Monday, May 28, 2007

Wounded Knee

Last night I watched the HBO film Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee based on the Dee Brown book of the same title. I thought that the film did a good job portraying the central dilemma facing First Nations people in both Canada and the USA during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Essentially the problem was that in the clash of cultures that took place during those years the First Nations people were not likely to gain any kind of advantage. The attitude of the dominant European culture was that the native inhabitants of the land should be assimilated into the dominant culture - or become extinct. The problem was that those First Nations people who did try to become "white men" as a result of their experiences in the "white man's" schools soon found that they lost touch with their own communities and culture and at the same time were not fully accepted into the dominant culture.

Charles, the main character in the film, has such an experience. We first encounter him at the time of the battle of the Little Big Horn. In the aftermath of this battle his father takes the path of assimilation and he, Charles, (I forget his Sioux name) is sent east to school. He returns to his people years later as a doctor but finds that corruption,bureaucracy, and indifference make it impossible for him to have a meaningful impact on behalf of his people. The film culminates with the massacre at Wounded Knee where the members of the US 7th Cavalry (Custer's unit at Little Big Horn) open fire on a mostly unarmed group of Sioux.

The story illustrates a very real tragedy. I can not imagine any alternative situation (given the culture of the 19th century) that would not have had a tragic outcome for the First Nations inhabitants of this land. There were, of course, many other outcomes that were far more tragic. It appears for example that the native inhabitants of the Caribbean islands were driven to extinction quite early in the period of European contact. The Beothuk, inhabitants of Newfoundland were also driven to extinction, mostly as a result of European contact.

The problem I have in my way of thinking is regarding what to do about this tragedy. Very real damage was done to some people. (I have already written regarding my sympathy for those students in residential schools who were the victims of sexual or physical abuse). The question is what can or should be done for the First Nations people? Is there a way for them to maintain their culture and exist in the majority society without having some measure of economic sovereignty? Will there ever come a time when the majority society does not "owe" them for what was done by our forefathers to their forefathers?

Monday, May 21, 2007

High Prices

Two related items caught my attention in the news lately. First of all is the issue of gasoline prices. On CNN much was being made of the fact that US prices had passed $3.19 per gallon (for the record, the equivalent current price where I live is about $4.65 per US gallon. The second item that caught my attention was the editorial headline "Cheap rent is not a public right." In the editorial the author was attempting to make a case for preserving the free market in rental accommodation in the face of increasing pressures for rent controls to deal with dramatic inflation in rental costs recently.

Both of these items are related in some way to the free market system. In both cases we are told that the shortage (or apparent shortage) of gasoline and rental accommodation has caused the price increase. We are told that the only thing to do is to maintain the free price system and that the market will eventually correct itself. So, for example, in an ideal system an entrepreneur might find high gasoline prices attractive enough that he would invest in increased refining capacity. This increase in capacity would relieve the shortage and result in a decrease in prices. The same is theoretically true for rental accommodation. So why is this unlikely to happen?

The problem I would suggest is that the capitalist system as it exists now is not the "perfect" system of the theoretical model. Take for example the issue of gasoline prices. I've already said that in the pure system high prices would motivate someone to invest in increased production which would drive down prices. The problem is that this would only happen where there was perfect competition - which we don't have. First of all, the government (for good reasons) imposes lots of regulations on the building of refineries. This decreases the motivation for anyone to want to build these things. This results in a situation where a relatively small number of companies dominate the refining capacity of Canada and the USA. A competitor is unlikely to build a new refinery and the existing few refiners are certainly not going to do so. What this means is that the price issue can only be solved by decreasing demand. As prices escalate some people (the poorest) will eventually withdraw from the market thereby lessening demand. The problem with is is that the sting of high prices falls disproportionately on the poor. The second point about this is that the huge profits that go to the oil companies are truly "windfall" profits. They are unlikely to invest these profits in anything that might alleviate short-term prices. The only thing the average person can do about it is to hope that he has oil company stocks in his retirement portfolio. This is one "flaw" in our current capitalist system.

The second "flaw" has to do with the issue of the pursuit of self-interest that is central to capitalism. This idea comes from Adam Smith who prior early in his career was a lecturer in Moral Philosophy at Glasgow. As such I suspect that Smith would have seen a distinction between the pursuit of self-interest and greed or avarice. This is a central problem that capitalism faces today. At what point does the unrestricted pursuit of self-interest deteriorate into something that harms instead of helps the people and therefore becomes criminal in nature? We know from Enron and the Savings and Loan scandals (among others) that this descent into criminal behavior can happen. Now, I'm not saying that a landlord doubling the rent for a senior citizen living on a pension is engaged in criminal behavior but such an action would certainly seem to be immoral from my point of view. The landlord is entitled to an increase but at some point increasing the rent just because you can is simply greed and the harm that it might to in individual cases is what could make it immoral.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Last Sunday was Mothers's day. Some one on TV quoted a TV personality as saying roughly now that his Mother was gone he remembered the good qualities she had and he missed her and wanted to see those good qualities passed on to his children. What a nice and fairly profound observation from an unexpected place!

As we pass Mother's day we come to the first anniversary of my mother's death. It has been difficult for members of my family to remember the good qualities of my mother. She died of a type of dementia (not Alzheimer's) that over a fairly long period of time robbed her, first of her short-term memory, and finally of virtually everything. The one thing I will remember from her long illness was her habit (even after she had lost the power of speech in an ordinary conversation) of telling her visitors and care givers: "I love you." That impressed me and it certainly impressed those who cared for her.

One of the things that Mom did early in her illness to try and cope with the short-term memory loss was to keep a diary. There were many disputes that were settled by "looking in the book" where she kept track of what had happened each day. I mention this because some time after my parents had moved from the farm I had the opportunity to look at her accounts of some of her days. I was struck as read these (I hope we still have them in the family somewhere) of how central her family was to her. Of course we all knew that. One of the memories we all share is of how Mom would work to make holidays like Christmas special for us. She spent Advent cleaning and cooking (so much so that sometimes on Christmas day she was exhausted). She did her best with the limited amount of money that her and Dad had to make sure that all of us (there was eight of us) were well fed and clothed. We were in fact poor but only Mom and Dad new it at the time. She loved to sing. Later in her illness after she had mostly lost the power of ordinary speech she would still try to sing along to familiar songs. I have a video made at Christmas over 25 years ago. I can see her in the video and hear her voice and see her when she was (I think) the happiest, in the middle of her family. So, belated happy Mother's day Mom. I miss you a lot.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Prophets and Pharisees

The blogger Morning’s Minion posts this Seven Step Program for Right Wing American Catholics that is only partly satirical:
If you want to be a successful right-wing American Catholic, you need to follow the following seven steps. It is extremely important that you master each step before you move on to the next one. Only then will everything fit together, and you will find total peace and enlightenment, and those pernicious liberals can't touch you....(1) Make friends with the evangelical right, and ignore the aspects of their theology that conflicts with Catholicism. At the same time, attack your fellow Catholics on the left. This is a good warm-up exercise, as it is not intellectually very challenging.(2) Tell Catholics that they are prohibited from voting Democratic because of their position on abortion and embryonic cell research. If you are feeling really zealous, throw in gay marriage for good measure. For bonus points, come up with some bogus theological justification (if in doubt, just crib from Catholic Answers).(3) Insist that the bishops deny communion to all Democrats. Feel free to denounce the 99 percent of bishops who do not follow your advice. The key to a success at this stage lies in displaying the right amount of self-righteous outrage.(4) Dismiss Catholic social teaching not mentioned in stage 2 as "mere trifles". Be as dismissive as possible, and don't forget to make condescending remarks about Europe. Make sure you have plenty of good anecdotes. Denounce high taxes, and talk about the long waiting list for hip replacements in Canada.(5) Adopt a zealous America-first nationalism. Make sure to note that anybody who opposes Bush's war is a Euro-weenie, and being a pope does not let you off the hook! To ensure that everybody knows how reasonable your position is, point out the fact that your enemies are inflicted with "Bush Derangement Syndrome" and are leftist moon bat loons. Make sure to denounce Euro-weenies and the United Nations. Bonus points if you can twist just war theory to support the Iraq war!(6) Time for consequentialism: the end justifies the means! Make sure you point out that America did no wrong whatsoever during the Second World War, and make those fools understand that nuking the hell out of those Japanese cities was the only way to defend lives. And point out to those "liberals" that torture may be needed to stop terrorists nuking cities (theological source: Jack Bauer on 24). If you are feeling really clever, you can try and argue that Pope John Paul did not really say what they think he said.(7) Disregard facts, including scientific facts. Dismiss evolution and global warming as liberal hoaxes. Now you are ready to create your own reality, and your task has been accomplished. Congratulations! (Note that before too long someone had posted a similar list for left wing American Catholics.)
This post illustrates an apparent polarization in the US Catholic Church that I have been following in my blog reading for some time. I should note that for some reason the blogs I read are mainly “right wing” – mainly I think because they have a greater presence on the Internet. These writers have been concerned with different things over time. Much was written in the past about the issue of the clerical abuse scandal with particular attention being paid to the alleged misdeeds of any bishops regarding their handling of the matter. More recently a prime concern has been with the liturgy. These “right wing” Catholics attribute much of the malaise in contemporary Catholicism to the liturgical changes that followed Vatican II. They seem to feel that restoring the liturgy of the 1950’s will somehow also restore the religious ethos of those days. They are partly right in that our liturgy needs to go back to emphasizing the sacred and the transcendent but I can recall some Latin masses that were not very reverential either.
I think that the most troubling characteristic of these blogs is their willingness to vilify those who they consider to be less than orthodox. Part of the basis for this seems to be the political culture wars in the USA. One of the accusations leveled by the author of the “seven steps” quoted above is that they have adopted the political agenda of the “right wing” including their tendency to personally attack political opponents. The archbishop of Los Angeles is a favorite target for these writers. This seems to me to be contrary to the prayer of Jesus in the Gospel of John (“that they may be one”) and Paul’s exhortations to unity in both Ephesians and Romans. The Catholic Church can embrace a wide variety of people (the original meaning of the word catholic) so why can’t we accept people who are Catholic but who disagree with us. Of course it is true that even in the Gospels we find the disciples fighting over who would be the greatest and in the Acts we find the early Church disagreeing about the application of Jewish law to gentile converts. So, nobody should expect blissful harmony in the Church today.

On one level I suppose these "right wing" writers could be (at least from their own point of view) trying to play a prophetic role in the Church. They certainly feel that the Church has strayed in recent years and are trying to call all of us back to a more fervent, more devout practice of our faith. In the minds of some they might even be trying to drive some “left wingers” from the Church in the belief that a numerically smaller but more devout Church will be more effective. Naturally playing a prophetic role involves alienating some people. Now, here is the tricky part. The other group that insisted on strict rules for their religion and was intolerant of anyone else was the Pharisees. What happened to them? So, I think that the prophetic elements found in some of these “right wing” blogs are good in that they call us back to some important things that have been “left behind” in the years since Vatican II. When these same blogs become so focused on vilifying individual “left wingers” and refusing to see any good in those who disagree with them then they run the risk of becoming Pharisees instead of Prophets.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

RCIA sessions

As we get toward the end of another year of RCIA it seems appropriate to reflect on what has happened in the past and also to reflect on what the sources have to tell us about what we are doing. As I read blogs on the topic of the RCIA (about 400 postings in a typical week according to Google) I notice a variety of opinions about what form RCIA sessions ought to take. Some critics of the RCIA complain that sessions consist only in participants talking about their feelings and consequently that these types of sessions are a waste of time. Others place strong emphasis on the knowledge content of the sessions. These people seem happy with a traditional question and answer catechism format for RCIA sessions. Each of these visions of catechesis are partly correct but incomplete in some way.
Jane Regan writing in Toward an Adult Church[i] gives a thoughtful summary of the various roles of catechesis. First of all catechesis informs. That is it presents the information needed to be an active member of the church. Secondly, catechesis forms. That is it introduces people to the way of life of the community of believers. Thirdly, catechesis transforms. That is, it provides people with a call to conversion. Regan maintains that effective catechesis needs to attend to all three of these dimensions and that, for example, a catechetical program that focused purely on informing its students would not necessarily produce desirable long term results.
Linda Vogel in Teaching and Learning in Communities of Faith[ii] gives us additional insight into what form adult religious education sessions (like RCIA) ought to take. She writes that the people who come to us have a great want and need.
· They have experienced some kind of disruption in their lives that needs attention.
· They need to reflect on their own experiences. (Their own journey or their own story.)
· They bring with them a new readiness to hear the words of the Christian story.
· They bring new eyes for seeing the connections between their stories and the story of the Christian community. (They are ready to see how they fit into the Church).
· They bring a readiness to celebrate all this through remembering and ritual. (This is an interesting observation in light of the fact that Vogel is a professor in an Evangelical college and was not writing about the RCIA at the time.)
· They bring a readiness to act on their new experiences and understandings.
Finally, Margaret Brillinger writing in Adult Religious Education[iii] gives us five basic principles of adult learning.
· Since adult learners are more in control of their own learning than children the role of the adult educator is more of a coach, supporter or facilitator and less of a knower or imparter of information. This for me is always a temptation. When time is short it is very easy for me to lapse into the lecture or even (heaven forbid) the preaching mode of subject delivery.
· Adults bring with them a variety of experiences and insecurities. They need to be treated with respect and to be able to collaborate with each other in the project of learning.
· Adults learn best when they have some input (or stake in) into the planning of a learning session. They need to have a sense of responsibility for what, why and how they learn.
· Adults need to be able to make a connection between their own experiences and what is being presented in the learning session.
· All people (including adults) have a variety of learning styles. Learning is enhanced by a variety of activities and structures that appeal to a range of learning styles.
So, what does this tell us about the general “shape” of an ideal RCIA session? First of all, it indicates that lecture is not an ideal format for an RCIA session. Secondly, I should point out that the specific focus of a session is going to differ depending on what stage of the RCIA we are in (sessions at the inquiry phase have a different focus than later sessions in the journey). I should also point out that some authors like Thomas Morris[iv]strongly suggest that lectionary catechesis is the ideal for RCIA. I would only point out that such a method makes huge demands regarding preparation of sessions on an RCIA team that is largely made up of volunteers.
Finally, it seems to me that generally a session should begin with prayer. Next, a topic should be introduced in such a way as to invite the participation of the group as well as an encounter with the teachings of the Church regarding this topic. Next should follow activities that engage the participants in some way. I think that it is important here that the conversations that take place here do not just focus on the feelings of the participants. These are important but the story of the Christian community has to be included in the conversation as well. Then should follow some kind of wrap-up where participants review what has been experienced as well as the teaching of Scripture and of the Church. Lastly, each session should conclude with a prayer.
This general picture of an RCIA session has some important implications. For me, the most important one is that of time. If we are to provide a fairly comprehensive catechesis (as the Rite requires) and if we are to follow a general format like that suggested above time appears to be at a premium. How many minutes are needed for an effective topic session? How do we get all of the needed topics into the limited number of evenings available? Additionally the catechist needs time to prepare for these sessions. I think that the most important skill for these sessions is the skill of preparing and asking appropriate questions. The leader can not simply direct the sessions (remember adults learn best when they are in charge of their own learning) but needs to anticipate the directions that the group might go in their discussions. The role of the lectionary is also important. We have been devoting the first quarter of our sessions to the lectionary. If we put more emphasis on dismissal catechesis would that be a sufficient emphasis on the lectionary? Lastly comes the question of print resources for RCIA sessions. There are many available. In our Parish we currently use the package prepared by Liguori publications. We use the handouts mainly for the participants to read following the evening session. Is there a better way to use these resources? Do participants actually read them? Is there a better set of resources that we could use?

[i] Regan, Jane E. Toward an Adult Church: A Vision of Faith Formation, Loyola Press, 2002.
[ii] Vogel, Linda J. Teaching and Learning in Communities of Faith, Jossey Bass, 1991.
[iii] Brillinger, Margaret Fisher. Adult Learning in a Religious Context. Adult Religious Education: A Journey of Faith Development, Gillen and Taylor ed. Paulist Press, 1995.
[iv] Morris, Thomas H. The RCIA: Transforming the Church, Paulist Press, 1997.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Residential Schools

I've been watching a debate on the parliamentary channel regarding an opposition motion that the government of Canada apologize to the aboriginal people of Canada for its residential schools policy over the years. I found it interesting that a number of speakers used the phrase "the survivors of residential schools" in their speech. It seems to me that many of the speakers had a very simplistic view of a complicated issue.

First of all, I want to clearly state that those individuals who were abused physically or sexually while they were students in residential schools are indeed victims and deserve an apology and compensation. The question of whether every single student of a residential school is or was a "victim" is a much more complicated question. It seems clear that the objective of the residential schools policy over the years was one of assimilation. It also seems clear that the residential schools policy was wrong minded and created many problems for aboriginal communities and for some individuals. But was every residential school student a victim? Did the individuals (mostly church people) who staffed the residential schools have malice towards the aboriginal people they served?

Whenever I am in St. Albert, Alberta I like to visit the cemetery on Mission Hill. There, among other things I see the resting place of a huge number of Oblate (OMI) missionaries. Despite the sad reality that a few of them did commit acts of physical or sexual abuse the fact is that the majority of these men gave their lives to caring for the aboriginal people entrusted to them. They did this out of love and without hope of gain except in heaven. When I look at the history of some places in Alberta and the Northwest Territory it seems to me that often the best friends that the aboriginal people had were the missionaries. The missionaries in their letters and memoirs seem clearly troubled by the living conditions of the people they served and they constantly lobbied the government to do something. The original leaders of the aboriginal people in Canada over the last 40 or 50 years were graduates of the residential schools.

So I am saying that we know (with the benefit of hindsight and political correctness) that the residential schools policy was wrong headed and failed in many ways. But, it was carried out for the most part by people who thought that they were doing their best for the people they served. Finally, a cynical question: Do all "victims" of residential schools deserve financial compensation? I was also disturbed by the suggestion by some speakers in the parliamentary debate that an apology was needed so the communities could begin the process of healing. Well that might be but I would suggest that when something bad happens to you only you can recover from it. If your healing depends on someone else you might just be putting yourself in the role of perpetual victim. Like I said at the beginning; a complicated question.