Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why We Can't Have Community

From the always-interesting Irenaeus at Retractiones come some timely reflections about the FLDS situation, and the possibility that by allowing the government to step into the situation primarily as a means of preventing child abuse we're not really setting all that great of a precedent. Irenaeus links to this appalling story, about a man whose accidental purchase of an alcoholic lemonade drink for his son at a ball game led to the child's almost-immediate confiscation by CPS. The boy spent two days in foster care, and was only allowed to return home provided that his father moved out! It took a week to resolve matters, and everyone involved agreed that this was remarkably fast, possibly because one of the boy's own relatives is a social worker.

As I said before, I have no problem believing that the law should be able to take action against the FLDS group solely on the grounds that they're practicing polygamy. Unfortunately, in our current legal climate where it's not at all illegal to shack up with dozens of men or women and call each and every one of them your husband or wife--provided you don't attempt legal marriage with more than one of them--it's impossible for the law to do what I'd like it to do. The FLDS group is smart, in a sense; unlike the gay couples clamoring for marriage, the FLDS group is essentially saying, "Okay, so in your eyes I'm not actually married to anyone but Alice. But in God's eyes, according to my beliefs, I'm spiritually married to Alice, Betty, Carol, Dana, Elsie, Fran, Gert, Hephzibah...and so on, all the way to Zora--so long as I say so and they say so. And your laws can't do a thing about it, because you've tied your own hands tight with this little thing you called the sexual revolution, so back off."

Which is why the only way law enforcement could move against this group at all was to act on the basis of a phone call which may well turn out to be a phony, and claim that their intervention is about preventing child abuse. And if the powers-that-be among various liberal groups have their way, and consent laws get lowered to the point where thirteen or fourteen-year-olds will be able to engage legally in what it is increasingly ironic to call the marriage activity, there won't be any basis at all for legal action against groups like the FLDS.

What it will be boiled down to, in the end, is a legal game of Non Amo Te. We're handing the power to the government to act against groups or people we don't like, and trusting them to stay away from people we do. But that's a dangerous game to play, as anyone who has ever lived through a dictatorship could tell you.

All of this relates to something I've been pondering recently about the importance of community, and the reason why for so many conservatives talk about recapturing a community spirit or rediscovering the value of community has begun to percolate. Few of us have first hand experience of growing up in a community of shared values and shared responsibilities. Many of our parents knew what that was like, though, and watched it be destroyed during the late sixties and into the seventies; most of our grandparents took it for granted, and couldn't have imagined that things would fall apart so far and so fast during many of their lifetimes.

We can look at the various pressures and stresses that caused the disintegration of the American community if we want, but that topic has been discussed to death, and I'm not sure we're any closer to a consensus on just what happened than we've ever been. War, politics, social changes, the exodus of women from the home, the advent of television and the computer, and all sorts of similar things undoubtedly played a role, but in the end, when we look farther out at the world, I think we see that the seeds of our present destruction may have been planted as early as the First World War, when man first started to believe he had outgrown a need for God, and could find his own way, and invent his own realities.

I don't think it's possible, any more, to talk about "going back," either. We are far too fractured and fragmented for that to be a viable option. Even if we build tiny adorable towns with lovely homes and perfect porches, even if we try to build, consciously and deliberately, the community our grandparents had, we will be defeated in the end by that very consciousness and deliberation, in the way that a child, carefully memorizing the words of what he thinks a grown-up argument in his favor, will be defeated by the indisputable fact of his immaturity.

We don't, and can't, trust each other. We don't, and can't, open our homes as widely and unselfconsciously as our grandmothers or great-grandmothers did, to their neighbors all around them. We don't, and can't, know that our children's playmates come from homes even remotely like our own, with intact families and good values that line up pretty well with our own. We don't, and can't, know for sure that the people we reach out to won't turn against us, and rob from us or hurt our children or call CPS because they don't like us and want us to suffer.

We don't know if our neighbors are more likely to follow the commands of the Bible, or the plot scripts of a dozen trashy soap operas. We don't know if they have any concept of virtue, or if they have any understanding of the Golden Rule, or any intention of abiding by it.

We already live like the citizens of a dictatorship--the dictatorship of relativism. And, like those characters in books and movies we've encountered, we're more cautious and more secretive and less trusting than people who live in a truly free society. We speak in code, words like homeschooling and faith and respect for life and involved parenting, and when people like us respond in kind we start to extend the first tendrils of friendship, carefully, in case they're not what they seem to be--and they probably feel the same way about us. Just about all of us have been burned before, and none of us wants to end up like the father in the hard lemonade story, ripped from our families and forced to prove that we're trustworthy parents who mean our children no harm before we're allowed to return.

And because this is our reality, I'm starting to think that community, true community, is something that's going to be very, very hard to recreate or rediscover. We are the products of our age, after all. However much we may yearn for simpler days and shared values, those days are going to be a long time coming, if, indeed, they ever return at all.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

I have to admit that I found this New York Times article from the other day quite fascinating. Excerpt:

Spending data and interviews around the country show that middle- and working-class consumers are starting to switch from name brands to cheaper alternatives, to eat in instead of dining out and to fly at unusual hours to shave dollars off airfares.

Though seemingly small, the daily trade-offs they are making — more pasta and less red meat, more video rentals and fewer movie tickets — amount to an important shift in consumer behavior.

In Ohio, Holly Levitsky is replacing the Lucky Charms cereal in her kitchen with Millville Marshmallows and Stars, a less expensive store brand. In New Hampshire, George Goulet is no longer booking hotel rooms at the Hilton, favoring the lower-cost Hampton Inn. And in Michigan, Jennifer Olden is buying Gain laundry detergent instead of the full-price Tide.

The article goes on to talk about other things consumers are doing, from giving up on first-class accomodations to making coffee at home instead of making a daily trip to Starbucks or some other coffee emporium. One way or another, people are getting the message: it's time to wise up, shop less, spend less, and do without.Or are they? Another quote from the article reveals an interesting blind spot many consumers seem to have:

By no means has the economic downturn been bad for all product categories. For instance, sales of big-ticket electronics, like $1,000 flat-panel televisions and $300 video game systems, are on the rise, according to retailers and research firms.

Falling prices for such devices and a looming government deadline to convert to digital television have helped. So has the view, sensible or not, that the technology is a good investment. At a Best Buy in Southfield, Mich., James Szekely, 28, a mechanical engineer, was shopping for a big high-definition TV that he expected would cost at least $2,000, an expense he rationalized because “at least we can watch movies at home.”

(In a survey conducted this month by the NPD Group, a research firm, consumers suggested that they would sooner cut spending on clothing, furniture and eating out than on video games.)

So what started out as an article on belt-tightening and consumer thrift ends up revealing the sad truth about the American consumer: by and large, we no longer know how to be thrifty.

Saving a few pennies by buying off-brand detergents or cereal isn't a bad start, of course--though many of us countercultural single-income homeschooling moms have been doing that sort of thing for some time now. Giving up pricey coffees we rarely buy or fancy hotels we never stay at anyway isn't going to affect our bottom lines at all; and few of us are in the market for a $2,000 television in the first place.

The truth of the matter is that many Americans, myself included, have only the most limited and basic understanding of the habits of thrift or economy. Our Depression-era grandparents knew what it meant to live according to these rules, but for so many generations we've had the easy availability of cheap consumer goods as our standard, so that the people quoted in the article can take a few small measures to reduce their spending by mere pennies without ever looking at the big picture.

And the big picture is that in America today, most of us rely on the ability to purchase everything from our daily necessities to things other generations would see as unheard-of luxuries, just by sallying forth to the nearest store and swiping a bit of plastic through a machine that knows better than we do how much we're spending.

Only a relative handful of people grow or raise any of their own food, make their own clothing or household goods, do their own car repairs (which modern cars make extremely difficult anyway given the number of computerized components), perform any but the most basic maintenance on their homes, or live in such a way as to achieve, or even strive for, some level of self-sufficiency. On the contrary, shopping is a national pastime, people expect to replace things up to and including cars and furniture on an every-few-years to every year basis, and the thought of having to postpone a major home improvement project or the purchase of a big-ticket electronics item is enough to make some believe that they're teetering on the brink of outright penury.

I know I'm guilty of this kind of thinking. I like to shop, and like most women I have my areas of particular weakness. But now I'm starting to consider how much of my impulsive spending has to do with a sense of pride, a false keeping-up-with-the-Jonses that makes me think that my clothes are worn out when they're not, or that a new pair of shoes is something I need instead of something I just want. What clothes and shoes are for me, kitchen gadgets are for another, or home decor items are for someone else, or craft supplies are for still another. It's not that having any of these items is a bad thing; but how often do we shop and spend thoughtlessly, carelessly, with no regard for a reasonable budget and a sensible approach to the less-than-necessary items we occasionally purchase?

If the recession many believe is coming, including those people quoted in the Times article, actually does come, we're going to have to challenge ourselves to look at many of the things in our lives that we currently take for granted. Shaving a few pennies here and there off of our monthly spending won't necessarily be enough to help us get by in a time of rising costs and stagnant incomes. We may have to discover some of the truths of those aphorisms of the past, that a penny saved is a penny earned, that a fool and his money are soon parted, and that there's no point at all in being penny wise, but pound foolish.


My blog is worth $20,887.98.
How much is your blog worth?

Last time I took this test, a few months into blogging, And Sometimes Tea was worth about six hundred bucks, give or take.

What a difference a year of unending verbosity makes!


ht/ MommaLlama

Monday, April 28, 2008


They're located in almost every room in my house. They are uniformly rectangular and singularly boring, and so they blend in well with the rest of the architecture of our modern geometric suburban house. The builder surprised us by showing up a few days after we'd moved in to install mini-blinds over them which we didn't realize we'd paid for; as close as we are to our neighbors, the blinds are a must, and are seldom fully opened except in the two rooms at the back of the house, which overlook a greenbelt and a small lake.

Unless they become unusually grimy, I never even think about them. They're just there, performing the daily task of allowing softly-filtered sunlight in at the appropriate times. And sometimes that's a thankless task; I finally put heavy drapes over the ones in the master bedroom, so the brilliant lights from a nearby apartment complex would quit tricking my brain into thinking that it was dawn at 3 a.m. But it's hard to shut out light completely; sometimes when there's a full moon a shaft or two of silver light will find just enough of a crease in the curtains to pierce playfully into the room, waking me with its persistent cold joy.

Windows can be as invisible and unnoticed as the silent avenues of grace which surround us, transforming us day by day into creatures more pleasing and more obedient to our Creator. Just as the windows in our homes allow the lights of day and night to enter and transform our surroundings, so do the agents of grace efface themselves before the Presence, becoming like windows as they allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through them, until the grace they bring transforms our hearts as much as the sunlight at noon or at dusk can transform the appearance of a room.

Who are these agents of grace? What do they do that makes them like a window, often unnoticed and under-appreciated, but easy to miss should they no longer be with us?

Some of them are the good and holy priests who work tirelessly to bring us the grace of the sacraments of the Church. At the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass they stand in the place of Christ to bring us the Eucharist, which nourishes our souls and strengthens us for every trial. In the Sacrament of Penance they listen patiently to our halting lists of embarrassment and shame, giving us words of wisdom, prayer and penance, and the power of absolution to send us, cleansed, on our way. They preach and teach us, they set quiet examples of holy living, they perform in a typical week every one of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Right now, they are suffering both from the betrayal of some of their brother-priests and the assumption on the part of many that all priests are like this, living lives of secret hypocrisy and evil; yet they don't hesitate to denounce the evil anyway, and to bear patiently with the negative portrayals they endure by those who are quick to judge and condemn anyone who remains in the Church after the Scandal. Like a window, they are overlooked and under-appreciated much of the time; like a window, they're more interested that the Light should shine through them than that they should get any credit for it.

And then there are the religious, the good and holy brothers and sisters living a religious vocation in the service of God, whether in a contemplative cloister or an active order. Whatever their life or charism, they are dedicated to serving God and man, to being instruments of grace and prayer. Our encounters with these communities of faith always serve as a source of inspiration and strength for us; it is amazing to think, for instance, that some order of priests or brothers or nuns is praying right now for you, for me, and for our world, and will be praying all through the day and into the night for us and for our triumph over evil. We may scarcely ever notice these members of the family of God unless we are blessed to live among some of them, but the good works they do, and their constant prayer, transform us nonetheless.

United with the efforts of the two groups I've already mentioned are those of the rest of us struggling to live out our vocations as members of the laity each day. Some are single, and dedicate themselves to the service of God in their efforts to live according to His laws, and to work, pray, and give of themselves in a parish community. Many of us are living out our vocation to the married state, and strive to raise and educate our children in the ways of the faith, to bear patiently with each other as husbands and wives, and to reach out into the wider community to offer whatever service we can. As windows go, I may be a bit spotty and dusty from time to time, which makes it harder for the Light to filter through me; but thanks to the sacramental confession I mentioned above it's possible to become clean again, and to let the Light of Christ radiate through me unhindered by my own sins and selfishness.

Not long ago we had a hailstorm here in Texas, and my daughters' biggest concern was about our windows. What if one of them broke? What if all of them broke? What would we do? We wouldn't be able to close them--we would have to cover them--and then what? Wouldn't it be really dark and scary, without the windows?

We didn't lose any windows at all (this time), but their questions made me think, especially in light of what I've been writing about above. How is it that I take something so useful, so necessary, so important--so completely for granted? Wouldn't a little appreciation for these invisible servants be in order?

For the windows of glass, a little cleaning fluid and some rags will do. For the windows of grace, a word of appreciation, a gesture of thanks, now and again, would probably help gladden the hearts of those who strengthen ours, by letting Christ shine so strongly through all their words and deeds.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Busy Friday

I'm having a busy Friday today, so I hope you don't mind a totally fun and silly quiz link post! I saw the top one on Nutmeg's blog, and the others were just sort of there, too.

See you Monday!

Your Slogan Should Be

Red - Delightfully Tacky, yet Unrefined

You Are Apple Red

You're never one to take life too seriously, and because of it, you're a ton of fun.

And although you have a great sense of humor, you are never superficial.

Deep and caring, you do like to get to the core of people - to understand them well.

However, any probing you do is light hearted and fun, sometimes causing people to misjudge you.

What Your Taste in Chocolate Says About You

You are unique, creative, and fascinating.

You don't do what's expected of you.

You go for what's unknown and uncharted.

You are full of life and vigor.

You have an amazing amount energy, and you keep very active.

Some people feel like you can't focus on them. You do tend to be restless

You love being around people. Friendships are important to you.

You feel lost when you're by yourself... so you tend to avoid being alone.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Religious Liberty

Since the time of the Second Vatican Council, it is arguably the case that one of the most controversial documents the council produced was this one.

In light of the fact that we spend more time today talking about liturgical changes and other regrettable facts of life that have occurred since the time of the Council, it's possible for many of us Catholics today to forget that the Vatican's Declaration on Religious Liberty was ever all that big of a deal. For people who are sometimes called RadTrads or even UltraTrads, though, this document might as well have been written yesterday, and still is sometimes something of a sore point.

And on the more vile sedevacantist sites, to which I will not link, this document is one of many "proofs" that the Real True For Sure Not Kidding Catholic Church (pop. 25) is not what they slightingly call the "Novus Ordo Religion" and which has as its Pope Benedict XVI, though they won't call him by that title.

Now, because I trust Jesus when He promised to remain with His Church, I therefore tend to think that the game of "Oh, yes, He did, but He never promised that the Real True Pope wouldn't sneak off into Wisconsin, or that the Real True Church wouldn't consist of a handful of people waiting faithfully for a new Real True Pope to appear while the rest of the world failed to notice that what used to be the Catholic Church is now a den of iniquity, or that in the end times the Church wouldn't have shrunk to six people living in seclusion somewhere in Oregon, or that..." etc. really is just a game, and a not very amusing one at that. So it's not hard for me to accept the document on Religious Liberty, and further to believe that any alleged discord between it and the writings of the past will be better explained by--well, by the Pope--than by a handful of amateur theologians with internet access, an ax to grind, and way too much time on their hands.

And it's even easier to accept the wisdom of the Holy Spirit at work in the Second Vatican Council and in the Declaration on Religious Freedom in light of this story from the New York Times.

The Russian Orthodox Church is cracking down on all other churches and places of worship. They have successfully equated the mere presence of other faiths with "proselytizing" and are getting tough. And things could get ugly:

First came visits from agents of the F.S.B., a successor to the K.G.B., who evidently saw a threat in a few dozen searching souls who liked to huddle in cramped apartments to read the Bible and, perhaps, drink a little tea. Local officials then labeled the church a “sect.” Finally, last month, they shut it down. (...)

On local television last month, the city’s chief Russian Orthodox priest, who is a confidant of the region’s most powerful politicians, gave a sermon that was repeated every few hours. His theme: Protestant heretics.

“We deplore those who are led astray — those Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, evangelicals, Pentecostals and many others who cut Christ’s robes like bandits, who are like the soldiers who crucified Christ, who ripped apart Christ’s holy coat,” declared the priest, the Rev. Aleksei D. Zorin. (...)

“As a Russian Orthodox believer, I am against the sects,” said Valeriya Gubareva, a retired teacher, who was asked about Protestants as she was leaving a Russian Orthodox church here. “Our Russian Orthodox religion is inviolable, and it should not be shaken.”

Like other parishioners interviewed, Ms. Gubareva said she supported freedom of religion.

In Russia's constitution there are guarantees for freedom of religion, but it appears that the Orthodox Church in Russia doesn't quite see things that way. As the article mentions, there has been some strain between the Vatican and Russia over the issue of "proselytizing," with Rome insisting she has the right to take care of Russia's tiny but still extant Catholic population, and Russia afraid that what Rome really wants is to make converts out of the Russian people.

Now, we could, if we wanted to, say that this is great, and is exactly what the Roman Catholic Church should be doing in parts of Mexico and Central America where various Protestant denominations have made inroads among the people, converting them away from Catholicism to other faiths.

In fact, if I understand the UltraTrad argument correctly, that's exactly what we should be doing. Error has no rights, so we should get to crack down and throw out the other churches anywhere where the Catholic Church has sufficient presence and political power to do so.

Of course, that would make it pretty hard to object to Russia's treatment of our priests. And it would make every nation like America where neither Orthodox nor Catholic has the ascendancy an uneasy no-man's land, with various religions lobbing rhetorical cannonballs at each other on a pretty frequent basis.

Which makes, as I said, the Holy Spirit's guidance of the Church on display in the Declaration on Religious Freedom pretty wonderful:

The protection and promotion of the inviolable rights of man ranks among the essential duties of government.(5) Therefore government is to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens, in an effective manner, by just laws and by other appropriate means.

Government is also to help create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life, in order that the people may be truly enabled to exercise their religious rights and to fulfill their religious duties, and also in order that society itself may profit by the moral qualities of justice and peace which have their origin in men's faithfulness to God and to His holy will. (6)

If, in view of peculiar circumstances obtaining among peoples, special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional order of society, it is at the same time imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice.

Finally, government is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons. Nor is there to be discrimination among citizens.

It follows that a wrong is done when government imposes upon its people, by force or fear or other means, the profession or repudiation of any religion, or when it hinders men from joining or leaving a religious community. All the more is it a violation of the will of God and of the sacred rights of the person and the family of nations when force is brought to bear in any way in order to destroy or repress religion, either in the whole of mankind or in a particular country or in a definite community.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

On Rocky Soil

Look what I have in my backyard today!!

It's tiny and fragile, and I'm holding my breath that we're done with the hailstorms for the year. But from experience we know that very young, small trees have a better chance to take root in the rocky soil around here than larger, more mature trees do; I've seen more than one neighbor have to remove a taller tree that seemed to be taking root, only to have leaves turn brown and scatter out of season, and branches dry from top to bottom revealing that the tree was now only wood.

Which makes me think of the Parable of the Sower, and the vital importance of the religious education of children.

Our culture today is full of rocky soil. Beneath the surface of what appears to be good, rich ground lurk the stones of indifference, the boulders of cultural mores which are so opposed to the Gospel, the pebbles of persistent and draining materialism, the fossils of old paganism dressed up in New Age colors, and so many other lithic liabilities buried deep under the loam that people who don't even realize the danger to their faith may be digging in unwholesome earth long before the roots of religion begin to contract and shrivel.

When a child is born into a family that takes the faith seriously, that child is going to be given a chance to develop deep, strong roots, roots that will not shrink at the first encounter with a stone, but will either be powerful enough to break the rock in two, or wise enough to go around it. Being nourished in an environment of daily prayer, a focus on the saints as our helpers in trials big and small, a belief in the power of the sacraments, especially confession and Holy Communion, a desire to mend even their infant faults and strive to live in a way that is pleasing to God gives a child an advantage; he or she will not see the Catholic faith as a Sunday chore, but as a powerful blessing in his or her life, one that will help him or her to grow in strength and maturity as a Christian, as a follower of Christ and a member of His Church.

The child who is raised in a "bare minimum" faith environment, however, will not benefit from this early training. Even for those who rediscover their faith as adults, the journey may be arduous, and the rocks within the soil may seem as impenetrable as the Great Wall of China. The temptation to see religion as worthless or weak will be all around them, and they may lack the strength to resist that temptation when the time comes. The winds of hardship, the storms of suffering that will come may uproot them entirely; though flowers may bud upon the branches, fruit may seem a long time in coming.

There are, of course, no absolutes in this analogy, which is imperfect as most analogies are. Most of us know people raised to be good Catholics who have ceased to be anything even remotely good or Catholic; many of us also know people who became Catholic later in life, and display a strength and joyful fruitfulness we cradle Catholics are hard-pressed to match. The point isn't to make sweeping generalizations, but to say that we're just now beginning to rediscover what previous generations took for granted, which is that if you want your children to follow Christ, you have to share your faith with them, teach them, strengthen them, admonish them, encourage them, form them, and celebrate with them when they are young.

Children are closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than we adults are, as Christ told us. Mysteries which the adult mind will ponder in vain are accepted as simple truth by the little ones. And that training, that raising, that accepting is all about putting down their roots in the faith--down away from the bird-gnawed path of novelty, down beyond the choking weeds that whisper temptation to the tender shoots, down past rocky doubt that waylays the weaving tendrils and attempts to undo them--down to the good soil, where the roots will be strong, and the tree will flourish.

If my little Japanese Red Maple doesn't survive the spring, it's not so hard to take it out of the ground and plant a new one next year; but how hard it is to replant a faith once lost, or to help recover the trust in God if it has ever been destroyed upon the rocks that lie just below the surface of our lives.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Education and Vocation

At Danielle Bean's weekly Coffee Talk post, there have been some interesting ideas exchanged about college, debt, what sort of college a child should choose, and some of the many factors that go into a college decision. I want to start out by saying that these decisions, just like decisions about child spacing or homeschooling or similar issues, are going to vary family by family, and that there's no one right answer for every family in all circumstances when it comes to college.

That said, as I've said here before, I think there's too much emphasis in the middle class today on providing each and every child with a college education, regardless of that child's nature, tastes, inclinations, and possible vocation. There's a presumption that all responsible parents are automatically putting money into individual savings accounts for each child to help defray college expenses, and that parents owe each child at least the chance to pursue a higher education.

And that's where I think our society has gone seriously off the rails.

We're an egalitarian sort of people, you know. The notion that a college education was primarily the path of relatively wealthy people, and then only for their sons, wasn't going to fly for long in the land of opportunity. Women entered colleges; poorer students qualified for scholarships; and pretty soon what was once an indication of one's status became a minimum necessary requirement for anyone who wanted to get a job of a higher level than the proverbial hamburger flipper.

Of course, the privileged classes protect themselves, as always. Today we're starting to hear that the master's degree is the new bachelor's degree, that any serious advancement potential at one's place of employment will only come when one has secured either an MBA or the equivalent for one's profession. And when sufficient numbers of starless Sneetches start showing up with the requisite MBA, who doubts that employees will be told that if they really want to prove their worth, they'll either have a PhD, or multiple master's?

When do we stop? When do we, the descendants of blue-collar workers, small business or small farm owners, or tradesmen or craftsmen from all sorts of professions stop playing the game of minimum corporate requirements? When do we, living on single incomes and dedicating ourselves to the pursuit of a simpler, more basic, more sustainable way of living stop pretending that our children's futures depend solely or even primarily on their acceptance into an expensive private college?

As an amateur home-based education engineer (okay, homeschooling mom), I believe in the value of a liberal arts education. I also believe that Kitten, our oldest, has already begun to encounter this education in her current year of schooling, and that by the time she has graduated from our version of high school she will have read and studied some of the greatest books produced by Western Civilization, encountered the thoughtful analysis of scholars who have commented extensively on those works, and, to the extent of both her tastes and abilities, have learned to analyze and comment on them herself. In other words, making sure that Kitten, and Bookgirl, and Hatchick all experience the benefit of a truly Catholic liberal arts education is my job, and, with the grace of God, I hope to complete that job to the best extent of my abilities.

And after that? What then?

Like most children, my girls sometimes play the game of "When I'm a Grown-Up." It's cute to hear them discuss what they think the life of an adult is really like. It's also encouraging to hear them speculate more about their eventual vocations than their possible careers, though they do sometimes talk about "jobs" too.

And they know that they might be called to the religious life. And they wonder if they'll be called to the vocation of marriage, to be wives and mothers. They all think babies are adorable and that being a mom would be a lot of fun, but they also remain open to the call to be a nun like their aunt, and to serve God in some way they can't even imagine.

One of them is adamant that she does not want to go to college; one is thinking that to study what she likes best she may, and the third is open either way. Just like their speculations about vocations, though, I know that they can't yet tell what they may decide to do; sometimes in some families the child who least wants a degree ends up pursuing one, and the child most intrigued by the idea hears a clear and direct call from God that leads in a wholly unexpected direction.

The important thing, to me, is that Mr. C. and I plan to let them decide--with God's help, and with our advice and input. We're not adamant that any of them must choose college, nor are we--or could we be--establishing savings accounts right now to cover tuition. Like so many single-income middle class families, college tuition is a luxury item that we couldn't afford on our own no matter how much we wanted to; our children, should they pursue higher education, may have to apply for scholarships or work for a couple of years after high school to save money or come up with some financing. But I'll strongly advise them not to take on more college debt than they could pay back in a single year of living at home after school, because more than that would be imprudent.

Because much more important than what they may do to earn money is what God will call them to do and to be for His greater glory. Coveting a prestigious education that they, and we, can't afford is just like coveting anything else: sinful.

As I said at the beginning of this post, though, that's the conclusion the Cardigan family has come to. What your family will do will depend on a lot of things: perhaps you are not middle class, or perhaps you have more than one source of income; perhaps you have parents or grandparents who want to pay for your children's college educations; perhaps you have a child who is so incredibly gifted and brilliant at even a young age that you know he or she will have to pursue a degree in some branch of math or science or some other area of academia, in order to reach his or her full potential. What would be imprudence or covetousness for my family may very well not be for yours, and I respect that.

Still, I think it's time that our society rediscovered a few important truths, which are these:
  1. Not every child is suited by nature, inclination, or talents for college.
  2. Not every child's vocation will be helped to flourish by attending college.
  3. Not every parent has the means or the ability to save money to pay for the college education for each and every child in the family.
  4. Parents do not owe their children a college education in the same way that they are responsible for their educations in general, or for basic necessities like food, clothing, and shelter. College is a luxury, and it can be imprudent or even a temptation to believe that one must provide college educations for one's children.
  5. Parents must make a prudent decision about college as they do about every other aspect of their role as parents and their involvement in their children's lives.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Gift of Hope

There are three forces that strive in ceaseless and determined effort against the power of good in this earthly life of ours. Sometimes this deadly trio works together, combining their efforts in a cacophonous concert aimed at the destruction of the human soul; sometimes they act alone, the quiet whispers of infamy that tempt ordinary men and women to become the agents of their own eternal destruction.

They are the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Everywhere we look we can see evidence of their activities. The glittering palaces of materialism that tempt us to spend and shop our way into meaning; the lewd and ugly becoming banal by its common presence everywhere from Hollywood to the checkout line at the grocery store; the headlines in the paper that make us shake our heads in sorrow, when we read about death and mayhem and destruction committed by people spoken of as "always quiet" and "a nice person" and "we never thought he'd be capable of this."

We see the influences of this unholy trinity in the world around us, in strangers, in friends, in family, and even in our own lives. We think of the call to holiness, and how often these three jeering voices seem to overcome the quieter impulse to good, and we are tempted sometimes to despair.

But as one elderly gentleman, journeying among us this week clad in the bright mantle of the Servant of the Servants of God, reminded us this week, we are not doomed to desperation; we are promised hope.

The world, in all its worldliness, puts a whole lot of stock in Washington, D.C. The political movers and shakers turn to Washington quite a bit; the minutiae of the pre-election season drones on, wearying and trivial. The world likes to listen to the United Nations, too, and to nod solemnly at its pronouncements whether these deserve them or not.

And to the world, Pope Benedict said the following things:

Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility...Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation.

The founding of the United Nations, as we know, coincided with the profound upheavals that humanity experienced when reference to the meaning of transcendence and natural reason was abandoned, and in consequence, freedom and human dignity were grossly violated. When this happens, it threatens the objective foundations of the values inspiring and governing the international order and it undermines the cogent and inviolable principles formulated and consolidated by the United Nations. When faced with new and insistent challenges, it is a mistake to fall back on a pragmatic approach, limited to determining “common ground”, minimal in content and weak in its effect.

The temptations of the flesh have caused upheaval in the Church which has led to many being scandalized to the point of abandoning our ancient faith. But we live in a time, as our Holy Father pointed out, when the temptations of the flesh in and of themselves are not seen as something to be avoided; instead, they're often shrugged at, as something that ought to be celebrated. To the voices of the flesh, Pope Benedict XVI said:

The family is also the primary place for evangelization, for passing on the faith, for helping young people to appreciate the importance of religious practice and Sunday observance. How can we not be dismayed as we observe the sharp decline of the family as a basic element of Church and society? Divorce and infidelity have increased, and many young men and women are choosing to postpone marriage or to forego it altogether. To some young Catholics, the sacramental bond of marriage seems scarcely distinguishable from a civil bond, or even a purely informal and open-ended arrangement to live with another person. Hence we have an alarming decrease in the number of Catholic marriages in the United States together with an increase in cohabitation, in which the Christ-like mutual self-giving of spouses, sealed by a public promise to live out the demands of an indissoluble lifelong commitment, is simply absent. In such circumstances, children are denied the secure environment that they need in order truly to flourish as human beings, and society is denied the stable building blocks which it requires if the cohesion and moral focus of the community are to be maintained.(...)

Among the countersigns to the Gospel of life found in America and elsewhere is one that causes deep shame: the sexual abuse of minors. Many of you have spoken to me of the enormous pain that your communities have suffered when clerics have betrayed their priestly obligations and duties by such gravely immoral behavior. As you strive to eliminate this evil wherever it occurs, you may be assured of the prayerful support of God’s people throughout the world. Rightly, you attach priority to showing compassion and care to the victims. It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged.(...)

If they are to achieve their full purpose, however, the policies and programs you have adopted need to be placed in a wider context. Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships. They should be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today. They have a right to be educated in authentic moral values rooted in the dignity of the human person. This brings us back to our consideration of the centrality of the family and the need to promote the Gospel of life. What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today? We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society, so that a sound moral formation can be offered to young people and adults alike.

The devil has clearly been involved in some of the evil of the Scandal. The devil also left a hole in lower Manhattan, and it was there that Pope Benedict did not speak, but only prayed. He provided the illumination of a candle and the cleansing ablution of holy water, and these words:

O God of love, compassion, and healing,
look on us, people of many different faiths and traditions,
who gather today at this site,
the scene of incredible violence and pain.

We ask you in your goodness
to give eternal light and peace
to all who died here—
the heroic first-responders:
our fire fighters, police officers,
emergency service workers, and Port Authority personnel,
along with all the innocent men and women
who were victims of this tragedy
simply because their work or service
brought them here on September 11, 2001.

We ask you, in your compassion
to bring healing to those
who, because of their presence here that day,
suffer from injuries and illness.
Heal, too, the pain of still-grieving families
and all who lost loved ones in this tragedy.
Give them strength to continue their lives with courage and hope.

We are mindful as well
of those who suffered death, injury, and loss
on the same day at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Our hearts are one with theirs
as our prayer embraces their pain and suffering.

God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world:
peace in the hearts of all men and women
and peace among the nations of the earth.
Turn to your way of love
those whose hearts and minds
are consumed with hatred.

God of understanding,
overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy,
we seek your light and guidance
as we confront such terrible events.
Grant that those whose lives were spared
may live so that the lives lost here
may not have been lost in vain.
Comfort and console us,
strengthen us in hope,
and give us the wisdom and courage
to work tirelessly for a world
where true peace and love reign
among nations and in the hearts of all.

Piercing through the clamor of the world, and the flesh, and the devil comes the quiet voice of the Vicar of Christ, speaking his message of hope for our world. God has blessed us at this moment in history with a pope who brings this gift, the gift of hope, to a people so spiritually impoverished that many have forgotten that they ever needed this gift in the first place--at least, until those forces of evil combine to strip all their usual comforts from them, and cause them to confront a starker and grimmer reality: Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.

Friday, April 18, 2008

What's Wrong With The Church

From the invaluable and wise gentlemen at Creative Minority Report comes the link to this article from the AP. An excerpt:

But Pope Benedict XVI's Mass in the nation's capital Thursday was also different from a typical service in another way: Lay people were not asked to distribute Communion, which was administered exclusively by 300 priests and deacons.

Organizers of the Mass at Nationals Park were only following the letter of church law. But to some Roman Catholics, the ceremony was symbolic of what they see as Benedict's desire to erect clear boundaries between clergy and lay people.

"What he wants to do really is to reinforce the old categories and classifications — different roles for different people," said David Gibson, author of books on Benedict and the future of the U.S. church.

"Men and women, priests and lay people. Each one has their role according to their talents, their ordained status in the church."

The whole silly thing goes on rather like that, though there are a few good quotes from people who obviously understand that the clear boundaries between between clergy and lay people aren't being "erected" at all--they've always been there.

There has always been a clear boundary between the roles of the clergy and of the laity. Removing those boundaries has never even been open to discussion, nor should it ever be. It is the role of the ordained priest to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to confect the Holy Eucharist, and from that font of sacramental grace to celebrate all the other sacraments of the Church.

A lay person may, in cases of emergency and the absence of a priest, validly baptize. And in the West, lay people are understood to be the ministers of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony for each other, with the priest present as the Church's chief witness to this sacrament. But aside from those two, no lay person may assume the role of the priest in any other sacrament.

He may not hear confessions. He may not confirm, or confer Holy Orders. He may not anoint the sick or the dying.

Most important of all, he may not celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass or confect the Eucharist. In the extremely desperate, or else extremely misguided situation where a lay person actually gives a child his or her First Holy Communion he may only do so if a Host has been validly consecrated at Mass by a validly ordained priest.

This is basic Catholicism--Catholic Church 101, if you will. No Protestant would-be convert earnestly studying the Catechism to discern a call to become Catholic has the slightest misunderstanding about the fact that the priest's role in the Church is unique. No outside observer with even the smallest grasp of Christian history and tradition fails to realize that the ordained clergy serves this unique role in the two Apostolic Churches, the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox, which is completely different from anything seen in any other manifestation of Christianity.

And yet ill-informed and uneducated Catholics make the cringe-worthy statements like those found in the AP article comparing lack of lay ministry to oppression or wanting a more democratic Church, as if such a beastly thing were even remotely possible.

The simple truth is this: the Church doesn't need lay 'ministers' at all. It isn't necessary to have the laity sing at Mass, distribute Communion, bring up the gifts at the Offertory, read any of the readings or petitions, or do anything other than be present and worship--and even that may be done silently.

This doesn't mean that all of these things should necessarily cease; it is certainly possible for the laity to be involved in any of these liturgical areas and to conduct themselves with solemnity, reverence and decorum in carrying out their assigned tasks. But they must not ever make the mistake that they are entitled to do any of these things: it's a privilege, and one that it would be better to do away with altogether than risk the ignorant but sadly widespread notion that we have the "right" to do any of these things.

Should I ever be fortunate enough to be present at a Mass attended by fifteen hundred priests I would hardly be lamenting the "loss" of the "job" of the lay Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. After seeing some small parts of the Papal Mass in D.C., I can only suppose that not one of the fifteen hundred could carry a tune; else it was sheer cruelty to inflict such dreadful "lay" music on such a musically gifted Pope.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Barbara, Don't Get Your Boxers In a Twist

As our Holy Father continues to spread the Church's message of hope across our grateful nation, leading us in prayer, meeting with the victims of abuse, and in general being a beacon of light, the agents of darkness who have never comprehended the light in the first place are not losing this opportunity to display their usual cowardly and completely impotent rage.

Chief among these classless and dim denizens of the City of Man today is California's liberal darling, Senator Barbara Boxer. Boxer, who never loses the chance to show America just how sadly deprived of even the smallest modicum of intelligence she really is, delayed the passage of a Senate resolution welcoming the pope, a resolution intended to be a mere diplomatic and courteous gesture, because La Boxer decided that some of the language in the resolution was offensive and political.

Was it a nod to illegal immigration? Was it a sly expression of support for the war in Iraq, or an inappropriate phrase of Catholic triumphalism? What could Babs be so upset about?

This phrase: "Whereas Pope Benedict XVI has spoken out for the weak and vulnerable, witnessing to the value of each and every human life."

Her Shrillness screamed. Why, such a phrase as "...the value of each and every human life..." was clearly code for antiabortionism! It had to go, or Bibi wasn't signing on. What, how dare the Senate of the United States tell the Pope that they appreciate that he's a Catholic!

The Senate did what it does best--knuckled under to the loudest and least intelligent voice. The phrase was removed; the sentence ends after "vulnerable."

Which, of course, leads to an interesting observation.

Barbara Boxer refused to approve a resolution which spoke of the value of each and every human life. Which means that Barbara Boxer doesn't value each and every human life. Specifically, given her stated concerns about this language, Barbara Boxer doesn't value unborn human life.

Which she has just admitted is human life.

In other words, Barbara Boxer, by openly refusing to agree to a phrase about the value of each and every human life on the grounds that to do so weakens her support for abortion has laid her cards on the table: abortion kills a human life, and therefore Barbara Boxer, who is pro-abortion, does not value each and every human life.

And the Pope does, and Barbara can't even allow her colleagues in the Senate to acknowledge that fact.

The light shines into the darkness, as Christ promised. But the light of truth is too much for people like Senator Barbara Boxer, who knows that the darkness will never be able to stand for long before it. But her actions today don't disturb in any way the steady beam of truth which the Holy Father by his very presence is presenting to America in a special way. All they do is turn a spotty mirror back onto her own reflection, to show her how deep and foul is the darkness which she embraces, and tries to call light.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


If you only read the New York Times, you'd probably get the idea that the whole point of the Pope's visit to the U.S. was to fail to address the Scandal adequately.

I expect to see many more articles like these in the coming days; typing the words "pope" and "abuse" into the Google News search bar brings up quite a few similar stories.

The issue is being discussed on Catholic and non-Catholic blogs alike: why isn't the pope doing something about the abuse? Why isn't he removing this bishop or that one, forcing the resignation of yet a third and demanding accountability from a fourth?

I understand the level of pain and frustration that lies at the heart of many of these questions. We Catholics are aware that our bishops failed the Church and the victims of abuse by so often moving pedophile or ephebophile priests to different parishes or different ministries where they still had access to young people, and could still continue their predations. We know that some bishops may have tried to sweep the Situation under the rug, and we suspect that others may have been blackmailed into putting up with the worst offenders instead of dealing with them as harshly as their crimes deserved.

But what we don't know are names. And dates. And times. And places.

In a word, we don't have proof.

Though the Scandal is talked about and analyzed ad infinitum, it is easy to forget that a relatively small percent of the child abuse cases even involved criminal prosecution. Often, this was because the cases occurred so long ago that there's no possible way to prove that anything actually happened. To say this isn't to doubt the honesty of the vast majority of the victims; clearly they were abused. But it's hard enough to prove sexual abuse (aside from the most egregious sort which causes physical harm) when a case is recent; a decades-old allegation of fondling may never be able to be proved in the sort of way needed to ensure criminal prosecution of the perpetrator.

And if it's hard to prove a priest really did abuse a specific victim, imagine how much harder it is to prove that the bishop knew for certain that the priest was guilty, and maliciously or negligently covered up that knowledge in order to move the priest from parish to parish. We may suspect that he did; we may even, depending on our connection with a specific bishop or diocese, be morally certain that a particular bishop is guilty of either malicious or negligent conduct. But unless we can prove that this is true, we have no way to insist that this bishop be removed from his office.

The Church isn't a corporation, with bishops as under performing middle managers who can be fired at any time. The bishops are the successors to the Apostles, after all. And while it is certainly true that Canon Law provides for the removal of bishops who have been guilty of wrongdoing, it also requires that the wrongdoing be something of which evidence may be shown. Believing that one's bishop has done something evil is one thing; proving it is something else entirely.

The pope, as the successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ, certainly is the leader of the whole Church. But this doesn't mean that he can simply remove a bishop at will. Consider what was necessary when Archbishop Lefebvre was excommunicated; first, the pope warned him not to consecrate bishops without permission; permission was granted for him to consecrate one bishop; in defiance of that permission the archbishop consecrated four bishops; the Holy See informed all those involved that they had incurred automatic excommunication because of this specific act.

Now, prior to this action, Archbishop Lefebvre had been tangling with the Vatican for almost thirteen years in various ways, but the pope didn't march into France and strip the archbishop of his office--it took a specific action by the archbishop to place him outside of the Church, an action which the pope merely confirmed had indeed taken place and had indeed carried with it the penalty of excommunication.

Clearly if it could be proved that a specific bishop had knowingly and willfully attempted to cover up the actions of a pedophile priest, and had, with complete disregard for the souls under his care, moved that priest from place to place without attempting to stop the abuse from happening, or addressing it when it had happened, then that bishop would very certainly be in danger of being removed from his office, and possibly of facing even worse canonical penalties. But the key phrase is, "...if it could be proved...". Without proof, no matter how just or logical or sincere anyone's suspicions of a bishop's involvement in the Scandal, there is only suspicion--and suspicion alone isn't enough.

Pope Benedict XVI has already humbly identified with the victims of abuse and declared how ashamed he is of those priests who so terribly betrayed the innocent children they preyed upon. But anyone who thinks that his next step will be a wholesale cleanout (akin to Hercules' efforts in the Augean Stables) of the episcopacy of the United States is doomed to be disappointed.

Which is not to say that His Holiness might not be able to remove at least one American bishop in the very near future...

...that is, if he has proof.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Voice of the Soul

In the comments section below yesterday's post, a reader took me to task for my second suggestion, "Thou shalt not represent thyself as a "Catholic" if thou disagreest with the Church on the following: artificial birth control, female ordination, sexual morality/gay marriage, and so forth." The commenter says she can be Catholic and believe in gay marriage, and that to insist that Catholics "...must agree with all of Rome’s pronouncements to be authentically “Catholic” smacks of religious hubris." She used the word "conscience" twice.

I feel a bit like the movie character who said, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. ..."

I don't want to discuss a specific commenter too much; that's not the point, here. But I have encountered many Catholics who seem to have an honest misunderstanding about what the conscience is, what its role is, and what it has to do with our duty to obey the Church's teachings on faith and morals as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Church's understanding of the word "conscience" may be found here. In particular, the Church stresses that we must make choices according to our consciences and may not be forced to act contrary to them; that we have a duty to form our consciences correctly according to reason, authoritative teachings, and the Word of God, that it is possible to form our consciences incorrectly and to make erroneous judgments which we may or may not be responsible for making; however, we are clearly at fault if we have not taken the trouble to learn what is right, or if, having learned it, we reject it by pride or some mistaken notion that our consciences are autonomous.

In particular, I wish to quote CCC 1799, which summarizes this latter concept as follows: "Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them."

In other words, it is possible for our consciences to be wrong; and inasmuch as we ever decide that we can't accept some clear, well-known teaching of the Church our conscience is certainly in the wrong, though our level of culpability will depend on the usual factors and also on whether we have been led astray by those we should be able to trust.

At this time in history, any literate and reasonably intelligent Catholic can discover what the Church teaches on any major issue involving faith and morals, so few people can claim to be ignorant of what the Church teaches. Yet many Catholics still claim that they can be Catholic in good conscience while rejecting Church teaching, based, I believe, on an erroneous and false notion of the conscience. This false notion claims that either the Church is wrong about huge matters of faith or morals, or that there is no actual, unchanging standard of right and wrong in those areas. Thus, argues the dissident Catholic, it is possible to reject Church teachings on, say, sexual morality while still considering oneself to be a practicing Catholic in good standing with the Church.

But each of these ideas involves very un-Catholic ideas.

The first, that it is possible for Catholics to reject any part of Church teaching they don't particularly like, is opposed to the concept of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church. Catholics are required to give the full assent of faith to all infallible teachings, and religious assent of the intellect and will to teachings which have not been infallibly defined. Religious assent doesn't mean dissent, no matter how hard one tries to make it so; moreover, it could be argued that those teachings about the intrinsic evil of certain sins against the Sixth Commandment are actually part of the ordinary universal Magisterium and thus infallible; while I lack the knowledge necessary to make a good case for this, I'm aware that it has been addressed before.

The second claim, that there simply is no standard of right or wrong when discussing sexual morality, that all ideas about the rightness or wrongness of certain acts stem from cultural or other notions, and that the Church merely reflects these outdated cultural views in Her teachings, seems to be part of the taint of relativism which our current pope, Benedict XVI, has deplored. Laying aside that even if this were ever the case about any Church teaching the religious assent of the intellect and will would still be required of every Catholic in good standing, there is the additional fact that the concepts of morality we are talking about have persevered from Biblical times until the equivalent, historically speaking, of twenty minutes ago. That marriage involved a man and a woman; that relations outside of marriage were not morally sound; that sexual immorality was a barrier to a believer's ability to approach the Altar of the Lord--all of these notions were clearly set out in the New Testament, and have been adhered to by Christians throughout most of Christian history. Granted, many Christians did, and still do, sin in these areas, just as Christians sin against all the Commandments; but no serious Catholic I know of is arguing that the concept of theft is an outdated cultural relic, or that telling lies is really a moral good.

The fact of the matter is that we don't get to define for ourselves what "Catholic" means. As a friend of mine put it, to be a Catholic means that you can hold up the Catechism of the Catholic Church and simply say, "I accept this. All of it." If there's a big section of the Catechism you can't accept, the problem is likely not with the Catechism.

Our consciences are our souls' voices, expressing to us the moral truths behind our judgments and actions. If we have taken care to form them rightly and to listen to them we will have a sure guide in determining what is right and what is wrong. But if we have dulled and blunted the voice of the conscience by turning away from the Church's teachings, or stunted our consciences' growths by never trying to read or understand those teachings in the first place, then our ability to know right and wrong will suffer accordingly--as will we.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Pope to Arrive Tomorrow; Media Takes Usual Tack

On the eve of the Pope's visit to America, I have a little bit of advice for Catholic Americans, especially those who might be contacted by the media for their opinions or reactions to the papal visit. I don't expect this advice to be heeded in the least; nonetheless, I'd like to offer some suggestions. Maybe ten. Nah, maybe just five.

1. Thou shalt not tell the New York Times, "When I look around at our mass (sic), I do see the youths dwindling in size." Come now, sir! Catholic youths aren't getting smaller. Catholic education, however, has obviously declined. In a previous generation a kindly nun would have made sure that you knew the difference between "dwindling in size" and "dwindling in number." She would also have told you that the latter phrase was redundant in the context of your sentence, and that the word "dwindling" is synonymous with "decreasing." If you mean that there are fewer Catholic youths at the Mass you are attending, say so.

2. Thou shalt not represent thyself as a "Catholic" if thou disagreest with the Church on the following: artificial birth control, female ordination, sexual morality/gay marriage, and so forth. You especially shouldn't be responding to polls like this one and claiming to be an average Catholic who just happens to hate what the Church is, teaches, proclaims, etc. And if in addition to these major areas of disagreement you also fail to attend Mass every Sunday without any serious impediment, the proper term for you is "lapsed Catholic." Help the media get this right, please.

3. Thou shalt steer clear of media questioners who want to discuss the Scandal. There's a time and place for everything; plenty of Catholics have had problems with the Church in regards to the Scandal, and I sincerely respect that and pray for them all. But the media doesn't really care about the Scandal except as it allows them to prefill the media template that says "Pope Visits Scandal Rocked Teetering Outdated Out of Touch On the Verge of Collapsing Really We're Not Kidding Church." The media wants riots and demonstrations, and isn't above encouraging them to flower by asking incendiary questions.

4. Thou shalt not freak out over harmless and slightly cute subway ads, giving the media the chance to dust off their old "Traditional Catholics Are a Bunch of Humorless Nuts" articles. Let's save the indignation for the real Catholic-bashing that will doubtlessly occur during the Pope's visit; and let's not fall into that other media trap, the opinion journalist's favorite false comparison ("Catholics Protest Insult to Pope by Writing Letters, Which is Exactly the Same as the Muslim Cartoon Riots").

5. If thou must buy official Papal Visit merchandise, and if thou must buy this bumper sticker, please put it on a Chevy truck, where there will be a cute tie-in to Chevy's "Like a Rock" advertising campaign. Okay, I'm kidding. But only on this one.

Fellow Catholic Americans, now's the time to welcome our dear Holy Father to our shores, to pray for his safe and fruitful visit, to rejoice that the Vicar of Christ has come to be with us for this brief but exciting time. As we offer up our joyful prayers, let us remember that the news media will have their own way of spinning the papal visit, to magnify the voices of dissent and minimize the voices of faithful love for Christ, for His Church, and for the shepherd He has chosen to lead and guide His flock at this hour of history. After all, if Christ Himself were to appear in glory among us today, and there was still a functioning newsroom left in America, the headline would read: Christ Returns for Second Coming; Not All Christians Pleased.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Joyce Kilmer and Me

I never used to have all that much appreciation for Joyce Kilmer's famous poem. You know, this one:


I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Like I said, I used to feel unmoved by this poem--trees, yes, lovely, yada yada. But lately I've realized that I actually have a favorite tree, which makes me appreciate Kilmer's poem a lot more.

I really want to put a Japanese Red Maple in our back yard. And when we visited a Japanese Festival at a beautiful botanic garden this weekend I managed to take a picture of one. [Note. The person who took this picture is camera-impaired. The camera is fine. Good pictures are produced by it all the time.] Here it is:

I just love the blaze of scarlet glory against the green, and since our house backs up a greenbelt I can imagine how lovely this would look.

But these trees are on the pricey side. Do I really want to plant one knowing that we're probably no more than three years, at the most, from outgrowing this house and moving somewhere else?

I have a feeling Joyce Kilmer would tell me to go for it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Husbands, Declutter Your Wives!

I'm still thinking about Elizabeth Foss's housecleaning posts, and am pondering Danielle Bean's, too. Some of what they have to say I've found quite valuable--we can all be challenged to do better, in all the facets of our married vocations: housecleaning, cooking, teaching our children, being present to the members of our family, reaching outside of ourselves to help a neighbor or volunteer for a good cause, and so on.

But the reality is that just as most of us have room for improvement in these areas, most of us also have unique paths we're walking. The honest truth is that when we see posts like this start to crop up we can either be glad of a good reminder, or be irritated at yet another source of mother-guilt, or fall somewhere in between.

And, as Danielle said, people have all sorts of baggage about this topic. For some people a reminder to declutter and get organized is a welcome call; but for others it could be a source of temptation, to spend too many hours sorting socks into little boxes because this work appeals to them, and too few hours planning or preparing meals because this work doesn't.

I found myself reacting a bit negatively to some aspects of these posts. One in particular surprised me a bit. I love my husband. I want to create a clean and tidy environment to the best of my limited abilities, and given the challenges of the space I have to work with. So why did I keep reading passages about how doing these things is showing our husbands how much we respect all their hard work, or how doing these things is a reminder to our husbands that we take our obligations to please them seriously, and frowning at the words and phrases?

I think there were two things about this idea that bugged me, frankly. The first is that my priorities tend to be: teach school, cook, do basic stuff like laundry and dishes and vacuuming, and then, if there's any time left over, work on the whole "decluttering" issue. Let's be honest, ladies: teaching school is pretty darned near close to being a full-time job, unless all your children are under six or seven (and taking care of children under those ages is also pretty darned near being a full time job). I kept thinking of a cartoon I once saw, in which an immaculately suited husband enters a messy house and greets a disheveled wife holding a crying baby and being tugged on by two crying toddlers with the question, "Gosh, honey, didn't you do anything today?"

The second thing that bugged me is that husbands are not entirely clutter-free creatures. Don't get me wrong--I'm not going to bash Mr. C., who works hard, respects my efforts, and doesn't place impossibly high standards on my housecleaning. But any married woman knows that husbands have a tendency to produce some clutter here and there--and if you clean it up, you'd better remember where you put it, because invariably something that looked like a bit of broken plastic is going to be a key replacement part for a cell phone, TV remote, flux capacitor, warp engine, or other similar device.

So I'm disinclined to sort through and put away all of Mr. C.'s clutter unless Mr. C. is available to help. But I'm certainly not going to greet him at the door each evening with a nagging request for him to point out which magazines he's done with, or which books he's ready to take to the used book store, or where he wants me to store the stuff he brought home from the store yesterday for a maintenance project he plans to do this weekend--so the clutter gets to stay for a while.

Now Mr. C. isn't an untidy person, and he's quite inclined at regular intervals to do a big, sweeping decluttering of his stuff all on his own. But, shocking as it may be to contemplate, there may be a husband or two out there who isn't radiant with the gem-like qualities of Mr. C., and so in a spirit of helpful charity to husbands who want to show their wives how much they respect their wives' efforts to keep a tidy home (not to mention the cooking, schooling, and general house-running), I offer the following list:

1. The project that is obviously not finished may not be either a) a project or b) unfinished in your wife's eye. Let her know you're still working on it, and that you'd like the components to remain where they are. However, if the project involves sharp tools and you have a toddler, be prepared to compromise on this.

2. If you have a collection of items which you'd like to leave out somewhere in the house, think about a way to store or display these items that keeps them off of the floor or the kitchen table. Hanging shelves are nice; it's even nicer if you offer to install them.

3. If you hate putting away clothing at night that you might decide you want to wear the next morning, consider purchasing a coat rack or antique hall stand if your bedroom is big enough to hold an item like this. Even a chest at the foot of the bed is better than piling these items on the floor, on the only chair in the room, or on the bed itself.

4. If you are reading several different books at once, and don't want any of them put on the bookshelf or even closed as this will lose your place, then you need two things: bookmarks, and a space on your nightstand to set the books. If you don't have a nightstand, a charming basket will do, especially if you buy two so your wife can have one, too.

5. If there is some space in your house, particularly in the attic, basement, or garage, where you keep various tools and equipment, take responsibility for this space, and think of a good way to organize it. Don't be afraid to ask your wife for suggestions unless she's already told you she wishes you'd throw all that junk away; but don't be surprised if her suggestions are really enthusiastic and involve the expenditure of some time and money at this place.

What I'm trying to say, albeit a little facetiously, is that like everything else in a marriage, the effort to keep a clean and tidy home takes both parents, not just one of them. Sure, the division of labor is going to vary a lot from one family to another; sure, the day-to-day tasks end up being the responsibility of mom, or of mom and a few helpful children, more often than not. But that doesn't mean that the responsibility for creating a restful retreat from the world rests only on mom's shoulders; chances are that with the baby sling or the cookbook or the lesson plans already up there, there just isn't room.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Rod Dreher, Crunchy Conservatives, and the Texas Polygamists

Over at Rod Dreher's Crunchy Con blog some ill-mannered commenters have been tweaking him for not writing, as of yet, on the situation in Texas involving the polygamy compound. His reasonable statement to the effect that he'll write about it when he has something to say has been shrugged aside; the commenters seem to want to believe that Rod, who writes critically of gay marriage and other facets of societal decay, is going to give the polygamists a pass because they're heterosexual, because he and all Christian men secretly want to subject women to lives of oppression and thus approve when others do this, or because he won't be able to voice disapproval of this sect (or cult) and their way of life without mangling a few crunchy conservative sacred cows in the process.

They're wrong, of course. But it's quite telling that they would seize the opportunity to show their own hands so plainly.

Liberals tend to believe that conservatives, even crunchy ones, secretly pine for the days when a man's word was law, when women were considered helpless fragile little creatures who were dependent on their husbands in every imaginable way, and when the societal traditions that held place of honor were designed to reinforce ideas like these. Liberals also tend to believe that underneath every conservative notion about sexual morality lies the old boys' club double standard: that men will be men, and need more than one woman in their lives, but that a woman who loses her virtue loses everything, and a woman who strays from the path of respectability deserves to be shunned and mistreated at every opportunity. In a liberal's way of looking at things, all conservative men secretly think that wives should be subject to beatings or financial control or some such things, and all conservative men actually envy the polygamist for having worked out such a tidy solution to the problem of the male desire for variety.

So the fact that Rod hasn't, as of yet, gotten around to writing about the Texas situation is proof positive to people of this mindset that their awful suspicions about conservative men are fully justified. Conservatives, they reason, will attack gay marriage at every opportunity because gay marriage is a threat somehow to their own bigotry or hate which they want to impose on the rest of society; but conservatives will not attack polygamy with the same vigor, because they mostly approve of its elements, and raise only mild protests against the plural aspects of plural marriage.

But nothing could be further from the truth. It is, in fact, the liberal approach which has undermined the sanctity of marriage at every turn that makes it so difficult now for the law to say or do anything about polygamy. In every situation where the government has gotten involved in some group or cult that is practicing polygamy, the government has only been able to do so because minor children were involved in the marriages or in some other abuse. Thanks to the sexual revolution, it's no longer illegal in most states from any kind of public morals or public decency standpoint for a man to live with several women and consider himself "spiritually married" to all but the one with whom he actually has a marriage license. Unless he attempts legal bigamy, the law can't stop him from living with and sleeping with as many women as he wants to.

And if liberals get their way on the "age of consent" laws, too, there soon will be no grounds at all for law enforcement to stop a fifty-year-old man from living with a fifteen-year-old girl, whether he considers her a "spiritual wife" or not. The one cultural value our current society elevates above all others is the notion that sex without consequences is the most important freedom we have, and if children or innocent spouses or unborn babies or anyone else has to suffer for this freedom to be paramount, then so be it.

Conservatives aren't hampered by the need to protect this "value," as we reject it and the destructive consequences it has had on our society. For a conservative, polygamy is wrong for exactly the same reasons that gay marriage or cohabitation or serial divorce/remarriage and the like are wrong: because they attack and undermine the sanctity of marriage which is ordered toward the preservation and flourishing of the family, the basic and most essential unit of human society. The polygamy cult here in Texas sees the actions of law enforcement as an attack upon their religion, but what it actually is--or should be--is the reaffirmation by society of the fact that not all so-called "family" structures deserve the name. A gay couple raising children isn't a family; a man living with his girlfriend isn't a family; two single women raising the children each has had with several different men aren't a family; and a polygamist with multiple wives and dozens of children isn't a family.

Our society has chosen to believe that the definition of family is as fluid and changeable as it wants the definition of marriage to be. The consequences of this is that society will have to make as much room for the polygamist "family" as it has for all the other deviations it has decided are worthy of the name; unless, of course, society wants to start listening to the conservative voices who have been pretty consistent in rejecting these kinds of Orwellian redefinitions.

I'm sure Rod Dreher will have some interesting things to say on the Texas polygamy sect, but what he should not have to say is that he rejects the morality of this group and its chosen way of life. We conservatives aren't the ones who have trouble saying that, after all.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Housecleaning and Torture, Revisited

Sorry I'm so late posting today. I was cleaning out my closet.

I had planned to do so even before reading this post, but let's face it: it's reading posts like that one that make me start such a time-intensive job at 7:30 p.m., knowing full well that it will take a couple of good hours to reach a quitting point.

Now, I want to be fair. Elizabeth Foss didn't make me clean out my closet. Her whole reflection is introspective, written in the first person. She's writing about her own struggle to make a priority out of daily cleanliness and improved organization. She's not trying to guilt anyone else into random acts of decluttering, and it's not her fault if my totally irrational response is to do exactly that.

But that's why I started to think about this old post of mine, where I compared housecleaning to torture. Okay, not really. What I did do was have a moment when, in pondering the definition of the word "clean," I suddenly realized what Mark Shea had been saying about torture, which is that motives matter. If I tried to define "clean" in such a way that I got away with doing the minimum, I wasn't exactly approaching the definition in good faith; similarly, as Mark had been saying, if you only want to define torture so you know exactly how much pain and terror you can inflict on someone without technically being guilty of torturing him you're not acting in good faith, either.

How does this relate to Elizabeth's post? My irrational response to it, which was to think that if I wasn't staying strictly on plan to continue my never ending attempts to remove excess clutter from a house that's on the small side and has totally inadequate storage (I have no linen closet, for instance; the builder didn't consider it necessary) then I was being like the friend she talks about who makes other things in her life more important than providing a haven for her family, was coming from an assumption based on words which weren't defined, and whose definitions might not be what I was assuming they were.

Take "haven," for instance. When I hear a home called a haven I imagine it rather differently than my little house. I imagine glossy magazines full of delightful little rooms, with copy that coos "The owners decided to divide their palatial living space into cozy nooks; the arched doorways and hand-carved teak doors which used to adorn a temple in Shanghai provide a note of interest, while the newly-created meditation room beyond is a haven from the day-to-day strain of running their stock brokerage company." I picture in my mind the morning room of the second Mrs. DeWinter in the black and white film version of Rebecca. I certainly don't see my cookie-cutter subdivision house whose carpet is sorely in need of replacement after eight years of exuberant family living, whose living room/school room/art project center/aquarium space is never without its own "notes of interest," such as the "paint a wooden purse" project currently underway on Kitten's desk, or the bags waiting to go to charity piled up in a temporary staging area behind the loveseat. I don't see master bedrooms that feature an exercise bicycle because that's the only place to put it; I don't see the endless and often fruitless battle to fit Costco sized cereal boxes into a Lilliputian pantry.

But that's just me, reacting to one word that probably wasn't used by Elizabeth to mean the sort of pristine glamor I think of when I hear the word "haven." It's my own fault for reading too many fairy tales as a child; when the princess' haven is a lofty tower with silk hangings and a convenient ladder of braided hair, it's hard to see a house in a state of actually being lived in as any kind of a haven at all.

Just like my struggle to define the word "clean," though, I think my reaction to Elizabeth's post came out of my own deep feelings of inadequacy when it comes to creating a home, or turning a house into a welcoming and delightful place.

I am not by nature skilled in the domestic arts. This doesn't mean that I don't do the basics, and I have daughters who are old enough to help and way more talented than I am, which gives me hope for the future; the reality at present is that I wouldn't know how to create an atmosphere of loveliness or invitation or warmth if my life depended on it. When it comes to cleaning or getting rid of excess stuff, I can handle it (my only slight negative here is my tendency to get rid of too much stuff at once, including stuff I was still sort of using, which then has to be replaced; this is what happens when you move a lot as a child, and when your true idea of decluttering involves putting everything in large cardboard boxes and calling for a moving van). But when it comes to all those little touches, that art of having an eye for the exact angle at which the couch stops being an inconvenient hulking piece of furniture and suddenly, magically, becomes a "welcome gathering space," that art of knowing instinctively which colorful piece of glass or porcelain will add a touch of graciousness and which ones only add a touch of flea-market desperation, that art of making people think you have lace curtains and crown molding even when you don't--all of that is, and always has been, a completely closed book to me.

And no matter how hard I might try to pretend that none of that is true if I'm having company, it's no used trying to fool my family. They know better. They know me.

But as I realized while I piled clothes on my bed and wished that I could get rid of most of them and start all over (not possible from a budget standpoint, alas), this comes from the erroneous assumption that there's only one way to create a haven, or at least, only one right way.

My haven may need new carpet. It may be bursting at the seams despite my best efforts at clutter removal. It might look worse because of my pathetic attempts in the decorating realm than it would if I left it spartan and bare.

But my husband doesn't have to worry that I'll start complaining that his electric guitar doesn't go with the bedroom decor (actually, it compliments the exercise bicycle quite nicely). Kitten can paint her purse in the living room, at her school desk next to the aquarium. Bookgirl and Hatchick's bunk bed oasis has room for lots of stuffed animal friends. As for me--well, my computer desk is a cabinet that closes up at night, right here in the schoolroom/living room/etc.'s heart of it all.

The important thing is not that my house or your house or Elizabeth's house or her friend's house all involve the same exact levels of "havenness." The important thing is that we know what our families like and try our best to provide it--and that they know and love us despite our faults and limitations.