Newsletter #28: MLK Day preaching and the oddity of "Church teaching"
For the majority of the Church’s history, detailed “official teachings” of the universal Church on matters like sexuality simply didn’t exist.
Happy Tuesday! Here’s what’s in the newsletter today:
Preaching on MLK Day
Social media and mimetic rivalry
Why is “Church teaching” weird?
Good managers model good behavior
What I’m reading
Preaching on MLK Day
I recall attending a Sunday Mass before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, where the priest spoke about movements towards racial justice. This, on its own, (and sadly) should be considered an achievement. Many Catholic parishes fail to commemorate the day, or to make racial justice a focus of their homilies homilies. Some Catholic parishes spend more time critiquing racial justice movements (such as the Critical Race Theory movement) than advocating for racial justice.
Nonetheless, simply talking about racial justice is not enough, if Catholic parishes truly want to provide spaces for BIPOC laity and those who want to support us. Some kinds of rhetoric that appear in favor of racial justice can be off-putting or further marginalizing of BIPOC people. In the Sunday Mass homily that comes to mind for me, a white priest openly opined about how a little black girl felt during a march for racial equality. He gave broad generalized remarks about how King sought equality. And he invited parishioners to work for a change of hearts when it comes to racism.
On the surface, these may seem like appropriate and helpful remarks. But for many BIPOC people, homilies like this one may come off as disengaged, presumptive, and overly-sentimental. Making assumptions about how black people feel, rather than directly quoting their words, risks replacing real experiences with presumptuous projections, inadvertently exercising a form of white supremacy that reduces black people to what white people imagine about them. Giving generalized remarks can demonstrate a lack of personal study and engagement in issues of racial justice. And focusing on a change of hearts can give the impression that racial justice is a matter of faith but not works.
If you gave a homily (or made remarks in another forum) similar to the above priest, don’t worry. There will be opportunities to do better in the future. I often think about this work in terms of “levels.” “Level 1” might be simply caring and doing anything. (And anything worth doing is worth doing badly, at least until you learn how to do it better.) That’s where I’d place the above priest’s remarks. To move up to “level 2,” here are some recommendations for priests, pastors, and other preachers…
1. Don't rely on assumptions or generalities about BIPOC people's experiences.
Don't say, "During the march, I imagine people felt..." Instead, directly quote people talking about their experiences. Say things like, "In her memoir, she says the march made her feel...” This helps to demonstrate that you have really engaged with others’ experiences, and it lets BIPOC people speak for themselves.
2. Name the problems.
Use the word “racism.” People who suffer from harms related to racism want to know that you care about it enough to use the word. If “racism” is a word that makes your community uncomfortable, then they need to hear it.
3. Emphasize how racism and racial injustice are relevant to your specific community.
Talk about local racialized histories, issues, and concerns. This also helps to demonstrate that you are engaged and that you care about the local community.
4. If you aren't BIPOC, acknowledge this and how it impacts the way you speak about racism.
If you aren’t BIPOC, acknowledge your privilege. Acknowledge that you’re not in a position to speak on behalf of others’ experiences, but that you’ll be sharing some of what you’ve learned, and you’d encourage people to go and explore what BIPOC people have written, said, and done.
5. Offer concrete recommendations for people who want to further racial justice.
Promote local organizations, events, and movements working towards racial justice. Remind people that faith without works is dead, and invite people to do the work.
6. Emphasize the importance of changing hearts and systems.
Only speaking about change as a matter of the heart may suggest to BIPOC people that you don’t see the ways in which racism is experienced and maintained at an institutional, social, and cultural level. Speaking only about the importance of personal conversion suggests an individualistic view of faith, one which does not transform society and institutions, where the Church’s moral vision is one not intended to drive change in the world. Be sure to insist upon the responsibility to pursue both personal conversion and social change.
7. If you draw on thinkers such as Martin Luther King, Jr., demonstrate more than a familiarity with his most popular quotes and most commonly-used phrases.
Don’t turn King’s wisdom into platitudes. King’s vision for racial justice is mutually dependent with and inseparable from his vision for social justice, economic justice, labor justice, and other areas of justice. He has warned about the special danger posed by the “white moderate.” And he has emphasized that we cannot merely condemn actions such as rioting without understanding their origins, that we are doomed to the former if we do not address the latter. Too often, King is reduced for comfortable platitudes, and the reality of the radical man with radical views is lost. If you want to present a vision of King as a complex man who challenges us today, draw on his ideas that will make your listeners uncomfortable. Highlight his ideas that make you uncomfortable, and speak openly the possibility that your discomfort may indicate a need to dig more deeply into King’s ideas and into your own.
Social media and mimetic rivalry
I recently wrote about an Instagram conflict in which I took part, and how Girard’s mimetic theory of desire has helped me to make sense of it. The extended essay serves partly as an introduction to Girard’s theory. You can read it here.
Why is “Church teaching” weird?
Over the weekend, Stephen Adubato wrote about “the case for bad Catholics” in The Spectator Australia. In his piece, Adubato considers recent conflicts over the termination of employees in religious institutions due to a failure to abide by religious “teachings.” How do we make sense of the impact of these firings, and how do they cohere with Church history and the Church’s pastoral mission? Adubato looks to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, as well as some brief thoughts by Aaron Taylor, for an answer to this contemporary dilemma.
Adubato discusses historical relationships between the Catholic laity and Church teaching:
“It used to be common for someone to assent to the doctrines of a religion while personally not following them in his or her private life… ‘Bad Catholics,’ according to theologian Aaron Taylor, ‘knew the moral rules taught by the Church, and they broke – even flouted – them, particularly when it came to sex.’… They did not, however, ‘argue that the rules should be changed to confer moral approval on their behaviour. Despite their moral failings, bad Catholics also tended to maintain a high regard for the Church’s sacramental and spiritual rules and practices.”
Charles Taylor argues that a change occurred around the 14th century and continued with the Second Vatican Council’s “universal call to holiness.” He says that a universalizing of expectations shrank previous spaces where Catholics could both be respected, and not shamed, as sinners, while the Church could still maintain high aspirational standards, which would be more strictly observed by those occupying certain states, such as those in the priesthood and religious life. (Of course, we also know through the writings of St. Francis of Assisi and others that committed failures to observe these standards were pervasive throughout those states as well.) Adubato provides some interesting recommendations, and I would recommend reading his piece in full.
One thing I would like to note here, however, is the complexity of the concept of “Church teaching.” It’s important to note that, while Church councils defined various doctrines, and magisterial offices issued statements and communications, the Church did not have the present form of the Catechism until 1992. And even then, the Catechism was not universally available. It wasn’t published in English until 1994. (The 1566 Catechism of the Council of Trent played a very different role in the life of the Church.)
The establishment of the twentieth century Catechism creates a conception of “Church teaching” as one which is universally available, recognizable, detailed, and “official.” This, however, isn’t consistent with much of Church history. For the majority of the Church’s history, detailed “official teachings” of the universal Church on matters like sexuality simply didn’t exist. Instead, popes issued encyclicals, Vatican offices published documents, bishops issued directives for their dioceses, and theologians published treatises and moral manuals. Prior to the rise of modern communication methods and mass media, these were not available throughout the global Church. And they were not used in the way we are accustomed to today. For example, the use of encyclicals to define and share global positions is a practice primarily of the last two centuries, with one-third of all papal encyclicals written by Pope Leo XIII.
All this is to say, the majority of what we consider today to be “Church teaching” was, for the majority of the Church’s history, undefined, ambiguous, and varied in both understanding and practice. I would suggest that part of the problem is that today we treat “Church teaching” in a way that is actually very atypical for the Church.
Good managers model good behavior
2022 was a big year. I left a team and company I loved to take a risk on a company I'd never heard of. But I took the risk, and over the last year I've been able to oversee the creation of our new procurement contracting and risk organization. I've learned a lot, and I'm really proud of what our team has accomplished.
But one of my proudest achievements was some feedback I got from a member of my team. They told me (more or less): "Stop sending emails on nights and weekends. The team looks up to you, and when you do that, they think they need to do it if they want to get to where you are."
I had spoken a lot with the team about how part of my role is to empower them to seek work-life balance. But if you tell your team to do something and aren't modeling it yourself, you're sending mixed messages. It's funny how easily we forget one of the most important lessons from child psychology: children learn just as much from what their parents do as from what they say. This lesson applies to other relationships as well, including relationships between managers and their teams.
Now, I'm very conscious of when emails hit others' inboxes. Sometimes, nighttime emails are necessary. But most of the time they're not. So even if I need to send an email off in the evening to get something off my mind, I set the email so that it won't send until the morning. We need to get away from bragging-by-complaining about long hours, and model a better life.
I'm proud of that feedback I got for two reasons. First, it demonstrated that the team is on board for building a culture of balance. Second, it demonstrated that we have relationships of open dialogue, where you can give your manager feedback on how to improve. That feedback means we're doing things right.
(And if you want to delay your emails: https://lnkd.in/gCcv9FRJ)
In lieu of tweeting, here are some brief thoughts I’ve collected recently…
One indicator of our collapsing sexual ethic is the lack of a sense of hierarchy, and the principles which would structure it. We have only “mortal” vs “venial,” and a Catechism that functions frequently as a checklist. This is a problem that something like a Catechism is not well suited to solve.
One book I could imagine writing: “Five Catholic Scandals and What I Learned.” The sections might be: (1) my (almost) gay Catholic employment and the dynamics of hypocrisy, (2) WOF and institutional self-absolution, (3) why NET (probably) won’t change, (4) an instagram conflict and mimetic rivalry, and (5) fired pregnant women and the dollar value of silence.
What I’m reading: lots of Shakespeare
You can follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.
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And that’s all I have for you today. If you’re on social media, you’re welcome to also follow me at Twitter and on my Facebook page.