A Day to Learn the Threat of Can’techesis

(Also published in the blog of the Magis Center, May 3, 2022)

Many people are observing May 3 as National Teacher Appreciation Day. Lord, I want to be in that number! Even though this is a commemoration on the secular calendar, not a faith-based celebration, we all would agree that countless educators, at all grade levels, deserve to be saluted as heroes.

They elevate our minds and hearts, wills and emotions, helping us to grow in the phronesis—a practical, virtuous wisdom for action—which can help us serve God and society well.

A more contentious concept of this day arises from our society’s appreciation for teaching, rather than appreciation for particular teachers. It’s a day to ask whether Americans, in every line of work, sufficiently honor the highest principle of educating–passing along to younger generations the most essential knowledge, understanding, and values-rich behaviors with which older generations have been gifted.

To bestow such honor, we need firm structures and enthusiastic approaches within which we can consistently provide formation and information that anchors us.

Such structures do not indoctrinate people or close minds if they are based on an honest search for truth. Organized, prioritized, and dynamic structures allow and encourage debate because the exploration of reality can go on collaboratively, with respectful trust and patient prudence. Conversations where people come equipped to explain their views, analyze the merits of other views, and make democratic virtues more sustainable respect our need—and expand our desire—to keep teaching and keep learning in orderly, constructive ways.

Therefore, the word that sums up this day for appreciating education is catechesis. Dear teachers, hey everyone, does our society mostly catechize ormostly can’techize?

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “catechize” in these two ways:

  • To instruct systematically, especially by questions, answers, and explanations and corrections—specifically, to give religious instruction in such a manner
  • To question systematically or searchingly

Increasingly, I fear we are not a catechized culture.

This meta-problem in modern-day education of all sorts has been recognized most clearly in the Catholic Church, which is an enduring and universal structure for catechizing, and literally appreciating good catechesis, about our creaturehood in a world hungry for meaning.

Many Catholics bemoan their observation that young people have not been richly or rightly catechized, perhaps over decades now. We in the Church have not always taught the essentials of the faith to future generations in ways that cultivate fertile fields for growth in the family of God. Sometimes, the essentials have not been clearly identified or prioritized, leaving a weak structure upon which to build lives attuned to our kinship in human nature and the divine order.

This lens helps to highlight the Church as a microcosm of the challenge and urgency of catechesis. And it reveals that the family is another crucial setting because it centers our experience of love, our learning about what’s important, within everyday experience.

Because households have been weakened as anchors in America and in much of the world, we need to boost our appreciation of teaching in two fundamental institutions—the Church and the family. In many cases, of course, the process of catechesis is conducted well, allowing people to develop instincts of phronesis in their individual lives and to share that gift with others for the betterment of society and the achievement of our highest goals. But what I call can’techesis, the inability of people to nurture this growth, has spread broadly nevertheless.

Most institutions have not catechized well. Civics courses and explorations of the structure and spirit of our culture sometimes fall short of energizing the robust citizenship America’s founders said our democracy requires.

Another example: The medical profession seems unclear the value of its traditional Hippocratic Oath as a core statement of ethics to be maintained. Is it overridden by marketplace demands, technological abilities, and self-centered drives for power?

As of today, May 3, many professionals in government, the law, politics, and other fields are reeling from the thought that someone in the highly revered institution of the US Supreme Court might have subverted the pledge to keep confidential the development of a Court opinion. A leaked document reported to be a draft of the majority decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has sparked fears of an unprecedented violation of judicial propriety—injecting suspicion into a structure of trust deemed vital for full, free, and fair deliberation.

Most of us would say our best teachers have been those who challenged us, who took valuable truths and top-priority insights they had garnered and joyfully handed them down to us in rigorous, thought-provoking, well-ordered ways. They allowed us to say yes to things that made our life better while also empowering us to ask follow-up questions, just as Mary did when she received an ultimate, uncomfortable truth in the Annunciation.

Our appreciation of teachers must go hand-in-hand with a deepened appreciation of everyone’s role in teaching and learning the most enlightening, sometimes almost unbelievable, realities that reflect the dignity of our lives. We need to ask, as members of families, parishes, communities, and institutions, how we can get better at systematically instructing, questioning, answering, correcting, and searching so as to revitalize the goals and methods of catechesis in education.

[Image is from Clip Safari collection of Creative Commons designs.]

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Lenten Consecration that Speaks to Mary–and Us

This post was published in the blog of Fr. Robert Spitzer’s Magis Center on April 8.

Bill discussed the post with co-host Matt Swaim on the Son Rise Morning Show on EWTN radio on April 5; hear the interview by linking to the archived program for 2022.04.05 and advancing to the 1 hr – 5 min point in the program.

Annual observances of Lent seem to have become more profound than ever. That might be an observation caused by my getting older as a member of the Baby Boom generation. But it did not escape my attention when Ash Wednesday in 2020 seemed to usher in the global trauma of Covid or when this year’s time of penitence began as we experienced how tragic and confounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be.

And now I sense an extra level of intensity, as if the insights of Lent are coming not only in gentle zephyrs to individual souls, but via a megaphone to hordes, even to the human community at large.

Is God using these traditional 40 days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving–comprising a “teachable moment” that draws us closer to Him amid human weakness and reliance on His love–to remind us of inconvenient truths? Does God use such moments? I figure He is always calling to us, and full communication simply relies on our participation and readiness to observe the signs of the times, to “harden not our hearts.” The decibel level of His recent calls, which have literally gone “viral” and have smashed through our digital screens with scenes of war, ought to inspire our responsiveness.

So far, the invasion of Ukraine has helped to kick our practice of almsgiving into high gear, via charitable donations. And the practice of fasting has taken on greater relevance as the world considers inflation, fuel use, supply disruptions, and food shortages. What about the third practice of Lenten discipline?

World as Community, World as Confessional.

On March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, Pope Francis led us in prayer at a deep level–a ritual of recollection and confession, along with an appeal for grace and remorse for decades of social and personal sin. As Catholics say at Mass, “I confess” that I have increased our world’s burden of guilt by “what I have done and what I have failed to do.”

Like that liturgical “Confiteor,” this acknowledgement of evil emanated from individual hearts and kindred groups. These groups constituted the whole Body of Christ but also included amalgams such as nationalities or age cohorts. Baby Boomers, for example, knew what they were acknowledging.

The Pope’s appeal for grace took the form of consecrating all nations–and “especially Russia and Ukraine”–to Jesus through Mary. The pontiff made this a global and local act, accompanied by bishops around the world.

All of this struck me as a source of great hope and fraternal solidarity amid the terror of war and the tragedy of social polarization. The Pope’s call to prayer temporarily toppled walls which prevent so many people from transcending their individual self-sufficiency, tribes of self-imposed identity, and hatred and fear grounded in politics, pride, and power games. Catholics came together in their weakness and need. Nowadays, remorse and humility may be the only paths where throngs find a unified voice.

Focusing on the world’s outreach to God, I was struck by one other remarkable circumstance of connection and recollection. Alongside this glimpse of solidarity transcending borderlines and demographics, I marveled at a whole generation–loosely speaking, “older folks” who belong to a few generations–coming together to make a universal act of confession.

Examination of Conscience and Consciousness.

Pope Francis is 85. So many world leaders–I’m especially aware of those in the United States–can be called members of what Americans know as the “Silent Generation” (born between 1925 and 1945) or the Baby Boomers, born after World War II. As a Boomer, I thought broadly of people in these age groups when I heard Francis’ introduction to the consecration prayer:

We have forgotten the lesson learned from the tragedies of the last century, the sacrifice of the millions who fell in two world wars. We have disregarded the commitments we made as a community of nations. We have betrayed people’s dreams of peace and the hopes of the young. We grew sick with greed, we thought only of our own nations and their interests, we grew indifferent and caught up in our selfish needs and concerns. We chose to ignore God, to be satisfied with our illusions, to grow arrogant and aggressive, to suppress innocent lives and to stockpile weapons. We stopped being our neighbor’s keepers and stewards of our common home. We have ravaged the garden of the earth with war, and by our sins we have broken the heart of our heavenly Father, who desires us to be brothers and sisters.

The Pope’s words constituted for all humanity–and especially for those who have shared his 20th century experiences–an examination of conscience which is not only humbling, but humiliating. As sleepwalking societies, we have been waking up jarred by enormous sorrow.

It is a burden that cannot be relieved on the human plane, where confession and forgiveness do not come easily. This burden helps to explain the cognitive dissonance in society today. In a world where God is overshadowed by a crazy-quilt mix of relativism and moralism, finger-pointing and narcissism, shallow, simplified thinking and intricate, negative emotion, we see that we have slipped down the slope that older generations could have aniticipated as leaders and followers.

Therefore, I think of Pope Francis’ consecration of Russia and Ukraine as a present-day annunciation of sorts. Surely I’m not the only person for whom this Lenten event, so profound for the Church and the world, was a soul-piercing announcement of responsibility borne by a negligent world, and likewise by me as an individual and as one in a generation that drifted from its North Star–and its Star of the Sea.

This penitential season is something to take personally as well as panoramically. The original annunciation to Mary was all about reconciliation based on one woman’s courage to say yes. Pope Francis made this present-day annunciation partly about members of 20th-century “me generations” who too often said no, or simply didn’t respond, to offers of grace.

We still can pray for echoes of the original Annunciation outcome, which was a miraculous birth reconciling God and mankind. The Pope last week spoke to us as well as to Mary: Please say yes for new generations, for all generations, who can learn from the past and the present while building a future that is attentive to–even consecrated to–transcendent truths.

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The 2020s: For Your Penance, Stay Reflective

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One of Lent’s greatest gifts is a soul that’s been cleansed in a good confession. Another great gift, but a heavier lift, is the examination of conscience which prepares that soul for Reconciliation.

For at least two years, many of us have sensed the Lord calling Christians to a fresh perspective and a clean start on a global scale. We have had to acknowledge that the world is a mess. A pandemic, riots in many locales, chaos in governments and media, and war in Europe–along with anxiety over finances, economies, the global environment, and our human ecology–have enervated and implicated lots of folks.

We can welcome this Lent as a time of spiritual reckoning, a chance to realize our continuing need to watch and pray, a launching pad for heightened circumspection backward and forward along life’s accelerating timeline of crucial change. May the informal examination of conscience which follows–a modest proposal for scanning our sinfulness in the 2020s so far–help us gear up for perpetual reflection and perpetual renewal concerning big-picture realities. If we ask God to bless this mess, I can imagine Our Father reminding us He’ll check regularly to see if we’re cleaning our rooms.

Another metaphor: Before we enter the confessional, I can imagine being asked for two checklists.

First, an updated progress report downloaded from our consciences. Am I softening my hardened heart? Am I still holding on to systemic pride, claiming Christian privilege from an abundantly merciful God? I might be called out for going through the motions and flat-lining in my trajectory of spiritual growth.

Second, an action plan listing steps I can take in the upcoming months to improve my performance and demonstrate my focus, to contribute values and virtues to the Church’s treasury (and remedies to the secular world’s mounting deficits of Godliness). Imagine there’s a new human-resources director in town; making the metrics is getting harder. Every full-time disciple must bear his or her load.

With those notions in mind, here are first steps toward progress-report questions for a sin-scan examen. Remember the Good News: This is primarily a self-diagnostic exercise, and rich mercies will still be applied during the sacrament. We are encouraged to be creative within the necessary strictures. And, as with many tests, it helps if we show our work.

  • Have I been open to all “takeaway lessons” I can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, from the war in Ukraine, from the best and worst of people’s behavior? If I’m observing good and evil in worldly and spiritual conflicts, how are these insights fine-tuning my approaches to God , to other people, and to myself? (Here, think … heroism, self-sacrifice, and signs of servant-leadership on one side? cowardice and confusion, untruths and betrayed trust, and horrific disregard for human life on the other?)
  • To the degree policies or other conditions during the pandemic changed my life’s schedule in the past two years, have I made good use of additional empty hours that became available? Have I tended to waste my extra time or resources, perhaps indulging myself in unhelpful distractions, or worse, in actions that harmed myself or others? (Here, think … binging on entertainment or self-absorbed habits during lockdowns?)
  • Have I formed habits of fear, suspicion, or disengagement that prevent me from full participation in family life, friendships, and important communities? Are there relationships or lines of communication that I need to re-energize? (Here, think … my vital connections to the sacramental life and a worshiping community in the Church?)
  • Have I been inclined to assume a role that belongs only to God–such as judging a person’s soul or essential nature rather than the person’s action? Have I initiated or supported dismissive or divisive stances toward people in my life, with “holier than thou” instincts leading to punishment or polarization? (Here, think … “canceling” people, deep resentment toward those who differ with my truth claims, snap judgments based on a single error when a person could apologize, “God’s not finished with me yet”?)
  • Do I allow my appetite for news to point me toward media, influencers, and subjective forces whose offerings are primarily driven by ratings, greed, power, and pride? Do I maintain a healthy skepticism, alongside a lively curiosity, encouraging me to pursue full understanding and genuine wisdom rather than merely titillating headlines? Am I digging for bigger, broader stories that include compassionate outreach to marginalized people and unheard voices? (Here, think … high standards for mainline media and social media, seeking multiple viewpoints? learning infused with wonder and appreciation? “confirmation bias” that closes minds and hardens hearts?)
  • Have I dismissed the power of prayer, the need for grace, and the virtues of faith, hope, and charity as the principal lenses through which to view challenges in my life (and the lives of others)? Do I lean toward a “take control,” “just do it” decision-making style that favors efficiency, shallow thought, and blame-shifting? Am I the plane’s pilot, relegating God to passenger or co-pilot status? (Here, think … authoritarian inclinations? or a preference for a God who “writes straight with crooked lines”?)
  • Have I paid special attention to needs for healing, guidance, and encouragement which may have grown among my friends–and especially within my own family? Am I mindful of the painful experiences and emotions of my spouse and children during chaotic times? (Here, think … the deepest relationships warrant consideration of long-term implications, wanting the whole good for a person, including their future in heaven? are the easy, short-term solutions more compassionate or less?)
  • Have I found myself asking “what is truth?” Am I letting society’s manipulative messages, immersion in lies and fakery, short attention spans, and artificial realities weaken my own honesty and my commitment to truth? Am I forgetting the maxim, “Reality wins”? (Here, think … lies destroying people, relationships, and bonds of social trust? am I tempted to adopt the relativism of secular society, not realizing that, without recourse to God’s ultimate truth, there is no basis for truly inclusive problem-solving?)
  • Is today’s oversexualization of human identity leading me to give my sexual consciousness and instincts broader leeway for expression? Do I recognize males and females possessing particular genius from God, invaluable as an integral–but not overriding–part of one’s complex, unique human dignity? Have I supported sexuality as a buttress for the meaning of the family? (Here, think … does one modify definitions of families or communities in ways that can erode their key strengths? do we want the best for each person regardless of their sexual orientation?)
  • Am I properly grappling with fundamental concerns like the plights of hunger and poverty around the world and in my own town? Am I sensitive to the unjust gaps in income, education, and empowerment which negate everyone’s equality in God’s eyes? Do I see this problem’s connection to violations of the right to life from womb to tomb? (Here, think … can one raise awareness by citing how these gaps have shown themselves in the pandemic, in war and violence, in short-sighted solutions?)
  • Despite a moral dissatisfaction with the status quo, do I live a life of forgiveness and humility? Am I standing against bitterness, anger, demonization, and a violent spirit, or am I leaning toward these tendencies? (Here, think … does assuaging social guilt through a display of righteousness indicate laziness or hypocrisy? does the removal of God from one’s moral system still leave room for forgiveness? can the Church be an instrument for protecting democratic freedoms with classical liberal thought?)

Pope Francis recently addressed an urgent need of the world by coupling his Marian consecration of Russia and Ukraine to introductory statements–ultimately, an examination of conscience to rend and galvanize humanity’s heart.

It seemed right and just for us to pause for this cross-examination before seeking the Lord’s healing mercy and acting upon the loving wake-up calls Our Lady has sent to us. Her promises and prophecies during apparitions are often quite specific, and she asks that we consider and act upon particular things.

Thus, we can smile about the notions of sin-scans and action plans as discussed at the start of this blog post, but there is something valuable about specificity, focus, and rigor that keep our spiritual lives relevant. We are not called to be the Pharisees who obsessed about every detail of multitudinous laws. But our Church is an enduring champion for right ways to do things–and generations of kids from Catholic schools have grown up with an advantage in professions where clear, community-minded assessments and effective, responsible performance are essential.

This decade seems to be starting out in an especially messy way, and the Church can help straighten things out. There is clearly much she can do to wield her virtuous influence, but, as the imaginary human resources manager mentioned earlier in this post knew, everyone must bear their load so we can avoid slippery slopes in our own life and in our shared mission.

We should continue to ask the Lord to bless our mess. But, as Pope Francis showed when he preceded his Marian consecration with a poignant global statement of contrition, we must accept consistent responsibility for the messes we help to make as individuals and in groups. We should be sure, with Our Lord’s and Our Lady’s help, to avoid messing up the blessings that are the reason for our hope as individual Christians and as local and global communities entrusted as our brothers’ keepers.

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Ukraine and “Just War Theory”


published by The Tablet on March 5, 2022

By William Schmitt

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 prompted many commentators to focus on critiquing strategies and predicting side-effects like higher U.S. gas prices. Catholics were among the global voices providing broader viewpoints — such as Christ’s call for peacemaking, compassion, and justice — to help understand the evolving crisis.

Pope Francis, facing requests to intervene as a moral authority and having rebuked the “diabolical senselessness of violence,” declared Ash Wednesday, March 2, to be an international day of prayer and fasting for peace in the turbulent region.

Service members of the Ukrainian armed forces drive military vehicles past destroyed buildings on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in Shyrokyne April 21, 2021. (Photo: CNS /Oleksandr Klymenko, Reuters)

As Lent approached, prospects for conventional diplomatic solutions seemed to fade, although influencers discussed ideas like establishing an official “neutral” stance for Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden and other leaders from NATO and the United Nations together condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin for his assaults on democracy and international law, already leading to speculation about a quick victory.

A tough new level of sanctions was imposed on Russia, and both sides spoke of potential reprisals. Meanwhile, Ukrainians endured the physical suffering of multi-pronged attacks.

According to news reports last week, innocent civilians took up guns to resist Russian troops, or sought refugee status beyond their borders, or took shelter in their hometowns.

Leaders’ descriptions of their policies made reference to components of the “just-war theory,” a long-standing product of Catholic philosophy that has helped shape geopolitics.

The theory’s application of virtuous principles sharply limits the conditions under which countries may resort to the battlefield.

For example, the U.S. has spoken of avoiding direct military clashes with Russian troops, reflecting a desire to prevent escalation into a “world war” between nuclear powers. NATO’s financial sanctions were targeted toward the business sector, not toward effects on innocent civilian lives.

For his part, Putin on Feb. 24 called the invasion a “special military operation” and defined his dubious idea of a just cause: He aimed “to protect people” who have been “subjected to genocide by the Kyiv regime,” to strive for “de-Nazification of Ukraine,” and to “bring to justice those who committed multiple bloody crimes against citizens, including Russian citizens,” according to an English translation.

Much planning of next moves now can be guided appropriately by the just-war theory’s checklist for prudent policy, which has influenced papal pronouncements as well as international law.

The latter includes the Geneva Conventions — a group of treaties also called the Humanitarian Law of Armed Conflicts.

Although just-war thinking took shape with input from such role models as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the discernment tool is often unknown, or deemed irrelevant, or downplayed as incomplete for today’s circumstances.

Likewise, its implications can be misunderstood or distorted, especially in an age of intense propaganda, manipulation of words, “psychological operations,” and advanced war technology.

John Davenport, a philosophy professor at Fordham University, told The Tablet last week the just-war theory has an important role to play in addressing Russian aggression against Ukraine.

The theory needs to be more widely known, Davenport said, and “it should be taught as part of understanding global affairs” — equipping leaders to go beyond “realpolitik,” an old term for policies based on pragmatic, not morally-based, factors.

He said the Church-based principles “point toward a rules-based order” in the world — criminalizing nationalist aggression and empowering democracies through a focus on political and human rights.

But the just-war theory is no panacea for peacemaking, he acknowledged. The pursuit of international justice and freedom must be continuous, with risks of rights violations being called out and addressed forcefully by the vast bulk of democracies on every continent.

“There needs to be a new institution,” according to Davenport. NATO is too small, and the United Nations has many non-democratic influencers, so those vehicles cannot provide the necessary stewardship for peace.

Also, while an array of confident democracies will typically discourage aggression over time, the stewards must be willing to take strong action when tyrants do emerge.

Father Joseph Nangle, a Franciscan who speaks widely for the international group Pax Christi (“Peace of Christ”), said advocates for today’s nonviolence movement reflect their philosophy with a grammatical reminder: Do not break up the word with a hyphen because it is an integrated, positive approach — indeed, “an active verb.”

Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in his “Word on Fire” video supporting the just-war theory, acknowledges that there has been “a great tradition of nonviolence within Christianity.”

It started with Christ’s blessing for peacemakers in the Beatitudes and his guidance to “turn the other cheek,” and it proceeds through the social justice movement and the peace movement of the 20th century.

Today, organizations like Pax Christi, extending from their Catholic roots to work on expanded missions of justice, community, and the environment, have local chapters for study, prayer, and discussion, including in the Brooklyn Diocese.

On the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pax Christi USA issued a statement saying it “urges the international community to stand united against the invasion of Ukraine and in support of diplomacy and dialogue to bring this crisis to an end.”

The group continued: “We urge the United States and NATO to refrain from pursuing military responses and to pursue solutions that address the context and complexity of the root causes which gave rise to the crisis in the first place.”

Pax Christi “ambassador” Father Nangle called attention to a campaign the international group is conducting: a Catholic Nonviolence Initiative. The plan entails widespread implementation of lessons from Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” on the theme of “care for our common home.”

Father Nangle also cited Pope Francis’ 2017 message for the World Day of Peace as part of evolving understandings.

There, the pontiff sought to spread a nonviolent ethos among world leaders and all people by discussing the effect of violence on the world, with possible echoes in 2022:

“Violence is not the cure for our broken world. Countering violence with violence leads at best to forced migrations and enormous suffering, because vast amounts of resources are diverted to military ends and away from the everyday needs of young people, families experiencing hardship, the elderly, the infirm and the great majority of people in our world,” Pope Francis wrote.

“At worst, it can lead to the death, physical and spiritual, of many people, if not of all.”

story reprinted with permission from The Tablet … see this and other stories by Bill Schmitt at the Tablet website

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Between the Lines, Young Writers Reveal Hope

Posted in the Magis Center’s blog on Sept. 8. See all the resources of the Magis Center.

As most of you are aware, Magis is fully engaged in communicating Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. One of our guest writers, Bill Schmitt (who also happens to be a longtime friend of Father Spitzer), teaches English at the college level and has chronicled some observations from his classroom experience. We at Magis found Bill’s reflections on the topic of “virtuous communication” illuminating and worth sharing.

Students in my freshman English class at a small Catholic college in Indiana turned the tables on me. During the past three semesters, I taught them important skills for writing essays and polishing their grammar. But, as I will show you, they taught me on a grander scale. They revealed their hunger for meaningful self-expression in the turbulent marketplace of data. They also helped me glimpse the breadth of the learning suited to young, idealistic communicators—the personal formation, a Catholic formation, that will help them manage tsunamis of information.

Many parents and teenagers focus on a college’s ability to impart knowledge for career success. However, they should not downplay the wisdom which leads minds, hearts, and souls toward ultimate happiness and culture-healing.               

I thank my faith-filled department chair for encouraging me, right from the start, to foster both of those goals as an adjunct professor—educating writers for proficiency and cultivating a Catholic imagination within the campus community. I kept updating the syllabus for my “Writing and Rhetoric” course. One might say it became “a little bit business and a little bit heart-and-soul.”     

“Virtuous communication” became a favorite theme in that syllabus. I added time-tested resources to read or view. I conducted style exercises pressing students to “get to the point.” Then, I followed up: What is your point? How and why have you formulated it this way? Are you considering your reader? What will add value to this information and to the conversation opportunities for that reader and others?                   

The students’ responses to these questions and to all our course activities (including “virtual learning” outside the classroom when Covid required) got me thinking: Curricula incorporating virtuous communication, linking indispensable skill-building with values that help to address the dangers of social polarization and our manipulative digital culture, can be among the most distinctive, intellectually potent offerings on today’s faithful Catholic campuses.               

We can envision relevant “information age” classes as gateways, revealing to students (and their families) our many connected assets. They will discover a holistic “core curriculum” that students—at least those cultivating the three theological virtues—are likely to appreciate. It recognizes both their need to build careers and our Church’s need to elevate God’s disciples who will enter the global “mission field.”               

Allow me to pitch this idea, intended as an encouragement to supporters of Catholic education across all the disciplines, amplifying voices from my classes. I have clipped quotes from essays they submitted for grading. The texts are gently edited, and some of them may reflect a bit of pandering to the professor, but I vouch for their validity. Their essays indicated that assigned readings and reflections—plus key themes embodied by authors, online videos, guest speakers, and my recollections from a multimedia journalism career—helped make their semester’s potential launch pads for servant-leadership through words and mind frames.               

At least that’s my interpretation of what they wrote after we had discussed such subjects as respect for language, footnotes, and compositions as vessels of truth; enthusiasm for storytelling and sharing ideas as authentic “witnesses”; confidence enabling creativity and curiosity; and the notion that robust communication is a team sport, not a narcissistic indulgence in verbal and visual junk food.   

Because a rhetoric course today must assess the media and messages of the internet, we explored the good and bad in online immersion—the juxtapositions of compelling expressiveness and disappointing passivity within artificial realities and confirmation bias.               

I saw students genuinely intrigued by diving into the poetic imagery of Maya Angelou, the compelling homiletics of Bishop Robert Barron, the political philosophy of John Stuart Mill, the handy tips for public speakers from our local “Toastmasters International” chapter president, and the reader-centric humanism undergirding the checklist of rules in the classic Elements of Style. 

By far the best tour guide for the course’s Christian trajectory was Pope Francis. Our spring 2021 reading list included the papal messages for the Church’s “World Communications Days” (WCD) of 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021. I will not claim Francis is a flawless communicator, but he did expand upon many factors influencing post-modern interactions. He pointed to remedies in Church documents, in the genius of Scriptures and saints, celebrations of the divine as portals to the really real, and prayerful calls to emulate Jesus as the great storyteller.               

What did my students say about their semester-long journeys?               

First, one must acknowledge that some said they had not been prepared for the zeal of virtuous communication during their high school years. One repentant essayist said she had habitually handed in papers without re-reading them “because I was always in a rush to turn them in on time.”

Another admitted a utilitarian approach to research, and hence to learning: “I would begin writing my essay without any outline, and then as soon as I reached my first argument in my first body paragraph, I began my research.” Now, after this college course, he said, “I am able to give the reader a much better chance at fully grasping and understanding the argument I am making.”               

Our method of fine-tuning student essays incorporated peer review, where everyone’s work was “edited” by at least one classmate. A student essayist was grateful for “the conversations that revolved around how to better structure my essay so that it would make the most sense to the reader.” This was openness to diverse perspectives.       

Additional replies reflected expansions of students’ perspectives:               

A lesson about solidarity: Our pen-wielding pilgrims were attracted to the inherent goodness in communicating well, without indifference or malice. In his 2019 WCD message, Pope Francis connected communication, community, and communion—a unity found when persons seek the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Desires for common ground can help us rise above polarization. Students described it this way:

  • “Pope Francis says, ‘God is not Solitude, but Communion; He is Love, and therefore communication because love always communicates. . . . In order to communicate with us and to communicate Himself to us, God adapts himself to our language, establishing a real dialogue with humanity through history.’ I was not reflecting God in my communications because I was not communicating intentionally with others and the world around me.”
  • “[Drawing upon Pope Francis and Ephesians 4:25,] I hold the responsibility to my community to remain truthful and ensure that all parts feel heard, excluding no one and including diverse opinions. After understanding my place on the social network, I then encourage others to understand their part in the community and help promote virtuous communication.”               
  • “Pope Francis says it best when he says true communication is about forming relationships between people. . . . Communicators must treat information as if it were a prized possession.”      

A lesson about seeking truth in a relationship. Students realize they usually receive only part of the facts in a news story; their hunger for truth must drive an outward gaze and proactive curiosity. Rather than settling for relativism or the first Google search result, they like the idea of using the internet to conduct more panoramic inquiries and stepping out to hear the voices of the marginalized. My essayists reacted this way:           

  • “Through dialogue, by proper use of language, the online community grows together. I stopped relying on social media and sought first-hand experience by the ‘Come and See’ approach [citing the Pope’s title for his 2021 message]. It encouraged me to rely less on what I might already know and forced me to see for myself. Communication is done through encounters.”           
  • “[John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, argues] how a marketplace of varied, distinct perspectives will present points of consideration toward this ultimate objective [of virtuous communication]. Without this universal mindset, though, a widespread ‘copy and paste’ mentality will offer only passive credence rather than active refinement to existing thoughts and ideas.”           
  • “After reading Pope Francis’ address, I have tried to attend more events that I find interesting, whether it be in person or virtually. I feel more comfortable watching the events live . . . so I may talk with my peers about what occurred and not tarnish or misconstrue what actually happened.”           

A lesson celebrating God in heartfelt stories. Students can discover storytelling as integral to good communication—an idea Pope Francis confirms (in his WCD 2020 message) by noting God’s storytelling prowess in Scripture and Jesus’ ability to touch people’s lives through parables. Francis warns that many stories are destructive; they may be mere narratives (or algorithms?) that are pre-determined and prejudicial. Stories shared passionately with others over time—and shared with the Lord in a relationship of discernment—are models for embracing history and solidifying culture. I received these comments:

  • “We can use story to get factual information into the hands of people to drive more communicative conversations that are not censored.”           
  • “My communications regimen mostly consisted of Morning Drive on the Golf Channel, Squawk Box on CNBC, and The Wall Street Journal app on my iPad. . . . [They] produced the information that intrigued me the most, drove my passions the most. . . . The regimen [for communicators] needs to consist of topics that spark passion. . . .”   
  • “As Saint Augustine said, ‘We have books in our hands, but the facts are before our eyes.’”
  • “I have become more aware than ever of who I follow [in media] and what I see, for every day I make sure that my intake is positively impacting my growth as a human.”

A lesson about helping us navigate through life. In a world where myriad media are a pervasive and mixed blessing, excellence in communication brings focus and accessibility to our interactions. This excellence begins with basics like competent grammar and outlines. But the students learn it goes much farther than competent grammar and outlines; it must be the product of wise, diligent persons who use all the tools for countering our “post-truth” tendencies. Students want to use their talents as instruments of peace found in trust and reality. The resources of Catholic wisdom—and a liberal arts education properly understood—provide anchors and navigation for immense creativity within guard rails of consistency and coherence. Reflections included:       

  • “I did not allow time or space in my day to have real communication with other people. But now I can see that communication is more than emails or news stations. I have enjoyed hearing about classmates’ favorite podcasts and listening to new ways people are using music to tell stories, like Lin Manuel Miranda. . . . My main takeaway is that communication is more fluid and broader than I originally thought, and it influences every aspect of my life because I am always interacting with other people. With something so important and foundational, I want to add my lens of the Catholic faith so I can be a virtuous communicator.”               
  • “Through our grammar practice, I had fun trying to make the sentences more concise because it reminded me of making slogans. . . . I am getting more determined to pursue advertising. In Pope Francis’ 2021 Communications Day message, he spoke of the importance of pursuing actions and not just spectating. I always thought I should be a spectator, but now I want to do more. I am even interested in starting a podcast with one of my friends.”               
  • “I did not like to write or express my opinion for the world to see. However, after taking this course, I have realized the importance that communication has on the world, and I, as a writer and student, have an opportunity to put a positive impact on the community through my communication.”
  • “The solution isn’t limiting conversation when the topics get hard or uncomfortable; rather, it’s keeping these difficult conversations going to inspire real change and real action.”
  • “I am reminded that my opinion and thoughts that are represented in what I write and share with this world hold great power for change, and I cannot let that opportunity go to waste.”               

These lessons suggest that the enticement of plentiful, recognizable “skills for tomorrow’s communications workplace” can help to reveal Church-rooted education uncovering where worldly and heavenly insights intersect. Beyond a livelihood, students envision a life well-lived. Of course, college disciplines other than writing and rhetoric are ordered to these same discoveries.As Pope Francis and other “mentors” taught us in our course, the best “directions” for a journey toward worldly and eternal rewards connect all that is good: Scripture, Catholic Social Teaching, and catechetics about God-given dignity; a spirituality of communion; morality, ethics, and logic; admiration for good governance and “civics” embracing local, national, and global community; humility and curiosity in the sciences; respect for history and tradition; and appreciation of true beauty in arts, music, and all talents gifted by the Creator.               

My students helped me deduce how Catholic college students can benefit from their experience learning and utilizing these intersections of ideas as writers and rhetoricians. That awareness seems more urgent than ever in a world craving everyday evangelization; such training can be a big boost for four years well spent. Since love is the greatest virtue, Pope Francis is wise to remind us that “love always communicates.” One student reminded me this way: “I have found resources I trust, information I’m passionate about, and ideas that I hope to learn more about in the future. I never want to become stagnant or flatfooted with my communications. I’d be neglecting to focus on one of the most important and amazing parts of being a human being—the ability to connect and grow with others.”

Bill Schmitt

Bill Schmitt is a journalist, educator, and marketing-communications specialist who recently completed his third semester as an adjunct professor of English at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, IN. He served on the communications staff of the University of Notre Dame from 2003 to 2017, managing many projects and joining in a wide range of multimedia, interdisciplinary collaborations. Since then, his freelance work has included feature-writing, editing, podcasting, and blogging, with much of his work centered on the Catholic faith. Bill holds a BA from Fordham University and an MPA from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Find his blog at OnWord.net and more career information on Linked-In at billschmitt-onword.

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Jordan Peterson Returns, and We See Ourselves

Reprinted from the blog of the Magis Center, as published June 12, 2021. 

Reflecting that spirit, but eager to rise above it, I feel duty-bound to bring the good news that a spiritually enriching drama, reflecting and nurturing genuine online intelligence grounded in faith and reason, is “now playing” in the otherwise random world of You Tube. This series, more like an organic, ongoing promulgation of related interviews and presentations, features a protagonist along with his interlocutors, friends, critics, and play-by-play commentators. It constitutes for me what marketers of yesteryear would have called “Must-See TV.”

This content is in-tune with today’s chaotic times of social transformation—and with Catholics’ increasing awareness that, as bishops’ dispensations disappear and our culture’s need for healing grows, now would be a good time to head back to church.

What might this timely, compelling, and edifying content be? It is the return of Jordan B. Peterson, Ph.D., the Canadian psychologist, author, and public intellectual who retreated from computer screens last year. He had built a huge following since the mid-2010s through an immersion in political controversy and an emergence of his secular insights via countless public appearances and online talks. He also produced a best-selling book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Jordan Peterson Before His Health Crisis in 2019

After provoking new thoughts on an array of topics close to the human heart and spirit, after leaving millions inspired or angry, confounded or curious, and after drawing praise from Bishop Robert Barron for pointing non-believers toward religion, Peterson entered a severe health crisis in 2019.

My Magis Center blog post last June joined in the prayers for his recovery and the praise of his unique role—an “accidental evangelist,” an agnostic scientist craving order and caring about persons. He had been especially successful in telling young people that now would be a good time to find and pursue their missions of ultimate meaning and responsibility to themselves and others. This roadmap toward the sacred steered clear of any stated beliefs about God’s existence.

Peterson’s profound, stoic call to help stem the world’s tendency toward the chaos of evil nudges the “nones,” restless in their competitive, vulnerable positions, to envision an adventure as a champion for the common good. Through the lens of Father Spitzer’s four levels of happiness, this nudge can yield a life-changing crossover from the self-defeating trap of the second level to the greater freedom for sustainable fulfillment found at the third level.

Of course, as Bishop Barron, Father Spitzer, and other Catholic voices point out, such an achievement, which finds too little support in our narcissistic culture, still leaves the individual without the connection to God and transcendent love found at the fourth happiness level.

As an ailing Peterson carried his cross last year, I wondered: Might he return to the public spotlight even more powerful in motivating his fans to cross their bridges when they have come to them—proceeding from a self-absorbed, doubt-plagued culture in two steps, in baby steps, to levels three and four?

Peterson Returns—Has His Health Experience Opened Him to Level 4?

Peterson’s struggles against physical depletion and pain have continued to take a toll, but he reappeared to announce his first phase of recovery and public engagement in a video last October. In 2021, he has resumed making his own podcasts and meeting with some interviewers. He is promoting a new book. In various video contexts, he seems open to more explicit, positive references to personal religiosity and to God as a necessary alternative to atheism—but also as an immensely challenging presence in one’s life.

Now, the thought-leader speaks often of gratitude for an upward trajectory in health and the blessings of charitable support from fans. During a recent “return engagement” with Bishop Barron, he spoke of his wife’s interest in the rosary. When Barron promised his ongoing prayers upon the conclusion of the video—nearly two hours in a conversation of graduate-school caliber—Peterson again expressed thankfulness, a trait he had called close kin to faith: “I need all the blessings from God I can get.” 

Among other highlights of that discussion, the psychologist offered advice that continued his role in today’s omnipresent dramas of decathlon-level testing. If the Catholic Church is saying its members must be fully conformed to a Christ of salvific self-giving, he told the Bishop, it is not presenting that awesomely compelling invitation with sufficient urgency. Barron agreed.

Those browsing through You Tube archives of Peterson’s latest videos will find him in agreement with voices such as Father Spitzer, who instructs us (through the release of his Called Out of Darkness books and his EWTN Universe series) to see the plot thickening amid signs of tragic cultural torpor. Both men would align with Barron and many others in saying all people of good will must now discern how the plots of their own lives can become more clarified and energized.

A Culture Desperate for All Four Levels of Happiness

The battles at the borders of all four happiness levels seem to be intensifying. Potential pilgrims who may be stalled at various milestones need reminders to pursue a happiness radically different from social norms of polarization and narcissism; they need to see that, amid their pursuits, beneficial escape routes and bridges to higher levels do exist.

To the degree that our culture takes on post-Christian traits, more of those still frustrated by life at the boundaries of the first three levels may choose a strategy that Peterson deeply fears—no longer seeking the good, not even choosing errors that at least appear to achieve a good, but choosing evil for its own sake. This is a path toward deconstruction, destruction, and even self-destruction. Some may see it, Peterson suggests, almost as a way to punish God (assuming He exists!) for creating the dismal world they perceive. In this scenario, one can imagine those unable to find, define, or imagine true happiness lobbing missiles of demonization, cancellation, and manipulation across the happiness borderlines. That threatens collateral damage to truth, trust, social cohesiveness, and the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Will everything except the community and communion of the fourth level be weaponized?

Fortunately, there is good reason to answer no to this question. Peterson (who does not use Spitzerian models of happiness to develop his scenarios) seems to have adopted, and resumed, his multimedia productivity precisely to keep pushing back against the prospects of darkness and despair in human life. Of course, it is rare to see a smile forming on his face, but he is holding true to his (stoic?) roadmap for meaning and contributive responsibility. He still speaks and writes about steps toward order and bridges toward progress.

Bishops Barron and Holding out Hope

Additional hope emerges from Bishop Barron in the aforementioned video, where he rejects Peterson’s hypothetical about-face toward a scorched-earth battle plan of evil. People inherently pursue what they see, however stupidly, as an apparent good, Barron insists; within this pursuit, God remains present as the ultimate, unconditioned good, ready to invite people out of the worst situations. My interpretation: The “good news” of level four, the Kingdom of God, can make pilgrims’ baby steps joyful and unitive; the whole pathway remains intact, although we Catholics must diligently point toward the best answers.

The 2021 Season of Jordan Peterson

With plot elements such as these, the “2021 season” of Jordan Peterson-linked presentations promises to remain motivational and riveting. Whether or not one agrees with his politics, it is good to see this persistent scholar resuming his long march against chaos. Even better, the broader digital arena will continue to bring us many other voices commenting on, or otherwise illuminating, Peterson’s secular-but-spiritual scripts. (As just one example among many, he discusses politics, post-modernism, digital culture, and faith with biologist Brett Weinstein.)

New dimensions of insight have been added by Peterson’s own via dolorosa. His health perils, concurrent with a worldwide “code blue,” should inspire all of us to continue our pilgrimage toward healing as we carry our respective crosses.

Now would be a good time for us to gather not merely as an audience around our screens, but as brothers and sisters delighted to re-encounter each other—in church pews and in conversations desiring discovery. May our consumption of “online intelligence” encourage us to stay tuned to the panoramic pursuit of true happiness, level by level, person by person, episode by episode.

Cover Image: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0

Read Also:

Happiness and the Jordan Peterson Factor

The Greatest Danger Facing America Today According to Bishop Barron

[Video] What is Happiness? Here’s a Basic Overview

Bill Schmitt is an adjunct professor in the Department of Humanities at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, IN. He is a freelance writer and editor who has worked on four published books and numerous communications projects for the University of Notre Dame and Purdue University. As outlined in attachments on Linked-In, his background in journalism and marketing-communications now extends to numerous appearances via podcasts and Cathoiic radio, plus news stories for the diocesan Today’s Catholic. Bill holds a BA from Fordham University and an MPA from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

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Ash Wednesday’s Message: Please Dim Your Virtue Signals

As Lent began this week, I think I heard one of the Bible’s strongest critiques of virtue-signaling.  The Gospel reading during the Mass on Ash Wednesday, from Matthew 6:1-6, said this:

Jesus said to his disciples: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

Jesus went on to give the same advice about praying and fasting. It might be desirable that, amid the current phenomena of pandemic, polarization, and the cascading popularity of policy pronouncements (which may or may not reflect individuals’ personal values based on long discernment and commitment), any attempt to virtue-signal by displaying ashes on one’s forehead has been made more difficult and less common. (In past years, it had already prompted occasional comments of scorn and marginalization from strangers.)

The cautionary note about virtue-signaling is all the more authentic because the Bible advises us not only to question the strategy of signaling, which may be used to make us feel better about ourselves or may be weaponized to make others feel worse about themselves, but also to avoid complacent confidence that we possess all the virtue we are signaling.

The reading from Psalm 51 which precedes Ash Wednesday’s Gospel tells us we are flawed and falling short of the authentic virtue to which we are called as followers of Jesus:

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness, in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me. For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always.

In the absence of a belief in God, and in our need for forgiveness, and in the compassion of God that can indeed wipe out our sinfulness if we truly repent, our claim on any particular virtue and our desire to demonstrate it to others can be seen as embarrassingly shallow.

I’m reminded of a commentary written by Jamil Zaki and Mina Cikara and published on June 25, 2020, in Time magazine. The title was, “Don’t Be Afraid to Virtue Signal — It Can Be a Powerful Tool to Change People’s Minds.” I have no reason to doubt the good values and intentions of these authors, but I notice that their praise at that time for a recent wave of corporate statements in social media, the toppling of derided statues, and the cancellation of a television program described these developments as necessary tactics using “social information” to drive “social change.”

They invoked psychology and political strategy to argue that “people look to each other when deciding how to express themselves.” As social norms shift, they said, “individuals shift with them: adopting popular opinions and behaviors and dropping ones that fall out of style.” The authors continued;

Conformity can seem spineless, but in fact it reflects an ancient yearning to be part of something greater than ourselves–a smart yearning, given the many social advantages of coordinating and cooperating with others. It goes deeper than words, sometimes changing what we see, what we value, and how we behave, even privately.”

This commentary approached its conclusion:

“But no matter their motives, when many people speak out, their voices have a powerful effect on receivers…. Collective outrage has become a social norm; coupled with the leadership of local organizers, it has yielded a phenomenal groundswell of action.”

The authors acknowledged that “signaling and conformity are not inherently positive,” but when the signal being communicated is inherently virtuous, people “can and should use their signals as anchors, holding them accountable for acting accordingly. But we should also realize the power signals have in and of themselves, in helping people locate each other–in this case, on the path to change.”

Again, I am not arguing at all against the virtuous quality of a cause–in this case, it was about a “demand to acknowledge and redress centuries-old inequality and violence” in the pursuit of racial justice, a moral imperative, as you can read in the entire article. But in light of the Bible’s messages heard at the launching of Lent, I fear that the exclusion of God’s own demands for a panorama of justice dislocates deep discernment about the whole story of our widespread hunger for authentic, lasting, peace-making change.

The ashes are meant to inspire a personal humility that acknowledges accountability to a loving and just God who has created every human being with immense, inviolable dignity; this accountability, shown by words and deeds but also by intent and pursuits of goodness in heart and mind, must be based on the individual’s journey toward a perfection of virtue. This journey will be assessed–and mercifully, contextually, humanely judged–by a God who shaped all of us from dust, with earthly flaws built in, and who leads us back to dust with a noble aftermath in mind.

Earthly death represents the ultimate equity of outcome for us all and allows for a holistically wise reckoning about our entire journey. This can lead us to eternal fellowship in God’s love or a tragic realization that fearful, manipulative, or hypocritical conformity to the pressures and perspectives of this world steered us too far off the path toward a heavenly destiny. No human being or well-intentioned campaign of messaging about justice can stand in for our creator in informing, then judging, our lifelong trek and its constituent steps. Secular outrage can short-circuit the ongoing transcendent dialogue whose effects may move more slowly but allow for more comprehensive, enduring penance that truly converts society. I sense we were finding this trajectory in recent decades when a gentler consensus prevailed.

Our sin is before us always; at least we might want to think twice about whether we citizens should be the only ones to judge the righteousness of anyone’s journey at a moment in time. Instead, we could freely ponder, and dialogue about, our choices of suitable course through complex circumstances. As believers fully aware of the dusty roads we must travel, perhaps the best we can do is act and express ourselves as authentically compassionate role models–and to humbly monitor our own roadmaps and our collective migration toward u-turns or broadways promising virtue. Our sense of shared pain and stain, rather than imposed guilt, might make us wiser navigators over time.

As I see it, that’s the guidance from the “prayer over the people” which concludes the Ash Wednesday Mass:

“Pour out a spirit of compunction, O God, on those who bow before your majesty, and by your mercy may they merit the rewards you promise to those who do penance.”


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Pope’s New Statement on Communication: What an Experience!

Speaking as a long-time journalist who looks to Pope Francis for insights that can help renew the business of information and the art of conversation in our polarized society, I’m happy to say the Holy Father has once again hit a home run with his message for the Church’s 2021 World Communications Day. 

The message, posted online by the Vatican this past weekend, is titled “Come and See: Communicating by Encountering People as They Are.”  World Communications Day #55  won’t arrive until the Sunday before Pentecost, but by tradition the annual messages debut in advance to mark the feast day of Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists, on January 24. Following up on thought-provoking ideas about news-media responsibilities (in 2018), digital-culture dangers (in 2019), and story-telling strengths (in 2020), the diagnoses and prescriptions for 2021 couldn’t be more timely and galvanizing. 

Here are highlights from this year’s reflections, which as always ponder how Catholic wisdom might serve to make contemporary social communication tools more useful as instruments of grace for human flourishing. These information points are based on quotes from our Pope but contain occasional riffs of my own reactions. By all means, please read the eloquent words of Francis directly; among world leaders,  he seeks a seat the table to discuss these things in a constructive way with secular world influencers. I support such conversations among people of good will. May this help: 

  • In a world where some producers and consumers of mass-market information suffer symptoms of passive posturing, narrow-mindedness, and aggressive anger which demonstrate our society’s lack of–and desperate need for–the virtues of faith, hope, and love, the Pope wants to remind us of “the method for all authentic human communication.” That method is the simple yet profound invitation to “come and see” (John 1:46). Jesus showed his disciples that this is the way to build the relationships that enkindle faith, to be part of a meaningful personal experience. An openness by all parties to encounter other persons, one-on-one, with a willingness to listen and learn, as well as to share connections to unvarnished reality for the sake of the common good, a greater good, is the antidote to what ails us in our relativistic solitude. This remedy works at the individual level, at the international corporate level, and at all levels of culture and politics in-between.
  • A major disease rampant in the news business, Francis points out, is that original investigation into the hard and full truth of situations “is being replaced” by reportage built around simplified, manipulative, and “often tendentious” narratives rather than complex stories honoring human dignity. The staffs in too many newsrooms create or convey what advocates want us to know “without ever hitting the streets” to gather and verify facts of life by meeting people face-to-face. These days, large portions of the population act as journalists gathering and spreading information–or misinformation–while “we remain mere spectators” who are not encountering the human (and inevitably divine) truths around us.  “Curiosity, openness, and passion” are lacking. Few participants in this space are testifying to the deepest stories in our lives-a tragic lapse when popes of the past have told us that faith-seekers (or simply truth-seekers and trust-seekers) demand not only teachers, but witnesses. “That is how Christian faith begins, and how it is communicated: as direct knowledge, born of experience and not of hearsay,” Pope Francis writes.
  • There is more at stake than the loss of some human-interest stories that might inspire us. First, the absence of reportorial zeal shows we have lost our sense of wonder and our eagerness to be surprised by the other; we fail to see how that person is impressively different from us and remarkably similar to us. Second, we are learning only about the people or circumstances backed by manipulators; we receive only some of the information we need to become well-formed agents of justice and mercy. For example, as the Pope points out, if we learn tidbits about international COVID-19 vaccine delays “only through the lens of the richer nations,” then we and our news media are “keeping two sets of books.” 
  • While the Internet is a powerful means for sharing truths and learning things we might never have known, social media are risky spreaders of misinformation and blockers of discernment and responsibility. Indeed we do have a responsibility to battle “fake news”–which Francis discussed in his 2018 World Communications Day message–“by exposing it,” he says. “All of us are to be witnesses of the truth: to go, to see, and to share.”
  • So much of the rhetoric that rushes at us through a digital firehose is devoid of meaning.  Francis quotes Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice as saying the empty facts “are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: You shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search.” This danger of wasting time reminds me of the TV program, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”. That particular ad-lib comedy show has the virtue of being entertaining and clever, but I hear the Shakespeare metaphor for modern punditry when the TV host speaks; she welcomes us to “the game where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.”  
  • The Pope tells us time is not wasted when the Gospel comes alive for us thanks to “the compelling witness of people whose lives have been changed by their encounter with Jesus.” The words of Scripture do indeed bear fruit in people’s lives when, as Saint Augustine remarked, “we have books in our hearts, but the facts before our eyes.” Francis adds, “For two millennia, a chain of such encounters has communicated the attractiveness of the Christian adventure.”
  • Francis personifies this adventure by making a reference that gave me a happy surprise. He speaks of Blessed Manuel Lozano Garrido, a journalist and Catholic who was born 100 years ago in Spain. He is the first lay journalist to have been beatified, and his life captured the potential joy of a journalist who is seeking truth by experiencing people and placing curiosity and wonder in the service of compassion, truth-seeking, and the common good. He even wrote a “Decalogue for the Journalist” that expresses this joy eloquently. When others read what you have written, he tells the periodista, “they too can touch first-hand the vibrant miracle of life.”
  • The Pope ends his message with a prayer that combines all of these points well: 
    “:Lord, teach us to move beyond ourselves, and to set out in search of truth. Teach us to go out and see, teach us to listen, not to entertain prejudices or draw hasty conclusions. Teach us to go where no one else will go, to take the time needed to understand, to pay attention to the essentials, not to be distracted by the superfluous, to distinguish deceptive appearances from the truth. Grant us the grace to recognize your dwelling places in our world and the honesty needed to tell others what we have seen.” The invitation to “come and see” is thus revealed as something all of us communicators have a duty to accept and a reason to embrace. This message for the 55th World Communications Day reminds us of our need for experiences that rise above the sterile, distracted, isolationist status of too much news in 2021–a journalism that can deform us as much as it can form and inform us.

See all of Bill Schmitt’s blog posts on communications and Catholic values here at OnWord.net. See his CV and resume here. Find a collection of his recent accomplishments, including links to radio and podcast productions, here.  Reach him by email at wschmitt@hcc-nd.edu. See his Linked-in profile.

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“Questions” We Can Learn from Alex Trebek

This commentary supplements a Dec. 22, 2020, podcast called “The Sandwich Generation,” in which host Chris Godfrey interviewed me about the power of group gamesmanship to edify whole families and renew community values. You can listen to the half-hour interview here. It was aired on Redeemer Radio in the Fort Wayne-South Bend area. The text below was updated on January 6, 2021.

“He was our trusted man with the answers, even in times when reality came to us in the form of a question.” New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik wrote that about Alex Trebek, the beloved “Jeopardy!” game show host who died November 8. The writer was referencing the contrarian rule that players on “Jeopardy!” shall be presented with an answer and must reply in the form of a question. He was right that reality poses questions, but it can’t stop there.

My testimonial in honor of Trebek, whose presentations and persona have inspired me ever since he assumed his iconic role in 1985, is this reflection: We have been well educated–and assisted in our continued growth in knowledge (and perhaps wisdom)–by the intelligent, respectful, exciting, and joyful dialogue that can take place every evening. Thank God that will continue, with legendary “Jeopardy” champion Ken Jennings as the interim host.

Thanks to Trebek, who has been called “America’s teacher,” the oddly beautiful, inseparable pairing of A&Q, of insight and inquiry, of gift and response, has helped me to think of truth as resilient, renewable, sustainable power and to see knowledge as something pursued amid both community and friendly “competition,” never held captive or hidden or weaponized.

The motif of learning I absorbed from this game is reconstructionist, not deconstructonist, liberally progressive yet conservative. The contest had to be taken somewhat seriously because two super-powers–understanding and curiosity–had been loosed for a drama of both collaboration and combat. My only response now is to ask a follow-up questions. What is the legacy of this 80-year-old gentleman who embraced both wisdom and mystery, a Yoda-like blend of rigorous dignity and centered humility? And what should we do with that legacy (beyond renewing the game for multiple seasons, of course)?

It seems a national audience has been empowered to move from learning to teaching, to use the same qualities and quests to motivate tomorrow’s contestants. As our collective mass of information and our mash-up of realities grow exponentially, successive generations must advance their questioning at a fast pace–into the next round, as it were. They must avoid being overwhelmed while they focus, shape, and sustain their inquiries, or else the game’s title will take on new, prophetic meaning.

I am grateful and optimistic that this game show–especially when it took on the Trebek-led combination of urgency and happiness, seriousness and light-heartedness, competitiveness and fellowship among respected contestants–is a good influence tucked inside a quagmire of pop-culture toxins. The influence can be summed up by the notion of cultivating wisdom at the intersection of knowledge, experience, good judgment, and continuous, wide-ranging learning. Without imagining that a TV program can be a panacea of transformative wisdom, these are ways in which I saw it influencing the public consciousness amid the entertainment values and celebrations of cash prizes:

  • “Jeopardy!” is a family-friendly game, an invitation for intergenerational dialogue and the sharing of edifying knowledge that endures over time. Grandparents and grandchildren, as well as age groups in-between, can look at each other and admire what the other persons know. All these individuals can see each other’s minds work, drawing upon various functions of reason and intuition, to produce good outcomes. They might spark another person’s curiosity about something from the past or present that deserves to be better understood.
  • The application of the term “jeopardy” to the rules of the game signaled an element of risk entailed in responsibility and accountability. You could win money by giving the right answer–question, I mean–but you could lose money by giving the wrong answer. Ignorance and carelessness can exact a price. The exercise of one’s mind takes place in the context of costs and benefits experienced by oneself and others. One must enter the contest, pursuing excellence, and one must remain aware of certain rules (like that mandate for “questions”) that establish a level playing field. There is a real sense of adventure undertaken and a just victory earned.
  • Producers of the game, probably encouraged by Trebek who accepted the duties of an educator, reach out to young people by holding “teen tournaments” and “college tournaments,” for example. Of course, marketing and ratings drive this outreach in part, as seen in the addition of a “celebrity tournament,” but there is an inclusiveness and democratization in this celebration of knowledge. Besides being open to various age groups, anyone can take the online test for eligibility and participation. This reflects the principle of equal opportunity without equal outcomes, nurturing a sense of meritocracy free of elitism or favoritism. Of course, it’s television, so I’m sure that in some sense a person’s telegenic or otherwise appealing nature might yield an advantage in preliminary selections, but I don’t know how this affects production decisions; in any event, producers offer a sense of the American mosaic, so I applaud this as good TV.
  • There is a personalist element to the show, mastered by Trebek with respectful acceptance of winners and challengers. He did not shy away from occasional friendly scrutiny or inquiry or observations of performance in his interviews and random comments. I believe Ken Jennings will bring his own personality to this touch of intimacy without injecting meanness or a philosophy of “everybody gets a trophy.” Contestants are treated as people with stories, not merely databases crowded with facts, measured by metrics. Wit is encouraged to the degree that it builds camaraderie, so long as it is not a distraction or a display of pride or a dismissal of propriety.
  • The game is a model of the ideal “university,” where the array of categories represents a broad spectrum of knowledge which is connected and constructive. My wife and I always enjoy noticing the questions about religion and the Bible. On most days, I can call out, “there’s the Catholic question!” at least once. It may or may not be specifically Catholic in content, but such a question is an affirmation that faiths and their embrace of transcendentals like truth, beauty, and goodness are desirable parts of a life well lived.

Future hosts of “Jeopardy!” will need to prove themselves as “people persons” who enjoy the context of each individual’s endeavor, which in a sense is every person’s endeavor. The real winners are those who integrate multiple skills, sensibilities, and perspectives, who have engaged with the world in a way that expands themselves and all other “stakeholders” in the program. Alex Trebek was the ultimate stakeholder and steward of the values which allow knowledge to be properly gained, proffered, and assessed in an open marketplace of insights. May future hosts and audiences emulate this champion of education. HIs legacy includes a role in forming many other champions who can sustain and refresh intellectual solidarity, touching society and souls.

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Pope Francis Sees a World of Emergencies, Wants a World of Human Encounters

Bill discussed subjects related to this post on Catholic radio with program host Matt Swaim on October 6. Click on the archive here and advance to the 1 hour-17 min. mark.

The encyclical sent forth to all the world by Pope Francis on Saturday, intended as an invitation to fraternal dialogue, “social friendship,” and profound concern for a human ecology in crisis, was the perfect opportunity for spiritual reading on October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

I immediately began to browse the new document, “Fratelli Tutti,” in search of guidance for applying Christian values to the renewal of various forms of communication. The pope has emerged as a leading voice among global leaders proclaiming that humanity’s pursuit of peace and society’s efforts to solve problems collaboratively are intertwined with the wise use of information in our minds and hearts. His pastoral warnings about trends in journalism, community discourse, digital culture, and personal storytelling have inspired me to write countless posts in this OnWord.net blog, as well as a book called When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?, and to ponder the intersection of Catholic discipleship and secular dialogue as we try to heal today’s cultural polarization.

Sure enough, the encyclical contains a section on the damage social media and other channels of news are doing to human beings through isolation, defamation, divisiveness, and retreats into artificial realities. The pope supports values-informed use of current communications technologies. But he has made it clear–in documents like the Church’s annual messages for World Communications Day–that replacing genuine, sustained human interactions of community and communion with profit-driven, emotion-fueled, algorithm-shaped interactions on our respective screen devices poses a threat to individual dignity and the sustainability of humanity.

The real surprise, delight, and galvanizing challenge of the encyclical arose from the vast context of Francis’ concern and the aura of an urgent appeal for awareness and change flowing from a father’s loving–and broken–heart. Like all good encyclicals, this rather long and wide-ranging document can remind us why we call our pontiff “papa.” I’m especially grateful for this papa who so often draws upon the inspirations of joy, simplicity, humility, poverty, and multi-dimensional love from Saint Francis of Assisi.

The inspiration has prompted the pope for many years to talk about a culture of encounter, where we reach out to people at the margins of our lives and seek to share the Church’s message of faith, hope, and charity with them. But, in the age of this pandemic, with perfect storms of injustice, fear, policy confusion, and societal disfunction threatening to outlast the virus’s own hazards, he is extending his talk of encounters and talking about “social friendship.” This embraces the whole world while still caring deeply about each individual; in times of trial, we share the sufferings and joys of Jesus Christ, whether or not we recognize them as such. We may or may not refer to Jesus by name, but he is present in the joy and love of every genuine encounter. We are wise to invite that presence and to avoid thinking we can survive these times in self-sufficient isolation.

I plan to meditate more and write more about this encyclical because it is so rich a resource for our time, for everyone, for everything that really matters now and in the future that we must confront together. We all have a stake in reading Pope Francis’ words and heeding them in the spirit of Saint Francis. Both men help us to see how wounded we are and how badly all God’s children need to encounter each other on the macro and micro scales–to gather as a loving family with humility and hope, in a sustainable human ecology.

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