Thursday, March 30, 2017

Two days, no posts

It has been busy around here, and I've had to make the writer's choice: in the handful of minutes I have had to write these past two days, do I write a blog post or work on fiction?

I've chosen to work on fiction, and it's the right choice. April's Camp NaNoWriMo starts on Saturday, and I'm not ready yet!

But I have to remember that "blog post" doesn't necessarily mean long, drawn out, serious stuff. It can be a few lines. Like this one.

Monday, March 27, 2017

What is a woman?

What is a woman?

There was a time when a question like that wasn't seen as being all that hard to answer. A woman was simply a female member of the species homo sapiens, as determined by such things as physical biology and genetic makeup. Just as certain words and concepts were associated with the male of the species such as boy, man, son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, uncle and so on, so were some words associated with the female of the species such as girl, woman, daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, aunt, and the like. While certain words and ideas did reflect societal constructs, such as "bachelor" for an unmarried man and "spinster" for an unmarried woman (with the idea that to be the first was no big deal while the second was practically a disgrace), the words I listed above had to do with relationships, and important ones. It seemed as though only yesterday people agreed that your brother could never become your sister, let alone your wife; now all it takes is for someone to shout "Love Wins!" for that horrible idea to become socially acceptable and those who object to it shouted down as irredeemable bigots.

I think that part of the problem is that in an age of modernity we have largely forgotten just how important the relationship-based words are, and the reason we have forgotten this is because we have forgotten what they mean. The vast majority of children born in China any time in the last several decades, for instance, have no experience whatsoever of "brother" or "sister" or even aunt, uncle, and cousin. In an America with a birthrate below replacement level and falling there are plenty of children who likewise will never really experience what those words mean on a deeply personal level.

And that's for "brother" and "sister," two words that indicate biological relationships. How much more are we forgetting what words like "husband" and "wife" mean, since so many people think a husband or a wife is just a temporary relationship dressed up to look better in public, and so many other people carry on like husbands and wives without bothering to marry? The beginning of the end of these ideas was no-fault divorce, which formed a couple of generations of people to think that husbands and wives were easily replaceable people primarily used for sex whose temporary role in one's life should not unduly burden one; the actual end, of course, was Obergefell, because once a husband became some sort of thing that could have another husband, or a wife the sort of thing that could have another wife, the words became completely meaningless to the level of gibberish.

The reason the concept of marriage is now gibberish is precisely because if marriage has nothing to do with sexual complementarity, that is, with the union of a man with a woman, then it has nothing to do with anything. All those other relationship words: mother/father, son or daughter, grandfather/grandmother, only have meaning and context within the light of that relationship of husband and wife. When we call an adopted child a son or a daughter, for example, we can only do that because we know what a son or a daughter is--in fact, the addition of the word "adopted" shows that we do understand what a son or daughter is, and that when we can raise someone else's child as a son or daughter this is a special gift both from us and from the child's birth parents who are, due to unfortunate circumstances, entrusting us with something so precious.

But when marriage no longer has anything to do with children, when biological sex gives way to fluid and fluctuating notions of gender that are grounded in nothing but subjectivity, when we can't say what a son or daughter is anymore because a daughter can have two "moms" and decide to become a son, then we can't say what  woman is anymore, either (let alone a man). In the end, a woman isn't anything at all, except when she objects to the presence of "women with penises" in her gym's changing area and showers, at which point she becomes a bigot.

If women are nothing special, then mothers aren't, either. Already we see modern feminism going on the attack, floating the idea that women should be prohibited by law from being stay-at-home-moms once their youngest children are in school. After all, why should women stay at home to raise and nurture their own children, when they could be working ten to twelve hours a day building a career or at least selling stuff at the local big-box store? Women aren't the only ones who give birth anymore; plenty of "men" who just happen to have vaginas give birth too these days, so why should the women get to be slackers while the men have to earn paychecks, something that is far more important than bringing up the next generation of humans, or furries, or genderfluid fairy boi creatures with unicorn tattoos? Childcare should be outsourced to the cheapest possible workers so that women and "birthing men" can take a nice healing holiday after the birthing process and then get back to the widget factory as quickly as possible, so that the genders can finally be equal.

And if mothers aren't special, then neither are fathers (who can be born with either a penis or a vagina) or sons (who might have been inappropriately assigned the wrong gender at birth) or daughters (who face discrimination if they happen to be transitioning away from male) or aunts or uncles or grandfathers or grandmothers or pretty much anybody we used to refer to by those outdated relationship words.

What is a woman? The modern state answers, chillingly, "Whatever I say it is. And you must agree or face the consequences." And the modern men and women and genderless alternate reality beings cheer and proclaim that someone born a man is now the Woman of the Year...

Saturday, March 25, 2017

A small and familiar cross

I had planned on getting that "modernity and women" post up today, but it's a few minutes to midnight and I've been sidelined all evening by a pretty bad migraine. So it will appear Monday.

We had some thunderstorms roll through last night, and high winds all day today. My head pain is a reminder that it really is spring in Texas now.

The truth is that migraines are a cross that doesn't even seem all that much like one anymore; I've had them for so long that the pain and disorientation are familiar. I know what to do for them and how/when to do it, and unlike my younger self I'm not all that stubborn or resentful about the disruptions to my schedule. If anything, having dealt with migraines my whole life is probably a gentle introduction to the similar disruptions and inconveniences that most of us go on to experience as we age.

I've slept a bit this evening, and now I will probably be awake for a while--at least until I can take another dose of medicine. While I'm awake I will offer this up for those of you who are really struggling this Lent with the kinds of physical, mental, and emotional pain that doesn't go away in two to twelve hours with some relief from things like painkillers, ice, or a darkened and quiet room. God bless, and I'll see you Monday!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Progress on the fiction writing front

I'm working on a blog post for tomorrow about modernity and women, but I'm not going to be able to finish tonight. Today has been a really productive day for me from a writing perspective, beginning with the 3 a.m. finish--finally!--of the first draft of Book Eight in the Tales of Telmaja series. This book took me longer to finish than some of the others, and while I think it may be a bit longer than some of the others the real reason it took a long time to finish is because the story is complicated and a bit dark compared to the earliest books. Several scenes, especially toward the book's ending, required on-the-go rewriting (which is something I don't usually do) and they will probably require careful editing too. There is such a fine line between a dramatic situation and a melodramatic one, and I'm not always sure whether or not I have inadvertently crossed it.

After that, I spent a good bit of the day setting up the final version of the first draft in the template I will eventually use to publish it. I write my books in that template already, but at the moment I am switching between different word processing tools (including using Google Docs so I can work on my Chromebook instead of being tied to my elderly Mac Mini) so it made sense to go ahead and create the template in MS Word. I ordinarily avoid Word as I much prefer Pages for Mac, but the advantage of using Word now is that I can write in Google Docs on either the Chromebook or the desktop and then generate a Word file that can be used for publishing. To be honest, setting up my template in Word wasn't as difficult as I thought, because the most vexing problem was creating the right section breaks to keep real page numbers (as opposed to tiny Roman numerals) from appearing on the title page, copyright page, and the other usual beginning pages of a book. When I created the template initially in Pages I had just as much trouble with the section break/page number problem, so I can't say that my difficulties today had anything to do with Word; they really just have to do with my own lapses in word processing proficiency.

I've been struggling to get back up to speed on my writing projects this year, but I finally feel like I'm making progress. It's a good feeling, and I hope to keep this pace going as I head back into the editing part of my life as a self-published author.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Reality is not optional

Laurel Hubbard made history this weekend by becoming the first transgender female to win an international weightlifting title for New Zealand. But her victory in the over-90-kilogram division, in which she lifted a combined total of 268 kilograms (roughly 590 pounds) to best silver medalist Iuniarra Sipaia of Samoa by 19 kilograms (roughly 42 pounds), was not without controversy.
Despite a year’s worth of blood tests showing Hubbard had no more testosterone running through her veins than any of the other female weightlifters competing in the Australian International this weekend, some of those Hubbard beat questioned the fairness of the competition. 
“If I was in that category I wouldn’t feel like I was in an equal situation,” two-time Olympian Deborah Acason, who competes at the 75-kilogram level, told New Zealand news site Stuff. “I just feel that if it’s not even, why are we doing the sport?”

Why, indeed?

The truth of the matter is that playing a game that pretends that the only thing that differentiates a male and a female athlete is testosterone--ignoring such things as muscle mass and center of gravity and bone structure, which have a lot to do with weightlifting ability--is both silly and unscientific. Laurel Hubbard is not a female. He is a male, who wishes to live as a female. His desire to live as a female can be somewhat accommodated by an understanding society, but it cannot alter reality for actual women, whether in the changing room, the gym shower, or the weightlifting event. It seems so blatantly obvious a truth that I am surprised it even needs to be stated.

Another truth that is impossibly obvious is this one: actual biological women are the ones who will suffer the most under any new trans-friendly agendas, programs, or societal expectations. We are the ones who have to give up our private spaces, and it matters more to us if men are using those spaces than it matters to men if the occasional woman dressed like a man enters theirs. Don't get me wrong; men shouldn't have to put up with it either. But a six-foot-tall male isn't ordinarily going to feel threatened by a five-foot-five woman who thinks she's a man entering his public bathroom in the same way that a five-foot-five woman will feel when she has to share a locker room with a six-foot-tale man who says he feels female today. And male athletes aren't facing the possible domination of their sports by women dressed like men and injecting testosterone; women have a real possibility of women's sports being erased by men who, despite dressing like women and taking steps to reduce their testosterone levels, still clearly have advantages over the actual female athletes.

But the truth I find most irritatingly and blindingly obvious is this: transgenderism is a war on reality. A man can say he feels female, and though I still maintain he does not know and never will know what it really feels like to be a woman there is room to be sympathetic and tolerant. But when a man says, "I am a woman," he is stating something which is not, in any empirical or scientific or rational way, actually true. He can identify as transgender and like women's clothing and want to be surgically altered to appear somewhat female, but what he cannot do is be, in an ontological sense, a woman, no matter how hard he tries. It is as impossible for a man to be a woman, or a woman to be a man, as it is for a fish to become a bicycle; it is not rational to believe in such possibilities. 

Some characteristics really are immutable. I, a short woman, cannot become a tall woman, though I can wear shoes that make me appear taller. I, a Caucasian woman, cannot become an African-American woman, and I think it would be sort of insulting to actual African-American women if I insisted that I could somehow become one of them. And I can no more become male than I can become a marsupial or a mongoose.

When we live in a culture in which such blindingly obvious truths have to be explained and defended, we are living in a culture that thinks reality itself has become optional. Such cultures rarely last long, and are usually replaced, sometimes violently, by cultures that have no problem distinguishing the difference between men and women.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Video screens do not belong in a Catholic church

This past weekend, I finally had the opportunity to attend Mass at the beautiful new main parish church which is very close to where I live. My family has been members of the mission church attached to this parish for about nine years now, and we sing with the choir there, but it's nice to have the main parish close by now (it will probably make Holy Days of Obligation much simpler, for one thing).

The church really is lovely, and it's clear that a lot of work and attention went into the details. The soundproof, massive confessionals at the back of the chapel used for daily Mass are especially wonderful, and the overall look is of a traditional Catholic parish church.

Which is why the screens were so jarring.

Yes, video screens, mounted on swing-arms along the walls and facing the congregation so that those attending Mass could see hymn lyrics, readings, and so on projected at the left and right hand sides of the church. There were no missals or hymn books in the pews, though in fairness I should say that as the pews have slots to hold such books I don't know for sure if future plans for missals or hymnals might be in the works. Perhaps they are--one can only hope.

Part of my objection to the screens is a practical one. I am one of those people who sings at Mass whether I'm with my regular choir or not. I may not be perfect at sight-reading but I'm adept enough to be able to follow along with an unfamiliar hymn if I can see the music. But the screens don't project the music--just the words. I stood silent during the entrance hymn, which I had never heard before, because without being able to see the notes I had no idea where the music was going. I was not the only one--I would estimate that the vast majority of those attending were not singing any of the music at Mass. But in the old tiny church, they used to--so this isn't a matter of "Catholics don't sing anyway" so much as it is "These Catholics used to sing when they had hymnals, but many of them seem to have given up."

If the goal was to replace hymns with choir-led antiphons (which have easy-to-learn repeated refrains for the congregation to join in) it would be one thing, but somehow I doubt there is any such goal.

Another part of my objection to the screens is the aesthetic. This is, as I said, a fairly traditional-looking church. There is no "in-the-round" seating or gratuitous modern oddity (apart from a large baptismal font of a somewhat modern design as you enter the church, but this is not all that unexpected these days and it was not unpleasant in terms of design). You could easily imagine a pastor deciding to build on the traditional architecture to add other traditional elements. So the screens looked as out of place as a kazoo in a symphony orchestra--they just didn't belong.

I know, because I've heard it from Catholics who are used to screens in their churches, that the idea behind them is supposed to be pastoral and money-saving. In theory the screens will cost less than hymnals, and are touted to be better and easier on the eyesight of elderly parishioners than printed books. I'm not elderly yet, just solidly middle-aged with bifocals, and I can tell you that the screens were hard to read, especially given that you have to turn completely away from the altar to look to your left or right to see one. I'm not sure why people buy into the argument that screens are somehow better than books, given the obvious disadvantages.

My biggest objection to these trendy, trivial pieces of modern culture is just that: they are trendy, they are trivial, and they are pieces of modern culture better left outside the church doors. Given the pace at which technology ages, today's hot new innovative screens are going to be tomorrow's technology nightmares. They will seem as relevant and useful as burlap banners or 1960s hymns before long, requiring expensive updates to equipment and software that will end up costing far more than a quality hymnal like this one. In addition, they add a trivial and temporal note to what is a timeless and eternal act of worship. We have gotten used (however reluctantly) to seeing huge screens at such places as waiting rooms and restaurants and stores, but do we need them at Mass? Shouldn't Mass be a place where the distractions and annoyances of modern life disappear, instead of being mounted along the walls where they will compete with the Holy Sacrifice for our attention?

No, screens and similar "worship aids" simply do not belong in a Catholic church. I am sorry to see them show up where I live, and I hope that the justifications and excuses for putting them in church buildings will evaporate quickly and we will one day think of them as a silly and bad idea that temporarily got implemented instead of a glimpse of further intrusions of what is worldly, banal and mundane into the Mass.

Monday, March 20, 2017

A post my fiction-writing friends may enjoy

Scene: A featureless room, something like a collage made of empty canvases or a completely blank rectangular space.

Enter New Character, who flickers into the space, looking somehow blurred and incomplete.

New Character: Um...hello? What is this? Where am I?

Writer's Voice: Welcome. You have successfully made the journey from fleeting inspiration to fledgling character. This place is a sort of holding room at the edges of my imagination. Just where we go from here will be largely up to you.

NC: To me? But I'm not even sure who I am. Or what I am. These aren't talons, are they?

WV: That remains to be seen. As for who you are, all I know so far is that you are here. I can trace your present evolution--you are part original idea, part blatant theft of other people's good characters, and part archetypal hero--or, at least, archetypal something; I suppose it's too soon to tell if you will be a hero. But your slow evolution across many hours of daydreams doesn't tell us who you are. We will have to find out.

NC: (a little nervously) Okay. Say I buy all of that so far. How do we find out? What exactly do I do?

WV: The goal here is to bring you fully into existence and make you as human and real as possible--and, yes, you will be human in some sense even if those talons stay put. In order to do that, I will be putting you through a series of tests. By seeing how you react to various imaginary scenarios I will not only be able to figure out who you are, but also what type of story you belong in. This is a crucial part of the storytelling process, so I apologize in advance for any inconveniences you might experience.

NC: Inconveniences?

WV: Yes. My tests will be an escalating battery of physical, mental, and emotional stresses, including, but not limited to battles, assassination attempts, imprisonment, various wounds and injuries (some of which you may have received in the distant past but which still impact you in various ways) betrayal by your nearest and dearest, loss of your nearest and dearest due to death from causes ranging from natural to highly improbable to wildly paranormal, isolation, loneliness, fear, and various manifestations of existential dread. I will also need to find out if you are, for instance, the sort of person who would burn his own arm brandishing a flaming torch at a pack of wolves in a desperate attempt to keep your companions safe or the sort who would quietly take steps to toss the smallest and/or weakest member of your group at the wolves in order to escape yourself. These, and similar scenarios, are completely necessary to the eventual development of the story. They will all take place here in my imagination, but rest assured that if my imagination runs away with me and I actually bring you beyond the brink of death it's not permanent or anything.

NC: Wait--what?  I didn't agree to this!

WV: I'm afraid you did, the moment you took shape enough to appear here. But perhaps some of my older characters can explain things better.

Various Old Characters, much more distinct and real than the New Character, appear.

Old Character 1: Settle down, youngster. Let us tell you what's what.

NC: What could you possibly tell me that would make me agree to go through this?

OC 1: Well, for one thing, it's not personal. The writer doesn't hate you. She's actually quite fond of you, to get you this far and consider making you a main character.

OC 2: That's true, you know. I ended up a side character. It isn't bad--at least I exist in a story. But everybody knows the main characters get the best scenes.

OC 3: I failed my early tests and ended up a recurring character. It's steady work, but only the most avid readers ever even notice me.

NC: So you're saying that if I go along with these tests, if I do well, I'll be important somehow?

OC 2: The main character isn't just important somehow. He or she is the reason the story comes to life. Without a good main character there isn't a story.

OC 1: (chuckles) That's the truth. I'm a main character, so I know. It may not be fun to do all of this preliminary work, but believe me, it's necessary.

NC: Necessary? How? Why?

OC 1: The writer can't tell the story until she knows you. Really knows you, inside and out, knows what you like for breakfast and your current preferred weapon in single combat or your past as a tax attorney or whatever. All of that stuff tells her what the story is about. Then, too, she knows how you react to things, which is important when the story is moving along rapidly. She can't stop the action every single time to decide how you feel about snakes, or whatnot.

NC: (slowly) I suppose that makes sense.

OC 2: Of course it does. And you want to be a character, because otherwise you go back and wait for another opportunity, which might never come along.

NC: I see. (pauses for a long moment) Okay. I'll do this. Even if I think that I'm not likely to be a tax attorney, not with these talons.

WV: You never know. Let's get started.

Scene changes dramatically. New Character, becoming more visible, is running at full speed over a mountainous terrain, pursued by shapeless creatures who appear to be firing some sort of quills at him; the quills explode on contact, but New Character manages to dodge them all as he leaps over the ground. Suddenly he finds himself at the edge of a cliff. Grimacing over his shoulder, he mutters "It's always something," as talons protrude from his hands and a giant triangular wing, reminiscent of a glider, emerges from his shoulders...

Friday, March 17, 2017

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Or, why Catholics can't have nice things

A little St. Patrick's treat at our house today. Yes, it's still Lent.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! Or, as it's called on the Internet, "Happy day my bishop did/did not grant our diocese a dispensation so we could have meat on a Lenten Friday and why I am/am not happy about it."


In our diocese of Fort Worth the bishop did grant a dispensation--the cathedral here is St. Patrick's and there are plenty of Irish-Americans in the diocese, so the dispensation seems like a wise pastoral move. We still had meatless pasta tonight because that's what I had planned, but we weren't being smug about it. I don't have a problem with my fellow Catholics happily eating corned beef and cabbage or even a steak tonight, provided they live in a diocese under a similar dispensation. And, obviously, I don't have a problem with Catholics choosing to abstain from meat voluntarily, whether from spiritual or housekeeping motivations, either.

What I do have a problem with are the fights between the people who sigh and roll their eyes so hard their keyboards break over these weak bishops granting (and weak Catholics gleefully accepting) a dispensation from one of only a handful of Fridays in the year when American Catholics are even obliged to abstain from meat on the one hand, and the people who act like a dispensation is a Holy Meat-Order of Obligation such that choosing not to eat meat anyway amounts to some kind of scrupulous Pharisaical pride that is more dangerous to the soul than eating a hamburger on Good Friday or something on the other.

You see, it's not good enough for some of the avid abstainers that they can still choose to abstain from meat during a dispensation anyway; they have to malign the people who are taking advantage of the dispensation and cast aspersions on the episcopal authorities who grant them. And it's not enough for some of the happily dispensed that they get to have meat today if they want it; they have to insist that anybody under a dispensation who chooses to stay meatless today must obviously be a holier-than-thou sort who should be held up to ridicule for not having a proper Irish feast (even if they are not Irish at all). We can't just be happy for each other and happy for the Church on this feast of this great saint, because that would stem the outrage and stop the gossip and stanch the bleeding from the circular firing squad wounds, but we can't have that. And this is why Catholics can't have nice things.

It's true: whenever you find Catholics online having minor disagreements about liturgical matters or Catholic customs or modes of (morally acceptable) living or politics--dear heavens, the politics--you will find people on both sides of any such issue bristling with outrage and certain that their way is the one right and proper Catholic way, and that everybody else is doing it all wrong. Charity goes out the window; brotherhood takes a flying leap from a parapet; civility walks the plank, and patience, prudence, and propriety plummet into the icy waters of discord and disdain. Instead of building each other up for the sake of the Kingdom, we all--and I include myself--seem more interested in a bit of recreational shredding not only of ideas, but of the people who hold them as well. We may dress it up in fancy language, but a lot of our Internet internecine debates are every bit as silly as arguing over whether Bishop Thusandso really ought to have let the rabble have corned beef today, or whether Catholic Neighbor A isn't being more Catholic than the pope in choosing to eat grilled cheese instead.

We can do better than this, and we owe it to saints like St. Patrick to try.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Writer's diary: getting over the fear of endings

I've been working, for the past two days, on finishing the first draft of the eighth book in the Tales of Telmaja series. For those readers who don't know me from my old blog, I write and self-publish children's fiction; at present I have books in both the Tales of Telmaja series and a newer series, The Adventures of Ordinary Sam, available for sale. You can read more about them at my website, and both paperback and digital copies can be found for sale here.

Last year I managed to publish three of the six books I have available so far. I had hoped to keep that pace going or even accelerate it a bit, but the first three months of this year have been unexpectedly busy in other areas. That's one of the reasons I decided to blog more frequently during Lent: sometimes I have to break out of a habit of putting everything else first and writing way down near the bottom of the list.

I think anybody who pursues an artistic or craft-based interest will get this. It's extremely easy to decide that some household chore or bit of planning must urgently be done, and that one's artistic endeavors can always wait. What I've learned as a writer is that this isn't true. When you have the kind of time available that is conducive to writing, even if it's only five minutes, you will lose a lot if you let that time slip away or squander it folding socks or something.

This year, I lost the momentum I had going during November's National Novel Writing Month as December began, and never really got it back. Four months later I'm looking back at a bewildering kaleidoscope of things like Christmas and New Year's and four out of five family birthdays and a couple weeks of flu and the birth of four kittens and the persistent and escalating havoc wreaked by those kittens and I don't wonder that I haven't finished Book Eight yet--I wonder that I managed to complete the last two chapters and part of the epilogue at all.

But now that the end of the book is drawing near, I'm fighting a different battle: the "fear of ending" battle. Every writer knows this one, when your attempts so far to stifle your inner editor (as the good people at NaNoWriMo put it) suddenly fail and you start to believe there's some mystical perfection swirling around book endings and that if you don't get the ending exactly right on the first try you will ruin the whole book. No matter how silly that sounds when you actually put it in words (as I just did) it's a persistent fear, at least in my experience. It's hard to let go and move on to the next stage, the editing and proofreading and editing and proofreading and editing and...well, you know.

Still, there comes a time when you just have to push through it. You have to quit looking for household chores and hanging out on Facebook, and just finish the darned book. Because you want to publish three more books this year, and because April is coming, and it's time to switch gears and write the third book in your other series beginning April first--and that's no joke.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A very short blog post...

...courtesy of these guys, who, along with their other two siblings, decided last night that it was desperately important to keep at least some of their human friends up until four a.m.:

I'm still awake and functioning, but my ability to form coherent sentences is rapidly disappearing and I think it would be better to save any more serious posts for a later date.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Modesty and manners

I don't always agree with Simcha Fisher--heck, I don't always agree with myself, so that's not saying much--but I really liked her recent post about that modesty kerfuffle at a Catholic high school in Illinois. Go and read it, if you haven't already.

If you spend little time on the Internet and missed the story, here it is: a Catholic high school helpfully put together an illustrated manual to guide female students into choosing an appropriate dress for the upcoming high school prom. Various secular Internet people then got hold of it and started throwing around words like "patriarchy" and "body-shaming" because apparently telling young women as clearly as possible that they cannot come to prom dressed like streetwalkers who are offering a half-price sale on their services is beyond the pale.

I've commented on various modesty debates before now, and I'm hardly a stickler for some set of arbitrary rules that insist on seeing overtly sexual motifs in perfectly ordinary women's clothing. That's not what this prom guide is doing, not at all. It is attempting to set some clear standards for the girls who plan to attend the school prom. After all, each girl is still free (if her parents approve) to dress like a porn star or red-carpet demimonde at any private family party or public gathering at a venue with no dress code, but at a Catholic high school's prom it is perfectly proper for the high school to prohibit certain extreme fashions that do not reflect well on the school's image. The truth is that these extreme fashions are nearly always to be found among the women's clothing choices; men are, by and large, more conservative in their dress for formal events.

There are important conversations to be had about modesty, about whether the concept is sometimes used to blame women for men's faults, about whether certain religious traditions outside of Catholicism use the idea of modesty as a weapon of control to keep women in their "place," so to speak. But it's also important not to freak out every time a dress code appears, or every time shorts are prohibited (for men or women) at at some nice restaurant or at the Vatican, or, in general, every time some rule of dressing makes its way into the public eye.

The truth is that the high school in question might not have needed a guide to modesty in an age where people still had good manners. By "people" I include (perhaps first and foremost) fashion designers, many of whom have rudely overlooked the reality that most women actually don't want to appear half-naked in public, that we don't find skin-tight clothing comfortable or (most of us) flattering, and that nothing is less conducive to a relaxed and fun evening than having to wonder every time you so much as lift an eyebrow whether so slight a motion is going to cause some body part or other to display itself to the curious or voyeuristic. The kinds of extreme fashions the Catholic school wishes to prohibit are usually aped after Hollywood couture, and the thing people forget about a Hollywood star who is somehow supposed to walk, run, fight bad guys etc. in less fabric than a one-month-old generally wears is that she usually has a whole wardrobe team making sure her film doesn't suddenly veer into nudity (unless it's that kind of film, of course).

Apart from fashion designers, a lot of ordinary people lack good manners concerning clothing these days because we live in an age that has no real standards of dress anymore. We can lament this all we want, but it's both unfortunate and true. Even such simple rules of etiquette as wearing black to a funeral don't apply anymore. The trend for at least fifty years has been toward an increasingly casual way of dressing.

That's not all bad. There's certainly some benefit in not having to have one set of clothing to wear at home and another to wear out in public--let alone a third to wear to church and a fourth to wear on special occasions and a fifth for sports and a sixth for..oh, well, you get the idea. Having certain basic pieces which you can dress up or down is a good thing (and it is especially good when these pieces are machine washable and easy to take care of).

But the negative is that it is sometimes harder to figure out what is or isn't appropriate to wear for various occasions, and prom is one of these occasions. The fashion designers don't help young women determine what to wear, and neither do the various teen magazines promoting the idea that the girl with the sexiest dress somehow wins. We talk about giving girls body-positive messages, but a competitive and feminist spirit that encourages more and more envelope-pushing clothing abbreviations ultimately benefits men more than women; specifically, it benefits the very men who are already likely to treat women like objects.

Unfortunately, a lot of people act as though there are only two possible outcomes: the hijab or the hooker-dress. The middle way of manners isn't even thought of, but it should be. After all, if a Catholic school is hosting a party then they, as good hosts, ought to give the expected guests some idea what to wear; it is terribly frustrating to be invited to a party and have no idea whatsoever what kind of party it is or what clothing is appropriate, such that half the guests show up in torn jeans and the other half in  three piece suits or silk dupioni sundresses with pearls. By letting the guests know what is expected the Catholic high school is making a sort of "first move" in the game of manners; now it is up to the guests to be well-mannered guests and dress accordingly. That this very ordinary display of manners inspires any kind of a freak-out, let alone an Internet one, is just a reminder that we live in a time when the concept of good manners is itself seen as some sort of intrusion on one's theoretical right to a radical individualism that feels oppressed any time it must put the good of others ahead of its own whims and desires.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Why not support paid parental leave?

On Facebook I've been participating in a discussion about paid maternity leave. As you may already know, America is the only industrialized nation that does not provide any paid parental leave. The average paid leave among industrialized nations is 17 weeks; in America, you can, if you work for a large enough employer, take up to twelve weeks off after you give birth--but apart from any vacation time you may have saved up that leave will be unpaid.

It should be fairly obvious that the mothers who suffer most from a total lack of paid maternity leave are those who are the least well-off economically. A relatively wealthy two-income family may be able to arrange to do without the mother's income for some or all of the twelve unpaid weeks mandated by law, but a two-income family with less total income may find that any loss of income at all puts them in danger of being unable to pay their bills. 

Since Catholics reject the idea that only rich families should have children, or that children are optional lifestyle accessories for those few married couples capable of bearing, unaided, all the expenses involved in raising and educating those children, it seems to me that Catholics should support paid maternity leave at the very least, and paid parental leave as a just way to ensure that even stay-at-home moms can count on their husbands' presence and support for at least some of the time after baby comes home from the hospital--important enough in ordinary circumstances, but crucial in situations where there were birth complications, where the child ends up in the NICU for a while, and even when there are already children at home who need Dad to help care for them while mom recovers from childbirth.

So I always find it surprising when Catholics do not support these ideas, and raise various objections to them. Sometimes the objections are nakedly partisan: the Other Side supports paid parental leave, so we must oppose it. Those arguments aren't worth addressing.

But when the objections are more specific it is worthwhile to address them, and in the rest of this post I will make a preliminary attempt to do so.

First objection: We can't afford paid parental leave. Who would pay for it, and how would it be done?

Answer: Countries far less wealthy than America manage to have paid parental leave. By many estimates, six weeks of paid leave would require no more than an annual payroll deduction of about $30--that's annual, note, not monthly. Even if we doubled that to 12 weeks of paid parental leave we would be looking at $60 a year, or $5 a month, or $2.50 a paycheck. This amount would hardly be noticeable among other payroll deductions such as those for Social Security and Medicare.

Second objection: Paid parental leave will cost employers too much, and will raise the price of goods and services.

Answer: See above; also, not offering paid leave has costs, too. When women return to work too soon after giving birth both they and their newborns are more at risk for various health complications, some of them quite expensive. Women still dealing with normal postpartum issues may, understandably, be less productive at work as well.

Third objection: If it is too difficult for women to work after giving birth, they should just quit their jobs and become stay-at-home moms. Second incomes are for luxury expenses, not necessities.

Answer: While most of us Catholics fully support stay-at-home moms and agree that not all dual-income households actually need both incomes, the reality is that since the 1970s the number of two-income households have risen to the point where in some parts of the country it may be difficult to impossible to live on a single income. Wage stagnation, the rising costs of housing, transportation, and health care, and the huge and growing problem of crushing student loan debt has created a situation which traps many young couples into relying on two incomes. Ideally any family who wants one parent to stay at home with the children should be encouraged and supported to do so, but the notion that all women who work outside the home can just quit and stay home instead of needing parental leave after a baby is born ignores the situation we have now. 

Fourth objection (and, yes, this really was said): women in the past didn't need paid maternity leave, so why do women need it now?

Answer: obviously, the majority of women in the past rarely worked outside the home following the birth of their children. Not only did this negate the necessity for paid maternity leave, but also women had a network of support from other women in those early days following the birth of their children: their mothers, sisters, unmarried aunts or cousins, neighbors and friends became a pool of help and aid for a mom with a newborn. Today, nearly 70% of women older than 16 work outside the home, which means that the stay-at-home mom may not be able to call on her mother or aunt or sister to come and help her once baby arrives. Those of us who were lucky enough to have family willing to sacrifice some time after the arrival of our children are certainly grateful for that blessing, but there are many women who have no such available relatives or friends and who are also facing the necessity to return to work relatively quickly after their child is born.

The reality is that we can't just say we care about families, about mothers and fathers and children, without carefully considering the real need for at least some paid parental leave for an event as life-changing as the birth of a child. Even six weeks of paid leave would be important time for healing and recovery and for bonding with the new baby. Families need this--so why not support it?

Friday, March 10, 2017

Another Catholic Lenten Friday

Another Catholic Lenten Friday (with apologies to the Monkees)

The local moms' group down the street 
Is trying hard to get along
They gossip 'bout the renegade 
Who does the 40 Days all wrong
Another Catholic Lenten Friday
Fish sticks burning everywhere
Lay-led Stations that are avant garde
But no one seems to care

See Mrs. Bray, she's proud today
Her chickpea quiche will be done soon
And Mr. Keen, he's so serene
He's got a rosary in every room
Another Catholic Lenten Friday
Here in flat felt-banner land
Pastors complain about how hard life is
And the lay folk don't understand

Lenten bragging rights, keep me awake at night
My company is misery
Ah, envy rises high, for those who self-deny
I need more Anno Domini

Another Catholic Lenten Friday
Fish sticks burning everywhere
Another Catholic Lenten Friday
Here in flat felt-banner land…

Thursday, March 9, 2017

We're not all the same

Yesterday was something called International Women's Day, or so they tell me, and as part of the ongoing protests against the inexplicable reality that Donald Trump has yet to be impeached lots of women planned to take the day off of work. That's pretty much impossible when you are a SAHM already, but I'm sure lots of women proved their strong spirit of independence and feminism yesterday by catching up with all the laundry and cleaning their children's rooms in between bursts of Facebook cheerleading to mark the occasion.

The truth is that while I applaud any peaceful protest these days (unlike the kind that ends up with college professors being bashed around by entitled rich kids who want to prove how oppressed they are in the most violent way possible) simply for being peaceful, I tend to find a lot of these vague, nebulous "women's protests" that have sprung up to be somewhat less than compelling. I am never sure exactly what they are protesting: Trump, men generally, women's wages, the fact that a man won "Woman of the Year" last year, the lack of free abortions and/or birth control so they can be freely empowered to let men use them for sex without having to worry about children...oh, wait. Never mind.

The thing is, anytime I see something that starts out "Women today want..." or "A pressing women's issue this year is..." I tend to tune out. The very fact that people still feel free to generalize so much about women, as if we were this monolithic block solely because of our biological sex, is proof that women haven't advanced as much as we like to pretend. Some of us would say that modern feminism is actually a step backward in that it presumptively dismisses all those women out there who don't want abortion to be legal and who don't mind being paid a bit less in exchange for flex time or longer maternity leaves. We're not all on the same page, and we shouldn't have to be.

Can you imagine a giant Men's Protest in Washington, D.C.? Most people I know would not assume that all male people have the same interests, the same goals, the same struggles, the same issues, the same beliefs or the same tastes. And anybody whose knee-jerk reaction to the thought of a Men's Protest is: "What do men have to protest about? They have all the power and all the privilege!" is already guilty of stereotyping: some men have power and privilege, and some do not, and the assumption that all men are better off than all women is one of the things that is jarring about the women's protests that have been going on lately.

It is true that women are also stereotyped a lot. Every woman is supposed to care passionately about the "right" to destroy her own children in utero, without which "right" she is apparently nothing but a slave. Every woman is supposed to demand free birth control. Every woman is supposed to reject traditional roles and demand the right to be a kickboxing female detective regularly chasing down bad guys while wearing stiletto heels and always managing to take down men three times her size (or, at least, every women is supposed to believe such women exist and to aspire to join them, at least symbolically). Every women is supposed to prefer to vote for female political candidates regardless of how much those candidates' views diverge from their own, and every woman--at least, according to marketing agencies--is supposed to have a nearly romantic passion for yogurt.

The truth is that women, just like men, are actual human beings with our own lives and experiences and beliefs and tastes. For every women who thinks slaughtering unborn children in her womb is a terrific idea you will find women who do not. For every woman whose most pressing issue is equal pay you will find a woman who would take a bit less in wages if she could be home when her kids get home from school each day. We're not all the same, and that's before you even start to think about the "International" part of "International Women's Day." In some cultures women would be insulted to think they are assumed to have the same concerns as relatively well-off American elites with left-wing tendencies; they might even think that no decent women wants such things as free abortions and contraceptives in the first place.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

We interrupt this blog... bring you pictures of kittens.

I'm working on some commentary on the whole "International Women's Day" thing, but there's no way the post will be ready tonight, so I'm going to save it for tomorrow.

In the meantime, those little guys who were peacefully sleeping when I took those pictures yesterday are tearing through my living room like they drank coffee laced with Energizer (tm) bunnies. It's going to be another long night. :)

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

But is she really?

I have to admit, the new Beauty and the Beast movie isn't something I had planned on going to see, even though some of my daughters are considering it. This isn't because of the headline ripple a few days ago about the alleged gay moment or moments in the film, or because I have greater disdain for Disney offerings than usual, or anything like that; it's really because I rarely see movies in theaters. When seeing a movie in a theater has a pretty good chance of triggering a migraine due to the bright flashing lights, overly-loud sounds, and arctic chill or blazing heat of the theater's interior temperatures, you tend to go see only those movies that are really worth the risk of hours of pain later. Most aren't, and a remake of a cartoon that, however charming, first came out when I was already an adult isn't going to be one of them.

Still, it has been interesting to see some of the reviews materialize, and to listen to some of the movie-related chatter. One of those elements of chatter has been about Emma Watson, the Harry Potter star now cast as Belle--and, according to some, miscast:
One of the core problems, believe it or not, is Emma Watson as the title character. Even with slight revisions to make Belle more of a master of her own destiny, this is still not the healthiest romance ever told. Unlike, say, Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, it is a romance that begins absent consent and without equal agency. And Watson can’t quite sell her own acceptance of this narrative. Like Jodie Foster in Anna and the King, Watson can’t quite dumb herself down to the level of buying it.
Belle is much more engaged when she’s fending off Gaston (Luke Evans) or conversing with her father (Kevin Kline). She looks unsure of how to react when she’s watching a bunch of silverware put on a dinner theater or falling for a relatively charmless Beast (Dan Stevens, with a great singing voice even if I kept thinking of Colm Wilkinson’s Jean Valjean). The film is much stronger, at least as surface-level entertainment, in the village sequences, where good actors are conversing with each other, as opposed to Beast’s castle where good actors do their best to bring visually displeasing CGI creations to life.
This iteration of Belle is supposed to be more of a feminist; articles from last year talked about the movie's allegedly surprising feminist twist. But as the review quoted above and some similar reviews point out, it is actually more problematic to see Belle as a modern-day feminist than to envision her as a girl from the 1700s, the sweet and humble youngest daughter of a merchant who has fallen into poverty (which is how the story originally goes). As a girl nobly taking her father's place in a debt of honor (the stolen rose) and being treated with unfailing kindness and politeness by the Beast, Belle makes sense; as a feminist who initially is treated cruelly by him but sticks around and eventually (if somewhat inexplicably, in this new film, if the reviews are accurate) falls in love with him, she really doesn't. In fact, the whole movie may end up being somewhat incoherent:
It’s a deluge of good actors (including Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) trying their best in what amounts to a cover band of a popular album. The new version feels obligatory rather than narratively organic, with the core romance feeling unearned. The love story plays out merely because all parties know how the plot must go. All we can do is simply admire the visual elements, the pomp and circumstance and the new variations on iconic beats.
And, source material fidelity notwithstanding, I'd like to think we've advanced a bit beyond the whole "that mean creepy dude is really a sweetheart once you get to know him" trope. On one hand, that's the story. But it says something about our addiction to nostalgia that we keep having to tweak old stories so that they are slightly more palpable to modern audiences.
What interests me about this whole matter is this: why the insistence on Belle being a modern-day feminist, anyway? The live-action remake of Cinderella did not find it necessary to imagine Ella as the sort of woman who would join NOW, for instance. Ella was still the girl who dutifully if unhappily served her stepmother and stepsisters after her father's death, while retaining a certain dignity and depth of character that is evident in the earliest versions of the tale. So why is Belle different?

In other words, when we are told endlessly that Belle is a feminist, I think it's perfectly permissible to ask: but is she, really? The Disney cartoon version of Belle may have had some feminist leanings, in that she wanted adventure and loved to read, but it seems pretty clear that she also took practical interest in household matters to the extent necessary. When we first meet her she is in the village, and presumably she would be the one to do the marketing since she and her father don't appear to have servants. And her house isn't filthy, and she is seen feeding chickens (if I recall correctly), so we're not exactly getting a Gloria Steinem vibe from the young lady.

If this new film actually does make Belle more of an avowed feminist, I think the reason isn't because the story demands it (especially if you consider the original tale). I suspect the reason Belle must become a feminist is because the Beast is deteriorating from the kindly and gentle person in the original tale to a strange, cruel, creepy person who kidnaps young women and locks them up for totally inadequate reasons. In other words, the less the Beast is a gentleman in disguise, the less Belle can be, quite simply, a lady, and the more she must be cast in today's mold of perpetual antagonism between the sexes.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Lessons in gratitude; or, my dishwasher is broken

Our dishwasher died recently, a whole six months after the warranty expired. Of course, right before the warranty expired the dishwasher started leaking, and we had to call for a repair, but the repair was paid for. I felt like I'd cheated the system, but I should have known better.

This means it's the second time in six months the dishwasher has broken, so the writing is on the wall. It would likely cost more to fix it than it is worth. The unit isn't even five years old yet, but I've come to learn that appliances come in three categories these days: cheap crap, mid-priced crap, and hideously expensive crap. Any of them can wow you by lasting more than five whole years (why, yes, darling, that was sarcasm; however did you guess?), and any of them can disappoint you by being lemons from the get-go. You can buy a product that was manufactured overseas cheaply by aspiring college students and it can be a workhorse of a machine; you can buy a product made in the USA by people who know more about tools and machinery than you ever will, and it can suffer catastrophic failure the third time you use it, or the first time you have company after the purchase, whichever happens first. On the other hand the cheaply-made foreign one can break easily, and the USA-made one can work well, which will lead you down a strange path of unfounded trust the next time you have to buy an appliance. You will eventually be tempted to stop buying appliances altogether instead of risking another round of disappointment--but this is not a great idea either.

Don't get me wrong: I know perfectly well that a dishwasher is a luxury item. I am aware that this is what gets called a "first world problem" in lots of circles. I know that otherwise normal people don't own dishwashers or own them and use them for storage (I'm not sure what they store there--dishes would make sense, but I think a strong case could be made for jewelry or fly-fishing equipment too.) I have even met women who insist that they LOVE washing dishes by hand and they can't imagine NOT washing dishes by hand and our ancestors ALWAYS washed dishes by hand and the pioneers washed all their dishes in the RIVER and there's no better way in the world to spend your evenings than WASHING DISHES BY HAND. When they break out their special "Ma Ingalls' Favorite Dishwashing Dress and Bonnet Costume" it is time to leave.

Still, I have made peace with the fact that I like owning a dishwasher, even though they are frustrating little monsters with inconvenient leaks and occasional glitches and inexplicable lapses that lead to mysterious substances on the dishes that you sort of hope are just dishwasher soap residue. My love of dishwashers is especially strong because these days, with my husband at work and my daughters attending college locally, if the dishwasher is broken I become the dish washer, and I don't much like it. It's amazing how many dishes four people who aren't even here during the day can manage to leave behind in the morning and generate again in the evening, and this in spite of paper plates and whatnot being available. And then there's the cooking dishes I dirty by lavishly and luxuriously making dinner for my family, instead of calling for pizza and/or scouring websites that promise one-dish meals (note: they never are one-dish meals. I used a recipe for muffins that promised you'd only dirty up one bowl and spoon, and besides the obvious omission (the muffin pan!) they just sneakily slipped in the mention of a beaten egg to be added to the dry ingredients, as if you could somehow beat the egg inside its shell or something). And there are the cups, which I swear are being beamed into my kitchen by mischievous aliens bent on discovering how many cups can be spontaneously generated into the sink in the home of an average redheaded female human whose dishwasher is broken before she cracks. Some would say this blog post is a sign that their experiment is about to come to an end.

I have to admit, though, that this situation has been a good lesson in gratitude. It wasn't that long ago that my biggest complaint in the morning was that people were leaving dishes in the sink for me to load into the dishwasher after they rushed out the door instead of taking the approximately three seconds it takes to put the dish in the dishwasher instead of the sink. Now I will happily load and unload the dishwasher by myself, just as soon as I decide which of the cheaper models will be the one to take a chance on (hey, if they're going to be frustrating and prone to glitchiness and breaking regardless of how much you spend, you might as well spend as little as possible, which is fortunate because we don't have extra money to spend anyway). It doesn't take very much shift in our perspectives to realize how silly many of our complaints are, and how little we appreciate what we have. Hot running water is itself something of a miracle--after all, I could be lugging a wooden tub full of dishes to the RIVER in a different era, and I doubt it would have seemed like anything to celebrate.

Hopefully as Lent progresses I will be able to see the opportunities for gratitude and remember not to take my blessings for granted. Hopefully this lesson will not require the breaking of any more appliances. Because the fridge is getting older by the minute, and the stove has been threatening to leave us for at least a year.

Friday, March 3, 2017

At six minutes to midnight

You know how you start off Lent with all sorts of resolutions and ideas and plans, and then you find yourself struggling to keep even your simplest notions going by trying desperately to squeeze them all in before midnight, or at least before you go to bed for the night?

I've done that many times. Many times a resolve to pray the rosary turned into "Oh, no! It's six minutes to midnight and I haven't prayed my Daily Lenten Rosary yet!" And there wasn't any really good reason you didn't get to it--you just sort of forgot.

Or you planned to do some specific spiritual reading, and here you are on Holy Saturday at six minutes to midnight realizing you're never going to finish the New Testament when you just finished reading the Gospel of St. John.

Or you thought you'd do some specific charitable work in terms of almsgiving, and had all sorts of warm fuzzy thoughts about the good you would do. But at six minutes to midnight the day before the food drive or the clothing collection or the bazaar or bake sale, you know you're not going to make a contribution yet again.

The good news about being at the beginning of Lent is that we can still keep trying, and we can see if maybe our goals weren't all that realistic, or we can decide that a daily Divine Mercy Chaplet is more doable, or even a single decade of the rosary each day. And we can keep doing our best to grow in holiness, knowing that God doesn't expect us to achieve perfection in holiness on our own, or all at once, or without His grace multiplying our efforts the way a mother magnifies her child's kindergarten drawings into priceless masterpieces of art.

Of course, being human and all, we can also try to keep a daily writing challenge by typing a blog post with furious speed.

At six minutes to midnight.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

You first: a discussion of making fasting difficult again

On my old blog, I wrote several posts about fasting. If you're interested in them, you can find them here by typing the word "fasting" into the search bar at the top left side of the page.

I don't want to rehash too many of my old posts, but I've recognized that there are two main reasons why typical discussions of fasting among Catholics these days annoy me, and I wanted to go into them just a little here.

The first is the idea, which I've seen expressed by many people, that the Church wimped out on fasting. Requiring only two days of fasting, and having those days include one full meal and two snacks, isn't really "fasting" at all, as someone recently said on Facebook. What kind of weakling can't even do that much? Accompanying this complaint is the idea that of course fasting produces holiness and grace, and that if, by sheer force of will, you keep an even stricter fast for the full forty days of Lent--maybe eating no solid food at all, like "real" fasters should--you will sort of automatically become a saint or something. Sort of like that neopelagianism I was talking about yesterday, in fact, this idea that by fasting we prove that we're worthy of great things and all we have to do is wait for God to recognize us in our awesomeness and bestow His mighty favor.

You can argue until your fingertips bleed (this is online stuff, mostly) that fasting isn't some kind of "Catholic superhero training" that will produce the desired effects if one can just man up and go hungry long enough. You can mention that in the past lots of people dealt with the obligatory fast by ignoring it (this is, of course, not a good thing, but we're talking about people many of whom only received Holy Communion a handful of times a year, if that, and skipping the fast was just one more mortal sin to confess right before making one's Easter duty). You can show that there were plenty of exemptions so that there was never a time when every single Catholic was fasting all through Lent, producing that magical solidarity of obedient suffering that allegedly made the Church great back in the past. You can even mention that it would be a bit hard on modern wives and mothers (or whomever does the cooking) to micromanage everybody's fasting requirements since we no longer live in societies (for the most part) where the main meal of the day is consumed somewhere between noon and three p.m. None of it matters, and oddly enough, neither does pointing out that if you really, really believe the strict fast will make you grow in holiness you are totally free to adopt it yourself, without fearing grave sin if you can't make it, and without jealous eyes on your neighbor's plate. You first, in fact, before you demand the Church change her current practice to obligate everybody else to do what you think everybody else ought to do--but this is a surprisingly unpopular suggestion.

The second thing that bothers me about the annual lament from certain Catholics about how weak and wimpy our fasting rules are today is that, by the way they often speak and write about the fasting situation, one would think that the greatest problem facing the Church right now, in the Year of Our Lord two-thousand-seventeen, is that the 20% or less of Catholics who actually take the faith seriously enough to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days and who will faithfully take on voluntary Lenten observances to the best of their abilities just aren't being made miserable enough via an obligatory and extremely strict fast through the force of ecclesiastical law. It reminds me of other ideas I've heard--that only the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite is really a true Mass and the O.F. must be suppressed, for instance, or that we could end feminism in the Church tomorrow by bringing back mandatory head-coverings for women, or that the greatest danger facing Catholic young adults today is Communism and/or rock music, or that ordaining married men and or/women to the priesthood would solve the problems of clericalism and clergy sex abuse immediately, or that we could end abortion right away by taxing everybody's wages at 50% or so (because if you have a job, you are rich) to fund every social program that has ever been proposed by any utopian society anywhere...and so on and so forth. In other words, fasting becomes yet another hobby-horse, a magic charm by which we can Make the Church Great Again, and just like all those other proposals mentioned above the thinking seems to be that all we have to do is mandate extremely hard fasts to see throngs of weeping lax Catholics flood the local parish and say in their teary gratitude, "Yes, this is it! The only reason I stopped listening to Jesus in the Gospel, coming to Mass on Sundays, and taking my faith seriously was because you just didn't make fasting hard enough!" which seems like an extremely unlikely outcome.

The truth is that fasting is a matter of Church law and discipline, and if the Church requires only a rather small obligation (that is still too difficult for some people--why, yes, a woman experiencing morning sickness or a man taking a very strong antibiotic may not be able to fast even for just those two days!) that is her business. There is nothing wrong with opining in a sort of general way that you think you personally could go the distance by going forty days on one meal a day or on bread and water or without solid nutrition at all--and, in fact, you are completely free to try it (provided that neither your doctor nor your spiritual director forbids it). You first, in fact, and if the spiritual benefits really do blossom in your soul you won't have to say a word about your fast to convince others to try it too.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lent and neopelagianism; or, Doing All the Catholic Things

Happy Ash Wednesday! Er...I can say that, right?

Not long ago I was noticing a certain vibe from some of the many pre-Lenten Facebook posts, Catholic blogosphere posts and articles that appeared in various places on the Internet. It made me think of the charge of neopelagianism that often gets leveled against various people in the Church these days.

I will grant at the outset that "neopelagianism" gets overused, as does "rigid" and a few similar words. Let us stipulate up front that it is not a neopelagian habit to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; nor is it "rigid" to follow the precepts of the Church or to work to avoid serious sin in one's life.

At the same time, there really is what is called a neopelagian or semi-pelagian spirit at work in some places in the Church. The first time I heard this term I was a bit confused by it, as actual Pelagianism seems to have died out long ago. But some of the writers who were using the term kindly explained it to me, and this is what I came to understand: that while actual Pelagianism involved certain heretical beliefs about things like the Fall and Original Sin that do not seem to hold much water today, the new form seems to copy the idea that we are saved mainly by our own efforts--that is, by Doing All the Catholic Things.

What I came to understand (though probably not all that well) is that the neopelagian mindset is the sort of mindset that sees membership in the Church as a kind of employment. You are hired as an intern when you are baptized; your first promotion is your First Holy Communion; and if you stick around long enough to receive Confirmation and either Matrimony or Holy Orders then you are really at the level of a supervisor at the very least. For all of the "churchy things" you do, God pays you a wage in the form of grace, and when you die your savings plus your years of service earn you a nice pension plan: eternal life in Heaven, with all the good things you now deserve after all your hard work.

Sure, you can mess up, and then you've got to stop by the office of the Boss's representative, otherwise known as the confessional. But unless you become a murderer or something, you're good. Your ticket aboard the Pearly Gates Express has been punched, and you'll be fine, even if there were a few little hiccups in your past, and even if you don't agree with the Church about various issues and have no interest in forming your conscience according to Church teachings. God doesn't care, so long as you are Doing All the Catholic Things, and you check in at your Sunday workplace at least once a week.

Interestingly, Catholics who might be neopelagians can be (mostly) orthodox or (rather) heterodox or anywhere along the spectrum. This isn't one of those Catholic Right vs. Catholic Left divisions at all; we're all equally capable of making this kind of mistake. Because the mistake is in thinking that we actually earn our salvation; that when we avoid sin it's because we have built up the spiritual muscle necessary to do so; that when we attend Mass on Sundays God is taking attendance (and ignoring the cloud of distracted or petty or spiteful or judgmental or self-congratulatory thoughts that rise from us at least half the time); and that when we practice mortifications such as Lenten penances or obligatory fasting or the Friday abstinence we are somehow putting God in a position of debt: He owes us salvation, because we fulfilled our side of the bargain.

So those posts and articles I saw that veered in this direction in the days leading up to Lent 2017 had a tendency, however unintentionally, to make it sound like the purpose of Lent is to help us earn our salvation like good employees of the Kingdom of God, Inc. We fast, these posts seemed to say, for instance, in order to prove that we're capable of great feats of endurance--yet the Church has gotten soft, and only mandates a tiny fast two days of Lent; how are we supposed to earn our bonuses or promotions when fasting isn't required every day of Lent like it used to be? We give alms to make sure God knows how generous we are (and though we're supposed to keep our good deeds secret, it's not our fault that the charities we give to are going to receive checks with our names on them; that's just the reality of life in this age, and those gushing thank-you notes from our favorite charities sure are nice to get). We pray because that's how we can prove we're good Catholics, because good Catholics pray the rosary or go to daily Mass or join Bible-study groups or listen to talks about Christian meditation. We think of some nice, respectable sin (if you can call it that) so we can mention to our fellow Catholics (especially our family members) that we're working on that sin for Lent ("I'm giving up complaining about the housework for Lent, because even though I keep the house spotless no thanks to the rest of you who treat this place like a hotel and me like a maid I know that embracing my vocation means not mentioning how horrible the boys' bathroom was yet again and nagging them about it. Instead I took a picture of the mess and posted it on Instagram with a funny caption about the zoo--see, I'm improving already!").

The one thing neopelagians don't do is attempt any actual interior conversion. Granted, a lot of us struggle with interior conversion, but for the neopelagian it's not even a struggle. A neopelagian knows he doesn't need to change, because he's already Doing All the Catholic Things. So it's not necessary to look into the mirror of self-revelation and see the vanity, the selfishness, the pride, the wrath, the greed, and the laziness that all us children of Adam have inherited. Unlike the Pelagians, the neopelagians may not actually deny the doctrine of Original Sin; but they certainly don't think it matters.

Mardi Gras...

...happened to coincide with my sweet husband's birthday this year.

He's not all that into sweets these days, but he thought a pineapple upside-down cake sounded good.

It was good:

It's a minute until midnight, and Lent is about to begin. Whatever you've resolved, however you observe it, and whatever good God is going to accomplish in and with and through you, may God bless you as we begin.