Newsletter #8: harming the poor by helping the poor

In today's newsletter: sleeping homeless Jesus, racism as an act of love, conversion therapists in Catholic dioceses, trigger warnings, and Jane the Virgin on virtue ethics

Happy Tuesday!

Sunday (October 24) was the feast day of St. Anthony Mary Claret, a nineteenth century Spanish archbishop, missionary, and confessor of Queen Isabella II of Spain. (Not to be confused with Servant of God Queen Isabella I of Castille who was famously horrified by the abuses of Christopher Columbus.) Claret trained to work in textiles, but spent his spare time studying Latin and French until he left Barcelona to seek religious life. While serving the poor, he learned to practice some medicine. He became a sought-after preacher and eventually founded the Congregation of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (The Claretians), which has more than 3,000 priests and brothers today.

As a bishop, Claret worked actively in education, social justice, and the promotion of the marginalized. He assisted Maria Antonia Paris in establishing the first women religious institute in Cuba, worked to change anti-miscegenation laws, and spent much time visiting hospitals and prisons. Over his life he also wrote 144 books, many of them on spirituality and agricultural practice. I really admire his commitment to ongoing learning and social justice. He seems to have been a man of wisdom, constantly seeking to understand the world around and above him. His name (Anthony Mary) is also a reminder that gender and identity can be a complicated thing in Catholicism. Happy belated feast day!

And with that, here’s what’s in the newsletter today:

  • Where do we put sleeping homeless people?

  • Learning about racism as an act of love

  • Conversion therapists in Catholic dioceses

  • What I’m reading: no more trigger warnings

  • What I’m watching Jane the Virgin and virtue ethics

Where do we put sleeping homeless people?

This weekend, I attended Mass at the Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis. As I was leaving, I encountered the Basilica’s Homeless Jesus sculpture, a piece by artist Timothy P. Schmalz that was dedicated in 2017. I also learned that the police have been called on sleeping Jesus multiple times. As reported by Vice, “Even Jesus, when homeless, will have the cops called on him eventually.”

When I shared my discovery on Twitter, I received a variety of responses. Some were furious that police were called on what appeared to be a sleeping homeless man. Others countered by saying that the police calls were probably made our of concern, particularly during Minnesota’s brutal winter months. The dialogue opened up a good conversation about how we treat our poor.

I totally get the inclination by many to call the cops. If you have had mostly positive interactions with law enforcement, then you would see this as a compassionate response. Unfortunately, however, good intentions often harm the marginalized, especially when the marginalized are not understood. These well-intentioned people probably didn’t realize that the response to homeless persons by law enforcement is often… law enforcement. Police will give homeless persons citations for loitering, look them up for warrants or other opportunities to arrest, or even escalate violence because they are not trained to interact with people suffering from significant mental illness. Calling the police risks making matters worse. This is why you should always ask the person before calling the police to assist them, especially if the person is BIPOC or LGBTQ+.

Instead, you can offer help to the person directly, or look up local social services or assistance organizations that work with homeless persons. If the weather isn’t bad, and the person doesn’t appear to be in destress or danger, just let them sleep.

Learning about racism, as an act of love

One of my favorite coming out stories was from I guy I knew who told his close friend that he was gay. She responded with excitement and told him, “Now I can see you more like God sees you!” Because she could see more of him, her vision of him grew closer to God’s vision of him. Like God, she could now love him in that part of himself.

For me, this helps explain the paradoxical excitement I get at times when learning about racism and how it functions in my friends’ lives. In learning about racism, I feel an odd combination of anger and excitement, grief and joy, discomfort and compassion. I’ve realized that this is because learning about racism is both an act of justice and an act of love. Love and understanding are mutually reinforcing. When we understand others, we are inclined to seek loving them. And when we love others, we are inclined to seek understanding them. When we really understand them, we are inclined to seek justice for them. I think this may be one reason why the resistance to study and understand racism on the part of Christians can be so jarring to BIPOC persons: because it demonstrates that we are not invested in loving them as fully as we can.

Of course, this type of love is challenging. When I come to understand the racism another has experienced, I can enter into a new reality of love, and thus of joy, with that person. But it is a love and joy that demands something of me. They joy of knowing comes also with the anger towards injustices they have experienced. The love of understanding comes with a sad realization of my own failures. And so the injustice they have experienced becomes, in some way, my responsibility. It alerts me to a new world of righteous anger, personal regret, and indignancy that I now have to grapple with. But if we want to see our BIPOC friends as God sees them, if we want to know and love and understand, then this is the space we have to enter.

Conversion Therapists in Catholic dioceses

Last week, I did more digging into conversion therapy and ex-gay narratives in Catholic spaces. I took a look at the work of Timothy Lock, the reparative therapist who serves as the Director of Psychological Services at the major seminary for the Archdiocese of New York. The development of Lock’s presentations, from explicit endorsement of SOCE camps and orientation change, to a softer presentation of ex-gay narratives, tracks changes in the orientation change movement in response to fraud lawsuits and negative media. If we want to combat conversion therapy, we need to do a better job of understanding its roots and how it can hide.

I also explored the work of Bob Schutchs, a reparative therapist who leads the John Paul II Healing Center and has conducted a required workshops for seminarians in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Schuchts subjected the seminarians to ex-gay theories and modified versions of reparative therapy, without them realizing it. He also encouraged them to engage in activities that would be considered grooming if done by a sexual predator, and he trained them to direct sexual violence victims to “healing prayer and Christian counsel,” rather than to mental health professionals and law enforcement. Exploring Schuchts’s work helps to make sense of the clergy abuse crisis and the bizarre approaches to sexuality from many of our priests and Church leaders. Within an hour of sharing the essay on Twitter, I already had Catholics reaching out to me to share Schuchts’s influence in other dioceses, and how the religious community of Leanne Payne (an evangelical “spiritual healer” on whom Schuchts bases much of his work) is undergoing its own spiritual and sexual abuse crisis.

I want to, once again, communicate my immense gratitude to the people who have reached out to me to share their stories and how my coverage of these issues has been helpful. I’ve had priests, current and former nuns and religious, and many lay people reach out to share their stories and how this is an important issue to discuss. One person recently told me, “I’ve been talking with some other guys with my background [in conversion therapy], and what you’ve been writing makes us feel less crazy.” Conversion therapy is tied up with a lot of emotional and spiritual manipulation. We need more spaces for healing, processing, sharing, and public accountability. I think that this is an important conversation, and one that’s been pushed to the side for too long. I’m honored to be playing a small part in it.

What I’m Reading: No more trigger warnings

In The New Yorker, law professor Jeannie Suk Gerson asks, “What if trigger warnings don’t work?” Trigger warnings have become popular practice in academia and public writing, serving to “warn” people when lectures and written materials will be discussing topics that might trigger trauma or difficult feelings. The idea is to allow readers an opportunity to emotionally prepare for challenging content, so that they can engage the material well. The idea was not so much about avoidance as it was preparation. Studies have found that, after a trigger warning, individuals who may be impacted tend to choose to engage the material. (Harvard psychologist Richard McNally shared that “clinical consensus is that avoiding triggers worsens P.T.S.D.”)

Gerson, however, has been looking into whether trigger warnings are actually helpful. Recent research suggests not:

“Because trigger warnings involve assumptions about emotional reactions, particularly with respect to P.T.S.D., psychology researchers have begun to study whether trigger warnings are in fact beneficial. The results of around a dozen psychological studies, published between 2018 and 2021, are remarkably consistent, and they differ from conventional wisdom: they find that trigger warnings do not seem to lessen negative reactions to disturbing material in students, trauma survivors, or those diagnosed with P.T.S.D. Indeed, some studies suggest that the opposite may be true. The first one… found that, among people who said they believe that words can cause harm, those who received trigger warnings reported greater anxiety in response to disturbing literary passages than those who did not. (The study found that, among those who do not strongly believe words can cause harm, trigger warnings did not significantly increase anxiety.) Most of the flurry of studies that followed found that trigger warnings had no meaningful effect, but two of them found that individuals who received trigger warnings experienced more distress than those who did not. Yet another study suggested that trigger warnings may prolong the distress of negative memories. A large study by Jones, Bellet, and McNally found that trigger warnings reinforced the belief on the part of trauma survivors that trauma was central (rather than incidental or peripheral) to their identity. The reason that effect may be concerning is that trauma researchers have previously established that a belief that trauma is central to one’s identity predicts more severe P.T.S.D.; Bellet called this “one of the most well documented relationships in traumatology.” The perverse consequence of trigger warnings, then, may be to harm the people they are intended to protect.”

A group of researchers discussed by Gerson recommends against the use of trigger warnings, based on recent research. You’ve seen me use them in the past. You won’t see me use them going forward. If subsequent research recommends trigger warnings, I’m very open to changing my policy.

I do often engage challenging issues that might trigger readers’ trauma. With that in mind, while I won’t be giving trigger warnings, I’ll do my best to make sure that pieces which cover those issues leave the reader with a sense of acknowledgment and hope. Please know that I’m grateful for your readership and for your resilience.

You can follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.

What I’m watching: Jane the Virgin (and the telenovela’s contribution to virtue ethics)

I’ve recently started watching Jane the Virgin on Netflix. For those of you who are not familiar with the show, its central protagonist is a young woman who has guarded her virginity but accidentally becomes artificially inseminated and pregnant with the child of a wealthy hotelier. (The doctor who inseminates Jane is the hotelier’s sister.)

The show is thoroughly and self-consciously a telenovela. It draws on the key trope of the genre: the sudden plot twist based on a shocking new piece of information. A character will decide on a plan of action. And then the viewer will learn a detail that’s hidden from that character—a secret twin, a former lover about to return, or secret tunnels under the hotel—which will render that plan detrimental to the character’s ultimate aims. There’s always a secret detail waiting to derail the best-laid plans. Secret twins, long-lost parents who show up at just the right time, and impersonators create sudden twists and turns throughout the show.

One key issue for the telenovela genre is the nature of advice. Characters often fail to recognize the provisional nature of advice-giving. Giving advice to another should always be understood against the backdrop of the advice-giver’s limited knowledge. There’s always a danger that, when someone insists that a piece of advice must be followed, that the advice will be missing a key bit of context that will render it ultimately harmful.

Alasdair MacIntyre raises this concern in Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity. In an interesting passage I’ve discussed elsewhere, he writes:

“[Let’s say] I need to catch a plane to Chicago. If I do not leave in the next ten minutes, I will fail to reach the airport before the time for its scheduled departure. So I prepare to leave in the next ten minutes. Then I learn that all flights have been cancelled. The effect of adding the new true premise to those that already informed my reasoning is to render the inference that I was about to make unsound.”

Practical reasoning doesn’t always function like syllogistic reasoning. In syllogistic reasoning, the addition of true premises to other true premises doesn’t change the truth of a conclusion. (A + B = C, and A + B + D = C). But in practical reasoning, the addition of true premises to other true premises can sometimes change a conclusion from true to untrue, as we see in the example above. (Leave in 10 + reach airport = catch plane. But leave in 10 + reach airport + flights cancelled ≠ catch plane.) The same is true of moral reasoning, which is a form of practical reasoning. There’s always a risk that we’ll be missing a key piece of information when giving moral advice that would render it unhelpful or even harmful. So moral reasoning should always be given in humility, and with a reminder to the recipient of advice that they are ultimately responsible for making their own decisions, using the best available information.


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