I spent the weekend awaiting the final statement from the Synod in Rome (while catching up on Doctor Who). My take on the ongoing debate is here. I don’t have much to add tonight, except to say again that the most significant shift is merely that there is finally an open, unafraid dialogue and at the same time no consensus on the most contentious issues, i.e. how to handle divorced, re-married and gay Catholics and their families. That means that Francis has succeeded in a core early task: the beginning of a real conversation about gay people and other less-than-ideal families in search of the truth about us.
Meanwhile, another moonbeam of hope, this time in journalism. There’s a new browser addon you can add to Firefox or Google Chrome which makes sure you don’t mistake a “sponsored content” fake article for the real thing. It’s called AdDetector. Instead of searching for the deliberately subtle fig-leaf of a disclosure, it will add a big, bright red banner to any ad posing as an article. I downloaded it and tested it a bit. Here’s what a page on Slate now looks like:
Pretty cool, huh? Sometimes, it can get very intrusive, like this AdDetector version of a fake article at the Atlantic:
Hard to miss. Download AdDetector and force “sponsored content” to be transparent. And the more often you come up against these big red banners, the more you know you shouldn’t trust the site/magazine/blog you’re reading. So far, the add-on is only for a handful of major sites – from the New York Times to Buzzfeed – but the add-on creator’s Reddit page says he’s happy to add others. Get in touch with him and get some of the worst sites on the list.
Dish t-shirts are for sale here, including the new “Know Dope” shirts, which are detailed here. I’ve been wearing mine this weekend and just remembered to take it off before Mass. 19 more readers became subscribers this weekend. You can join them here – and get access to all the readons and Deep Dish – for a little as $1.99 month. Gift subscriptions are available here.
“After a time, tired by his dancing apparently, he settled on the window ledge in the sun, and, the queer spectacle being at an end, I forgot about him. Then, looking up, my eye was caught by him. He was trying to resume his dancing, but seemed either so stiff or so awkward that he could only flutter to the bottom of the window-pane; and when he tried to fly across it he failed. Being intent on other matters I watched these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting for him to resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has stopped momentarily, to start again without considering the reason of its failure. After perhaps a seventh attempt he slipped from the wooden ledge and fell, fluttering his wings, on to his back on the window sill. The helplessness of his attitude roused me. It flashed upon me that he was in difficulties; he could no longer raise himself; his legs struggled vainly. But, as I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him to right himself, it came over me that the failure and awkwardness were the approach of death. I laid the pencil down again.
The legs agitated themselves once more. I looked as if for the enemy against which he struggled. I looked out of doors. What had happened there? Presumably it was midday, and work in the fields had stopped. Stillness and quiet had replaced the previous animation. The birds had taken themselves off to feed in the brooks. The horses stood still. Yet the power was there all the same, massed outside indifferent, impersonal, not attending to anything in particular. Somehow it was opposed to the little hay-coloured moth. It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again.
Malcolm Jones turns to the author of The Plague as an example of sober, sane thinking about widespread disease:
Based on the evidence in his notebooks, Camus assiduously studied the literature of plague, from Thucydides to Boccaccio to Artaud and certainly the Bible. But always for this author, the plague is foremost a scientific fact, a sickness spread by rats and fleas that infects humans both good and bad indiscriminately. Like the white whale in Moby-Dick, a favorite novel of Camus’s, the plague is lethal but it has no rationale. It is a force as opaque as it is deadly.
Camus is not interested in explaining bubonic plague. He only cares about exploring its effect on a population and most particularly on their responses.
The inevitable media headline from the final Relatio of the Synod on the Family will be: “Bishops scrap welcome to gays.” And this is literally true. The astonishing mid-term Relatio’s language of outreach, inclusion and welcome shrank last night into much more arid, cold and unsparing prose.
We don’t yet have an official English translation of the critical paragraphs, but the gist is clear. Gone are the paragraphs that extol the “gifts and qualities” of gay people; gays are no longer to be “welcomed” in a “fraternal space” but merely “accepted with respect and sensitivity”; the church should no longer “value” homosexual orientation; it should merely accept people with “homosexual tendencies.” Of the three paragraphs in the mid-term report, the two with the most positive language have been excised completely; and the remaining one reaffirms the tone and language of Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Here it is – in my unofficial Google-enabled version:
55. Some families live with members with homosexual orientation. In this regard, our view of the pastoral care appropriate to this situation refers to what the Church teaches: There is no foundation whatsoever to assimilate or to establish same-sex unions as even remotely analogous to the plan of God for marriage and the family. “Nevertheless, men and women with homosexual tendencies must be accepted with respect and sensitivity. In their regard should be avoided every sign of unjust discrimination” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, 4).
Notice the very Ratzingerian foot-stamping:
There is no foundation whatsoever to assimilate or to establish same-sex unions as even remotely analogous to the plan of God for marriage and the family.
It’s not exactly subtle. My marriage, according to this version of the text, is light years away from the marriage of my own sister. There isn’t even a remote analogy between her family and mine. In fact, there is no foundation whatsoever to compare the two relationships in any way. Let me simply respond by saying what most Catholics who have encountered these relationships in our own lives would say: it is indeed hard to read this and believe it. This is not because I differ one iota from the church’s view that the life-long, procreative marriage between a man and a woman is a precious, beautiful and unique thing. Two men or two women cannot replicate it, if only because of basic biology. The sacrament of matrimony is a celebration of this unique institution – and cannot be re-fashioned into something else without diluting its central truth.
But where I differ from the old guard is in their refusal to see anything good or precious in the mutual love, responsibility and sacrifice that are as integral to same-sex unions as they are to heterosexual ones. To see nothing worthwhile there, nothing to value, nothing to affirm seems, well, untrue to the reality more and more of us live. As Cardinal Marx of Germany said earlier this week:
“Take the case of two homosexuals who have been living together for 35 years and taking care of each other, even in the last phases of their lives. How can I say that this has no value?”
He cannot, which is why this paragraph – along with two others on the pastoral care of divorced or re-married people – failed to win the 2/3 majority vote for it to be part of the official text.
But it was included anyway – with the vote tallies appended. And there you see why it is not wishful thinking to believe that something profound has indeed occurred so far in this Synod. Neither of the two previous popes would ever have allowed the original language to even see the light of day – Ratzinger as arbiter of church doctrine for decades could sniff heterodoxy on this like a beagle with a distant potato chip – and stamp it out with relentless assiduity. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI would have excised the outreach to gay people altogether. And the idea of a transparent vote tally – revealing a vigorous internal division on these questions – would have been unthinkable.
The true headline of this past remarkable week is therefore: the Vatican hierarchy cannot find a consensus on the question of pastoral care for gays, the divorced and the re-married, and the Pope is happy for this fact to be very, very public. These remain open questions for a year of continued debate and discussion before the second stage of the Synod this time next year and the Pope’s subsequent summary. That these are open questions is the real result of this Synod.
I also think its worth reading Pope Francis’ concluding speech to the Synod, which was granted a four minute standing ovation. It is a beautiful text – certainly more so than the unavoidable consensus-speak of what might be called the interim communiqué. Here is Francis’ Obama-style weighing of two different temptations to avoid:
A temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.
The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”
Avoiding both these temptations is the goal – which has to be accomplished pastorally and with prudential judgment. In his speech, Francis nods to the traditionalists by quoting Benedict XVI verbatim, but then says this:
In an interview worth reading in full, Henri Cole recalls the crucial encouragement he received from Seamus Heaney about his poetry:
I remember once talking to him about my book The Visible Man—it had just been published and I was feeling apologetic about the erotic content. He told me the poems were a record of something in “the arena of human emotion.” The most important thing was to contribute to the arena of human emotion, he insisted. I’ve never forgotten this. And to hear it from the son of a cattle farmer was unexpected. It seemed the most patient and generous response to a book others had dismissed as aberrant. It pushed me forward. He describes himself as being a poet of in-betweenness—in between Catholic and Protestant, in between England and Ireland, in between rural and city life, and so on. He is proof that in-between is a good place for poetry. In my own writing, I am in between the North and the South, in between formalism and free verse, in between vernacular and high speech, and, as a gay man, in between genders. Heaney’s example made me want to fly beyond all the identity markers others assign to me.
Photographer David Stewart captured shots of British life:
‘Thrice Removed’ is the name of a photography book and project by British photographer David Stewart, which developed from David’s personal observations of relationships in families, society and life in general, featuring a series of somehow inter-related characters. Even though these pictures often seem rather dark, there always is an underlying, essentially British humor that can be seen in the details, revealing more and more, the closer you look at it.
Robert Jones notes that “the number of white evangelical Protestants nationwide has slipped from 22 percent in 2007 to 18 percent today.” He thinks “the fact that there are currently five Southern states—Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and North Carolina— where polling shows that the Senate race margins are less than five percentage points indicates that 2014 may be the year that the underlying demographic trends finally exert enough force to make themselves felt”:
Compared to 2007, just after the 2006 midterm elections, the five southern states where there are tight Senate races have one thing in common: the proportion of white evangelical Protestants has dropped significantly.
Researcher Helen Weng suggests that certain forms of meditation amount to “weight training” in empathy:
In a study my colleagues and I conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (directed by Dr. Richard J. Davidson), participants were taught to generate compassion for different categories of people, including both those they love and “difficult” people in their lives. Doing these kinds of exercises is a little like weight training – the compassion “muscle” is strengthened by practicing with people of increasing difficulty, like increasing weights over time.
After only two weeks of online training, participants in our study who practiced compassion meditation every day behaved more altruistically towards strangers compared to another group taught to simply regulate or control their negative emotions. Not only that, the people who were the most altruistic after receiving compassion training also were the individuals who showed the largest changes in how their brains responded to images of suffering. These findings suggest that compassion is a trainable skill, and that practice can actually alter the way our brains perceive suffering and increase our actions to relieve that suffering.