Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress as Vice President Joe Biden (left) and Speaker of the House John Boehner look on in the House of Representatives Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Sept. 24. (CNS photo/James Lawler Duggan, Reuters)
Pope Francis in his address to Congress instructed lawmakers to “defend life at every stage of development.” I could be mistaken, but I believe the Catholic Church is the only institution that values the life and worth of every person at every stage of life – unborn, disabled, imprisoned and terminally ill – and from every background. I cannot recall a political party, another religion or secular institution which publically upholds the dignity of every individual in every circumstance. That’s a bold claim, and one I am proud of as a Catholic.
Too many people put qualifications on the value of unborn babies. Is the baby wanted, healthy, past a certain gestational period? They put limitations of the worth of people with illnesses. Is the person severely disabled, facing a terminal illness, too old to be useful? They do not extend basic human rights to people from a different background, including immigrants or individuals from a different race. In all of these cases, individuals claim that other people are not fully human and do not deserve rights inherently due every person.
One of hardest teachings to accept is that even if a person commits the most heinous crime, he deserves to live as long as he is no longer a threat to society. Beyond this condemnation of the death penalty, Catholics are called to visit the imprisoned, love them, and lead them to Christ. It is a radical and difficult message. No one, not even the worst criminals, is exulted from God’s love and mercy.
Critics of the church might point out that Catholics does not value gay, lesbian or transgender individuals. It is sad that the following has to be restated, but the church commands us to love and accept every person with same-sex attraction. It makes no distinctions. The church does condemn behaviors but never persons. With regard to transgender individuals, church teaching fits nicely with the mantra “born that way” (I believe it is a Catholic saying). Every person is born in a beautiful fashion, and you never have to alter your body to be accepted. The Catholic response is that you are good, beautiful, fully human and worthy of dignity as you were created by God.
I can say without hesitation that the Church teaches us to value every person. Catholics do not always accept this teaching, nor do they always live it out in action. There have also been low points in the history of the Catholic Church, when the principles laid out by Jesus were ignored. As a historian, I never want to whitewash the history of the church, but many more forgotten moments exist when the church stood up for people neglected by society.
Roman Paterfamilias and Domestic Proselytization
When Catholicism first appeared, the western world was dominated by the Roman Empire. The central unit was the family (more like a household) where the paterfamilias, the male head of the household, had complete control over the lives of members of the household, even the right of life and death. Rome was a slave state, especially in Italian peninsula where 40 percent of the population was slaves. The paterfamilias could kill slaves or women of the household without retribution.
Christianity was a religion for outcasts. After all, Christians believe God come to earth and was an outsider. He had infinite power and had a plan in place since the beginning of time. Yet, when Jesus came to earth, He was killed and only had a few supporters in the end. He was not successful in worldly terms, and thus, the new religion appealed to social outcasts.
Take a second and recall the stories of early Christians. I am surprised by how frequently a conversion was initiated by a mother or wife. Most famously, St. Augustine was drawn to Christianity by his mother St. Monica, and St. Helena influenced her son Constantine to become a Christian. The pattern even continues with the rise of the Germanic kingdoms. The first Catholic, German state was founded by the Franks in present day France, and Clovis, king of the Franks, was baptized because his wife St. Clotilde insisted upon it.
Historians even developed a term to describe this phenomenon: domestic proselytization. It describes the common occurrence when women converted to Christianity, then convinced their husbands or sons to become Christians. Historians speculate the majority of early Christians were women, drawn to the church by its message of relieving suffering through faith and promising eternal salvation to all.
The church has a poor reputation for its treatment of women, but if Christianity was repressive for women, how do you explain women secretly joining Christianity, often against the will of males in lives? Why were women insisting that their husbands become Christian? We can debate all day whether Christianity was good or bad for women, but I think it is important to see how actual women voted with their feet. Christianity offered women more dignity than the religion and culture of Rome, and they flocked to it.
Healthcare in Medieval Europe
When the Roman Empire fell apart, urbanization, the economy, and trade all went into decline. While I would argue that the medieval period was not the backwards era it is often made out to be, the economic situation undeniably deteriorated, which increased the number of poor and destitute. In this period, the Catholic Church was the single provider of welfare services for those individuals.
An explosion of monasteries occurred in the Early Middle Ages, flowing from the inspiration of St. Benedict. The Benedictines, following the rule of St. Benedict, made caring for the sick a top priority, and they established hospitals to care for the sick as part of their monasteries. Charlemagne in the early ninth centurydecreed that a hospital should be attached to every cathedral and monastery, further establishing the role of the church as a caregiver. Again in ninth century, the secular government ordered that a hospital should be attached every collegiate church run by diocesan or secular clergy, thus providing healthcare in urban areas.
In the High Middle Ages, religious orders were founded specifically to serve in hospitals, most famously the Holy Ghost Fathers. They were approved by Pope Innocent III and quickly founded a hospital in 1216 in Rome, called Santo Spirito. Every major city soon had a Holy Ghost hospital, and by the end of the medieval period, the order had close to 1,000 hospitals. Their houses provided a universal healthcare system based on charity and free services and laid the foundation of medical studies and professional physicians in Europe.
With the Reformation and secularization of the Early Modern period, many of the religious institutions were seized by the government. That said, the tradition of Catholic healthcare continues today, with the church being the largest private provider of healthcare in the world. It operates currently 5,500 hospitals, and a quarter of the world’s healthcare facilities. Oddly, even with this unparalleled effort, the church is still seen as anti-healthcare.
Spanish Dominicans in America
The treatment of Native Americans by the Spanish is considered as one of the worst atrocities in human history, and this analysis is largely correct. It should be noted that disease killed far more indigenous people than the Spanish, and the Aztec regime was so violent that many tribes allied with the Spanish against them. Still, their actions are inexcusable.
How do know about the Spanish victims? Why was there so much documentation about their crimes? Our knowledge comes from the priests, mainly Dominicans, sent to minister among the Spanish, who largely protested the violence and developed a philosophy for universal rights in response to mistreatment of the natives, laying the groundwork for international law.
In 1511, the Dominican Antonio de Montesinos preached to the leadership of the Island of Hispaniola: “I who am a voice of Christ crying in the wilderness of this island… you are in mortal sin, that you live and die in it, for the cruelty and tyranny you use in dealing with these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged a detestable war against these people?”
The sermon created a stir in the universities of Spain as the rights of Native Americans were debated. One of leading thinkers was Francisco de Vitoria, another Dominican, and he is considered the father of international law. He argued that all men are equally free and have a right to life, freedom, and property. He argued that all humans by virtue of being humans had these rights, and the sinfulness of the persons, did not limit them. It was not less sinful to kill a pagan as opposed to kill a Christian. In practical terms, he considered the native princes to be legitimate rulers, who had the right to their land. Furthermore, he argued that their cultural and religious differences or limited civilization did not constitute grounds for a just war, and he reasoned that the native population had to be treated as equals.
Vitoria was the intellectual leader of the movement, but Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas worked tirelessly for fifty years to put these ideas into practice, earning the title of “Protector of the Indians.” He documented extensively the mistreatment of the indigenous population. Unfortunately, the ideas of the sixteenth-century Dominicans were only partially enacted by the Spanish authorities. The silver lining of the atrocities is that for the first time theorists looked at the whole human race, and argued for a universal sense of equality and human rights. Contrary to the narrative you learned in high school history, it was not secular Enlightenment thinkers, but Spanish Dominicans inspired by St. Thomas Aquinas and the natural law, who first postulated these ideas.
I am proud to be a Catholic, and I unabashedly proclaim the beauty of the Catholic position on the complete dignity of human life. Certainly, Catholics have acted against other groups in the past. I do not deny it, but we also have to remember individuals like St. Monica, the Holy Ghost Fathers and Las Casas as well.
Dr. H. P. Bianchi will be speaking on the history of the Catholic Church on October 21, 7:00PM at The Grill at the Harryman House. For more information see the Facebook event.
October 05, 2015 10:11
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
I am a bit of a confession floater, due to frequent moves and preferring to avoid the priests I know the best. Is that wrong? After attending many churches for confession, I wonder what the deal with confession line etiquette is. If the person in front of you goes in, does everyone move up? Is there a designated distance between the confessional and someone standing in the confession line, especially in old, poorly soundproofed confessionals? What about two lines, one going slow and one moving fast? Do you allow for crossovers?
While attending The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., I used to attend confession at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, and it had an interesting (to be honest, confusing) arrangements for confessions: four confessionals, one in each corner of the room, and two pews facing each other. It was great for one priest, one line for one confessional, until another priest came in. Do you start another line, but by doing so, cutoff the other people waiting in the first line? Mayhem would breakout when a third priest came in, three confessionals and two lines. I saw verbal arguments erupt.
(Chapel of Our Lady of Hostyn at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception)
I thought about writing a letter asking to put up better signage, but I realized it was kind of a test. If you are yelling in the confessional line, you probably are not contrite for your sins. I remember adding sins while in line: impatient, bad thoughts. Maybe, I was stuck in the “slow line” because God wanted me to examine my conscience a little longer.
I love confession, but I know some people are nervous about going. There might be more pressing issues facing the church, but we could make it easier for these people and everyone else with a few improvements:
More than just Saturday afternoon
Every church has confessions on Saturday afternoon. It was great when I was single and childless, but with children, every Saturday quickly fills up. I know it is about priorities, but it is hard to skip out on family events, leaving my wife with all the children. If the Lenten practice of having confession on weeknight was made permanent, it would be a godsend. Or as some parishes do, churches could institute confession in between Sunday Masses. What better time to offer confession than before Mass?
This improvement is a no brainer. Put up a sign explaining the customs of the church. Start the line here, move forward at the appropriate time, and so on. Furthermore, keep a stack of pamphlets with an examination of conscience and instructions for going to confession. These simple fixtures could be reassuring for someone returning to the sacrament after a long absence.
There two schools of thought: one line for each priest or one line total. I am a big fan of a single line. It avoids the confusion when priest leave or come, but it also mitigates the slow line / fast line dynamic. You cannot pick your priest, but I am okay with that.
Almost 5,000 years ago, humans built the Great Pyramids, but today we still have problems soundproofing a confessional. There have been notable improvements recently, and I appreciate them. We are confessing our sins to the priest, not to the whole congregation.
Most of this blog entry is in jest, but I want to conclude with one serious point. If you’re on the fence about returning to confession, go. It is truly a wonderful experience. You leave feeling like a weight had been lifted off you, the shackles of sin broken.
I am always hesitant before going, but one time, I noticed that everyone leaving the confessional had the biggest smile. When I went in, I started with a smaller offense. I like to work my way up to the big stuff. The priest laughed a bit, and said something to the effect, “Sounds like me and my siblings.” All of sudden, I eased, and was reminded that everyone is a sinner. I thought: hey, I can out do that one. I have a whole list. I also left the confessional with a big smile.
There has been a good deal of discussion about mercy. Mercy is not accepting people as they are. Mercy is the reduction of just punishment, and it begins when we repent of our sinful ways and promise to live better in the future. In other word, mercy begins with confession.
“If your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow: and if they be red as crimson, they shall be white as wool.” Isaiah 1:18
September 02, 2015 02:13
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
We live in hyper-political world, and as a result, the Catholic Church has been dragged into the sphere of politics. Church leaders can make a million statements and do a million actions, but the media will only focus and report on the political ones. Subsequently, the church is portrayed as obsessed with political issues. Perhap it is time for the church to step back from political activism.
Guilty by association
To become politically active, church leaders have to make alliances with political parties that are outside of their control. With the rise of political parties in the 19th century, the church in Europe allied with the monarchial, conservative parties, and as the general public turned against the monarchs, they also revolted against the Catholic Church. Thus, Catholic authorities were targeted along with government officials in the liberal and socialist revolutions of the nineteenth century.
In the first half of the 20th century, European countries were torn between communism and fascism. The communists were radical atheists and sought to end religious practices, and therefore, the church often sided with the fascists. To be clear, Catholicism was opposed to fascism, but leaders worked with fascists as a lesser of two evils. To this day, the limited cooperation with fascists, especially in Italy and Spain, hangs over the church and has caused many people to question the moral authority of the church.
In the current political climate, the church has great difficultly working with political parties in the United States. Lay Catholics are highly confused when church leaders work with a pro-abortion Democrat on a poverty initiative, for instance. Or on the flip side, church leaders, who have a closer relationship with Republicans on social issues, might face a backlash when allied with a Republican who has advocated for an aggressive war.
In engaging in numerous political struggles, the church is perceived my many young people as an institution that is against modern ideas. A young atheist noted in an interview: “If you ask millennials what comes to mind when they think of Christianity, when they think of the church, they will tell you it’s anti-gay, anti-doubt, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-sex education. We all know what the church is against, and we really don’t care what the church is for.”
Progressives believe that the religious decline among young people is due to the church’s position on many controversial positions, and if they changed these teachings, then it would be more popular. I believe that the church’s problem with young people is not its controversial teachings, but that most young Catholics do not know what the church actually teaches on key issues.
Ask a millennial: what does the church prohibit with regards to sexuality, and you will receive an instantaneous and lengthy response. Ask the same person to describe the church’s theology concerning sexuality, and you will be greeted by silence. The church has made a great effort to inform the general public what it is against through numerous political campaigns. If the same energy and resources were placed into educating the public on the church’s teaching, then the church were be far more effective.
Beginning in the 1960s, the clergy made a shift from focusing on spirituality to emphasizing social justice. Locally, people might remember the Catonsville Nine, which included two priests, one former priest, and one religious brother, who protested the Vietnam War by burning draft files; or the Harrisburg Seven, composed mainly of priests and nuns, who planned to kidnap Henry Kissinger and bomb steam tunnels. These church leaders hoped for a more politically engaged church, but their actions only turned people away from the church as a moral authority.
Politics has a great toxicity to it. One only has to review the approval ratings for Congress, for example, which barely crack the double digit mark. Americans love to hate anything in the political sphere, and everything that comes into contact with it. Conversely, people are looking for an alternative to the political world as a guiding force in America, and the church is perfectly placed to be that alternative. In the modern word, the church has been exceedingly unsuccessful in the political sphere, and yet, Catholics still place a lot of hope in politicians and political parties in changing the moral atmosphere. The discrepancy between hope and repeated failures has done a great disservice to the church, and the church needs a new approach.
Instead of having laws conform to the theological positions of the church, Catholic leaders have distorted Catholic teachings to fit the language of current laws. When church leaders comment on current political issues, it is seen as an endorsement or condemnation of the law, not an endorsement of a church teaching. There is a beautiful theology centered on caring for God’s creation, but it is not synonymous with a carbon tax or opposition to pipelines. Reducing the church’s teaching on the environment to a position on the carbon tax is tricky, at best.
The same could be said for the struggle over religious freedom. Catholics all agree that we should be able to practice our religion freely, but without reference to right and wrong, promotion of religious freedom is complicated. We do not support a religious freedom to practice polygamy, nor do we support Satanists placing their statues on public grounds.
Church doctrines are exceedingly clear, but the application of them to specific laws can be complex. Unfortunately, people know very little about what the church teaches and far more about the political stances of the church leaders. As these positions make their way into homilies and intercessions, I often wonder: are these statements even Catholic?
What’s the alternative?
One important distinction must be made before progressing, and that is, individual Catholics must remain politically active, being informed, voting and running for office. My reservation is directed toward the clergy and official institutions of the church. In addition, while I am hesitant for church leaders to focus on political activities, Catholic theology related to current events must be preached unabashedly and loudly by the clergy. Lastly, if a political party that espouses Catholic principles and is rooted in Catholic culture appears in the future, it would make sense to work with that institution. Yet at this time, such an entity does not exist.
More than anything, I am arguing against mixed priorities. I maintain that politics flows from culture, and if you want to change politics, change the culture. In the debate over abortion, Catholics should not seek to merely overturn Roe v. Wade. Imagine that some legal procedure could nullify the Supreme Court ruling. It would not be a complete victory. Pro-abortion leaders would find another avenue to legalize abortion.
Instead, the focus should be on a conversion of hearts. That is to say, change the cultural discourse to make abortion not illegal, but unthinkable. The former is political change, but the latter is cultural change. When the population realizes the horrors of abortion as it is in reality, the laws will change and even the most hardened politicians, at least for their own self-interest, will disown it.
Lastly, church leaders need to focus on Catholics. We, as a church, are a bit of a mess right now, and we need to get our house in order before we address the rest of the country. I know that sounds like the comment of an anti-Catholic, but it’s the unfortunate reality. The Supreme Court has six Catholics, and only three non-Catholics. The Vice President, Speaker of the House, House Minority Leader are Catholics. In all, 31 percent of Congress is Catholic. Yet, the church faces a lot of political hostility from these “Catholic"-led political institutions.
The general population of Catholics does not fare much better than our “Catholic” politicians. The majority of Catholics voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and I find it hard to comprehend how Catholics supported a candidate who so blatantly opposes Catholicism on key issues. I am not saying that Catholics needed to support the Republican candidate—I did not vote for McCain or Romney either—but it is impossible to rationalize supporting Obama in good conscience. Given this, it might be time for church leaders to step back from politics for a time, and focus on building a Catholic culture and better catechizing the Catholic population.
This is the second article in a series on Catholic culture. You can read the first on Baseball, the Mass and Catholic culture.
August 15, 2015 09:48
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
A coach congratulates a player during a Catholic baseball camp in 2014 at Russell Sports Complex in Kent, Wash. (CNS photo/Stephen Brashear)
A few years ago, a family friend from France visited us for a few days, and in an effort to expose him to American culture, we took him to a baseball game. Expectations were high as we drove to New York to attend a highly contentious game between the Yankees and Red Sox, but after a few innings, our friend was nodding off. I quizzed him, “Isn’t this awesome?” He simply responded, “I am bored.”
How could he be bored? The game was the epitome of excitement with a storied rivalry, the electricity of a sellout crowd, and the stadium a buzz with a variety of sights and sounds.
On further review, my friend’s boredom made sense. He did not know the rules of the game, the players, or the history of the teams. The unfolding game, which most Americans would enjoy and pay good money to attend, was meaningless for him. His boredom originated from his ignorance of American culture.
Culture, as defined in here, is the context that provides meaning. Beyond the baseball example, one could argue that understanding American culture enables a person to distinguish between the American flag and a piece of cloth. Culture, in short, is shared knowledge on which the entire community is built. Knowledge of the culture allows members of the community to understand its rituals, symbols, and discourses, but outsiders are completely lost.
The idea of restoring Catholic culture has been a popular concept for some time, and as such, “Catholic culture” has been overused as a buzzword. With any trendy concept, its meaning has become muddled overtime, and some feel that it is no longer a useful idea. Its importance, I think, can be illustrated by a further example, paralleling the discussion of my French friend at a baseball game.
For many young Americans, their experience at Mass is similar to a French person at a baseball game. Regrettably, young Catholics do not know the meaning of the vestments, the text, or the movements of the priests. Due to their lack of knowledge, much of the Mass is meaningless to them, and thus, they are bored. Similar to a Frenchman unfamiliar with American culture, their boredom is caused by their lack of understanding of Catholic culture.
The Mass, unlike baseball, has profound intrinsic value, and even without any liturgical knowledge, a person could experience a feeling of mystery and awe, but this experience is the exception, not the rule.
The dire straits of Catholic culture are evident in the failed attempts to appeal to young Americans. Some liturgists have advocated adding aspects of American culture, including popular music, dance and language, into the Mass in order to draw people back to church. This method may be good in bringing people back to church, but it can only a first step in the process and must be superseded by a deeper and more authentic understanding of the Mass. This modernization of the liturgy might also be dangerous, as amid the new trappings of the liturgy the true meaning of the Eucharist is harder to discern.
Returning to the initial analogy, my friend from France might have enjoyed the baseball game more while indulging on foie gras and a glass of Chardonnay with eurodance blaring over the speakers, but a baseball purest would have been horrified.
Such attempts to secularize the liturgy demonstrate the pervasiveness of the current, secular culture and the weakness of Catholic culture. Young people today cannot comprehend basic Catholic concepts, and the only way to enter into dialogue with them is through modern, secular avenues.
Not only is the Mass meaningless for many Catholics, they do not have a basic understanding of Catholic sexual ethics, a concept of eternity and many other fundamental principles. This modern predicament is quite the opposite of an era of a robust Catholic culture, when religion impacted everything else.
In light of this analogy, it is imperative to continue the effort to rebuild a Catholic culture. We live in hyper-political world, and the church is often drawn into the political struggle de jour. While it is essential to fight these battles, Catholic cannot forget the vital task of constructing Catholic communities rooted in Catholic culture.
August 11, 2015 10:22
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
In eighteenth-century England, many good Christian people ignored the inhumane treatment of slaves. Slavery was far away. It did not involve them. They were too busy.
Then in 1781, an overcrowded slave ship, the Zong, veered off course, and began to run low on water. The crew reviewed the insurance policy, which stated that no reimbursement would be dispensed if slaves died of natural causes on the ship or on shore, but a claim could be made if cargo was thrown overboard to save the other cargo. Since slaves were considered cargo, the crew decided to jettison 133 slaves overboard, letting them drown in the ocean below. In a sad twist, the ship arrived at port with 430 gallons of water to spare.
The owners of the ship then decided to make an insurance claim against the lost cargo, which were the murdered slaves. A lengthy legal case arose from the claim, and soon abolitionists caught news of the incident. They began to use the story in their literature in order to stir the English population out of their apathy.
How could you sit there and do nothing when innocent people were being killed? How could Christians not care that slaves were thrown overboard for money? The Zong massacre opened the veil covering the horridness of the slave trade, and allowed people to get a glimpse of its inhumanity.
via Wikimedia Commons, public domain
Recently, two videos (here and here) have been made public showing high ranking officials in Planned Parenthood discussing the sale of aborted babies. The dialogue is stomach-turning and heart-wrenching in the way these individuals discuss babies as a commodity for exchange. Most people were shocked and disgusted at the videos, but the abortion industry has tried to fight back. Planned Parenthood has called the videos dishonestly edited and claimed the tissue was donated not sold. Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood, even apologized for the tone of the individual in the video.
The outrage is not about the tone of the individual in the video! It is not about the delivery of the content. It is not even about the trafficking of body parts. The videos pulls back the screen surrounding abortion, and show us its ugliness. It is the dismembering of little human lives, and that can longer be denied. That is the cause of the outrage. Americans can longer sit on the sidelines, and do nothing.
The outrage of the Zong massacre led to the formation of the Abolition Society, which in turn led to the outlawing of the slave trade, and then slavery itself. Likewise, these videos could be the catalyst to defund Planned Parenthood, and then start the process to end abortion for good.
July 22, 2015 11:12
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
Parents have long worried about what goes on at college. Catholic parents, in particular, worry that their children will fall away from the faith, with peers pressuring them into abandoning religious practices and liberal professors swaying them from their religious beliefs. Concerned parents might go as far as keeping their children away from college for fear of its negative side effects. At least, that is the narrative that has been circulating since the 1960s, but the data demonstrates the complete opposite.
While young adults experience a decline in religious activity, education plays a positive role in retaining religiosity. In the 2007 study Losing My Religion: The Social Sources of Religious Decline in Early Adulthood, the results show that the group most likely to experience a decline in church attendance was those who did not attend college (76%) and the group least likely to experience a decline was those who earned at least a bachelor’s degree (59%).
(Table from Uecker, J.; Regnerus, M. D.; & Vaaler, M. (2007). Losing my religion: The Social Sources of Religious Decline in Early Adulthood. Social Forces, 85(4), 1667-1692.)
The shocking evidence flies in the face of standard assumptions. Several other studies, however, confirm the results. Brad Wilcox, the lead researcher in a study called No Money, No Honey, No Church: The Deinstitutionalization of Religious Life Among the White Working Class, argues that poor, unmarried, and undereducated “middle America” has been experiencing a significant drop in church attendance. According to Wilcox, college-educated whites saw a drop of 51% to 46% for at least monthly church attendance between the 1970s and 2000s, whereas among people with only a high school degree, attendance dropped from 38% to 23%.
The crisis of faith in modern America is not what the pundits would have you believe. It is not an intellectual crisis, where educated people are abandoning the faith because it conflicts with their enlightened worldview. Educated people, rather, are the one group keeping churches afloat.
I have also experienced this phenomenon on a personal level. I was raised in a blue-collar area in New England, and when I return home, I hear about church closings and mergers and see an older crowd at Masses. Now, I live a suburban, white-collar area, and conversely, the church is full with families. Though anecdotal, I am hardly the first to recognize this dynamic (Charles Murray documents it as part of his book, Coming Apart.)
The church deserves some recognition for its success with college graduates. Numerous orthodox colleges have come into existence or reaffirmed their Catholic identity in recent decades, including Franciscan University, Christendom, Ave Maria and the like. Likewise, groups like FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, and Newman Centers have increased the quality and quantity of ministry for college students.
Another cause might be that religious individuals send their children to college more frequently than secular individuals, and therefore, more college graduates are attending church. MARRI, The Marriage and Religion Research Institute, composed excellent research aids on the correlation between religious activity and success in school. Their research can best be summarized with the simple formula: if you desire successful children, keep your marriage intact and attend church weekly. Below is a slide from a one of their online presentations that demonstrates the group most likely to complete some college is those who go to church weekly, and conversely, the least likely group is those that never go to church.
My last point is hard to prove with a graph, but I maintain that use of your intellect will lead you to God, not away from God. Catholic scholars have always argued against a conflict between faith and reason. Now it appears, what is true on the theoretical level is also true on the personal level: additional education translates into higher levels of church attendance. MARRI’s research provides another glimpse into the period between 1970s and 2000s, a difficult time for retaining religious activity. Their graph below demonstrates personal prayer has only dropped a bit for college-educated individuals, but far greater for those less educated during those years.
Needless to say, Catholics are winning the intellectual arguments. I would love to post the above numbers, or this blog entry every time I see a comment on social media ranting about the backwardness of believers. “When are you Neanderthals going to stop believing in fairy tales?” or “Haven’t we evolved to the point where we don’t need religion?” As we have seen, church attendance implies a higher level of education.
On the other hand, the church is failing the undereducated. No ministry exists, to my knowledge, for late teens who do not attend college. There is no equivalent to FOCUS for young working adults. Moreover, this group is experiencing a cultural secularization, and while the church has many young, bright Catholic apologists dueling with secular intellectuals, Catholic culture is dead. This is particularly sad because middle America is known for its traditional values and spirituality, and many may be interested in returning to church, if only there was a concerted effort to invite them back.
July 20, 2015 01:57
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
Young people operate Playstation controllers at a gaming exhibit. (CNS photo/Reuters)
Ever since taking a game theory course in college, I have been playing German-style board games. I knew I had a problem, an addiction of sorts, when my wife bought me a strategy game for Valentine’s Day last year. Nothing says a romantic evening like playing Settlers of Catan.
I admit it. I am a nerd.
It never occurred to me to integrate my love for games into my teaching until I attended a conference for community college leaders last spring. The gamification of education was one of the hot topics at the conference, and I eagerly attended several sessions, learning how theories on motivation, player types, and game mechanics can be used to increase student learning. In recent months, I delved deeply into the theory of gamification, and even had the opportunity to present on the topic at a regional conference. It was during this time I realized some practices could also be applied to the way we instruct others in the faith.
Foundational to gamification is the distinction between different types of motivations. First, extrinsic motivations are external rewards or punishments for performing an action. They would include money, grades, or gold stars as rewards, and spankings, timeouts, or fines as punishments. An intrinsic motivation is internal and based on personal fulfillment, such as engaging in an activity because it is fun, enjoyable or interesting.
Let’s examine some hypothetical classrooms to illuminate the distinction.
On the one hand, a teacher using largely extrinsic motivations might announce on the first day that grading will be done on a bell curve with a certain amount of As, Bs and so forth. Students would be assessed randomly and frequently, and the teacher would make little to no effort to engage students or try to interest them in the material. On the other hand, a teacher using purely intrinsic rewards would eliminate grades and not require attendance. Students attending the class would be free to discuss what they were interested in without any graded assignments.
From these examples, the strength and weakness of the two types of motivations is fairly evident. The extrinsic motivations are powerful, but their long term effectiveness is questionable, as students will dislike the subject matter. Students will learn in this type of class, but they will not enjoy it. In the second example, I cannot image the vast majority of students gaining any significant knowledge, but they would probably enjoy the class, if they attend it.
For Catholics, extrinsic motivations would be the fear of hell and purgatory, and the hope of heaven. Old prayer books even had small extrinsic rewards attached to certain prayers, for example a 500-day indulgence. An intrinsic motivation would be doing something purely out of love for God.
In games, education and faith formation, the goal is to move from extrinsic to intrinsic motivations. A well-designed “game” begins with small challenges and frequent extrinsic rewards. As the skill of the player increases, the challenges become more difficult and the extrinsic rewards decline.
This model makes perfect sense for any parent or teacher. With young children, parents use a lot of timeouts and rewards, but as children grow older, parents hope they will act properly on their own. Similarly in education, younger students are graded daily on assignments, and offered countless extrinsic rewards. Yet when I was taking doctoral classes, I was required to read lengthy monographs every week, and there was no grade attached to the assignments. In several seminars, I went through the entire semester without receiving any feedback (extrinsic motivation). At that point, it was assumed students would complete the assignments due to their interest in the subject matter (intrinsic motivation).
Now, we turn to faith formation in Catholic schools and religious education. From my observations, we seem to be doing the complete opposite of the proven model. At the youngest age, there is no mention of extrinsic rewards – hell, purgatory, or heaven. When heaven is mentioned, it is not as a reward for good actions, but a place where nearly everyone goes after they die. Instead, we offer only intrinsic motivations. That is, we instruct children to do religious actions out of love and because they are fulfilling.
In many ways, Catholic formation is like the class with no grades, optional attendance, and you get to do whatever you feel like. To be more specific, there is no sin, you do not have to go to church, and everyone goes to heaven in the end. It is no wonder young Catholics lack motivation.
Do not get me wrong. I understand that intrinsic motivations are superior, but they are most effective for master game players, doctoral students, and living saints, in their respective areas. Every game designer would laugh at the failed strategies of the Catholic Church. I would assume many Catholics are stuck in an elementary level of faith, yet we are giving them assignments appropriate for graduate students.
In this movement from one motivation to the next, we need to also realize that extrinsic motivations are a means to an end. As a parent, I am overjoyed when my children clean their rooms without a threat of punishment, but I am slightly disappointment, when afterwards, they ask for a treat for their work. As a teacher, I am annoyed by students who complain about an 88, stating that they always get As, but never once reference their interest in the content of the course. Likewise, at our judgment, God will look for more than a fear of going to hell. It is understandable that Catholic reformers in the last 50 years have targeted extrinsic rewards, but they made a grave error by eliminated them completely.
Lastly, game designers have discerned several different player types, and if you are curious, you can take a test online to determine your player type. Most games are designed for two player types: achievers who like to win game and who are highly motivated by extrinsic rewards (racing and shooting games), and explores who like to discover new things and who respond better to intrinsic motivations (simulations and role-playing games). Given that people respond to different motivators, the least the church can do is to balance the approaches that are used in faith formation.
Psychologists and game designers have studied the reasons why people play games, and they have used their knowledge to develop fun and addictive games.
Shouldn’t Catholics examine these theories? After all, people spend countless hours swiping candy or role playing on the Internet, but we cannot motivate people to spend an hour a week at church, when their eternal salvation in on the line.
June 30, 2015 12:21
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
Last year was a rough time for humanity. Every time I read the news, I wondered is there a contest on who can outdo the next with a more vile and evil act?
I was often lost for words and had troubling making sense of the atrocities and injustices. Many intellectuals offered nuanced explanations, but I feel like one piece of the puzzle was missing: schadenfreude.
We don’t like to talk about schadenfreude. The concept is so antithetical to human nature that it is even disturbing to conceptualize it. We don’t even have a word for it in English (not counting epicaricacy), and thus, we have to borrow a German word. We are too embarrassed to talk about it, and even more ashamed to plead guilty of it.
Despite the lack of discourse surrounding the concept, schadenfreude is driving much of the racism, terrorism, warfare, and inequality in the world today. It is THE SIN of the modern world, though unconfessed by most. In short, schadenfreude is to take pleasure in other’s misfortunes, to delight in their suffering.
Everyone is guilty. It might be a small instance. You know that friend that has a perfect life - great house, great job, great family. When you see a Facebook posts about a minor hiccup in their life, you might let out a small smirk, relieved that they, too, have problems. I am Patriots fan, and I know most people in Maryland, including my wife, smile every time Tom Brady gets sacked. Most of this is harmless, but the problem is far more deep and profound, with every section of society having a different motivation.
The downtrodden. There are many, too many, people that live in poverty, that are isolated from society, or have been bullied. For a few individuals, instead of working to resolve their problems, they want other people to suffer with them. They want to create as much suffering as possible, often in their last act on earth. They bomb. They shoot. At schools. At marketplaces. Inflicting pain on the most innocent of people, oddly in an attempt to find some level of fulfillment. This is a very small percentage of people, but what disturbs me is the much larger group that approves of their actions.
Who are the people who “liked” Ismaaiyl Brinsley’s instagram post: “I’m Putting Wings On Pigs Today” before he executed two police officers? Who are the people that rejoice after a terrorist attack? Who are the people that idealize school shooters? They are people who believe they’re being systematically held down (perhaps, true) but are happy when one of “their people” seek revenge in a violent way against those oppressing them.
The middle. Historians blame the middle class (especially the petite bourgeoisie) for backing many of the racist movements in modern history. The Nazis, for instance, drew support from this group. Why? The middle requires someone below them, and it is the fear of the lower class surpassing them, which makes them susceptible to radical movement. In other words, there is a subtle effort to keep those below them, below them, and to keep the poor and uneducated, poor and uneducated. There is also an attempt to dehumanize the lower class as subhuman. I wonder, if these people smile when a “thug” is killed? Perhaps, the shooting was justified, but can’t we agree that is was a tragedy? Yet, some people enjoy another’s death. When a drone attack takes out a terrorist, but kills several innocent bystanders in the Middle East. They are many “respectable” people who secretly delight and think they deserved to die as well. Oddly, many people feel better when lower class individuals are mired in their misery.
The elite. Perhaps, the group with the most damning motive for schadenfreude is found in the upper echelon. The lower class seeks revenge, and the middle class props themselves up by schadenfreude. The elite, however, benefit from other’s suffering.
You have bankers bundling risky mortgages and then betting against them, making a profit when people foreclose. I have a special disdain for the political elites who make a career out of increasing “awareness” to a cause. They draw attention to human suffering, but do little to solve it. In fact, they remain in power and in the national limelight by perpetuating the problem; solving it would end their career. Moreover, many of these elites are seen as allies. Your banker. Your Representative. Your CEO. Do they really want to help you, or have we been fooled, as they benefit from prolonging the suffering of the masses?
Edmund Burke’s famous quote is often cited by cultural critics: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Oh, how I wish. Those would be better times, if “good” men did nothing. Now, we have the majority of people, I believe, rejoicing in evil acts, delighting in the suffering of others. We have gone so far off course. What can be done?
Schadenfreude is rooted in two principles. First, many people are consumed by their suffering. We think we have it so bad. Our financial situation is the worst. Our medical issues are the most painful. Everyone needs to visit the sick and help the poor. Take a mission trip to the developing world. If these are impractical, pick up a book about someone who has been persecuted or had a difficult life. You’ll begin to realize, that, yes, you have challenges, but they are manageable. And, yes, you have sufferings, but you also have many blessings.
Second, most people think other people don’t suffer. Sure, the sick and poor people suffer. Undoubtedly, we are moved when family members and friends are in pain. Yet, we need to realize that even wealthy, Hollywood actors who have unlimited money and fame suffer. They maybe are in more pain than you and I. Trust me, every person has their crosses, and we don’t need to add to them. In sum, we need to realize that everyone suffers, and that we don’t need anyone else’s suffering to increase to make us feel better.
As Christians, we have a unique relationship to suffering. Jesus suffered and died to save us. He, who did not have to suffer, died so that we might enjoy eternal life. We, thus, see suffering as something redemptive and positive. I see suicide bombers as the antithesis to the crucifixion. In Jesus’ last act, he took on the suffering of others, and the bombers, in their last act, seek to increase the suffering of others. We can limit schadenfreude by being less consumed by our lot, and focusing more on others.
As Christians, we are called to more. To imitate Christ, we need to do more than not delighting in other people’s suffering. We need to also seek out those who are in pain, and lighten their load, by carrying part it. I promise you that will give you true joy, and it will be far more profound and fulfilling than the delight found in schadenfreude.
February 09, 2015 01:13
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
What is the first thought that enters your mind when you wake up? Is it what you watched last night on television or what you have to do at work that day? Is it your spouse or children? Do you reach for your phone and check Facebook or email? Or, do you thank God for the new day and resolve to live that day in union with God?
Our first thought of the day reveals a lot about our priorities, what is important to us, and what is on our mind. It also sets the tone of the day. That’s why the morning offering is so important to a vibrant spiritual life.
For years, I struggled making a morning offering. I tried it as a Lenten practice and a New Year’s resolution, but I failed numerous times. For those who know me, I am not a morning person. Don’t talk to me before I take my morning shower, and don’t expect a response until after my morning coffee. As a night person, I never struggled remembering to recite a night prayer, but I couldn’t develop the habit of a morning prayer.
Last New Year’s, I began the practice again, and I have not missed a day since. This time, I printed out a morning offering, and taped it to the outside of my shower door. Then, at the end of the shower, finally in a semi-awake state, I recite the morning offering.
You could do something similar, with the morning offering or another prayer. Download a saint of the day app for your phone, post a prayer on your bathroom mirror, or associate a prayer with the start of your morning commute. That way you’ll always be reminded to pray at a particular time of the day.
Below is a standard morning offering, and the one that is posted on my shower door. Print it out and place it somewhere prominent for your New Year’s resolution.
“O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer You my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, in reparation for my sins, for the intentions of all my relatives and friends, and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father. Amen.”
December 30, 2014 04:14
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
This Advent, I am anticipating the arrival of a little baby. Yes, Jesus, but in my peculiar case, I am expecting another baby in addition to Him. You see, my wife is pregnant, and has a scheduled C-section for December 26.
As the pregnancy drew on, people started to ask: “Are you getting excited?” Until recently, my response was: “Not really. I am too busy to be thinking about the baby.” Between my work, my wife’s work, driving our oldest son to school, soccer, and everything else, and caring for a 2-year-old, I didn’t have much time for contemplating the arrival of our little girl.
It might also have been denial. Part of me does not want to think about the sleepless nights, yet.
Last week, I finished grading the last finals of the semester and attended the required meetings before the winter break. I was finally done with school work, until I return back to work after the baby, and at last, I had some time to mentally prepare for our newest child. My wife and I settled on the name (we couldn’t agree on the middle name), and we asked our friends to be godparents. We took the boys to Build-a-Bear to help create a gift for their sister, and we got the baby items (millions of them!) in the right places. Things started to fall in place.
As I focused more time and effort on the baby, I started to get more excited. My anticipation grew accordingly, and it was a great feeling.
Every Advent, I hear homilies and read blogs about making time for Jesus. I know it’s true, but I brush it off as the same old Advent message. I never took it seriously until this year.
The past few months, I had the epiphany that I could be too busy to ignore my own unborn child. It is hard to miss my wife’s growing belly, and my child’s presence is undeniable when she starts the in-utero circus routine every night, just as my wife is about to fall asleep. Even with all these signs in my face, I was too occupied to think about her coming.
It was only when I took time to prepare for her, that her imminent birth became real to me. That is, when I started planning, when I saw the little clothes, when I installed the car seat, and so on. It was these activities that opened my heart to her, and allowed for a joyful anticipation to grow.
The parallel with the coming of Jesus is obvious. We can’t prepare for the coming of Jesus, if we are too busy. We can’t fully celebrate Christmas, if we don’t do anything in Advent. Every December, we need to get ready for Jesus, just like we would prepare for our own child.
We need to see the signs of his coming birth: the Advent wreath and empty manager scenes. We need to prepare our hearts: with Mass, prayer, and confession. We need to share the message: talk about the coming of Jesus with each other, especially our family members.
The more effort and time we put into Advent, the more our anticipation will grow and the more profound our joy will be on Christmas. That’s the lesson my unborn daughter taught me this Advent.
December 18, 2014 03:06
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By Dr. H. P. Bianchi