What Happens Next Will Totally Amaze You

This post by Brendan Busse, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

My apologies for the headline. I’ve come to hate those ‘up-worthy’ internet burlesque artists who prey upon our need to know, our thirst for fulfillment, our fear of missing out, and our dis-ease with the slightest gap between us and the next big thing (Here’s a helpful summation of my discontent). I’m sorry to lure you here with such cheap tricks, but I am sincerely curious about what happens next and I really do believe that it will, in fact, amaze you.

In this post there will be no kittens who think they’re pit-bulls, nor elephants playing jazz piano, nor waitresses receiving mysterious million-dollar tips. I don’t know what is yet to come and I’m certainly not prophetic enough to know what it will do to your mind or your heart or your worldview. What I’d like to say is less of a promise and more of a petition, less like a prediction and more like a prayer. I think that what happens next will only amaze you if it has more to do with faith, hope, and love than it does to do with kittens and elephants, or even million-dollar tips.

You see, the thing about faith hope and love is that they’re not really concerned with what happens next, but rather with what’s happening right now. Faith promises amazement even as it embraces the unknown. Hope sings in the darkness long before the dawn. Love fills the present by its patience and persistence. They each revel in mystery. They’re all nourished in bewilderment. The no-matter-what-ness of fidelity, the foolish-ness of hope, and the come-what-may-ness of any love worth its salt–these are promises that guarantee amazement, in light of and in spite of whatever happens to happen next.

***

It’s graduation season again. The ceremonies seem to get more elaborate and there seem to be more and more of them. Pre-school. Primary-school. Middle-school. High-school. Under-grad. Grad-school. Everyone gets a ceremony. It’s like spring-training for wedding season–lots of wobbly-high heels and clip-on ties. I must confess, I’m a bit fatigued by the long procession of ceremonies, the endless awards given and received, the sashes upon sashes and stoles upon stoles. I think we’re approaching a precarious place in our culture when the old pomp and circumstance doesn’t require any real or remarkable circumstance in order to pomp.

And yet, I’m not here just to rain on the parade. If you’re graduating or moving on in any way, then you’re surely, and understandably, thinking a lot about ‘what happens next.’ As you move through this transition I hope that you have a very nice ceremony, but even more, I hope that you don’t fail to have the actual experience of transition, of transformation. Don’t let the noise of celebration rob you of the real pain of leaving or the real hope of change. Know yourself beloved, know this to be reason enough for hope, and let yourself be amazed by whatever happens next.

I hope you understand that what happens next has everything to do with what’s already happening. I hope you understand that who you will become has everything to do with who you already are. I hope you understand that the love you’ve known and the love you long for have their meeting place in you and — if you can make a place for both of them — you can remain in love, no matter what happens next.

Rumi suggests that we “sell our cleverness and buy bewilderment.” Best commencement speech ever…and at six words it would be the shortest too…win-win. Many like to tell you about what will happen next and many more hope to profit off of your curiosity and need. And yet, precious few are willing to affirm the amazement to be found in what already is, the beauty in your being who you already are–the beloved. More than a seeker, become a lover. Sell your cleverness, buy bewilderment, and what happens next will, necessarily, amaze you.

***

I’m about to move through another transition of my own from one stage in my Jesuit formation to another. We move a lot. I’ve reflected on this before, and before, and before. I’m becoming quite good at living this vagrant life. Here’s something I’ve learned, something I sincerely think is ‘up-worthy’: Nothing is lost in change. Transformation deepens and develops the love we’ve known into the love we’ve yet to know. We move from home to home, from friend to friend, from glory to glory.

I’ll be moving throughout the summer, moving from one city to another. Two days here; ten days there; back home for a night; out again for a week. In each destination emails and hashtagged posts will go out asking for a ride to the airport, a place to stay, a companion to share a meal. There will be many strangers and unknowns. However, through it all there is a kind of peculiar continuity, a mysterious trust that as I move forward the love I knew in one place will be discovered again in the next.

St. Ignatius suggests that when we pray we ought to speak with God as one friend to another. I’d like to add: we ought to live with God from one friend to another. Our lives in God are a movement from friend to friend. As St. Paul says, we go from glory to glory–and not only from friend to friend, but even to the stranger, to the enemy–we’re simply moving from glory to glory.

What happens next won’t really do much of anything to you if you don’t fully appreciate what’s happening right now. What happens to you is only a part of what happens within you, what happens in you and through you. That, my friends, is worthy of our attention. This unfolding revelation isn’t rooted in a fear of missing out or a compulsive need to fill in the blanks, or the resolution of some vague dissonance. The happening that is your life demands something closer to faith than mere fulfillment, something more like profound hope than superficial happiness, because yours is a life worthy of love.

Faith, hope, and love. I’d suggest clicking on those links all day long because I know, on the basis of my experience and the testimony of many beloved witnesses, that what happens next will, in fact, amaze you…because, and it bears repeating, yours is a life worthy of love.


The Price of Free Speech

This post by Nathaniel Romano, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

In my first ever graduate class in philosophy, my professor encouraged us to link our studies to our real-world interests and experiences.  Perhaps she recognized that, being a group of Jesuit scholastics, few of us saw philosophy as a dominant path through life.  Or perhaps she just felt we were a bit listless after a few weeks of studying dead Greeks.  Either way, I took the bait and began thinking about how the subjects we covered intersected with interests and ideas I had encountered in the study and practice of law.

So, I ended up writing a paper comparing the approaches of Plato and the American law on the issue of speech.  Plato’s concern was with creating a just and virtuous society. Public expression — speech, music, theatre — needed to be censored to support that end.  It was a fairly pessimistic approach.

American courts could be said to be more optimistic.  They have supported a broad protection for all sorts of speech.  Vulgar, offensive, odd, pornographic, even hateful speech is given at least some protection.  American judges champion the ability of individuals to weigh speech and other forms of expression, to balance ideas, and to come to their own decisions about worth.

I’ve been thinking about this paper quite a bit recently. While I would hardly support a broad national censorship regime, I have often wondered if we are perhaps too optimistic, too enamored of the ability of good speech to win out over bad.  This all came to a head recently when the Supreme Court handed down its split and quite controversial decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commision, No. 12-536, 572 U.S. ___ (April 2, 2014).

Shaun McCutcheon supported a broad swath of candidates for office.  During the 2011-12 election cycle, he donated over $33,000 to 16 candidates.  He alleged that, but for limits of campaign donations, he would have donated to at least 12 more candidates.  Likewise, he contributed over $27,000 to various political action committees and wanted to contribute to others, but was limited by the law.  Like any good American, he sued.  The Court, in a fractured and split decision,1 invalidated the caps on how many candidates and political committees any individual (including corporate individuals) can contribute to.  The ruling does not affect the limits that can be given to any one candidate or committee.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the controlling plurality opinion.  For him, the case involved the fundamental basics of constitutional democracy.  He opens: “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”2  And financial support is participation.  Thus, campaign finance limits are highly suspect.  People and politicians may have good intentions in wanting to limit campaigning.  Negative campaigning, the access that large amounts of money seem to buy, the need for constant fundraising — each of these can be distasteful.  Yet, the Court is clear that distaste, offense, even repugnance, would not be the standard. Unpopular or offensive speech, even in the guise of campaign contributions, cannot be limited thusly.

The opinion did acknowledge some limits.  Very narrow ones, though.  Congress can prohibit corruption and try to limit the appearance of corruption — bribery, basically.  “Any regulation must instead target what we have called ‘quid pro quo’ corruption or its appearance.”3   Everything else is nothing more than merely expressing support or disapproval.

You may notice in this too-brief synopsis that there is perhaps an odd conflation occurring.  At one level, campaign limits do not seem to actually impinge on anyone’s speech.  After all, no one is saying that I can’t run for Congress4, or that I couldn’t advocate on my behalf here at TJP on Millennial5, and encourage all my wonderful, smart, sexy, and clearly superior readers6 to support me.  And no one limited Mr. McCutcheon’s ability to support or to announce his support for as many candidates as he wanted, or to encourage others to support these candidates.  And, Congress certainly did not state that only some candidates could receive contributions and that others were prohibited from soliciting or spending.  The limits were simply on the amount of money that could be given and the number of candidates that you could give money to.

One may legitimately ask how giving money is speech.  The plurality, and Justice Thomas in his separate concurring opinion, accept the notion that money equals speech.  The Court has long held that campaign contributions are a form of speech.7   In the modern marketplace, especially the marketplace of ideas, giving money is the way we show support.

Or is it?  Again, let’s be clear — the campaign rules struck down by the Court do not limit the ability to support as many candidates as desired.   If you, or Mr. McCutcheon, or anybody for that matter, wanted to support every candidate of a particular political party, or every Catholic candidate, or every candidate with curly hair, nothing stops them.  And if you want to tell your friends, nobody stops you.  If you want to put up a webpage, or lawn signs, or publish a book, still no problems.  Each of these candidates could tout your support in their campaign materials.  The only limit is how much money can be given to this smorgasbord of candidates.

And it would seem that there might be good reasons to support such limits.  Contemporary analysts of American culture already note with trepidation the growing levels of economic inequality.  At the end of 2013, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released sobering statistics on trends in inequality.  Newshour on PBS echoed these findings. We may not know exactly what this means long-term, but it is unlikely to be good.8

Extending this inequality into the political process seems only to be inviting problems.  David Cole, writing in the New York Review of Books, pithily sums it up:  “One Dollar, One Vote.”  At a fundamental level, bribery is only the most explicit symptom of the problems that emerge when vast sums of money enter the political system.  Money, unlike the right to vote, is not spread out equally.  Elections are pricey.  Thus, the ability to fund an election is a powerful tool.  And it is not a tool equally accessible.  What happens to those who can “only” give a vote?  Their interests are drowned out in a flood of money.  Not all support is created equal.

Ultimately, my critique of this decision is about perspective and scope.  What is the ultimate end of free speech?  Is it about finding a thousand channels of Law & Order, maybe The Golden Girls once in a while?   Nice as that might be, free speech is, rather, the idea that all people have the ability to participate in the social and political community.

Indeed, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution links free speech to a free press, to religious participation, and the freedom to assemble and petition.  These are distinct rights and subjects to be sure.  They are, however, linked in protecting participation.  No person is denied access to the social and political community.

If that end is kept in mind, then it becomes clear that money can serve to undermine the very interests that seem to justify its protection.  Money is access.  Unlimited money equals unlimited access. Those with less support get less access.  Participation thus becomes a commodity enjoyed by those who can afford it.  The Chief Justice opens his opinion with a paean to the basic and fundamental right to participate.  Yet, in allowing near-unlimited sums of money into the political system, he narrows the pool of participants dramatically.  The tension should be palpable.

I do not mean to imply negative motives to the Court, to the Chief Justice, or even to those who fought to strike down these limits.  Nor do I mean to imply that we ought to abandon our commitment to a robust model of free speech.  Rather, I suggest that our model ought to take into account the reasons we commit to such a model.  Speech simply for the sake of speech is insufficient.  If, instead, we are aiming to promote an inclusive model of political participation, if we aim for democracy rather than oligarchy or aristocracy, then we need an understanding of free speech that encourages participation.  Such a model would focus not just on the expressive quality of money, but also on its broader role in limiting participation, encouraging a divisive inequality, and actually weakening our constitutional system.

***

  1. The Court split 4-1-4.  A plurality (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Scalia) concluded that caps to the number of candidates and committees violates the First Amendment.  Justice Thomas concurred, but would have ended all campaign finance limits.  The four dissenters (Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor) would have upheld the limits.  Since 5 justices total would strike at least the caps, those are now gone.
  2. McCutcheon v. FEC, slip op. at 1.
  3. Id. at 2.
  4. Well….my Rector might be concerned.
  5. And, yeah, the editors might not be on board….at least not until I win!
  6. Has anybody told you just how awesome you are today?
  7. See, Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976).
  8. I’ll refer the reader at this point to Jeremy Zipple SJ’s article  last fall and the Frontline piece he highlighted for a dramatic exposition of the bleak prospects for the American middle class.

//


Global Catholicism: The Church is Changing, But Not How We Might Think

This post by Jeremy Zipple, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

A friend once told me she’d love to be a fly on the wall at Jesuit community dinners. “I’d learn a ton,” she said, implying, I guess, that a tableful of overly educated guys with varied interests could surely produce some profitable conversation. My response was to assure her we spend most dinners arguing over the Patriots chances of winning the Super Bowl or whether Costco’s pumpkin pie is tastier than its pumpkin roll.1

But this dinner was the exception: four American Jesuits of various ideological stripes debating Catholic moral teaching vis-à-vis the HHS contraception mandate. Specifically, we argued whether the old principle of Catholic moral theology, material cooperation, might be applicable to the mandate, and whether, in light of Pope Francis’ priorities, the American episcopacy ought to change its tone – if not its position – regarding its objections to the mandate.

But it was what happened after the dinner that’s since stuck with me. My Jesuit community is impressively international; we’re 57 graduate students studying theology at Boston College (plus a few faculty members) and nearly half of us are non-Americans, citizens of 22 countries (plus Puerto Rico) on six continents. And it happened that this night, having failed to reach an agreement vis-à-vis Obamacare, we decided to take housemate Ignace out to a neighborhood watering hole in celebration of his 39th birthday.

Ignace is from Madagascar and, at that point, had been in the States all of 10 weeks. Entering the pub, he produced his passport for the bouncer, and since it was already out, showed me his U.S. student visa, noting that the State Department had granted him only a three-month stay. Most African members of our community – for example, a Rwandan named Marcel also with us that evening – had two-year visas, and Ignace was keen to explain his theory why he was treated differently. The story he launched into was so long and convoluted – stretching across three decades of Malagasy political history, from independence in 1960 through dictatorships and coup d’états, to a dispute over the legitimacy of its current president who ascended to power after a popular uprising in 2009 – that I cannot hope to reproduce the details for you here.

But what I found intriguing was that the Catholic Church figured prominently into key moments of the story, including its most recent chapter when, in 2009, the archbishop of Madagascar’s capital, one Antananarivo by name, offered a public endorsement of the country’s current president. The U.S. government views this president as illegitimate since he came to power via coup. All this to say: my new friend and Jesuit brother Ignace suspected that visa woes had much to do with his archbishop’s support of a politician not favored by America.

Later in the evening , Ignace explained that Madagascar’s Catholics, who comprise 20 percent of the population, are in a precarious position. In a country in which 90 percent of the population survives on less than $2 a day, Catholics stand on the very lowest rungs of the social ladder. For historical reasons, Protestants have more money and hold more power: “Just look at the churches on Sunday mornings,” Ignace said, “many cars in front of the Protestant churches. No cars at Catholic churches – the Catholics all walk.” Ignace was not surprised that the archbishop, facing an impoverished flock, had endorsed a reform-minded Roman Catholic politician as president, even if said politician was viewed by the West as the mastermind of a coup.

Curiosity piqued, I asked Ignace to list the top issues facing the church in Madagascar and without hesitating, he replied, “Poverty, number one.” No surprise there. Even Ignace’s own family, well-to-do by Malagasy standards (i.e., they’re not starving), suffers from critically limited access to water, sporadic electricity, and health care that’d make Obamacare’s Bronze Plan look like a Cadillac of health coverage. Ignace went on to explain that globalization had been a mixed bag for Madagascar: on the one hand, it brought desperately needed American manufacturing jobs; on the other, the country’s political and economic elite reaped many of its benefits, thus precipitating the 2009 coup.2 Ignace went on to list other concerns: tensions between priests and their parishioners over finances, the odd reality that Jesuit Catholic high schools had trained some of the country’s most corrupt politicians, a lack of educational opportunities, and much, much more.

Later that night, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the evening’s conversation, all I could do was laugh. Laugh, I suppose, at my ignorance. Laugh at the fact that, overly educated American that I am, I could not have told you the name of Madagascar’s capital city, let alone anything about its dicey political history or the manifold and overwhelming problems confronting its Catholic populace prior to my conversation that evening.

Laugh, too, because at the outset of the evening, I’d been discussing the HHS mandate as if it were quite possibly the most pressing agenda item in Francis’ portfolio.

***

After the conversation with Ignace, I resolved to poll every non-Western member of my community regarding the most urgent problems confronting the church in his home country. I polled them all – Japanese, Indonesian, Singaporean, Nigerian, Kenyan, Chilean, Brazilian, Tanzanian, Turkish, Mexican, Syrian, Rwandan, Filipino. Poverty made the top #1 or #2 of all but three lists. Other top vote-getters among the Africans included: tribal tensions, HIV/AIDS, reconciliation after genocide, the rise of an aggressive form of evangelical Protestantism. Central and South Americans often mentioned evangelicals, drugs, and lack of educational opportunities. Many of the Asians mentioned poverty, too, as well as interreligious issues, i.e., the challenges of co-existing in multi-religious societies in which Catholic Christians were minorities. Clericalism and lay-cleric tensions were mentioned by nearly everyone I talked to.

All this polling took several days, and led to several other late-night conversations with community mates. It wasn’t until a week or so later, in a quiet moment of reflection, that I began to realize this exercise was affecting me in ways I’d not anticipated. Frankly, the whole thing had depressed me, and also left me feeling guilty at my ignorance. From the men I lived with, I heard anecdote after anecdote of personal and communal hardships, of Catholics navigating problems so much more pressing than those I faced, in parts of the world I’d struggle to locate on a map. What shook me again and again was how removed their concerns were from the ones I spend most of my time debating on Twitter and at the dinner table. There was not a single mention of contraception (except obliquely, in relation to the HIV/AIDS question) – nor women’s ordination, abortion, liturgical disputes, or religious liberty (a few mentions of all-out religious persecution though – of the death-threat variety.)

And turns out, I’m not the only American guilty of solipsism in ecclesiastical matters. In fact, I’m hard pressed to find a commentator who doesn’t mention those “hot button” western cultural issues, and even more hard pressed to find any who seriously contend with Pope Francis qua churchman-from-the-global-south.

Ross Douthat of The New York Times is a good case in point. Douthat is always a stimulating read on religious issues – a center-right Catholic convert whose stuff is rarely short on acerbity or balance. But in two recent commentaries in which he outlines what he views as the core of Francis’ agenda (here and here) you will find no direct mention – not one – of a context beyond America and Western Europe. Douthat sees Francis’ central aim as moving the Church beyond the (western) ideological wars that have plagued it since Vatican II. Douthat argues that by sidelining the divisive cultural issues in favor of themes like poverty and mercy, Francis is attempting to forge a new “Catholic middle.”

I find merit in Douthat’s argument, but it’s telling that he views Francis’ central mission exclusively in terms of conflicts in the western, developed world.  What I’ve begun to suspect, especially after these conversations with the international Jesuits of my community, is that maybe Francis is up to something else. Could it be that when he steers clear of contraception and instead focuses on the plight of migrants, his primary intent isn’t bridging ideological divides in the West but addressing the most pressing issues that daily confront the great mass of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics? Could it be that he prioritizes Catholics dying of poverty in Madagascar over an American battle over healthcare?

Maybe this is what happens when you elect a Pope from the global South: the North’s issues get downgraded. Benedict XVI is a European who staked his papacy on saving western Christianity – the New Evangelization. Perhaps the first Pope from the South, 69% of whose constituents, like him, hail from outside North America and Europe, is intentionally putting the agenda of the global south in the driver’s seat and saying to the rest of us: climb aboard.

***

I think a strong case can be made that this is precisely what’s happening, and moreover, that the shift has been brewing for some time, even as the West has failed to take notice. In 1994, John Paul II announced his intention of holding a synod of Asian bishops. The Roman Curia prepared a lineamenta, a preparatory document outlining the principle agenda items the synod was to address, that they sent off to the Asian bishops conferences. The response from Asia was stunning; even at the time, it should have given the West an intimation of the direction things were starting to head.

The Japanese Bishops Conference penned a bold rejection of the agenda set by Rome in which it declared, “Since the questions of the lineamenta were composed in the context of Western Christianity, they are not suitable. From the way the questions are proposed, one feels that the holding of the synod is like an occasion for the central office to evaluate the performance of the branch offices.”3 The bishops went on to critique the language of evangelization employed in the lineamenta, rejecting it as unworkable in a cultural context in which Christians were “in a minority position with and for others.” They went on:

If we stress too much that ‘Jesus Christ is the one and only savior,’ we can have no dialogue, common living or solidarity with other religions. The church, learning from the ‘kenosis’ of Jesus Christ, should be humble and open its heart to other religions to deepen its understanding of the mystery of Christ.

Re-reading the bishops’ response in the wake of Francis’ election, I’m struck that many of the Pope’s key agenda items appear lifted directly from the pages of their text, in particular Francis’ apparent desire to shift the tone of the New Evangelization from doctrine to witness. The section quoted above aligns quite well with the pope’s observation in that immediately famous America interview. There he said:

The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently…. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.

The Pope’s focus on dialogue and his remark to an Italian newspaperman that “proselytism is solemn nonsense… we need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us,” fits precisely the reality about which the Japanese bishops speak. And that’s far from all that he’s done.

Take Francis’ elevation to the cardinalate of Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato in the Philippines, for example. While inside Asia Quevedo is well known as an intellectual heavyweight,4 this was an appointment that seemed to many to come out of left field. That Quevedo has been chosen lends credence to the idea that Francis’ ecclesiological vision coincides with the vision coming out of Asia – a church which is less centralized, more local, and which responds to the issues that most affect local flocks, poverty being issue numero uno. Quevedo has written extensively on these issues, developing what the Asian Federation calls a “triple dialogue,” in which the local church is to be in touch with (1) local cultures, (2) local religions, and the (3) local poor who comprise the majority of the Asian churches.

An even more striking similitude is the Japanese bishops’ contention that “compassion with the suffering” and solidarity with the poor must be “the central evangelization theme.” As the Japanese bishops make clear in the letter mentioned above, this concern was not theirs alone but one that emerged again and again out of meetings of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference. Even an Asian churchmen less theologically adventuresome than many of the Japanese, the Indonesian Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja, would assert in a 1999 post-synod reflection that the Asian church had yet to take on “the face of Asia.”

In a cultural context in which Christians are a minority, and in which poverty is widespread and systemic, the reality of the poor must be the departure point for evangelization if the Christian message is to have any credibility whatsoever.5 The message of the Asian bishops was clear, and Francis seems to be listening.

***

This past October, Adolfo Nicolás, the Superior General of the Jesuits, paid a visit to my community in Boston – another occasion when our dinner conversation strayed away from Costco desserts. And Nicolás spent considerable time explaining his own views about what Pope Francis is up to.

Like Francis, Nicolás has also spent the majority of his ministerial career outside the West; he studied and taught theology in Japan before becoming provincial of the Japanese province, and then head of all the Jesuits in Eastern Asia and Oceana. In his talk to my community, Nicolás related an anecdote from his tenure as provincial. Fr. Nicolás had befriended a Japanese bishop from Tokyo named Kazuhiro Mori. And once, when the two were conversing, Bishop Mori observed to him (I paraphrase): you westerners are so obsessed with truth – the truth of this or that doctrine, the orthodox belief – but that is not what Asians find compelling. In our intellectual traditions, our focus is on the way, e.g., the Taoist way, the way of the Buddha. So please, the bishop admonished Nicolás, never forget that Jesus says he is not only the truth, but also the way and the life! (cf. Jn 14:6).

Most of the American Jesuits in the room that night had spent time living outside the States – ministry experiences in the developing world are a built-in component of our Jesuit training – yet, as our big boss dropped those words, I saw surprise on many of our American faces. This was a way of considering Jesus that could sound nearly heretical to western ears. But the message from our fellow Christians in Asia conveyed to us by Fr. Nicolás was that this notion of Jesus, a Jesus who is not primarily a purveyor of doctrinal truths but a model for living a fecund and fulfilling life, was right there in the Bible.

Nicolás went on to suggest that while a concern for “truth” has long dominated a western-lead Church, that focus must now be tempered by values Asia and the global South bring to the table. In Nicolás’ understanding, Asian Christians had much to teach the global church about the necessity of the “way,” while Africa and Latin America could teach us of the “life.” In light of these considerations, Nicolás proposed to us that we might frame the global Christian journey as: “On the way. In truth and life.”

***

Peter Phan is a Vietnamese priest and theologian who’s spent the past several years trying to get western Catholics to wake up to the reality of the coming global church. At a lecture of his that I attended in Boston in 2010, Phan acknowledged that the Japanese bishops lost the battle over the ’98 synod and Rome got the agenda it wanted. But, one day soon, he predicted, Rome would be forced to hear non-European voices. It was a simple matter of demographics, he said. It is true that, by 2050, four out of every five Catholics will live in the southern hemisphere and, according to Phan, “a white Christian [will be] an oxymoron.”

This is a shift I find staggering to contemplate. Whatever the church ends up looking like in 2050, the days of western centralization are numbered. So from here on out, I’ve resolved to spend a lot more time paying attention to the issues concerning my non-western housemates, trying to heed Phan’s words to a recent audience in California, “Wake up! This is the reality you cannot avoid.”

No we cannot. It seems to me that Phan and the Japanese bishops weren’t wrong, they just arrived early. And perhaps now their wait is over; the seismic shift is underway. Perhaps Pope Francis is only the beginning. For we western Christians such shifts will surely cause us consternation, so accustomed, as we are, to our issues driving the global discourse in matters ecclesiastical and otherwise. But perhaps that’s not a bad thing for us; for as someone once said, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

***

  1. Actual argument at an actual dinner last month. Punches were nearly thrown.
  2. In 2009, a charismatic young mayor of Antananarivo named Andry Rajoelina led a series of public demonstrations that led ultimately to the ouster of Madagascar’s president Marc Ravalomanana and to his installation as “President of the High Transitional Authority of Madagascar.” Rajoelina had been a vocal critic of many policies of Ravalomanana’s administration, in particular, its decision to lease half of Madagascar’s arable lands to the Korean multinational Daewoo and the purchase of a second presidential jet with a $60 million price tag. Rajoelina’s coup capitalized on widespread public sentiments that national development was benefiting only a small elite.
  3. The full text of the bishops’ response is available in English translation on the website of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Japan: http://www.cbcj.catholic.jp/eng/edoc/linea.htm – I wonder if the fact it’s still prominently available on the website is an indication the bishops haven’t had a change of heart in the two intervening decades since its publication.
  4. A recent National Catholic Reporter editorial called him “the chief living intellectual architect of the pastoral ideas coming out of the 42-year-old Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.”
  5. Just last week, the Japanese bishops were at it again, issuing a statement in advance of this October’s General Synod on the Family. The bishops are blunt in charging that “there is a big gap between the Vatican and reality” on matters of family life and sexual morality. And they again critique the Curia for a Western-centric focus that neglects the reality of non-European contexts, citing as one example the church’s attitude toward interreligious marriage. Responding to a curia-issued preparatory survey in advance of the synod, they argue, “The questions and topics of this survey have been developed with the mindset of Christian countries in which the entire family is Christian. For example, religiously mixed marriages seem to be considered a problem. However, in Japan, the overwhelming majority of marriages involve mixed religions.” The entire statement can be read as a PDF here.

The Beauty of Breastfeeding

[This post by Jeff Sullivan, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post]

“Do you mind if I feed Jonathan?” my sister-in-law asked me as she threw an oversized blanket over her shoulder – but the question she was posing to me wasn’t really “if,” it was “where.” My sister-in-law was gauging whether or not I was comfortable with her breastfeeding my 3-month-old nephew around me in her own house. I felt guilty.

I felt guilty because – somehow, not by what I’d said, or how I’d treated her, but somehow – I’d been a part of making my sister-in-law feel like a guest in her own house, feeding her own child. Awkwardness followed. If I stay in the room now, I thought, I might seem like a voyeur, a spy prying into a moment of intimacy between mother and child. But if I were to leave right then? I worried that I’d just seem like the stereotype of a celibate seminarian: Too uncomfortable and too pious to witness my nephew latching his mouth onto his mother’s breast. I stood still for a moment as all this ran through me, torn between honoring their privacy and honoring the naturalness of breastfeeding, and then my sister-in-law put me at ease. “It’s no big deal if you want to sit and stay.”

***

It’s been more than five years since I returned from living in Quito, Ecuador, but sitting there with my sister-in-law and my nephew it felt like yesterday. I lived at the Working Boys’ Center (now the Center for Working Families) for more than two years, and over that time I grew comfortable with public breastfeeding. With neither shame or guilt, the Ecuadorian women with whom I became friends would casually open their blouses to feed their children as we spoke about the weather, what we had for lunch, or what I was teaching their children that day. The normalcy of the topics parallelled, for them, the normalcy of the action. I’ll admit that this was more than a little jarring for me at first, but eventually it became quite common to see mothers sit on public benches or in the stands of a soccer field and feed their child. Other mothers and children would be automatically attracted to the feeding mother and child. They would share stories, laughter, and a paleta or an empanada. Community would be built around the feeding, and feeding became an instant, impromptu communion. Over time, as I grew more comfortable, I even allowed myself to be included, and to rejoice, in this communion.

My sister-in-law’s question reminded me that, although the United States is progressive and inclusive in many ways, public breastfeeding in the United States is not one of them. Her question – asked in her own home; posed not to a stranger but to her brother-in-law – made me wonder what women’s experience of breastfeeding here in the US is like. Is it really more of an inconvenience to be overcome than an invitation to impromptu communion?

So in the weeks following my visit with my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew, I went on the internet to see what mothers were blogging about regarding their experiences of being a new mother and the challenges of breast feeding – especially public breast-feeding. (Yes, I’m sure the imagination struggles to find a familiar spot for the celibate, 30-something seminarian reading mommy blogs like Unlatched, She Knows, and Chronicles of a Nursing Mom on his iPad.) What I found was striking.

Although there are laws in at least 42 states that support public breast feeding, the most common topic that mother’s seem to write about is the humiliating experience of being asked by store managers, waiters, and other patrons to: cover up, go elsewhere, hide themselves in the restroom, as they feed their child.1 At first it was a challenge to read about the experiences of these women, but as I continued I found myself a little overwhelmed by the amount of support that mothers showed one another. The moms offered tips with one another about how to breastfeed public without drawing attention and shared empathetic comments that encouraged them to see breastfeeding as completely natural, or just reminded each other that they were not alone in their feelings of embarrassment and self-consciousness. Sure, maybe this is not quite the same as the public communion that I witnessed in Ecuador, but as I read I found these mothers and their efforts at cyber-communion inspiring. Yes, I thought, a space where they can bond and rejoice in the experience of motherhood. Yes.

***

It will come as little surprise that all of this stirred up responses in me as well – and I did my best to pay attention to two in particular. The first response is the more straightforward: I need to be more attentive, especially more attentive to our cultural double standards here in America. I’m thinking of the way we’re comfortable as a culture with the sexualized breast, the breast found in advertisements and pornography and sexting, but not the breast that feeds a child. We have no problem using cleavage to sell beer or deodorant; the path that runs between our sexual appetite and our consumer appetites is anything but unfamiliar. Yet we get squeamish when mothers stop to feed their children in public because it seems… what… too intimate, maybe? As if that sort of deep intimacy between child and mother should not be on display? I’m realizing that I need to be more attentive to some of the ways that negative judgments can sometimes fill the gap between our images of being a woman and being a mother.

The second response cuts a little deeper, because it asks me to be more empathetic to some of the hidden struggles mother’s encounter. After I accepted my sister-in-law’s invitation to sit down, she admitted a sort of gratitude for not having to resign herself to feeding my nephew in a separate room. She talked about how, despite the constant attention and symbiotic relationship she has with my nephew, there is an isolation and aloneness that can motherhood – especially when it comes to feeding her baby in a removed space while the rest of the world keeps moving along.

At first this seemed counter-intuitive for a non-childbearing person like myself. Shouldn’t the birth of a new child, and the acts of caring for and feeding that child, mean deeper unity and not more isolation? Although this is what I thought at the time, I’m now pretty sure most mothers and fathers out there see this as… well… almost laughably naive. And this because of something we all know – that loneliness is most acute after we’ve allowed intimacy in.2 Still, despite the fact that great works of love can feel isolating, that does not give us the right to be a community that causes more isolation. Instead the call I feel is to be creatively supportive of mothers and their duties of motherhood – even very intimate ones such as breastfeeding – and to foster a spirit of inclusion in the larger community.

Although it so often is, the public intimacy of breastfeeding hasn’t always been so shocking to us. It wasn’t always the case that the Pope needed to encourage mothers to breastfeed during Church.3 Religion writer David Gibson, in fact, contends that “the earliest symbol of God’s love for humanity was the infant Jesus at Mary’s breast,” going so far as to note that it was only during the Reformation that the crucifixion had supplanted the breast-feeding image of Mary.

***

As I sat down across from my sister-in-law I didn’t know all this yet, it wasn’t that I was so comfortable. It was that by sitting down, being with one another we were – each of us – inviting the other deeper into intimacy. She by accepting me in my efforts to be with her, and me in my efforts to accept her by looking her in the eyes and talking with her as we normally would, about faith, family, and Texas A&M football. I can’t help but think that treating her normally, beginning with what was familiar, is part of what dignified both the act of breastfeeding and my sister-in-law herself. Beginning with what was normal opened a door that lead deeper into the intimacy of the moment, too. And it let me, when it seemed that I was given permission by her word or glance, look down at my nephew in her arms. It let me look for a moment and see this breastfeeding as what it was, a precious thing.

“I have calmed and quieted my soul like a child quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul.” That’s from Psalm 131. It’s not hard in moments like this to see breastfeeding as a sacred moment of clinging and holding, unity and intimacy, one of which I am privileged to be a part.

It’s taking these experiences as privileged and precious that lets me look toward future encounters with new mothers and feel more resolved to be attentive, accepting, inclusive—to see what is holy instead of what makes me uncomfortable. Despite our culturally-natural inclination to slide out of the room when the words “breast-pump” are uttered, or to feel awkward when we notice a leaked through shirt, the invitation is neither to run nor to pretend to an intimacy that’s not yet there. It seems to me instead that we honor the intimacy by practicing normalcy, at least that’s what I want to do. The challenge, then, for those of us invited to into such intimacy is just to continue the conversation, share in the communion, allow ourselves to be at ease with who they are as mothers and who we are as witnesses as best we can.

***

  1. In a compelling article entitled “Why I’m Glad Someone Told me to Stop Breastfeeding in Public,” mother and author Amber Hinds writes about an experience when a lifeguard ask her to go to the restroom to feed her child. She mentions that had this been her first child, she might have been more self-conscious and quit public breast feeding altogether.
  2. As I thought about a seeming incongruence between feelings of isolation and acts of love, I was reminded of Mother Teresa’s spiritual writings and how in the midst of great service to the poor she felt moments of great loneliness.
  3. I found this in my breastfeeding research, and loved it. The quick story is that Pope Francis was celebrating a baptism for families in in the Sistine Chapel when he heard a baby cry and took the opportunity as it presented itself. Not everybody was as happy about this as I was, though.

Migration Is Not the Problem

[This article by Alejandro Olayo-Méndez, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post]

What did you notice today?

Back when I was teaching high school, it’s that question that I used to pose, over and over again, to my sophomore students. What did you notice today? Sometimes they were annoyed by the question, sometimes inspired by it, but the desire that lay behind my asking it was this: I wanted to help them to be aware of what was happening in their lives, and of who it was that they had encountered. Deep down I wanted for them, as much as I wanted for me, the ability to notice all the unnoticed things, unnoticed others around us. I didn’t want them to live life without acknowledging that these unnoticed things matter.

I think that sometimes as we read the news, sort through our selected blogs, skim posts and check tweets, that we become over-exposed, incessantly exposed, to information. Sometimes I think we let violence, poverty, injustice, and so on become part of the background noise of our lives. Many times we just see events – like the shipwrecks at Lampedusa, or the tornadoes that have tunneled through the Midwest – as something far removed from our lives. In other words, we forget to notice the other, to acknowledge their sufferings.

When this happens to me, when I feel so overwhelmed by the incessant stream of information that the suffering of others threatens to recede into the background of my life, I try imagining again. Specifically, I try imagining what I myself would do, feel, taste if I were there, in the shoes of a suffering other. I find that it helps me gain perspective and that it deepens my understanding of reality. It takes an effort, I will not lie. And it does so because – even though I have done this many times – still it challenges my point of view, my political positions, my life style. It may do the same for you.

***

At lot of my online behavior consists of reading news, websites, and blogs for information regarding migration. In the past months I’ve posted about the tragic events at Lampedusa, and about the dead of 92 Niger migrants who died from thirst in the Saharan desert. I shared articles about the need of a humanitarian visa for migrants in Mexico, the devastating effects of deportation for immigrant families in the United States, and a photographic collection of migrants crossing the Arizona Desert.1 Even given my effort to stay open to all these issues, it was this last, the photo essay about migrants crossing the Arizona desert, that asked me to imagine again. Instead of reacting from passion or from political commitments, they asked me to touch the reality that these photos presented and through them stand in the shoes of the other.

As I sifted through the photos of migrants crossing the Arizona Desert, trying to feel what each represented, my imagination brought me back to a memory, an experience I had in the summer of 2012. That summer, for five weeks, I traveled along with six other Jesuits through the Mexican migration corridor. During those weeks we visited communities of origin in Central America, we stayed at shelters, spoke to migrants, heard academics and organizations working with migrants, and tried to have a close look at the reality of migration.  I told my fellow Jesuits, “we are not playing or pretending to be migrants, but by getting as close as possible to this reality we may get an insight that could help us to gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of migration.” You can see something of our journey here:

Really looking at these photos snapped me back to the experience of traveling the migration corridor myself, memories of listening to migrants’ stories and getting close to the complex reality of migration bubbled up again. And these memories helped me to imagine myself in their shoes.

It was from this place of interior openness that I could remember how the experience confirmed things I’ve since learned through my academic reading. Centrally it confirmed this: Migration is not a problem to be solved, but part of a larger processes of social change.2 Doing my best to step into their shoes, I felt again that people do have the right to aspire to better lives, and I remembered that many times the decision to migrate is not an easy one – especially when migrants are aware of the dangers of their journeys.

Above all, I realized that migration has to do with real people, with real suffering, with real desires, with real challenges. I am a doctoral student, and even though I’ve traveled the migrant corridor, these realities can still seem far removed from my life, from my context, from what I do. It takes an act of the imagination for this to change, it takes seeing ourselves in the shoes of others.

What do we notice? We notice what we allow ourselves to see, while all too often, the rest fades into the background. In the case of migration, imagining, noticing again, may help us to understand the urgent need for just migration policies everywhere.

***

  1. If you’re interested in these, I’d also point you to (1) an article titled “Only The Dead Can Stay” which criticizes Italy’s actions of granting nationality to those migrants who died in the events of Lampedusa, and (2) another article in the New York Times reflecting on the challenges of immigrant families in the United States and the restrictive immigration policies they face.
  2. See Stephen Castles (2010): Understanding Global Migration: A Social Transformation Perspective, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36:10, 1565-1586

Do You Know How to Hug?

[This post by Jeff Sullivan, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post]

The hug seems instinctual, no? We’ve been doing it, or rather, have had it done to us since the day we got out of the womb. And yet, just like long distance running and cell phone etiquette, we all think we know how to do it and yet many of us do it so awkwardly. And if you’re reading this thinking, I know who to hug, when to hug and how to hug … then you’re probably one of the main offenders.

A recent article in the Omaha World Herald (yes, because there’s not a whole lot else to write about in Omaha, trust me, I’ve lived there) specifically provides etiquette on the man hug. The intent of the articles is  to avoid any embarrassing faux pas, especially for men … because we seem to be especially inept at any sign of physical affection. But we’re not the only ones: buzzfeed.com provides a list of the 23 Most Awkward Hugs in History (even the ladies can be culprits of poor hugs).

The confusion with the hug probably stems from what it means to us and how we do. I live with 30 men, all of whom I am united to through our desire to live out the gospel and all of whom I call brother. And in that Tommy-Boy fashion, you say, “Brothers don’t shake hands, brothers gotta hug.”

But different ages, races, ethnic backgrounds and family of origin narratives mean that we have 30 different interpretations of how to hug. Some guys hug me with vicious slaps to the back as if they’re E Honda from Street Fighter 2. Others signal an embrace with one hand, but give the old Adrian Peterson stiff-arm with the other arm to your shoulder–it seems like a compromise between intimacy and distance, while actually doing neither well. Some feel as though everyone should get the same hug and others only give hugs to the closest of friends. It’s really hit or miss and the hug can sometimes signal your ‘in-ness’ level, and that can be confusing if your internal hug-gauge is busted.

As a result, articles like the one from the Omaha World Herald or even school policy manuals on the appropriate way to hug — A frame with a gentle bow at the waist so that the head leans in and the butt leans out — have to clarify what is appropriate. A hug is supposed to be an act of welcoming, beholding, and intimacy.1 But when we’re not sure what kind of hug to give, it winds up evoking fear and discomfort. Although hug etiquette takes away the squeamishness, it also does away with the intimacy, so that hugging is just going through the motions, rather than an expression of love. In other words, the crushing embrace of the law has squeezed the spirit out of the picture.

If you’re going to do it, my suggestions are to do without fear, full of conviction, and with warmth and generosity. Follow the lead of this Dave Matthew’s video:


******

  1. The root of the word intimacy (or intimate) comes from either the Latin intimus, which means innermost, or intimare (which means to impress upon). I’ve heard it said that intimacy comes from the prefix in, or without, and tim, or fear. In other words,  to be without fear.

The Narrow Path to the Middle Class, on “Two American Families”

[This post by Jeremy Zipple, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post]

I’ll cut straight to the chase: The PBS/Frontline documentary Two American Families is bleak, so bleak it may make you lose all hope in the long-term viability of the American middle class. It is also stunningly thought provoking, and if I were you I’d not waste another second on this review but would cruise over to PBS.org and start streaming it. Right now.

But, here you are, still reading. So it seems evident that I need to do a bit more to convince you that these 82 minutes of film will be very worth your time, because they are. First, these 82 minutes will be unlike anything else you’ll watch this year. Second, in an era in which TV news is mostly pundits jabbering away about stuff they know scarcely more about than you do, there remain two oases of serious investigative broadcast journalism: CBS’s 60 Minutes and PBS’s Frontline. A lamentable state of affairs for sure, but it makes a film like Two American Families all the more a gem.

In 1991, Frontline sent Bill Moyers and a film crew to Milwaukee, where they began tracking the lives of two typical working class families. Over the next two decades – yes, two decades – the crew returned to Milwaukee every few years to check up on things like familial cohesion and economic fortunes. Can you think of a program other than Frontline that has both resources and the sheer patience to embark on this sort of project? Me neither.

Third, there’s plenty of data out there charting the ever more dire economic prospects of the American middle class. As the income and wealth of America’s richest have sky-rocked, middle tier net wealth has plummeted (currently it’s at its lowest level since the early 80’s) and middle class wages have been on a similar downward spiral. Likewise, the sorts of jobs that once assured the working class of a pathway to the middle class – moderately skilled, unionized manufacturing jobs – have vanished. This film puts bleak human faces on those bleak economic facts.

When we first meet them, in 1991, these two families, the Stanleys and the Neumanns – one black, one white – are similar in most respects: recent newlyweds with young children, husbands who hold well-paid union jobs, and value systems that prize church-going faith, hard work, and family life. Both families are also bursting with optimism about the future. These working class folks are dreaming big dreams – dreaming the American Dream. We watch them imagining a climb from the working class into the middle class with all that that entails: home ownership, college education for their children, and secure retirement.

What happens to both families over the next 20 years can only be described as tragedy. As corporations chase cheap labor into non-union states and beyond U.S. borders, and as the U.S economy shifts dramatically from making goods to providing services, the Stanley’s and Neumann’s see their road to the middle class dead-end. Both sets of husbands and wives are forced to work a precarious succession of service-oriented jobs that barely keep food on the table and often do not provide for adequate healthcare, let alone mortgage payments. And with both parents working nonstop, the family life of both the Stanley’s and the Neumann’s deteriorates. Their children don’t receive the attention they need to succeed in school, their marriages are strained, and by the end of the film – Moyers pays his final visit to Milwaukee in 2012 – both families seem utterly exhausted, beaten down, incapable of dreaming much of anything.

And when Moyers checks in with their now-grown children, the picture only gets bleaker: Escalating college costs have meant that among the children of both families – a combined nine kids – only one, the Stanley’s eldest son Keith, is able to realize the dream of a college education. Keith turns out to be the one character at film’s end with a modicum of financial security and a life that stands to be different than was his parents’. And even his path through college almost wasn’t: his parents had to charge his tuition on a Discover card, wracking up insane debt in the process. This is a debt from which they’ve never really recovered, and they – and the other eight children in the two families – seem destined to endure lives as precarious as their parents.

If that’s not bleak I don’t know what is. And in a television age that tends to prize either realist escapism (Duck Dynasty? Storage Wars?) or gritty fiction (Breaking Bad? The Wire?) Two American Families offers neither a comforting escape from our own struggles or confrontation with an actual problem viewed from behind the safety glass of having been fictionalized. But being bleak and unimportant are not the same thing.

And Two American Families is exceedingly important. It puts faces on those most affected by our current political climate. It visualizes for us the effects of our seemingly amorphous discussions about the future of the American economy. It concretizes the removal of our social welfare programs. And it also dispels numerous common myths about those people. For example, poor families are often vilified as slothful food stamp mongers (and, for that matter, as mostly black). Many politicians still adamantly hem to the Puritan myth that hard work and strong family values guarantee economic prosperity. But the stunning thing about these families is that both do everything in their power to succeed… and still fail. Their lives seem a brutal struggle against forces beyond their control, against fates that do not discriminate by skin color.

Two American Families also informs present policy debates. First, it suggests the folly, in the short term, of disassembling the social safety net, which some legislators seem presently intent upon (c.f., this summer’s passage of a farm bill sans food stamps.) Many Americans who rely on social welfare programs do not do so because they’re too lazy to hold down a job but because their employment options are stunningly depressing.

Second, it demonstrates the toll the sorts of jobs available to today’s working class extracts from families. Watching this film, it strikes me that an economic situation in which both parents toil away night and day at multiple jobs and are left with no time to tend to incidentals like marriages and children is a much more serious threat to the “American family” than other, more inflammatory, causes.

Thirdly, the film forces us to consider the kind of workforce we ought to be presently designing, if we’re to survive our nation’s New Economic future, and how it compares with the one we are designing. In an economy in which decent paying low and medium-skilled jobs have almost completely dried up, strategic thinking about – and investment in – education is more critical than ever.

Finally, for Catholic Christians the message of this film takes on unique urgency. Pope Francis has been speaking relentlessly about the pressures of economic inequality and the “globalization of indifference” – a sort of unchecked capitalism that generates just the sort of subhuman conditions the Stanley’s and Neumann’s have endured over the past twenty years. For us, the Pope suggests, our religious faith should lead to interventions in the political realm, interventions aimed at fostering a more humane economy both globally and here in America. Two American Families drives that point home.

You have been warned: this film is bleak as hell. It will not distract you from one of the most difficult and pressing issues of our time, it will not even present them from the single step of removal that fiction allows. It is not reality television, but actual reality, and this reality is bleak. But it’s the need to face, to confront, this bleak reality that makes Two American Families very much worth every one of its 82 minutes.