Thursday, December 6, 2018

When the Church is on the wrong side of the culture

In past years on my old blog, I occasionally covered stories involving Catholic schools that fired unmarried pregnant female teachers. My general feeling about these incidents is simple: if the teacher is being fired merely for the fact of the pregnancy--that is, if the pregnancy was the result of a regrettable sinful action but the teacher has no plans to continue committing those kinds of sins--there should be leniency, and as much mercy as possible. The entanglement of health care with employment at this stage of our nation's history is a factor, here: if a woman admits to having committed the sin of fornication which resulted in pregnancy, but she is not living in sin and fully intends to practice chastity from this point on, it seems wrong to punish the developing child by ending the woman's health insurance right at this moment. The Church's own views as to the sacredness of unborn human life should help to guide these kinds of decisions.

However, there are situations where things are not so clear. For instance, when a partnered lesbian teacher at a Catholic school had an IVF embryo implanted in her womb, the school was right to fire her, not only because of the grave immorality of the situation, but also because the woman was clearly violating and intending to continue violating the code of conduct she had signed as a condition of employment.

And this new case in Pennsylvania is also the kind of case that should be carefully considered:
COAL TOWNSHIP, Pennsylvania - Naiad Reich and boyfriend Matt Graboski are expecting their first child next summer. It's supposed to be a happy time for the couple who live near Shamokin, Pennsylvania. Instead, Reich was fired from her teaching job at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional School because the couple is not married. 
"I'm extremely excited," Graboski told WNEP. "It's one of the most rewarding things you can possibly go through." 
Recently, that excitement has been overshadowed. For the past two years, Reich was a high school teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes. 
Last week, she told the principal she was pregnant.
 "It was very apparent that she was not happy with the circumstances. Of course, her problem was Catholic morals," said Reich.
She said the principal's concern was that the couple are not married. The Diocese of Harrisburg had questions. 
"If there's no eventual plan in the near future to get married, it was either that or I had to be let go," Reich said.
From the news reports on this situation it would appear that Ms. Reich understands that she is in violation of the school's code of conduct which she signed at the time of employment, and that the violation is not the mere fact of the pregnancy, but that she is living with her boyfriend (the child's father) and has not made any marriage plans. Whether she might have been permitted to keep teaching if she was actively planning to marry is not clear, but one can understand that the diocese might be prepared to be lenient in those circumstances.

This is not a case of a woman alone facing a crisis pregnancy; this is a case involving a couple who is living together without being married, and now there is a child on the way. From the school's perspective, condoning this situation might create confusion among students as to the importance of Church teaching on the sanctity of marriage and the rights of a child to be born to parents who have already committed their lives to each other. In these circumstances, I think the diocese has done the right thing.

Already in the United States, more than 40% of children are born to unmarried parents. Social scientists know that the biggest positive difference that can be measured in a child's life is that the child is raised by her own parents in a stable marriage. Every other type of family structure produces poorer outcomes for children. Sometimes, as in the cases where a spouse has died, the absence of that two-married-parent stability is no one's fault. But other situations involve poor choices by adults, and the further demand, in many instances, by those adults for the children to put up with the many instabilities and difficulties stemming from their non-traditional upbringing.

It boggles the mind how people who cannot commit enough to each other to enter a valid marriage together think they will be able to commit fully and equally as co-parents to a child. Some do grow up in a hurry once the child arrives and will indeed marry; others will walk away from the new responsibilities and limits on their personal freedoms. Many who walk away are men, leaving more and more single women heading households and trying to be both father and mother to a child or children.

Children need both fathers and mothers. The Church may occasionally be on the "wrong" side of the culture in her insistence on this truth, but she is not wrong to stand up for it.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Blogging will resume soon

I am delighted to announce that the first draft of the tenth and final book in my children's science-fiction series, Tales of Telmaja, is now complete, coming in at just over 99,000 words. This last book featuring the adventures of Smijj and his Telmaj friends is titled A Smijj of Hope.

Here, in order, are the other books in the series, all of which are currently available:

1. The Telmaj:

He’s been alone for as long as he can remember. But Smijj dreams of escaping the ugly space station that’s never been a real home and starting life over. Surely there’s adventure waiting in the galaxy for a thief who can teleport…except that Smijj’s teleporting skills are almost as bad as his attempts at stealing things. And when he accidentally teleports aboard a small cargo ship, Smijj finds out how dangerous it is in the galaxy for people with his kind of gift.

2. A Smijj of Adventure:

Smijj is a Telmaj, which means he can travel vast distances and even move spaceships across the galaxy just by wishing. But Smijj is the most gifted Telmaj anyone has ever seen, and because of him the Telmaj people are finally taking a stand against the Unified Government and Telmaj slavery. He wants to take part in the fight for freedom. Instead, he has to deal with boredom, overprotective friends and this thing called school...

Smijj realizes that his people are on the brink of war, and he believes he can help, if only the adults will let him. When a chance encounter with an escaped slave holds the promise of an exciting new adventure, Smijj is off and running...but soon he and his friends, both old and new, are running for their lives from the one place in the galaxy Smijj hoped he’d never set foot on again.

3. A Smijj of Danger:

The Telmaj, whose special gift makes faster-than-light travel possible, have been taken as slaves for as long as anybody can remember. But now a war to end that slavery has begun between the Telmaj and the Unified Government--and the Telmaj's secret weapon, the Twenty, are already arising. But will Smijj find the others before the Unified Government does?

Smijj may be young by his people's standards, but he has already proven that he is the fastest and strongest Telmaj anybody has ever heard of, and he's finally being allowed to join the fight. He doesn't mind danger, except when it threatens the people he loves. But he is learning that sometimes the most unexpected dangers can come in the form of trusted allies, and even friends.

4. A Smijj of Conflict:

For far too long, the Telmaj have been taken as slaves by the Unified Government because of their unique ability to travel faster than light. But now Telmaja is at war with the Government to end Telmaj slavery, and some of the other worlds in the galaxy have joined in their fight--especially since a new group off legendary heroes, the Twenty Telmaj, are rising to aid in the battle.

Smijj is happy that three other members of the Twenty have been found so far, but he and his friends want to find the rest before the Government finds them first. His joy at discovering a new member of the Twenty is overshadowed when Ben Trace is kidnapped; now Smijj and his friends must rush to the rescue before Ben ends up in the hands of the Government. And with Smijj away from Telmaja, the news arrives that one of the Twenty may have been taken into slavery. Will Smijj be able to save Ben and the unknown member of the Twenty before the Government can stop him?

5. A Smijj of Strife:

Smijj, the fastest of the Twenty Telmaj, believes he will soon be ready to fight the Unified Government in order to end Telmaj slavery in the galaxy. Right now, he has a different kind of fight on his hands: Arkis just can't get along with Lucien, the newest member of the Twenty, and their constant bickering is taking a toll on Telmaj and Humans alike. 

When Devish gets a message from an old friend asking for a meeting, it seems like the kind of trip that will finally force Arkis and Lucien to work together and get along. Meanwhile, Smijj and some of his other friends head out into the galaxy to investigate a new threat—is the Government planning to make a testing device like Brannon's that will help them find the rest of the Twenty? 

As Smijj and his friends head away from Telmaja, two of Smijj's oldest and deadliest enemies begin to put their own plans into motion. Major Javins has set a sinister trap for Smijj, and so has Jyles Oroque. And if either of them catches him, there may be no escape.

6. A Smijj of Trouble:

It isn't easy being the leader of the Twenty Telmaj in a time of war. It's even harder when Firra, one of Smijj's oldest friends, decides she can no longer support the war or trust the Twenty. But Smijj doesn't have time for personal problems, not with Alcemitron, home of the Robots' Union, seeking an alliance with Telmaja. 

Things aren't always what they seem, however: Alcemitron wants more than an alliance. Someone has stolen an ancient and powerful device from them, a device that the Government might use as a weapon against Telmaja. Smijj and his friends must find the thief and stop him from handing the device over to Xentrova before it's too late—but the thief has a frightening secret of his own that could put Smijj and all of his friends in danger.

7. A Smijj of Havoc:

Smijj, the leader of the Twenty Telmaj, doesn’t always feel like a good leader. There are so many new members of the Twenty that the once close-knit group often seems too chaotic to be Telmaja’s best chance for winning this war. When the Unified Government attacks one of Telmaja’s allies, a small artificial world, Smijj agrees to bring as many of the Twenty to help the survivors as he can. But there’s a deadly plot to capture Lucien, and Smijj doesn’t guess that asking Lucien to go to Yylex is playing right into the kidnapper’s hands. When Smijj realizes that Lucien is gone and no attempt to find him can be made until the war victims are brought to safety, his ability to control both the Twenty and his own impulsive nature will be put to the test.

8. A Smijj of Disaster:

Smijj, the leader of the Twenty Telmaj, is eager to get back to the fight against the Unified Government, especially after the terrible attack on Yylex, an artificial world that was one of Telmaja’s allies. Right now, Smijj has another task: getting ready for the official palace event at which Prince Talien will introduce his royal great-nieces to the people of Telmaja. It seems like the wrong time to be learning palace etiquette and preparing to celebrate the return of Telmaja’s two young princesses. When a chance to lead a mission to a place far from Telmaja arises, Smijj is glad to take on the job. But Smijj doesn’t know that a sinister scientist has engineered a deadly plot that involves Telmaja itself; and Smijj can’t guess that in his absence, his dearest friend will wind up in the gravest danger of all.

9. A Smijj of Courage:

Far from Telmaja and separated from all of his friends, Smijj is trapped on a Government prison planet. Luckily he has met a new ally who is helping him make plans for a daring escape. But their plans are complicated when the ship they board is hiding a secret: a new member of the Twenty, an escaped slave on the run from the Unified Forces. As Smijj desperately tries to make his way back home, Lucien must race to rescue another of the Twenty who is fleeing from her life as a slave. But in his absence Taika finds herself leading the Twenty at the very moment when the Unified Forces seem poised to bring the war to Telmaja. To win this fight, the Twenty need Smijj to come home before it’s too late.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Brief blog break

I've been so distracted by the USCCB conference news that I've fallen behind on my National Novel Writing Month word count. So, with Thanksgiving next week as well, I've decided to take a short break from writing these posts. I won't be gone long, hopefully.

In the meantime, if you're at all interested in my fiction books (clean adventures for kids ages 8 and up!) please visit my Amazon Author page here to learn more about the kind of writing I'm doing just now. And if you're buying books for children or grandchildren for Christmas this year, I'd be delighted if you'd consider buying some of mine.

Thanks, and see you back here soon!

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Don't call bishops good

DENVER — Stephen Szutenbach had never kissed anyone when, he says, a priest he had befriended in the late 1990s started making sexual advances. Szutenbach was 18, a devout Catholic teenager interested in the seminary; the Rev. Kent Drotar was a 39-year-old ranking administrator at St. John Vianney Seminary. [...] 
In 2007, Szutenbach reported the allegations to one of his former seminary teachers. The Denver Diocese, led by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput before he came to Philadelphia, sent Drotar to counseling and then reassigned him to another parish. The priest was later removed permanently from ministry after Szutenbach said he warned Chaput he would take his claims to the media. [...] 
In a statement last week, the archdiocese said that Chaput followed diocesan policy when he removed Drotar after the accusations and then returned him to ministry after consulting with a psychiatrist and the diocesan panel that examined misconduct claims. Szutenbach, Engelbert, and Frank said they were unaware that  Drotar's conduct was ever scrutinized by the board; no one asked them to testify or submit statements. 
Engelbert had worked at the seminary since 2001 as director of pastoral formation, helping to place seminarians in the community. Outraged to learn Drotar was returning to public ministry, she wrote to Chaput with her concerns, including that the priest had been reassigned to a parish with a school. 
"Given the grave nature of Fr. Drotar's offense, and his apparent lack of understanding of the seriousness of it, I believe it is unwise to place him back into a situation where he will exercise authority over others," she wrote.
Chaput then summoned her to his office, she said. 
"I remember he had the letter in his hand and he looked at me and he said, 'What do you want me to do with this?' " Engelbert said. "And I said, 'The right thing.' " 
Weeks later, Chaput let her know he had consulted with the psychiatrist who determined that Drotar was suitable for parish ministry. The decision would stand, he said. 
So, Fr. Drotar was, according to Chaput, totally fine to be in ministry and assigned to a parish with a school, even though he had groomed an 18-year-old seminarian and repeatedly engaged in sexual contact with him. Only the victim's threat to make the situation public appears to have changed this decision:
Five months after Englebert's inquiry, Szutenbach learned that Drotar had been returned to public ministry. He sought a meeting with Chaput. The archbishop agreed to meet at a coffee shop. 
"I told him I was going to go to the press," Szutenbach said. "I remember him being very, very demure. I think he would have done anything I'd asked for." 
(Chaput declined last week to discuss the Drotar case or Englebert's claims. Through a spokesperson, he referred all questions to the Denver Archdiocese.)
The bishops are meeting right now to discuss all of these matters. I've been following J.D. Flynn's Twitter coverage all day (and Rod Dreher has been too; if you're not reading Rod daily on Scandal 2.0 you're probably missing things), and what I see coming from this conference is a complete inability to grasp the scope of the problem, or indeed, to recognize that it even is much of a problem. There has been mention (by Cupich, if I'm remembering correctly) about whether "consensual sex" between an adult cleric and some other adult (seminarians? youth group members who are 18? who knows?) is really the same thing as abuse. There have been efforts by some bishops to suggest that the "outrage" about this is really just a media creation; the faithful don't care, is the suggestion. There was an open statement that "negative" coverage by Catholic blogs and other outlets is problematic and that neither the Philadelphia Inquirer nor the Boston Globe is a reliable source of information. 

As I've watched the commentary from other Catholic observers on Twitter I'm struck by one thing: how many Catholics there still are in 2018 who like to separate out the "good" bishops from the "bad" ones. But again and again stories like that of Mr. Szutenbach above show us that there really aren't any "good" bishops on this. A reputation for orthodoxy, a public commitment to root out abuse, again and again has gone hand in glove with the mindset of the cover-up. If one thing has become abundantly, startlingly, scintillatingly clear it is this: most if not all of the ordained bishops serving in the United States of America simply do not think it is that big of a deal for an ordained clergyman to carry on sexual relations with young adult men who are under their direct authority, seminarians as well as others. That is just "sexual misconduct." It's a sin, sure, but not as bad as some other mortal sins. It's not as though grooming a young man in the hopes that he will eventually fall "willingly" into your bed, when that young man is depending on your words and actions to be promoted through the seminary and finally ordained a priest, is a horrific and nightmarish abuse of power, an offense not only against chastity but against justice as well, or something. After all, technically the young man can say "no," just like the actress can refuse the casting couch and Mr. Weinstein's victims could have refused meetings. The "seminary rector's couch" is just a figment of the media's imagination, and there's no hashtag for adult seminarians groped and sexually assaulted by the people who had the right to kick them out of the seminary for being "rigid." 

At least now we know that "rigid" means "a seminarian who won't climb willingly into his superior's bed," in the minds of most ecclesial officials.

No wonder the McCarrick situation got nothing but raised eyebrows and a bit of laughter (and perhaps some smutty jokes when their excellencies were certain no microphones were nearby) in the past. No wonder that the bishops today are so shocked that the laity were actually upset not only by the revelations of McCarrick's alleged abuse of two minor boys, but also by the revelations that McCarrick was preying on seminarians. The abuse of boys can't be tolerated, at least not after Dallas; but seminarians? Heck, if they didn't want to be assaulted, they should have refused those beach-house invites (and probably dressed less provocatively and been more demure, too). 

Don't call any bishops "good" from now on. Goodness implies people of average moral intuition, who know instinctively that letting an employer routinely feel up the stockboys (even if they are technically of legal age) is a no-no. The stunned surprise emanating from the bishop's conference that this is so is perhaps the most disheartening thing the lay faithful have seen as of yet.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The elephant in the conference hall

I'm sure you've already heard about this:
The bishops had intended to take action at their fall meeting this week, voting on two policies they hoped would address the Church’s sexual abuse crisis: a code of conduct for bishops, and the creation of a lay-led panel to investigate claims of misconduct or negligence by bishops. Those policies were not without critics, but it seemed clear that the bishops, and conference administrators, viewed them as a necessary means of showing their commitment to reform. 
But as the meeting began, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB, announced that the Holy See had insisted that the bishops not vote on their own proposals, and instead wait until after a February meeting at the Vatican of the heads of bishops’ conferences from around the world. [...] 
Several officials who spoke to CNA about Rome’s intervention told CNA that while the Vatican was known to be concerned about the proposed independent commission, it was especially surprising that the Vatican’s veto-in-advance included the draft standards for episcopal conduct. 
Asking the bishops to solemnly promise not to lead a sexual “double life” and to honor basic obligations of the clerical state seemed hardly controversial; most criticism of the code of conduct has been that it was insufficiently demanding. By spiking the document, the Congregation for Bishops seems to be discouraging the bishops from even having a discussion about their own behavior, or a promise to reform it. 
Many of the bishops in Baltimore told CNA that they are angry at what they see as an attempt to stop them debating the sexual abuse crisis at all, and confused about the reasons for it. Already frustrated that their request for an Apostolic Visitation into the McCarrick scandal was denied, several bishops are asking why the Congregation for Bishops seems now to be discouraging them from even talking about the elephant in the conference hall.
Read the rest here. Also, don't miss Rod Dreher's posts on this, here and also here.

Some Catholic observers and commentators are trying to put a positive spin on this. They're suggesting that the USCCB's proposed resolutions didn't really mean much, had some potentially worrying canon law aspects, etc. Yet as the CNA article above points out, the Vatican has had ample time to contact the USCCB and let them know the votes couldn't go forward before the conference actually met. The optics on this are terrible; the impression being formed among the rank-and-file of the laity is that there is nothing serious being done to reform corrupt bishops and priests, and that nothing will be done in the future either.

Moreover, one cannot help but contrast this decisive action to quash any discussion of the Scandal 2.0 among US bishops against, say, the apparent support for those bishops' conferences that have interpreted Amoris Laetitia in such a way that they've opened Communion to unrepentant fornicators and adulterers, or the new agreement with China that allows an atheistic government with a horrible track record on human rights and religious freedom to choose bishops for the Catholic Church in that nation.

One wonders if the bishops would have been permitted, and even encouraged, to vote on a resolution banning plastic straws from all diocesan events; one wonders if they would have been applauded by the Vatican for a resolution strongly denouncing national sovereignty and insisting on open borders with unlimited and unrestricted immigration. One cannot help being a little cynical at this point; when the elephant in the conference room--to use the Catholic News Agency's excellent phrase--is defecating all over the faithful, it is a little tiresome to be told that the real problem here is that the faithful have not done enough of the proactive work of beating swords not into ploughshares but into shovels, and then putting those shovels to good use.

Frankly, the impression being given by Rome at this point is that the lay faithful are tiresome in their insistence that their bishops be neither child-diddlers nor seminarian-fondlers on the one hand, nor accessories after the fact to the other bishops and priests who committed these crimes on the other. Who do the laity think they are, anyway, to demand a modicum of chastity from men who have taken a solemn vow to practice it? Sin happens, and who are the laity to judge? It's really too much to expect that men who think of themselves as lords and princes of the Church should have to conduct themselves with the same morality and decency as ordinary Christians, isn't it?

When even the USCCB can't hold a vote on a couple of rather mild measures to say that, after all, the laity are within their rights to object to the rape of children and the sexual abuse of seminarians and other adults, and that, after all, it's not too much to expect that priests won't have lovers (same-sex or, in rare cases, opposite sex) and that bishops and cardinals won't have private love-nest condos or infamous beach houses or long-time sex partners or anything of the sort--well, we're in trouble.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Asking the difficult questions

Posting late today, and I want to address a brief housekeeping note first: I have turned comments back on as an experiment. I think that since blogs and blog readerships are so small anymore for most of us this won't matter to most people, but it does give you a chance to respond here, since I'm no longer using Facebook. Comments are moderated, so you will not see your comment right away, and only users signing in with a Google account will be able to comment. (I am sorry about that, but allowing anonymous comments is an invitation to spam, as we all know.)

Last night another violent tragedy unfolded, this time in Thousand Oaks, California. I know you've heard about it or read or seen the news, so I'll keep this brief.

This is a terrible tragedy for the victims, and for everyone left behind. If the preliminary information about the shooter is accurate then it is also a tragedy for him in the sense that he was pretty clearly struggling with unresolved mental health issues that may have included PTSD. That does not in any way excuse what he chose to do, and I don't want to be misunderstood here. But we cannot keep bringing men and women back from wars we quite frankly shouldn't be involved in anymore and failing so often to address their serious brokenness.

In the aftermath, I heard people calling for gun control laws. I'm not opposed to serious, sensible gun control measures; nor am I opposed to people making a case for stricter laws than I normally think would be helpful. But this case is one of those where longer waiting periods, better background checks, more penalties to owners who let their guns fall into the wrong hands, bans on certain types of assault weapons, etc. would not apparently have helped, because apparently the weapon used was a single handgun legally owned by the shooter.

This is, though, yet another case where a man was known to have mental health issues severe enough for the police to be called and for an assessment of his mental health to be made. Family members are said to have begged for help for him. Neighbors, seeing the flashing lights in their neighborhood last night, were quoted as saying that they knew who the lights were there for.

And yet help, in the form of treatment, did not come.

According to this opinion piece published in the LA Times last February, mass shooters--99% of them male--are known to have markedly higher rates of mental illness than the general public; and in many of those cases the person was not being treated appropriately if at all.

That piece calls for an approach to mass shootings which would combine sensible gun control with a serious effort to increase funding and availability of mental health treatment, and I think that this two-pronged approach is the only one that will work. We may need to examine some of our laws concerning mental health treatment, too, and ask some tough questions. One of the most difficult questions is this one: Have our efforts to prevent people from being forced into mental health treatment led to a situation where someone struggling with severe mental illness must actually harm himself or others in order to get the care he needs, assuming he refuses to consent to it? This is a question we absolutely MUST ask if we're serious about not leaving people struggling alone.

There are other questions that need to be asked. In the face of the suffering families of the survivors I hope we will have the courage to ask them, and to be prepared to take the appropriate actions.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A feature, not a bug

Didn't post last night; got too caught up in watching the election results. Old habits die hard.

Since this isn't generally a political blog, I'll just mention that I'm quite happy about the pro-life ballot measures that passed in various states. That sort of thing is always worth voting for, and I'm excited about any sign that people are starting to view the unborn as persons in need of love and protection, instead of problems needing to be killed and disposed of as quickly as possible. So: good job! You know who you are.

Apart from that, the thing that has struck me the most is this: in the wake of the Republican victory in the Senate, you see people ranging from unknown social media commenters all the way up to mainstream media pundits declaring that it is no longer "fair" for the Senate to be structured the way it is; that is, composed of exactly two people from every state in the Union, instead of being weighted for population. Rural voices, some pundits intoned seriously, are greatly magnified by this process, making it inherently unfair to urban population centers. We should, some have argued, have a national conversation about this.

Oh, gosh.

As any seventh-grader ought to know (whether they actually do know depends on whether there's time between Diversity Lessons and applauding Jimmie's sex-change to study American History), there WAS a national conversation about this; or, at least, there were representatives of the new states of the just-beginning nation having a conversation about this. It happened in 1787, and the conversation took place as part of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The framers of the Constitution were the ones who decided on a bicameral Congress, and also decided that one branch would be composed of Representatives, the number of which for each state would depend on state population, and that the other, the Senate, would be composed of two Senators for each state.

The whole point was to avoid the extremes that can happen when only one such body composes a national Congress: a purely-representational legislative body can too easily become slanted in favor of urban and populous states and their concerns, while a purely equal body can too easily ignore the concerns of the more populous states and focus instead on the problems and issues of importance to rural ones.

So yesterday's election, whether you like the results or not, worked as it was supposed to. The fact that the House is now Democrat-majority and the Senate is now Republican-majority is a feature, not a bug, of our system (however, it is also a reminder of why George Washington disliked political parties and urged America not to adopt them). At times, the concerns of the urban voter and the rural one have overlapped to the point where both legislative bodies share a similar agenda, but it is far more normal, in the history of the United States, when the bodies lean in slightly different directions.

You would think that voters who go on social media to sniff about how "unfair" it is for uneducated rural hicks to have their votes count as much as the educated elites' do would have bothered to look that up. But then, this same group of people always expresses vast and hurt surprise that the popular vote does not elect the President, and clamors for a change in that article of the Constitution, too--as if it would ever be good for even fewer states to elect the President than the ones that do now.

Monday, November 5, 2018

On the eve of the election

This will technically post on Tuesday; I'm busy with my National Novel Writing Month endeavors and want to get to a certain word count before I post.


I write this on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections. I already voted, taking advantage of early voting. I used to post a lot of party/political content on my old blog, but I don't anymore.

I consider myself an independent voter. I have been known to show up for elections and only vote for ballot initiatives, or the occasional pro-life third-party candidate. I am convinced our political system is in disarray, and that continuing to conduct business as usual fixes nothing.

I also think that in terms of my own impact on the world, my life as a wife and mother and my endeavors as a writer mean a lot more than my vote in any given election.

But I think it's time for all of my fellow Catholics to take a deep breath and remember that we are brothers and sisters in Christ.

I have seen people say and do things in defense of either major party which Catholics who take their faith seriously should not say or do. One Catholic blogger whom I used to respect has fallen so far off the deep end that his writing is no longer recognizable and his rhetoric is disturbing. I'm sorry, but you simply cannot say at one and the same time that a Catholic may vote for a pro-abortion Democrat for good and just reasons while still abhorring the party's unshakable and permanent commitment to the torture and murder of unborn humans--which Democrats consider to be, mark well, a fundamental human right--AND insist at the same time that an elderly daughter of immigrants who votes for a kindly local Republican representative is a Wicked Racist Christianist defender of rape, anti-Semitism, and pussy-grabbing. I cannot say this any clearer: It.Does.Not.Work.This.Way. That is, if Catholics on the right should assume in charity that their fellow Catholics who vote for Democrats have carefully weighed the alternatives and decided sadly but resolutely that in spite of their support for horrific evil the Democrats are the better choice, then you MUST ALSO INSIST that Catholics on the left should assume in charity that their fellow Catholics on the right who vote for Republicans  have carefully weighed the alternatives and decided sadly but resolutely that in spite of their support for other evils the Republicans are the better choice. The President is not up for re-election, and if you insist on seeing anyone who votes for their local Republican candidates as a supporter of evil simply because of the "R" next to the candidate's name, then you must also insist on seeing anyone who votes for people whose party supports the torture and murder of the unborn as supporters of evil simply because of the "D" next to the candidate's name, with the sole exceptions of the tiny handful of pro-life Democrats if any are actually running this year.

Now, if a Catholic says directly to you, "I have no problem voting for pro-abortion candidates, because I am pro-abortion," you should address that. And if a Catholic says to you, "I have no problem voting for racists, rapists, anti-Semites, and pussy-grabbers, because I am pro-racism, pro-rape, in favor of anti-Semitism, and pro-pussy-grabbing," you must also call him out. But if the first person says, "I'm deeply troubled by abortion, but I'm not sure that passing laws against it will do any good," you are obliged to take him at his word; and if the second person says, perhaps, "I find all racism abhorrent, but I fail to see how it is automatically racist to want just and reasonable immigration policies for the good of all," you do not get to call him a secret racist Christianist xenophobe who hates all brown people.

Charity is the chief of virtues, and civility is often her most effective servant. Let's vote for them tomorrow, whomever else we may vote for.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

An outrageous proposal; or, why we should use the Latin Chant Mass settings on Holy Days

I will spare you all my usual rant about Holy Day Mass times; you have heard me complain before about having Masses at 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. on the actual Holy Day of Obligation, and that's it. Can't make one of those times, and you're just out of luck.

We went to the 7 p.m. tonight. It was ridiculously empty. I suppose other people have had similar issues with not being able to get to a Mass at that time on a weeknight and have simply given up.

This evening's Mass, like many evening Masses in the area, was a bilingual Mass in English and Spanish. Most of the churches around here have at least one if not more Spanish Masses on Sundays and so it makes sense to offer either a Spanish Mass or a bilingual Mass on Holy Days of Obligation.

I honestly don't mind attending a Mass that is partly in another language. Heck, I'd probably have an easier time of it if the whole Mass was in Spanish, because I might actually remember to bring my missal, which would help. But a completely unscientific observation of what goes on at a bilingual Mass is this:

During the parts said or sung in English (though to be fair most of the music is in Spanish), the Spanish-speaking congregants stand silently.

During the parts said or sung in Spanish, the English-speaking congregants stand silently.

During pretty much all of the music only the choir is singing, because, let's face it, the so-called Spanish songs and Mass parts are not actual traditional Spanish or Latin American liturgical music but are weird little guitar-friendly pieces written, mostly, by white American Catholic hippies in the 1970s and 1980s. This goes double for those supposedly "bilingual" songs like "Pan de Vida," many of which were written by composer Bob Hurd beginning in the late 1980s. Actual Spanish traditional liturgical music these pieces are decidedly not, and I can only imagine the pain these songs inflict on Spanish-speaking Catholics in the United States who are liturgically conservative; the equivalent would be for a liturgically conservative English-speaking person to live in a country where a different language was spoken and be told that the only English Mass in town featured the musical stylings of Marty Haugen and David Haas, with the "Mass of Creation" the only sung Mass option.

Be that as it may, the sad truth is that almost nobody was singing. I couldn't even sing most of the music myself, because nobody bothered to announce or display the hymn numbers anywhere, and while I'm more adventurous when it comes to sight-reading than some, I'm not going to try to guess what a song that is in Spanish is titled and then hope to find it in the hymnal index before the music has ended. This was also true for whatever Spanish Mass musical setting was being used. If you didn't know it, you just didn't (and it was probably just as well, given that several parts, including the "Our Father," used the beginning lines as a kind of "refrain" during the piece, which I thought was something we weren't supposed to be doing anymore with Mass parts--or is that just applicable to English?).

I was far from the only person who did not know and could not sing the Mass parts, though. And it wasn't just us English-speakers who were clueless, either. I heard one determined Spanish-speaking lady somewhere behind me singing along, so obviously some of the people there had heard this setting before. It did not, however, seem to be the majority; and given that the music itself was trite, badly-composed, and jangly, conveying no sense of the sacred whatsoever, it was no great loss that almost nobody was singing (and to be fair, this particular church also uses an English Mass setting which is every bit as bad, if not worse, when it comes to the abysmal quality of musical composition and the total lack of any sense of the sacred).

The point here is this: we are not singing and praying together at these bilingual Masses. We are praying in tandem, and nobody but the choir is really singing at all.

I have, therefore, an outrageous proposal: why not use the Latin Chant Mass setting for any bilingual Mass, especially those Masses on Holy Days of Obligation, at Confirmation celebrations, or at any other time when groups of people who speak different languages will be present?

Note well: though I think it would make more sense in many ways simply to celebrate the whole Mass as an Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite in Latin, I understand that not every priest would be comfortable with that, and it still leaves the question of "which vernacular?" when it comes to the readings and (if I'm not mistaken) the Propers. So I'm not even suggesting that much, at least for now. I'm just suggesting that parishes which have a regular need to celebrate bilingual Masses spend a brief amount of time instructing all parishioners in the simple chants for the Gloria, the Sanctus, the Mysterium Fidei, the Agnus Dei, and, if desired, both the Credo and the Pater Noster (though these can, of course, simply be recited instead in whichever language is being used at that part of the Mass). Most hymnals contain the simple Mass chants for these parts, and there are a variety of aids including videos and other resources to help parishioners learn to sing these very simple parts.

The benefit of this would be huge. First and most importantly, it would allow all those in attendance at a bilingual Mass to sing and pray together, in a language that is not the primary language of anybody there. Secondly, it would introduce a note of solemnity into Masses that are often lacking this element. Thirdly, these settings are, for the most part, shorter than the long, drawn-out settings often used on Sundays, and this would benefit those who need to leave a Holy Day weekday Mass in time to be at work (or back at work, for those fortunate enough to find a noon Mass); the shorter settings would also allow more time at evening Masses for a priest or deacon to deliver his homily in more than one language, if that is desired. Fourth, the congregation would learn together (or remember together, for the older people) an important part of our Catholic heritage. Fifth, the experience of singing with one voice might inspire the use of Latin hymns as well (we did not get to sing "For All the Saints" tonight which made me very sad, but I'd take a Latin hymn instead any day of the week; alas, we got "Pan de Vida" and "I am the Bread of Life" with alternating verses in English and Spanish, which nobody sang).

In fact, I can't think of a single reason NOT to use the Latin Chant Mass music at ALL bilingual Masses. If you can't, either, I respectfully request that you consider sharing this blog post with your local bishop. We should sing with one voice, because we are all Catholics together, regardless of what language we speak.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Why I am deleting my Facebook (tm) account

A funny thing happened yesterday.

Before I even finished writing my post in which I complained about Facebook, employees at Facebook told me that my little ads I ran occasionally on my Tales of Telmaja and Other Stories Facebook page were a violation of their ad policy. I asked for details. They responded, "We don't support your business model." I asked for the specific policy I allegedly violated. They responded, "We don't support your business model." I asked if they forbade all indie authors from buying ads to promote books. They responded, "We don't support your business model." I asked how it was that they've taken my money and (allegedly) have run my ads for roughly a year now if they don't support my business model, and they replied--you guessed it--"We don't support your business model."

As I was sending these appeals to their decisions, I realized two interesting things. The first was that I never had ANY problems at all using Facebook Ads until I changed my target market to include "People who are interested in Christianity" (which is one of their categories). I include Christian values in my fiction, though not in a heavy-handed or preachy way; I figured Christian moms might be a good potential market.

And the second was that I also received a message saying that my ad account for the And Sometimes Tea Facebook page--that is, the page for this very blog--was "suspended" as well. Except that I never created an ad account for this page. I never ran any promotions, purchased any advertising, or boosted a single post. I have, to be clear, never used Facebook ads for this blog--yet all of a sudden the alleged "ad account" for this page was suspended as well?

Of course, the people at Facebook would most probably insist that all of this was just a weird coincidence; they sold me ads for almost a year without ever realizing they don't support my business model and without also realizing their policies are so unclear that someone can in good faith buy and create ads for a considerable time with no realization whatsoever that Facebook doesn't apparently support a business model that includes an indie author attempting to reach the kind of people who might be interested in buying her books. And--let's be clear here--that all may be perfectly true. Facebook is allegedly quite notorious for being a seemingly endlessly incompetent organization to deal with in any way that doesn't involve commodifying their users and making their personal data available in various ways to their real customers. I am not suggesting anything else at this point.

As I went through my various "appeals" with Facebook, they committed the one classic blunder that Vizzini forgot to mention: they told me that the decision was final and that there was nothing I could do about it. Never, never, never tell a redhead that there is "nothing" she can do about something--because there is always something she can do.

Specifically, she can delete her whole darn Facebook account, because this really was the last straw.

I have been uneasy enough with the platform. I have found it appealing to all of the worst impulses in myself (and presumably in others too). I have noticed (as many others have) how often the same recycled content appears while real posts from actual friends disappear before you ever see them. I have been worried about privacy and security breaches. I have noticed that the platform (like most of social media) fosters and encourages the Seven Deadly Sins. I have read the stories about teens and young adults, most of them women and girls, who have suffered self-esteem issues, anxiety and depression from using Facebook. But because it was a convenient way for me to link to this blog and to share news about my books and writing, I kept my account active.

As I've prepared to delete the account today, I removed some of my photos including cover photos for the blog and book pages. Already Facebook is sending me auto-generated "hints" that I should put up a cover image to attract more attention to my blog and book pages! The same pages which they won't allow me to advertise are not going to get enough "likes" and "shares" without my efforts. Imagine that.

Anyway, for those who don't already know this, you can follow this blog directly! Just go to the sidebar on the right side of the page for instructions. It may take a while for my Facebook presence to disappear completely (I'm told Facebook will take up to 30 days to delete an account, but that may just be an average or an estimate, so who knows).

Oh, and I'm considering turning comments back on for this blog, but I need to spend a bit of time investigating the best way to do that. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Recycled content: social media and the Glurge Effect

Longtime readers of this blog and my former blog know that I've always had a sort of love/hate relationship with social media. It took me a long time to use Facebook in particular; in the early days it had the vibe of a high school cafeteria.

These days, though, it has more of the vibe of a cafeteria in a nursing home (and I mean no disrespect whatsoever).

I've been pondering my usage of Facebook in recent weeks, and have begun to cut my personal presence down. I would leave it altogether except that right now it's the best way for me to let readers of this blog, and of my fiction books, know when I've got some news. But even that's fading a bit as more people abandon the platform in favor of newer and trendier social media sites.

It struck me recently that Facebook is suffering from a phenomenon I've seen before. We can call it "The Glurge Effect."

Glurge, as many people know, is a particular type of story or anecdote that is sickly-sweet, but sometimes with unintended dark tones and/or a high likelihood of being completely fictional. It has always been a feature of a type of communication that has, for all but a segment of the elderly population, fallen by the wayside: the Fwd:fwd:fwd email.

If you have an elderly relative or friend, chances are you've been on a Fwd:fwd:fwd list before. Your friend or family member has probably forwarded to you various things including political news and commentary, religious news and commentary, inspirational messages, e-cards, cute videos, urban legends, and stories that fit into the "glurge" category. None of this content is original; that is, the sender didn't compose it. But the sender wants to make sure you get it and may even check in with you to make sure you are reading.

After a while, if you are still reading these emails, you will start to notice just how recycled the content actually is. Something that is labeled an outrageous thing that some politician or other just said!!!--will actually be from seven or ten years ago. Some incredible story of a miracle attributed to a modern individual will actually be a well-known anecdote involving a medieval saint. Those "This is how my heart glows when I think of you! Send to everyone you love! Don't break the chain!" emails have been going around since before there was an Internet, a phenomenon even Al Gore can't explain. People are still sending links to "The cutest e-card I've ever seen!" although the e-card company went out of business in the early 2000s and the link has been broken for nearly a decade. "Everybody's talking about this amazing video!" is only true if you are flexible with the timelines, because the thing went viral during the Obama administration; you are still NOT more likely to be attacked if you wear your hair in a ponytail, no matter how many times that one gets passed around; and as for the glurge: it's the same old stories, gussied up with new details to make each story more heartrending than the saddest tale ever told.

The thing is, it's easy to be smug about this, for those of us in Gen X or younger. It's easy to sigh a little when those emails come in. And then...

...and then we go to Facebook, where original content other than advertising is becoming rarer than a Republican in journalism school.

What's on Facebook these days, anyway? Recycled content. Political stuff, the more outrageous the better: check. Ditto religious content: check. Cutesy inspirational messages: check. All kinds of "must-see" videos most of which were old hat long before they got to Facebook: check. Urban legends: oh, heck, check. Glurge, in the form not only of posts but of videos and other items as well? Super-duper check. Recycled content in general, and the spread of glurge in particular, are becoming indicators that a form of social media really is on its last legs (though the die-hards will stay put, just like your elderly friend will keep sending you those emails).

If you want to have actual conversations about issues or ideas, Facebook isn't the place to do it, unless you join a group. Even if you join a group, though, the group dynamics may well inhibit conversation as much as the proliferation of recycled content does elsewhere. On Facebook, as in other places, groups aren't there so you can engage in thoughtful debates and civil exchanges of ideas; groups are there so you can stake ideological claims and then police the borders.

Here's the thing, though: it's hard to imagine a kind of social media that will NOT eventually experience "the Glurge Effect" and dwindle into the same sort of thing.

Twitter? Twitter actually encourages recycled content, via the "retweet" button. Instagram? Not immune by any means (especially in the amount of advertising disguised as content that gets through). YouTube? Snapchat? The various "edgy" forums out there, many of which are already losing their edge? I can't think of a single type of social media that is structured in such a way that the Glurge Effect won't eventually make it more or less indistinguishable from those Fwd:fwd:fwd emails.

I have this idea that when 90% or more of a social media platform's content is recycled material, that platform is on its last legs. For me, personally, seeing Facebook in this light has led to some serious self-examination about why, exactly, I'm wasting time there when that time could be put to better use elsewhere. It's just vaguely ironic that Facebook is still, for now, the best way for me to let regular readers of this blog know that I've actually created some new content for them to read...