Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Marriage Market

In the May 2010 issue of First Things, there is an article (available on-line to subscribers only, for now) by Timothy Reichert that attempts to look at the effects of contraceptive technologies in socio-economic terms. Reichert argues that what was at one time a single mating market with roughly equal participation by men and women has since divided into two separate markets. The sex market is dominated by an over-representation of men and scarcity of women, whereas the opposite condition holds true in the marriage market. The relative over-abundance of women in the marriage market means that women have a disadvantageous bargaining position and therefore end up with lower quality marriages and spouses than in the past, when only one market existed. In other words, they are forced to settle for what they can get. From this, he concludes that contraception is bad for women.

I thoroughly agree that contraception is bad for women and for society, but Reichert’s socio-economic argument doesn’t come anywhere close to proving it. I would offer the counter argument that men who choose to vacate the marriage market in favor of the sex market would not have been the most stable husbands and fathers, and therefore removing them from the marriage market is a good thing. While the total population of men in the marriage market might be smaller, a larger proportion of that population would be fit for fatherhood. Further, that means that a man seeking marriage would have an improved bargaining position and, therefore, would not need to settle for a wife of lower quality. This is a good thing for the man who wants to raise a family.

While my wife might have had to settle for a husband who was only worth 50 cents to her dollar, my one dollar got me a two dollar wife!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Say What?

Sometimes, all I can do is shake my head and admit that I just don’t understand. That happens to me a lot when I try to read the Gospel of John. It’s not the entire gospel, mind you, just the extended discourses, where Jesus seems to say the same thin in slightly different ways five different times. Even after all of that, I’m still left scratching my head and asking myself, “What did he just say?”

Take, for instance, John 12:44-50. It’s the gospel reading from the Lectionary for Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Easter (today). There’s something there about belief, something about judgment, and something having to do with equivalence between Jesus and God the Father, but for the life of me, I can’t make mush sense of what He’s saying. I know that whatever it is, it has to fit in with the rest of scripture and with what the Church has infallibly taught through the ages. So the passage can’t possible be saying that as long as long as I believe that Jesus is the Messiah, none of my other sins matter. Belief carries with it some moral imperative, and we cannot know just what calculus God will apply at the Judgment when he separates the sheep from the goats.

I read passages like this, and I think, “It’s no wonder your disciples didn’t understand what you were saying to them.” I live in a post-Pentecost world. I’ve received the Holy Spirit through Baptism and Confirmation, and I don’t understand!

It’s almost enough to make me want to go and read Newman’s essay on the development of doctrine to see how the Church itself had to work through all of this.

My Addiction

I think I have a food addiction. The first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning is breakfast. I can’t go more than a couple of hours without craving the stuff. I routinely snack on sunflower seeds at my desk. In the post-lunch afternoon, attempting to abstain leads to severe drowsiness. I have to further admit that it isn’t just food. Almost every day, I drink a pot of coffee in the morning and a half pot in the afternoon. If I’m in an exceptional mood (good or bad), the afternoon coffee is replaced by a massive 44 ounce Mt. Dew from the soda fountain at whichever gas station is the most convenient.

I’m a mess, and it’s a condition that I know is not sustainable. Sooner or later, it will catch up with me. I don’t want to be like the guy in my office who, every day at lunch time, pulls out his carrots and celery and yogurt. I see that, and it makes me want to cry.

It seems like it should be so easy to just tell myself to exercise some self-discipline. My dirty little secret, though, is that I have next to no self-discipline. It’s kind of like saying that the first step to being a saint is choosing not to sin. It sounds so easy, and yet I still find myself crawling back to the confessional with the same list of transgressions again and again.

So, I’m out of the closet, so to speak. Even though I can run a 5K, that 40 extra pounds that I’m carrying around makes it a lot harder than it has to be. I need to make a change.

I’m not writing solely in physical terms, here. Over the last couple of years, I’ve discerned that my body and my spirit are united through my person. I don’t mean for that to sound mystical. What I mean is that where I’ve discovered a weakness of the will affecting my physical body, there’s usually an analogous weakness of the will that affects my spiritual life. I cannot remain a self-indulgent glutton physically while expecting to make any progress toward holiness, and by holiness I mean the kind of communion with God that was intended by our Creator. Unlike an angel, the human person has both body and spirit.

Having recognized the need for change, the next question is how to go about it. Do I quit cold-turkey, or wean myself gradually? I don’t know that the absolutist, cold-turkey approach could be maintained. It might work for alcoholics, but food is kind of fundamental to life. I’m going to go for the gradual wean, with a goal of management. I suspect that will be easier on those around me. My wife was relieved, this past Lent, to learn that I wasn’t giving up coffee, and it wasn’t because she drinks the stuff. I’m not sure about the spiritual analogy, though. It just won’t do to say, “I’m not going to stop sinning, I’m just going to sin less.” Yet, I think most spiritual directors would agree that trying to erase all of one’s faults at once is a recipe for failure. Pick the most glaring, they would say, and focus on that one.

The man that I am is not the man that I want to be. That’s not meant to be a statement of self-loathing. Rather, it is a recognition that I am far from perfect, and that improvement is possible and desired. I hope that I never reach a state where I think that improvement either is not possible or is not desired. The transformation that I’m looking for won’t take place without effort, and the sooner I begin, the better off I (and hopefully, those around me) will be.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I Got Forkus Prime!

Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say, echoing her patroness St. Therese of Liseux, that the secret of sanctitiy was not to be found in the doing of great things, but rather in the doing of little things with great love. I think that a corollary might be that the secret of joy is found not in rejoicing at the great momentous occasions, but rather in finding reasons to rejoice in the daily mundane occasions. It is the kind of sentiment that G. K. Chesterton wrote about in Orthodoxy:

It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship onto the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck.

Any item that we handle during the day can be a source of joy and gratitude, some things even more so than others. I have a particular example in mind.

We have many forks in our silverware drawer. Most are inexpensive stamped steel. There is one fork, however, that stands out as having superior quality. From the heft, to the material, to it’s curvaceous form, that fork is definitely the elite of the fork drawer. I’ve taken to calling it Forkus Prime.

Forkus Prime has the uncanny ability to brighten my day. When I make my morning breakfast (not to be confused with afternoon breakfast or evening breakfast) and reach for a utensil, I receive a mini-burst of joy when I find Forkus Prime waiting for me. Moreover, I find that the joy persists beyond the moment. Even in the face of a grouchy, pregnant wife, my mood is elevated because “I got Forkus Prime!” It is amazine how I can be affected by such a simple thing.

I have considered splurging for a whole drawer full of Forkus Primes. I suspect, however, that the mini-burst of joy would become severely diluted. In plenty, I would find it exceedingly difficult to achieve Chesterton’s ideal of rejoicing in all things as though they were the only thing saved from the shipwreck. It is much better to play the lottery every time I reach into the drawer in the hope of finding the occasional Easter egg, however humble it might be.

I admit that I still have a long way to go. The ideal would be to rejoice in all the forks, not just Forkus Prime, and not just the forks, but the eggs, toast, and plate as well. I can sometimes accomplish this, provided that I’m already in a reasonably good mood.

Only Forkus Prime, however, has succeeded in changing my foul mood to fair, and for that I am thankful.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Channeling Chesterton

In the May 2010 issue of First Things, David Hart writes a review of the recently published 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Predictably enough for a contributor to First Things, Hart is unimpressed by the arguments submitted by the new atheists for their disbelief. There was at least one paragraph that I particularly liked, in which Hart almost seems to be channeling G. K. Chesterton:

The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefather in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap).

Friday, April 16, 2010

Nuclear Dreams

Nuclear power has been getting renewed interest lately as a carbon-free source of energy. I agree that a nuke plant will (or should) produce energy without any atmospheric emissions. If you're worried about global warming and the greenhouse effects of carbon dioxide, then nuclear power should look pretty attractive.

I have some experience in dealing with spent nuclear fuel. It is some seriously radioactive stuff. It has to be handled and transported in big, expensive, and heavily shielded containers. It is commonly stored in large pools of water, for both shielding and cooling purposes. I don't believe that nuclear power will ever be implemented on a large scale in the United States because no political agreement can be reached on how to deal with the spent fuel.

The last best hope of the nuclear industry was going to be the storage facility under Yucca Mountain. That facility, which would concentrate the nation's spent nuclear fuel in one safe location rather than distributed across the country, was all but abandoned after environmental impact statements could only guarantee that there would be no leaks for 10,000 years. Instead, we end up with fuel stored in distributed pools that have a much higher chance of leakage.

Dreams of a nuclear future will remain nothing more than dreams until somebody solves the problem of spent fuel storage.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Red Letters

I have a friend who, when discussing the Bible, often refers to the words in red. Some publishers print the gospels using red ink for all of the words that are a direct quotation of Jesus. My friend believes that the words in red deserve special attention.

The gospel passage for Wednesday of the Second Week of Easter is John 3:16-21. I don't own a red letter Bible, but my Revised Standard Version published by Ignatius Press does not indicate that the passage is a quotation. I had always assumed, therefore, that it was inspired commentary by the evangelist John. However, my New International Version published by the International Bible Society (it was a gift) treats it as a continuation of the direct quote in John 3:10-15.

So, depending on which Bible you happen to pick up, the often-cited John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.") might or might not be written in red. It makes no difference to me, but for some, like my friend, it does matter. But how? Whether red or not, the words are inspired and inerrant, and even the words attributed to Jesus are subject to interpretation by translators working from manuscripts in a language other than that which was spoken. The words were spoken in Aramaic, the oldest manuscripts are in Greek, and we typically read them in English.

It might be interesting to argue over where the closing quote belongs, but I think that it's ultimately irrelevant.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Barriers to Faith

There was another conclusion drawn from that Knights of Columbus/Marist poll highlighted in April's Columbia upon which I would like to comment. Catholic millenials, while more likely than their peers to believe in God, are less likely to attend religious services.

These statistics raist important questions relevant to evangelization. For instance, what does it mean to say that faith is an important part of young Americans' lives, while they are nonetheless dissatisfied with their experience of religious institutions? What form must Christian witness take among priests and the lay faithful if young people are looking for spiritual answers, but don't think they can find them by going to church?

It is not without a sadness that I admit to sharing, to some degree, the sentiment of the millenials toward the institutional Church. I love the Church, which is the Body of Christ. It is a great tragedy that our experience of the Church often becomes an obstacle rather than a conduit to a grace-filled life of communion with God.

I have read many beautiful words about the liturgy. I have no doubt that every mass is a sublime mystery that affords us the opportunity to participate in the paschal sacrifice of Christ - his suffering, death, and resurrection - in a real and efficacious way. We are united with the entire Church - militant, suffering, and triumphant - in praising the Father with the Son through the Holy Spirit. I believe this to be true, but it's so hard to see past my own distractions and the mundane ordinariness of the liturgies as they are often celebrated. The glorious reality is hidden behind so many layers of humdrum and sloppy ritual that I have to keep reminding myself why I'm there and hoping that the grace penetrates through all of those layers. Only rarely is the liturgy of our common experience as edifying as it should be or could be.

Scandals in the Church come and go. The long Lent of 2002 was a painful period, and I had hoped that the blood-letting, however severe, would be quick. Yet here we are, eight years later, and sordid details from the disordered lives of figures representing the face of the Church to the world continue to surface. The Church, as a human institution, failed utterly in its moral responsibility. Bishops and diocesan officials have been revealed to be very capable of making erroneous judgments. Formerly revered figures like Fr. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, have been exposed as frauds. The fact that even such authoritative and holy a figure as Pope John Paul II were misled leads to what Patrick Madrid has dubbed "the Maciel Effect." When no endorsement can be trusted, the only logical stance that remains is skepticism toward everything.

The barriers to faith seem to grown higher day by day.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Millenials and Marriage

The April issue of Columbia magazine features a report on a poll recently conducted by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion and sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. The poll focused on the moral and religious attitudes of the Millenial Generation, defined as those who came of age around the year 2000 and are currently between the ages of 18 and 29.

The poll results reveal that millenials place a high value on spirituality, marriage and family. Their top two long-term priorities are growing closer to God and getting married. However, they seem awfully confused about how to get there. It's as if, finding themselves in Columbus and wanting to go to Cincinnati, they happily bought a ticket to Cleveland.

I say this because, while millenials value marriage, they don't value sex. Sex and marriage, in the millenial view, don't have anything to do with one another. No only that, they also fail to see that sex and any moral dimension at all.

Millenials are less likely than previous generations to judge issues related to sexual morality, such as premarital sex, same-sex marriage and same-sec relationships, as morally wrong. And Catholic millenials - along with other Catholics - even more commonly consider these as either morally acceptable or not moral issues at all.

Denying that sex and marriage go together does nothing to change the truth consistently proclaimed by the Church, whether in the language of Paul VI (procreative and unitive aspects) or John Paul II (total self-donation). The millenials seem blissfully unaware that their attitudes toward sexual relations undermines their chances of ever achieving what they claim are their top priorities. Every mile that they travel toward Cleveland takes them farther away from Cincinnati.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


I am really irritated today. First, I write my first blog post in a week, and the whole thing disappears somewhere into Blogger. Then, I find that our school's social studies program is teaching our children that an indulgence is "an official pardon for a sin given by the pope in return for money." Three times on their review sheet, they have to repeat this erroneous definition!

Since this is a history class, I'll quote from a history book, John Vidmar's The Catholic Church Through the Ages:

Finally and most famously, there was the sale of indulgences. An indulgence is the remision of the temporal punishment due to a forgiven sin, granted by the church, and effective before God. With each act of confession and absolution, a penance was (and is) attached which requires the penitent to make some sort of "atonement" for his sins. In the early church and right up to the late Middle Ages, these penances could be physical and public: e.g., standing outside a church each Sunday for a number of weeks or years, having certain privileges and rights revoked, going on pilgrimage (to local shrines for lesser sins, or distant and more prestigious shrines for greater sins). Increasingly, as these penances disappeared, the notion of getting souls out of purgatory gained ground. And this could be done by donating money to charity and for Masses to be said on behalf of the deceased. Chantry chapels appeared, at which priests did nothing more than say Masses all day for various intentions. One papal official wrote: "The Lord desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should pay and live."

Some preachers used indulgences as part of their act. The most notorious of these preachers was the German Dominican Johannes Tetzel. Most bishops in Germany did not permit him to come into their dioceses, such was his reputation for an almost circus-like performance. But Albrecht and the diocese of Mainz were out of money, and so Tetzel was invited to preach a new indulgence - for the building of the new St. Peter's in Rome on the condition that half the money went to the diocese of Mainz. This drove Luther over the edge.
Note: the indulgence does not forgive the sin. The indulgence reduces the temporal punishment for sin. The Church, through the power of binding and loosing granted by Christ to the apostles and recounted in the Bible, has the authority to grant indulgences. It is not necessary to donate money to the Church in order to get an indulgence.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Parenthood - To Do or To Be?

Is parenthood a matter of what you do or a matter of what you are? If being a mom or a dad is an active verb, then parenting can be reduced to a skill set, and one is a parent whenever the skill set is accessed. As soon as the kids are gone, accoding to this mode of thinking, I no longer have to worry about being Dad. I can just be Kurt.

Although it might not be put that way, the attitude seems frightfully common, and I strongly believe that it’s a bunch of bunk. Parenthood is a state of being. If you have children, you are a parent. You can drop your babies off with a hired caregiver and drive away, but that doesn’t change your state as a parent. Becoming a parent carries with it an ontological changes not unlike the kind of change associated with vocations to priesthood or married life, albeit in the natural order rather than sacramentally.

My wife has a friend who provides childcare out of her home. She related that a mother had recently called her and asked if she could drop her children off for the afternoon. “I need a break from being a mom,” she explained. This thinking is wrong because even after she drops the kids, she’s still a mom, and to act otherwise is a betrayal of her responsibilities. I understand the difficulties. She can say that the kids are driving her batty, and she needs an afternoon of peace to regroup, but she can no more pretend to not be a mom than she can pretend to not be a wife. That is to say, she can pretend, but it will only be pretend, and it will not be without consequences.

There are at least two reasons this is so, both of which are subjective. The first is internal to the individual (i.e., how he or she sees himself or herself), the second is external to the individual (i.e., how other, especially the children, see the individual). The first involves, potentially, the weakening of the moral imperatives of parenthood. The second revolves around the dilution of parental moral authority.

I’ll leave it to the reader to fill in the blanks.