Thursday, October 16, 2008

Politics and Perception

Here in Canada we have just finished a federal election while the US presidential election has three more weeks to go (it seems that it has been going on for ages). One characteristic that stands out in these election campaigns is the tremendous amount of negativity in the campaigns. Here in Canada the Conservatives ran attack ads that said that Dion (the Liberal leader) was too much of a risk. At the same time the Liberals and the New Democrats ran ads that said much the same thing about Harper (the Conservative leader). It seems to me that things might be even worse in the US campaign. Generally, it seems to me that each side (not always officially) seeks to portray their opponent as being incompetent or corrupt. Experts tell us that these kind of attacks in fact work. Attack ads are able to move voters from one opinion to another. The problem, I think, is that at the same time these ads create a public perception of politicians in general. In other words, if during an election campaign both sides spend huge amounts of money trying to convince the public that their opponents are incompetent, corrupt, or possibly immoral then at the end of the campaign politicians in general should not be surprised when the voting public is generally of the opinion that all politicians are incompetent, or corrupt, or immoral. Another problem of course is that this negativity has an impact on politicians ability (it seems to me) to work together to solve serious problems facing the country. Sure, they talk about putting negativity aside but why, for example, would Prime Minister Harper want to work with Newfoundland premier Danny Williams when Williams has called him every name under the sun and actively campaigned against the Conservative party in the election. Politics, ideally, is a competition of ideas. When politics start to be about character assassination this has to effect the ability of the political system to function in the interests of the whole country.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Life of Prayer

The reflection for our next RCIA session asks us about out prayer life, when we pray, and when we find prayer difficult. When I look back on my own prayer life I don't think that I had much of a prayer life for a long time. Like many Catholics my age I think that the experience of prayer that sticks in my mind is the family recitation of the rosary before bed time. The rosary then was an exercise in rote memory. I don't remember praying for anything during this and I'm not sure that I had much of a "connection" with God during this early prayer. I think that my first real experience (like those of many) of prayer was with the prayer of petition. So, in times of crisis I remember praying to God to help or to heal someone.

It is embarrassing to admit it but I think my prayer life only began to develop a few years ago. I first began a regular prayer life when the Catholic school where I was teaching finally got a chapel. I began to spend quiet time there before school began in the morning. That habit of setting aside time to pray in the morning has stayed with me through the last years of my teaching career and the first years of my retirement. During this time I also began the practice of praying the Liturgy of the Hours. This method of prayer had two advantages for me. First of all, it maintained for me the habit of praying at a particular time (In my parish we have a community celebration of Morning Prayer which I try to attend every day.). Secondly, the Liturgy of the Hours led me to examine more closely other kinds of prayer than the prayer of petition. The psalms which are the basis of the Liturgy of the Hours praise God, give thanks to God, and many other things in addition to asking God for blessings. I have to confess again that my use of the Liturgy of the Hours for other times of the day has not been as regular as for Morning prayer.
Another thing that has influenced my prayer life in the last few months has been my involvement in the hospital ministry of our parish. It has been quite natural for me to pray for those people I meet during these hospital visits and this intercessory prayer has helped my prayer life a lot. Here I have found that returning to my early experience of praying the Rosary has been a help.

Sometimes prayer is not easy. Quite often my mind does not want to dwell on God and instead I find myself think of any number of other things. I am not sure what causes this (short of attention deficit disorder). I take some consolation from the prayer of Thomas Merton that: "the desire to please you, does in fact please you.' So at these times of distraction I hope that the honest effort to pray does also please God.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Culture and Morality

The weekend paper carried a story by Karin Brulliard of the Washington Post titled: Zulus torn over virginity tests. It seems to me that this article illustrates a sort of cultural shift that threatens traditional morals and values in such areas as sexuality. Basically, according to the article, the tradition involves young girls undergoing an inspection by a woman elder of the tribe to determine if the girl is a virgin or not. Now of course there are lots of potential problems with this tradition - the most obvious one being that the responsibility for chastity is placed only on the females of the community. According to the article the opponents of this tradition argued that the procedure was degrading; it was emotionally scarring for girls who did not pass; it subjected girls who did pass to the possibility that they would be raped in a culture where some men believe that intercourse with a virgin can cure aids. Finally, the opponents argue that the tradition, as important as it may have been in the past no longer serves the needs of the society.

What seems to be said here is that "traditional" morality is offensive to individual rights and "old fashioned." Of course there are good reasons for "old fashioned" morality. South Africa, where the Zulus live, is a nation facing a catastrophic aids crisis. One very simple way of partly dealing with the spread of this disease is to encourage the citizens to practice traditional sexual morality. By the way, the article makes clear that this tradition has nothing to do with the practice of female genital mutilation found in some African cultures. The controversy over this traditional practice is seen in the article as a conflict between "modern" ideas of individual rights and tradition and tribal culture.

I seem to recall evidence of a similar attitude a while back when the host of an awards show on television publicly criticized some teens present (I think it was the Jonas brothers) who were wearing "purity rings" as a sign of their commitment to chastity until marriage. So, in this culture, as in South Africa, the traditional value placed on chastity has been replaced and the traditional value is seen as weird or strange or old fashioned. I think that you see something similar in action when a while back an American paper editorialized that Sarah Palin (Republican nominee for Vice President) did society a disservice when she chose to give birth to a child with Down's Syndrome. Her choice, the paper said, might encourage other mothers (who might not have the same emotional and physical resources as Palin) to choose to give birth to Down's Syndrome babies rather than aborting them (which apparently is now the "normal" thing to do)

So it seems to me that globally we are living in an age of individualism that has a profound impact on traditional morality. In this respect we no longer live in a Christian culture. We are back to an earlier time when we as Christians were called to be counter-cultural. Only by proclaiming and holding firm to important values can we have a chance at preserving what is important from our past.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

God Speaks To Us

Our reflection question for the next RCIA session has to do with scripture. We are asked to reflect on the question: "what does the Bible mean to you right now"? Regarding this question it seems to me that my thinking has evolved over the years as I gained experience and exposure to scripture studies. I think that when I first found scripture compelling it was because of the question: did this really happen? So I was interested in the stories of Exodus and the questions of historicity. Did the Exodus really happen and what proof is there in the historical record of this event? I think that media like newspapers and television still devote a lot of attention to these kind of questions. The fuss over the Da Vinci Code and over the supposed tomb of the family of Jesus reflects such interest. Ultimately though, this question (while it might be interesting) has little to say to me regarding my relationship with God.

A more useful question then, became (and still is): Does this happen today? The importance of this question and its relevance to the spiritual life first came to me in connection with a passage from Exodus 16. In the passage the Israelites have only just passed from slavery in Egypt into the desert. Very soon the people complain to Moses and Aaron: "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." (Ex 16:3) If you only ask if this incident happened in the past the verse is quite meaningless. If you ask if such a thing does happen there is a chance to gain insight into our relationship with God. This came to me after an incident in my own life. Someone very close to me had gone through a very bad marriage. He abused alcohol and drugs as well as his family. When she and her four children finally left him everyone thought that it was for the best. To my surprise a year or so later she told me that she was thinking of going back to him. After a discussion with her it became clear what was happening. She knew what he was like but the stress and challenges of going on her own seemed to be too much. She was on welfare and trying to train for the job market (after being a housewife for 15 years or so). One of her sons was having profound behavioral problems. So the stress and uncertainty of being free (like the Israelites) led her to think of the security that she had before; even though, like the Israelites, she existed then in a form of slavery. And so, when I began to look at Exodus, and all scripture, in this way I began to see the Bible as something that could speak to me and my condition here and now. I also think that in a simple way this addresses the question about the problem of literalism regarding the Bible. I no longer am interested in the question of could creation have happened exactly as described in Genesis. Instead I can pay more attention to the lessons that the stories of Genesis have for me today.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Journey of Faith

For our next RCIA session we were asked to reflect on the question: How are you, here and now, on a journey of faith." As I reflect on this question I can see that I have been on this journey but I have not always been making progress on the journey. I am a "cradle Catholic" and so when I was younger I often took many aspects of my faith for granted. The first event that shook me was attending St. Anthony's College run by the Franciscan fathers. There I met some men who had a powerful influence on me and I made a decision to enter the Franciscan seminary in Detroit Michigan. This was a major step for a farm boy from northern Alberta. I spent two years at this seminary but while I had lots of new experiences I (looking back on it) did not grow much in my faith. The next year when I was most of the way through the novititate I came to this realization and decided that it would be best if I left the seminary.

The decision to leave was a very difficult one for me and I think that for many years after that my faith journey was not an important part of my life. I was kind of like the Hebrew people on their journey from slavery to the promised land who stopped at the oasis and wanted to stay there because it was easy and comfortable. Anyway, my searching for something to do eventually led me to the teaching profession and I spent many years as a high school teacher. I think that the demands of teaching were good for me. I especially recognized over time the importance of caring for other people and while I was not a great teacher I think that most of my students believed that I cared about them - and mostly I did.

I think that the next step in my journey came when I retired from teaching. People have this funny notion that retired people should be taken up with leisure and travel. One of the first things that I did though, was to complete a Masters degree in religious education. Following that I became more involved with RCIA and that involvement helped me to grow in my faith. Journeying with people who are trying to come to grips with their spiritual calling helped me to examine my own faith. More recently my involvement with the hospital ministry of my parish has been important to me. Meeting and bringing the Eucharist to so many people and praying for them afterward has been a great help for me. Even more recently taking a lead role in the RCIA program has been an important opportunity again for me to reflect on my own faith and on what is important in life.

I summary then, I can see how my faith journey has many characteristics with the journey of the Hebrew people told in the book of Exodus. I can see how God has been calling to me but I can also see how at times I have ignored God, or complained to God. Today, I hope that I am back on my journey trying to respond to God's call and trying to make progress on my journey.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

RCIA and Alpha

Recently the director of the Alpha group in our parish suggested to me that we combine RCIA with Alpha during the time period before Christmas this coming year. Alpha is a movement dedicated to proclaiming the message of Jesus to people who have little or no connection to Jesus or to a faith community in their lives. Alpha has its origins in an evangelical offshoot of the Anglican Church and many Catholic communities (including our parish) have enthusiastically embraced the program. The Alpha program consists of a series of evenings where the group gathers for a meal followed by a video on the topic for the evening followed again by group discussion. The speaker on the videos is Nicky Gumbel who is a particularly effective presenter. The topics generally offer a "generic" and personalized version of what it means to be a Christian. I participated in Alpha a few years ago and found the message to be powerfully presented and the format of the evening to be enjoyable.

So, why not combine the RCIA group with Alpha? On the surface there are some good reasons why this would be a good idea. First of all we know that the first phase of RCIA is at least partly dedicated to evangelization (a first proclamation of the Gospel). So, this seems like a good fit with Alpha. Secondly, from a practical point of view, combining the groups (in our parish both groups have even been meeting on the same evening) would be an efficient use of staff and volunteer time.

But, of course, there are reasons why this is not a good idea. Most seriously, the Alpha talks do not give anything like a complete "picture" of what it means to be a Catholic Christian. Alpha pays little attention to sacraments specifically mentioning only Baptism and Eucharist. Alpha also pays little attention to what it means to be part of the Church. Finally, Alpha omits mention of anything that is distinctively Catholic (which is natural since its approach tries to be non - denominational). So, considering these shortcomings, Alpha does not seem to be an effective use of the limited amount of time available to the period of inquiry in the RCIA.

Next, the needs of the participants in RCIA in our parish during the period of inquiry generally have been more complicated than what is provided by Alpha. If all of our RCIA participants were coming from a basically "unchurched" and uncatechized background Alpha might be an effective way of providing this initial catechesis. The fact is however, that in my experience participants in our RCIA groups have tended to be mainly made up first of all of people who are married to a Catholic and who have been attending our Church. A second group has been people who have been active members of other Christian churches and who are seeking to join the Catholic church. Another group has been Catholics who have been baptized but who have not completed their sacraments of initiation. One of the things that this kind of group needs (particularly those people who have been catechized in another Christian church) in the period of inquiry in RCIA is an exposure to some of the distinctive feature of Catholicism. This gives them an opportunity to deal with any "issues" that they may have with the Church before proceeding to the next period of RCIA following the Rite of Acceptance and Welcome.

I am aware that our RCIA should ideally take up more time than it currently does. Right now, our plan is to begin in mid September and wrap up around the time of Pentecost. If we moved to a time period of one year or longer for RCIA we might then have time, for example, to use Alpha as part of the period of inquiry for those who might benefit and then begin the formal period of RCIA after Christmas with the Rite of Acceptance coming just before Easter. This would provide much more time for a greater variety of experiences. During the coming year I hope that we can explore how to make this change to our RCIA program.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Smouldering Wick

The gospel for today, Saturday of the 15th week of ordinary time, has another passage that interests me here and now. In the passage (Matthew 12:14-21) the evangelist applies to Jesus the prophecy of Isaiah 42 including the words, "He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick until he brings justice to victory." In the commentaries I have seen there seems to be a range of opinions about what this means and how it is to be applied but most say that it refers to the gentleness and meekness of Jesus. I liked the insight of St Jerome (quoted in the Catena Aurea): "He who despises a weak spark of faith in a little one, he quenches a smoking flax (wick)."

I think that this passage again illustrates one of the tensions facing the Church when it deals with adult faith formation, especially with regard to sacramental preparation. In our parish, for example, the RCIA director and the person in charge of marriage preparation have been troubled by the prevalence of young couples who have "irregular" living arrangements (they are as yet unmarried, but living together). When the pastor asked an outside expert about the seriousness of these "impediments" the expert answered that on the most basic level the answer depended on your point of view. If the pastor thinks that the Church should be smaller and more faithful to Church teachings he will act one way. If the pastor thinks that the Church should take care not to quench the smouldering wick he will act another way.

I like the point of view about taking care not to quench the smouldering wick. Sometimes people, for various reasons, are not capable of giving full expression to their faith in all that they do. In these cases these people need to be treated with the gentleness of Christ, welcomed, and invited to a fuller encounter with Christ and his Church. So, on the one hand, the Church must be welcoming; but on the other hand, the Church needs to be faithful to its message. This is clearly something that is done on a case by case basis and requires great understanding on the part of the Church representative dealing with this issue.

So, would I as someone involved with RCIA, ever send someone away from the group on the basis that they are not fit or ready for Baptism. I think that the answer has to be that I would not want to send them away but in certain circumstances (that I don't think I could outline right now) I would suggest that they delay Baptism until some future time. This is what has been done in the group I work with. A few years ago a man from a strong evangelical background came to us. During the Catechumenate he had great trouble with the doctrines surrounding Mary. When the time came for reception into the Church (at Easter Vigil) he was told that he needed to decide on his own if he could make the public promise that people being received into the Church make. He decided that at that time he could not, but a couple of years later was received into the Church. So, he was not excluded by the pastor or the RCIA director, but was invited to discern for himself the path he should follow. This, I think, made things work out for the best.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bring Fire on the Earth

The Gospel for Monday of the 15th week of ordinary time presents some interesting challenges. In this Gospel (Matthew 10:34 - 11:1) Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace but the sword and to set members of a family against one another. A similar passage in Luke (Luke 12: 49-53) adds, "I have come to bring fire on the earth...." This passage seems to contradict the many passages in the New Testament that emphasize love and the need to preserve the unity of the community.

Some commentaries suggest that the images of fire and conflict represent a judgement against non-believers. Other commentaries suggest that the passages refer to the conflict that already faced the early Church because of persecution by civil and religious authority. I suspect that the second explanation is the best one. Still, I think that the passage could have an important message for the Church today.

We know that we live in a society that believes that each individual constructs their own reality. Increasingly people seem to feel that ideals which come from an external source (like that magisterium of the Church) are invalid and damaging to individual freedom. Some people seem ready to reject the teaching authority of the Church simply on the basis of personal opinion. This creates problems for the Church. On the one hand we want a Church that is welcoming and is intended to embrace as many people as possible and so we, in the Church are often reluctant to "correct" Catholics who hold positions that are contrary to established Church teaching. The controversy over abortion is an especially vivid example of this. The question of the ordination of women is another example.

Now some people feel that not correcting these Catholics who they call "Cafeteria Catholics" is a disservice to both the Church and the individual. They suggest that allowing such dissent to continue unchecked blurs the truths the Church has worked for centuries to pass on. Further, they suggest, that to be charitable to someone who dissents without seeking to correct them tends to jeopardize the salvation of their souls. So, sometimes it might be necessary to have confrontation in the Church in order to provide correction of some kind. So, for example we see the controversy over a bishop refusing the Eucharist to a pro-abortion politician. Agreeing with this point of view has some risks however. The danger of an over zealous emphasis on correctness can result in a cold emphasis on the externals of faith rather than on personal faith and relationship to Jesus.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Touching the hem of the garment

One of the gospel passages that has fascinated me for a long time is the passage from today's Eucharist (Matt 9:18-26). The main focus of the passage seems to be the leader of the synagogue who summons Jesus to revive his daughter. While on the way Jesus encounters the women who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. Commentators note that this ailment would have made the women ritually "unclean" and she would therefore have been an outcast during all this time. Because of her shame the women can not bring herself to stand before Jesus to ask his help as the leader of the synagogue had done. Instead the best she can do is to reach out to touch the fringe of his cloak (hem of the garment) in the belief that by doing this she will be made well and her faith is rewarded. Her faith has made her well.

On one level both stories are of faith. Both the woman and the leader of the synagogue have great faith and their faith is rewarded by Jesus. On another level the story shows an important part of the mission of Jesus. These miracles are signs that the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus is indeed at hand. Still, I am struck by the difference in status between the leader of the synagogue and the woman. He is a man of great status and we see this when Jesus encounters a great crowd at the leader's house. By contrast the woman is an outcast. Still, the results of their encounters with Jesus are the same. Jesus fulfills their deepest needs. So, an important message that I get from this passage is that we should be careful about judging the faith of people by externals or by status. We see something similar in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican. The faith of people is not something external and cannot necessarily be judged by the Church groups a person belongs to or even (perhaps) how often a person attends Mass. Of course eventually faith does have to manifest itself in works of some kind. I find this insight helpful when dealing with inquirers to RCIA. We want them to tell their stories but we want to be careful about judging their initial motives for signing up. We do of course, want them to experience growth as they go through the process that is part of the RCIA.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Inclusive Language

The setting was a funeral for a fairly young man. The occasion was solemn. There were about 1000 people in the Church and four priests and a deacon at the altar. At the end of the Eucharistic Prayer (I don't remember which particular Eucharistic prayer it was) the celebrant (a visitor) intoned, "through whom and with whom and in whom ... ." At least that is what I heard. I had not heard this particular part of the liturgy subjected to inclusive language and the attempt sounded quite shocking.

The basic premise of inclusive language is that the use of masculine pronouns in the liturgy makes females feel excluded and therefore these masculine pronouns should be avoided. While I don't necessarily agree with the basic premise I think there are times when a masculine pronoun can be substituted with a more generic one. For example at morning prayer yesterday (Liturgy of the Hours, Friday, week III) one of the intercessions ends with: "pour forth your Spirit upon all men." In a case like this I would have no problem with the text simply saying all, or everyone, or all people, instead of men.

A basic problem however, comes when a masculine pronoun that refers specifically to Jesus is "neutered" in this way. So in the case of the mangled end to the Eucharistic prayer mentioned above the latin reflexive pronoun used here (per ipsum et cum ipso et in ipso) is clearly intended to point strongly to Jesus Christ mentioned in the previous sentence in all four Eucharist prayers. So I would say that to substitute "whom" for him in this particular part of the Eucharistic prayer should be unthinkable. If you were determined to avoid a masculine pronoun here the best you could do would be : through Jesus (himself) and with Jesus and in Jesus .... This would be the only way to preserve the basic meaning of the prayer. Basically I think that we all can agree that Jesus was male and I don't think that liturgical language should obscure or ignore that fact.

Friday, May 16, 2008


American media are busily discussing a speech by President Bush in which he (Bush) said that anyone (Barrack Obama) who would meet with Iran or Hamas would be engaged in appeasement. Appeasement gets its negative connotation from the Munich Conference of the 1930's where Chamberlain from Britain and Daladier from France gave in to Hitler's demands in order to avoid another war. The most obvious thing that should be pointed out is that Hitler's subsequent aggression did not come from the fact that the French and English talked to him. The aggression came because Hitler came to the conclusion that Chamberlain and Daladier would never go to war and therefore there was no obstacle to his ambitions. The point is that "talking" is not the same as appeasement so the Bush allegation is way off base.

Another relevant example here is the confrontation between Kennedy and Khrushchev in the early 1960's. Initially Khrushchev concluded that he could push Kennedy around and hence he adopted a very aggressive posture. When, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy convinced Khrushchev that he was prepared to go to war to stem Soviet aggression Khrushchev was forced to back down. The result of this confrontation however, was increased talking and this increased talking resulted in considerable progress in US - Soviet relations in following years. So again, the key is not the refusal to talk. In the same way during the 1970's Nixon, who had made a name by being an anti-communist, made progress in Sino-American relations by abandoning the policy of isolating China. Instead Nixon became the first president to visit China and again much useful change was the result. Something similar happened during the 1980's in US - Soviet relations. Reagan, who again made a name as an anti - communist, made great progress by in fact being willing to talk to Gorbachev. The result led ultimately to the end of the USSR.

The examples show that talking to an opponent is not the same as appeasing them. When dealing with aggressors it is clearly vital to make clear that force will be used at some point to repel aggression. This is what went wrong at Munich. Hitler came to the conclusion that force would never be used. Once you make it clear that you are prepared to use force it seems clear that talking to potential aggressors can lead to positive progress. For Bush to misuse the word appeasement as he did simply does not provide anything useful to the issue of how to deal with Iran and its clients Hamas and Hezbollah.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

RCIA Planning

With a new director of RCIA in our parish for next year (the previous one moved away) we have the opportunity to reflect on the ideals and the practicalities of planning for the coming year. The most obvious issue for planning is the length of the process. In this parish for many years the model used has been based on starting in mid September and finishing around the beginning of June. This model has some positive aspects. The planning is fairly simple and the demands on staff and volunteers, although extensive, are not excessive.

There are, of course, some drawbacks to this model for RCIA. The length of the program is an obvious problem. If the catechumens and candidates are to have a "full" catechesis as called for by the rite there is simply not enough time provided by this model. Secondly, as Thomas Morris points out in THE RCIA TRANSFORMING THE CHURCH, this model imposes itself over the individual needs of the prospective members of the Church. If someone inquires about joining the Church in December should you require them to wait almost a year to begin RCIA? So the ideal seems to be to have a program that is longer than the one we have and, again ideally, to have a way for inquirers to join at any time.

Despite the obvious desirability of trying a different model for RCIA for the coming year I think that I am in favor of maintaining our current model. One reason is simply because in addition to a new director of RCIA we will also likely have a new pastor. Secondly, a more expansive model requires significantly more involvement from volunteers in order to succeed. In the past few years we have had problems recruiting sponsors (despite significant efforts) and our RCIA team remains relatively small. The danger is that expanding the demands on these people, however desireable that is, might simply lead to volunteer burnout. What needs to be done in the coming year is to do some things to educate the parish about the role that RCIA could play in the faith life of the community. If we could simply reinforce the basic understanding that adult initiation is the work of the entire community we might have the sponsors and the volunteers that we need to make more basic changes in the future.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Public Scandal ?

Quite recently there has been a major scandal in the media over pictures of a young Disney star (Miley Cyrus). The star, who is 15 years old appeared in some sort of fashion magazine where one of the pictures is of her showing a bare back and holding a sheet to cover her front. She is clearly not nude in any of the pictures. Critics were outraged. The pictures, they said sexualized the star and so were nearly pornographic. They claimed that the stars fans, younger females, would draw improper conclusions about their own behavior from the pictures. More thoughtful critics pointed out that the mass media already portrays young females as sexual beings and this picture was simply part of that. Defenders of the star and the photographer (a famous celebrity photographer) pointed out that the format of the picture in question was classic - going back even to classical paintings, and the intention was not "sexual." Still, faced with the apparent public outrage, the Disney studio and the girls parents apologized or blamed the photographer and are now hoping that the scandal will simply pass by.

It seems to me that most of the public reaction to these pictures was either incredibly naive or very hypocritical. Even a "sheltered" young teen aged female must know that she is a sexual being after all of the changes she goes through during puberty. She might not yet think of herself as sexy though. The responsibility for that lands on the society. Still, in my many years of teaching high school it seems to me that girls come easily to the understanding that they are sexual beings. The tricky part for public morals is how to handle the reality of these girls who are, because of biology, sexual beings while they exist in a society that is at once obsessed with sex as primarily sexual activity and while society is unwilling to suggest that anyone might value virginity or chastity for any reason. One session with sixteen year-olds in a religion class produced the pointed observation that lots of adults obviously do not practice what they preach (sexual activity within a loving marriage) sexually. And that observation is quite true and does a lot to explain the ambivalent attitudes seen regarding these controversial photos.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Political Karma?

There has been much talk in the media recently over the "fate" of New York governor Eliot Spitzer. Mr Spitzer who made a political name for himself as a zealous prosecutor, including prosecution of crimes relation to prostitution, has been identified as a customer of an expensive call - girl. Faced with this evidence Spitzer resigned his position and presumably lost any chance he might have had for higher public office in the future.

While I don't favor prostitution I would like to point out that the "rules" have been very unevenly applied in the past. For example, the historians I have read suggest that one of Spitzer's predecessors as Governor, Franklin Roosevelt, later to be president of the USA, had a mistress at least occasionally during his life. Plausible suggestions have been made that even Dwight Eisenhower had a mistress during the war (his female driver). John F. Kennedy seems to have been well known as a "ladies man" yet nothing was made of this during his lifetime. Senator Gary Hart, at one time a prime candidate to be president virtually disappeared from public view when it was revealed that he had spent time on a yacht with an attractive model who was not his wife. Henry Kissinger (its hard to imagine him as a ladies man) once famously said that "power was the ultimate aphrodisiac". Of course we have the story of Bill Clinton and Monica. In Clinton's case it seems that the politicians sitting on his impeachment decided that his sexual adventures were not serious enough to justify depriving him of office.

Moving outside of the USA just over ten years ago Princess Diana complained about the relationship between Prince Charles and his mistress (now wife). Looking back in British history you could almost say that with minor exceptions (Like George VI perhaps) it was accepted that the monarch would have a mistress. Far back in history, the tale of Henry VI wives was basically a story of the politics of the king's mistresses and wives. A limerick still exists which celebrates one of the mistresses of Charles II.

So, I think that the question is, does good leadership demand a particular ethical standard? More particularly, is sexual immorality incompatible with leadership? In scripture we find the story of King David's "sin" with Bathsheba. David remains chosen by God, but possibly only because of his repentance. We know that some leaders, John A. Macdonald in Canada and Winston Churchill in Britain to name two would likely be hounded out of office today because of their drinking problems. So, it seems to me that human imperfection is not an impediment to leadership and extravagant sin is not a sign of greatness. What is different is that in the past leaders could have a more or less private life. Today, with the tabloid press, this is not possible. Leaders who expect people to follow them have to set an example.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A One Party Democracy

Here in the province of Alberta where I live we just finished having an election. The governing party gained a massive majority by winning more than 85% of the seats in the legislature. The reason I refer to a one party democracy is because the same party has formed the government in this province since 1970. Prior to 1970 another party had held power since 1935. So Albertans do not change governments on a very regular basis at all. How does this relate to the ideals of democracy?

First of all I suppose its important to note that elections here are always free and democratic. People choose to vote for the governing party time after time. One thing worth pointing out is that the percentage of the popular vote won by the governing party does not accurately reflect the number of seats gained by the party in the legislature. In this election the governing party with about 50% of the popular vote gained 85% of the seats in the legislature. This is one of the effects of a single - member plurality system. If we had some kind of a system of proportional representation the dominance of the governing party would not be as pronounced.

Secondly I would observe that opposition politicians tend to have a pronounced charisma deficit. This election was made to be won by the opposition. The governing party had recently changed leaders from a popular charismatic leader to someone not as telegenic. The government had irritated a number of important constituencies in the province. Despite this the opposition parties actually lost seats in the legislature. One possibility is that the voters who wanted change did not see either opposition party as a potential government and so chose to accept the promise of change from the traditional governing party.

So, is it possible that Alberta will have a change of government any time in the future? It is true that traditionally Albertans are quite conservative in the sense that they are reluctant to change. Change might be possible if the opposition can find leadership that captures the attention of the electorate. Change might also become possible if the government "loses its touch" and provides the opposition with possible election issues. Still, with Alberta in the midst of an economic boom, the prospect of many more years of rule by the same party remains.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

More on Residential Schools

Recent news reports suggest that despite progress made towards a large cash settlement with former residential school students another group is taking further action. They want to accuse the churches and the federal government of being "complicit in crimes against humanity." The focus here is over the number of young people who died while they were students in residential schools. First of all, there is no question that large numbers of young aboriginals died during the era of the residential schools. Reading the yearly reports of the DIA from those years it seems that tuberculosis and pneumonia were the main contributors to the mortality rate with localized outbreaks of those diseases devastating some areas. Secondly, it seems possible that in some cases students may have died from mistreatment or abuse - but I doubt if those cases would have amounted to crimes against humanity.

There is no question that forced separation of young people from their families and long absences from the family were traumatic experiences for both the young people and their parents. At the same time it seems clear (again from reading reports of the DIA from those years) that parents did not passively accept what was being done. Still, for parents whose child was taken from them, the news that their child had died while in school must have been devastating. Underlying this particular group seems to be (again) the assumption that any thing that the residential school did (since its basic policy was assimilation) amounted to "crimes against humanity." I concede again that the assimilation policy was wrong, although at the time it was well intentioned from the point of view of the government and the churches. I doubt that generally there were what we would consider to be crimes against humanity committed during that time. The reality is that many people who became leaders in their own First Nations were educated in these schools. The reality is also that large numbers of First Nations people died during those years (both on reserves and in residential schools). It should be noted that the population of aboriginals in Canada declined during those years. It is probable that some of this suffering could have been alleviated if the government had spent more money on nutrition and health care for aboriginal people. Of course this policy of benign neglect still does not, I suggest, rise to the level of crimes against humanity.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

American Politics

I have just been watching U.S. senator John McCain speaking (now as the presumtive Republican nominee) to a conservative political action group in Washington. Since Romney had already announced that he was suspending his campaign the McCain talk took the tone of an election speech with the Senator attacking the two leading Democrats and attempting to establish his conservative credentials. Now McCain seems to be a straight forward plain speaking sort but there is one thing his talk still had in common with most political speeches.

Politicians of all sorts during election time want to tell the voters that they will both increase spending and cut taxes at the same time. This is all the more amazing considering the huge size of the american budget deficit at this time. To be sure McCain did not specifically talk about increasing spending although given his continuing support for the Iraq war it seems a given that he would at least increase spending for the military. Also, to give him credit he did say that he would try to control the increase in budgetary spending due to entitlement programs and to the special spending provisions attached to ordinary spending bills (commonly called "pork"). He did say though, that he would make permanent the Bush tax cuts and would have further tax cuts especially for business.

So, I suggest that this is again a case of "you can have your cake and eat it too". If the American government could operate on any other basis the population would have been told that there was a price to be paid for the Iraq war. There would have been new taxes to pay for the huge costs associated with the war and the draft might even have been re-instated in order to provide the troops needed for the war. Instead people were told that they might have to endure a restriction on their civil liberties as part of the "war on terror" and not much else. Of course in that case people might have turned against the war even sooner than they did. Anyway, I wish that politicians would be honest with voters.

Friday, January 25, 2008

And Justice for All ?

I have just finished reading John Grisham's book The Innocent Man. This true story raises troubling questions about the justice system in the United States. A similar story in Canada raises the same kind of questions about whether the current system actually serves to search for the truth in certain criminal cases.

In his book Grisham tells the story of the murder and rape of a young woman in a small town. He describes the police investigation and how that investigation came to focus on one man, Ron Williamson. Grisham also describes how Williamson's life had devolved from a promising and popular young athlete to someone who everyone in town knew as a "troublemaker." Williamson's decline seems to have been connected to his mental health issues. The police focused on Williamson as a suspect in the murder mainly because he was known as a troublemaker. They disregarded information that might point to another person as a more likely suspect and they used jailhouse informants to build a circumstantial case against Williamson. Not surprisingly Williamson soon found himself on death row where his mental health deteriorated even further. Grisham next describes the long process of appeals and hearings finally leading to Williamson's exoneration. The book does not do a lot of "preaching" about the lessons to be drawn from the story but the story is disturbing in many ways. Quite recently the media have reported on another case in the USA where a young man who the investigators found "weird" in some way was exonerated nine years after being found guilty of the murder of a woman near his home.

Such disturbing stories do not just happen in the USA. On October 3, 1984 (about two years after the murder of Debbie Carter in the previous paragraph) a young girl was kidnapped and murdered in Queensville, Ontario. Almost immediately the attention of the police focused on Guy Paul Morin, a neighbor. Again, police disregarded evidence that pointed to Morin's innocence and built a circumstantial case relying heavily on the evidence of jailhouse informants and the opinion of detectives that Morin's responses during an initial interview were indicative of an awareness of guilt. Finally, DNA testing not available at the time of the initial investigation, proved that Morin was not the monster that police and prosecutors had proclaimed him to be. Exoneration followed and Morin received a cash settlement and an apology for all his troubles. Interestingly Morin also had mental health issues. A police detective chillingly observed at one point that Morin fit "the profile" of the killer better than any other possible suspect.

What the two stories have in common is that the suspect in each case was "different" in some way (in both cases mental health issues were involved). Detectives in each case made a judgement early on that this was the guilty party and built their cases to fit that preconceived idea by disregarding facts that did not point to the guilt of the accused and emphasizing unreliable facts (the jailhouse testimony) that serve their purpose. What this seems to point to is that the prosecution at some point stopped looking for the truth (which is where justice comes from, I think) and instead substituted a search for convictions and victory. I know that the theory is probably that truth comes from the conflict in the courtroom between prosecution and defense; but it seems to me that a police detective or a prosecutor has to have some concern for truth. The measure of their success should not be simply in their rate of convictions.

Another point that is troubling here is the near infallibility accorded to forensic "experts" in these trials. We have television shows like CSI that describe in near mythological terms the ability of forensic experts to solve a complex case. Similarly the show Criminal Minds describes the fantastic ability of behavioral scientists to create criminal profiles to solve other complex cases. However, in both the Williamson case and the Morin case the "expert" evidence supplied was weak and was made to look more important than it actually was. The expert evidence, which should have aided the search for truth instead helped to obtain false convictions.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Environmentalism as religion

An Australian newspaper reports on a suggested "environmentally friendly" policy regarding births and the reaction of Cardinal Pell to this suggestion:

CATHOLIC Archbishop of Sydney George Pell has criticised the Australian Medical Association for publishing a letter in its journal advocating a tax on children.
Speaking in Seoul, Cardinal Pell criticised a recent letter in the Medical Journal of Australia in which obstetrician and associate professor of medicine Barry NJ Walters called for the baby bonus to be replaced with a $5000 "baby levy" for every family having more than two children, followed by an annual carbon tax of up to $800 a child.
"I am not sure what is more extraordinary, that an obstetrician could hold such a view or that a leading medical journal could publish such a view, but either way, this is a striking illustration of where a minority neo-pagan, anti-human mentality, wants to take us," Cardinal Pell said.
Dr Walters, who was unavailable for comment yesterday, wrote that "showering financial booty on new mothers" rewarded "greenhouse-unfriendly behaviour" and that Australia deserved no more population concessions than India or China. Each child born should be offset by planting 4ha of trees, he said.
But Cardinal Pell, in Seoul to accept a $120,000 prize for his anti-abortion work, said extreme environmental proposals should cause alarm.

The suggestion by the professor that families with children should be subjected to a carbon tax is an example of a policy that is ultimately anti-life even though environmentalists claim to be the defenders of life. The reality is that in most parts of the industrialized world the birth rate has already declined to the point where local populations will shrink rapidly in the coming years. When we think of the future of the next generation we do want to ensure that the physical environment can sustain a satisfactory quality of life (so I'm not saying that I'm against protecting the environment). At the same time, we also want to see a future where citizens of the next generation (if the current generation is willing to give birth to them) has all of the dignity proper to the children of God and are not seen as simple "carbon footprints." Connected with the above suggestion of a "baby levy" for new children I have also recently read a suggestion that people should be able to get "carbon credits" for having themselves neutered. This is another example (I think) of the short sighted thinking and misplaced priorities that enforce the call that Cardinal Pell makes for a healthy scepticism toward the current trends in environmentalism.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Pregnant Teens

One of the interesting things in the past few weeks has been the media reaction to the announced pregnancy of 16 year old teen star Jamie Lyn Spears (sister of Britney). Major media outlets breathlessly reported the story and experts gave sombre advise about how to talk to your own teens about the news. First, its important to note that teen pregnancy, although rates have been decreasing for some time, is not a rare event. One stat that I found suggests that in the year 2002 more than 250,000 teens between 15 and 17 years of age became pregnant in the USA.

People drew all kinds of lessons from this news story. Some suggested that the poor girl somehow was the victim of a lack of access to birth control (not a likely possibility given the status of the family). Some stories suggested that the pregnant girl could also have been a victim of a mother who was exploiting the girl's earning potential without regard to the wishes of the girl in question. This is a plausible explanation. It seems that some child stars become the primary wage earners of their family with a parent earning money from the child by acting in the role of manager. This probably puts a lot of pressure on the child and could result in the situation where the child could seem to be exploited to maintain the economic status of the family. So, as with any particular case its impossible to know what lessons to draw from this story. I don't think that Jamie Lyn is some kind of a victim (of lack of access or of other circumstances). It seems possible that she could have chosen pregnancy as a way to deal with pressures inside of her family. Her mother deserves some of the responsibility although its obviously not possible for a parent to completely control the actions of a teen child. The father of the unborn child obviously deserves some of the responsibility as well.

I support the teaching of the Church that sex belongs in the context of a loving relationship normally found only in the context of marriage. This means that abstinence should be the main theme in classes taught to teenagers in Catholic schools. At the same time if there were teens in my own family I would also add a talk about the need to be responsible regarding choices about sexual activity. I know that this sounds like a contradiction of Catholic morality but it seems to me that considering the implications of unplanned pregnancy a more pragmatic approach would be appropriate.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Culture Wars?

I have just finished reading a book by Bernard Goldberg titled 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (it was in the bargain bin at the bookstore). The book is basically an attack on those people (mostly liberals in this case) who do not share the political viewpoints of the author. I have read a similar book by Rush Limbaugh and another from a liberal viewpoint by Al Franken. The purpose of each of these books is to ridicule and attack people who are political opponents. To a certain extent such a way of thinking is understandable. I recall a story told of the long time rivalry between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor (When Lady Astor said that if she was married to Churchill she would put poison in his tea Churchill's retort was that if he were married to Astor he would drink the poison). However, because of the intensity of these attacks I think that these books point to a malaise in American politics (and to a lesser extent in Canadian politics) that seems to be carrying over to "politics" within the Catholic Church in the USA.

The reason that denigrating attacks on political opponents is damaging to the political process is simply because such attacks make any kind of political compromise less and less likely. The people who were attacked in such a way are not likely to want to cooperate in any way with the attackers and nobody is likely to want to be seen as "soft" on the political opposition. This is damaging to the political process because the basic mechanism of democracy is compromise. In a "pure" democracy citizens would discuss a question of what ought to be done until some kind of a consensus was reached. Citizens might not get exactly what they wanted but would still get something that they could agree on. If this consensus was not possible, only then would the majority rule theory be applied. This suggests that the ability to seek consensus - to compromise - is key to the democratic process. Now, I am not an expert on American politics but it seems to me that what we are seeing is increasing polarization between "liberals" and "conservatives." It seems to me that this polarization is making it increasingly unlikely that the American government will be able to deal with the important issues facing the nation in the future.

When I read religious blogs by Catholic "liberals" or "conservatives" I think that I see a similar polarization. Here the damage is not to a process but rather to the very idea of what it means to be a Church. Jesus prayed "that they may be one," and Paul over and over again urged unity in the Church. Anything therefore that damages the unity of the Church would seem to be a bad thing. The Church is like a family in the way that just as you do not choose who is in your family so you do not choose who is sitting next to you in Church. At the same time in both the family and the Church our faith requires us to accept everyone (maybe especially those we might not agree with).

However, it is true that there are some times when compromise is not possible. The issue of abortion for example, polarized as it is between the issue of respect for life and women's rights, does not seem to readily allow for compromise. Here is where there are no easy answers. Jesus did not send people away. Think for example of the story of the rich young man. The young man clearly wants to follow Jesus and Jesus gives him the invitation with one challenge - to sell what he has and give it to the poor. The young man went away because he was rich and unable to respond to the challenge. The point is that Jesus did not directly send the man away - and neither should we do so with people who dissent from the church. The Church (and those in the Church) does not need to act as a "gatekeeper" to the sacraments. What the Church needs to do is to faithfully proclaim the challenge of living a life that is faithful to the call of Jesus.