Saturday, February 27, 2010

In a Catholic Church in Flux, What Would Jesus Have Us Do?

By Tom Westbrook

Editor's Note: This commentary was first published in the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, WA.

More than the Roman Catholic Church was moved by that non-triumphalist renovation rendered nearly a half century ago.

Much good has evolved from that Second Vatican Council of shakers and movers. The gathering initiated a wondrous transition of the church. Its image as a block-solid monolith was transformed.

We were shown to be not so much an “it” as an “us.” Many got the heartening message: “We are the church!” For the wearied and jaded “hangers on,” it came as quite unexpected but truly joyous news.

Not all applauded. Though the ideas and interpretations advanced by the rare assembly were well-researched and a long time in incubation, they met with reserve and rejection stemming from those unprepared for the amazing outpouring.

It seemed a foolish debasement to some. It was even labeled a manifest threat by people who called themselves “traditionalists.”

Controversy erupted. Catholics took on strong and wrongly named sides, referring to themselves and each other as liberals and conservatives. All invoked precedent. Contentious exchanges continue unabated.

Vatican II invited us to see ourselves as “people of God.” Even so, given our nature and numbers, we must recognize that our church constitutes a polity that requires governance.

As members, we owe allegiance to our leadership. We are rightly expected to be supportive of the Pope and his retinue, but must also stand ready to rebut and refuse Caesarlike demands emanating from his echelons.

Writing as a long-lived, loyal layman, I’m quite aware of the traditions and justifications claimed by and for the institutional entity of our Christ-initiated, Spirit-guided faith community.

I truly treasure the church, its mission and its gifts. I try to recognize and accept the human element of the institution as a corollary consequence of our incarnational origin.

Whatever its cause or explanations, I don’t feel compelled to accept, let alone endorse, the all-or-nothing demands and compliance impositions set by various hyperprotective, organizational bureaucrats. Regardless of their sincerity of motive, these controllers can’t be allowed to triumph over anyone’s responsibly formed conscience.

Our institutional church has an established pattern of making gradualist responses to emerging needs. The resultant delays often engender needless frustrations. Our hierarchs too often appear as status-clinging denizens of an upper room.

So, is there a problem? More than one! Many are growing. Tensions abound.

We of the Spokane Diocese will soon be greatly affected by the word we’ll receive from a Vatican spokesman. We’ll be informed that empowered officials in Rome have secured needed papal approval of their choice for our next bishop.

Their man might prove to be compassionate, even holy. We hope for that. But recent appointments have hardly been stellar.

It’s not unlikely that we’ll be sent a “company man” who will focus on wielding power and control. Unfortunately, since the era of Pope John XXIII and Paul VI, we’ve felt little “bubbling up.”

Church life has sadly reverted to the enervating process of “trickling down.” The Vatican has in recent decades been dispatching reactive hierarchs to take charge of what it views as its recalcitrant wards.

The world’s too easily distracted media has heralded John Paul, the recent hard-charging Polish pontiff, for his zesty political undertakings. Most have overlooked that doubt-free dominator’s stifling of Vatican II.

Obstreperous Catholics such as myself who first witnessed and gloried in the overdue breakthrough of Vatican II have buoyantly called for the ordination of women as priests and bishops. We are ready for these changes and more.

Retrogressive repressions are now heavily burdening those of us who won’t give up the hope or the faith. We know our need to seek God’s forbearance and guidance in channeling our increasing impatience.

We’re called to act with love, yet we’re terribly tempted to be less than gentle in our remonstrations with the clerical keepers of the ecclesial club. We are wondering: “What would Jesus have us do?”

Thomas L. Westbrook, a still “practicing” Catholic, is a member of the Community of St. Ann in Spokane, a sanctuary parish.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Catholicism: A Changing Church - Despite Itself

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Editor’s Note: This commentary by Sister Joan Chittister was first published at

John Henry Newman, whose own life was riddled with pressure from the church for thinking beyond the institution to the nature of the church itself, made a comment which in that period of church history was its own kind of heresy. Newman said, “To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

The application of that to the church – the world is changing, therefore the church will have to change as well – sent shivers up ecclesiastical spines. In this age, of course, the statement may even seem benign to a world struggling to understand the implications of Darwinian science for the teaching of theology, for instance. But then, in the mid-19century, plagued by the myth of changelessness, the Roman Catholic Church defined itself as immutable, as fixed and frozen in time. Every question had been asked. Every answer had been given. Church was a settled science. “Every Catholic church you go into,” I was taught as a child, “is exactly like your own. The songs are the same, the mass is the same, the language is the same.” Conformity had become the hallmark of the Catholic community.

But before you knew it, in the length of one lifespan, none of that was true anymore. Nor was it ever, if truth were known. The world had been changing, too, for a long, long time. The church has always been in a process of change – from house churches to royal Roman courts, to the fiefdoms of Cardinal-princes, to theocracies, to a small newly displaced postage-stamp of a nation called The Vatican. The church had indeed changed with every wisp of political reality in the world. Its monarchical liaisons disappeared, its missionary character reemerged, its regional quality became stronger with time and marked by its various ‘rites’ or adaptations to various ethnic churches.

This century, too, is sweeping away what had long been the givens of a pre-WWI world. In this world national borders are seeping as never before in history. The whole world is becoming one. Universal education, if it is not already the norm, is now the goal everywhere. The whole world is becoming literate.

Evolution, with its completely other explanation of the origins of life, is a given. The whole world is beginning to understand itself as only a small part of the planetary system. Gender equality, however slow in coming to some areas of the world, is nevertheless an international objective and a political issue everywhere. The whole world is beginning to accept – or at least to recognize – that there are gifts in the other half of the human race that are going unused and to the peril of the whole human race.

The church itself is no longer part and parcel of the national political identity anywhere. Not in Poland, not in Ireland, not even in Italy.

Clearly the church will be forced to deal with the effects of all these things, and more. Or, rather than being an international force, a credible voice, it will soon become an international relic. Some of the necessary changes implied by these realities are already beginning to be clear. In the church of the 21st century, in order to be a vibrant and effective factor in society – as well as an institutional remnant of the past – four issues strain for attention and promise more change to come.

Clericalism, the by-product of an illiterate society, has already come head to head with the levels of professionalism around it. To be acceptable in the 21st century, priesthood will need to be a purely ministerial function, not a civic, academic or social office. People look to the church for worship and succor, for justice and social model, for preachers of peace and harmony, not for authoritarianism. The local parish priest is neither qualified nor authorized to pronounce on secular subjects like elections or curriculums or the tenets of another faith. In the 21st century, the church must see itself as part of the conversation, not as the last word on it. This world is not anti-clerical. It is aclerical. In this world, the faith is becoming more about faith than about institutional pre-eminence and privilege every day.

Gender equality will be one of the major social issues of the 21st century. Churches that cling to sexism in the name of God will find themselves ignored on other issues. Young women will begin to wonder how it is that churches that teach equality are the last bastions of sexism in the modern world. People of faith will be hard pressed to explain how it is that the question of equality of the sexes is being led by secular institutions rather than by ministers who proclaim the Good News and then stop it from coming.

The laity will become a driving force behind the declericalization of a patriarchal church if for no other reason than the need for personnel. Educated in every dimension of life now to the highest degree, including theology, the laity will expect both to lead and to be listened to in the church. The kind of clerical deference that once came out of ignorance will be replaced only by a spiritual deference for those the laity find deeply holy, unerringly kind, and respectfully open to a world in the throes of remaking itself scientifically as well as socially.

Finally, theology itself, in the light of evolution, will need to be rethought, revised and reshaped to honor a God big enough to believe in, a God beyond the maker of a child’s heaven and more an impelling force than the laws of those who take literalism as the measure of the spiritual life.

The rethinking of these four things – clericalism, gender equality, the lay vocation and theology in the light of evolution – will grow the church up to the measure of a global world. It will change the church as clearly as did Constantine, Galileo, the Reformation and the printing press. It will be the remaking of a church glorious then for its vision, its openness, its strong sense of community and its courageous faith in the God of Surprises rather than simply for its longevity.

Then, as Newman says, the church will be truly alive again, a sign to all of what it is to believe in an ever beckoning God.

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, PA, Joan Chittister has been one of Roman Catholicism’s key visionary voices and spiritual leaders for over 30 years.

She is an international lecturer, an award-winning author of more than 40 books, and the founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality located in Erie. Currently she serves as co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the UN, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders. She is also co-chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives with Rabbi Michael Lerner and Cornel West.

A regular columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, Sister Joan has received numerous awards and recognition for her work for justice, peace, and equality, especially for women in the Church and in society.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Many Voices, One Church

Introducing a new series that recognizes and celebrates the contribution of lay preachers within the local church of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

Before retiring in May, 2008, Archbishop Harry Flynn ordered an end to lectionary-based liturgical lay preaching in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese. He labeled such preaching a “liturgical abuse.”

Writing in the June 13, 2008, issue of The National Catholic Reporter, Kris Berggren noted that: “While Canon 766 of the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law states that lay preaching may be permitted when deemed useful or necessary according to norms developed by episcopal conferences, Flynn’s directive appears to have been guided by the restrictions in the 2004 Vatican instructional document Redemptionis Sacramentum, which narrows the criteria for allowing lay preaching only to accommodate a scarcity of priests or the needs of a specific community.”

Berggren also reported that close to thirty parishes were affected by the ban. Many of these communities had offered “formal ministry training and formation for lay preachers, while others offered informal support and resources.”

Not surprisingly, Archbishop Flynn’s ban, one that has been maintained under Archbishop Nienstedt, has brought a profound sense of loss to many Catholics throughout the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. In the years since the ban, however, some parishes have developed ways of keeping lay voices (and preaching) alive.

One may well ask why communities would risk censure to maintain the practice of lay preaching. In Bergren’s 2008 NCR article, a number of local Catholics shared their thoughts on lay preaching’s appeal to many within the archdiocese; an appeal that has not waned. Mary Wilmes, for instance, noted that “different things appeal to different people. When you have a range [of preachers], you are going to be touched more than you will ever be touched by one preacher. Many parts, one body, isn’t it? It is an incredible richness.”

Another local parishioner, Frank Schweigert, highlighted the importance of lay preaching in setting an example of living, especially “in a formative way for boys and girls. It did a lot to enhance ecclesial understanding of what it means to be a baptized Christian.”

Because the editorial team of The Progressive Catholic Voice recognizes and celebrates the richly diverse spiritual gifts and insights that lay preaching continues to manifest within the local church, we begin today an ongoing series that highlights homilies delivered by lay preachers within the church of St. Paul-Minneapolis. To avoid possible negative consequences, names of preachers and parishes will not be disclosed in this series.

The first homily of this series is reprinted below. It was prepared by “FS” for last month’s Feast of the Epiphany.


I have been looking forward to breaking open the word on this great feast of the Epiphany. Manifestation. The showing of our God.

I love the celebratory 1st reading. Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem. Your light has come. The glory of God shines upon you. This message from the prophet Isaiah was for the Jews who had just returned from exile to a devastated Jerusalem. Yet they are told, Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.

We hear these words today and ponder what they mean for us.

Just as our ancestors in the Faith frequently reflected upon and interpreted their Scriptures creatively to help them understand and explain Jesus, so too did their Christian descendants throughout the ages, including professional theologians and all of us continue that creative reflection upon Matthew's story of the Magi’s visit to the newborn Jesus, and, I add, to subsequent teachings.

So we ask: What did the Magi see? A child whom they believed to be the King of the Jews. They offered gifts and paid him homage befitting a King.

They did not know that this child was The Light of the World. Simeon knew it, praising the infant Jesus as a revealing light to the gentiles. We do, because in John’s Gospel Jesus proclaims: I am the Light of the World; in Matthew he tells his followers – us – You are the light of the world. That’s a big responsibility.

The coming of the Magi, and they represent us, highlights the important lesson of this feast: that the messiah came for all, not only for the “chosen people.” That was a hard lesson for the Jews of Jesus’ time to learn. In the New Testament we read of the tension about welcoming others, non-Jews into their community. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, our second reading, affirms to his readers that “The Gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

How welcoming are we? This year the U.S. Bishops ask us to remember immigrants and their struggles to be welcomed in our country. Perhaps each one of us should ask: Are there people I do not welcome into my circle?

Back to the Epiphany scene: What do we see? God incarnate in human flesh, the human face of God. Was it the first time? Not according to Diarmuid O’Murchu. In Ancestral Grace, he writes: “I want to reclaim the notion of incarnation for that primordial time of seven million years ago when God was fully engaged with our emergence as a newly evolving species. This is where the incarnation of God in humanity begins.”

He continues: “In evolutionary terms, Jesus marks the culmination and fulfillment of a process, not its beginning. In Jesus ancestral grace reaches a new threshold of elegance, growth and fulfillment. ... The birth of Jesus can be seen as a maturation of all that has been growing, developing, and flourishing through the human species now reaching a critical threshold, inaugurating a new evolutionary phase, a novel breakthrough for humanity ...”

Now we come to the question: Why was the Word made flesh? We probably think we know the answer: To redeem us, to save us from our sins, but that’s not the only answer.

Listen to this: In the 13th century a theological debate broke out between Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus. The debate circled around the question, “Would Christmas have occurred if humanity had not sinned?”

Whereas Aquinas viewed the Incarnation as God's remedy for a fallen planet, his contemporary saw much more at stake. For Duns Scotus, the Word becoming flesh as described in the prologue to John’s Gospel must surely represent the Creator’s primary design, not some kind of afterthought or Plan B.

Aquinas pointed to passages emphasizing the Cross as God’s redemptive response to a broken relationship. Duns Scotus cited passages from Ephesians and Colossians on the cosmic Christ, in whom all things have their origin, hold together, and move toward consummation.

Did Jesus visit this planet as an accommodation to human failure or as the center point of all creation? Duns Scotus and his school suggested that Incarnation was the underlying motive for Creation, not merely a correction to it. Perhaps God spun off this vast universe for the singular purpose of sharing life and love, intending all along to join its very substance.

Ultimately the church decided that both approaches had biblical support and could be accepted as orthodox. That’s certainly a well kept secret. Though most theologians tended to follow Aquinas, in recent years prominent Catholics such as Karl Rahner have taken a closer look at Duns Scotus.

Think what a difference this makes in our understanding. There would be no teaching of God so offended by human sin that only the sacrifice of his divine son could make amends. I’ve always had trouble with that. We wouldn’t sing that the baby Jesus came to die.

We would understand that Bethlehem is more important than Calvary. Or, in Godfrey Diekmann’s colorful words: “It’s not the Resurrection, damn it! It’s the Incarnation that is the key to our Christian life and theology.”

What do we do with this information?

Bishop Kenneth Untener in The Little Blue Book: Advent and Christmas Seasons, writes that the way to deal with issues that concern us in the church and in our lives is to be in touch with the great mystery of God, to experience first hand the breadth and depth of the magnificent reality that lies at the heart of our lives and spreads out in a panorama that the whole universe cannot hold. The whole expanding universe. Ponder that.

We need time to take this in; that’s why we have a Christmas season – and a lifetime.

Let the people say: AMEN.

Monday, February 22, 2010

What Science Tells Us About the Different Moral Systems of Conservatives and Progressives

An excerpt from an article by George Lakoff

Editor’s Note: George Lakoff (pictured at right) is the author of The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics. He wrote the following article for The Huffington Post. It’s important to note that although Lakoff draws on the findings of the “science of the mind” to account for differences between conservative and liberal (or progressive) “moral systems” within the political sphere, these finding could just as readily be utilized to examine and explain conservative and progressive systems of morality within theology.

Nick Kristof, in his February 14 [New York Times] column, discusses three experiments distinguishing conservatives from liberals.

In one experiment, the strength of blink reflexes to unexpected noises was measured and correlated with degrees of reactions to external threats. Conservatives reacted considerably more strongly than liberals.

Another experiment was based on the fact that disgust reactions create glandular secretions that change skin conductance. Subjects were shown disgusting images (like some eating a handful of worms). Liberals reacted mildly, but conservative reactions went off the charts.

A third study showed a strong correlation between attitudes toward spanking and voting patterns: spanking states tend to go Republican. The experimenters correlated spanking preferences with what they called “cognitive styles.” As Kristof reports it, “Spankers tend to see the world in stark, black-and-white terms, perceive the social order as vulnerable and under attack, tend to make strong distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and emphasize order and muscular responses to threats. Parents favoring timeouts feel more comfortable with ambiguities, sense less threat, embrace minority groups – and are less prone to disgust when they see a man eating worms.”

All three results follow from a cognitive science study called Moral Politics, which I published in 1996 and was reprinted in 2002. There I observed that conservatives and liberals had opposite moral worldviews structured by metaphor around two profoundly different models of the ideal family, a strict father family for conservatives and a nurturant parent family for liberals. In the ideal strict father family, the world is seen as a dangerous place and the father functions as protector from “others” and the parent who teaches children absolute right from wrong by punishing them physically (painful spanking or worse) when they do wrong. The father is the ultimate authority, children are to obey, and immoral practices are seen as disgusting.

Ideal liberal families are based on nurturance, which breaks down into empathy, responsibility – for both oneself and others, and excellence: doing as well as one can to make oneself better and one's family and community better. Parents are to practice these things and children are to learn them by example.

Because our first experience with being governed in is our families, we all learn a basic metaphor: A Governing Institution Is A Family, where the governing institution can be a church, a school, a team, or a nation. The Nation-as-Family version gives us the idea of founding fathers, Mother India and Mother Russia, the Fatherland, homeland security, etc.

Apply these monolithically to our politics and you get extreme conservative and progressive moral systems, defining what is right and wrong to each side.

There is no moral system of the moderate or the middle. Because of a neural phenomenon called “mutual inhibition,” two opposing moral systems can live in brain circuits that inhibit each other and are active in different contexts. For a nonpolitical example, consider Saturday night and Sunday morning moral systems, which coexist in the brains of many Americans. The same is true of “moderates,” who are conservative on some issues and progressive on others, though there may be variations from person to person.

Kristof doesn’t mention Moral Politics, though he got a copy at a Democratic Senate retreat in 2003, at which we both spoke. If Moral Politics is still on his bookshelf, I suggest he take a look. I also recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the difference between conservative and progressive moral systems.

Conservative Populism and Tea Partyers

After the Goldwater defeat of 1964, conservatism was a dirty word and most Americans wanted to be liberals, especially working people who were highly unionized. Lee Atwater and colleagues, working for the 1968 Nixon campaign, had a problem: How to get a significant number of working people to become conservative enough to vote for Nixon.

They intuited what I have since called “biconceptualism” – the fact that many Americans have both conservative and progressive views, but in different contexts and on different issues. Mutual inhibition in brain circuitry means the strengthening of one weakens the other. They found a way to both strengthen conservative views and weaken liberal views, creating a conservative populism. Here’s how they did it.

They realized that by the late 60’s many working people were disturbed by the anti-war demonstrations; so Nixon ran on anti-communism. They noticed that many working men were upset by radical feminists. So they pushed traditional family values. And they realized that, after the civil rights legislation, many working men, especially in the South, were threatened by blacks. So they ran Nixon on law and order. At the same time, they created the concept of “the liberal elite” – the tax and spend liberals, the liberal media, the Hollywood liberals, the limousine liberals, and so on. They created language for all these ideas and have been repeating it ever since.

Even though liberals have worked tirelessly for the material benefit of working people, the repetition of conservative populist frames over more than 40 years has had an effect. Conservative ideas have spread in the brains of conservative populists. The current Tea Party movement is an attempt to spread conservative populism further.

Sarah Palin may not know history or economics, but she does know strict father morality and conservative populist frames. Frank Rich, in his February 14 New York Times column, denied David Broder’s description of Palin as “perfect pitch populism” and called it “deceptive faux populism” and a “populist masquerade.” What Rich is missing is that Palin has a perfect pitch for conservative populism – which is very different from liberal populism. What she can do is strengthen the conservative side of bi-conceptual undecided populists, helping to move them to conservative populists. She is dangerous that way.

Frank Rich, another of my heroes, is a perfect pitch liberal. He assumes that nurturant values (empathy, social and personal responsibility, making yourself and the world better) are the only objective values. I think they are right values, values that define democracy, but unfortunately far from the only values. Starting with those values, Rich correctly points out that Palin’s views contradict liberal populism and that her conservative positions won’t materially help the poor and middle class. All true, but ... that does not contradict conservative populism or conservatism in general.

This is a grand liberal mistake. The highest value in the conservative moral system (see Moral Politics, Chapter 9) is the perpetuation and strengthening of the conservative moral system itself!! This is not liberal materialism. Liberals decry it as “ideology,” and it is. But it is real, it has the structure of moral system, and it is physically part of the brains of both Washington conservatives and conservative populists. The conservative surge is not merely electoral. It is an idea surge. It is an attempt to spread conservatism via the spread of conservative populism. That is what the Tea Party movement is doing.

False Reason and Real Reason: The Obama Mistake

It was entirely predictable a year ago that the conservatives would hold firm against Obama’s attempts at “bipartisanship” – finding occasional conservatives who were biconceptual, that is, shared some views acceptable to Obama on some issues, while keeping an overall liberal agenda.

The conservatives are not fools. Because their highest value is protecting and extending the conservative moral system itself, giving Obama any victory at all would strengthen Obama and weaken the hold of their moral system. Of course they were going to vote against every proposal and delay and filibuster as often as possible. Protecting and extending their worldview demands it. [Interestingly, Colleen Kochivar-Baker of Enlightened Catholicism observes that: “This is precisely what is happening in the Vatican as well. The Vatican of the last forty years is all about strengthening the moral system entrained in the brains of pre Vatican II clerics. It has never been neurologically about conversion to Jesus' far different moral view. Jesus even said that to get His teachings His disciples were going to have to abandon their FAMILIES and by extension the moral thinking their families espoused.”]

Obama seems not to have understood this – or wants to appear that way.

We saw this when Obama attended the Republican caucus. He kept pointing out that they voted against proposals that Republicans had made and that he had incorporated, acting as if this were a contradiction. But that was to be expected, since a particular proposal that strengthens Obama and hence weakens their moral view violates their highest moral principle.

Such conservative logic explains why conservatives in Congress first proposed a bipartisan committee to study the deficit, and then voted against it.

That is why I don’t expect much from the President’s summit with Republicans on February 25. Why should they do anything to strengthen Obama’s hand, when it would violate their highest moral principle, as well as weakening themselves electorally. If Obama thinks he can shame them in front of their voters, he is mistaken again. Conservative voters think the same way they do.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama used framing perfectly and articulated the progressive moral system (empathy, individual and social responsibility, making oneself and the world better) as well as it has ever been done.

But he changed after the election. Obama moved from real reason, how people really think, to false reason, a traditional view coming out of the Enlightenment and favored by all too many liberals.

We now (finally!) come to the point of going through all those experiments in the cognitive and brain sciences. Here are the basic differences between real and false reason, and the ways in which all too many liberals, including Obama during the past year, are wed to false reason.

Real reason is embodied in two ways. It is physical, in our brain circuitry. And it is based on our bodies as the function in the everyday world, using thought that arises from embodied metaphors. And it is mostly unconscious. False reason sees reason as fully conscious, as literal, disembodied, yet somehow fitting the world directly, and working not via frame-based, metaphorical, narrative and emotional logic, but via the logic of logicians alone.

Empathy is physical, arising from mirror neurons systems tied to emotional circuitry. Self-interest is real as well, and both play their roles in real reason. False reason is supposed to serve material self-interest alone. It’s supposed to answer the question, “What's in it for me?,”which President Obama assumed that all populists were asking. While Frank Luntz told conservatives to frame health care in terms of the moral concepts of freedom (a “government takeover”) and life (“death panels”), Obama was talking about policy minutia that could not be understood by most people.

Real reason is inexplicably tied up with emotion; you cannot be rational without being emotional. False reason thinks that emotion is the enemy of reason, that it is unscrupulous to call on emotion. Yet people with brain damage who cannot feel emotion cannot make rational decisions because they do not know what to want, since like and not like mean nothing. “Rational” decisions are based on a long history of emotional responses by oneself and others. Real reason requires emotion.

Obama assumed that Republicans would act “rationally” where “rationality” was defined by false reason – on the logic of material self-interest. But conservatives understood that their electoral chances matched their highest moral principle, strengthening their moral system itself without compromise.

It is a basic principle of false reason that every human being has the same reason governed by logic – and that if you just tell people the truth, they will reason to the right conclusion. The President kept saying, throughout Tea Party summer, that he would just keep telling the truth about policy details – details that most people could not make moral sense of. And so he did, to the detriment of all of us.

All politics is moral. Political leaders all make proposals they say are “right.” No one proposes a policy that they say is wrong. But there are two opposing moral systems at work in America. What moral system you are using governs how you will see the world and reason about politics. That is the lesson of the cognitive science behind Moral Politics and all the experiments since then. It is the lesson of all the research on embodied metaphor. Metaphorical thought is central to politics.

Finally, there is the lesson of how language works in the brain. Every word is neurally connected to a neural circuit characterizing a frame, which in turn is part of a system of frames linked to a moral system. In political discourse, words activate frames, which in turn activate moral systems. This mechanism is not conscious. It is automatic, and it is acquired through repetition. As the language of conservative morality is repeated, frames are activated repeatedly that in turn activate and strengthen the conservative system of thought – unconsciously and automatically. Thus conservative talk radio and the national conservative messaging system are powerful unconscious forces. They work via principles of real reason.

But many liberals, assuming a false view of reason, think that such a messaging system for ideas they believe in would be illegitimate – doing the things that the conservatives do that they consider underhanded. Appealing honestly to the way people really think is seen as emotional and hence irrational and immoral. Liberals, clinging to false reason, simply resist paying attention to real reason.

Take Paul Krugman, one of my heroes, whose economic sense I find impeccable. Here is a quote from a recent column:

Republicans who hate Medicare, tried to slash Medicare in the past, and still aim to dismantle the program over time, have been scoring political points by denouncing proposals for modest cost savings – savings that are substantially smaller than the spending cuts buried in their own proposals.

He is following traditional liberal logic, and pointing out a literal contradiction: they denounce “cuts in Medicare” while wanting to eliminate Medicare and have proposed bigger cuts themselves.

But, from the perspective of real reason as conservatives use it, there is no contradiction. The highest conservative value is preserving and empowering their moral system itself. Medicare is anathema to their moral system – a fundamental insult. It violates free market principles and gives people things they haven’t all earned. It is a system where some people are paying –God forbid! – for the medical care of others. For them, Medicare itself is immoral on a grand scale, a fundamental moral issue far more important than any minor proposal for “modest cost savings.” I’m sorry to report it, but that is how conservatives are making use of real reason, and exploiting the fact that so many liberals think it's contradictory.

Indeed, one of the major findings of real reason is that negating a frame activates that frame in the brain and reinforces it – like Nixon saying that he was not a crook. Dan Pfeiffer, writing on the White House blog, posted an article called “Still not a ‘Government Takeover’,” which activates the conservative idea of a government takeover and hence reinforces the idea. Every time a liberal goes over a conservative proposal giving evidence negating conservative ideas one by one, he or she is activating the conservative ideas in the brains of his audience. The proper response is to start with your own ideas, framed to fit what you really believe. Facts matter. But they have to be framed properly and their moral significance must be made manifest. That is what we learn from real reason.

The New York Times is home to a lot of traditional reason, often based on false principles of how people think. That is why the reporting of those experiments brightened my day. Perhaps the best way to the New York Times mind is through the science of mind.

Kudos once more to the Times’ science reporting on those experiments.

George Lakoff is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

UST: Archdiocesan Potential Restrictive Speaker Rules Would Weaken Catholic Intellectual Tradition

By Katie Broadwell

Editor’s Note: The following op-ed was recently published at, a web-based, multimedia and student-run news organization at the University of St. Thomas (UTS), St. Paul, MN.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis recently published new guidelines that address the question of who can speak at Catholic institutions in the archdiocese.

According to the guidelines, which debuted in November, a prospective speaker’s previous writings and presentations must “be in harmony with the teaching and discipline of the church.” In addition, “those living a lifestyle at variance with church teaching would also not be eligible [to speak].”

These guidelines make some sense for parishes as well as for Catholic elementary and high schools. But if the archdiocese tries to replace St. Thomas’ current speaker policy with these more restrictive rules, the university’s claim to be a school that is “inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition” would be weakened.

If a university is inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition, it is open to the discussion of different opinions. It encourages informed debate among students and doesn’t restrict students’ access to speakers, as long as those speakers are respectful and don’t insult the Catholic faith.

St. Thomas’ current speaker policy strikes a healthy balance. The Rev. John Malone [pictured at left], vice president for mission, said St. Thomas’ policy allows for the expression of a diverse range of opinions while simultaneously advancing Catholic teachings.

“We would insist regardless of who’s speaking that we state our Catholic position,” he said. “People who come here who have a different position than that, they should talk about what they’re here to talk about, not to take a tack on various positions of the Catholic Church.”

This is a rational way of deciding which speakers should be allowed at Catholic universities. Prohibiting speakers based on their lifestyle choices, on the other hand, could have harmful repercussions. Students would benefit from listening to a speaker discussing poverty in Third World countries, even if the speaker’s personal lifestyle isn’t perfectly in line with Catholic teaching. As long as the speaker is there to talk about the issue and not to sell the benefits of his or her lifestyle, I don’t see a problem.

Malone said no one has decided yet exactly how or if the new guidelines will apply to St. Thomas, but he doesn’t think they will replace the university’s current policy. However, he also said he thinks the archdiocese would like some form of the new policy to be put into place at St. Thomas.

This can’t happen if St. Thomas wants to keep its reputation as a university that promotes intellectual freedom and informed discussion. The policy we have now provides us with a good mix of new ideas and respect for Catholic teachings. It’s always a precarious balancing act, of course, and I’m sure there will be numerous discussions in the future about which speakers should or shouldn’t come to campus.

But as we debate what being a Catholic university means, we should remember that listening to opposing viewpoints can actually strengthen our own beliefs. St. Thomas should continue to offer students access to different opinions so we can be informed citizens who are aware of many viewpoints, not just our own.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Silence of the Bishops

By Andrew Sullivan

Editor’s Note: This article was first published on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, on February 18, 2010.

A reader writes:

Reading your post about Thiessen, complete with the statement from the conference of Catholic bishops, makes me wonder about something. Patrick Kennedy was barred from communion for thinking abortion ought to remain legal. St. Louis Archbishop Burke forbade John Kerry from taking communion while campaigning in the area in 2004. During the Democratic National Convention, Denver archbishop Chaput noisily suggested that Joe Biden skip communion too.

What have these (arch)bishops to say about Thiessen? Anything?

Call me a cynic, but conferences of Catholic bishops may issue clear, even categorical statements against torture all they want. Until a single Catholic cleric on the planet has the cojones to suggest the same for Thiessen, however, I’m skeptical that the Church is really serious about its values.

It is, I fear, a function of the stranglehold that political and Republican partisan theo-conservatives now have on the hierarchy, aided and abetted by the current Pontiff. And there is an obvious distinction here. No one is suggesting that Patrick Kennedy or John Kerry have personally performed or authorized an abortion. They have taken the position that in a free society, where there is a genuine conscientious debate on this question, the state should permit private citizens to make such a choice. And in government, we make a distinction between government-funded abortion and abortions in the private sector - what else was the Stupak Amendment about? I deeply respect the Magisterium’s position on abortion, although, as I explain in The Conservative Soul, I think they have gone too far in some respects. And my own agonized defense of legal first trimester abortion, while obviously against the Magisterium, has always been complemented by my view that abortion is still a grave sin - although in some specific cases, the lesser of two evils. But the public-private distinction is almost universally acknowledged as a legitimate one when discussing the impact of the interaction of one religious teaching in a free and secular society.

I also do not believe that denying communion should be a public act. I think it should always be a matter of private, personal and pastoral counseling. But I do think the church hierarchy has a right to complain when a Catholic presents something that is contrary to Church teaching as actually in accordance with Church teaching. On the gay question and choice question, for example, I have aired my own conscientious disagreement, but I have never claimed that my position is the official one. I am not misleading anyone on Catholic hierarchy’s position - and certainly not in the many Catholic venues where I have tried to make my case.

But Marc Thiessen went on a Catholic television station, self-identified as a Catholic, invoked the Magisterium and presented the torture of human beings as perfectly consonant with Catholic teaching – and actually in accordance with just war Catholic teaching. And his interviewer clearly agreed with him. Not so long ago, he was a public official writing speeches for a vice-president who directly authorized – and monitored – the torture of human beings. This makes him an accessory to an intrinsic evil and subject in due course to war crimes prosecution, if the United States were still a serious signatory to Geneva (which it clearly isn’t). That Thiessen would now actually be going on Catholic television to mislead and misrepresent in grotesque fashion a position that the Bishops have declared is never justified is surely far worse an offense than any of the pro-choice politicians the Bishops have made such a public fuss over.

I think the pro forma stance of the Bishops on this question will be their ultimate self-defense. They have made the position clear – in a whisper. And it is true that there is a great coalition of religious groups opposing torture, including many Catholics.

But I think the hierarchy’s refusal to tackle this head-on has been a great and saddening failure. I noted when the Pope met with Bush that he made no statement whatever about the question of torture, and I am sorry to say I believe the silence of the hierarchy is a political silence, designed to promote one political party – not to defend a core teaching. If they can speak out in defense of illegal immigrants, and on the death penalty, they can surely speak out with blinding clarity on what the Bush-Cheney administration did to abuse, torture and rob imprisoned human beings of the last shred of human dignity they had – without even subjecting them to minimal standards of due process. They did this – and this is simply an incontrovertible fact - to the innocent as well as the guilty, and they made no serious attempt to distinguish between the two.

I think the Bishops and Cardinals in the US need to speak out directly and loudly and insistently on this and demand a Truth Commission to get to the bottom of it. I think we need a homily sent to every parish. I think we need in every state the kind of stand that the hierarchy has taken on a much more minor issue, like civil marriage rights for gay couples. And I believe it is a scandal – an absolute scandal – that the hierarchy has been so absent at a time when bearing witness to this intrinsic evil, conducted directly by the government itself, is so necessary for the future of our civilization and the integrity of this country.

Photo: Bishops from around the US participate in an opening prayer during the fall meetings of the United States Conference of [Roman] Catholic Bishops (USCCB), November 13, 2006 in Baltimore, Maryland. By Brendan Smialowski AFP/Getty Images.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Marian Visions and the Infallibility of the Modern Papacy

By Colleen Kochivar-Baker

Editor’s Note: This article was first published at Colleen’s blogsite, Enlightened Catholicism.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading in my time off. A lot of that reading has been in books I bought from seven or eight years ago and I’ve found it surprising how things I was taken with back then are not the things I’m taken with now. I’ve always done this, reread things years later as a way to track how much I’ve changed and learned – or how much I haven’t.

I reread John Cornwall’s Hitler’s Pope about Pius XII. Part of my desire to reread the book was motivated by the current push to canonize Pius XII and part of it was because Cornwall has backed off from some of what he’s written.

I came away with different points of emphasis this time. This time the part of the story which really hit home was Pius’ failure to reign in the Catholic Ustache in Yugoslavia. He had ample reason to do so, but instead allowed this movement to engage in genocide with nary a peep in opposition. I’ve done more than a little research into the Ustache and their campaign of horror against the Serbian Orthodox. That particular region of Central Europe has been a thorn in European politics for a long time, precipitating World War I and continuing it’s hate well into this current century.

Part of that research had to do with the Marian appearance at Medjugorge. The Medjugorge area was the site of Franciscan led Ustache atrocities in World War II, but it also has a history that predates World War II in this category of mob atrocities in the name of religion. The ground is soaked with the blood of Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic adherents and has been for a millenia. It’s a piece of land that testifies to the atrocities mankind is capable of committing in a selfish understanding of God’s will. I’ve always thought this was quite the area for an appearance from the “Queen of Peace.” Her appearances are now causing more than a bit of a battle within the Vatican itself. The message of Medjugorge is as always about the need for conversion, but it’s not always about conversion to Catholicism. It’s about conversion to the way of love promulgated by her son. This Mary calls for the end of sectarian strife in the name of God and conversion to the love for all of mankind.

However, it was not Mary at Medjugorge which influenced Pius XII and then John Paul II. It was the Marian apparition at Fatima. Just as the Marian apparition at Lourdes influenced Pius IX. In all three popes Marian apparitions seem to influence these papacies to greater levels of centralized control for the papacy. Pio Nono and Pius XII announced the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. John Paul II was seriously considering declaring Mary as Co Redemptorix. These seem to be calculated attempts to equate the standing of the Papacy with Mary’s standing with Jesus. As Mary is in the heavenly kingdom so the Pope is in the earthly kingdom.

This final notion of John Paul’s ran into serious opposition from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, but it now seems to be gaining favor with the same man as Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict is now scheduled to visit Fatima in May and say Mass at the Basilica on May 13th, which is the 93rd anniversary of the first vision. Perhaps he too has had a conversion, if not to the truth of the Fatima, at least to it’s historical importance to papal notions of centralized Papal spiritual authority.

It seems this papal need to identify with Marian appearances has coincided with the papacy’s forced redefinition of itself from a secular political power to the single spiritual authority for Catholicism. Pius IX saw this potential in Lourdes and used the message of Lourdes to embark on his redefining Papal infallibility. This trend continued more or less unabated until the Papacy of John XXIII. John refused to release the third secret of Fatima in 1960 as Fatima legend has he was supposed to have done. He said at the time it didn’t apply to his papacy. Instead he opened Vatican II and according to Fatima die hards, “let the smoke of Satan” into the Vatican. (Or the Holy Spirit depending on one’s point of view.)

When Ali Agjca attempted to assassinate John Paul on May 13th, 1981, I suspect this was an attempt to undercut not just his papacy, but some of the spiritual authority Fatima had given the papacy. If Mary couldn’t protect the Pope, as the third secret prophesied, it would have been a major hit to pious Catholics. That it didn’t turn out that way was a major hit to communism. John Paul lived and the Iron Curtain fell. Mary triumphed against communist Russia without another shot being fired. Instead, those shots were once again fired in Medjugorge.

Maybe it’s because the message of Medjugorge is not always about conversion to Catholicism that the Papacy is disinclined to take these visions seriously. The Vatican is wrong. They need to take these visions very seriously because they are missing the point. Mary is not talking about a conversion to a set of religious beliefs or intellectualizations, she is talking about a conversion of the heart. The very same conversion Jesus came to show us. She is talking about the power of love. That power is not bound in any dogma. It’s boundaries are self imposed by love’s very nature and those boundaries are much more open than those of religious dogma.

If Fatima was about Mary’s view of communist Russia as the biggest threat to individual freedom and love in the twentieth century, Medjugorge is about the biggest threat in the twenty first century. That threat is religious dogmatism and that threat is as much a core part of Catholicism as it is in the Islamic or Christian evangelical movements.

This may be a message the Vatican does not want to hear. I admit Fatima is a much more Vatican friendly message. Unfortunately for Benedict, Fatima is a finished message. Medjugorge is not.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New Ways Ministry: "Much to Do with Peoples' Struggle and Pain; Little About Sex"

By Francis DeBernardo

Editor’s Note: This article by New Ways Ministry director Francis DeBernardo was first published in the February 8, 2010 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

“I feel like they have slapped me in the face again.”

That sentence was emailed to me yesterday by a Catholic lesbian woman after she learned that Cardinal Francis George issued a negative “clarification” concerning New Ways Ministry. Like many lesbian/gay Catholics, this woman perceived George’s statement as directed not so much towards the organization which I direct, but towards herself and her lesbian/gay sisters and brothers in the Church.

Judging from past experience, I know that this woman’s sentiment will be experienced many times over by the thousands of Catholic lesbian/gay people whom I have met in my 15 years of working in this ministry. These are faith-filled Catholics, many of whom have been active in church life for many years, who regularly feel beaten down by hierarchical statements which lack any evidence that their issuers know anything about the reality of lesbian/gay lives. These are people who continue to seek bread from church leaders and instead are handed stones.

Who are these people? Well, one such person is Karen, a youth minister I know who happens to be a lesbian. Karen is well-respected in the parish where she works. She is a quiet and steady presence not only to the teens she serves, but to her colleagues on the parish staff. When I’ve asked her where she gets her inner calmness, she says that she unexpectedly developed this spiritual gift when she came to an awareness of her lesbian orientation. Though she is an honest person, no one in the parish knows what her orientation is. Karen is afraid she will lose her job if it is revealed.

Then there’s Joseph, who had been a member of a religious order for several years and who was dismissed because it became known that he was a gay man. Joseph struggled for many years with depression following this turmoil in his life. Despite belonging to a gay support group in his parish, the negative messages Joseph kept hearing from the hierarchy began to overwhelm him. At least that is what he said in the suicide note that he left behind him.

Elizabeth has been a Catholic for almost 70 years, but now describes herself as “on sabbatical” from the church. When her daughter revealed that she was a lesbian, Elizabeth found herself in a quandary. While she eventually found her way to accepting her daughter, Elizabeth’s husband did not. Tension mounted between the couple, and, after several years of counseling, Elizabeth ended her marriage of three decades. When she turned to her church for support, she continually found none, and, instead, was greeted with negative messages about her daughter.

When Steve’s partner Robert died, he turned to his parish for support. They had been together for 38 years. For the past 36 years, Robert had been confined to a nursing home because of a debilitating disease. Steve’s faithfulness in visiting and caring for Robert impressed the staff, many of whom, especially in the earlier years, had no idea of the love these two men shared. When Steve went to seek spiritual assistance from his parish after Robert’s death, he was turned away, saying that it was not appropriate for him to join the widow/widower’s support group.

Stella and David had been Eucharistic ministers in their parish for over two decades. Their ministry ended after they wrote a letter to the local weekly newspaper in support of gay rights. They wrote how their faith in a God of justice impelled them to write in support of their gay son. After that letter appeared, their pastor told them they were no longer considered fit to distribute communion and were dismissed.

Sister Mary came to a New Ways Ministry workshop in the Midwest a few years back. The workshop was only a week away from Sister’s golden jubilee of her entrance into religious life. At the end of the day, she approached me to say that though she knew she was a lesbian a half-century ago when she entered the convent, she had never told another person that truth about herself. As a jubilee present to herself, she said she would start to tell the leaders of her community this reality about herself. It wouldn’t be easy, but she wanted to make the path easier for younger women in her community who might be experiencing the same spiritual journey that she has had.

When Eileen’s 19-year-old niece was thrown out of her parents’ home because she acknowledged that she was a lesbian, the young girl traveled across the country by bus and hitchhiking to live with her aunt, who is a pastoral minister in a suburban parish. Eileen, trained as a counselor, tried to patch up the family problems, but it would be months before there was even the slightest break in the wall of adamancy that the girl’s parents had created. What made reconciliation so difficult is that these parents’ actions were supported by what they had been taught in their parish as the proper thing to do if faced with a child who declared homosexuality.

What is remarkable about all these stories — and the many more that I can recount — is that none of them involve sexual activity. They all involve personal struggle, intense love, and, unfortunately, pain caused by the repetition of a teaching which fixates solely on sexual activity as the be all and end all of a lesbian/gay person’s life.

Anyone who has taken the time to listen to the stories of the lives of lesbian/gay people will come to realize that guidance about sexual activity is not where they need help most. It is the areas of living truthfully, openly, honestly, and courageously — the areas which consume most of their time and energy — where they seek the support of the Church.

For 33 years, New Ways Ministry has called on bishops to engage in dialogue with lesbian/gay Catholics so that these pastoral leaders can know the reality of the lives of whom they speak. A few have done so and have had their eyes opened up to a new world. Too many others have chosen to put their heads in the sand and have become oblivious not only to the lives which they so cavalierly discuss, but to the pain that such discussions add to these people’s experiences.

Francis DeBernardo is the executive director of New Ways Ministry.

For responses to this article by National Catholic Reporter readers, click here.


Postscript: In an open letter on New Ways Ministry’s website, Francis DeBarnardo notes that one way people can show their support of New Ways Ministry is by responding to Cardinal George’s decision by writing him a letter or sending him an email. “It is imperative that Cardinal George hear from Catholics who support New Ways Ministry’s mission and programs,” says DeBarnardo, who requests that those who write speak from their heart and from their experience, and let Cardinal George know what role New Ways Ministry’s projects have played in their life.

Cardinal George can be contacted at one of these addresses:

Cardinal Francis George, OMI
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
3211 Fourth Street, NE
Washington, DC 20017


Cardinal Francis George, OMI
Archdiocese of Chicago
PO Box 1979
Chicago, Illinois 60690


New Ways Ministry also requests that a copy of any letter sent to Cardinal George be sent to the Vatican’s representative in the United States:

Archbishop Pietro Sambi
Apostolic Nunciature to the U.S.
3339 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20008

New Ways Ministry would also appreciate receiving a copy for their files. This copy can be sent it via postal mail or email:

New Ways Ministry
4012 29th Street
Mount Rainier, MD 20712


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

GAMC - The Story Behind the Story

By Jerry Lane

Last Wednesday Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty announced that funds had been found to continue the General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) program for another month. This gives the legislature and the governor some more time to seek a solution which will avoid ending GAMC. As a result, the state canceled its plan to send out the termination notices which were scheduled to go out to thousands of poor sick people on January 29.

What wasn’t mentioned in the press release is the fact that last Monday, Legal Aid informed the governor’s office that unless he agreed to continue the GAMC program for the month of March (which is the period affected by his “unallotment,” separate from his line-item veto of GAMC for FY 2011), they planned to file a lawsuit Wednesday morning and request a Temporary Restraining Order from Judge Gearin requiring continued funding for March, on the same basis as she had found his Special Diet Allowance unallotment illegal and unconstitutional.

Is it possible the governor would have done this without the knowledge that he was about to get sued again? Yes, though Senator Berglin was told ten days ago the money wasn’t there.

The announcement didn’t mention the name of Anne Quincy of Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community. For her whole professional life Anne has devoted her mind and heart to the service of the least of our brothers and sisters. She has expertise in programs like GAMC. She encouraged Legal Aid to take this issue on, and helped prepare the case. Few of the people who will get medical care in March because of this work will know her name or get to thank her.



When: 11:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m., Thursday, February 4, 2010.

Where: The Minnesota State Capitol.

In a matter of weeks, more than 70,000 Minnesotans will lose access to necessary health coverage with the elimination of General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC). The 2010 session of the Minnesota legislature begins on February 4th and concerned Minnesotans will rally at the Capitol to protect the poorest and sickest Minnesotans - those who rely on GAMC for their health care coverage.

Join with people throughout the state
to call for justice, and to connect with your legislators
to encourage them to Save GAMC!

For more information contact Adam Robinson at 651-291-4536 or visit