Archive for new york times

The Persistence of the Mental Illness Stigma

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 22, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

stigmatizing-mental-illnessThere is an excellent guest op-ed piece in today’s New York Times written by two high-school women who articulately express the their experience of the travails of chronic depression, its isolating quality, and the stigma that remains attached to the reality. I was moved by their desire to unveil some of the solitary, and thereby confounding, dimension of such illness through their practice of journalism, only to be prevented by their school’s administrators. The argument against publishing such interviews with peers was “concern” for the students, yet this road constructed with seeming best intentions actually led to the reiterating hell of isolation and reinforcement of social stigma that needs to be lifted.

These young women deserve a lot of credit and I’m proud of the New York Times for publishing their piece. I have a number of friends — some in religious life, some not — who suffer from illnesses including chronic depression and general anxiety disorder. Part of their challenge, which is truly unnecessary, is the inability to freely share their experiences for all the reasons these two young women write about in their essay. I hope that this won’t be the end of the discussion. I also hope that their high school realizes that if it’s good enough for the NYT, it should be good enough for a school paper.

Here’s the full piece:

“Depressed, But Not Ashamed” by Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — MOST of our closest friends didn’t know that we struggled with depression. It just wasn’t something we discussed with our high school classmates. We found that we both had taken Prozac only when one of us caught a glimpse of a prescription bottle in a suitcase during a journalism conference last November. For the first time, we openly discussed our feelings and our use of antidepressants with someone who could relate. We took a risk sharing our experiences with depression, but in our honesty, we found a support system. We knew we had to take the idea further.

In the United States, for people between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Untreated depression is one of the leading causes of suicide. According to the National Comorbidity Survey: Adolescent Supplement, 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18.

We were not alone. We wondered why, with so many teenagers dealing with depression, it was still addressed in such impersonal ways.

As editors at our high school newspaper, we decided to fight against the stigma and proposed devoting a whole edition to personal stories from our peers who were suffering from mental illness. We wanted honesty with no anonymity.

We knew that discussing mental health in this way would be edgy, even for our progressive community in Michigan. But we were shocked when the school administration would not allow us to publish the articles.

With the help of other journalism students, we interviewed teenagers from around our school district who shared stories of depression, eating disorders, homelessness, prescription abuse, insomnia and anxiety. Many discussed their personal struggles for the first time. All agreed to attach their full name — no anonymity or pseudonyms. Following online recommendations of the Student Press Law Center, we asked the parents of each student to sign consent forms for the articles.

As we were putting the stories together, the head of our school called us into her office to tell us about a former college football player from our area who had struggled with depression and would be willing to let us interview him. We wondered why she was proposing this story to us since he wasn’t a current high school student. We declined her suggestion. We didn’t want to replace these deeply personal articles about our peers with a piece about someone removed from the students. After we asked her why she was suggesting this, she told us that she couldn’t support our moving forward with the articles.

From an administrative perspective, this made some sense. It is her job to protect the students to the best of her ability. She believed that the well-being of those who shared their experiences — and most important, their names — would be put at risk because of potential bullying. She also mentioned that she had consulted a mental health professional, who told her that reading about their own depression could trigger a recurrence in some of the students and that those who committed to telling their stories might regret it later.

Our school has a very tolerant atmosphere, and it even has a depression awareness group, so this response seemed uncharacteristic. We were surprised that the administration and the adults who advocated for mental health awareness were the ones standing in the way of it. By telling us that students could not talk openly about their struggles, they reinforced the very stigma we were trying to eliminate.

The feeling of being alone is closely linked to depression. This can be exacerbated if there is no one to reach out to. Though there are professionals to talk to, we feel it doesn’t compare to sharing your experiences with a peer who has faced similar struggles. And, most important to us, no one afflicted with a mental illness should have to believe that it’s something he should feel obliged to hide in the first place. If someone has an illness such as diabetes, she is not discouraged from speaking about it. Depression does not indicate mental weakness. It is a disorder, often a flaw of biology, not one of character.

By interviewing these teenagers for our newspaper, we tried — and failed — to start small in the fight against stigma. Unfortunately, we’ve learned this won’t be easy. It seems that those who are charged with advocating for our well-being aren’t ready yet to let us have an open and honest dialogue about depression.

Authority, Authenticity, and Leadership

Posted in Pope Francis, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on January 14, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

JP-VATICAN-1-superJumboThe combination of recent reports of Pope Francis’s decisions in addressing Vatican leadership crises at the curia and today’s Gospel taken from Mark 1:21-28 about Jesus’s ability to speak as one “with authority,” has me thinking about what it means to be a Christian today and to do so with authority.

Today’s Gospel begins:

Jesus came to Capernaum with his followers,
and on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught.
The people were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.

The scribes, those who were something like our modern-day Canon lawyers or perhaps even some ecclesiastical bureaucrats, spoke with an authority that came from interpretations of the law and the exercise of power in a traditional way. Jesus was often critical of those in positions of religious leadership because he saw certain inauthenticity in their words and deeds (think of the admonition about bowls clean on the outside but dirty within).

Jesus comes onto the scene and the people were “astonished at his teaching” not because he was some sort of brilliant legal expert or politically well-connected or had some impressive credentials. His teaching shocked hearers because it bore an authority rooted in an authentic embrace of God’s will demonstrated by both word and deed. His ministry of healing, of forgiveness, of love, of reconciliation, of mission — this is what conveyed an authority novel to those used to the old forms of religious leadership.

Nearly two-millennia later, Pope Francis appears on the scene. The Bishop of Rome has captured the attention of the whole world, teaching and acting “as one having authority” and not as those who have typically been in similar positions of leadership.

Pope Francis is, to be clear, not Jesus. He is a priest and a bishop, like so many others. However, what distinguishes him is the way in which he can convey a sense of authenticity in his words and deeds that demonstrates a leadership and authority more akin to Jesus’s than to that of the typical curial bureaucrat or ladder-climbing cleric. And he’s not only teaching with words, but acting with this astonishing authority.

Today the New York Times reported:

To some degree, Francis, 77, is simply bringing in his own team and equipping it to carry out his stated mission of creating a more inclusive and relevant church that is more sensitive to the needs of local parishes and the poor. But he is also breaking up the rival blocs of Italians with entrenched influence in the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the church. He is increasing financial transparency in the murky Vatican Bank and upending the career ladder that many prelates have spent their lives climbing.

The response has been striking, eliciting for me an image of what the pharisees and scribes must have felt when Jesus was exposing the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of so many of them. The Times article continues with a comment about the way in which some of Pope Francis’s decisions to restructure the curia and refocus the attitude and mission of its staffers has been received.

Interviews with cardinals, bishops, priests, Vatican officials, Italian politicians, diplomats and analysts indicate that the mood inside the Vatican ranges from adulation to uncertainty to deep anxiety, even a touch of paranoia. Several people say they fear Francis is going department by department looking for heads to roll. Others whisper about six mysterious Jesuit spies who act as the pope’s eyes and ears on the Vatican grounds. Mostly, once-powerful officials feel out of the loop.

“It’s awkward,” said one senior Vatican official, who, like many others, insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution from Francis. “Many are saying, what are we doing this for?” He said some officials had stopped showing up for meetings. “It’s like frustrated teenagers closing the door and putting their headphones on.”

It will be interesting to see how this will reckoning will proceed. It didn’t, as history and our faith tradition knows so well, end well for Jesus of Nazareth. It is my hope and prayer that those whose selfish ambition and political aspirations are increasingly spurned don’t follow suit. Pope Francis continues to astonish me with the authority of his words and deeds in the most positive and hopeful ways. May we continue to hear the Spirit who calls us to return to our faith, to the Gospel, to the authority of Jesus that heals rather than breaks, that is inclusive rather than exclusive, and that reveals the merciful and compassionate face of God rather than the selfish ambition of individuals.

Photo: NYT

‘Giving Up Your Pew’ is Not the Answer

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on March 2, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

decline-of-christianityThe New York Times editorial page has really been into this papal resignation business lately. I’m not generally one of these people who talk about the conspiratorial-like motives of certain media outlets “against the church” as I hear from time to time. I simply do not believe that this claim is true. However, there has been a fair share of problematic pieces that have run in recent weeks and the latest, by the author Paul Elie titled “Give Up Your Pew For Lent,” is one of the worst that I’ve read so far. What makes matters worse is that Elie is generally a good writer whose work includes a relatively well-received book about four iconic American Catholics (Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy). However, as is made clear in this op-ed contribution, this does not guarantee that he has an adequate understanding of what the Eucharist is all about or why “giving up one’s pew,” as he suggests, could never accomplish that for which he is advocating. In fact, it actually undermines his agenda.

This is how Elie summarizes his premise:

Resignation: that’s what American Catholics are feeling about our faith. We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon.

So if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time.

The problem is, that by making this parallel, Elie is unintentionally equating the pope with the church because the resignation of one of the bishops of the community of believers is not at all the same as the Body of Christ, which is the church, not coming together for what the Second Vatican Council in its text Sacrosanctum Concilium teaches is the source and summit of our life and faith. The pope isn’t the church, we are the church — all of us, including the pope and every other baptized woman and man.

There is an ethical dimension and a baptismal obligation we have to recognize that we gather each week to be renewed and challenged by the Word of God and nourished at the Lord’s Table. But this is not simply some club, like the Knights of Columbus or Elks Lodge, which ought to be protested. It is the very heart of our faith.

In a sense, I understand what Elie is suggesting. He’s interested in calling the People of God to be more mindful, more aware of their priorities. But it is precisely in the hearing of the word and the breaking of the bread that becomes the privileged place of that rediscovery.

See, what Elie misses from the start is that the pope resigning from an office in the church is not the same thing as Joseph Ratzinger refusing to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist this weekend. If the assembly doesn’t gather, there is no Mass. And, if there is no Mass, there is no church. As Henri de Lubac has pointed out in his lucid work: the Eucharist makes the church.

Elie goes on:

In traditional parlance, Benedict’s resignation leaves the Chair of St. Peter “vacant.” So I propose that American Catholics vacate the pews this weekend.

We should seize this opportunity to ask what is true in our faith, what it costs us in obfuscation and moral compromise, and what its telos, or end purpose, really is. And we should explore other religious traditions, which we understand poorly.

He is absolutely correct about the need to ask “what is true in our faith,” but the beginning and end of the search does not take place in spiritual lone rangers exploring on their own. The source and goal is the community, is relationship, is Body of Christ. What is most true about our faith is the radicality of relationship: with God, with others, with all of creation.

What Elie, probably with the best intentions, is suggesting misses the point of his aim. If he wants Christian women and men to be more committed to their faith, more aware of the ethical and praxiological implications of the Gospel they profess, more interested in working for justice and peace — then they should fill the pews this Sunday and every Sunday.

And, if this is Elie’s point, they shouldn’t stop there! They should form small faith communities, engage in outreach and work to fight injustice in our communities, reflect on the word of God and its implications for today, consider learning more about the actual meaning of the liturgy and the history of the church and the significance of doctrinal faith claims.

Elie’s suggestion bears the same offensive logic that certain politicians who used the “self-deportation” rhetoric does. His call is for “self-excommunication” — literally moving outside of regular communion and participation in the life of the community, the Body of Christ, which is the church.

I’ve got news for you, Paul Elie, change doesn’t happen outside the church according to your proposal. Change happens through those who are committed to the real meaning of what it is we do when we gather together as the Body of Christ, regardless of how it might appear on the surface, to renew ourselves in our mission and our fundamental identity. Change is ushered in by the wisdom of those who strive to understand their faith — the very definition of theology according the Anselm of Canterbury: Faith seeking understanding. Change in the church is the work of the Spirit uniting and moving the People of God, which is a Pilgrim people, closer to the Creator who lovingly brought us into being and always already desires to be in relationship with us. 

To suggest that we forgo that relationship in order to be more individualistic is a sad and misguided suggestion indeed. I understand the frustration expressed in this advice, I feel it too, but “giving up your pew” this weekend is not the answer.

Photo: Stock

The Church as Global Corporation?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on February 18, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

vaticanThe New York Times columnist and former executive editor of the publication, Bill Keller, has recently written a piece titled, “Catholicism Inc.” The gist of the column is that Keller sees the Church as — at least analogously, but in many ways literally — a global corporation that should be imagined as such. His starting point is that there are many ways in which the Church (here understood, as Keller uses the term, to refer to the Roman Catholic Church and its ecclesiastical leaders-as-managers) needs to update and upgrade its marketing. He begins by explaining: “Behold a global business in distress — incoherently managed, resistant to the modernizing forces of the Internet age, tainted by scandal and corruption. It needs to tweak its marketing, straighten out its finances, up its recruiting game and repair its battered brand. Ecce Catholicism Inc.”

To be fair, there are indeed many ways that this analogy holds true. There is in fact a fiduciary dimension to the Church’s daily life, a hierarchical structure of leadership not unlike that of global corporations, and a certain — albeit more complex than Keller really allows — sense in which the Church could be understood as “mostly a service industry” as he says later on.

I rather appreciate his interest in trying to imagine ways that the Church can respond to “the signs of the times” (Vatican II’s phrase, not his) in light of the Gospel in our contemporary, globalized, and hyper-communicative age.

But there is also something a bit off-putting about the business-consultant model he uses. Keller draws on the varied wisdom of those who are regularly consulted for just these purposes in the business world. He explains: “I’ve been asking professional consultants, including some who work with the church, what Catholicism Inc. might learn from the temporal business world.”

Michael Useem, director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School, told me the church might learn from the way Warren Buffett cleaned up Salomon Brothers after a bond-trading scandal and Ed Breen revived Tyco International after its chief executive went to prison for theft. The remedies were bold and effective…

“Can you imagine,” Useem said, “if the new pope went on a tour, and at every stop he met with the local clergy and said: ‘It’s a new church. We’ve been at it for a couple thousand years, and at this point we need to uphold the principles we all hold dear, and here are my 10 steps for making that happen.’ ”

I like this idea very much. Despite the “re-branding” stigma of stereotypical business planning, the sentiment is well-worth considering. Yes, the church-as-global-business, if that’s a model worth proposing (what would Avery Dulles, whose classic Models of the Church categorized several “models” or ecclesiological frameworks that still remains very influential), could use some “re-branding” in the public imagination. Those who are not Catholics or have little familiarity or regard for the Church might have an overly negative view of the Church, which is the Body of Christ. Similarly, those who have a too uncritical view might benefit from the reality check of human finitude and inevitable imperfection.

Ted Stenger, another consultant, is quoted as saying:  “The mission of the church is not going to change,” Stenger said. “But how you set objectives and tactics to deliver on the mission may in fact change.” And, to Keller’s credit, it is true that this has shifted over the course of nearly two millennia. As the New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has famously explained, from the beginning of Christianity there has been both continuity and discontinuity, united according to koinonia, which is after all what distinguishes the Church from Coca-Cola or McDonalds, among other more obvious characteristics.

Keller proposes three themes worth considering and each of these themes have their legitimate ecclesiological counterpart. Whether his business analogies and consulting advice is helpful or not is unclear, but that he gets these concerns on some larger level is interesting. The first follows the tension set out by none other than Pope Benedict XVI when, right before and early in his pontificate, he talked about the possibility of a “smaller, leaner” church. His concern wasn’t about numbers, many said, but about orthodoxy and commitment. Keller has this take:

One question on the agenda might be, to borrow a Michael Useem analogy, does the Vatican want to be Nokia or Apple? Nokia’s strategy is to sell everyone on the planet a $20 phone. Apple’s is to market a much pricier product to a more elite, high-income market. Does the Catholic Church change its standards to be more inclusive, or does it hold its dogmatic line and appeal to a smaller but loyal base? Or can it strike a balance? Either way, it’s time for a reckoning.

Obviously, the Nokia-Apple analogy falls short of adequately capturing the moral and ecclesiological concerns that are also intrinsically at play in discussions about the mission and visible dimensions of the church. Nevertheless, how curious is this that Keller would pick up on this?

Keller, clearly not abreast of certain ecclesiological concerns about the relationship between the local vs. the universal church, does identify the tensions that are intuitively perceptible today.

A second big question might be how much latitude to give to the more than 220,000 parishes. McDonald’s has a basic menu that is consistent around the globe, but it gives local franchises license to adapt to local preferences — wine with your Big Mac in France, vegetarian dishes in India. You will find Catholic parishes in cities like New York and San Francisco where gay couples are warmly welcomed, women participate in the liturgy, and the sermons and music are joyously unconventional. You will find others that favor the Latin mass, incense and everything by the book. Rome could encourage the parishes to be laboratories of worship. Useem notes that in business (and in the military, by the way), giving field officers freedom to execute the mission produces creative solutions and “it’s also just a tremendous energizer.”

He closes his piece with this final and, to me, most important observation. Public relations.

Finally, and obviously, the church could use some public relations help. Its stock response to criticism from without or dissent from within has been to drop into a defensive crouch, stonewall or go negative. That can come across as bullying and arrogant — in other words, not very Christian. One of the costliest examples of dumb messaging is the tendency of church defenders to treat nuns, and women in general, with condescension…

I realize that many devout Catholics recoil from suggestions of change, especially if the suggestions come from deserters like me. But troubled enterprises often benefit from a little outside counsel. And in the unlikely event that a new pope wants to bring the church closer to the 21st century, he will need all the help he can get. “This is a far tougher turnaround than the ones I have led,” said an executive who has helped save more than one foundering Fortune 500 company. “You might need to tap the guy that turned water into wine!”

Change isn’t the problem. Keller’s correct to note that the Church has, does, and will change. Benedict XVI’s decision to retire is just one example as is the Second Vatican Council, whose 50th Anniversary we recently started celebrating. What should or could be changes is the real question. How the leaders of the Church engage the rest of the Body of Christ and the world more broadly is certainly something that should and could change, as “corporate” as “public relations” sounds, the Church has largely been bad at effectively getting its point across in a world that is not used to lengthy Vatican documents and arcane procedures for communication.

Perhaps part of the “New Evangelization” has less to do with gathering the “lost sheep” or other such metaphors and more to do with how to express one’s faith in the most cogent and understandable way today.

Photo: Stock

 

The View From Gary Wills’s Theological Armchair

Posted in The Papal Watcher, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on February 15, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

WillsI have long appreciated the intelligence and wit of Gary Wills. As a historian of some prominence — he’s won the Pulitzer and holds a PhD in classics — and a literary critic whose work has regularly appeared in the New York Review of Books and other significant publications, I have admired his skilled assessment of texts and tradition. As an avowed Roman Catholic, Jesuit educated from youth and through college at St. Louis University, I’ve also appreciated Wills’s attempts to explore his own faith and its tradition through small books on the Gospels, the Letters of St. Paul, Augustine, and other subjects, including an older text that offers something of an apologia for his continued Catholic faith. His training in classics and his familiarity with the original Greek of the New Testament and Latin of Augustine offered the public intellectual insight into these materials that others might not have.

One wonders with someone whose interests are so polymathic just when does he reach the limits of his reasonably expected competence. When does he cross the boundary of well-researched personal inquiry and reflection into the territory of ignoratio?

I will make a bold claim that his recent New York Times op-ed contribution, “New Pope? I’ve Given Up Hope,” marks just such a border crossing.

I should begin these comments by stating that his sentiment, namely the frustration he exhibits about seemingly archaic systems of power and structure in church leadership, is actually quite reasonable and I suppose very sincere in his case. Critical though he may be, at other times Wills (like E. J. Dionne and other public commentators who maintain their Roman Catholic identity in a public way) has time and again reflected his disappointment with what he understands to be the church, while struggling to be a faithful Christian. Such public witness, especially as an academic and intellectual figure in whose circles such proclivities might be easily dismissed, is truly admirable.

Nevertheless, if what Wills was saying had more to do with explicit theological discourse, he’d be committing what is classically understood as heresy. Heresy, of course, doesn’t mean the opposite of orthodox doctrine or even some ideological position along the continuum of heterodox thought. Heresy is holding part of the truth as the whole truth. The easiest examples to recall have to do with Christological heresies: believing that Jesus Christ is human is not heretical. The Council of Chalcedon affirms as much. But, believe that Jesus Christ is only human is a heresy.

Analogously, much of what wills says in his op-ed piece is true. However, his lack of appreciation for the complexities and nuances about which he speaks borders on the incomprehensible or irrelevant. Again, not because his motives are false (he has, I believe, good intentions), but because he doesn’t actually understand — it would seem from his writing — that about which he is speaking.

To due justice to the subjects Wills names in passing and with a sense of flip cynicism would take more space and time than I have here in this post (you’re welcome, I promise not to write 4,000+ words here and keep it short). Perhaps a few examples will highlight the deeply problematic assertions that Wills advocates by way of partial truth interpreted according to Wills’s armchair-theological perspective.

Take the theme of papal monarchical status and the question of infallibility. Yes, even to this day the pope is a sovereign head of state. The Holy See — geographically constituted by “Vatican City” —  is its own internationally recognized sovereign state with diplomatic rights, centuries of international treaties known as Concordats, and so on. While the Christendom model of monarchical papacy Wills readily admits no longer exists, historians might argue that the model he caricatures never, in fact, existed. Yes, the pope at various times over the course of nearly two millennia has exercised a certain temporal influence that is perhaps less visible in modern history. However, to refer to the pope as a monarch simply because that is how, as a single person with such metanymnic significance for a church that is made up of over a billion persons, he appears to someone on the street does not account for a great deal of theological and canonical factors left untouched by Wills’s rant.

For example, the very condition for the possibility of Benedict XVI’s resignation from his office is the fact that his is not a monarch in the same sense that Wills suggests. What it means to talk about “the pope” is simply another way to talk about one bishop who happens to be the Ordinary of the Diocese of Rome, and therefore is granted primacy as first among equals (much to the reasonable chagrin of the Orthodox Churches who understandably resent the dismissal of their primates by the Latin Church). Such is the case canonically too. The only difference between the Bishop of Rome resigning and the Bishop of New York is that, technically, there is no one to whom the first among equals tenders one’s resignation. Instead, as we saw on Monday, the Bishop of Rome does so in sound mind in the presence of his colleagues — the other bishops represented by the College of Cardinals in consistory.

Wills’s simplistic understanding of the doctrine of papal infallibility is likewise misleading. He’s better than most to acknowledge, somewhat too briefly, that not everything a pope says is infallible. However, that’s a huge detail: it has only been invoked twice in history and done so within the very particular confines of a very limited exercise of magisterial office. Wills would do well to read some of Francis Sullivan, SJ’s classic work on the theology of magisterial authority or Richard Gaillardetz’s primer, By What Authority? A Primer on Scripture, The Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful (Liturgical Press, 2003). The complex factors that converge to describe what this charism of infallibility actually means are too detailed to present here in this already lengthy post. However, the point to note is that Wills ties this highly technical (and widely misunderstood!) theological and canonical teaching to the monarchical authority of the papacy. It’s not that simple.

His clear lack of the moral teaching of the church and the, again to overuse the word, “complexities” of what something like Paul VI’s Humane Vitae present and rely upon, seriously shades his vision and confuses — at least as he expresses it — some sort of unilateral authority with the teaching office of the church, which varies in degree, something unacknowledged by Wills.

This is not to suggest that Wills is incorrect with his stats from the United States. I have no reason to doubt the overwhelming numbers of those who have not “received” the teaching of Humane Vitae in practice, but I do doubt whether or not the church (which is the Body of Christ = all the baptized) has “received” the point of the teaching. It is for moral theologians and bishops to hash out the role of medication, prophylactics, and the like vis-a-vis the teaching about authentic exercise of human sexuality in its (1) openness to life and (2) unitive dimension. These distinctions about what is actually being taught in the encyclical, whether one agrees or disagrees with the practical proscription, remain absent from this sort of critique.

If you want to challenge these teachings, and they are not without reasonable and grounded critique, then go through the trouble of doing your homework.

On a final note of highlight, the line near the end of his piece, “The claim of priests and popes to be the sole conduits of grace is a remnant of the era of papal monarchy,” is simply and utterly incorrect. Any priest (or any pope for that matter) who would make such a claim is doing so apart from the church. There is no ground to suggest that the church teaches that priests, or any particular person or group of persons, are the “sole conduits of grace.” In almost every instance, from St. Paul through Augustine to Martin Luther and to Karl Rahner and beyond, grace is always and everywhere understood in the first case as referring to the Holy Spirit.

It is perhaps this single line in all of Wills’s op-ed reflecting that betrays his truly inadequate sense of theology. It is an understandable conjecture, the kind to be expected of a pre-Second Vatican Council popular piety. For someone who pontificates (pun intended) about the ills of the church, the lack of theological nuance or broader appreciation for the history of the tradition is unsettling. While I haven’t yet read his new book on the priesthood, I have a sense that I will be disappointed given the shallowness of this op-ed’s theological reflection.

If it makes Gary Wills feel any better, I too would have lost hope in the pope and church that he describes. But as a baptized Catholic, a religious, a priest, and someone with more formal theological training than anyone knows what to do with, I don’t recognize the church about which Wills speaks. I do recognize a deeply flawed community of the baptized with a mixed history reflecting our human finitude. But I still have hope.

Photo: New York Review of Books

Toward a Theology and Spirituality of Rest

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

SleepAlthough not everybody is a fan of his methodological approach to theology, his particular conclusions, or his theological starting points, I know of no one who would not readily admit that the late German theologian Karl Rahner was a genius. Even if you disagree with him for substantive or unsubstantial reasons, Rahner’s insight and impact, even to this day in the field, is really unmatched in the contemporary Catholic Christian academic (and pastoral) world. I thought of this particularly prodigious thinker this morning when I read Tony Schwartz’s guest column in the New York Times titled: “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive.”

Schwartz’s starting points are the counterintuitive reports from scholars and scientists in recent years that suggest working harder, longer, and more is actually less productive (and less healthy, duh) than striking a balance that values rest, vacation, exercise, and sleep as much as hours in the office, emails answered, and the like. He contends that this applies on the macro level, such as the need to sleep more each night and take more and lengthier vacations throughout the year, as well as on the micro level, such as the cycle of work habits throughout the day.

I thought of Rahner because among his more philosophically complex engagements with the theological tradition, the German theologian was also interested in exploring the theological significance of what he called Alltägliche Dinge or “everyday things.” Among these everyday things were subjects like work, walking, seeing, laughing, eating, and — you’ve guessed it! — sleep. Rahner asks:

Is there such a thing as a theology of sleeping? Most certainly there is. In a wonderfully earthy way, scripture first of all confirms our own experience with sleep: It talks about the solid sleep of the one who has worked hard, the destructive sleeplessness of the one in charge of many things, the excessive sleep of the lazy one, and similar things. But scripture also sees in sleep an image and reflection of a deeper reality of human existence: the image of death, the image of dead and deadening dullness, the image of being mired in sin. Also, scripture sees in sleep an inner relaxation, where a person is receptive to the instructions of God (as if given by the Lord in one’s sleep), a time for meaningful dreams that can clarify God’s directions and call and that can perhaps make one conscious of what is otherwise repressed.

Surely Rahner is correct — Matthew’s account of the Gospel practically begins the whole story of Jesus Christ with sleep and dreams as we read that Mary’s husband “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him an a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit'” (Matt 1:19-20).

Likewise, we know of Joseph’s role in interpreting the Pharaoh’s dreams in Egypt and the ways in which dreams and sleep intertwine at various points in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

Rahner explains that it’s not all about dreams and visions, but that the simple, human, and necessary physiological exercise of sleep is itself a religious and spiritual practice. He wrote:

Sleep is an act of trusting one’ deepest inner conviction, one’s own certainty, and the goodness of the human world. It is an act of innocence and of consenting to the elusive.  If one approached sleep like that, not as a merely dull succumbing to physiological mechanisms but as an agreeable and trusting acceptance of an utterly human act, then falling asleep could be seen as relating to the inner structure of prayer, which is equally a letting-go, an entrusting of one’s own convictions to the providence of God which one lovingly accepts.

In other words, it is about awareness and surrender, about trust and recognizing the presence of God in our lives at all times, in all places and, as Ignatius Loyola made popular, “in all things.”

Rahner’s notion of sleep was elicited by Schwartz’s column because there is an overlap and complementarity in their respective points — Schwartz from a physiological and productivity standpoint, and Rahner from one of theology and spirituality.

Rahner pointed out that, “sleep is peaceful and relaxed, a communication with the depth in which needs to be grounded and rooted whatever makes us free as human beings, all conscious planning of life, if we want to remain whole or wish to be.”

Schwartz says something very similar, if in a different way.

Our basic idea is that the energy employees bring to their jobs is far more important in terms of the value of their work than is the number of hours they work. By managing energy more skillfully, it’s possible to get more done, in less time, more sustainably. In a decade, no one has ever chosen to leave the company. Our secret is simple — and generally applicable. When we’re renewing, we’re truly renewing, so when we’re working, we can really work.

He gives an example from his own professional life of how balance and a different approach to work, centered on valuing rest, sleep, and renewal along the way. He talks about the experience of writing his first two books and then his more recent publications and the difference that switching from a “binge” mentality of unbridled work (something I see far too often in academia with colleagues, as well as studious undergrads, spending endless hours and even days/nights in libraries and in front of computers) to a sense of a cycle for awake-activity akin to that of our sleep cycles. In other words: working in cycles of ninety-minute intervals. Schwartz explains:

I’ve systematically built these principles into the way I write. For my first three books, I sat at my desk for up 10 hours a day. Each of the books took me at least a year to write. For my two most recent books, I wrote in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions — beginning first thing in the morning, when my energy was highest — and took a break after each one.

Along the way, I learned that it’s not how long, but how well, you renew that matters most in terms of performance. Even renewal requires practice. The more rapidly and deeply I learned to quiet my mind and relax my body, the more restored I felt afterward. For one of the breaks, I ran. This generated mental and emotional renewal, but also turned out to be a time in which some of my best ideas came to me, unbidden. Writing just four and half hours a day, I completed both books in less than six months and spent my afternoons on less demanding work.

What he says resonates well with me. I’m often asked “How do you do so much? Do you ever sleep?” and my instant response is always, “Yes, I sleep quite a lot, actually!” The presumption on the part of the inquirer being that in order to “get a lot done” one must work all the time and through the night, and so on and so on.

That “sleep quite a lot” is, of course, relative. I know that I need at least seven hours of sleep a night and I work hard to make sure that I get it. More sleep makes me tired, less sleep makes me tired. I also never work nonstop for hours on end, nor have I ever. This is not some sort of prescient virtue, rather it’s just not something I have ever had the patience to do, even if I wanted to do it. This is why I found Schwartz’s narrative and supportive data so affirming — I’ve been accidentally doing what he’s talking about here for most of my life.

Working in short spurts of an hour here or 90-minutes there and the accompanying breaks, not so regimented but more naturally present, might be the way to explain my own experience. Until reading this column, I’m not sure I had a good answer to the question “How do you get so much done?”

I think there is a curious connection here between the theological reflection of Rahner on sleep and Schwartz’s proposal about rest and productivity. If we live in a graced world where we are always already in communication with the God who is the ground of our very being, perhaps the Benedictines have it a little off. Their traditional motto has been Ora et Labora, which essentially means balancing one’s life between “prayer and work.”

But, what if, following Rahner and Schwartz, the real motto of our lives should be striving to recognize that the Ora comes in the balance between Operis et quietis, “work and rest.”

Photo: Stock

Great NYT Article about Sr. Rose Pacatte, the Movie Critic

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

NYT Rose PacatteThere is a great article in today’s New York Times about Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the congregation of the Daughters of St. Paul, a women’s religious community well known for its media ministry and book publishing. This article highlights how Sr. Rose has participated in this year’s Sundance Film Festival and mentions a few of her regular “gigs,” including the high-circulation Franciscan magazine St. Anthony Messenger Magazine and National Catholic Reporter. Sr. Rose also has a blog channel at Patheos in the “movie channel” category.

Here are some highlights from the New York Times piece:

On the day before she entered a Catholic boarding school in August 1967, as a 15-year-old who felt the call to be a nun, Rose Pacatte indulged in a final fling with the secular world. She went to the local drive-in to see “The Dirty Dozen.” …

Yet this past week, Sister Rose of the Daughters of St. Paul moved through Park City’s starry firmament as Sister Rose of Sundance, a veteran film critic participating in this year’s edition of the renowned indie festival. By the time Sundance ends on Sunday, she will have seen upward of 20 films, blogging and reviewing most of them for TheNational Catholic Reporter and joining in panel discussions for students from religious colleges and seminaries.

In all those ways, Sister Rose was serving not as a sentry protecting religious belief from cinematic product, but rather as a mediator helping to explain one to the other …

What is undeniable is Sister Rose’s significant role at the crossroads of faith and film. Besides writing for The National Catholic Reporter’s online edition, she reviews for The St. Anthony Messenger, a monthly magazine for Catholic families with a circulation of about 300,000. She has presented talks on topics like “Meeting Jesus at the Movies” and “Media and the Moral Imagination” from Toronto to Oxford to Johannesburg. She has sat on Catholic or ecumenical juries at the Venice and Berlin International Film Festivals, among others.

Her trajectory into film criticism, far from being impeded by her religious vocation, was propelled by it. From its founding in 1915, the Daughters of St. Paul embraced mass media, starting with newspapers and books, and progressing into electronic and digital forms. Just two weeks into her residency at the order’s high school, the teenage Rose Pacatte found herself among sisters celebrating the Feast of the Assumption in part by watching a movie from the convent’s collection …

To read the full story, go to: “Acting as a mediator at the Crossroads of Faith and Film.”

Photo: NYT

Lessons on Gun Control from ‘Down Under’

Posted in Social Justice, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on January 17, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

johnhowardIn these days following the initial presentation of President Obama’s encouraging agenda to help curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the form of firearms, there is a lot of talk about the pros and cons, the challenges and the need to make this sort of change happen. Today’s New York Times includes a guest op-ed piece by the former Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, who — in what I think is a humble and generous way — offers the United States a model to consider while moving forward in the discussion about the banning of assault weapons.

As a Christian, this is a “no-brainer.” Nobody has a right to an assault weapon. Period. Furthermore, as the Roman Catholic Church has continually expressed in recent decades (see, for example, my essay: “Catholic Church on Gun Control: No Firearms for Civilians!” in the book Franciscan Spirituality for the 21st Century: Selected Reflections from the Dating God Blog and Other Essays [2013]), individual citizens should not have access to instruments of murder. Yes, there are circumstances for which a hunter’s rifle, a far cry from assault weapons or handguns which are only used to kill other people, can be justified for the purposes of survival. However, other weapons have no such claim and secondary justifications, such as “for collecting purposes,” remain wholly specious.

Prime Minister Howard offers some interesting observations and commentary, noting along the way the unique hurdles that makes similar change in the US particularly challenging. Nevertheless, it is worth exploring this experience in Australia so that, eventually, we too might be able to say about our nation what the Australians say about their experience of banning assault weapons. Or, as Prime Minister Howard puts it: “Few Australians would deny that their country is safer today as a consequence of gun control.”

To read the op-ed piece, go to: “I Went After Guns. Obama Can, Too.”

Photo: Wire

The Gift of Music and the Witness of Religious Life

Posted in LCWR, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on December 3, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

26nun-slideshow-slide-UTNU-articleLargeFor those who haven’t yet seen yesterday’s New York Times article, “Nun Uses Music to Convey Spirited Message Against the Vatican’s Rebuke,” be sure to check it out. As others have already pointed out in reposting this story via social network sites, the headline of the piece can be a bit misleading and the lede suggests that this sister is on a mission explicitly “against the Vatican,” which is certainly not the case. Instead, the starting point of the story is the song she wrote over the summer that became something of an unofficial anthem of the sisters in the face of the criticism from Rome. Sr. Sherman’s work has been prolific and has had an impact on the church in a number of ways. She explains a little about her ministry of music and the types of songs she’s composed:

“I don’t just pray and go to work,” Sister Sherman said. “My work is my prayer. They’re not separate. It’s a wholeness. The contemplative life nurtures my ministry, and my ministry nurtures my contemplative life.”

Her studio is a refuge, a long room dominated by a black Young Chang piano (a Steinway was out of reach). There is a prayer plant, a picture of her mother, who taught piano, and a plaque that says “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Her long fingers on the keys, she played pieces she wrote at pivotal moments: the start of the Iraq war; the murder of a nun, by an ex-convict, in a Buffalo halfway house she ran; the height of the political vitriol in the last presidential election, in a song she titled “This Is the America I Believe In.”

“A lot of the music I write is not religious, per se,” she said. “It’s got religious values, it’s got spiritual values. The songs may not name God, but they may name the hope, the peace, the love. For me, they are all names for God.”

Like the song, “Love Cannot Be Silenced,” about the experience of the Vatican critique of American Religious Women, these other songs have been focused on difficult situations and traumatic experiences in recent history.

In addition to the focus on her work as a musician and composer, the Times story also provides a glimpse into her own vocation story — it’s well worth the short read.

Photo: New York Times

Michael Peppard’s NYT Op-Ed on Paul Ryan’s Catholicity

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 16, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Michael Peppard, a young theologian on faculty at Fordham University, offers a sharp and intelligent presentation of the complications that surround the catholicity of the vice presidential candidates. Spurred on by the novelty of having two Roman Catholic candidates for the second-highest political office in the United States of America and the contentious discussions that frequently arise concerning who is and who is not “a good Catholic” according to any given number of factors (most often, though not exclusively, involving abortion), Peppard draws readers’ attention to the lack of orthodoxy (as one might argue) concerning Ryan’s particular espousal of anti-abortion and economic policies.

But while Mr. Ryan’s vision for abortion policy is far more restrictive than current law, it is not the one advocated by the Catholic hierarchy. Along with Mr. Biden, he has joined the ranks of dissenting Catholic politicians, those who preserve a distance between nonnegotiable Catholic moral teaching and civil law.

The rest of the op-ed piece highlights the ways in which Ryan’s approach to the abortion issue as political does not authentically jive with Catholic moral teaching.

Regardless of one’s political affiliation, which candidate you chose in the polling station in November, or where you stand in your interpretation and execution of Church teaching on these moral issues, Peppard’s essay is sure to engender a lot of discussion and debate. Hopefully those who wish to enter the fray will do so respectfully and intelligently.

To read the whole piece online, go to: “Paul Ryan, Catholic Dissident.

Photo: Pool (from VP debate)
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