On World Communications: Love is News We Can Use

An updated version of this commentary will be posted today as a special edition of “Phronesis in Pieces” at billschmitt.substack.com.

Pope Francis, posting his 2023 World Communications Day message, has reinforced the sense of urgency and purpose he consistently connects to our use of the media. He has reiterated a Christian “mission” to spread charity through authentic encounters with brothers and sisters everywhere during this “dark hour.”

The Vatican previewed this year’s message, “Speaking with the Heart: The Truth in Love,” on January 24, the feast day of St. Francis de Sales. Marking 100 years since that saint was declared the patron of journalists, the pope cites the Bible’s instruction to make our communication edifying so that “it may impart grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)

“Today more than ever, speaking with the heart is essential to foster a culture of peace in places where there is war, to open paths that allow for dialogue and reconciliation in places where hatred and enmity rage,” Pope Francis says. “We need communicators who are … committed to undoing the belligerent psychosis that nests in our hearts.”

The pope calls for Christians to reject divisive rhetoric, “as well as every form of propaganda that manipulates the truth” for the sake of ideologies. Francis warns that words can lead to “heinous violence.” They instead must build trust in a way that “helps create the conditions to resolve controversies between peoples.”

In this week’s preview of World Communications Day, which the Catholic Church has observed on the Sunday before Pentecost since 1967, the pope recalls the model for journalists set by Francis de Sales (1567–1622). That French saint reached out in highly personalized writing, where “heart speaks to heart” through tenderness and “truth in charity.”

Pope Francis explicitly uses the 2023 message to add a third “principle of communication” to two about which he wrote for the most recent World Communications Days.

In 2021, he called for communicators and all Christians to “Come and See”—to be seekers of truth with an eagerness to learn truth by experiencing Jesus, and then to encounter Jesus, one-on-one, with people whose voices were unheard.

In 2022, he urged that we “Listen with the Ear of the Heart”— with humility and compassion—so we become “attuned to the same wavelength” and find common ground amid our mutual frailties.

This year, his instruction to “speak with the heart” entails conveying the truth boldly and frankly, but with a charity that avoids society’s inclination toward manipulation and polarization. Communication must be “a genuine antidote to cruelty.”

His call to “overcome the vague din” of media presentations, with their inclination to “exploit the truth” by injecting disinformation or malevolence, reminded me of my concern when watching or reading some news pundits. Hungry for a full, fair serving of facts, we risk being diverted by presenters who lure us into their arena of negativity. They spend much of their time discrediting our leaders and institutions and even mocking their media competitors and our fellow citizens.

On a happier note, this week’s papal call for kindness, integrating respect for human dignity with the need for comprehensive learning, including uncomfortable facts, reminded me of the power of positivity. This quality, less apparent in the media than it used to be, still draws nourishment from our culture’s roots in Judeo-Christian values.

For example, the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists contains a section headlined “Minimize Harm” as guidance for news-gathering. It instructs reporters and editors to “treat sources, subjects, colleagues, and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

Ethical journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” the code says. “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

The guidelines also call for fairness, compassion, and respect for the rights of private citizens to exercise some control of their personal information.

All these recommendations go hand-in-hand with the pope’s call to communications professionals: They should “reject the temptation to use sensational and combative expressions,”—mirroring the spirit of Francis de Sales as a “saint of tenderness.”

Nevertheless, the secular ethics code is only part of the mix of social, cultural, political, and psychological forces governing the practice of journalism—including the pseudo-journalistic role now played by many non-professionals. We have become our own “publishers” in social media, or avid “consumers” of news. Our stew of information and motivation travels through corroded pipes of confirmation bias and algorithms that promote engagement through enragement.

In the tumult of today’s media, Pope Francis calls for journalists to see their profession as “a mission” which adds to the public’s diet of “clear, open, and heartfelt” communication. In the 2023 World Communications Day message, he envisions an information world—including the subset of Church news outreach— that shuns the artificial, the self-centered, the strategically contrived, and the intentionally false.

Communication is key to all that we do as a Church, as a society, and as a world, the pope says. Our relationships with God and our brothers and sisters make communication a high-stakes game where papal advice has value. And Francis cautions that faltering interactions of truth and trust among nations make things more urgent. He points to “a dark hour in which humanity fears an escalation of war that must be stopped as soon as possible, also at the level of communication.”

Perhaps the stakes are highest on the personal plane, where St. Francis de Sales speaks of cultivating relationships “in the heart and through the heart.” They are the kind of communication through which “we come to know God.” The pope cites this “criterion of love” to ground his latest guide to communicating, just as he used the principles of “come and see” and “listen well” in his 2021 and 2022 messages.

Together, these principles summon us not only into fruitful communication, but also into healthy community and communion. The linkage of these three terms helps to explain why the Church has invested in messages about the secular media for nearly 60 years.

Ultimately, the integrity of this trio of high-sounding terms relies simply on our individual lives as seekers, receivers, and speakers of truth in the light of Christian love and peace. As Pope Francis wrote, echoing what Francis de Sales discerned centuries ago, “we are what we communicate.”

Image from ClipSafari, an online collection of Creative Commons designs.

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When to Play the Empathy Card

First published in “Phronesis in Pieces” newsletter at billschmitt.substack.com on Jan. 17, 2023

A recent study of empathy from Cambridge University prompted me to think about the role of that virtue in the pursuit of practical wisdom.

CNN’s report on this research focused on the finding that women around the world performed better than men on a standardized test of “cognitive empathy.” On average, the results held substantially true in 57 countries, independent of such factors as geography or cultural backgrounds.

My basic reaction was twofold: First, it was no surprise that women excel in empathy. Second, it was good news that thought leaders had encouraged, in some small way, discussing empathy at our tables of moral deliberation in a world of relativism and polarization.

My next reaction was to inquire further into how science defines empathy as a positive force. Might this discussion yield something more than a headline about male-female differences?

I like to think of compassion, or empathy, as part of the checklist for modern-day explorations of “phronesis,” a quality Aristotle discussed in his Nicomachean Ethics. He called it a kind of wisdom—I would say it’s virtuous wisdom—which gathers insightful knowledge and applies it to practical judgments and decisions enhancing the common good and true happiness. Going beyond scientific knowledge, I see this as common sense informed by Judeo-Christian values.  

Please think of my values-added approach to phronesis as “Aristotle Plus.” Of course, this renowned pre-Christian Greek hardly needs a premium channel, but I avidly hunt for content which fits comfortably with practical thinking while also resonating with my Catholic roots.

You might call the compassionate, open-minded component of phronesis “a muse you can use”—a kind of evangelization that Catholics should make part of their programming. These days, the Church can offer helpful reminders about God to people who seem to struggle without Him. An embrace of both faith and reason will enable our secularized culture to tackle its urgent challenges in other-centered, problem-solving ways.

By my lights, empathetic people are inclined toward genuine “encounters” with others. Pope Francis uses this term when he calls for Catholics—and all people of good will—to venture beyond the church doors, to reach out and listen, especially to the marginalized.

Instead of trampling on the inherent dignity of those without a strong voice in the public square, we must strive to know and appreciate the unique experiences and aspirations of all, so they become part of our common-good calculus.

Because I equate empathy with compassionate caring, I also think of another pope. John Paul II spoke of key gifts—receptivity, sensitivity, generosity, and maternity—that we must bring to others if we are to answer a mandate issued by the Second Vatican Council—“to aid humanity in not falling.”

It’s no coincidence that John Paul saw these gifts as central to “the feminine genius,” which he discussed in a 1988 apostolic letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.

“Catholic Answers” commentator wrote in 2005 that “the Church has called women to be the stealth weapon of the twenty-first century” because they bring those gifts to people whose spectrum of suffering echoes in today’s society.

This point invites criticism from many people who would charge that Catholicism precludes other ways in which women could bless the world, such as ordination to the priesthood. I ask that we set aside that debate for purposes of this discussion, just as we downplay the journalists’ focus on a male-female empathy contest.

I believe all people, in our diversity, should contribute our best traits to the overarching goal of keeping humanity from falling. And I return to my question: What is this thing called empathy, and how can we use it?

It turns out that the Cambridge scholars were not measuring the characteristic as I simplistically defined it.

CNN explained that the article in the multidisciplinary journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at “cognitive empathy” as an intellectual viewpoint toward interactions and relationships. This entails individuals’ ability “to understand what someone else might be thinking or feeling, and they are even able to use that knowledge to predict how the person will act or feel going forward.”

Say a person tells you he or she had an uncomfortable family reunion during the holidays. Using cognitive empathy, “you understand how that bad time makes the person feel.” Once you put yourself in that person’s shoes, you “are even able to use that knowledge to predict how the person will act or feel going forward.”

This is different from “affective empathy,” or “emotional empathy,” the connection made when you feel another person’s emotions and respond with your own appropriate emotion. That’s the definition I had assumed.

Say a person is crying about a broken relationship, so you “feel sad too, and feel compassion for that person,” as CNN put it.

The Cambridge researchers have posted questionnaires that test for both forms of empathy. But, for their new findings, they used the “Eyes Test” to explore the cognition, or “theory of mind” that kicked in. They showed participants photos  of different people—actually, only of the area around a person’s eyes, forming a facial expression. For each face card, the researchers asked what the person was thinking or feeling.

Their key finding seems to be that more than 300,000 participants, spanning the globe, performed this analysis, and the pattern of their answers showed that this “cognitive empathy” was largely independent of such factors as local culture, and even age and language.

As with most studies, the scientists’ key determination was that this finding reveals the need for more research. For example, we might probe the social or biological reasons why women outpace men on the empathic path.

I am always in favor of asking more questions. I also acknowledge that I might be missing or misinterpreting the full potential of this study. But, reluctantly accepting the empathy definition provided, I return to my curiosity about empathy as a virtue that contributes to wise engagement.

It sounds like the cognitive version is relevant to phronesis because it is indeed practical. If one can analyze facial expressions or statements and thus walk “in another person’s shoes,” and then can predict how that person might feel or act in the future, this might help devise an action, or intervention. That could be virtuous insofar as it benefits the person and achieves broader goals.

In comparison, affective or emotional empathy sounds like a mere feeling of compassion that should be an easy assumption among those at tables of deliberation in the public square.

So cognitive empathy is empowering, and emotional empathy is an endearing background feature? I offer several cautionary notes. First, I wonder if there are really two empathies, or rather one tool to be wielded and one quality to be nurtured. Second, I wonder if men and women wield the tool differently. Third, I wonder if any kind of empathy can be measured using facial expressions.

The researchers spotlighted here, setting the rules for the version they studied, were focused on the person perceiving rather than the person perceived. In this cognitive mode, we speak of the other, but we risk minimizing the other as a face in the crowd, or worse, as essentially a lab animal to be assessed and acted upon accordingly.

Only the perceiver is empowered, and the power has a flimsy justification, based on a shallow interaction and unverified judgment.

Can a “theory of mind” toward which we gravitate in one-on-one situations be generalized to yield problem-solving steps affecting a community or the common good? This open-ended claim to understand people may be the train of thought at Cambridge College in Boston, which offers an “empathy certificate.” It may be the dubious goal of some folks studying social psychology.

With all due respect, I hope we can minimize control games, where we extend our supposed predictive powers beyond one person’s facial expression to a whole category of actors or potential actions. This oversimplifies complex human inclinations.

Cognitive and psychological methods to interpret and label people appeal to today’s advocates and influencers as influential tools. Our society loves to group individuals together into opposing (rather than collaborating) camps in order to create talking points which polarize.

For example, problem-solvers might ask us to change the nickname of a pandemic because it can make some people violent. The Hill gave this warning in a September 2020 article: “The use of the phrase ‘China virus’ by top administration officials , including President Trump, has coincided with a surge in discrimination against Asian-Americans, according to a new study.”

Likewise, for the sake of peace and order, decision-makers may want to censor the free marketplace of ideas, blocking information that disagrees with authoritative sources; we might easily suspect a malevolent intent behind comments which otherwise would increase knowledge—and deserve First Amendment protection.

There are certainly situations in which the virtue of prudence does warrant devising precautionary limitations for the common good, based on our instincts about, and our concern for, the volatile chemistry of people and circumstances.

But overall, I prefer the adoption of emotional empathy—a habit of compassion fed by sharing, and learning from, experiences with people in their diversity and dignity—as the fundamental aid in pursuing wisdom. Both leaders and followers can and should share this habit, creating a common ground for truly interactive conversations.

Some may argue that compassion is a given in public discussions based on equity, diversity, and inclusion; mere “emotion” adds no efficacy when we are solving problems. Not so fast! We often catch leaders and followers alike forgetting empathy in their calculus. This sensibility is indispensable but elusive, particularly when a crisis inclines us toward quick fixes, snap judgments, groupthink, exercising power, or saving face. In such cases, the quality of mercy is strained.

Let’s keep the sense of mystery when we play the “empathy” card from the phronesis deck of virtues. Amid today’s frayed solidarity, we should scrutinize our assertions that we “understand” human aspirations, relationships, and dignity. Some things, such as the complicated interplay among people, and between souls and their God, are beyond our understanding. Compassion centered on hearts, not on minds, is a humbling wisdom we can promote in Church evangelization.

Affective empathy syncs up the souls of the governing and the governed. It empowers people on common ground. It expands our perceptions and allows transformative encounters. It elevates everyone’s sensitivity, receptivity, generosity, and maternity.

The report from Cambridge University decided that empathy—at least one kind of it—knows no boundaries. We think we can read a person like a book. But we also need to love people as stories which are incomplete, interactive, and dynamically hopeful.

Those scientists determined cognition through face cards. That is not the whole story. An empathy card belongs in everyone’s deck of wisdom, but how we choose and use it at the table of deliberation, pursuing win-win situations, will display our virtue.

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A Toast to Dr. King and New Wineskins

A January 16 reflection from Michael McLoughlin in America magazine talked about the need for new wineskins that can hold new wine—in particular, the wine of change and redemption which Christ offers us in the New Testament.

The piece pointed us to notes that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had written for a sermon in 1954. They fit perfectly with the Gospel reading about wineskins for Martin Luther King Day 2023. Those notes show the civil rights leader’s wonderfully creative and connective mind; they spotlight a great blessing, and responsibility, namely receiving a gift.

Pope John Paul II cited receptivity as one of the key elements of the “feminine genius,” which he discussed in his 1988 apostolic letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.

Receptivity is a trait possessed by persons—and also by societies. The dictionary defines it as “the ability, willingness, or quickness to receive or accept ideas, requests, experiences, etc.”

This openness is powerful, not passive, because accepting ideas, heeding requests, and undergoing new experiences is often hard work. It disrupts the status quo and requires some kind of reset. We might call such willingness “reset-tivity,” and we should acknowledge that resets, great or not, are likely to be long-term undertakings that build upon an existing foundation.

The acceptance of new wine as a delightful gift requires the preparation and caretaking of new wineskins. Dr. King, in writing his sermon, pondered that there are times in history when circumstances are ripe for change, when a whole population is poised at a turning point that must be faced wisely.

It appears Dr. King had hope that America was entering such a time in the 1950s: People knew the status quo, in race relations and in the accompanying dilemmas of inequality and marginalization, was unacceptable. But he knew his message, which was coming from the Gospel itself, would require a long, hard journey of reconstruction. It could only happen if we love one another and hold on to the best qualities in ourselves.

As with persons, a society must be receptive and proactive in order to learn from, and integrate, the wisdom of Christ who desires to make all things new. One hopes a culture that has been evangelized to pursue wisdom will be open to the elevated, transcendent insights which God offers us in time.

Dr. King brought Americans a new insight about ways to overcome racial division in light of the need to overcome divisions in the human family based on income, class, power, pride, fear, and hatred. As he indicated explicitly later in his career, he knew the nation’s capacity for a sweeping overhaul would require unusual leadership–people with dreams, not merely with complaints or vague blueprints.

Our society has benefited from the seeds of Godly wisdom Dr. King planted, but it has not yet been sufficiently receptive to let those seeds blossom fully into the necessary institutional structures and practices, as well as personal habits of the heart. Those take time, talent, vision, and vigor to build.

We must rededicate ourselves to prepare new wineskins that can preserve and distribute the blessings of love, respecting the dignity of all and enriching the content of our character. Our present day seems to contain all the chaos and discontent that would signal big change ahead.

But the chaos also reveals flaws in our character. We need leaders who embrace the Good News as a guide for the path ahead. The public square is dominated by loud voices shouting bad news about our structures and ourselves.

Without faith and hope, without an appreciation for the power of new wine to renew us, many of us say the only way forward is to disrupt much of the progress we have made or to destroy institutions with ephemeral urges to start from scratch:

Dump the old wine! Do away with wineskins! They’re only crude satchels made of leather! Start fresh with some new elixir of happiness, maybe a new recipe, perhaps one stored in modern cardboard boxes with handy spouts!

Instead, we must have the humble self-confidence, patience, and common sense to prepare new wineskins, knowing what will work and dismissing what will fail. During the transitions of attitude and aptitude that inevitably emerge from time to time, we can continue drinking the wine of blessings already received; God will even see to it, as Jesus did at Cana, that we receive surprising, joyful previews of the new wine that will fulfill our faith. That should urge us on toward constructive, peaceful changes which benefit us all.

One website that discusses wineskins qua wineskins instructs us to be careful as we get ready.

“Due to their unique nature, a wineskin requires some initial care and maintenance for maximum use,” says an article posted at leaf.tv. It continues:

“A wineskin is made of organic material [such as goatskin]; it takes some preparation and maintenance by the owner. Before pouring in the first amount of wine to store, the wineskin must be heated, rubbed, inflated, rinsed with water, and filled with wine for five days, which is then discarded. Then, the wineskin can be used for storing drinking wine.”

Dr. King saw that true receptivity to the message he was preaching must engage both the mind and the heart–both the intellect and emotions, as he put it. We must personally greet the change promised in the Gospels by offering God our delight in the new hope he offers, in tandem with a society that is organically geared for stability, kindness, and effort.

Our imagination must be well-grounded, like Dr. King’s. Then we can toast to what we receive and share it with all who see that the table has been set for a feast.

Image from ClipSafari, an online collection of Creative Commons designs.

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O Come, All Ye Fretful

First published in “Phronesis in Pieces” at billschmitt.substack.com on Dec. 31, 2022

I came away from Christmas Mass this year with a heightened appreciation of those who had joined the congregation as, let’s say, occasional visitors.

Some of them attend on Christmas and Easter largely because it’s a family event or it’s a time “to be seen.” These examples of “peer pressure” were once reinforced by America’s Judeo-Christian culture.

One can understand folks feeling various pressures. A lot of people acknowledge in their hearts, and increasingly in their minds as a practical matter, that our society can go sadly—and dangerously—astray without a recognition of God. It is right and just to give Him a social shout-out.

We pilgrims, or wanderers, also know Him as the everyday origin of charity, dignity, mercy, justice, and enduring meaning. At a minimum, we know we need to “represent” because He is our source of consolation and care—if not the first responder, the A-Team we call in case of emergency. He is somehow a member of our families, or a part of our ancestry who deserves to be recognized, no matter how awkwardly.

Theologically speaking, peripatetic Christians are indeed poised to receive wonderful things in return for a return to the sacramental life, a list topped by the Holy Eucharist, the complete presence of powerful grace, engagement in the Church’s highest form of prayer, community solidarity, and spiritual refreshment.

But, as our priest presiding at the vigil Mass boldly (but gently) reminded everyone, Communion is a sacred event whose participants are practicing Catholics. The Church welcomes all and is an instrument for everyone’s growth in God’s love, he said, but this might be a time for one to ask the Lord for a blessing and/or simply remain in the pew.

Some attendees may see this guidance as an undue infringement of their freedom. Worse, knowing one’s place and “staying in your lane” are forms of embarrassment, acknowledgements of guilt or imperfection. They are the opposites of virtue-signaling, which is currently trending in culture!

Here is the bottom line: In light of the personal admissions and reevaluations being suggested, if we take seriously a truth-speaking priest, and the Church, there is a price to pay for attending Mass.

A serious charge is codified in the Bible: “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 11:27) That’s something all congregants, no matter the frequency of their presence, need to remember.

And it occurred to me at Christmastime that various attendees might feel the Mass exacts still another price of admission. This is an unwelcome tax levied not by the Church, but by today’s secularized, therapeutic, self-centered culture.

The secular discouragement of loving relationships with Jesus Christ only frustrates our innate hunger for a more excellent way and our the heart-felt desire to fill our “God-shaped hole.” (This latter idea has roots in Acts 17:22-27 and, much later, in comments by Blaise Pascal.)

Those attentive to this vacuum in themselves and in society might find it taxing to get through the early parts of the Mass, not to mention the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The Mass starts us off by asking God for mercy. What, did we do something wrong?

The Confiteor can hit us with a sledgehammer of humility. We are confessing to God—and to our brothers and sisters (OMG, they are our brothers and sisters)—that each one of us has “greatly sinned” in a variety of ways. And we can’t point fingers. We have to tell everybody, “I need your prayers.”

Then the Church challenges us further in the context of our responsibility to a God who came to save us from the mess we have made.

The church’s seasonal visitors might notice the poignant specificity of The Gloria; it is a prayer echoing the angels as they celebrate the first Christmas! The awesome power and promise surrounding Jesus’ birth is described in Luke 2:13-14. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.”

TV viewers informed by the better angels of our culture will remember that a little child, Linus by name, used that quote to lead his friend—and multiple generations of audiences—to learn the Good News. Hear it proclaimed here: “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

The initial prayers of Mass tell us to praise and adore Christ as our savior, and to give God thanks because all glory must go to Him. He alone is holy. Alas, that means we dare not play God.

Scholars and pollsters will tell us that people have fallen away from the Church—and from Mass—for lots of important reasons. Younger Americans are non-joiners who want to define their spirituality for themselves. Christian teachings make them reticent. They say religion causes violence. They doubt dogmas that conflict with observable facts.

But I observed another reason for society’s departure from the pews—and for the Christmastime exception that proves the rule. There is a culturally imposed unease some Mass-goers face in pausing their prerogatives so they can be surprised by joy.

My family and I found a few available seats in the back of the church, but perhaps we weren’t as uncomfortable as some of the newcomers. I came to a new respect for all those people awkwardly abandoning their weekend routines to be dutifully present at Mass. (They didn’t know where to sit. And neither did we.)

I realized the Church is beautifully countercultural, and our liturgy is wonderfully confounding from beginning to end. We all experienced it at the vigil. Even before we saw our priest, we had to squeeze in and humbly follow the directions of the ushers.

After Communion, a business-attired man seated next to me checked his phone and nudged his family to slip away as the final hymn began. They might have had reservations somewhere.

As a child of a culture that has become more and more secular, I’ve behaved and thought like that gentleman plenty of times. In his family’s presence, I truly found brothers and sisters.

My family stayed for the whole hymn, partly because we have become comfortable with Mass, and Christmas, as providential breaks from the tedium of being on our own—and enduring the “good grief” Charlie Brown always saw society imposing.

All of us in that congregation needed to pray for each other, to forgive each other, and to turn to God for the glory we crave. We cannot take this awareness for granted if we want to heal our culture through the humility of truth and trust. Without the Mass, a summons to incarnational faith, hope and connectedness, my family and others might all be on the verge of slipping away, or going astray. We would be using our “reservations” as excuses to leave a vacuum in our God-shaped holes.

Worse, to avoid paying the price of admission, we would be AWOL in the church, and in the Church. Keeping vigil, we were wisely challenged to know our place, including our place in the glory of Christmas.

Image from ClipSafari, an online collection of Creative Commons designs.

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Priest’s Word to the Wise: Love to Study, Study to Love

This book review first appeared in The Tablet, newspaper of the Brooklyn Diocese, on Dec. 3, 2022.

“Theology” can be an off-putting, academic word. But a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn has emerged on a mission to enrich Catholics’ everyday lives through that field of discipline, whose name simply means the study of God.

He is advocating his pursuit to others who preach the Gospel—and model it for the sake of people in the pews—with a new book, Theology as Prayer: A Primer for the Diocesan Priest.

“It’s not exclusively for priests,” according to Father John Cush, a native of Windsor Terrace. He asserted in a recent Tablet interview that seminarians, ordained deacons, consecrated religious, and laypersons will find life more meaningful as they encounter God using the works of great theologians.

The book, co-authored with Monsignor Walter Oxley, focuses primarily on suggestions for the parish priest. Serving a diocese, his tasks allow limited time for spiritual reading but generate many opportunities to teach, and demonstrate, “pastoral charity for the people he will lead,” Father Cush wrote in the early pages.

Reflection about God through solid theology has one purpose, namely the salvation of souls, he wrote. “Without this truth firmly established in the minds of priests and seminarians, when problems arise, they can be tossed to the wind, following whatever trend so pleases them, leading to a promotion of decline and a reverse of progress.”

Convinced that prayerful study can help to integrate personal holiness and dynamic love throughout a priest’s life, Father Cush this year joined the faculty of St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, NY.

He previously completed his Doctorate in Sacred Theology (S.T.D.) at the Pontifical Gregorian University and served as academic dean at the Pontifical North American College.

Years before his multiple advanced-degree assignments in Rome, Father Cush attended high school at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary, Elmhurst, and studied English and Philosophy at St. John’s University, Jamaica, graduating in 1994.

He went on to priestly formation at the Cathedral Seminary Residence of the Immaculate Conception in Douglaston. Ordained in 1998, he ministered to two parishes—Good Shepherd in Marine Park and St. Helen in Howard Beach.

His return to the United States in 2022 has allowed him to visit his Windsor Terrace home. He contributes frequently to The Tablet. This Yonkers-based professor of systematic theology also reaches out nationwide as the new editor-in-chief of a leading magazine for clergy, Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

“I’m loving every second of it,” Father Cush said of his primary job—preparing seminarians. He has welcomed a challenge set forth by St. John Paul II, who called for integrating “the four dimensions of priestly formation”—the human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral.

Aspirants to the priesthood must start with a life of Christian love and prayer, Father Cush told The Tablet. “Unless we have the foundation on the human level and on the spiritual level, our priests won’t really be effective ministers of the Gospel.”

All study of theology should be done “in a spirit of faith,” as he instructed in the book. “With the help of the Holy Spirit, whom you implore before your reading, you are allowing the meaning of the text and the deeper intentions of the theologian to permeate into the deepest recesses of your heart.”

The book’s co-authors make practical suggestions. Based on Church tradition, they show how theological texts can lead to meditation and purposeful conversation with God. They also give tips on how a busy pastor might set up time periods and circumstances where contemplation is possible.

Father Cush shows intellectual heft by describing noted theologians in valuable mini-biographies which, he promises readers, will “whet your appetite.” His menu of prospects includes Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernard Lonergan, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and Pope Benedict XVI.

Speaking with The Tablet, Father Cush expressed thanks for the inspirations of Monsignor Oxley, another Doctor of Sacred Theology, who contributed extensive experience as a spiritual director serving clergy and parishes.

Their book was published this summer by the Institute for Priestly Formation.

But the technique of spicing theologians’ thoughts with practical tips and prayerful intent has a precedent in Father Cush’s first book, The How-To Book of Catholic Theology: Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Taught You.

Published by Our Sunday Visitor in 2020, it explained to a wide audience that the study of God isn’t only for saints and scholars.

Humans instinctively seek deep, authentic relationships, Father Cush said. “They want time to study about someone whom they love—Our Lord. When you fall in love, you want to know everything there can be about that other person. That’s hopefully what the study of theology does for us—as priests, as lay, as deacons, as religious people—as we go forward in our own lives of faith.”

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Game of Kings, King of Games

First published in “Phronesis in Pieces” at billschmitt.substack.com on Dec. 19, 2022.

The world of political reporting groans with a desperate need for graduates of the Shelby Lyman School of Journalism.

This is a problem because there is no Shelby Lyman School of Journalism, and most people don’t remember its namesake. Lyman did exist (1936–2019), but he never practiced journalism per se.

He did write a popular chess column that appeared in dozens of newspapers for years. And, most famously, he was the TV anchorman, you might say, covering what The New York Times has called “one of the most ballyhooed competitive events of the 1970s, a Cold War confrontation in Reykjavik, Iceland, between the two most brilliant chess players in the world.”

Lyman volunteered during the summer of 1972 to host a pioneering endeavor—live coverage for PBS stations of the World Chess Championship match between Brooklyn native Bobby Fischer and Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky.

Some of the combatants’ 21 games consumed copious time, but Lyman did not tire. Fans called for more, so coverage of the rounds (which were riddled with controversy) was even allowed to pre-empt Sesame Street.

An informal New York Post survey of bars in the city revealed that most of them had their single TV tuned to PBS’s slow-paced sport, according to a blog at chess.com. The coverage drew the highest ratings of any show that had appeared on the young public network. At some points, an estimated 2 million viewers were said to be tuned in.

Lyman broadcast the series of programs from a bare-bones studio near his upstate New York home. A 35-year-old Harvard grad with no media experience, he invested TV time in the regimen which chess experts like him typically adopted at other high-level matches—namely, back-and-forth banter about how the game was going and what the moves meant.

He sparked detailed, esoteric, but oddly appealing dialogues with a few chess-club champions seated around him. He shifted cardboard chess pieces on a demonstration board whenever a bell rang to announce that Fischer or Spassky had made the latest move. This news was phoned in from spectators in Iceland.

While he carefully updated one board to show the current state of play, Lyman could walk over to a separate “analysis” board, where he and his panel of commentators could critique moves and visualize options or opportunities. They discussed the likely gambits the players were forging in light of all 64 squares as a connected whole.

Participants’ differing insights, looking backward and forward, sounded like this: Fischer was “setting up a couple of threats,” or “he was justified in moving that pawn.” Spassky’s queen was “being harassed” by major and minor pieces, or he initiated the “Schliemann defense.” You can pick up the lingo by watching these videos of “Chess Chat” and a follow-up Lyman broadcast in 1984.

I was a rising high school sophomore in 1972, with no training in journalism yet and little exposure to the art of play-by-play sports coverage, except for some Mets games. But I found the “color commentary”—and the “suspense” of waiting ten minutes or more for the next move—downright addictive.

The experience nurtured my zeal for a kind of “Washington bureau” vocation that seems old-fashioned to many. I never mastered the model, but I admired its focus on rigorous curiosity and enlightened dialogue, alongside the necessary dedication to solid research, deadline reliability, and well-crafted writing.

Extra qualities of this ethos include: patient but proactive waiting for a federal government that was designed for a deliberative pace; responding to “breaks in the action” by asking questions of knowledgeable sources; sharing varied visions of the possibilities ahead; and trying to read the minds of newsmakers without grasping for instant headlines or jumping to narrative-based judgments.

I do not question other forms of journalism, practiced by professionals with different approaches. But I like to think uncomplicated, inquisitive engagement at the intersection of knowable facts and human nature constitutes the ethos—or the curriculum—of the Shelby Lyman School.

Today’s coverage of national policy-making would benefit from a larger cadre of political reporters who are allowed and able to take time, to piece together a spectrum of details, and help their audiences see a big picture containing clues for fresh, constructive ideas.

Don’t assume that such journalists would be bland geeks, lacking strong opinions or the ability to build and inspire an audience. Back when I finally did study journalism, at Fordham, I recall discovering I.F. Stone (1907-1989) as an admirable variation of the Lyman paradigm.

His newsletter about Washington, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, became influential through its simple perspicacity—his willingness to delve into transcripts and government documents that revealed what people in power actually said and thought.

Communicating the fruits of his phronesis, his virtuous pursuit of wisdom in service to the common good, he became a progressive thought-leader who helped to advance such causes as civil rights.

Whatever causes and values formed the whole of Lyman’s good life, one of his goals was to promote a game he saw as a source of meaning and happiness. He is quoted as saying:

“Chess is a dramatic event. You could hear the swords clang on the shields with every move. They went at each other. The average person is turned onto chess when it’s presented right. Trying to figure out the next move is a fascinating adventure—an adventure people can get into.”

I have one more reason for promoting a “school” that exists only in my imaginative metaverse: You might say that all participants in the political arena and the public square need to be fans of chess, or at least of its thought patterns.

In these days when serious societal concerns are viewed through lenses of entertainment, persuasion, and gamesmanship, you might say we often must choose between two models of play—the good order of chess or the demeaning chaos of Rollerball.

There are plenty of smart, powerful leaders playing their “long game” of strategy regarding particular issues—or broad goals on a global scale. They hold a full complement of castles, knights, and bishops, and they naturally aim to control the “whole board.” While they are preoccupied with their high-stakes chess matches, they benefit when we are distracted by the bursts of sound and fury, the dopamine hits of bread and circuses, the rules of manipulation and confusion, which were portrayed in Rollerball, a classic 1975 film.

The latter arena generates play-by-play announcements from the loudest voices and biggest egos, armed with the most compelling statistics (or clickbait), grabbing and wasting the sporadic attention of hyped-up crowds.

The former arena is the quieter, more personal, more nuanced setting where an informed public enjoys taking a serious thing seriously. We are waiting and watching for each successive move, encouraged to think and converse about individuals’ gambits and incremental steps toward victory. Who is doing what, to what end, in what context, with what implications?

Our announcer for this “Game of Kings” coverage, applicable to politics, should be some future Shelby Lyman. Not weighty in the world’s eyes, but still the show’s anchor, he or she will help us all to become better analysts—and, eventually, better players in contests where the world needs champions.

Image from ClipSafari, an online collection of Creative Commons designs. Photo of Shelby Lyman from the U.S Chess Federation.

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Illuminated by Gaslighting: The Word of the Year

This commentary was published first in my Substack publication, “Phronesis in Pieces”–found at billschmitt.substack.com. If you would like to see more of that twice-monthly mix of news, commentaries, and resources for the pursuit of virtuous wisdom, contact me at billgerards@gmail.com and receive a free-of-charge subscription.

When Merriam-Webster announced this week that gaslighting is its “word of the year” for 2022, it implicitly called for a moment of reflection that should send chills down the spine of America’s body politic.

The dictionary gurus have literally “spread the word” about a trend whose importance far exceeds an uptick in online research or a welcome addition to the public’s vocabulary.

I haven’t experienced such an uncomfortable wave of linguistic and sociological insight since Oxford Languages declared its 2016 “word of the year” to be post-truthIndeed, the combination of these two award-winners speaks volumes about the need to ponder our confrontation with a kind of spiritual warfare being waged in the rhetoric of a polarized nation.

This week’s revelation is simple enough. According to an Associated Press report, Merriam-Webster discovered that lookups for gaslighting on its website jumped 1,740 percent in 2022 over the year-ago period.

“It’s a word that has risen so quickly in the English language, and especially in the last four years, that it actually came as a surprise to me and to many of us,” Merriam-Webster editor at large Peter Sokolowski told AP. “It was a word looked up frequently every single day of the year.”

The dictionary definition for gaslighting calls it “psychological manipulation of a person, usually over an extended period of time, that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

Such manipulation is not only a weaponization of words, but an attack against the sense of truth and grounding in reality which human beings need for the sake of a rational, meaningful life. It is a challenge in the pursuit of phronesis because it starves wisdom of its air supply and its ability to enlighten our endeavors.

No doubt one reason for the recent abundance of digital inquiries about this well-worn word is a widespread unfamiliarity with Gaslightwhich many Americans might know as a theatrical drama from 1938 and a classic film from 1944. As CNN described the plot this week, “a nefarious man attempts to trick his new wife into thinking she’s losing her mind, in part by telling her that the gaslights in their home, which dim when he’s in the attic doing dastardly deeds, are not fading at all.”

The movie is a disturbing tale of emotional abuse and dehumanization imposed upon a woman, already vulnerable and weakened by an earlier trauma, by a husband to whom she has turned for love and renewed stability. Hiding his criminal intent, he replaces her access to others’ knowledgeable feedback with a home-bound artificial reality, filled with lies that negate her actual memories and affronts that decimate her reasoning and dignity.

To illustrate contemporary views of gaslighting, CNN’s writer mentions its occurrence in a film called Don’t Worry Darling and a series called Gaslit. The article’s two references to politics both refer to criticisms of President Trump, one from 2017 and one regarding “the severity of the January 6 insurrection” of 2021.

Without worsening divisiveness by connecting the word to more recent or specific political developments, one can surmise that the 2022 leap in lookups has arisen partly from large-scale concerns. People wonder if they are witnessing attempts at gaslighting on a macro level, as well as in the all-too-common instances between spouses or within families.

This is where we find the tie-in to Oxford’s 2016 verbal tribute spotlighting our “post-truth” society. The husband and wife portrayed in the film were living in a “post-truth” home with bygone illumination. That setting, where everything—or nothing— could be believed, became a performance space that set the perpetrator free to implement his plan. But, in the end (forgive a mild spoiler here), reality won. It always does.

Numerous people today believe that creating “post-truth” narratives allows extra freedom for establishing one’s own contrived reality, exercising power, taking credit, gaining favors, shedding accountability, making a good impression, denying problems, avoiding challenges and conversations, minimizing the need for deep knowledge or reflection, manipulating meaning, overcoming others, and claiming a kind of godlike creativity and admirability.

These aims have proven especially useful in the arena of politics. Our relationships in the public square have become more nervous and arms-length, like zero-sum contests of psychological and emotional strategy. Other realms of human interaction—religion, science, academia, news, entertainment, and pursuits of peace and justice—also have become more fractious and politicized.

Many lives are now less grounded in actual human encounters. Among relativists and narcissists, who may not agree on what is true, real, or meaningful, we tend to short-circuit conversations, reject learning from unacceptable facts and disturbing viewpoints, and try to impose our truths on others.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy encouraged vigilante enforcement of personal narratives in the legal language of a 1992 decision. “At the heart of liberty,” he wrote, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.”

Like the unhappy home in Gaslight, this freedom becomes a trap where power is the only mediator and enforcement tool. The only two options are ongoing faux-conquests for the manipulators and a head-shaking fatigue for those who suffer, or opt out of, the manipulation. We have heard people use words that don’t have to be googled when they describe current situations as “crazy” or “creepy.”

We join the gaslit wife in fearing a downward spiral that could include many negative emotions, along with indifference, anxiety, clouded thinking, hopelessness, and a retreat into fact patterns for which we have no innate desire. These yield no integrity or love, which is the ultimate reality. It is hard to think of a solution other than God that could give us the strength to steer clear of this spiral toward evil, but how do we know He isn’t part of the mythology!

In short, as the “search” statistics of vocabulary stewards have shown us, a post-truth world paves the way for a world of gaslighting. Those who cling to the power for defining truth, or for forcing others out of the truth-defining process, are helping to disable a large portion of the population whom they see as enemies. Recall that the en masse googling for this year’s word surprised the online monitors, possibly because they now deem the phenomenon banal.

Reality gradually defeats the immoral mind games of every era, so no one should lose hope. But let’s also hope that, several years down the line, Oxford or Merriam-Webster will find neither of these digital developments: a world where practically no one is inquiring about the actual meaning of any words or facts, or a world where the most popular inquiry—perhaps a desperate, last-ditch plea from those in the afterglow of gaslight—will be a search for the word truth.

Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs

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50 Ways to Love Your Leader

This is a special entry from the November post at billschmitt.substack.com.

Please read it on Substack as part of “Phronesis in Pieces”–along with background on the project–or access the four-page “phronesis focus letter” here.

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The Abstract Arts, Framing Reality

Published 10/28/22 at billschmitt.substack.com, reprinted here with some modifications.

Previously on Substack … We talked about the “Brights” as a movement of liberal atheists who introduced themselves in New York Times commentary in 2003 and continued promoting their doctrines of illumination. Those ideas helped to set progressive agendas in societies around the world.

Today, I focus on a different group, no less influential but more informal, and in need of a name. Let’s call them the Abstractionists. Strax for short. Catchy? Yes, that’s the whole idea.

In pursuit of phronesis, or virtuous wisdom that serves the common good, we need to examine not only what we think about, but also how we think. Beyond categories like right vs. left, capitalist vs. socialist, or spiritual vs. secular, here is a way to analyze the “how” behind today’s polarization.

My thesis: Broadly speaking, human beings think about the world in two alternative ways—based on abstractions, or based on cold, hard facts. There is plenty of “intersectionality” between these options. Neither is perfect, both are needed. Critiques of either can go to extremes, and I hereby apologize if my critique does just that.

Consider these yin-and-yang scenarios.

Think of abstract art, in contrast to Renaissance art.

Think of the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types, some of which might favor abstract understanding, some favoring the concrete.

Or think of the Catholic Church’s contextual protocols for judging sins “mortal” and behaviors “sinful,” while declining to condemn people as “evil.” In other circles, talk of sinful actions is broad-brush, but people can be slapped with hellish, demoralizing labels.

Think of teachers who praise their most avid students as diligent future scholars. They also identify a different group as unfocused, or falsely focused–namely, the party-goers, the kids who ask, “Will this be on the test?”

Or think of narcissists who see the world orbiting around them, in contrast to altruists who focus on others as neighbors in a literally wonder-full world.

Now consider the cognitive hodgepodge complicating American culture: relativism and moralism, atomized individualism and groupthink, indifference and activism, compassion and apathy, atheism and dogmatic fervor, entertaining distractions and paralyzing anxiety, demands for true information alongside blithe, blatant assertions of misinformation. This multidimensional pattern is such a perfect storm, or patchwork brainstorm, we might guess our meteorological charts have been melded with astrological charts.

People are simply more complex than superficial analysis can explain. The process of thinking can become chaotic unless we build our intellectual house on rock. We shouldn’t settle for a makeshift shack. While some minds are soaring through 5-G internet, some are watching cat videos. Our ideal brain food is a healthy balance of abstract and detailed diets; we need to watch what we’re eating–and to be honest about what we are serving up for others.

British writer G.K. Chesterton said thinking is a hard job that humans often try to avoid and must develop a skill for. We need to work at it, he warned in the Illustrated London News in 1914: “If you think wrong, you go wrong.”

Chesterton suffered from depression as a young man. In his darkest moments, nothing made sense, but he realized his intellect (and faith) could function so long as he started with a first principle. This had to be an assumption, with some degree of abstraction, but he could use that as the launch pad for a constant flow of well-grounded reasoning—purposeful thinking which made him one of the 20th century’s great truth-seekers.

According to Dale Ahlquist, a scholar of Chesterton, this nascent Abstractionist rebooted by making one initial, confident statement, namely that existence is better than non-existence. He then found renewal on a pilgrimage toward meaningful existence, radiating curiosity about the essence of nearly every subject. He also became a Catholic, relishing the paradoxes and connections he discovered in the world’s fine points.

One dictionary meaning of abstract is “existent in thought or theory but having no physical existence or concrete examples.” The word often implies the lack of a purpose, direction, or sense of completion. An idea, motivation, or action described as abstract has little inherent value. It can be redefined, or even made up. It imposes few demands on a person if the person so desires.

Today’s culture encourages abstract thinking of all kinds. It immerses leaders and audiences in mixed messages, seriocomic situations, emotional theatrics, hybrids of fear and frolic, artificial or virtual reality, dopamine hits, a marketplace of ideas and idiocy. As discussed in a previous Substack, politics currently has less to do with policy issues and problem-solving than with imagery and propaganda designed to make voters say, “That’s the candidate for me!”

The fire hose of information pushes constructively creative individuals to connect to, add to, contextualize, and utilize every fact they can acquire, embracing existence and uncovering value-added meanings. But others fear the fire hose; its stream of content causes “information inflation” (to coin a phrase), prompting Abstractionists to devalue and discard “irrelevant” data, along with opportunities to link and hyperlink with other people and ideas. For these one-track minds, ignorance—and indifference—are bliss.

In secular American politics, and other institutions, the dark side of the abstract arts is not only convenient, but a source of false empowerment. All-in (or nothing-in) Abstractionists will still start out with a guiding assumption, but it may be a self-serving, righteous-sounding slogan, scheme, or strategy. It seems to offer self-aggrandizement and reputational gain, but it has no ambition for the common good.

Whatever they build or promise, the skills of the Strax create in a deconstructive way, manipulating words, ideas, truths, and people. They can level hyperbolic charges against opponents, without concern for those whom they demonize or injure.

Abstractionists, after all, tend to see their words and actions as performative tactics bringing them closer to their short-term goals, not as concrete realities with serious, long-term impacts. Casually taking one step at a time, focused on the ephemeral, they might easily forgive their allies’ errors and cheer for fleeting causes while watching opponents suffer for their enduring principles.

The Strax game is thriving in a post-truth marketplace where the “Bohemian Rhapsody” on Muzak reminds us that “nothing really matters.” Orchestrators in this bazaar—including politicians, advocacy groups, elite donors, communicators, and other influencers—supply their minions with marching orders, talking points, and timely strategic tips, which must be adhered to, but not necessarily understood or believed. The orchestrators may be ideological. Many of their followers are more idea-illogical.

Of course, cold, hard facts will occasionally contradict and interrupt Strax plans, endangering their short-term gains. But those addicted to this method of dealing with reality will try to stay the course, instead tweaking their strategies and meanings. They will rely on others’ limited attention span, forgetfulness, distraction, denial, and confirmation bias.

What of those concrete thinkers in the population who prefer deeper inquiry, purpose, and connection-making to the maximum level their skills allow? The Strax strategy allows for their pre-emptory embarrassment, intimidation, and cancellation.

Abstractionists enjoy another advantage—the ease of measuring their own success. Ironically, they use tools that resemble cold, hard facts—namely scorecards of accomplishments. The checking of boxes is a high priority. They concoct simple metrics which look objective, indeed fundamental, but are applied subjectively.

Leaders atop the Abstractionist pyramid will ask their loyal loiterers: How many of our strategic goals did you achieve? Did you stay well-aligned with the prescribed group-think, reverse-projection, and virtue signals? Those responding will say yes, or “guilty with an explanation.” Asked if they have encountered opposition, they will boast, “Never is heard a discouraging word.”

This false brand of “management thinking” flourishes in many corners of a post-truth society, far beyond the political scene we observe through pundits’ eyes. By the way, it is not limited to those who hold “progressive” values. Indeed, some of those values have real merit; they should be part of commonplace, wide-ranging conversations about “what we think” in the public arena. But many prospective interlocutors have been intimidated or neutered.

Again, the bigger stumbling block is “how we think.” At this moment in America’s political history, it seems Abstractionists hold many of the cards and are playing them in favor of progressivism. One might argue progressive approaches are an all-too-easy fit with vague Strax argumentation. As Chesterton wrote, “Progress is a useless word, for progress takes for granted an already defined direction, and it is exactly about the direction that we disagree.”” 

The grading system which doyens of detail apply to themselves is much tougher. They look at quality as well as quantity of outcomes, plus various impacts across a whole integrated, interactive spectrum of people, principles, values, and purposes to be accomplished. They insist on asking, “Are we progressing toward a more rational existence?”

The pursuit of meaning is the key; we try to think well in order to enhance our existence, to exist for a good purpose. It is vital for those who measure success through reason and faith, using cold, hard facts tied to reality and a greater good, to pursue ongoing, charitable dialogue with Abstractionists.

We who crave a renaissance must continue conducting, explaining, and promoting our alternative approach to the Strax world. Ironically, those who employ pragmatic, utilitarian reasons rather than intellectual reasoning will decry our goals—informed by faith, hope, love, and truth—as utterly abstract and impractical, even extremist or supremacist, while we see their “practicalities” as tragically blind to the richness of reality.

The Catholic Church, with its embrace of natural law as a guide for what is seen and unseen, with its insight into the panorama of grace, beauty, truth, and goodness perduring in the created world, is the best response to the Strax manifesto of “progress” through autonomous self-creation.

The Church’s not-so-secret weapon is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist, consecrated in the hands of a priest at the altar. Even though many Catholics tell pollsters the bread and wine, transubstantiated into Christ’s body and blood according to 2,000 years of teaching, can be described as symbols, deep down we know that empty ritual and performance art would not have kept our families coming back on our knees for millennia. We acknowledge our weakness in the face of a mindblowing, transcendent reality, and we ask God to “help our unbelief” because we know we need to share truth as a blessing in our lives.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is undertaking a three-year initiative to renew appreciation of the Real Presence dogma grounded in the Word becoming flesh, saying “This is my body,” and bestowing unique, unquenchable dignity on human life.

Why? This Catholic sacrament of resilient communion and community reminds doyens of detail how to think rightly so that things might not go horrendously wrong for us—in this life and the next. We hold on to Christ, and Christ holds on to us.

We are all potential Abstractionists, but we have the Eucharist as a bulwark. As those disinclined toward substantial reality and unitive insight try to slow or stop our pilgrimage, the Host in our churches, in our hearts, and in our communities of faith and reason can be the rock-solid resource allowing us to say to the Strax, “This far and no further.”

Please think about it.

Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs

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Right Side of History? Wrong Side of Mystery?

Published in Substack on 10/15/22 at billschmitt.substack.com

Religion is making a lot of news. Some pundits say its conventional forms are a remedy for the chaos in society today. Some say religiosity has morphed into a secular theology particularly common in the “woke” culture.

Do-it-yourself theologians are crowning their political allies as righteous and condemning their opponents as evil. “They know not what they do,” as Luke’s Gospel puts it, because they are members of generations which were largely un-catechized. They don’t know their alt-religion is a religion at all. To the degree it is, it misleads them and society at large.

Huge percentages of the population are now growing up, or simply growing older, without positive experiences of God and religion in their lives. This is tragic because, as St. Augustine said, the human impulse toward religion is deeply ingrained: Our hearts were created for God, and they are restless until they find Him.

The search for Him, or a substitute, proceeds on various levels. Some folks assiduously dig for meaning and true happiness in their lives, naturally gravitating toward time-tested, “conventional” answers from philosophy and theology. But in recent decades, much of the practice of religion has been poorly taught or modeled by churches, ministers, families, and cultures. It has been too easily replaced by a therapeutic, intellectually lazy and hazy, self-centered and post-truth understanding of life.

American society has allowed the DIY religious impulse to grow among people all along the political and cultural spectrum, but progressive or “woke” folks seem recently to have embraced it with fervor. Influential sectors of society have helped them build structures and practices embodying their theology.

Like most people, they desire faith-like features that give them a sense of right and wrong, a sense that they are on the right side. They so far have missed developing a relationship of endless discovery with the loving God, so they have experienced religion as static, even irrelevant.

Many of those disenchanted with religious practice still demand a measure of stability, but their houses built on sand rely upon contrived, narcissistic foundations: My truth is what matters. I know what I need to know. I am right, good, and in control. My self-confirmation is more practical, intelligent, and rewarding, the disenchanted say, than the established religions I have perceived among old-timers and various “deplorables”!

Indeed, these aspirants to pragmatic religiosity say, we can enjoy the same benefits we accuse those backward believers of inventing. The deplorables send out signals of old-fashioned virtues and values. They exercise a judgmentalism born of moral superiority. But we know better!

Yes, the pragmatists have adopted similar traits, displaying a sense of infallibility while canceling advocates of traditional principles, trying to paralyze them with shame, guilt, and fear. Alt-religionists, who have not done their homework of prayer, suffering, and learning, have become what might be called “secular clericalists” at the top of a hierarchy resembling the Tower of Babel.

The do-it-yourselfers know they need to lead their lives “on the right side of history.” But, they ask, why invest time, talent, and treasure to appreciate real history? That stuff is being rewritten (or ignored)! Instead, history is a magical force that sweeps elite humans into a new and improved future.

Today’s oversimplified religious impulses empower the DIY crusaders to establish dogmas, rituals, and communities of solidarity. They grant privileges to adherents and impose punishments on opponents. But they don’t realize a crusade must be based on solidarity and communion, not anything-goes autonomy.

Of course, our circumstances should never become violent or take the form of religion vs. religion. Creeds of progressive values (or other values from elsewhere on the political spectrum) have become popular nowadays because they offer bonding and encouragement to a world where economic, political, health-based, and spirit-based forces have left many souls needy. We must be genuinely sympathetic toward those trapped by addictions, poverty, physical and mental health crises, and disconnection and despair.

Loving responses to such people include compassion, self-sacrifice, encounters of affirmation, and maximum patience with their complaints and demands.

But the needy now clustered under the “woke” hierarchy have gained such a critical mass—enabled by politicians, activists, the greedy, the power-hungry—that many well-intentioned people have become enablers, quietly allowing the secular shepherds and sheep of DIY religion to make broadly harmful changes in social mores and rational discourse. Theologian Scott Hahn has called this a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” response among Catholics.

Why must we resist the DIY toolkit for self-centered religion? The box has no room for forgiveness, empathy, or merciful love; the misled manufacturers assume individuals can block out sin, shame, and sorrow on their own.

Nor does the kit include a God with whom we can be in a helping, healing relationship through good times and bad. Alt-religion designers see this role played by governments, corporations, technologies, social-justice policies, and groups we call our allies. These components cannot heal by making people immune from guilt, shame, and fear; they only make the scourges worse.

Sooner or later, the inadequacy of this DIY toolkit becomes obvious. Remember, many of the “woke” already have given up on religion once, failing to appreciate the real thing. They might be prone to give up on an alt-religion, too, if it does not meet the high standards of their cost-benefit calculus. They may become alt-heretics, returning to the humbling mysteries of more “conventional” faith, if the magical force of history does not propel them to demigod status..

Meanwhile, followers of Christ can provide a valuable, authentic alternative. We must model strong relationships with the Lord and with each other, in families, parishes, and communities. These still draw stability from our humble pursuits of truth and love, our patience with reality’s ups and downs, and our reaching out for supernatural hope. Fortunately, these resources remain available to all through the Catholic Church.

We can respond to the DIY impulse not merely with the aforementioned compassion, but also with a “tough love” that reveals the truths and principles we stand up for. This confidence will give the lie to the alt-theologians who wrongly condemned old-timers’ “pretenses” of faith. Charitably, without combativeness, we can help the disenchanted to see that the common good benefits when the Holy Spirit acts and reality wins.

They will see that their toolkit succeeded only in assembling what is called an ouroborosa snake swallowing its own tail. These newly hopeful “heretics” will abandon their post-truth doctrines. They will stop merely imitating religion when even secularized people around them are acknowledging (along with old-timers, going back to America’s founders) that a healthy society needs God.

Image from ClipSafari.com, collection of Creative Commons designs.

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