Author Says of Election Day: There’s Got to Be a Morning After

https://www.c-span.org/video/?474764-1/union

No better outcome could wrap up a nationwide road trip than an agreement that, as POTUS traditionally reports during the annual State of the Union Address, “the state of our union is strong.” One learns during a C-SPAN Book TV video recorded on Aug. 10, 2020, that the co-authors of Union: A Democrat, A Republican, and the Search for Common Ground did come away from their travels with this hope for resilient bonds of citizenship and solidarity.

However, Jordan Blashek and Christopher Haugh retained many of the differences that made them the political opposites who met in school some years ago, before they planned their car journeys into the heart of darkness–exploring social polarization in America’s public square.

There seems to be more room than ever for differences and doubts in the days since their book’s completion and their interview with California politician Tony Woods (sponsored by Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena). The insights of Blashek, an optimistic Republican, and Haugh, a skeptical Democrat, remain worthy of attention. Perhaps the discovery of hope has become even more urgent as a mission for all of us since the country’s immersion in civil unrest and the perpetual addition of contentious details to the presidential campaign of 2020.

What struck me when I recently viewed this video was Blashek’s response to a question from Woods (in the center of the screen) about the co-authors’ Election Day expectations in light of their road-trip experiences of 2015-2019. His choice of words in August may not hold significance as a foreshadowing of more recent reports–details of electoral strategies that could generate a thicker web of contention. Some pundits have predicted the November 3 election could end without a clear victor, leaving Americans in a cauldron of angst, anger, and argument for days or weeks–or longer than that.

Blashek said, “My advice to the country based on the book” would be to accept a few months of divisiveness leading up to Election Day but to continue the citizenry’s traditional commitment to bounce back into a state of union–to “move into November 4 with an attitude of reconciliation.”

That is a day for “coming back to the table” because Americans must continue to discuss and solve the nation’s problems, Blashek explained. “We’re still one country, we’re still one people.”

It is true that, more often than not, November 4 has been a remarkable day for healing partisan wounds. But it is chilling to realize that this date is now known as a time when the machinery of voting can falter and the emotions of resentment and fear can spill over among people who feel ignored or manipulated.

As an optimist myself, I know the spirit of reconciliation and compromise is still alive in this country. But our journeys into the heart of darkness must allow for an emergent “new normal” and a possible need for new routes toward union.

I was glad that the Book TV interview didn’t conclude until the skeptical traveler Haugh offered a less conventional answer to the same Election Day question. He said the applicable metaphor for the milestone we face may be New Orleans. That city “has built a culture specifically on bringing together other cultures,” often in the wake of “difficult histories” of dispute and suffering. rather than automatic, predictable procedures.

Haugh’s hope was still resilient, just different. He observed that New Orleans succeeded in establishing solidarity out of polarization by tapping into a wide array of roots. This place of “common ground” has energized remarkable creativity “through means like music and art and getting together and food–and building hybrid cultures that are uniquely American.” The two authors might be previewing a new state of the union that, despite our political divisions, will be strong for the challenging journeys ahead.

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Breaking News about Broken Politics

“Frontline” episode (July 28, 2020): “United States of Conspiracy”  

It’s jarring enough to discover at any time  the bombastic theatrics of Alex Jones, whom Wikipedia describes as “an American far-right radio show host, political extremist, and conspiracy theorist.” But it’s even more unsettling to realize that perhaps a half hour of Jones’  emotion-driven, antagonistic, and hardly journalistic hyperbole has been compiled to be broadcast (albeit with context and narrative) on one’s usually sedate local PBS channel. A political reporting team from PBS’s “Frontline” documentary series presented those segments, along with context and narrative, in the July 28, 2020, “Frontline” episode  assessing President Trump’s collaboration in the social trend called “conspiracism.”

I decided to watch this perspective on social polarization—titled “United States of Conspiracy”—partly because this nation’s raucous intersection of politics, journalism, and public discourse impresses me as desperate for spiritual “field hospitals,” as Pope Francis would put it. The need for healing has prompted me to write a book and an ongoing blog in search of Catholic values capable of renewing communication and community. I’m always on the prowl for resources from Frontline and other respected media; I had tapped into the program’s two-part episode on polarization released about six months ago. That investigation looked  back over Trump’s and President Obama’s efforts to manage what PBS called “A Nation Divided.” My reflections at that time, drawing as usual upon Pope Francis’s relatively unknown but inspiring guidance for building peace through better cultural conversations, bore good fruit. They yielded ideas I used for the class I teach  on Writing and Rhetoric at Holy Cross College, and they prompted Catholic radio’s distinguished interviewer, Al Kresta, to invite me for an on- air discussion.

I hailed the political reporters for their research and insights regarding how Washington dealt with polarization, but I also suggested to Kresta that neither the causes nor the cures for this country’s divisions were exclusively centered in the nation’s capital or even on the “politics” beat emphasized on the program.

Putting the Facts (and Non-Facts) Together

Now, I come away from “United States of Conspiracy” with new fear that we might miss the bigger point. Frontline’s samples of coverage connecting dots between Alex Jones, Trump, and his advisor Roger Stone concluded that too much of the dialogue and cooperation they cultivated was detrimental grandstanding—poorly grounded in fact and dominated by emotion, distraction, and manipulation. Political synergies for one, two, or all three of these players arose out of tragedies, such as the 9/11 terror attacks, the Sandy Hook school shootings, and the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the documentary.

Just as the program’s January episode showed our distressed republic turning partisan opponents into antagonistic enemies, this July episode shows our search for empowering truths and agreed-upon ideals retreating into solidarity-busting fears and incompatible, relativistic “realities.” The divisiveness infecting our citizenship increasingly takes the form of personal scorn or hatred. Indeed, I heard on the program political descriptions of Jones and his conspiratorial universe suggesting a burden of guilt that could be interpreted as just cause for what is popularly called “cancel culture.” This form of moral enforcement (which should not replace appropriate determinations within our justice system) shrinks freedom for extreme views and deprives offensive speech of media platforms.

Skeptical of such enforcement in many, though not all, cases, and nervous about its tendency toward demonization rather than dialogue, I was curious to dig more deeply into the big-picture research Frontline had conducted. One of the program’s valuable practices—providing additional resources such as the texts of expert interviews conducted for each program—allowed me to learn more about the insights of Nancy Rosenblum. A Harvard professor of ethics in politics and government, she has authored A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault of Democracy.

According to the text of the March 2020 interview with Rosenblum,
“conspiracy theories” per se are nothing new in the human mind frame.  It has been natural, and potentially valuable, for citizens who observe unexplained events to act as amateur detectives, piecing together clues to better understand whether their origins are coincidental or collusive. Rosenblum told filmmaker Michael Kirk that the modern twist on conspiracy theories in public affairs now replaces healthy, proactive curiosity and reality-based reasoning with oversimplified acceptance of a myth-maker’s assertions.

Big View of Conspiracy: More Than a Theory

When something significant happens, it has to have a cause proportionate to the significant thing that’s happened,” Rosenblum explained. Big understanding is needed, I heard her saying: If that is furnished through declarations of facts which may or may not be real,, some people will accept the assertions in order to enjoy the comfort of “knowing” and the power to act on that knowledge.

She agreed with the journalist that Trump himself is “an absolute conspiracist” of this sort. “This is a man who psychologically sees the world in terms of how he needs the world to be…. And one of the characteristics of how he sees the world is in terms of loyal friends and enemies….” OK, yes, please tell me more about that trait—as exhibited by Trump and by countless others in politics and beyond.

Asked about the prominence of this breed of conspiracism today, Rosenblum called it “a monumental national effect,” creating a polarization that goes beyond affirming a particular policy stance. Instead, it honors certain people for knowing a truth unknown by others. It’s “an epistermological divide” that dismisses the value of systematic, reasoned inquiry by opposing sides. Rosenblum’s panoramic assessment did not judge only the potently political, compellingly visual story of Alex Jones, Roger Smith, and Donald Trump.

I came away thinking she views conspiracism as part of a phenomenon in secular modernism writ large. It seems closely tied to narcissistic and autocratic tendencies, as well as to the cancel culture, confirmation bias constricting online communities, the digital world’s embrace of  customized realities, and the tribal thinking that reinforces self-defensive politics rather than “common-good” politics and dignity-based compassion. These are the characteristics of mass communication that Pope Francis has asked us all to examine in his messages for World Communications Day. In other Church documents, he has echoed the call to build up strong communities where many voices participate in the story-telling that yields more complete truth and trust.

Rosenblum seems to agree that this approach to conspiracism should concern us regardless of our opinions or partisanship. Yes, a defeat of Trump and allies such as Jones and Stone this November would rein in the president’s abilities “to inflict a compromised sense of reality on the nation.” But it doesn’t stop there, she adds; the group-think she has studied “is now recognized as a means of exercising power, and I think it will be hard to resist. I think it’s likely to spread across the political spectrum. And whether it returns to the fringes or not”–replaced by more conventional and rational forms of public discourse and deliberation—“I think will depend on whether people in office can resist using it.” That struck me as news we all can use: It’s up to us, and something else!

The Rest of the Story

As usual, the experience of digesting one of PBS’s elaborate products of professional journalism was eye-opening and thought=provoking. My receptivity to the documentary along with its ancillary online information allowed me to put into practice a “keep-digging” discipline I remember from my college journalism classes. This “journalism of abundance,” as I call it, seems likely to benefit all of us, as is the injection of Catholic values Pope Francis has said should guide a renewal of social communications.

In his 2018 message for World Communications Day, Francis said the pursuit of “a journalism of peace” must be driven by an embrace of truth and healthy curiosity—in the spirit of personal encounters sparking continuous listening and learning, widening our world and softening our hearts to gain additional perspectives on God’s complex ecology of diverse, flawed, and complementary individuals. This gives us both a compelling love story of unity and a treasure trove of personal stories that are up for discussion and contemplation in our evolving relationships with Jesus Christ. He’s the ultimate storyteller and interlocutor for us to emulate as professional or amateur journalists; He is the capital-T Truth, as well as the Way and the Life, in which we’re meant to participate.

One might say our lives are our assigned “beats,” with the mission of gathering and wisely interpreting pieces of truth in ever-growing degrees of quality and quantity, partly for our own edification and partly for everyone. Pope Francis invites us into reflections on this in his 2020 World Communications Day message. Our society does no one any favors by drifting into a “post-truth” realm of zero accountability or a conspiratorial politics where our “private stock” of truth is weaponized to cancel others or elevate ourselves. The Frontline journalists probably didn’t reckon that I would come away from their creditable cautionary tale with gratitude for their justice-driven research alongside hope that we will all undertake mercy-driven follow-up work—in our social-media messaging and the life stories we write together.

Are we now the “United States of Conspiracy”? I desire that in only one sense, which reminds me of a light-hearted theological riddle: What is the difference between a paranoid and a mystic? The paranoid believes there is a conspiracy in the universe against him. The mystic believes there is a conspiracy in his favor.

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All the News About What’s Not Fit to Print

This 2019 video shows Bari Weiss, who resigned  from New York Times in mid-July, 2020.

The open letter of resignation posted by New York Times opinion writer and editor Bari Weiss on her website this week reminds us that journalism is one of numerous American institutions suffering a breakdown that should place us all—including Catholics whose parishes  Pope Francis has called spiritual “field hospitals”—on high alert.

There’s no particular reason to present Weiss’s resignation as something of particular interest to Catholics, except for two things: First, her words of frustration are a kind of exposé that assaults values honoring the common good, solidarity, and respect for personal dignity. Second, she is giving testimony that affirms concerns Pope Francis voiced in his 2018 message for World Communications Day; he has been perhaps the leading voice among world leaders urging a values-based renewal in journalism that recommits to the service of community and inclusiveness, conversation and truth-seeking, justice and peace.

Weiss, who said she must depart from a Times newsroom marked by backbiting and bullying. Some individuals are imposing their own ideas of truth through tactics often called the “cancel culture.” She no longer wants to be among the staff members paying a heavy personal price in a losing battle to put forth facts and opinions from perspectives the newsroom’s influencers strive to stifle. Although indications are that those influencers don’t constitute a majority of staff members, they undermine the journalistic tradition of giving the public a spectrum of opinions, rather than  a single orthodoxy, so truth emerges in a vibrant marketplace of ideas.

Office bullies and conflicts of opinion are nothing new, but what happens in the Times newsroom raises questions with moral implications for all producers and consumers of news. In a sense, social media and our digital culture are hosting the dominant newsrooms of our times—as well as the “journalistic” practice among professionals and all of us amateur publishers. Too often, the “communities” formed online are not based on freedom of speech, inclusionary attitudes toward people, or a comprehensively curious approach to information.  Pope Francis, in those 2018 remarks that need to be heard in the media today, called for education about both the problem-solving value of truth and the compassionate purpose underlying journalism—the potential of personal encounters as described in the beloved Peace Prayer of Saint Francis: “Lord, make us instruments of your peace.”

As I have commented during years of blog posts at OnWord.net and in my 2018 book of reflections called When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?, the Holy Father wisely cautions against the tendency in today’s culture to isolate and reject those who differ from us or retreat into realities that make us more comfortable. Journalism at its best should leave no room for bullying at any point in the flow of information, from generation to consumption to feedback to utilization. Ideally, behavior at all those points can be enhanced by a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, whose story as told in the Gospels drove Saint Francis’ thinking and can guide our ventures in communication today.

That’s what constitutes the moral dimension of Bari Weiss’s revelations from The New York Times about a breakdown in the flow of information at its earliest phases and highest places. Here are some of the quotes from her mid-July website post that seem to deserve pondering among disciples in today’s information marketplace.

  • “[A] new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.
  • “Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.”
  • “[The] truth is that intellectual curiosity—let alone risk-taking—is now a liability at The Times. Why edit something challenging to our readers, or write something bold only to go through the numbing process of making it ideologically kosher, when we can assure ourselves of job security (and clicks) by publishing our 4000th op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a unique danger to the country and the world? And so self-censorship has become the norm.”
  • “Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets.”
  • “Even now, I am confident that most people at The Times do not hold these views. Yet they are cowed by those who do. Why? Perhaps because they believe the ultimate goal is righteous. Perhaps because they believe that they will be granted protection if they nod along as the coin of our realm—language—is degraded in service to an ever-shifting laundry list of right causes.”
  • “As places like The Times and other once-great journalistic institutions betray their standards and lose sight of their principles, Americans still hunger for news that is accurate, opinions that are vital, and debate that is sincere. I hear from these people every day. “An independent press is not a liberal ideal or a progressive ideal or a democratic ideal. It’s an American ideal,” you said a few years ago. I couldn’t agree more. America is a great country that deserves a great newspaper.”
  • “[Ideas] cannot win on their own. They need a voice. They need a hearing. Above all, they must be backed by people willing to live by them.”

 

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What scares you, General Mattis?

 

As seen on C-Span’s “Book TV” recently–a video from Jan. 14, 2020. The Hoover Institution at Stanford University held a panel discussion titled “The Crucible of Citizenship,” exploring how Americans can form a strong citizenry from its diverse population. An excerpt from the Q&A session:

Q. (student in the audience): I’m a young voter and citizen…. There’s a lot of noise going on [in geopolitical conflicts]…. I want to know [when you look at all the current situations], what scares you specifically?

A. (from Michael McConnell, professor at Stanford Law School): One of the things that scares me is when I hear candidates from both of the great parties of this country talking about silly stuff and not addressing things that really matter to the country.

A. (from Gen. James Mattis, formerly in the Trump Administration): Let me add something there. I was Secretary of Defense…. Right now, there are threats…. We’re concerned about North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons and that sort of thing, and Russia’s bellicose rhetoric…. We have terrorism, an ambient threat….

What scares me worse than any external threat is how Americans are treating each other right now in public life. (Audience applauds.) If we don’t get back to showing some fundamental respect, to listening to one another, to showing a degree of friendliness toward one another…. I mean, I’ve fought terrorists for a long time, I know what terror looks like…. When I hear somebody in public life calling a fellow American a terrorist just because they have a different idea about how to address a problem, that worries me more than the Russian army, I guarantee you.

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Jeopardy Beyond COVID: Answers in the Form of a Question

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I commented in this blog on April 27, 2020, that it seems timely for Catholics to prepare for the next spiritual metaphor of the COVID-19 epic. The phenomena of quarantining and distancing, which continue to evolve as we struggle to understand the virus’s long-term behavior, first seemed to invite the world into a kind of retreat experience, “growing us up” through private acts of self-denial and quiet isolation to ponder our priorities and responsibilities as individuals. Emerging conditions now call for even bolder spiritual adaptations as we return into the hot sunlight of the public square. Christians might want to respond by adopting the metaphor of a “devotional” that can guide us on a new journey together.

The devotionals in this analogy are a genre of books used to focus believers’ attention on particular areas of their spiritual or moral life. This genre helps people connect the resources of their faith to the demands of practical decision-making. These books often follow a “day by day” structure, where each small chapter comprises a topic-specific title, a related passage from the Bible or another inspired set of guidelines, and a contemporary reflection or set of questions to enlighten the reader. This can be a form of preparation for a journey. After our “retreat” of realignment to principles, we’re ready to accept a newly urgent sense of “mission”–to facilitate and optimize the sweeping changes anticipated to arise in this time of COVID. A long season of self-satisfied Catholicism seems to be coming to an end.

Urgent-Care Discipleship

Perhaps the task ahead for all people of good will is the mop-up of a mess–the aftermath of a global pandemic with its accompanying impacts stirring uncertainty, vulnerability, and volatility. The health crisis, with its social, political, and economic turmoil, has forced us to see unimaginable levels of financial tomfoolery, international intrigue, decay in physical and mental well-being, and moral and spiritual sloth. It behooves us to plan for a period of corrective action that leaves no room for hubris or finger-pointing. Pundits already call this prospect the “new normal.” Catholics may be called to see the prediction of “transformation” as an opportunity for evangelization. Such outreach in extremis evokes Pope Francis’ often-cited image of parishes as “field hospitals” where tough diagnostic questions are asked, cures are sought, and the overarching task is compassion for the traumatized.

Ultimately, it’s a compassion based on knowing we’re all in this mess together: We’re prudent to offer each other the best that we can be. If we are to accept the challenge to heal the world, any resource we carry as a “devotional” must support lifetime-learning of our faith and lifetime-listening to our brothers’ and sisters’ diverse perspectives. We also need to be better informed about the fast-moving policy challenges that threaten to derail whole societies. Accordingly, we must stabilize ourselves, becoming better conformed to the faith, hope, and love (along with truth, goodness, beauty, and joy) found in deeper relationships with the Lord. We must not leave the Holy Spirit out of these relationships; He’ll be the paraclete, comforter, and personal tutor with whom we consult regularly. 

Helping fellow citizens to navigate sharp course-corrections by sharing the Church”s wisdom and Christ’s love is something I would call  “urgent-care discipleship.” It’s a win-win if drawing close to the precipice helps both us and our neighbors discover we’re in jeopardy together and retreat to safety. But the job description also requires diplomatic skills. We must not be seen as “know-it-all” evangelists, bounding on to the secular scene like traffic cops with “stop” signs and promising our revealed wisdom that will prevent every misstep. Instead, we must acknowledge we’re precipice-prone wanderers too– although we have a well-attuned sense of direction. We ask really good questions and ponder how everything is connected to everything else. We don’t claim to have instant answers to all the world’s crises, but we instinctively have a big, beautiful view of the world–a world in the care of a loving God–and our hopeful wonderment somehow grants access to answers we all need.

To the degree that secular governments and organizations will maintain room for inclusive and well-reasoned conversations when many stakeholders are demanding fast action, people of faith must earn and hold their place at the table of discourse. We must present a winsome side, radiating peace of heart, rather than a spirit of superiority or fear. A world which no longer welcomes God but grudgingly knows it needs Him will put up with Christianity lingering as urgent-care reserves. But it will want to hear Christ’s followers say, “We are at your service. What is it you need? Here is how we believe the Lord’s grace can enter into our deliberations.”

The Power of Questions

And I believe the Lord will act through people of faith to raise exactly the right questions, to stir up the appropriate amount of surprising insight and mysterious mercy, just as he did when Jesus walked the earth. Likewise, he will use people who are humble rather than haughty, marginalized rather than elite, well-formed rather than rebellious, ready to share the heavy yoke of suffering and pain rather than angry or impatient or committed to the illusion of autonomy.

Questions have become the lingua franca of a world educated for deconstructionism. So many people have come to distrust people and institutions claiming the authority to posit answers and impose responsibilities. When we ask questions, they can be invitations to respect all sides of the story, to note that everyone can take ownership of the search for solutions.

Questions, when formulated correctly, are a portal into a ,panorama. They can’t be merely journalistic “follow-up” questions that ask to hear more from the dominant players about their plans. The basis of questions from people of faith must be an effort to express curiosity, a hunger for information, prompted by a lively worldview that includes marginalized people in all kinds of group. This curiosity, ultimately an effort to take God’s view of situations, can keep asking courteous but challenging questions like: What about the effect on this or that group of people? Have you thought about the ramifications for this or that area of concern, or for broader concern about the whole human ecology and the environment? Can we hear more from other voices about their reaction to this problem or that proposed solution?

Questions can open up discussions to people who lack the pre-established “authority” or “expertise” that is usually expressed by submitting “answers.” Often, the answers go into such depth that they can dominate the discourse. It’s important to go into depth to scrutinize all aspects of situations and plans, but we must also capture a breadth of perspectives on the answers. When parties seated around a society’s tables of discourse include requests for broader input and reminders of additional considerations, .they can show respect for the experts. But their questions may also uncover the experts’ own inevitable biases and blind spots and, through additional input, make the proposed solutions even more detailed, fine-tuned, transparent, and just.

A motif of dynamic, spontaneous questioning is a good way to boost humility among all participants. Sometimes, the questioner is simply acknowledging that he or she does not fully understand what is being said at the moment, and this can lead to further explication, causing everyone to be better informed. Sometimes, questioning keeps the presenters of proposals more humble if they must acknowledge there are aspects of a plan which aren’t as clear or certain as they might have sounded in a first presentation. Also, welcoming questions from all participants prompts everyone to be more engaged and not to stand silently apart with a stance of victimization or constant complaint. Humility is an appropriate response to the high levels of uncertainty, even mystery and paradox, which may be inherent in the crises faced and solutions considered.

Questions recognize that words used in debate these days are too often oversimplified or weaponized in manipulative ways. Or they may need clarification simply because the words used within a culture evolve in their meanings or may carry “baggage” that distorts conversation by injecting assumptions and emotions. In discussions where multiple cultures and countries may be involved, it’s necessary to confirm that all participants agree on the meaning of a word, and the emergence of cross-cultural synonyms will increase learning not only about the thing being described, but also about how others will respond to that thing given the diversity of perspectives. All of this is also true of the need to scrutinize statistics and metrics used in argumentation. The effectiveness of discussions is affected not only by what is said, but by what is left unsaid or “assumed.”

Questions are also the first tool of “urgent-care discipleship” because they are recognizable as the necessary first step in any “urgent-care” situation. Medical personnel or other “first responders” must begin their work with extensive inquiry into the context of the discussion topic–its past as well as its present, its objective realities as well as its subjective effects. The role of subjectivity–indeed the fundamental need to treat all parties as “subjects” with inherent dignity rather than “objects” who are simply acted upon–also reminds leaders to care sincerely about the participants in a discussion, to take into consideration the pains and hardships they are experiencing and fearing. These may not be factors that “think tanks” and other experts weigh when drawing up their policy proposals, but they are sure to affect the success of discussions and outcomes. In a medical urgent-care setting, it’s expected that the first questions will be basic: How are you feeling? What hurts? Could this problem be related to some other underlying issue? These are the first steps in what Pope Francis would call genuine personal encounters and efforts to accompany others on the way to remedies and renewal.

Questions and Quests to Multiply Learning

These points constitute my tribute to the role of questions as a problem-solving force that Catholics and Christians, and all those with an authentic focus on “the other,” will want to bring to the table of discussions where emergency responses are considered but deeper, longer-term, less technocratic, and more human solutions must also be weighed. At first, an inclination toward asking tough questions may be seen as a nuisance or stalling tactic, especially if people of faith appear to be blocking proposed actions seen as fast and convenient but utilitarian and shallow in a short-sighted way. In the long run, practitioners of diligent inquiry who are surfacing deeper insights from minds and hearts will gain more, not less, credibility and trust. They will be invited to offer their own interpretations–and make their own proposals–whenever “easy answers” are revealed to be insufficient.

And emphasizing questions is not to say that people bringing God to the table should shy away from making proposals. Their proposed solutions will carry more weight than might even be acknowledged, partly because their obvious engagement in the process and their goal of big-picture understanding will make them more persuasive among other participants. Also, when the proposals they make are seen to be informed by immense resources of faith and reason as embodied in past and present Church wisdom, it will be more difficult for more secular discussants to dismiss them. They will see in Church wisdom the same well-intentioned inquiry, person-focused compassion, and zeal for consistent, ecologically aware, connection-making initiatives shown by those representing spiritual strengths at the conversation table.

That is the point I took away from sagacious secular commentary I have found from editorial content consultant Sean Blanda in a blog post, “The Other Side is Not Dumb,” He was cited in the book, Writing to Persuade by Trish Hall. Blanda invented a game he called “Controversial Opinions,” in which players ask each other “why they feel a certain way” about a topic or proposal. They cannot ask any other questions. Players with opinions that differ are not allowed to defend their views with conventional argumentation but first must report on their new understanding that they are in the presence of people with “objectionable” ideas. The players then have homework: They must sincerely look into the facts people have offered to explain why they feel the way they do. This mandate for listening and learning would make a good source of reflection for those entering into complex, urgent policy deliberations.

I also found support in a July 1, 2020 article by Our Sunday Visitor, “Member of Vatican’s COVID-19 Commission Says ‘We Must Use This Opportunity to Envision a Better Future.'” The Catholic newspaper interviewed Rev. Augusto Zampini, a member of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and a participant in the commission Pope Francis created to consider the Church’s next steps in the post-lockdown phase of the viral pandemic.

A Devotional that Reflects on Us

Father Zampini clearly believes the Church has a position to take and a role to play as diverse voices around the world participate in shaping the “new normal.” It is a galvanizing role that does not shy away from stimulating critiques of the pre-COVID “old normal” or making specific, big-picture proposals for consideration. He cites ideas for justice and mercy the Pope has suggested in the past to address systemic policy problems now seen more compellingly everywhere. They include initiatives for debt forgiveness, decreased military spending, and improved stewardship of the human ecology, sharing resources with needy persons on the margins of society. First comes the building of awareness and the promotion of problem-solving efforts on a grand scale, Zampini indicates.

“We must avoid the belief that the crisis is over,” according to Zampini. Elsewhere in the article, he says: “We need leaders in public, private, and civil sectors to press the reset button–to once and for all realize that the way we have been living our lives until now is not sustainable.” The COVID crisis has created “an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on the shortcomings of our institutions and development models

It’s clear the Commission will tap into the panoramic perspective of the Holy Father. It will work with partners around the world to speak truth to power and to promote programs that have been shown to increase justice and charity. Deliberations about new directions in various countries may vary in the degree to which they welcome Church involvement, but that is no reason to be silent. The Church “can become an active institution throughout the crisis, standing by those in need, giving a voice to the forgotten and presenting world leaders a new path,” Zampini says.

The Vatican is setting the tone for a next phase of Catholic action worldwide and in the United States as I have described it above. The implementation still will depend on many things, including the timing and confluence of different political developments and crisis points. Be prepared for a perfect storm of opportunities for “urgent-care discipleship,” Zampini seems to be saying.

Our evangelization efforts, if American Catholics do indeed choose to respond en masse at the future milestones of our post-lockdown journey, should comprise some mix of clear, informed proposals and challenging but valuable questions for decision-makers and power-brokers. We don’t yet know how amenable presidents, legislators, media pundits, and others will be toward heeding voices of faith–or voices of the marginalized and world-weary–as the “new normal” takes shape amid a highly polarized, secularized, and self-centered culture.

Despite this uncertainty, now seems like a good time to get our devotionals out–or to build our spiritual muscles with some sort of resources appropriate to the end of an era of self-satisfied Catholicism. My own preference is for a visionary approach that does indeed enhance our lives of “devotion” to faith as a reliable force for healing institutions and individuals. A love of Scripture, sound reasoning, good listening, and constant learning from Church insights will be the perfect complements to our faith-strengthening regimens. Recalling that faith is centered on an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ and that Jesus himself taught people by asking questions as he walked the earth, my vote is for a devotional that prepares us to preach by prodding, to make connections and spark conversations.

Our first prayer can be for deliverance from any further storms, sparing us from this difficult mission into the turbulent seas of crisis-driven debate. But if predictions of a historic pivot point do come true in a year or two or three, so be it. As our prayers turn more toward preparing to “show world leaders a new path,” as Zampini puts it, we are the prime beneficiaries of path-finder work that must not stop. We can adjust to a time of endless questions and doubts that transforms our lives simply by growing our trust in God. We can be thankful that the worldwide retreat which laid the groundwork for our timely yet timeless journey taught us that God is always with us, asking, hearing, and healing. He’s at home in field hospitals and urgent-care centers. He speaks their language: How are you feeling? What is it you seek? Go make disciples. Be not afraid.

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Happiness and the Jordan Peterson Factor

Jordan Peterson interviewed Bishop Robert Barron, discussing plot twists our world needs now. This post was published in Fr. Robert Spitzer’s Magis Center blog on June 3.

Imagine we’re writing the current chapter in a history of human relationships to government and God. This 2020 installment comprises a pandemic, social polarization, tragedies of life and livelihood, political paralysis, tragic urban violence, and countless souls in turmoil. The short-term solutions we forge from ad hoc policies and practices could lead to greater crises and disputes. We Catholics should be glad that we are “cast” and that a loving God is actually overseeing the real plot line.

Can we prepare well for an era of grueling public discourse desperate to solve practical problems coupled with profound spiritual challenges? Our world uses lots of right-vs.-wrong language these days, but it’s often based on individual points of view unmoored from any consensus about religious values or the common good. Our combination of moralism and relativism has not proven promising.

An Authority for Our Self-Authorship

Allow me to use this chapter to introduce a new character into the script and our discussion. I pray he will be dialoguing with Catholics even more than he has in the past, just as he has inspired countless college students and opinion-shapers via numerous media.

His name is Jordan B. Peterson, Ph.D., a Canadian psychologist, author, and public intellectual whose fame has transcended academia. (I speak of praying for him because this year brought distressing news about his health, including a complicated battle against drug dependency.)

I suspect many of you who already have discovered him share my hope that this controversial, real-life “character,” who aspires to noble character traits, will continue to promote transformative public discourse. One of this truth-seeker’s areas of inquiry—a subject appropriate to the Catholic story line we’re discerning—is whether he believes in God. Alas, archives of his videos suggest he has not been ready to answer in the affirmative.

But, when Peterson interviewed Bishop Robert Barron on a podcast last summer, the distinguished Church leader from the Word on Fire ministries lauded him as a sort of evangelist. “I think you’ve opened a lot of doors for people to religion in an era when the new atheists are very influential with young people,” Bishop Barron said; Peterson, despite his scientific viewpoint or perhaps because of it, maps a path whereby many people who crave a sense of meaning—in their lives and in the world—can “at least reconsider religion” as a rational alternative.

Watch the podcast to see Peterson’s urgent call to transcend sloppy secularism, acknowledging mankind’s “metaphysical” ability to create hellish chaos through malevolence and hunger for “material happiness.” He tells Barron that Catholicism should proclaim bolder mandates for personal excellence. We should instruct each other, “You need a noble goal in life to buttress yourself against its catastrophe.” Through his science-centric lens, he perceives a “structure” by which humans can generate order amid suffering by becoming their best selves.

Peterson and the Four Levels of Happiness 

Here’s my interpretation: Peterson zealously wants himself and everyone to stand in the gap between levels two and three as defined in Fr. Spitzer’s outline of the four levels of happiness. He has realized the level-two ethos of comparative advantage will lead only to hollow, fleeting happiness. He points his audiences toward the level-three contributive stance; if we strive to become individual antidotes to our toxified human ecology, we can make the world better.

The podcast discussants don’t engage with the four-levels schema, but Bishop Barron does salute Peterson as architect of a kind of happiness bridge. For secular audiences in the ego traps at Fr. Spitzer’s first and second levels, it appears the Canadian’s “rules for life” do provide a religion-friendly push toward awareness of our suffering cell-mates. Summoning up our curative talents, he virtually shouts to the worldly, “Do something!” He explains, “The critical element of belief is action.”

However, I see Barron less than satisfied by this stoic prescription, even though it enhances our story line. It leaves God out of the picture. In a separate Word on Fire video, the bishop suggests Peterson’s fans could aim higher. They have nobly begun a hero’s journey, but we need to provide motivation for further “baby steps” toward a loving God with whom the secular world can wholeheartedly participate. 

Without God, there can be therapy for our souls’ emptiness, but we atomistic antibodies will never generate a transformative happiness and rift-healing communion. Barron implicitly reminds Peterson not to try to answer the need for God; he explicitly but gently says he prefers to present “a hundred ways into the question of God” (emphases added). These nudges of wonderment include worship of the true hero. They include acts of love spread among all of us in the supporting cast as we pursue and share in the incarnated, eternally unitive source of happiness found at level four.

The quartet of levels illuminates a key synergy for the history we hope will end well. Peterson’s creditable desire for self-empowering disciplines to replace insecure ennui can launch us beyond the plateau of ego comparison where so many people are trapped. But Barron’s explorations on a higher trajectory lead toward even more panoramic imagination and communion with God—a hero’s journey alongside Love, the star, who’s on the way. The psychoanalyst finds level three through responsibility. The bishop finds level four through response-ability.

From self-gain to self-gift 

So where does this leave today’s chapter in our story? I foresee a secular society confronting policy problems with short-term solutions, perhaps drawn from levels one and two. This character named Peterson contributes conciliatory approaches and rules that successfully elevate our attention from self-gain to self-gift. Applaud him for offering good answers. 

Over the longer term, we Catholics and our fellow travelers must evangelize more robustly, keeping hope-filled religion in the public debates. Conversation and community-building curiosity remain our instruments–but based on God, history’s irreplaceable, omnipresent character. Christ’s own action provides the ultimate plot twists if we humbly seek Him. We can help people rediscover Him—and level-four happiness—guided by many compelling voices of faith, such as Bishop Barron. Applaud him for offering great questions. 

By Bill Schmitt

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Churches Awaiting the Love After Lockdown: Many Happy Returns

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See stephenbarany.com for instructions on making this easy art project,perhaps in time for Mass.

As more Catholics resume physical attendance at Mass in areas where governors and bishops have issued policies easing COVID-19 lockdown rules, pastors and parish ministers around the country will carry many concerns with them when they open their church’s doors.

Their rigorous attention to practices and protocols, focused on keeping worshipers healthy, will be right and just—the unquestioned top priority for an endless string of planning meetings. But let’s hope the agenda will leave room for one thing alongside the technical factors on everybody’s mind, namely a factor to be celebrated and nourished in everybody’s heart: Parishioners walking through those doors will carry with them a gift for themselves, for their Church family, and for God, in the form of joy.

It might help to recall the visit to Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42, so long as we realize Jesus was encouraging and advising his hard-working host, not scolding her. Martha, “burdened with much serving,” griped about her sister’s sitting transfixed at Jesus’ feet, her distraction from details of hospitality. He responded, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”

That wonderful scene displaying the two women’s compatible forms of relationship with the Lord can help a parish appreciate the multiple dimensions of this day of reopening. People may experience, to one degree or another, a delight of reunion after a period of sorrowful, painful separation. This will be one of the times when those being dutifully welcomed, securely assembled, and carefully distanced can minister to their ministers. We all silently sing, Hallelujah.

Some folks may not feel the electricity, partly because their minds are still trapped in tedious memories, with masks on and emotions off. But others will kneel with new reverence, or sigh as they look up at Christ on the cross, or smile at their favorite Blessed Mother statue. Receiving the Body of Christ will be climactic, quite different from lining up for bureaucratic check-ins or grocery stores check-outs.

This is a great time for priests and pastoral staff members to accompany their people as they evangelize each other. Watch the Spirit bring a special gift to every soul. Just as profoundly, watch them embody the New Evangelization before Mass as passers-by observe them going to church. After Mass, hear them tell stories about how it felt to be back.

“If other people knew how many Catholics have spent time crying over not being able to go to Mass and receive the Eucharist, they would be impressed,” a friend remarked to me last week. We were discussing the news that the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend will allow the resumption of public Masses on May 23-24. May we all be impressed by sights of hunger and satiation, on that weekend or whenever.

Rev. Robert Garrow, pastor of Saint Anthony de Padua Parish in South Bend, witnessed to the dual significance of this time in a letter he sent to parishioners. He attached two pages reporting on the changes one would see—in the pews, at the ambo, etc.  He wrote about gradually “resuming our ordinary life” as a parish and moving toward “a more normalized schedule.” But to this rulebook motif he added more transcendent language, giving incarnational faith its due. He reflected on Communion as “a gift” to be anticipated: “What joy it will be to be able to come back together to show our veneration and love to God.”

This pent-up excitement seemed to set the stage for all ministers and parish members to be visionary. I wondered if someone in the Saint Anthony family might be moved to prepare a unique expression of happiness over this homecoming.

It occurred to me a family could bring to Mass a bouquet of flowers. Or a reasonable facsimile: A talented parishioner has previously posted (as a free gift) an online art project that would yield crayon-colored paper flowers. Someone could bring a spiritual bouquet recalling acts of devotion performed for the Lord during self-isolation. Another returnee who typically wore tee-shirts might come dressed in his “Sunday best.”

The return to public Masses, after all,  will not be a time for show-off gestures. All the world is in a stance of humility, seeking healing after lockdown and obeying strict rules because we’re still vulnerable. But that need not preclude us Catholics from moments of spontaneous feelings  and romantic imagination. These are long-awaited blessings that must be shared with others—and affirmed by our ministers. The Lord wants the company of both Marthas and Marys. After a time of so much distancing, the joys of this reunion will not be taken from us.

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High Stakes for Global Communication, Solidarity, Sustainability

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It’s been said that the COVID-19 crisis is “accelerating history.” It seems more decisions have to be made–by individuals, communities, societies, and the entire world–more quickly and with less certainty,  less consultation, and less complete information. Even though it’s hard to imagine an environment that is more immersed in news and data. I’ve heard a new term: we’re living in an “infodemic.” Catholic values can help in a few ways: questioning any urges to rush to judgment without encounters with diverse people beyond the usual power brokers, an abundance of truth-seeking curiosity and well-intentioned journalism; and a readiness for authentic discourse in local communities and parishes, not overridden by externally packaged talking points based on labels, falsehood, and defamation easier to plant at the national-media level.

Today’s decisions are more weighty,  more complex, and more connected to an array of factors. Some of the variables are trivial, like what kind of mask we’ll wear to which open store; some of them massive and secular, like how our political and financial infrastructures can handle the burdens we’re placing on them; and some of them massive and spiritual or values-based, such as how we shall treat our elderly, or people losing their lives and livelihoods and incomes, raising questions of justice. solidarity, and human dignity.

A lot of these challenges have to do with communication. How well are we being informed, and by whom? How well are we informing ourselves? Whom do we trust to give us the most valuable information? Have we given up trusting all institutions and trusting only ourselves, which is a burden when we know we and our resources are flawed? Are we judging the value of information on the basis of its foundations in truth and reality, and how are we determining truth and reality? Are we exploring and weighing all the aspects of these challenges, including the questions of conscience they raise, or are we confronting the challenges mostly on the basis of emotions,, snap judgments, and conformance with pre-packaged solutions? If we do recognize that questions of conscience are being raised, how do we decide whether our consciences are well-informed, by whom, with what kinds of rights and responsibilities to be exercised?

We might be trying to process many important thoughts with benevolent goals at rapid speed, unless we are distracting or withdrawing ourselves from important internal dialogues; or unless we are trapping ourselves in what Pope Francis has described as a potential “digital culture” of isolation and artificial realities and monolithic thought which is often “fake” or defamatory; or unless we are withdrawing from communities and from any sense of participation in a vibrant communication ecology; or unless we are dismayed at how assessing all fine points of fact and complex costs and benefits is just too darn hard.  Healthy communication, most readily achievable at the local level, taps fully into people’s hearts, minds, and souls. It desires for us unique and diverse creatures to come together for the common good, sharing certain truths and values in communion with God so as to learn from Him and share His gifts of love and providence.

All these considerations relevant to the flow of knowledge and ideas have to do with communication. The Church has provided many guidelines and resources for good outcomes. At the moment, it’s useful simply to outline a few of them. These are ideas I summarized (notes for myself ) as I prepared for my May 20 interview on the Sheila Laugminas “Closer Look” radio program on the Relevant Radio network. You’ll see much more about these points below in blogs I have been writing for years, pondering how Catholic values can bring renewal to communication nowadays; it has been weakened and may be overburdened if too many crucial issues mount up and too many people witdraw.

  • Remember recent World Communications Days and the pastoral messages from Pope Francis. WCD takes place on the Sunday before Pentecost.  WCD 2018: A journalism for peace, seeking more knowledge, not to defame but to empower; genuine, simple trust in truth, rejecting a post-truth world and seeking truth in Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.   WCD 2019: Caution toward social media which have become anti-social by operating with exclusion and manipulagtive algorithms , plus engagement through enragement and closed-mindedness through  labels and groupthink and the fostering of artificial realities. WCD 2020: Storytelling. We have to keep telling stories that unite and empower and encourage us at a time when we’re losing our confidence in institutions and people and God; sharing with each other and with God stories based in the story of redemption history plus the real-world parables Jesus told. God lives with, and sustains, His people, by embracing them as storytellers. Annual WCDs occur on Sundays before Pentecost. There are few other resources available focused on WCD and Pope Francis’s pastoral remarks about values-rich communication as a path to piece.
  • Communication, community, communion. Pope Francis has discussed this triptych for a Catholic ethos of effective local connection-making. The three build upon each other in the healthy communication ecology of a parish or other extended-family setteing.
  • Science vs. religion, post-truth attitudes. We have a crisis of communication: Post-truth society, no common ground. The science-intensive phase leading to COVID-19 social distancing and mass-quarantining provided immense amounts of data, but it turned out society did not know which data to trust. Some statistics misinformed us or simply were lacking. Science proved not be a foolproof alternative to faith-informed knowledge, and it is a resource that can be taken too far and manipulated like any information resource.
  • Pope Francis is the only world leader who is seeking–and frequently speaking about–Christian values as forces that can aid the renewal of socially polarized language and non-constructive discourse in the public square.
  • In a relativistic and moralistic age, we feel we need to do and enforce the right thing, but we reserve to ourselves the identification of that right thing. We become chief judge and executioner. An individual with this approach may now be the person operating a social-media site and acting as the “gatekeeper” or filter for the information exchanged there. Whereas the traditional journalistic gatekeeper role in newsrooms fostered a relatively balanced package of news, the ubiquitous “publishers” of social media pages tend to compile and present only the news that agrees with their perspective and affirms the same story lines day after day. “Objectivity” served as a goal in ensuring individual news stories and the entire news product contained a variety of perspectives and told multiple sides of a story, but professional and amateur journalists alike are less inclined today to see objectivity as either possible or desirable.
  • Starting in March 2020, I saw social distancing as a kind of retreat time. it was like God had allowed conditions of quietude and changed perspective that invited all people of good will into a Lenten time of reflection. Some undergoing social distancing and lockdowns spent their time in order to develop a lot of insights into how little we know and how vulnerable we are. There are practical, secular , spiritual 0and very human reasons to be of two minds. Chesterton talks about how reality is best explained by and captured by paradox. It’s possible to hold two apparently contradictory aspects of reality in the mind at the same time, but the media don’t always allow for this if there is a more simplified, compelling message to be conveyed.
  • As discussed in my most recent blog about social distancing, it’s possible to imagine that the next stage in the recovery from COVID-19 challenges will require the People of God to step forward from reflection and renewal they pursued during their lockdowns and to engage in robust dialogues about policy options and implications where secular and faith-based values confront each other. These have not been comfortable conversations in the national media or in highly politicized conflicts within the federal government. Will it be possible to ensure that Catholic values have a seat at the table whenever urgent decisions must be made regarding human dignity, justice, compassion, fairness, and respect for unique and diverse perspectives along with what is perecived as “the common good” and “the American way”? To effectively utilize a place in urgent social discourse like that which awaits us, I believe we must be prepared, with knowledge and enthusiasm, to ask moral questions which get to the heart of the matter and incorporate the “big picture.” It is an opportunity for the Church to evangelize among its members and to evangelize countless others,  and in some cases, the stakes may never be higher. The kind of storytelling Pope Francis has recommended in his 2020 message for World Communications Day will be a valuable part of that preparation for evangelization, since we will need to build from a single, unifying embrace of the story of redemption, of God’s relationship with us, as it has existed in the past and in this moment, in the lives of individuals, communities, societies, and the world.
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“When Headlines Hurt” — Reviewed by “Catholic Reads” — and Now On Sale

SEE THE REVIEW PUBLISHED TODAY!  Buy the ebook half-priced at Amazon–$1.49!        A great, short read for WORLD COMMUNICATIONS DAY (May 24). Discover OnWord.net!

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When Distancing Ends, Questioners Engage

Social distancing has created a pivotal time of solidarity mixed with hardship. Enduring to its end may prove to be a cultural and spiritual breeze compared to our next transition from silent quarantines to momentous questions surrounding COVID-19’s legacy. We’ve sheltered from a “perfect storm.” We’re feeling our way toward a “new normal,” gearing up to beat a schedule no one really knows. How can we cope with so much mystery?

Some say God has played a direct role in the rise of the pandemic. Regardless, it’s time to capture some lessons from recent times that will bring us into closer personal relationship with the Lord. That’s our ultimate goal, after all, lockdown or no lockdown.

How do I see the story? I’ve reflected on the early experiences of sheltering as a kind of invitation into a unique, worldwide Lenten “retreat.”  Small groups nearly everywhere turned inward and then began to accept sacrifice and suffering while hoping these lead to brighter days. Yes, abstinence from the pleasures of this world has helped us to appreciate them more, and it has even helped some discover rewarding practices. Many of us have received a bit of wisdom—and maybe some supernatural insight. The Church offered closure and, as always, reminded us of the awesome Lenten endgame: turning the tragedy of Good Friday into Easter’s resurrection victory.

Now, with widespread eagerness to declare that our pull-apart strategy has achieved its own turnaround victory, or will soon, please God, it makes sense to ask smarter, tougher questions about where we go from here. Otherwise, how could we prove the retreat taught us anything?

The meaning of the retreat intensified far more than expected. The world learned there would be a follow-up examination. A group project. It’s like we had all been reading a book of inspirational passages, a devotional. Each section ended with “reflection questions” to ponder. Suddenly, we faced questions with a level of gravitas for which we had not prepared. They were based on fundamental emergencies that zoomed to the top of individuals’ and societies’ agendas.

Everyone is becoming consumed by health fears, unemployment, lost livelihoods, debt, dubious global finances, political quandaries, rights deemed to be at risk, social polarization, lost intimacies and interactions, and  environmental angst. All these concerns have moral dimensions, raising profound “reflection questions.” They entail justice, compassion, dignity, kindness, freedom, humility, accountability, truth, trust, and concern for other generations now and in the future. Reflections like these, all worthy of attention and grounded in Catholic Social Teaching, could fill a devotional of multiple volumes.

Well, this is the pandemic story I’m seeing unfold—reluctantly, sadly, painfully. I’m hoping that, any day or month now, the “perfect storm” will pass and the “old normal” will return, relieving me–and all of us–from the tsunami of questions. But I can’t dismiss them now, given what I know about the tendency of this world (including individuals like me) to kick the can of responsibility down the road for a long time. Nor can I be dismissive given what I think I know about Our Lord. He rejects indifferent and lukewarm attitudes; commissions us as missionary disciples to encounter both the powerful and the marginalized; approaches us with intensely personal questions to kindle a closer relationship; and wants us to be seekers who constantly ask Him fresh questions and expect Him to surprise us. He blesses us for times such as these.

That’s why I’m starting  a new spiritual growth plan for the pandemic and its aftermath. As a journalist and interviewer, I tend toward curiosity and inquiry, so I’m starting a “devotional” blog—focused on reflection questions drawn from religious sources, the news of the day, and my own curiosity about what God wants to say to us. These questions may be the most complex and wide-ranging I’ve addressed in my lifetime. Many forces are coming together. Many forces must come together. What we choose to ask will really matter.

I anticipate many of my questions will become the stuff of reflection shared with like-minded Catholics and others of good will. Some of my questions will be more pointed, written when I feel called to call the world into question. These will be harder to write. But perhaps we can be instruments of blessing to a Church that must enter a phase of diligent probing so it can retain its voice in multiple, essential debates where it has turned down its own volume–with help from our culture’s “mute” buttons. As Pope Francis said in a homily this March, God draws near to us to instruct us within relationship; even when a pandemic prevents physical closeness, He expects us to form habits of drawing near to our brothers and sisters through prayer, learning, grieving, and other acts of love. I suspect there will be times when the act of love will be to say: “Are you sure you want to do this? Don’t you see you’re hurting others, and ultimately yourself?”

This is a time when, at least in the spiritual sense, total distancing must give way to total engagement. Don’t assume I’m being apocalyptic. That may be just another way of saying what the Church always tells us: We are indeed in the last days, and we have been for quite a while; pilgrim people must always be on high alert. Devotional books might call our next step “reflection questions.” I’m calling it diligent probing. Scripture, referring to our fellow traveler, the Blessed Mother, called it pondering–an understatement, but a beautiful word for what she did and what we must do.

Here are some questions to start with, stockpiling acts of love for future engagements. Use these inquiries to look back, look forward, or both. Best of all, contribute additional questions, supporting the Church’s readiness for an inevitable, galvanizing, perhaps elusive pivot point: the end of distancing.

  1. How do we keep a balanced point of view in favor of respecting human life as public debate becomes more conflicted between “saving lives” and “restarting the economy”? How can we measure and compare the relative costs, given the fact that lockdowns and shutdowns of activity can also endanger health and well-being for some people even though those shutdowns can discourage the spread of COVID-19?
  2. In a worst-case scenario of hospital capacity being overwhelmed, when some countries and organizations must make judgments about who should receive care, how will they judge? Three committee chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have already foreseen this scenario; in April, they issued a statement acknowledging “the fact that we have limited resources [for fighting the pandemic] and therefore may be facing some difficult decisions ahead.” Human dignity and each person’s right to medical care are the top priorities, they said, but the tough judgments “will require patients, their families, and medical professionals to work together in weighing then benefits and burdens of care, the needs and safety of everyone, and how to distribute resources in a prudent, just, and unbiased way.” The principles are sound, but they cannot simplify the profound calculus of charity and conscience into which the Church must integrate Christ’s love.
  3. We recognize and applaud heroism among medical workers and emergency personnel, but how shall we honor and nurture such self-sacrificial heroism in ourselves and others? To what degree will we inspire each other not only as “essential employees,” but mutually essential brothers and sisters?
  4. Pope Francis’ 2020 message for World Communications Day (the Sunday before Pentecost) will speak of the need for Catholics to be better story-tellers, conveying God’s stories of salvation history to each other and to future generations. Have we shared these stories of gratitude and instruction during our quarantines? Did we see how we could/should improve the sharing of faith within families?
  5. Many people put their “faith” in science and think that faith in God is inherently flimsy, mystical, and an obstacle to sound, clear judgment. But did scientific and medical experts and their use of “hard statistics” teach any lessons about scientific certainty? And will we be tempted to assume, in contrast to plentiful experience, that science and technology inevitably “give us good gifts,” while we blindly ask, “What has God done for us lately?” Will still more young people give up their church affiliation if classrooms teach that science is brings dynamic hope and God is a deadly bore?
  6. Did the pandemic experience of lockdown make us more or less trusting in God as we move back into the unpredictable experiences of everyday life? How can we cling to the long-term lesson of needing God’s providence once we’re tempted again to self-identify as “masters of the universe”? Are we relearning the prerequisite to trust neighbors, institutions, and businesses and linking that to the responsibilities we must all share as participants in a fragile human ecology?
  7. What did we learn about social media? The Church consistently acknowledges both the positive and negative aspects of mass communication, but Pope Francis warns about the risks of a “digital culture.” There, we are drawn into isolation, artificial realities, confirmation bias, and anger. Have the social media shown any strengths, weaknesses, or opportunities for improvement? Did our lockdowns teach us ways to use social media more socially and constructively, or do we love them all the more as pandering babysitters?
  8. The financial cures for a comatose global economy may carry side effects after the pandemic’s worst is over. How can we express to our leaders and show in our lives that a “super-sized” marketplace—propped up to avoid reasonable costs and sacrifices—cannot be the sole definition of prosperity? Might a phased-in return to jobs and “business growth” allow us to calibrate desires and dispersal of wealth and power? Is this a chance to say “yes” and “no” in balanced measure, inserting simplicity, gratitude, prudence, and fairness to avoid the return of a plague we came to call “affluenza”?
  9. In his Urbi et Orbi message for Easter 2020, Pope Francis talked about possible steps for policy-makers to take in response to the pandemic and the policy challenges attributed to it. He suggested it is time for those with authority to consider forgiving the debts of countries with the most extreme despair of illness and poverty. Doesn’t this idea resemble the Judeo-Christian notion of the “jubilee” and “jubilee years” when debts were forgiven? Haven’t some modern authors proposed this as a way to address the world’s overwhelming debt burden? Who’s talking about this, how can we learn more, and should we try to advance the discussion of this?
  10. An April 10 commentary widely read online (“Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting” by Julio Vincent Gambuto) cautioned that a wave of fake-news marketing will fill our media as the pandemic crisis eases and distancing restrictions are relaxed. Companies will promote forgetting about the year’s winter-through-summer anomalies of March-May experiences so we can “return to normal,” the secular author predicted. How should the country sort through a maze of practical or ideological definitions for “normal” and “new normal”? Will a flood of “transformation” wash away the roots we’ve grown in reality–the anchors, not traps, that ground a healthy skepticism about where “progress” actually leads?
  11. As we abstained from the Mass, the Eucharist, and many aspects of parish life and sacramental grace, did we grasp the Lenten insight that such absence should make the heart grow fonder, and hungry for more? How can we avoid an increase in distracted, distanced hearts who discount their faith as an optional part of a human-defined “new normal”? How can we encourage more dynamic pondering, which still sets the stage on which Jesus Christ goes “all in” to make all things new?
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