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Anger and Correction: What Can We Do in the Face of the Catastrophe?

anger
Delivered in a panel presentation at Loyola University Baltimore
September 14th, Feast Day of St. Lawrence O’Toole
When Lawrence was ten years old, his father handed him over as a hostage to King Mac Murehad  of Leinster, who then abused the child terribly

 

Since I was asked to offer my reflections on the abuse catastrophe in the Church, grim news has been met with more grim news:

As some of you will already know, today was the third and final day of the U.S. bishops’ conference fall general assembly, held here in Baltimore. The bishops had indicated their intention to vote on two key proposals, which had been expected to form the basis for the Church’s response. The first would have been a “Code of Conduct” for bishops, and the second, formation of a lay-led body to investigate bishops accused of misconduct.

On Monday, however, at the beginning of the meeting, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, told the bishops that that vote would not be taken. DiNardo indicated that the Vatican insisted that any decision be delayed until the conclusion of a special meeting, or synod, called by Pope Francis for February to discuss the issue of abuse in the context of the worldwide Church. What will happen there, we do not know for sure.

When I received the invitation to be part of this panel, it was suggested to me that I might bring the perspective of “a lay woman, a theologian, a convert, and a parent.”

I don’t know if this is what they had in mind, but I can say that my perspective from all four of these roles is the same: I am angry.

Now, perhaps I should just stop there, but I think there is more to say.

We could ask, for example, whether and how anger is an appropriate response. And here, I can offer you some reflection on the basis of the work that I do every day: the work of studying and teaching theology. As it turns out, the tradition of Catholic theology has a great deal to say about anger, and some of it very insightful.

Interestingly, we find some important differences among various teachers. The spiritual master John Cassian, for instance, argues that anger is appropriate only in the case of anger at one’s own sins.

Thomas Aquinas—perhaps the best known thinker of the Catholic tradition—has a different take. In his most complete work, his Summa Theologiae, he makes the argument that  although there most certainly are forms of anger that are morally wrong, this is not necessarily the case.

Let’s step back a bit to get a fuller picture.

Anger, says Aquinas, is the most complex of what we would call “emotions.” Anger contains, for example, both hope and sadness at the same time. And these are not just emotions for Aquinas. Anger also has a deeply moral dimension.

In order to see this more clearly, we have to recall that Aquinas holds a basic and very optimistic claim about  human beings: human beings, in a deep and innate way, tend toward the good. They desire the good, even if they are also sometimes lack the strength to hold on to it, and even if they are often mistake about what is good and how it is so.

For our purposes here, we should specify that one of the specific ways that Aquinas sees human beings as oriented toward the good is in a characteristic of human beings that he calls the “irascible appetite.” What Aquinas means by “irascible appetite” is the tendency of human being to pursue good even when it is difficult to do so, even in cases where there is considerable effort involved, where they must rise above and overcome obstacles. We have an inclination, he believes, to try to remove what is harmful, and to see the restoration of good, or justice. Here, Aquinas uses the Latin term vindicatio, and it’s no accident that that sounds like the English word vindication.

Here is the central point: when that desire is frustrated, when we see obstacles to justice that cannot be removed, then we can experience a form of anger that is actually virtuous. When it is directed at an obstacle to the good, and is in accord with reason, Aquinas says, “This anger is good.” (ST II-II, 158, 1)

Interestingly, Aquinas argues that all anger arises from some form of slight, a kind of injustice that does not treat a thing according to its value, and one form of the three forms of slight is “contempt.” In the case of contempt, justice is perverted because a wrongdoer thinks less of a person that one ought to, less than what the person deserves. (ST, II-I, 47, 2).

With this in mind, I return to my central claim: I am angry.

I think you can see, given the description of Aquinas’s thought above, why I believe Aquinas himself would see such anger as warranted and even virtuous. The abuse that has occurred in the Church, the cover-up of that abuse, the enabling of that abuse, and now, the deferral of justice and reform: these fit perfectly the description that Aquinas gives of the contempt for persons that can engender anger. Indeed, I believe Aquinas would recommend anger on behalf of all who have suffered–on my part and on yours. “If one is angry in accordance with right reason,” he writes, “one’s anger is deserving of praise.” (Summa, II-II,158.1)

I am not quite finished, though, with this analysis. There are further specific realities that might given rise to anger for me.

As “a lay woman, a theologian, a convert, and a parent,” I am already engaged in arduous work directed toward overcoming difficulties and fostering the good.

As a parent, I am trying to care for and protect my children. I am trying to direct them to the good, and even to God. Only six months ago, I adopted my youngest child at the age of fourteen, at about the same time that she chose to be baptized into the Church that we introduced her to. But the abuse that has occurred in the Church, the cover-up of that abuse, the enabling of that abuse, and now, the deferral of justice and reform, has made my task more arduous.

As a lay woman, I have been encouraged by Vatican II to believe that I am a co-laborer in the work of the Church, sent out as one baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection to preach the good news, one way or the other. The abuse that has occurred in the Church, the cover-up of that abuse, the enabling of that abuse, and now, the deferral of justice and reform, though, has created new obstacles to that mission.

.As a teacher of theology, I am engaged in arduous work. My students, too, are people whom I love, with whom I do the work of theology, a work that has its true home in the Church. As a teacher of theology, I inevitably represent the Church. I endeavor to share with students not only the complexity and challenge of the theological task, but the beauty and the invitation to the Church’s life that always lies just below the surface. And as someone who has been teaching ecclesiology for many years, I know the extent to which the Catholic tradition claims that is impossible to life live in Christ without the Church. I know that we are bound to the Church.

The abuse that has occurred in the Church, the cover-up of that abuse, the enabling of that abuse, and now, the deferral of justice and reform, has begun to feel like contempt not only for the victims, but for me.

But this of course would be true not just for me. Anyone who claims the description of “Catholic” is representing the Catholic Church. Anyone who is baptized is called to preach, to lead others toward the embodied life of love that is lived in the Church. All of us are tempted to begin to feel that we are being treated with contempt.

A brief word from “a convert.” I became Catholic about a decade ago, in part because I had already spent years studying theology and trying to lead a Christian life, and I could see the fullness and beauty of what the Catholic Church offered. I was an adult, and I had already seen a lot. And I had read a lot of Church history; I knew that things can get very bad. So, I did not come to the Catholic Church expecting the Church to be perfect. But I did expect the Church to be the Church. And the ability for the Church to live out her mission is what seems to me to be threatened by the catastrophe in which we find ourselves.  

So, what to do with this anger? Thus far, I haven’t given you any constructive suggestion at all. And I do think it is important to do something. Anger that festers easily becomes both toxic and contagious. We have to find a way forward.

Here, I’d like to return to the question of the Church being the Church.

On the one hand, I would urge any and every Catholic reading these words to be in touch with the person who is your most important connection to the Church: your bishop. That is not to say that I don’t think you should speak with your pastor, with fellow Catholics, and with others. I do. But the office of the bishop is the office of unity, and of connection. I believe it is important that the bishops know what U.S. Catholics are thinking and feeling at this moment

But I also have another specific suggestion to make. The Church, of course, is not simply the hierarchy, but all of us, and the life that we lead together, every day. I’d like to make a suggestion that, though not in any way fully sufficient as a response to this abuse crisis, could, I think, constitute one small part of that response. It is something that you and I are able to do.

In the face of this crisis, one question that has been asked over and over: “Where is the fraternal correction?I am not referring here to official mechanisms that make their way “down,” so to speak, from superiors, etc. I am talking about a habit by which priests or bishops say to one another: “There is something here that is not right. It has to be addressed.” The question is how so many priests and so many bishops have seen so much and not said anything.

We have to remember, though, that priests and bishops only come from one place: the pews of the Church. Before they are ordained, they are just all of us. And so, it seems appropriate to me to ask another question: where is fraternal correction in our own lives as Catholics and Christians?

In Matthew 18, we find Jesus himself instructing us in this matter: “If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.” When was the least time you or I did anything like that? Aren’t we more likely to talk about someone than we are to talk to them? Aren’t we more likely just to mind our own business? Aren’t we more likely to look the other way? And how much more true is this with complex or unclear matters? Maybe I see some troubling behaviors or clues scattered around your life. But I can’t be sure. So I do nothing.

Is this what we are doing? Are we speaking to one another directly and humbly, in love? Are we living together in a way, building the kind of community, that would make that possible? Or are we deferring?

This kind of thing can easily go wrong, of course, but we already know that when we simply fail to do it at all, things can also go quite wrong indeed. If we were willing to take up this hard task, it could be at least a small part of tackling a much larger question: how the Catholic Church can begin again.

 

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Diving into a Painful Past

In 1858, the Vatican kidnapped a Jewish boy.

In 1998, scholar David Kertzer wrote an account of the incident.

This month, Romanus Cessario, O.P., reviewed Kertzer’s book, arguing for the correctness of the Vatican’s actions.

This week, I jumped in.

blogamericapic

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Border Crossings

People say we have a right to protect our borders.

They say that we have worked hard for what we have, and that we cannot risk losing that. They helpfully point out that there are some very difficult, concrete questions—economic, cultural, etc.—to be faced. There is a way in which an influx of newcomers can change the life we know. And once they arrive, after all, people do need health care, education, and lots of other things that require significant investment of money and other resources. Somebody has to provide those. The extreme version of this, of course, is the claim that we simply should provide no help, no accommodation at all, to those who have crossed our borders without permission. In this debate, it’s important to begin by saying that it’s not only “understandable,” but, in a basic sense, right and good. Borders do matter, and stability does matter.

I worry, though, about the way “protecting borders” seems to become a bone-deep need to control, to keep out the “other,” whatever the expense. I worry that a focus only on this question of control can eclipse some profoundly important questions of larger, human good. And, even if we are completely pragmatic about our own good, it’s worth it to note that most people, if they have access to simple things like health care and education, become productive themselves—and enrich us all with their hard work and contribution to the common good. I believe that if we we step back and consider a larger horizon, that—even with those, difficult, concrete questions—we will actually find that welcoming in the stranger leaves us richer in countless ways.

Now, it’s important not to be utopian or naive about this. As I often point out in these conversations, some people experience the complications of border-crossings much more immediately than others. I worry when I see those whose lives are little touched by these realities criticizing those who are patrolling their borders. It is too easy to look, at a distance, and ask why these silly people can’t just be a little more generous. Pontificating doesn’t help. What will help is something more complex: all of us, together, educating ourselves on the demands involved in this issue. There are, of course, some stereotypes to overcome about “dangerous” strangers, but let’s be practical. A big part of what would really make a difference to those patrolling their borders vigilantly is knowing that they will be supported in bearing the costs involved.

Finally, though, I think we have to move beyond a simple comparison of “costs” and “benefits,” to address a more basic claim: these people are people. In fact, there is an important sense in which these folks are the people that we ourselves were. Virtually all of us were “strangers” at some point, but we were given the opportunity to have a place, to find a voice, and to belong. How can we deny that possibility to those who come after us?

We do have a right to protect our borders. That right, however, has to be weighed against other rights and other goods, against obligations to other human beings as human beings. If we talk about control in isolation, we go very wrong.

All of this is why I consider myself to be fundamentally “pro-immigrant,” and why I hope for substantive reform of immigration law in the U.S.

All of this is also why I consider myself to be fundamentally “pro-life,” and why I hope for substantive reform of abortion law in the U.S.

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The Feast of St. Gamaliel

In the Acts of the Apostles, Christians learn the name of the renowned teacher of the Law, Gamaliel, a leader in the Sanhedrin, grandson of the great Hillel, “a man respected by all the people”—and also one who knew both St. Peter and St. Paul. Paul, according to Acts 22:3, was himself tutored in the law at Gamaliel’s feet; Peter met him under more unsettling circumstances, when he and the other apostle were brought before the Sanhedrin to answer for their stubborn insistence of preaching the gospel even after the Sanhedrin had forbidden it. Some would have had them executed, but Gamaliel counseled otherwise:

Gamaliel

“So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:38-39, NAB).

If that last conditional statement seems to suggest not only pragmatism, but possibly also sympathy for the Christian cause, well… it may have. The Christian tradition has long held that Gamaliel was himself converted to Christianity and was then baptized by none other than St. Peter (as well as St. John).

Gamaliel, I must admit, is just the sort of figure, learned and wise, who made me want to become a teacher myself. I did not just want to think about ideas or to interact with people. I did not just want the activity of instruction; I wanted to become the sort of person who could be a reliable guide. I wanted to be wise. Now, almost thirty years after I first stepped to the front of a classroom, I feel as if I’ve walked some way down that path, and also as if the goal is farther away than ever. Classes begin again in just three weeks. So, what should I do?

Gamaliel, as it turns out, has some advice. In Pirkei Avot, a part of Jewish teaching called the Mishna, a number of the sayings of this great teacher are preserved. One phrase, long taken to heart in the Jewish tradition, is a very simple one: משנה טז רבן. Get yourself a teacher.

When I first read these words years ago, I heard them as a student. Yes, I thought. I need a teacher. How else will I become a teacher myself? How else will I become wise? Now, though, I hear them as directed to teachers, too. “Lifelong learning,” or some such thing, is an ideal that all of us have heard extolled. But this is a little different and little more personal. Get a teacher. Find and sit at the feet of those who have things to teach you. Make yourself their student.

Rabban Gamaliel, grandson of Hillel, would have had the chance to learn from many great teachers. As a saint, he got himself a teacher in Jesus. And thirty years on, I am still about the task of getting a teacher for myself, too. How about you? Happy feast.

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“Erroneous Autonomy” and the Family

I am at the Catholic University of America—just for the day!—to take part in this conference on “erroneous autonomy,” talking about the family.

In the brief panel presentation I will give, I end up here:

screenshot2017-01-10at8-41-33am“In the end, family is not just one topic to be discussed. It is indispensable, in so far as the family is the chief school of interdependence. The family is the place that human persons are apprenticed in relationship and interconnection—or not. It is the place that this vision is established, and the place that all the necessary related skills—attending, responding, asking for help, sacrificing for others, etc.—are nurtured.

It is deeply unfortunate that attention to Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Amoris Laetitia, has focused almost exclusively on the question of communion for the divorced-and-remarried, since there are much more fundamental issues at stake. If we want to address erroneous autonomy at the root, and look constructive and fruitful ways forward, this topic and this encyclical demand our further attention.”

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Empathizing with our “Enemies”

A guest post from Rebekah Grace Potts, to respond to a friend, asking about white working class folks, shifting demographics, and how large changes in the US over the last 30-50 years have cost that demographic dearly. The author indicates that you are welcome to share, with attribution, for non-commercial purposes.
Please correct me if I’m mis-remembering your question, but I think it was something like: “I’m not exactly disappointed by them losing privilege in this country, how am I suppose to empathize with and mourn that?” Well, the short answer, from one Catholic to another, is that we are to love our enemies. Full stop. Whomever they are, whyever they have come to be enemies, we are called first to love. Now empathy- if Jesus is our example- is at the heart of loving. That’s what love is about, that and desiring- more than anything else- the Good for another. And so that’s simple, but not easy, and as is often the case (at least for me) it’s not entirely clear what that even means. I’m reminded of a friend asking, “So how, exactly, do I get parenting guidance from the Virgin Mary? Is there a decoder ring for this?”
       So let’s start with something I think most of us know, and contrast it with what we say now, and the shift in meaning. Privilege means: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. The word comes from the Latin, meaning private-law. Now we’ve come to only embrace the negative implications of that meaning- that is to say, the notion of ‘white privilege’, or privileges associated with nobility and aristocracy. Those privileges are often understood to mean exemption from the public law, and impunity to harm others- the privilege to lynch, for example, or the privilege to rape one’s wife (a crime in all 50 states just for the last 23 years), or still, the privilege to commit war crimes without censure- but likely praise- a traditional long-standing privilege of the aristocracy. Now to be certain, if that was the only meaning and implication of the word, it would be an awful thing and we should be working to eradicate it. Post haste. But that isn’t the only meaning the word carries. It is actually, in and of itself, a neutral term. There are a great many privileges that are unassailably good. I consider it my privilege to raise my children. It was a remarkable privilege to be my parents’ child. I’ve always bristled at the notion of ‘white privilege’ because it belies the reality that there are special rights, advantages, and immunity granted to members of the Black community *by the Black community*- and I’m not talking about affirmative action here. I’m talking about the way, as a bi-racial person, I am all too clear that I’m not a member of the community, and not welcome to the special rights and advantages, and not a trusted part of the group. That insider status is clearly a privilege. [as an aside, I think the white privilege conversation has a place in the white community, for their own edification. but non-whites don’t need to spend their energy and time explaining white supremacy to white people, as if they weren’t here, living with it like the rest of us. and reinforcing the idea that non-whites are powerless and gain nothing of value from their own communities that no one else has access to… but I digress.] It is also a privilege- and few know it- to belong to a place, and have that place belong to you. You really can’t even extend that privilege- you just have to be of a place, and that place has to embrace you- the privilege just comes with the territory.
       So first of all- we have to understand- we’re not just talking about working class whites losing the privilege to lynch (or any of the socially toxic side of privileges). We’re talking about all of it fading out of reach- the good and the bad- to the point where we’re not even talking about privileges any more, but basic human dignity. Consider- didn’t your heart break just a little, at the very news of Bill Cosby’s serial rapes? It certainly broke in two and bled nearly out for the women he raped- but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the way in which he belonged to American Blacks and we don’t get to have that anymore, there’s just no redeeming him. Remember how he always had those HBCU sweatshirts on, on the show, you know; and how while the show was for everybody, part of it was for Black America, and just Black America. Now the fact is, the man’s a rapist, a peddler of respectability politics, and many other things I’ll not bring up. I wouldn’t want to pretend that he wasn’t those things to preserve his image for the Black community- but I’m not going to lie: his public downfall carried a real sense of loss [so much loss, that some are unable to countenance the mountain of evidence against him]. Or consider the deaf community and their very real fears about the erasure of the deaf community itself as medicine slowly cures deafness… I could go on. But I submit that it is uncharitable to assume, that the only thing at stake for working class whites is the freedom to lynch (et al). There is clearly a contingent that openly mourns that- but there’s so much more to the story than that.
       Speaking of the openly mourning contingent- this brings me to point two. Even the openly mourning folks are human beings and worthy of compassion, especially the openly mourning folks. They have been broken, and broken in an awful way- robbed of key parts of their very humanity. Now, they may have left the door unlocked when these parts of their humanity were stolen- but I don’t really want to get into victim-blaming here. Mostly, I just want to affirm them as human beings, loved by G*d just like me.
       And now that I’ve spoken of this robbery- let me get to the heart of the matter- point three. For American whites, and working class whites *in particular* there was a bargain reached with the Devil, or rather the ruling class. It’s very simple, they won’t get any *real* advantages in society- things like ownership and autonomy- but in return for not getting any of the pie, they can mercilessly vent their legitimate rage onto a designated underclass, while the ruling class looks the other way, even enshrining those ‘rights’ into law for a while. How is it said? “I might be nuthin’ but at least I’m not a nigger.” It’s a potent salve for the disaffected. Now you could say that working class whites could have simply refused the bargain- but the alternative was… unsavory. The alternative was to become a member of that designated underclass. Consider, during the lynching era- many logical allies to American Blacks immigrated here- Italians, Chinese, Indians, and Mexicans; and Natives already here. But those alliances never materialized as the racial terror also functioned to send a message to those that might forge cross-racial alliances, that if they wanted to integrate with blacks, they could get lynched like them too. So Italians in particular, assimilated into whiteness- but all of those groups have historically engaged some degree of assimilation to whiteness, along with performing the required rejection of Black America, that purchased a modicum of insulation from racialized terror. Consider also during the colonial era, the gradual distinction drawn between indentured servants by what was then a new category of ‘race’. Failure to respect and endorse the racial line in the sand was punishable by extreme violence. And the point here, in its entirely, is to leave folks fractured along racial lines- so much so that folks will perform these dynamics without even being told to- so that no one can mount a credible challenge to the ruling class. So now, in the 21st century, working class whites find themselves not only with none of the pie- but also the thing they were supposed get in return, and the whole culture that’s grown around it (good, bad, and gruesome) are fading inescapably from reach. It’s just painful to lose cultural ground like that- even if the ground was rotten all the way through and irredeemable. There’s a contingent of folks that will reach and scrape and fight to get it back- a little bit like the folks insisting on Cosby’s innocence in the face of everything that’s come to light. But back to Jesus, and his example. With regards to the depredations of the ruling class- this is where Jesus started flipping tables and throwing chairs. So we owe it to ourselves, and to Jesus, to find the compassion we need to connect across class and racial lines and form healthy alliances that allow us to call the ruling class to account. Our failure to do so, is a failure to love.
Solidarity Forever ❤

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Acting Like King

In this moment, one of the things to which we must attend is the relationship of ends and means. Those of us who see a culture marked by division and hatred, and who long to contribute to healing, can’t think only about our final goals, but also the strategies we take up to achieve them.

In my own world of Catholic faith and education, then, I’m looking not only toward the renewal of truth pursued in love, but also considering carefully the question of what qualifies as fully Catholic strategies to get there.

kingIn this long and tumultuous week just past, my attention was turned again to the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Next week, my students and I will read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and yesterday, I spent an hour with a hundred or so of them, talking about his commitment to nonviolent resistance. I couldn’t help thinking of the way that King’s Christian grounding included the fact that he, like Jesus himself, saw “the means” as an indispensable part of “the goal.” And I couldn’t help thinking of our own situation.

Six principles can be discerned in King’s work of nonviolence (and are especially clear in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom).

  1. Nonviolence is not simply a strategy to be used occasionally, but a way of life. 
  2. The ultimate goal of nonviolence is friendship. This goal must be kept in mind.         
  3. It seeks to defeat injustice, not people. Nonviolence insists that those who do wrong are human beings, for whose redemption we hope.
  4. Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. It accepts suffering without retaliation.     
  5. It chooses love over hate. There is nothing sentimental about this form of love. It is a joyful, creative, stubborn commitment to the good. 
  6. Nonviolence believes that the ultimate reality is one of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that God is a God of justice.    

In these difficult and confused days, what would our life together look like if it were shaped by these commitments? Would be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments below.

See TheKingCenter.org for more information on nonviolence resistance, and if you have a few minutes, take a look at King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Well worth reading—or rereading.

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