Newsletter #10: a complicated Thanksgiving

In today's newsletter: Thanksgiving past and present, creating paper trails, survivorship bias, and more!

Happy Tuesday! Here’s what else is in the newsletter today:

  • Thanksgiving? Or Day of Mourning?

  • On institutional abuse: creating the paper trail

  • Brief thoughts on the Rittenhouse verdict

  • Survivorship bias and the disaffiliated

  • What I’m reading: Catholic priests and medical misinformation


Thanksgiving? Or Day of Mourning?

This week Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving, an annual holiday that Pilgrims and Puritans brought to the United States in the early seventeenth century. Now on Thanksgiving, some turkeys are pardoned (this year’s pardoned turkeys are named Peanut Butter and Jelly), and other turkeys are eaten, along with other foods we often associate with early pilgrims (sweet potatoes, green beans, etc.).

For many, Thanksgiving in the United States is a complicated holiday. Many native tribes commemorate the day as National Day of Mourning, viewing it as the commencement of a genocide against their peoples. In Time, Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe member Sean Sherman writes:

It was the Wampanoag in 1621 who helped the first wave of Puritans arriving on our shores, showing them how to plant crops, forage for wild foods and basically survive. The first official mention of a ‘Thanksgiving’ celebration occurs in 1637, after the colonists brutally massacre an entire Pequot village, then subsequently celebrate their barbaric victory. Years later, President Washington first tried to start a holiday of Thanksgiving in 1789, but this has nothing to do with “Indians and settlers, instead it’s intended to be a public day of ‘thanksgiving and prayer.’… Thanksgiving really has nothing to do with Native Americans, and everything to do with an old (but not the oldest) guard conjuring a lie of the first peoples welcoming the settlers to bolster their false authority over what makes a ‘real’ American.”

But rather than abstaining from celebrating Thanksgiving, Sherman uses the day to celebrate togetherness, generosity, and gratitude, pushing Americans as a chef to develop a greater awareness of Native-American histories and growers today. Sherman recognizes both the evils of the past and aspirations for the future. The United States does not have to just be good or bad. It can be many things all at once. And just because we recognize the evils of history does not mean we can’t have hope for the future. We need one to really have the other.

When gay people are told to walk

Christian leaders say that same-sex commitments to love, care, and support one another, grounded in intimacy and affection, should not be pursued analogously to marriage. But there are no alternatives developed or proposed, in a world where alternatives are hard to imagine.

This is like being in a world where everyone travels by car, and you’re told by your boss that you’re not allowed to drive a car but you still need to travel 5 miles to get to work every day. And the boss is like, “Just walk to work!” The next day, he and his wife in their car pass you walking. They look at each other and are like, “How inspiring!”

That’s how LGBTQ people are treated in the Church.

And, of course, a lot of us do the walking thing, driven on by spiritually manipulative praise. But then for a lot of us, the ridiculousness of the situation gets to be too much. So we just decide to get a damn car to get on with our lives like everyone else.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a better way. But it is to say that much of mainstream “conservative” Christianity doesn’t really get the problem.

On institutional abuse: creating the paper trail

I’ve had the opportunity to work with abuse survivors in the Church, and one issue that comes up at times is the hesitation of institutional leaders to put things into writing. This makes sense. They want to limit the amount of documentation that could be leaked to the press or discovered in litigation.

On the other hand, it’s in the interest of those seeking to address abuse to have a thorough paper trail. Good documentation can be indispensable for ensuring accountability and avoiding gaslighting for persons and institutions who try to use the “I don’t remember” defense. And even when institutions are working in good faith to address abuse, detailed documentation can help to make sure everyone is on the same page, to limit misunderstandings and misrepresentations, and to build trust. When both parties are acting in good faith, good documentation benefits both.

So what do you do when institutional leaders only communicate through phone calls or in-person meetings, when they seem hesitant to document things in email exchanges? You create your own paper trail.

After every phone call or email exchange, sit down and write everything you remember from it. For in-person meetings, you ideally brought along an attorney, advocate, or trusted friend. Have that person add what they remember as well. Once you have it all down, send your detailed notes to the person with whom you met, and include something like the following:

“Thank you very much for speaking with me yesterday. I’ve put together and attached a recap of our meeting, to make sure we’re on the same page. Please let me know at your earliest convenience if any of this is misrepresentative or factually incorrect. I just want to make sure I’m remembering everything correctly. Let me know if you have any questions!”

Ideally, you’ll get a response that says it all looks good, and they’re looking forward to continuing working together to address these issues. Your notes could also be potentially helpful for them, as it’s in their best interests to ensure that you are well-informed throughout the process and are on the same page. Hopefully, your notes will only be needed to come to a fruitful conclusion to the process.

Brief thoughts on the Rittenhouse verdict

Kyle Rittenhouse has been acquitted of all charges. I know this verdict is very painful for many. As a lawyer, I know there’s a lot of asymmetry in how the law is meted out, and I know a lot of the asymmetry falls along race and ethnic lines. I know also that the people most affected were the people who were killed, and they’re not getting very much attention right now. I know all this pains a lot of people, and I’m sorry for that.

Rittenhouse himself recognized certain racial inequities in an interview with Tucker Carlson. He told the political pundit:

“I believe there is a lot of prosecutorial conduct, not just in my case but other cases. It's just amazing to see how much a prosecutor can take advantage of somebody. If they did this to me imagine what they could have done to person of color who maybe doesn't have the resources I do or widely publicized like my case.”

Some have asked me what I make of the verdict. I think what I would say is that the verdict makes sense to me. It’s very possible that the jury, like a lot of juries, just tried to do their job well. And this may be a circumstance where the law didn’t serve justice as it could. I won’t provide much of a “take” here. Instead, I’ll direct you to this piece by Dan Friedman.

Survivorship bias and the disaffiliated

In the last newsletter, I mentioned that I had a letter to the editor coming out in The Catholic Spirit. The letter got pushed out to the November 25 edition. So if you were looking for it and couldn’t find it, that’s why.

The letter focuses on the diocesan synod occurring in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis (to be distinguished from the Vatican synod on synods). As part of our diocesan synod, we are currently wrapping up the “parish consultation process.” This process consists of small group meetings in parishes that take place over six consecutive weeks. During each meeting, participants watch a video produced by the Archdiocese that includes education, personal testimonies, time for small group discussion, and opportunities to provide feedback. My letter, and an expanded version of it which I will share here (you can subscribe to get it delivered to your inbox), will outline several missed opportunities and ways in which the videos unintentionally alienated many who were asked to participate in the process.

I suspect that many of these missed opportunities arose, in part, because of survivorship bias, a concept that was shared with me while discussing the synod. The synod alleged a desire to engage and hear from the disaffiliated, but the videos produced significantly misrepresented and alienated them.

The most famous example of survivorship bias comes out of World War II. During the War, the US military wanted to improve aircraft. The military would examine planes returning from battle and recommend adding armor to the most-hit areas of the planes. But a research group at Columbia University recommended the opposite approach. Statistician Abraham Wald argued that the military fundamentally misunderstood its own needs by focusing on the planes which survived their missions. Instead, Walt and the research group recommended reinforcing the parts of the planes which returned unscathed, inferring that planes hit in those areas were most likely to be lost. This work was fundamental to the development of operational research.

What Catholics can learn from this is that those who return to the Church (or remain in it over the course of their lives) may not be very reliable for making sense of the disaffiliated. If we want to understand those on the margins, and those who have “left” the Church, we need to go out and try to understand them from their perspectives. Indeed, those who return to the Church may be among the least reliable when it comes to understanding those who maintain disaffiliation.

Survivorship bias can also help to explain the massive political losses when it comes to the marriage debate. In 2012, my archdiocese entered into Minnesota’s political battle over same-sex marriage. Those on the side of the archdiocese tended to focus on the need for intellectual understanding, and tried to drive home definitional arguments about marriage. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on DVD’s explaining the Church’s position on marriage, and arguing that children should grow up with biological parents. I suspect that the Catholics who produced and distributed the DVD’s were individuals who prioritized doctrinal purity and ideological consistency as their highest value. They took others to hold these same priorities, and advocated as such.

But they fundamentally misunderstood those they needed to win back to the side of “traditional values.” The debate was not really over the definition of marriage, but over what we are to do with gay people in society. They tried to get people back “in” the Church’s position by promoting what had worked for them. But they failed because they didn’t take into account what wasn’t working for others.


What I’m Reading: Catholic priests and medical misinformation

I recently spoke with a friend in the medical profession about frustrations with local Catholics. My friend said:

“And this priest I spoke to, he wanted my advice about one of his parishioners who had come down with COVID. I told him that the parishioner should follow up with their doctor, but this priest kept pushing me to recommend medications. He wanted to recommend ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. I told him absolutely not, and reiterated that the parishioner needed to talk to their doctor. But he clearly wasn’t interested in that advice.”

Medical professionals are experiencing exhaustion, at times from having to battle their religious leaders who give advice contrary to their own. A number of medical and public health professionals have been exasperated by medical misinformation circulating in our Archdiocese.

Unfortunately, this practice—Catholic leaders promoting medical misinformation—is not new. As I learned while reading Michael O’Laughlin’s Hidden Mercy, during the AIDS crisis, bishops were common disseminators of bad medical advice. In a pastoral letter, the bishops of New York wrote that encouraging condom use to fight the spread of AIDS was akin to “giving our children a cereal that caused death 17 percent of the time.” They argued that, given the 17 percent failure rate of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV, condoms should not be promoted at all.

This bishops argued that promoting condom use would encourage sex among teens. But history has not supported this argument. It’s worth noting that today, when youth have more access to birth control and information related to sexual practices than any time in human history, sex rates among youth are at a historic low. Indeed, this drop correlates with a national decrease in abstinence-only education programs, which have been found ineffective in both delaying sexual initiation and reducing sexual risk behaviors. Certainly, moral considerations are of greater significance than mere statistics. But the statistics are important, and may be part of the reason why much of the public is skeptical about claims made by conservative religious leaders when it comes to sex: they often give bad advice and promote programs that don’t give the intended results.

In the height of the AIDS crisis, many felt that the Church was actively trying to prevent prevention. In O’Laughlin’s book, Dr. Anthony Fauci “faulted the church for spreading false information, including messages that flew in the face of everything public health experts knew about slowing the spread.” While Fauci was talking about the AIDS epidemic, one can see that this is still the case today in many parts of the Church. O’Laughlin also writes of that time:

“Some high-profile bishops said that condoms might actually hurt those who used them. In 1987, the Archdiocese of Boston filmed television commercials about HIV and AIDS, but the ads frustrated public health experts with their suggestion that condoms were ineffective in fighting the spread of HIV… [The] Catholic League for Religious Liberty and Civil Rights… backed an ad campaign in 1994 on mass transit in New York, Boston, and Washington. ‘CONDOMS DON’T SAVE LIVES,’ read one ad. ‘But restraint does.’ Dr. Fauci found that kind of dishonesty reprehensible and ‘completely out of line.’”

In the end, it wasn’t abstinence education that curbed the AIDS crisis, but the spread of good medical information, frank conversations about sex and sexuality, medical testing, and prophylactics like condoms. This sort of approach also helps to encourage smart choices about sexual behavior. Studies have found that kids are more likely to have sex as teenagers when parents use scare tactics to discourage sex, but that supportive and receptive conversations with parents can decrease the likelihood of kids taking sexual risks and also delay the first sexual encounter. Certainly, abstinence is the best way to prevent contracting STI’s. No one denies this. But society has yet to figure out how to effectively prevent people from engaging in premarital sex. (Though Netflix may provide the key to an answer.)

For those who do engage in sexual activity, doing so in the safest way possible, using all the information, testing, and treatment available is a good practice. Indeed, encouraging those who are sexually active to use protection and get tested regularly may push them to consider their activities more critically and question what role they play in their lives more broadly. This is essentially Pope Benedict XVI’s argument when considering the morality of condom use for sex workers. But when religious leaders use the promotion of abstinence as an excuse to spread misinformation or inhibit the spread of good medical information, they harm both the community and the credibility of the Church. Looking back, it was a bad idea to go to the bishops for medical advice when it contradicted the advice of reliable professionals during the AIDS crisis. Things hasn’t changed.

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