Saturday, November 22, 2008

Good Advice

I went to confession today and I got some good advice:

"People can live without truth, but they can't live without explanations."
— Fr. Ken Sedlak, C.Ss.R.

What the father meant by this is that our whole consciousness is wrapped up in making sense of our existence. We try to take simple facts (like, things always seem to fall down) and try to explain them into truths (like, the Law of Gravity). Mostly we do this in our everyday lives.

— Why is Pod-Man getting C's and D's in math? : Because he won't apply himself.

— Why is Erin's speech slurred? : Because he's been drinking.

— Why am I so unhappy? : Because of my mother/father/wife/husband/rotten kid ...

The problem with most explanations is that they are self-serving. (Surely I'm not the problem!) If we could be really honest with ourselves, then we could formulate explanations that closely approximate the truth. Until we can do this, we have to doubt ourselves, ask if it isn't really our fault, give others the benefit of the doubt, perhaps even accept blame we feel we don't deserve. Sometimes we need to defy the obvious explanation, suspend judgement, and simply extend ourselves to be charitable.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Extremism In America: part II

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Years ago, when my son was seven or eight, we watched the Spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Pod-man loved it! It was fast, it was exciting, the music was thrilling, there were twists and surprises. But then the next day he came to me with a question. “Blondie is good, Angel Eyes is bad, and Tuco is ugly — but is Tuco good or bad?”

“Well — what does he do?”

“He’s greedy and he kills people, but he’s brave, and he loves his brother, and he prays for the dead, and he wears the scapular.”

“So —?”

“So — he’s a good person who does bad things!” Pod-man fairly shouted, delighted to have figured this out.

“Just like you!”

He sighed, crestfallen, “Just like me.”

Life is a Messy Business

I have noticed that while extremists reason in black and white (something is either right or wrong), relativists see everything in shades of gray (who are we to judge?), but that life itself is made up of spots of black and white. It is easy to point to specific actions we have taken and praise or condemn them as good or bad (acts of charity, nights of drunkenness, devoted service, neglected duty, willing sacrifice, wanton indulgence), but it is difficult to either beatify or condemn anyone we know well. Life is just a messy business. Good people do bad things. Sometimes the easy way out is just too easy not to take. Who cannot live without regret?

Please compare these two examples:

Mr. J— is a friend of mine who just got married. He’s prosperous, a professional, very ethical about his business. His wife is well-educated, good hearted, works for a non-profit organization accomplishing good things. For what it’s worth, they’re good-looking too. But I found out at their wedding that they have no intention of having children — ever.

Miss. H— is another friend. She’s also a professional, highly creative in her work, well respected in her field. She’s also a mom, and one of the best mother’s I know. Her daughter is bright, well adjusted, happy, and, for what it’s worth, cute as a bug. Miss. H— is also a lesbian.

Now — which of these people is part of the culture of death? The sterile heterosexual, or the fertile lesbian? There’s something to admire and condemn about each of them, isn’t there? Frankly, I am more disappointed by the selfish couple than by the lesbian, but you might add things up differently.

And who is a better example? I genuinely hesitate to have my kids abound a lot of DINKS (i.e. sterile couples, “Double Income No Kids”) but I really don’t think that Miss. H— is going to make homosexuality so glamourous as to entice my kids.

And what kinds of sins are being committed here? Both examples are being sexually selfish, but the sterile couple are being socially selfish as well, since they contribute nothing to the next generation.

It’s a messy business, isn’t it?

Familiarity Breeds Familiarity

It’s hard to hate someone you know, isn’t it? You might find Mr. J— and Miss. H— despicable from my description, but they are my friends and I like them despite their failings. It is telling that, in response to my last post on extremism, John Jansen and Maggie Lee (who both know me personally) never questioned the earnestness of my appeal, while RobK (who only knows me from our frequent web contacts) and Jill (who knows me not at all), were more critical.

Social scientists have long commented on how homogeneous groups become ever more extreme, while heterogeneous groups seek consensus. Private clubs become ever more disdainful of outsiders, while disparate groups of army conscripts form lasting bonds. America was once full of heterogeneous groups (not only draftees, but public school cohorts, “main line” churches, trade unions, neighborhoods) but less and less this is the case. Every demographic indicator shows that we are sorting ourselves out. People “shop churches” for ones filled with like-minded parishioners. Neighborhoods show ever more homogenous voting patterns and “life-styles.” Colleges and universities pitch themselves to differing cultural types. The three choices of network TV are replaced with a cornucopia of entertainment options. Why, in the 1960’s, when most households had but one television, Ed Sullivan, who offered “something for everyone,” was big; a rock-n-roll band for the kids, a night-club comedian for dad, and a crooner for mom. But now, who watches the same things that their kids do? Once “Top 40 AM” radio stations played songs that we all knew (we all had our favorites, but we knew and heard them all), nowadays the “top 40” is irrelevant. In our day, conservatives have given up on movies and network TV, liberals detest talk radio, greens and libertarians have given up on all mass media. I could probably name a dozen songs, movies, TV shows from the sixties that anyone my age would know; can you name one song, movie, or TV show produced in the last ten years that all of the people you know have actually heard or seen?

This can’t be good.

The Cost of Extremism

Judy Brown recently condemned a proposal to ban most abortions (excepting only rape, incest, and the health of the mother) in South Dakota and, possibly because of this, the proposal went down to defeat. Who among us would not prefer to see fewer abortions, yet her stance might just have insured that more abortions take place in South Dakota.

Have you ever met someone who thinks third-trimester abortion should be legal? I have, and they all give the same argument. None of them actually favor third-trimester abortion, but they all say something like “if we let them ban that, then pretty soon they’ll ban all abortions.” Do you suppose (maybe?) that they think this because the Pro-Life movement is dominated by unbending extremists like Judy Brown?

The vast bulk of the public thinks that first trimester abortion should be allowed, while second- and third-trimester abortions are an abomination. Virtually all European countries have laws to this effect: why not here? Probably because extremists like Judy Brown and Rad-Feminists are controlling our debate.

Suppose for a minute, that there were a mass movement, a ground-swell, to ban late-term abortion. Don’t you think that many Democratic politicians would sign on to it? Do you think that if the extremists were marginalized, instead of the majority, that both parties would compromise and come to a consensus that is better than what we have now?

If an orphanage were on fire, you’d run in and save as many babies as you could, right? You wouldn’t stand aside and say, “Since I can’t save them all, I won’t do anything!”

Extremism is Counter-Productive

Years ago, many years ago, when my college-age daughter was a pre-schooler, she and I were walking down Grand Avenue, when we ran into some Pro-Life activists protesting in front of an abortion clinic. I’ve lived in this town all my life, but I didn’t even know the clinic was there, so I was very surprised to run into protesters. And they had signs, very graphic signs, showing aborted babies (forgive me, I almost typed “fetuses”). Pumpkin was shocked and revolted. I hustled her right by, but she saw the worst of it just the same. That night she had nightmares. To this day she remembers those pictures — and she resents it. Far from having a salubrious effect upon her, she now thinks of all Pro-Lifers as being fanatics. There are probably many factors causing her to fall away from the Church, and for being “pro choice” (such as her “pro-choice” mother, her poor catechism, the liberal college she is now attending), but I will always think that this was the first factor that undermined the moral values that I tried to instill in her.

[When my friend John Jansen told me he would be part of a campaign to “show the truth of abortion” I discussed this with him. He thinks that showing such pictures has a converting effect (it is, after all, the truth of the matter), while I think it has an alienating impact. Just the same, when he was protesting downtown, my son and I stopped by on our way to work to show our support for him. He is doing God’s work and we can only hope that he is right.]

Contrast this, if you will, to my experience with my friend Moira.

I was first introduced to Moira by an associate from work, who was sure that we would not get along as Moira was a Radical Feminist and I a believing Catholic. But we talked, and she found me interesting, and we became friends of a sort. We saw each other from time to time, talked a lot, became closer friends, and she became curious about my faith. For I never condemned her, never criticized her, I understood where she was coming from (for my mother was totally secular and I had grown up around such people); I merely offered my own life and experiences as an example for her. And she responded. Her own life had been directionless, without sustenance, perhaps even meaningless, and she began to see that my faith was a distinct contrast to this. After a year or so, she told me that she was taking instruction in the faith. I had the great privilege of seeing someone that I had influenced be accepted into the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith.

And she met a fellow. They dated, became engaged, and then he too joined the Church. Now they are married, she is with child, and I fully expect to be Godfather to her child next May.

Her sister, without any prodding by Moira, came to see the real strength of Moira’s faith, and now she is enrolled in a RCIA program. She will probably become Catholic this coming Easter.

That’s how it’s done. By quiet faith, good example, friendship, and understanding.

Not by hectoring, condemnations, badgering, slurs, insults, intolerance, and all the rest that extremism entails.

Last Things

One day I will face God and his Perfect Judgement. On that dreadful day I will have much to answer for, but I will be able to point to Moira and say, “See — at least I have brought one of your sheep back to the fold.”

What will Judy Brown point to? All those needless abortions in South Dakota?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

From the Observer's Guide to Popes, Cardinals, Bishops, Priests and Religious


It was recently brought to my attention by a Religious Sister, that she was not a nun. Upon looking it up, I discovered that "monk" and "nun" refer only to cloistered religious, while "friar" (or "brother") and "sister" refer to religious who live an active vocation in the world of service to the needy, sick, poor, and uneducated. The confusion arises because, just as we address all priests as "father," so we address all male religious (who are not priests) as "brother," and all female religious (who are not abbesses) as "sister."

That's right — you weren't taught by nuns, you were taught by sisters!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Edwina Froehlich: Apostle of Breast-Feeding

Edwina Hearn was born in the Bronx borough of New York City in 1915 and moved to Chicago to attend Mundelein College in the late 1930’s. She was both socially conscious and a devout Catholic. She worked with the Catholic Family Movement and was national executive director of the Young Christian Workers, a Catholic lay organization. She married John Froehlich in 1948, at the rather late age, for that time, of thirty-three.

In the 1940's, Edwina witnessed her older sister Pauline go through what were then standard hospital childbirth procedures: plenty of drugs, the use of forceps and no fathers allowed. Her sister also was discouraged from breast-feeding.

Two years later, when she was pregnant with her first son, she was told that she was too old to breast-feed. She scoffed at this and the other conventional wisdoms of the time, gave birth at her Franklin Park home with her husband and an obstetrician attending, and breast-fed all three of her sons. At that time only 18% of American mothers breast-fed; it was considered old-fashioned, a cause of colic, and generally bad for babies.

At a Church picnic, in August of 1956, Marian Tompson and her friend Mary White engaged in a conversation about the joys and difficulties of breast-feeding. The two women decided that, in the face of the existing social opposition to breast-feeding, a community organization (what would nowadays be called a “support group”) should be formed and they immediately approached other women that they knew to be breast-feeding; Mary Ann Cahill, Mary Ann Kerwin, Viola Lennon, Betty Wagner, and Edwina Froehlich then pregnant with her third son. They met in the living room of Mary White’s home and founded what became known as the La Leche League. This name was chosen by the seven Catholic founders of the organization not only to honor of Our Lady of Happy Delivery and Plentiful Milk (“Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto”) but also because the word “breast” could not be used in the newspapers of the time.

The first formal La Leche League meeting was held in Mrs. Froehlich’s home in October, 1956. For the first several years, the league operated out of Mrs. Froehlich’s home in Franklin Park, Ill. She’d care for her children and do chores while walking around the house with a phone receiver tucked between her shoulder and ear, counseling women from around the country. A second line was installed in her home for just that purpose.

Mrs. Froehlich was the league’s executive secretary from 1956 to 1983 and remained engaged with the organization through the end of her life as a member of the founders advisory council. Today the La Leche League International counsels nearly 300,000 women a month in more than 20 countries.

In 1958 several of the founders, including Mrs. Froehlich, put together a loose-leaf binder of what they thought they knew about breast-feeding. They called it “The Womanly Art of Breast-feeding.” The first printed edition appeared in 1963 and now more than two million copies are in print.

This last June 8 Edwina Froehlich died at the age of 93 two weeks after suffering a stroke of apoplexy.



Mrs. Froehlich was the very model of what I consider to be good Catholic social activism. She saw a social need and organized her friends to meet that need. She embodied the Catholic virtues of charity, subsidiarity, and generosity. In 2058 I shall, if I am still alive, be 98 years old. I wish to travel to Rome in that year, where I am certain I shall hear Edwina Froehlich confirmed as a saint.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Extremism In America

Last night, in addition to being election day, was the last performance of Pearl Fishers at Lyric Opera. I had planned on going to the Obama rally in Grant Park later but, right after the Opera, I went out for a quick drink along with most of my fellow supernumeraries . The results came so quickly that I never had a chance to get to the rally and I was having a beer at Stocks & Blonds when Obama made his victory speech.

Most of us were pretty happy, but my buddy Bill wasn’t. He’s a nice guy, friendly, easy to work with, conscientious; I’ve been in four or five operas with him and I can’t think of a bad thing to say about him. So I was surprised, not that he supported McCain, but that he talked about Obama as if he were Al Sharpton. He was genuinely concerned that Obama was some kind of race hustler who was going to enroll millions on welfare, create thousands of government sinecures for hordes of shiftless loafers, rig-up affirmative action so that masses of near-cretins would get all the spots in our best universities, and tax the productive sector into bankruptcy. Of course, Bill knew that I was an Obama supporter, but he held no ill will against me, and he knew that I certainly didn’t want any of these bad things to happen, yet he thought this election was nothing short of a catastrophe.

This got me thinking about extremism.

Now, I know a lot of different people. I used to be a Godless Communist and I still know lots of hard-core leftists. I go to the most conservative Catholic parish in Chicago. Most of my clients at work are designers, gallery owners, and restaurateurs, and I also work at Lyric Opera, so I talk to a lot of artistic types. I handle all of my deliveries myself, so I know the dock workers at the buildings, the drivers on the paper trucks, the bike messengers, all of them blue-collar guys. And I love to talk, so when I go to the Sox games or the Symphony I always strike up a conversation with the people in the next seat. My kids are in public school and I routinely talk to all the parents there. My best male friend is gay and we usually hang together in the toughest leather bar in Chicago, while my best female friend is a Maronite Catholic, recently married, who wants me to be godfather to the baby she is now caring. I am probably the only printer anywhere who has done pro bono work for the Midwest Workers Organization, Daughters of Saint Paul, West Town Bike Coöperative, Socialist Labor Party, Saint John Cantius parish, and some anarchists who were trying to get a fellow off death row. I think that I know more different people, from more different points of view, than just about anybody.

And I hear a lot about extremism.

I hear my Catholic friends speak of pro-aborts as being homicidal monsters with a crass indifference to human life. Yet none of the pro-choicers that I know regard abortion as anything less than a human tragedy, a last resort only to be used in a desperate position.

Similarly, my secular friends see the religious as a sort of American Taliban, intent upon depriving women of all rights and keeping them ignorant. Yet none of my pro-life friends favor the incarceration of women who have abortions and they all give their daughters excellent educations.

I know Republicans who are convinced the Democratic Party is full of socialists who want to string bankers up from lamp-posts, while my Democratic friends are convinced that Republicans want to return to the twelve-hour days of sweat-shop labor. Conservatives who think that a single-payer health system would mean vital care routinely denied to patients, and liberals who think that the poor are being allowed only third-world health-care in this the wealthiest of nations. Conservatives who think the liberals are trying to wreak the economy and Greens who think the capitalists are trying to ruin the environment. Those who favor the war see the peacenicks as traitors who want to capitulate to terrorist demands, while those against it see their opponents as warmongers embarked upon an imperialist adventure to pillage the oil resources of a country that had nothing to do with terrorism.

Yes, there’s a lot of extremism in America — but it all seems to be on the other side!

Most people seem to want a good education for their kids, an economy that provides a decent living for all, health-care for the sick, fewer abortions, security at home, and peace overseas. Everybody hates paying taxes and wants the government to leave them alone, yet they see certain services as essential and want the government to make the other guy behave. No one wants their kid to grow up to be a whore, or a drug addict, or a child molester. Everyone thinks they’re not paid enough, that things cost too much, and that their kids are growing up in a tougher world than they did. Who doesn’t think the culture is going to hell, yet who wants government censorship to clean things up? Everyone hates their government and loves their country. And they are also sure their enemies control the levers of power and are just ruining the country they love so much.

Really, we are not so different.

I would estimate that about one person in twenty is an extremist, conspiracy theorist, religious fanatic, predatory sexual deviant, sociopath, libertarian, hate-monger, racist, or some other kook you can’t deal with. But the rest are good folks.

When I have a party, I invite all my friends. I have never seen any discord between Brother Chad (of the Cannons Regular of Saint John Cantious) and Richard, a homosexual opera director; they both love choral singing. Nor any difficulty between Karl the anarchist and Ed the real estate speculator. No one cares that Gail is a lesbian or Arlene a vegetarian, and Michael the pacifist gets along quite well with Brian who is proud of his service in Iraq. And everyone looks after the kids, because you know, kids can get into mischief.

See — it’s really hard to demonize someone you know.

Part of this country’s problem is that there are so few things that bring us together. In my father’s day there was a draft and most men spent a few years in the service. This brought them together: north and south, rich and poor, Jew and gentile, they had to live and work together and they did. And churches were broad institutions. There were liberal Baptists in those days, and conservative Presbyterians. Most denominations held a spectrum of views, but now people have “shopped churches” and cluster together, conservatives in the Evangelical denominations, liberals in the “Main Line” denominations, Catholics distributed between “traditional” and “welcoming” parishes. And there was over-lap between the political parties. There were Liberal Republicans who favored small government, yet championed civil rights. And there were Conservative Democrats who were stridently working class, yet held to old values of patriotism and tradition.

All gone.

I’m against the war — must you question my patriotism?

I’m against abortion — must you call me anti-woman?

I’m against GAT and NAFTA — must you revile me as” protectionist?”

I favor a single payer health care system — must you jeer me as “socialist?”

I’m against gay marriage — must you call me a hate-monger?

I favor taxing the rich — must you deride this as “class envy?”

I’m a patriotic American — can’t you just accept that, even if I’m different than you?

We really are one nation, we are very close. The fellow voting the other ticket isn’t really an extremist, he just thinks that we need to take a different path to the things we all want. Talk to him and you’ll see.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008