An evangelizing voice

Only 15-17 percent of self-identified American Catholics attend Mass.

In other words, more than 80 percent of Catholics have functionally no communal faith experience. And that lack of practical experience of Christianity means that the vast majority of American Catholics possess very little understanding of Christian teaching, let alone frequently encounter Christ in scripture.

What makes most Catholics identify as Catholics? Probably our cultural sense of Christianity and a nostalgic feeling for the faith of our childhood.

There are two other “80%” numbers that relate to the situation of American Catholicism: 80% of Catholic youth leave the faith by age 23, and 80% of U.S. Catholics like Pope Francis.

What do these numbers suggest? I think it suggests an indifference to Christianity. It suggests that a huge number of Christians have never experienced authentic Christian community, or encountered Christ in a tangible way in their lives.

Where might we go from here? I think the most important takeaway is that too much of Catholic thinking on “social media” (aka the internet) is focused on preaching to the choir. While we certainly need to feed the hungry who are with us, we should be thinking and speaking with an evangelizing voice in general—with particular sensitivity to the overwhelming majority who aren’t familiar with the faith in a deep way.

This means speaking clearly, speaking sacramentally, speaking with a warm heart, and speaking with receptivity to those who don’t understand the language of Christ.

Speaking with an evangelizing voice might require that we abandon old ways of doing things.

 

Charlie Munger on talent

…you have to figure out what your own aptitudes are. If you play games where other people have the aptitudes and you don’t, you’re going to lose. And that’s as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you’ve got an edge. And you’ve got to play within your own circle of competence. – Charlie Munger

To win, you’ve got to play a game you’re able to win.

“What are my talents? Where do I have an edge?”

Crunchy, brittle, crackly words

Roy Williams writes with a clarity and spunk that I wished the entire ad industry could channel. The Wizard of Ads was something of a revelation to me when I read it a decade or so ago. (But writing that arrests the reader, that transports him, shouldn’t be limited to ads. Roy is worth reading if you want to be a great writer, because he has this talent for conveying the spirit of a thing.)

His Monday Morning Memo is usually good, and one of my all time favorites is this one:

We won’t take the time to talk about Robert Pirosh as a writer for The Waltons, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, Bonanza, My Three Sons, Family Affair, Combat! and The Fugitive. Our interest is directed at the letter that started it all, a letter blindly sent by 24 year-old Robert Pirosh to every producer, director and studio executive in Hollywood:

Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have a few with you?

Robert Pirosh
385 Madison Avenue
Room 610
New York
Eldorado 5-6024

I think this is a contender for inclusion in Letters of Note.

Actualizing ourselves

David L. Schindler is professor of fundamental theology at the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family in Washington. I’m excerpting some of his thoughts on God and the American spirit:

Do you have one particular source of apprehension and one special source of hope as the century closes — from a Catholic theological perspective?

Schindler: Grounds for hope? Americans are religiously sincere and morally generous. This country has a tremendous energy and abundance of good will. In the light of God’s infinite mercy, that’s always a good reason to hope. My fear is that we don’t see the subtlety of how — as the pope says in Evangelium Vitae — democracy can invert into totalitarianism. We have the illusion that we’re free because no one tells us what to do. We have political freedom. But at the same time, a theological and philosophical set of assumptions informs our freedom, of which we’re unconscious. A logic or “ontologic” of selfishness undermines our moral intention of generosity. We don’t have the requisite worldview that would help us address abortion or the more general, current threat to the family. Can we unmask the assumptions of our culture and deal with them in a way that will free the latent generosity of the culture? Or will those hidden assumptions overcome our generosity? This is the real battle, both globally and in America. It calls for a new effort of evangelization — which consists, above all, in first getting clear about the ideas in Evangelium Vitae; understanding the logic of self-centeredness in a post-Enlightenment Liberal culture. Alasdair McIntyre has a great line: that all debates in America are finally among radical Liberals, liberal Liberals and conservative Liberals. That’s how I would sum up. If we don’t come to terms with Liberalism…

But liberalism in what sense? Quite a few people who would describe themselves as conservative or neoconservative are, in fact, Liberal…

Schindler: That’s the point: they’re the conservative wing of Liberalism. And in a sense, they wouldn’t even deny that, insofar as their project is to show that a benign reading of American Liberal tradition is harmonious with Catholicism. That’s what I’m challenging. Their approach doesn’t go to the roots of our [cultural and spiritual] problem, as identified in this pontificate and in the work of theologians like De Lubac and Balthasar. [Contemporary U.S. culture is rooted in] self-centeredness. A false sense of autonomy centered in the self; an incomplete conception of rights. So we need to reinstate a right relation to God on all levels — not only at the level of intention, but at the level of the logic of our culture. Our relation to God has to inform not only our will, but how we think and how we construct our institutions.

Can solidarity and the common good take precedence if David L. Schindler is right in suggesting that we live with the “logic of self-centeredness”? If actualizing ourselves has to come at the expense of another, is there any justice in our society?

Is the role of the family to create a space that militates against self-centeredness for the purpose of each individual’s good/flourishing, or to help each member self-actualize at the expense of any outside the family (or within it) as necessary?

Peter Lawler, RIP

I have only read the thinnest amount of Peter Augustine Lawler‘s writing, but he’s been someone in the periphery of my life who I’ve tried to pay attention to whenever possible. Peter died this week.

Nicholas Frankovich remembers:

What would a word cloud of Peter’s collected writing look like? Terms in big type would include Tocqueville, Walker Percy, southern Stoicism, Flannery O’Connor, relational life, and, of course, postmodern conservative, which he coined, or so he maintained, wryly but seriously.

Peter Lawler’s insight into our time is one that I’ve become very sympathetic to:

Peter was wary of the exaggerated individualism that he saw as the logical conclusion of “liberalism” in the classical sense of that term. He was of the view that, human nature being what it is, absolute autonomy is an illusion anyway — we are social creatures, and no amount of libertarian posing could ever change that. He was alert to the perils of collectivism but also to those of its opposite. He worried about conservatives who in their enthusiasm for free-market principles got carried away and forgot the necessity of “relational life.”

He thought that our social values were in danger of being reduced to economic values. That concern of his extended to his criticism of higher education, which, he complained, was being flattened by “the empire” of “competency,” a bureaucrat’s idea of what teachers should engender in their students.

Rod Dreher remembers him, and shared an excerpt that captures why I always find Lawler’s writing so rewarding as a reader:

Southern literature at its best is a critical account of the mind of the semi-dispossessed aristocrat. Faulkner and Walker Percy, for example, let us see the self-deception at the core of racist paternalism, as well as the neglect for the truth about natural rights taught by Jefferson. But they also let us see how empty middle-class life is from an aristocratic view, and how clueless those who so methodically devote themselves to the pursuit of happiness are about what human happiness is. True individualism, from this view, regards rights not as rooted in calculated interests but as points of honor to be exercised honorably.

Among the instances in which Southern Stoic virtue has elevated the American mind, the most obvious is Harper Lee’s character Atticus (note the name) Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus’s virtue had nothing to do with Christian charity or the liberal understanding of rights. He was courageously and paternalistically taking responsibility for his inferiors, for those who couldn’t defend themselves against the vicious mob that threatened the rule of law in the decadent South.

And then there are the Stoic characters of Tom Wolfe. There’s one who becomes “a man in full” by reading Epictetus, and so knows what to do as a rational man completely isolated in a maximum security prison. There’s also the star basketball player in I Am Charlotte Simmons who learns how to treat women and regains his manly self-confidence through absorbing—making his own—his professor’s very Stoic reading of Aristotle. In Wolfe’s novels, the foundation of coming to live according to this version of natural perfection has nothing necessarily to do with being raised with Southern “class,” but he shows us that, in the classically Southern version, becoming a member of the class of rational, responsible, relational men is a possibility available to us all.

Wolfe, by reminding us that it’s barely possible but highly countercultural to live as a natural aristocrat in our clueless and trashy time—when our institutions of higher education are the most clueless and most trashy parts of American life—frames a narrative of American moral and intellectual decline. His nostalgia for the past is meant to be selective, and it is meant, of course, to inspire personal action in the present. The purely Southern mind—like all aristocratic narratives—is a reflection on our movement away from what was best about the past. And so the Southern mind is anti-progressive, even as it suggests, with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that the one true progress is toward wisdom and virtue in a particular human life.

Food and water as a basic right

It’s probably true that the most important issue we advocate through the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network is the importance of ensuring that food and water is considered a basic, universal healthcare right for every patient, regardless of their circumstance. It seems this is a practical unknown issue, and for all of the talk on both sides about the status of physician-assisted suicide legislation, the “food and water” issue is an already-legal means of assisted suicide and/or fatal healthcare rationing in every state.

As a primer on the food and water issue, Bobby Schindler writes:

In 2013, Margot Bentley, an Alzheimer’s patient in Canada, was the subject of a lawsuit filed by her family. They petitioned the court to order that her nursing home starve and dehydrate Margot to death by denying her spoon-fed meals. Like so many such cases, Margot was not actively dying and her situation only became an “end of life” case the moment that her family decided to try to end her life.

How did we reach this point?

It began decades ago, when the American Medical Association and prominent bioethicists determined that food and water delivered by means of a feeding tube would be re-classified from “basic and ordinary” care to “medical treatment.”

It’s a little-known fact that in all 50 states it is presently legal to withhold or deny food and water by means of a feeding tube to patients who are not actively dying and not facing any active “end of life” issue.

Delivery of food and water is the most basic form of care for our fellow human beings, and yet our healthcare policies and practices allow for the denial of this sort of care in a way that often brings about the end of a life, rather than being stopped as a part of any natural dying process.

Those who die specifically from a lack of food and water aren’t being “allowed to die,” rather they’re being actively killed—deprived of the most basic form of care by their caregivers, their physician, their hospital or insurer, and perhaps all four working in perverse agreement that the best thing for the patient would be to die, prematurely.

We can do better, and it starts with a frank acknowledgement of what’s actually happening when we deny food and water—whether by tube or spoon or tray—and rectifying our language in law, medicine, and culture.

Mount Nittany Conservancy refresh

Shortly before the release of Conserving Mount Nittany a few years ago, I volunteered to refresh the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s website.

It was a somewhat cumbersome refresh, because I was moving lots of content (100+ posts and dozens of pages) from a manually created HTML/FTP context to a more flexible and self-hosted WordPress context. The site we launched is the fourth below—each of the first four screenshots below is courtesy of Archive.org from the years 2001, 2006, 2011, and 2014:

What we launched in 2013 was good for its time and introduced a lot of new things including a responsive design for mobile devices, but showed its age more quickly than I hoped when we launched it. So I spent some time earlier this spring moving everything from a self-hosted WordPress context to WordPress.com for greater stability, more security, and an overall more robust platform that requires only basic consumer technical experience.

What’s now live is the fifth major refresh of the Mount Nittany Conservancy site, and the second I’ve done in the past five years.

I hope it introduces Mount Nittany to residents of Happy Valley and visitors in a welcoming and exciting way.