Wednesday, April 25, 2018

In his best interests; Alfie Evans and the modern 'crime' of inconvenient existence

If you've been following the horrifying story of little Alfie Evans, the seriously ill British toddler whose family's latest appeal to move their son to Italy for palliative care was just denied again by judges who seem determined to let the crack team at Alder Hey Hospital preside over his execution-by-neglect, you may have heard a few things that aren't actually correct.

In the first place, contrary to popular report, Alfie Evans is not brain dead. He suffers from an unknown, undiagnosed neurodegenerative disease. His brain, that is, is degenerating, for unknown reasons and at, apparently, an unknown rate. It is most likely too late to arrest the condition let alone to find any sort of cure, but whether it was too late when Alfie's parents first brought him to the hospital is open to speculation.

At various times in the courtroom officials have insisted that Alfie's brain is mostly gone already, that he has no life functions whatsoever, etc. Unfortunately for their credibility, Alfie breathed on his own for more than nine hours after his ventilator was removed by court order the other day, something that is impossible for anybody whose brain has deteriorated to the extent some of them appeared to be originally claiming. Only after nine hours of breathing unassisted did Alfie finally receive some supplemental oxygen and a bit of water from the hospital. He had to wait more than a day, some 36 hours if I recall correctly, to be given any food.

Nutrition and hydration are ordinary care, not extraordinary means of prolonging life. Whether Alfie Evans would have been quietly starved and dehydrated to death like other disabled people whose only crime was that of prolonged and inconvenient existence were it not for the glare of publicity surrounding his case is anybody's guess. Whether some reports I have read that the initial plan was to slip the child an overdose of fentanyl to ensure his rapid demise have any grounding in reality is also unknown, but frankly I wouldn't put it past any modern hospital to resort to such "cost-saving measures" on any of us if they could get away with it.

Something else that must be said is this: Alfie Evans is not, as of this writing, actively dying as far as anyone can prove. He is still able to take water and nutrition and make the proper metabolic use of those substances. He is still able to breath with minimal supplementation. The whole problem here, from the hospital's perspective, is that so long as they provided Alfie with a ventilator, food, and water he might just go on living for months, if not years; and if they had allowed him to have a tracheostomy when the possibility was first raised it's even more likely that he could have lived quietly until his natural end, even if that end came well before his fourth or fifth birthday. However, he is not quite two years old right now, and one can see and hear the frustrations in the voice of the judge who declared: 
"The brain cannot regenerate itself and there is virtually nothing of his brain left." 
"There is, in truth, with great respect to the efforts of Mr Diamond, no substance to this application, which represents, at least within the court process, the final chapter in the case of this extraordinary little boy."
...before Alfie went on to breath unassisted for nine hours and change.

The Powers That Be in the courts and in the hospital want Alfie Evans to be actively dying, and they are taking steps to put him in that condition, but the fact remains that he was not, in fact, actively dying before the adult hospital workers who were supposed to be taking care of him started taking away his food and water and oxygen. He was just living: ill, disabled, unable to recover, but living all the same. The decision was made for him by the hospital and the courts that this was untenable; that his was a life unworthy of life; that it was in his own best interests that he should be made to hurry up and die, since his own little body seemed quite capable of going on for some time yet. He was not suffering or in pain (and claims to the contrary contradict the judicial statements that he can't feel anything at all, not even his mother's touch, and that any apparent reactions he gives such as smiles or eye contact are really just seizures). He was just quietly minding his own business in that hospital bed, but of course a child can't be allowed to do that when the wise adults overseeing his care have agreed that it's in his own best interest for him to die, and to die right there in that hospital, as quickly and unobtrusively as possible before any awkward questions can be raised or any inconvenient realities pointed out.

Inconvenient realities like the reality that Alder Hey Children's Hospital was the scene of a well-publicized scandal involving the sale of children's organs, some of which involved glands taken from living children during surgeries.

And like the reality that four years ago Alder Hey failed four out of five safety checks.

And the reality that Alfie Evans was originally admitted to the hospital in December 2016  with seizures, and by December 2017 the hospital was already beginning the legal fight to end his life without ever having diagnosed his illness.

And now the inconvenient reality is that Alfie Evans is, as I write this, still alive--and the world is watching too closely for the officials deciding his fate to mandate that he be starved to death or given a lethal overdose, which must be terribly annoying to people who have already declared that this little boy's final chapter had been written, and who probably expected to close the book two days ago on his life.

How maddening it must be for all those wise officials to declare serenely that it's in a child's best interests for him to die at once--and for the child to stay alive in spite of them all.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Not much of anything

I apologize for not posting yesterday; I got called for jury duty for the second April in a row. When you don't end up being picked for the jury, they can keep calling you pretty frequently, and yesterday was my second time having to show up and my first time being selected for a criminal court.

The voir dire process ended up taking all day. And by all day I mean we had to be there by 8:30 a.m. and a jury wasn't selected and sworn in until 6 p.m.

I wasn't selected, and I admit to being thankful about it. Though I won't say anything here about the case, which is ongoing, let's just say it's not the type of case for which most people want to be picked for the jury. I was glad to be skipped over and I have a sneaking suspicion that a couple of my responses during the voir dire made the prosecution use one of their peremptory challenges on me, but of course there's no way to know for certain.

Possibly because yesterday was such a long and rather stressful day, or possibly because it's April and the weather is still amazingly whimsical (80s today, 58 and raining tomorrow with a low in the 40s by tomorrow night, then back to 75 on Thursday), I was slammed today with the kind of migraine that laughs at my plans, squelches my hopes and ambitions, and goes out of its way to make the few routine tasks I manage to do (laundry, cooking dinner, that sort of thing) as unpleasant as possible. Still, it would have been far more unpleasant to have been seated with the jury and to have endured today's migraine while attempting to assist in the administration of justice. A little perspective helps a lot.

I've been praying for little Alfie Evans and his family today as well as the people I met yesterday and especially the ones who ended up on the jury. Tomorrow I hope to be back to my opinionated redheaded self, but two days' absence from normality has softened my perspectives on things a bit.

One thing's for sure: if I get summoned for jury duty again next year, I hope it's a civil case in the lovely old courthouse instead of a criminal case in the criminal justice building. The criminal justice center has all of the aesthetic value of an airport, minus the food court and anything remotely approaching a comfortable chair.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Losing our religion

I've focused the past two days on the decline in Catholic Mass attendance and in practice of the Catholic faith here in America. But as this, from Gallup, shows, it's not just Catholics who are being affected by the drop in religious practice in the US. In fact, it's pretty hard to look at this and not conclude that America is on the way to losing religion altogether
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Southwest and Southeast regions of the United States lived up to their reputation as the home of the nation's Bible Belt in 2017, producing nine of the nation's 11 most religious states. In contrast, the Pacific and New England regions have 10 of the 11 least religious states for the year.
Forty-five percent of Americans living in the Southwest and 43% in the Southeast are "very religious" -- a classification based on how important people say religion is to them and how often they attend religious services. They are the only two of the nation's eight regions with at least 40% of their residents classified as very religious. The percentage is below 30% in the Pacific and New England regions, while religiosity is in the 30s across the center of the country from the Rockies to the Mid-Atlantic.
Do go and look at the whole thing; the maps are quite fascinating.

The thing that fascinates me the most, though, is that Gallup itself creates the categories "very religious," "moderately religious," and "nonreligious." The "very religious" term covers anybody who attends religious services "...weekly or almost weekly..." which I find rather amazing, as a Catholic. I realize that Gallup is trying to measure the faith lives of people who practice a lot of different faiths, and that these faiths have vastly different rules and requirements for their adherents. Still, the standard rule for Catholics--to attend Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation--is now considered "very religious."

And the region of the country that has the fewest number of these people? New England. In New England, only 26% of the population describes itself as "very religious," that is, religious enough to drag their posteriors out of bed once a week for worship of some kind.

Most of New England was originally settled by people who were escaping religious persecution in England and Europe. Their weekly worship services were not for the faint of heart, with sermons that could go two or three hours in length. But the people who live there now have the smallest percentage nationwide of people who go to church or to any kind of worship service at all.

The Pacific region isn't much better, coming in at 29% "very religious."

I know that it's easy to be tempted to think there was some kind of golden age of American religious practice, and that the reality is always a bit more complicated than what we think. Still, the decline in religious practice across the board in America does show one of the hardest problems priests, pastors, ministers and so on face when they are trying to get people to commit to regular church attendance: the culture no longer supports it, and depending on where you live, you may get stares, raised eyebrows, and hostile attitudes if people find out that you do go to church on a weekly basis. For some people, the temptation to be like everyone else instead of being "that weirdo who goes to church all the time" is just another setback on the road to holiness--but for others, who may already feel alienated or disenchanted or even angry with the Church, it can be the last straw.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Ideas on increasing Mass attendance

Continuing yesterday's thoughts a little bit, I now want to veer sharply in the direction of the practical. Okay: we know lots of people have stopped coming to Mass regularly. What do we do about it? How do we get lapsed, non-practicing, and semi-practicing (e.g., the CAPE Catholics who come at Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday and Easter) Catholics back to Mass?

My ideas here come from the vantage point of a lay female cradle Catholic who has been practicing the faith for almost five decades now (though I have only fuzzy memories of the first few years, of course). I was born after the Council, so my ideas do not include "Suppress the Novus Ordo at once and replace it with the One True Mass of All Ages" or anything similar.

And while bad catechesis, especially on the Precepts of the Church and the grave sin attached to missing Mass on Sundays and Holy Days without a serious reason, is certainly at fault, I think that repairing catechesis is an ongoing process and not, say, the thing you hit newcomers over the head with the instant they enter a church. Case in point: a pastor in the local area thought that posting lots of large, metal, sternly worded signs all over the church building with lists of things you shouldn't wear or carry or do while in the church (including forbidding food and drink to such a specific degree that mothers of infants might reasonably question whether they were allowed to give their children baby bottles or even lactate, however unintentionally, while on the premises), this is not the sort of thing that goes over well with people who are just sort of edging their way back to the practice of the faith. It does not give the impression that Father's deep love of Christ moves him to worry about irreverence to a laudable degree; it gives the impression that Father is far more worried about the carpet and furnishings than he is about immortal souls, even if that impression is a bit unfair. Granted that some people these days seem to think it's okay to feed their pre-First Communion kids a full meal complete with side dishes and dessert while they are at Mass, and that this sort of thing ought to be discouraged, there are probably better ways to do this than to bolt large permanent signs all over the building.

So what are ways in addition to (slowly) teaching people the whole of the faith to draw Catholics back to Sunday Mass?

My ideas so far, in no particular order:

1. Open the church more often. I know this doesn't work everywhere and that local situations and conditions can impact the pastor's ability to leave the church building unlocked, but it's a really good idea if it can reasonably be done. While Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is an extremely wonderful way to do this, it also takes a large and dedicated group of volunteers to make sure the Lord is never left alone, and it may also require security guards depending on where your church is, so it's not going to work for every parish. But having Hours of Adoration on a weekly or even daily basis is a great way to be able to leave the church open for prayer and quiet reflection, and it ends up being a tool of evangelization, too.

How? Simple. People who are thinking about coming back to the Church, who may be moving slowly, who may be unsure what they need to do to join a parish, etc. may be very intimidated if the only time the church is open is during crowded and busy Sunday Masses. If people can stop in on a weekday evening to ask their preliminary questions, and if friendly parishioners don't mind stepping out of the chapel for a few moments to answer them, this is a good thing. Having information and/or a contact number for those interested in joining the parish posted prominently in the vestibule is a good idea too.

2. Schedule one Sunday Mass "in the spirit of a daily." What does this mean? Daily Masses are usually three things: simple, quiet, and relatively short. I have heard older Catholics talk about the Low Mass which was available even on Sundays, and that had many of the same characteristics. That is one thing that has been lost in many places, where each Sunday Mass offered today is at least an hour long if not longer and contains elaborate (if sometimes not very sacred) music, long-winded homilies, Holy Communion under both species, lengthy Prayers of the Faithful, and an extended Sign of Peace.

The "spirit of a daily" Sunday Mass I am envisioning would look something like this:

a. Music is unaccompanied simple chant if used at all. Entrance and Communion antiphons are chanted in the appropriate manner and the Mass parts are chanted in the vernacular or in Latin depending on parish need. If simple chant isn't possible then music is omitted.

b.  Readings are either done by the priest celebrant or by a single lector (with the priest reading the Gospel as always). The same lector reads a short set of Prayers of the Faithful, and any announcements at the appropriate time (or these could be eliminated).

c. The homily is brief and to the point. Five to seven minutes on most Sundays would do it.

d. The congregational Sign of Peace is eliminated (it's optional, anyway).

e. Only the Body of Christ is distributed to the faithful at Communion, cutting down the number of extra ministers (ordinary or extraordinary) needed as well as the time needed to purify the vessels after Communion.

Why would this help? I think it might draw back some Catholics who no longer go to Mass because they find the Ordinary Form too loud, too long, too distracting, etc. but who do not have an E.F. Mass within reasonable distance (or who would not perhaps choose that either). A priest I know was discussing the possibility of such a Mass early in the morning on Sundays, and some people agreed that such a Mass could be very nice for those with infants and toddlers (whose patience is sorely strained by the sheer length of many Sunday Masses which in many places go an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and a half, which latter time tests my patience to be completely honest), for families with disabled or elderly family members, for people who must work on Sunday, and for others whose lives are chaotic or painful or difficult in such a way that a simple, quiet Sunday morning Mass would meet their spiritual needs in a way that the later, louder, more "busy" Masses don't.

3. Get parishioners involved in the task of reaching out to lapsed Catholics. Yes, family dynamics are complicated, and the last thing you want to do is convince parishioners that they ought to be nagging and harassing family members who have fallen away from the practice of Catholicism to the point where the peace of the family is seriously disturbed. At the same time, it must be said: nearly everyone has, within their immediate or extended families, one or more relatives who no longer goes to Mass, and if we reach beyond family and look among our friends and acquaintances, the number of people who say, "I used to be Catholic, but..." is probably pretty large.

So what can be done?

I think it might be a good plan to create a parish support group for those whose loved ones have left the faith. So often I hear people, especially parents or grandparents, express with sorrow the reality that few or none of their children or grandchildren go to Mass anymore. I think perhaps a group under the patronage of St. Monica, who knew all too well the sadness of her son's decision to live a pagan life, might be a good place for people carrying this particular cross to meet, pray, and talk. A monthly meeting might include some particular prayer (such as a rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet) prayed specifically for the intention of loved ones returning to the practice of the Catholic Faith, as well as occasional talks by speakers on topics pertaining to the issues that have led to people leaving the Church and some time for fellowship and conversation. Too often, I think, there is pressure on people to keep quiet about the reality that close family members no longer practice, or else to accept blame first and foremost for any lapses among children or grandchildren, without being offered any particular support.

Praying for the lapsed to return will be efficacious, I believe, and will also show that parishioners care deeply about the return of the lost sheep and will make it even more clear to those who find themselves outside that they are loved and can come back at any time.

These are just a few ideas; I'm sure many more things can be done to help draw lapsed Catholics back to the practice of the faith, including regular Sunday Mass attendance. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Some possible reasons for the decline in religious practice

Last week, we talked a bit about the situation involving the decline in Mass attendance that has been ongoing for some time now. I have heard some people say, "Mass attendance was fine until the Novus Ordo came along!" but that's not really true, especially if you look beyond the United States and into Europe, which saw declines in Church attendance and participation, and increases in secularization, long before Vatican II. I've also seen discussions in which people blame local parish closings and mergers on general declines in religious habits, but in some cases, the simple reality is that the local landscape has changed, with fewer Catholics living in some places, or a multiplicity of urban churches finding themselves empty because people have moved away from the cities, and so on.

I think if we look at things honestly, we would say that modernity itself--that is, modern life in any large, economically advantaged nation--is the biggest factor drawing people away from religious practice. The places in the world where people still loyally attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, sometimes making their way through war-torn areas or places devastated by natural disasters, are not ordinarily models of modernity especially as defined by first-world consumer standards. There are, of course, exceptions on both sides of this argument, but in general, the more a place embraces modernity in its fullness, the less likely that place is to have a nation of serious religious practitioners--and this does not only apply to Catholics or other Christians, but to practitioners of nearly any religious faith.

What is it about modernity that makes it stifle religion so much? Why do so many people equate words like "modern" and "progressive" with a zeitgeist that is either bored by religion, or actively hostile to it? Why in places that are sometimes described as consumer paradises are so few people drawn to the practice of the faith?

I think that a really learned philosopher could answer those kinds of questions way better than I can, but just in terms of pragmatic realities, here (in no particular order) are three of the factors which I suspect may make modernity and religion fail to play nicely together:

1. Time. I do not mean to suggest that people living in less economically advanced nations have more free time than people in first-world nations do, nor do I suggest that they do not spend as many or more hours working, or anything of the kind. But one thing that characterizes modern living is that your time really isn't your own in any real sense. There are constant demands on it from your job, your school (or your children's schools), your community, your chosen activities--and after that, from extended family and local friends and neighbors as well. To this you have to add the constant time-draining activities that people without meaningful leisure turn to, such as cell phones, games, TV, and various other forms of entertainment. Most importantly of all, the rise of all of these things has led to a total breakdown of the boundaries people used to be able to set on their own time. Within living memory it was astonishingly rare, and almost shocking, for most working people to be contacted by their employers after hours, on weekends, and especially on Sundays to come and handle some urgent task (exceptions such as police, firefighters, hospital workers etc. did exist, but those kinds of "on-call" realities were limited to careers where an "emergency" was something real, and not the failure of a manager to meet a purely arbitrary deadline in some paperwork matter). Being asked to work at any time other than your normal scheduled hours was relatively rare, and if your boss absolutely had to have you come in on a weekend or evening, chances were he was either required to pay you overtime or at the least socially expected to give you some sort of extra compensation in some form or other.

Nowadays, of course, salaried employees as well as hourly ones are expected to pick up the cell phone and respond affirmatively to any request that they come in after hours or on weekends, or do work from home, or respond to urgent emails--and all of that is done on the employee's own time, with no extra pay whatsoever. Our grandparents wouldn't have put up with this; we are used to it.

And since our employers no longer respect our free time boundaries, neither does anyone else. Sports coaches, volunteer groups, school and civic organizations, and pretty much anybody else expects that it's no big deal for you to move a meeting from Tuesday evening to Saturday morning, or from Friday night to Sunday morning--it's all the same, just blocks of time being shuffled around to meet everybody's needs.

It's not just Mass attendance that suffers under such a system--it's everything else that used to be considered "off limits" for the most part: family time (especially the dinner hour), holidays, all those spaces between daily activities that could be used for conversation, quiet hobbies, and other enrichments of daily life.

2.  Distractions. I've already mentioned cell phones, but the truth is that a lot of modern life is made up of distractions of various kinds. These things don't just eat into our time; they also make it habitual for us to have short attention spans, limit our ability to focus, and cause us to equate any obligatory activity with drudgery. And since really "free" time doesn't exist and quasi-free time lends itself much more easily to mere distraction than to the sustained pursuit of anything, the sustained pursuit of the religious habit of weekly worship is seen as more onerous than it actually is for most of us.

Our habit of being easily distracted makes worship harder for another reason, too: worship requires a bit of inner peace, and while some people argue that this peace is much more easily entered into at the E.F. Mass than the O.F., I think the reality for a lot of us is that it doesn't matter which form of the liturgy we are attending--those inner thoughts and distractions that buzz in our minds like unwelcome flies are present at any Mass, and are the result of our attention being so constantly pulled into so many different directions during every waking hour except the hour (or so) of Mass. Most of our forebears knew what it was like to do things slowly and with a certain amount of focus; we may accomplish many of the same tasks with speed that would astonish them and conveniences that would blow their minds, but we lose something important, too, even if we don't know it. Because I was born before the computer age, for instance, I could write this whole piece in longhand cursive (not very well; I never did have good handwriting) or type it out on a manual typewriter; I even know how to center the title. In gaining the ability to type it on a computer I have also gained the ability to share it instantly with people who enjoy my writing, but I have lost some habits of composition along the way. And when you multiply one little example like that across so many facets of life--well, how can we say that there has been no effect on our interior lives or that the effect has not impeded our cultivation of the habits of the worship of God?

3. Brokenness. With all due respect to the critics of Amoris Laetitia, I think one of the Holy Father's main concerns about the life of the Church just now is that so very many people have been impacted by a level of brokenness unheard of in earlier times--and a specific type of brokenness that definitely interferes with making the habits of worship a priority. I speak of the brokenness of the family, and of the individual as relative to the family.

Most of us have heard the motto, "The family that prays together, stays together." In our modern world, it could also be said that the family that stays together prays together. The impact of divorce on the religious habits of adults and children is something that truly ought to be discussed in every parish. It is terribly hard for the single mom whose husband has left her to continue to take her children and herself to Mass every week; it is equally hard for the divorced man who was not at fault (but who is sometimes presumed to be guilty of the breakup of his marriage even when it was his wife who demanded divorce) to go to Mass, or to insist his children accompany him when it's his turn to have them over a weekend. Their sufferings are made worse by the hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and indifference they may encounter at the parish level.

And if the parents struggle, how much more do the children, who are left shocked and horrified by the breakdown of their parents' marriage, and who may feel that God, too, has abandoned them. They may feel invisible in parish life, where children are assumed to live with their mothers and fathers; they may feel judged by their peers and excluded by them. As they grow up, they may fall away from the practice of the faith even more easily than their peers from intact families (many of whom also will fall away, in this modern age).

And in addition to these obstacles to the habits of Mass attendance are all the other types of brokenness, and especially the brokenness that comes from seeing one kind of sin or another as integral to a person's own identity. The person who believes he has to cohabit with his girlfriend to be authentic, the person who believes he has to pursue sexual relationships with other men or that she has to pursue sexual relationships with other women, the people who believe that they must be free to cheat on their spouses in order to be who they really are, the people who find in drugs and/or alcohol something that feels like liberation from their inauthentic selves--all of these people have bought into the modern notion that sometimes you must embrace sin in order to be true to yourself. That is, of course, a lie, but rarely in human history has a whole culture embraced that kind of a lie, the kind that puts a real barrier between a person and the actual Self that God has called him or her to be--a Self in pursuit of virtue, a Self called to holiness, a Self who is capable of turning away from sin and embracing the promise of eternal life.

I honestly think that if you examine any nation or culture that has continued to place high importance on religious practice and specifically on Mass attendance, you will find a culture where the boundaries on one's free time (which includes time for worship and time for family) are still intact, where distractions have their place but are not the main pursuit of the people, and where brokenness, though it always exists in human populations, is not the kind that requires one to destroy one's family or to embrace grave sins in the name of "being true to myself." I may be wrong, but I think behind the decline in religious practice we will find many of these things.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Hard cases make bad homeschooling laws

Well, you knew this was coming:
In response to the extreme child abuse that allegedly occurred in David and Louise Turpin's Perris tract home, two legislators have proposed new legislation that will enhance data collection and accountability for California's homeschoolers.
California Assemblymember Jose Medina, of Riverside, and Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman, of Stockton, have introduced two bills that would give the state more oversight of home schools – through enhanced curriculum requirements and health and safety inspections. [...]

Medina's bill is one of the two assembly bills that will be heard by the Assembly Education Committee on April 25. The other, authored by Eggman, would require the state superintendent to establish an advisory committee dedicated to homeschooling. The committee's responsibilities would include but are not limited to health and safety inspections, setting certain curriculum standards and certifying and credentialing teachers.

The bill states that the committee will be "broadly representative and diverse." Eggman did not immediately respond to requests for comment. [...]

"I think the current situation, the current laws that we have been in effect for a couple of decades, and they’ve been working just fine," said Pam Dowling, the president of the California Homeschool Network. She added that there is plenty of documentation already required for homeschoolers, including curriculum overview by school districts.

Dowling said she expects to be joined by 100 homeschooling advocates at a protest in Sacramento at the hearing in two weeks. The activism by the California Homeschool Network helped remove a piece of Medina's bill that would have required annual inspections by the fire marshal. Medina said he made this decision after listening to the privacy concerns of parents.

This whole situation could pretty well be a case study in the old saying, "Hard cases make bad laws." The alleged abuse of the Turpin children by their parents, which included a faux "homeschooling" excuse for why the children were not in school, is certainly a concern in how authorities handle abuse allegations in California going forward. This isn't the first time abusive parents have tried the "homeschooling" dodge, and it probably won't be the last.

But let's be honest, here. The Turpins took their kids on trips, including to Disneyland. The oldest children were adults, not "homeschooled students" or students at all. Anybody who thinks the Turpins, and people like them, won't easily master the "annual homeschooling review" game doesn't know anything about child abusers. There are children sitting in public school classrooms right now who are being abused, sometimes horrifically, at home. Some of these children get noticed; some of their parents or caregivers get caught. But sometimes everyone keeps looking the other way, and the "red flags" are only visible in hindsight. It may happen far more often than we are comfortable believing.

And the bills being proposed go far beyond the level of government interference in the home than anybody at all, pro-homeschooling or not, should be comfortable countenancing. What exactly is meant by "health and safety inspections," for instance? Could your home pass one? Who knows? What exactly is meant by "curriculum standards?" Will your child have to follow Common Core? Will your child be given an approved reading list that includes "Heather Has Two Mommies" or "I Am Jazz" as mandatory kindergarten texts? Again, who knows? And let's not forget that vague "...certifying and credentialing teachers..." requirement in the bill. Does this mean only people with bachelors' or masters' degrees can teach their own children at home? And do you have to be a "certified and credentialed teacher" the minute your child turns three if you choose not to enroll her in nursery school?

The devil is always in the details, and we know from one detail--the fact that one of the bills proposed an annual inspection of every homeschool by the fire marshal--just how far the bureaucrats of California are prepared to go in the name of "protecting" children.

No one can possibly object to preventing child abuse. But forcing law-abiding homeschoolers to submit so much of their lives to government inspection seems (in my wholly unqualified opinion) like a potentially unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment's protections against unlawful search and seizure. It essentially makes the law the enemy of homeschooling by framing homeschooling alone as enough of a probable cause to justify annual fishing expeditions on the part of the State to search for child abuse. You don't have to have been credibly accused of child abuse; you don't have to have been investigated for child abuse; you don't have to have been arrested for, charged with, and/or punished for child abuse to be considered a potential child abuser; no, you just have to homeschool.

What if the government proposed annual health and safety at-home inspections for every child, school-aged or not, homeschooled or not? What if the government declared the right to set curricula for religious schools? What if the government decided that having a child at all was enough to give state and local officials probable cause to investigate parents for potential child abuse--that is, that anybody who had children could be subject to inspections, health and safety checks, and so on simply because there is a child in the home?

To raise these questions is not in the least to be indifferent to the plight of abused children. The hearts of most people, mine included, break when we read about the cruel abuse or neglect of children. Nobody thinks that state and local officials have no duty when it comes to preventing and investigating actual abuse.

But sweeping laws that mandate government oversight of whole groups of people on the grounds that they might potentially be hiding abuse not only do not help children; they may even hinder attempts to help real abuse victims. If every homeschooling family is legally required to undergo multiple annual checks and certifications, state funds better spent investigating and prosecuting those guilty of child abuse will be increasingly diverted to investigating and certifying law-abiding families who only want to teach their children at home, and who are doing a good job of it. The multiplication of records on all homeschooling families may even make it easier for abusers to hide behinds clouds of paperwork and rolls of red tape. Instead of helping children like the Turpin children escape from abusive situations, the laws may make it harder for local officials to find the time or the money to follow up on situations that don't seem quite right--especially if, in the meantime, they are required by law to harass the family that forgot to keep records on a required curriculum element or maintain the homeschooling mom's required credentialing paperwork in order.

In fact, the new pile of regulatory and investigation requirements that state and local officials would have to conduct in regards to homeschooling families might even decrease their ability to investigate child abuse cases that have nothing to do with homeschooling--and let's not forget that nearly half of all child abuse cases involve children who are not yet even in school (and for the majority of their parents or caregivers homeschooling wasn't even on the radar).

Hard cases make bad laws, and these would be very bad laws indeed. Let's hope that wiser heads prevail in California, and in the nation.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Removing racism from our hearts

I didn't manage to post anything Friday; my spring migraines have been a bit of a trial lately.

You may have already heard about this outrageous story:
A confrontation over a parking space at a Macon restaurant escalated into an all-out brawl that ended in the arrest of a 71-year-old woman, according to a Bibb County sheriff deputy’s report. 
Cellphone footage of the incident Saturday night shows a scene of people lunging and slapping each other inside the Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen. 
Before deputies arrested Judy James Tucker, she told them that the incident “started over a parking spot” and it was “because she was white and it was a race issue,” the deputy’s write-up said.
But that wasn't actually true:
Tucker can be heard on the video saying, "You were getting in our way while we tried to park." 
At some point, Tucker can be heard on the video saying, "Don’t you take a picture of me! You do not have the right to take a picture of me," as Mitchell stood between her and Sharpe. Tucker then "lunged and struck Mrs. Sharpe in the face," the report said. 
Sharpe, of Powder Springs, can be heard in the video saying, “I’m pregnant! Look at me, I’m pregnant! You’re pushing a pregnant lady!” 
Tucker can be heard replying, "well, my husband is handicapped!" 
Two deputies arrived at the Riverside Drive restaurant, interviewed folks and watched cellphone videos of the incident. They could not obtain the restaurant’s surveillance due to technical problems, but that did not stop them from determining that "Tucker was the primary aggressor," the incident report said. 
"With all of the lunging and slapping happening, it was never shown through cell phone video that Mrs. Mitchell or Mrs. Sharpe did anything wrong," the deputy’s report said. "In fact, Mrs. Mitchell tried, without fail, to stop the attack on Mrs. Sharpe."
Read the rest here, if you can handle the racist and homophobic slurs tossed at the two women. I'm not linking to the videos, but they've gone viral, so you can easily find them if you wish.

What essentially happened is that Mrs. Tucker, who is white, went to the restaurant with her adult son and daughter. They got annoyed when Mrs. Mitchell and Mrs. Sharpe, who are both black and both in the US Army Reserves, drove past the Tuckers while the Tuckers were parking backwards in a handicapped spot. Mrs. Tucker's adult son yelled at the soldiers about the parking incident, and after the female soldiers had entered the restaurant, Mrs. Tucker and her son continued to yell at the soldiers. They used both racial and homophobic slurs as they yelled at the women, and became aggressive after Mrs. Sharpe as well as several restaurant patrons began recording the verbal abuse on cell phone videos.

And then, after police were called and Mrs. Tucker was arrested, she and her adult children tried to claim that Mrs. Tucker was the victim in all of this. Fortunately for Mrs. Mitchell and Mrs. Sharpe, there was plenty of cell phone video available to show that this was nothing but a lie, that she had not in fact been innocently minding her own business while a group of black people for no reason at all surrounded her and attacked her (which is not too far from what Mrs. Tucker actually attempted to claim).

This is Macon, Georgia, in the deep South. But it is also 2018, and a lot of people think, say, and write that there isn't any real racism anymore. Not really, not when African-Americans go to the same schools and colleges as white people, and work in the same companies, and serve in the same Armed Forces, and live in the same neighborhoods, and drive the same vehicles, and eat in the same restaurants. Nobody really has to deal with racial discrimination these days, do they? It's not discrimination if you're pulled over for speeding, or arrested on drug charges, because people who do those things will get arrested no matter what race or color or religion or nationality they are. So, isn't all this talk about racism in 2018 really just a justification for the wealthy sons and daughters of wealthy African-Americans to feel some solidarity with their brothers and sisters who don't have as good of a life as they do? Isn't it just college-campus-chatter that lets the white students feel appropriately guilty or their skin color and everybody else feel appropriately proud of theirs? Isn't it, really, a whole lot of nothing?

Is it? Now, I don't know the Tuckers; maybe they're the kind of people who would have escalated a small parking lot mishap into a shouting and slapping match even if two white male soldiers were involved. Ornery stupidity is a characteristic of more people than one would think.

Still, I don't think it's reaching too far to label this a racist incident (and that's before you consider the number of times Mrs. Tucker's son insultingly referred to the two women as "lesbians" and made an improper comment about Mrs. Sharpe's pregnancy). What scares me is that if there hadn't been any cell phone video, these two soldiers might have had to prove that they were innocent of any aggression (since the restaurant had technical issues and no surveillance video was captured of the incident). How many people might have quickly assumed that two young African American women were at fault, and that an elderly white woman couldn't possibly have done anything wrong? How many people would have assumed that in Macon, Georgia? How many people would assume it in your own city and state? How many people would assume so in your own family?

We have a long way to go before we remove racism from our society. We have a long way to go before we remove racism from our hearts.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Destination: Holiness

I'm sure by now you've all heard of this Gallup study which shows that Catholic Church attendance is sliding downward again. (Or, just possibly, fewer people are lying to pollsters about Mass attendance these days; these things are notoriously hard to measure with precision.) Whatever the case may be, the statistics seem clear enough, and they're not good. These days, only about 4 in 10 Catholics will attend Mass in a given week.

Or, just possibly, the news could be even worse. Studies done specifically by Catholic agencies and groups have usually pegged the percent of people who attend Mass each Sunday as around 20% to 25%, with an average figure of 22% being one of the most commonly cited. If 40% of Catholics are actually showing up at Mass these days, that would probably represent quite an increase over the current numbers.

The problem of declining Mass attendance and what to do about it is a complicated one that tends to get talked to death, with every possible cause and every possible solution proposed in rapid succession. Rather than do that again, I want to focus on something that I think is quite troubling given the reality of this difficult situation.

In his new apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis refers a few times to people who seem to equate following a set of rules with holiness. Here is an example:
58. Not infrequently, contrary to the promptings of the Spirit, the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few. This can occur when some groups of Christians give excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting. The Gospel then tends to be reduced and constricted, deprived of its simplicity, allure and savour. This may well be a subtle form of pelagianism, for it appears to subject the life of grace to certain human structures. It can affect groups, movements and communities, and it explains why so often they begin with an intense life in the Spirit, only to end up fossilized… or corrupt.
I have seen some people reacting extremely negatively to this sort of passage already. "What?" they cry. "The pope thinks the problem with the Church these days is that too many people are following the rules? That may have been a problem when he was a little boy, but it's been decades since that was the reality on the ground for the Church! The problem these days is that not enough people follow the rules. Why, just look at the decline in Mass attendance!" etc.

If you simply look at quotes like these out of context you might think that those observers have a point. However, the whole of the document of Gaudete et Exsultate is about the call to personal holiness. It is about what each person can do to grow in holiness by knowing, loving and serving God, with a special emphasis on serving Him by serving the least of His people.

Many Catholics are not following the rules for Sunday Mass attendance. If they are doing so with full knowledge that this is a grave matter and sufficient reflection/consent, they may even be guilty of a mortal sin for missing Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation without a just reason why they are unable to attend. The rule is not trivial or unimportant; I can't say that more clearly.

However, I have known people who look around at their fellow Catholics in the pews at a typical Sunday Mass and who do not think, "How wonderful that this many people are here today! In a world which has forgotten what we owe God in worship and service, these people have come to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass!" Instead, they think things like, "Just look at how that woman is dressed. Just look at how those children are misbehaving--can't somebody stay home with them? Just look at all these happy-clappy people at this happy-clappy Novus Ordo Mass. Just look at so many people marching up to Communion, half of them in irregular marriages, no doubt, and the other half contracepting. Just look at how many receive Communion in the hand, and take the Precious Blood. Just look at all those lay people, mostly women, up there in the sanctuary. Just listen to that choir singing those tired old hippie tunes. Why are they even here?" Not only have I heard these people, but I admit with shame that I have been of their number.

Here's the thing: those people, with whom I am as familiar as I am with my own self (because I have been one of them on many occasions) may feel pretty good about their own chances of making it to Heaven. If you're following the rules, avoiding the really big sins, hitting Confession a decent number of times a year, saying the rosary and other devotions, and planting your posterior into a church pew every Sunday at the very least--well, it's terribly tempting to think that all of these things are a general mark of holiness, isn't it?

But even spiritual infants can manage this much. The child who has just learned to color inside the lines will proudly show off her artwork, but is it true that she is already an artist? Learning and following the rules, following them first out of obedience and the habits of discipline and later, much later, out of love--these are the baby steps on the road to holiness. You can't start without them, but they are far from encompassing the whole journey. Learning to love the people around us at Mass is one of the next steps, and learning to love the people who never come, the people who have fallen away, the people who aren't Catholic or Christian or believers at all, the people who hate us and want to persecute us--why, those things come much later still, and yet we can't reach the destination of holiness without achieving each and every one of those things.

In fact, if we think of holiness as a journey, going to Mass each Sunday is a bit like gathering in the train station. Outside the station many people are walking, trying to find that same road to holiness, and we should be helping them come inside and reminding them that it's important to do so. The last thing we should be doing is putting up barricades, acting like security guards, demanding to see tickets, and turning away those who don't have their paperwork in order. It should go without saying that I am speaking here of inviting people to attend Mass, not throwing open Communion which is rightly given to those who have been baptized and received into the Faith; but encouraging and inviting the weak Catholic, the lukewarm Catholic, the fallen-away Catholic, the seeker Christian, and even the curious non-Christian to join us at Mass is something any and all of us may have the occasion to do.

It is very easy to sit back in our pews and blame Father, the pope, Vatican II, the vernacular Mass, feminism, millennials and anything and everything else for declining Mass attendance. It is considerably more difficult ask ourselves if we act as evangelists or as gatekeepers when it comes to inviting those we know and love to join us at Mass. It is not enough for us personally to follow the rules; if we want to reach our destination of holiness in this life and Heaven in the next, we have to follow Christ--and He told us to make disciples of all nations, not to sit around glaring at the people who show up to Mass and feeling all superior to the ones who don't.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Church has always been concerned about immigrants

Let's play a guessing game! Guess which pope wrote the following things about immigration:

1. The √©migr√© Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, is the archetype of every refugee family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil.

2. Very recently, we approved the International Catholic Migration Commission, whose function is to unite and organize existing Catholic associations and committees, and to promote, reinforce and coordinate their projects and activities in behalf of migrants and refugees.

Nor should we forget to mention how our nuncios and delegates and other ecclesiastics specifically sent to organize committees or commissions for needy refugees and for migrants, successfully founded them in every country, indeed in almost every diocese. This of course, was brought about with the aid of the local bishop and of priests, and of the members of Catholic Action and other apostolic associations as well as other worthy laymen.

3.  Moreover, we have repeatedly addressed the Rulers of States, the heads of agencies, and all upright and cooperative men, urging upon them the need to consider and resolve the very serious problems of refugees and migrants, and, at the same time, to think of the heavy burdens which all peoples bear because of the war and the specific means that should be applied to alleviate the grave evils. We asked them also to consider how beneficial for humanity it would be if cooperative and joint efforts would relieve, promptly and effectively, the urgent needs of the sufferings, by harmonizing the requirements of justice with needs of charity. Relief alone can remedy, to a certain extent, many unjust social conditions. But we know that this is not sufficient. In the first place, there must be justice, which should prevail and be put into practice.

Likewise, from the first days of our Apostolic Office, we have directed our earnest attention to all our migrant sons, and we have been most anxious about their welfare, both temporal and eternal.

4. Therefore, when Senators from the United States, who were members of a Committee on Immigration, visited Rome a few years ago, we again urged them to try to administer as liberally as possible the overly restrictive provisions of their immigration laws.

Every single one of these quotes was written by Pope Pius XII in 1952, in the Apostolic Constitution Exsul Familia Nazarathana.

So if you think that Pope Francis, or any other recent pope, just started making up serious concern for the immigrant out of whole cloth, you might want to reconsider that notion. The Church has been concerned about immigrants for a very long time. It is not too much of a stretch to say that she has always been concerned about any people who are at risk both physically and spiritually from the pressures that lead to immigration; her love and charity for the poor and the oppressed does not stop at any nation's border, for she sees us all as part of the one family of Man made in God's own image.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Pope says all lives matter; media freaks out

I begin with a caveat: I have not yet read Pope Francis' new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate, in anything like its entirety. I've skimmed through a bit of it, but that's all so far. I'm intrigued by it and hope to have time soon to read the whole thing.

Predictably, the media hasn't (apparently) read it either. I'm pretty sure that most American journalists go through and search a few keywords to see how often they pop up, and then write headlines based on their total misconceptions about what is being said. More than a few news articles out there have already led with exactly how many times the words "Hell" or "Satan" appear in the document, which makes my "keyword search" idea all the more plausible.

And one of those sets of keywords is always going to be a set around what the media likes to call the "pelvic issues." I can just imagine a couple of journalists having the following conversation:

"Got anything yet, George?"

"Not yet, Jim. Nothing about gays, pornography, contraception, abortion..."

"You're kidding me! What the expletive are we going to write about, then?"

"Hang on, hang on. I just got a hit for 'unborn.' Hmmm. He says all human lives are sacred, he says, 'Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate...'"

"Well, that's no good. We're waiting for him to change that stuff. Or if not him, then the next pope. Sooner or later the Church has to love abortion as much as we do--we know we're right about this. You know how many little brats I'd be paying child support to if it wasn't for abortion?"

"Preaching to the choir, Jim. Wait, though, come over and read this whole quote."

"What about it?"

"I think we could work with it. The pope seems to be saying that you can't just work to end abortion. You've got to feed the poor and whatnot, too."

"So? The nuns in grade school taught me that. That's Catholicism 101."

"Yeah, but does the average person know that?"

"Hang on, hang on. I'm getting a headline. Write this: 'In stunning move, pope scolds Catholics for caring too much about abortion..."

"Nah. We used that last year."

"Oooh. Forgot about that. Well, how about, 'Downplaying abortion, Pope says issues like poverty and oppression are equally sacred to Catholics..."

"He didn't actually say that. He said that all human lives are equally sacred. Nothing about issues."

"You expect anybody to care about that? Come on. 'Pope says all lives matter. Water still wet. Hillary still wearing pantsuits.' None of that is news."

"Okay, I'm convinced. Let's go with that angle."

In case you haven't actually seen the whole quote that the media is busily spinning, here it is:
101. The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend. Our defence of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.[84] We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.
As I had my fictional journalists say above, this is Catholicism 101. Being concerned about the unborn and advocating clearly, firmly, and passionately on their behalf is is good thing. Being concerned about the poor, the destitute, and all the other vulnerable people the pope mentions is also a good thing. This is not either/or but both/and, and it always has been. When the Romans observed the early Christians, for instance, they noticed that the early Christians didn't practice infanticide like everybody else. But they also noticed that the early Christians fed the hungry, clothed the naked, tended to the sick and the imprisoned, and instructed the ignorant. They noticed, in other words, that the early Christians acted like all lives were sacred--or, in other words, that all lives mattered. In the Roman world, where your life only mattered if you were wealthy, male, a free citizen, and pretty well-connected--and even then your life could stop mattering the instant somebody higher up decided you weren't worth protecting--this was a stunning idea.

Interestingly, in America, a nation which prides itself on a sort of feel-good egalitarianism, it's still a stunning idea: what, the unborn matter? the elderly matter? the guy getting sent to jail on drug charges for the fifth time since his sixteenth birthday--he matters? the girl whose parents brought her to America when she was two--she matters? Americans love to pay lip service to the idea that other people matter, but too often we couple that idea with a different idea which could be expressed this way: all people matter in theory, but in practice you only matter to the extent that you have proved your worthiness. For one set of Americans, you prove your worth by rugged individualism and bootstrap prosperity; for another set of Americans, you are only worthy if you are a member of a racial, sexual, or other minority group or an outspoken "ally" of such a group. We tend to walk all over the unborn and the poor and the desperate as we fight over these competing definitions of worth.

Catholics are supposed to be different. We are supposed to take it as a given that all human lives are equally sacred. We are not supposed to be carving out exceptions to that rule, where Catholics on one side yell, "Except for the unborn! And the elderly or disabled who would be better off euthanized!" and Catholics on the other side yell, "Except for immigrants! And people from terrorist nations! And prisoners on Death Row!" We're all guilty of trying to make exceptions to the "All human lives are equally sacred" rule.

A lot of us are also guilty at times of falling prey to the latest media freakout over what is really normal ordinary garden-variety Catholic teaching. A good rule to remember is that if the Holy Father actually were to write that water is wet, the media would go nuts talking about how the pope is dissing both ice and sand. And Heaven forbid that any pontiff ever says anything at all about women's pantsuits...