors went with the more expensive shirts because their research indicated the quality is significantly better.  To offset that, they are offering the GAME20 coupon code, which gets you 20% off your order.

Note that shipping is more favorable if you purchase all your shirts in one go-round, so poll your friends and relatives before you do your batch order.

If this not your dream design . . .

Look around. I see that Amazon has quite a few options when you search “dogma lives loudly within me.”  Of particular note: Nerdy Catholic Tee’s has these with the Spinal Tap theme going on, if your dogma is turned up to 11.  Click around, they offer it in women’s as well, and have other cool designs you might like.

If the dogma lives loudly in you, let people know.  There shouldn’t be religious tests for public office.

A Thank You Note for Senator Feinstein

Dear Senator Feinstein,

I wish to thank you for your extraordinary comments to Professor Barrett, in whom, you assure us all, the dogma loudly lives.  (May that be said of all Notre Dame’s faculty one day, please God.)

The reason I wish to thank you is because, like most people, I have some things I believe to be true.  I also have children, most of whom are now teenagers.  Teenagers do this thing that’s necessary for the good of the species, but aggravating all the same: They question the beliefs of their parents.

I would like them, for example, to believe with all their heart that texting and driving is always to be avoided because it poses a serious danger to themselves and others.  I think that’s true, I assume you do as well, and since one day my children might be sharing the road with you, we both have a strong interest in their coming to accept that belief and act on it.  You might say that you and I are dogmatic on that point.

Another thing I’d like them to accept with all their heart is the Catholic faith.  That’s something that probably isn’t so easy for you to understand.  See, here’s the difficulty with kids these days: They don’t fake religious beliefs in order to get along and smooth their social paths.  Back when you were a kid?  Yeah, people did that.  They might be Catholic because it was their family heritage, or they found the communal life appealing, but without necessarily feeling that they had to accept the entirety of the Catholic faith as being exactly true.  I think you work with some people who are like that.

But we of the younger generations don’t do fake-religion so much.  There are a few holdouts, of course, but for the most part, if a young adult these days practices a religion, it’s because he or she thinks it is true.   That’s especially so for Catholics, because in many circles (yours, for example), there’s no real social benefit to being Catholic.  Sometimes it even kinda sucks.  (In a join-your-sufferings-with-Christ kinda way, don’t get me wrong . . ..)

So, like many Catholic parents, even though I try my best to pass onto my children the things that I think are true — both about road safety and the reality of human existence in a larger way — I am well aware that my kids might choose to reject my beliefs.  And though they might lie and say they don’t text and drive even if they do (please God no), they probably won’t get around to lying about being Catholic, at least not after they’ve moved on to college.

And that’s why I want to thank you.  See, my boy is a senior in high school, and like many boys he doesn’t always share his inner thoughts with the world.  I don’t always have a clear read on what he thinks about the Catholic faith.  But this morning?

I showed him the video of you making your famous quote.  He laughed so hard at how ridiculous you were — it was truly a wonderful moment for a mother to share with her son.  We made jokes about “dogma” and a little bit of woofing sounds (which got our actual dog excited and after that she stood at the door all day watching for squirrels because she could tell we knew dogs were important), and also he joked about “those dangerous Christian religious extremists refusing to kill people!”

It was a really fun time for the two of us.  It was also a moment when I knew that my boy understood a person should act on his or her beliefs.  Otherwise they aren’t really much in the way of beliefs, are they?

So thank you very much for giving us that little gift.

I wish you all the best,

Jennifer.

PS: My son also thought you looked drunk.  But you weren’t, I don’t think.  He really hasn’t spent that much time around either senators or drunk people, so he’s not necessarily the best judge.

 

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Photo via United States Congress, US Senate Photo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In Search of the “Real America”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***
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].

Talking Privileges for Converts vs. Cradle Catholics

Fr. Matthew Schneider has an article up at Crux, weighing in on the Should Converts Just Shut Up debate (which Crux started).  Fr. Schneider probably says something very nice and that readers here would be okay with, because he’s good for that.  I don’t recall we’ve ever disagreed before.  Fr. Longenecker said something nice, for example.  But I couldn’t read Fr. Schneider because I’ve started breaking out in the blogger-version of hives (BVH) every time I even see this discussion.

BVH reaction: WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE??

Kids.  We have a way of evaluating people’s opinions on any topic, religious or otherwise.

We ask: Is it true?

It doesn’t matter whether the opinion comes from a cradle catholic, a convert, a heretic, or a rank atheist.  What matters is whether it is true.

It is normal to take an interest in a person’s credentials.  Sometimes, perhaps laying in the ER with your brain bleeding, you have nothing but credentials to rely on in making decisions.  But if you’ve gone so far as to become a Catholic writer, then it is my hope that no matter how incompetent you are at medical or financial or engineering decisions, you have the ability to weed out the Catholic Faith from Not the Catholic Faith.

Those of us who have half an hour’s experience comparing what credentialed Catholics say to what the Church says can let you in on a secret: It is neither the number of years being Catholic, nor the sorts of degrees acquired, nor the kinds of sacraments received that determine whether someone is writing the truth.  It is whether the person sufficiently desires to tell the truth that they make the effort.

Earnest people make honest mistakes, and dishonest people foment errors, and both categories of people are the reason we keep our thinking caps on.

I think if I were, therefore, to provide a useful bit of ad hominen caution for the unwashed masses about whom everyone is so concerned, it would be this:  If your betters are telling you it is the type of person and not their ideas that need evaluating in order to discover the truth, you should stop reading those betters.

 

 

Parish Programs vs. Discipleship Relationships

As parish programs are starting up with the school year, I want to talk about the necessity of one-on-one discipleship.  This is something that many people on parish staff have zero experience with.  But it’s just spending time with someone listening to them and providing a type of companionship that is ordered towards helping each other become better Christians.

This time could include praying together, talking about problems or personal struggles, answering questions about the faith, sharing good resources, doing a Bible study together, or providing practical how-to help – but it isn’t one thing: It’s paying attention to what the other person needs, and responding to that need.

I pause here to note: Discipleship isn’t grooming successors.  If you run a parish program, of course you keep your eye out for people who can take on responsibility within your program.  But discipleship is about helping the other person to daily answer their individual call from God, even if it has nothing whatsoever to do with your program.

(Indeed: I find it very fruitful to be in mutual-discipleship relationships with people whose work is entirely separate from mine.)

Discipling someone is time-intensive.  You have to spend quantity-time being with each other, and at least some of that time has to be one-on-one time, when personal difficulties can be discussed in confidence.

Everybody in your parish needs this.

Parish staff cannot, therefore, meet the needs of all parishioners (unless your parish only has four people in it, maybe).

Therefore a parish communal life that consists of bringing in the herd, giving them a message, and then sending them home to their separate lives will not work.

Parish staff can hope to personally disciple a very small number of people. The goal should be to work towards helping those few people in turn be mature enough Christians that they can disciple others, and on and on.

A culture of “discipleship” is not just a culture where growing in one’s Christian faith is highly valued; it’s a culture where personally spending time helping each other grow is a normal activity for all members of the community.

Furthermore, to be successful, the two people in a discipleship relationship must like each other.  Otherwise spending time with each other won’t be any fun.

Therefore blind-date discipleship doesn’t work all that well.  As a result, the parish culture needs to be one where people meet each other, get to know each other, and form “horizontal” relationships.  It’s not 100 parents who each know the DRE and smile at each other in the car line.  It’s 100 parents who form friendships in a crystalline network among each other.

You can easily see that it is also therefore necessary that welcoming and incorporating newcomers into that web of parish friendships is essential.  We don’t stop at greeting the stranger.  We don’t stop at inviting the stranger to the potluck.  We learn the stranger’s name, we make sure the stranger has someone to sit with, we create opportunities to get to know the stranger one-on-one, and now the stranger is no longer a stranger and the process of getting involved in discipling one another is underway.

Finally let me clarify that a culture of discipleship doesn’t mean every parishioner is paired with exactly one other parishioner in a formal disciple-teacher relationship.  Some people might have that experience, such as if you are working one-on-one as a catechist with an RCIA candidate receiving individual instruction.  But what is normal and good is a network of discipling relationships.

For example: Jane gets out and walks every morning with Sue, and they talk about whatever’s on their minds; Sue meets Keisha once a week for Bible study; Keisha and Ann and Sarah have a girls’ night once a month where they talk about their work and family challenges; Jane and Ann do a monthly meeting where they talk about the ministry they run together;  Sarah and Maria having a monthly engineering meeting at work (all business), and then they go to lunch afterward and chat about their faith; Maria teaches religious ed on Sunday nights, and her helper Monica learns from her in class, and also they belong to the same quilting club.

Some will be relationships of teacher to student, some will be clearly peer-to-peer relationships, and most will be a combination, because everyone has their strengths and gifts and struggles.

This is copyright Jennifer Fitz 2017.  Permission granted to share it around freely for non-profit educational use; I only ask that you attribute and either share in its entirety or provide a link back here so people can read the whole thing if they like.  If you’re a glutton for this stuff, the Evangelization and Discipleship page on this site has links to other articles on related topics.