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Monday, October 19, 2020

Mortification

Brief history of Catholic monastic spirituality:

Monks alone in desert (going crazy), monks together in deserted places (Benedict), mendicant orders roaming world (Francis and Dominic), men and women organized for good works (Jesuits and Ursulines). Constant practice existing in all these movements: mortification—afflicting the flesh, ranging from penitential virtuosity (spiked chains under your clothing) to the everyday mortification of fasting and abstinence from meat.

Then came Vatican II, fasting and abstinence became optional, optional led to extinction.

Every Lent we hope to reverse the extinction. We look for some way besides fasting to observe the season. Let us go back to the basics.

Why practice mortification?

Old spiritual writers quoted I John 2: humans suffer from lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Lust of the eyes meant yearning for material stuff. Pride of life meant wanting to disobey authority. Tactics against those two are hard to operationalize. Lust of the flesh—ah, here you have something to get your teeth into. Fast, wear hair shirts, sleep on boards. Authors who told the stories of saints competed to describe the means their saints used to mortify the flesh—one gets the sense that there was a spirit of conspicuous consumption operating—my saint is penitentially more drastic than your saint. The saints themselves were surely less competitive, and the readers of the stories not likely to imitate the virtuosos.

In the United States fish on Friday was a badge of persecuted identity in a predominantly Protestant nation, not always a way to come closer to God.

“Come closer to God.” Here is the deeper reason for mortification. When you voluntarily frustrate your desires you become more aware of your limits—you are a creature, which makes you think about a Creator. Mortification was meant to open our eyes to God. When we abandoned mortification, we lost an effective way of experiencing God.

Recovery in our day.

People around the world have been undergoing terrible suffering, made even worse by the pandemic. Climate change has made refugees out of millions of people when the rains no longer water their farmland. Poverty breeds violence, in the form of movements like Al Qaeda and ISIS, which magnify suffering.

There are things that wealthier nations can do to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, not to mention freeing the imprisoned. But nations do not act without public support. In our country we have a leader who retains power by appealing to the worse instincts of the public. Ignorance of conditions beyond our borders is one of our worst instincts. Thus the leader can demonize immigrants and get crowds to cheer “Build that wall!”

No one who follows international news can be ignorant of the plight of people beyond our borders. Catholics who use abortion as the only reason to vote for politicians who build walls and demonize immigrants cannot be sensitive to all the conditions that strangle life. My sense is that such Catholics are blissfully ignorant. Blissful ignorance needs to be cured by mortification.

Mortification for our time is paying attention to the world beyond our life space. It is watching, reading, listening to what is happening to people around the world. Doing that is uncomfortable. The 2020 hair shirt is informing ourselves and, when God calls, embracing respectful and patient political discussion and even action.  

Surely the Lord calls us to this. God did not give us democracy so we could eat, drink and be merry. What we do to the least of our sisters and brothers we do to the Lord. When we ignore the wounded person beside the road and pass on our way, we are not neighbors to that person. When we do not care whether our leaders feed hungry people, we become the ones who will hear “what you did not do to the least of my children, you did not do to me.”

Mortification was never easy. Staying informed about the plight of others is not easy. Vatican II did not abolish mortification—opening our hearts more to God. All of us need to use the means appropriate to our time.

 


Saturday, September 26, 2020

Truth

My good friend, Fr. John Joe Lakers, dead nine years now, rather proudly defended “postmodernism,” that has captured the imagination of the intellectual elites for the last forty years or so. Religious people, among them leaders of my own Church, routinely savaged the movement, accusing it of denying truth altogether—“truth is dead” would have made a good Time magazine cover. John Joe would answer, “No, no, that’s not what they are saying.” I created my own translation of what they were saying: “Any time someone claims to be speaking the truth, look out, because behind the claim there is likely to be a move to gain power over somebody else.”

However, we intellectuals enjoy debunking things and startling the less enlightened; too many of us still go around claiming there is no such thing as truth. Donald Trump has put that claim into political reality, to where he can say anything and his “base” will believe it and act on it. I think it is time to defend “truth.”

The reason it is time to defend truth is that we are on the verge of re-evaluating the history of our nation. The story we have told of our nation’s past has not been truthful. We need to get used to facing hard truths, uncomfortable truths. Truth really exists, and we owe it to our sisters and brothers, especially our sisters and brothers of color, to acknowledge the truth of what we white people have done to them for the last four hundred years. We not only owe them the acknowledgement of truth, but we owe them some reparation for the harm we have done them. Example: the average Black family in this country has less than half the wealth of the average white family. That is because for most of the years since the end of the Civil War, we made it difficult for a Black person to own a home in a desirable neighborhood, and home ownership is the main source of wealth for people. After World War II, the “G.I. Bill” offered mortgage benefits for returning war veterans, but the veterans had to be white. Black veterans were excluded, even though they had fought alongside white veterans. Farmers were excluded from Social Security, and in the 1930s, most Blacks were farmers.

When your parents have not been allowed to own a home in a good neighborhood, you are starting life with a heavy bag on your back. We say you should pull yourself up by your bootstraps like the rest of us did. But the rest of us were not restricted to substandard schools and low-quality neighborhoods. Not only were we not restricted, but our restrictive policies benefited us and cost you. The money that should have gone to your schools went to our schools, and the neighborhoods where you could not buy property were the neighborhoods where we kept our property values high because we kept you out.

We white people need to know the truth of what a hundred years of Jim Crow did to every Black person in this country. Jim Crow is the label for the legal gimmicks that southern whites used to replace slavery with a practical servitude—preventing Black people from voting, restricting them to certain neighborhoods, denying them entry into labor unions and good schools, and on and on. “On and on” covers a lot of truth that we white people are blissfully ignorant of. We need truth so that we do not go on piling weight on the backs of our brothers and sisters and then blaming them because they move more slowly than we do.

We need history. In the 90s we lamented the poor condition of much public schooling, especially public schooling for people of color, so we decided to punish poorly performing schools. In order to defend decisions about which schools were “poorly performing,” we created tests designed to show up the bad schools. In the process we forced teachers to spend a lot of time “teaching to the test”—it was a matter of survival if you wanted your school to continue existing. Then came the emphasis on “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) and the soft areas like history and literature and art were crowded into a smaller and smaller space in the curriculum. We are raising a generation of children who do not know the truth about the history of our country. They are defenseless against those who want to keep their advantages and continue policies that burden some of us more than others.

When you do not know your story, you do not know who you are.

I am reading documents from the Roman Catholic “Synod on the Amazon” that took place in October 2019. It was a gathering of a few hundred representatives of indigenous people from the nations that make up the Amazon River basin. The gathering was preceded by a wide consultation of thousands of groups preparing for the meeting.

One of the recommendations that have come from the Synod is creating the goal of passing on of the history of each of several hundred unique cultures in that vast region. Too often the people involved have been driven further and further into the rain forest, only to be forced finally to migrate to the cities, where they form part of the urban underclass, poorly housed, poorly educated, lacking political power and basic economic well-being, cut off from the stories that gave them identity. These too are our brothers and sisters. If we cannot even acknowledge the stories of people living among us in our country, how will we welcome the stories of people living in Manaus or Rio or Belem?

How will we help Amazonian people to preserve the rain forest which is so central to our environmental survival without appreciating the value of those people’s ways of life?  

Bottom line: without truth we will not survive. Our appreciation of truth has been wounded. We need to heal. As we heal we will grow closer to all of our sisters and brothers all over the world.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Good Soldier

I was nine years old, in the spring of fourth grade, when World War II ended. My St. James Grade School sold so many war bonds that we got to fly the Minute Man flag at City Hall—we outsold the rest of the schools in the city, including public schools four times larger than ours.

I watched the progress of our forces through Europe and the Pacific, and played with miniature planes. I can still describe the P-51 Mustang which I thought looked really neat, the P-38 with its dual fuselage, the B-17 with its gun turrets on all sides, and the B-29, which carried the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I imagined being in the war and sacrificing  my life for the country. There was a book, They Were Expendable, which summarized my ideal: when the nation requires it, you are expendable. 

That set me up for later things in my life. The Franciscan Province sent me to Harvard—I would obey, even though prospects of success didn’t seem bright—who knows, I could even lose my faith.

In 1978 I was living with the community at Our Lady of Angels Seminary a mile north of Quincy College. The Province asked me to become “guardian” (superior) of the Franciscan community at Quincy College. There were thirty-two friars in the community, and they were split sixteen to sixteen on their choice of guardian. I was the dark horse brought in to break the tie.

I accepted the position. I was the Good Soldier, ready to do anything they asked of me. As I look back on the six years I was in that role, I almost shudder.

Example. The Province was dealing with the problem of alcoholism among the friars. The experts said that sometimes a friar has to be forced to go into treatment. Two friars during my tenure seemed to require treatment—I railroaded them into treatment—no thought of how they felt about it—there was a way to deal with it, I followed the plan.

Twenty years later  I was preparing to give a talk at Christian Family Camp to a group of adults, most of whom were parents. I had accepted Father John Joe Lakers’s definition of intimacy—intimacy is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement. From sociology I had developed a definition of power: power is the ability to punish, and punishment requires threatening or inflicting pain.

How do you reconcile intimacy with the reality that sometimes a parent has to use power to get a child to do something? A revelation came to me in the form of a sentence: “The rose bush of intimacy gives rise to the thorn of power in order to protect the rose.” Translated: you shouldn’t use power until you can relate lovingly with a person. When you use power prematurely, it is oppressive.

As guardian, I was acting as an administrator, carrying out the duties of making sure the friars got fed. Sure, I knew I was supposed to love them, just as I was supposed to love my students and all the other people I met. But the love was abstract, theoretical, so it got pushed to the background. 

The Good Soldier did not have to worry about intimacy. The focus was on your own willingness to sacrifice yourself—there was no reflection about the people you met.

The Lone Ranger (radio version) was another hero of my youth. The Lone Ranger rode into town, got rid of the Bad Guys—not killing them—the Lone Ranger always shot the guns out of the hands of the Bad Guys—and then the Lone Ranger rode out of town. “Heigh-O Silver, away!” No involvement.

I would be the lone ranger priest.

Those old childhood scripts stay with us. They’re not always as admirable as we thought they were.

 

 


Saturday, August 15, 2020

Leaning

To learn means you change your mind.

Sometimes I hear of people who keep getting into trouble in the same way, over and over. We say, “Will they ever learn?” Will they ever change their way of thinking?

Matthew’s Gospel ends with the “Great Commission”: “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

“Make disciples.” The word “disciple” comes from the Latin word discere, which means “to learn.” “Make learners of everyone you meet.”

A learner is someone open to changing their mind. Another Gospel word for changing our mind is metanoia, repentance. To repent means to change your mind and your ways of doing things.

The Great Commission has two orders, make disciples and baptize. It doesn’t say “Go out and baptize people by the thousands.” We used to do that, but we have decided that it is not such a good idea. The two orders are sequential, and the second should not be rushed upon the first. By the time you get to thinking about the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, you need to have done a good deal of mind-changing.

Learning is dangerous. Changing your mind is dangerous. That’s why some people never dare to do it. I am a life-long Roman Catholic. Maybe I will change my mind about my own faith and become an atheist. Surely there are enough people around who have done that.

The word disciple has a connotation implying that you are changing your mind in a way that associates you with a specific group of people. I change my mind about touching hot stoves, but that learning does not bring me closer to anyone. To change my mind about my faith and become an atheist may also bring me closer to other atheists. This is an important point, because the Great Commission is talking about what we call religion.

Pardon my insistence on definitions. It’s a leftover from my undergraduate days studying philosophy. But the word religion comes from the Latin religare, which means “to bind together again.” Religion is supposed to bind you to other people. It is supposed to create a group. When you change your mind about your Roman Catholicism, that change should have implications about the people you associate with.

Yesterday I was in a conversation about Kamela Harris, the woman that Joe Biden has picked to be his running mate for the U.S. presidency. Someone in the conversation asked “Is she Catholic?” That was a most natural question for a cradle Catholic. We want to know if people are part of our group. When I was young we used to collect names of famous Catholic people in the news. They were part of us.

Sociologists use the term “master status.” A master status is a condition that puts you into a category in the eyes of other people before they know anything else about you. Being an ex-convict is a master status. So is being Black. For some cradle Catholics like myself, being Catholic is a master status. That is true of fewer and fewer people, which means that being Catholic less socially important than it used to be. In my case, being Catholic was a master status because I was growing up in a majority Protestant town, and we felt a vague and delicious sense of persecution. Persecution drew us together, at least in my mind.

The United States has a very individualistic culture. We do not want to be part of any master status. We stand proud, independent, and alone. Nobody tells us who we are. I suspect that when nobody tells you who you are, you get into a perilous state. What is sad is when you are afraid of changing your mind about your perilous state. In other words, you are afraid to “convert”—another word that means to change your mind and your relations with other people.

Conversion, like learning, is dangerous. I might convert to Islam. That would change my master status in religion. Will I do that? I can’t rule it out. If I am really a disciple. if I am really open to learning, to changing my mind, then I must be open to changing my mind about my Catholicism.

Jesus said that the road to the kingdom is narrow, and few there are who find it. Conversions are rare. They tell me that being born Catholic is not enough, that I have to have a conversion experience if I am to take my religion seriously. Actually, they tell me that I have to go through life open to conversion every day.

I like to think of this in the context of prophets. A prophet is someone who calls me to change my mind, and I tell myself that I want to be open to the prophets that God sends into my life. That means most of the people I meet day by day. That is also what obedience means.

As a member of a Catholic religious order, I take a vow of obedience. There are stories of young people being told to plant vegetables upside down as a test of obedience. I never had any teachers as foolish as that, but they did teach me that obedience meant that when I got a letter from my superior telling me to move to another place, I had to obey. Unfortunately, that has only happened once in my sixty-plus years in the Order, which makes obedience irrelevant in my life. But no, when I am open to the prophets God sends me each day, I am obedient in a more radical sense than planting vegetables upside down.

There is a political theorist named Karl Deutsch who said that good political leaders have to stay in the middle between two extremes: bullets and rubber balls. A bullet is programmed to go in a certain direction, totally inner-directed, impervious to change. It travels until it smashes into something. A rubber ball is open to every object it meets—it is totally other-directed. The leader has to be somewhere between the bullet and the rubber ball. I have to be open to changing my mind in conversation with everyone I meet, but I can’t be a rubber ball. I have to know where I am going, but know also that I may have to change direction.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to make learners of people, keeping in mind that we have to be learners ourselves. As we struggle with oher learners, we all learn more what God is like. If and when we come to know that God is Creator, Savior, and Spirit of Life, that somehow God is present in the physicality of our world and in the experience of love in our hearts, and then realize that we share that picture of God with others, we can talk about baptism. Baptism is just a way of making that relationship incarnate, because love has to be incarnate and cannot be lived alone.  

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Lukewarm atheists



There are probably a lot of people who don’t believe in God but are not quite sure about that. Now that I think about it, I do believe in God, but I am not quite sure about that. At least I have moments when I question the depth of my own faith.

When those moments come, I look around to see if there are other people walking with me. When I am taking the place of a pastor somewhere and preside at a Sunday Mass in his parish, I feel like I am being carried along on the backs of the people in the congregation. We’re all in this together.

Makes me think of a principle of military sociology: when soldiers are facing death in battle, they are not thinking about the flag or God or some other noble value. They are thinking about the soldier next to them. They go where their buddy goes, and they suffer what their buddy suffers, and maybe they die so that their buddy can live.

The people in the congregation are my buddies.

I have other buddies. They are people who pray psalms.

First of all they are people around the world today who are praying the same psalms today. We have this system called the “liturgy of the hours,” which lays out a plan for which psalms should be prayed on which days. There are men and women in Africa, and Oceania, and South Asia, and Europe, and South America, and even here in North America who are today using the words of the same psalms I am using, even though in different languages.

But then there are all the people who lived in earlier times. Monks and nuns who lived back in the middle ages and in the centuries before the middle ages. They were using the same words, though again in a different language from my English.

Aside: I grew up in an era when seminaries forced their students to learn Latin and Greek. In our case it was six years of Latin and four years of Greek. I can’t claim that I was comfortable in either language even after all that time, but the experience made me stubborn enough to keep my hand on that plough—I would touch base with those languages every so often. With Greek it was when I was preparing to preach on a New Testament passage, because the New Testament’s original language was Greek. With Latin, one time it was when a fellow Quincy University English professor talked me into taking over his introductory Latin course. He loves Latin, and has a much better grasp of the language than I have ever had.

Years ago I tried to photo-copy and paste together an English translation of the psalms with a Greek version of them. That didn’t work—too much Scotch tape. But now we have the Kindle, and Greek and Latin versions of the psalms available for download from websites, all for free. So my psalms are in triplicate: each verse in Greek, followed by Latin, followed by English.

When I pray a psalm in Latin, I think of all the people who used those exact same words down through the centuries. And the same for Greek—I think of the early Church “Fathers” like Athanasius and Basil who used the Greek words. Who knows? Maybe even Jesus knew Greek. Even if he didn’t, St. Paul certainly did.

I was told in a world religions course in grad school that Muslims are urged to read and speak the Q’uran in Arabic, that only by doing that can they appreciate what the Prophet wrote.

Conclusion to the aside: We could do worse than urge people of faith to learn Latin and Greek so that they will be able to have a richer understanding of the psalms.

But back to the lukewarm atheist.

The psalms are an education about God. Every verse tells me something about God. Maybe they could teach the lukewarm atheist too.

For example, over and over in the psalms two nouns occur: “ἔλεος (eleos)” and “ἀλήθεια (alethia)” in Greek, “misericordia” and “veritas” in Latin. But these are translations of the original Hebrew: “ḥesed” and “ˁĕmûnâ.” “ḥesed” can be translated “steadfast love.” “ˁĕmûnâ” means “faithfulness.” The two attributes of God that the psalms keep talking about are steadfast love and faithfulness.

Look, for example, at the Latin of the shortest psalm in the psalter, Psalm 117:

Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes;
laudate eum, omnes populi. 

Praise! Give glory to God!
Nations, peoples, give glory! 

Quoniam confirmata est super nos misericordia ejus,
et veritas Domini manet in æternum. 

Strong the love embracing us.  -
Faithful the Lord forever.

Even after ten years of praying the psalms in Latin and many more years of praying them in English, I never noticed how often the two terms were paired. It was only after I kept seeing the pair popping up again and again in both Greek and Latin that I noticed the frequency.

That’s a nice way to describe God, don’t you think? God is steadfast love and faithfulness.

The psalms describe God with ears, and eyes, and hands, and an outstretched arm. God is jealous—but if you have a steadfast love for someone, and you see someone else horning in on that love, won’t you get angry? The jealousy grows out of love. Unfortunately, the jealousy led to an exaggerated focus on God’s punishing hand, an exaggeration nicely fitting into authority figures’ desire to make people behave. It took Jesus to strip away the focus on punishment and get back to the steadfast love character of God.

Yes, the psalms have a lot of problematic passages. The people who composed some of them didn’t know God very well, and the people who copied the originals sometimes botched the copying and nobody has ever been able to figure out what they were supposed to mean. But we are a human family, and we botch things and misunderstand God. The psalms teach us that too.

Conclusion.

The psalms are this lukewarm theist’s school of Godness. Every day I bathe in the centuries of words read, spoken, and chanted, about God. I still don’t know God very well. But it’s good to know that I can keep learning, with guidance from 150 sets of ancient words.

They used to say “In David, Christus.” In the songs supposedly composed by David, you can find Jesus Christ. In the words of those old poems, we can find the Word made flesh. What more do we need?

Monday, May 18, 2020

Everything is story


This is pretty subtle thinking, I admit. But the most famous Franciscan scholar, John Duns Scotus, has been given the title “Subtle Doctor.” So I’m in good company, even though my subtlety is infantile compared to his.

Wherever there is a pattern, there is a story.

Archeologists find a hard object, obviously stone. But is it just an ordinary rock, or is it a tool that someone deliberately fashioned out of rock, centuries ago? How can you tell? There has to be some kind of pattern, some kind of design to the way the rock was chipped or cracked.

I taught a course in archeology years ago—I admit, I’m no archeologist, but in those days we were asked to teach courses even if we had to stretch our graduate education to cover materials in courses we never dreamed of. I bought a display kit of typical archeological discoveries. The kit contained, for example, plastic replicates of what we used to call “arrowheads,” but which the specialists called “projectile points.” What they called a “hand axe” looked pretty much like an ordinary rock pointed on one end
.
But the hand axe had features which a scholar argued could not have come from mere chance. There was evidence that someone had shaped the rock to give it that particular pointed characteristic. There was a story behind that piece of stone. Some human being held that stone and worked it until it was able to be used to chop something. That’s a story. There’s a story there even if no one has ever told it or ever will tell it.

Wherever there is a pattern, there is a story.

The whole physical universe is a packet of stories because it is a packet of patterns. Patterns all the way from mega-galaxies down to atomic particles. We could say that God is the Great Story-teller.

In the beginning was the Word, . . .
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.

I don’t want to be over-dramatic here. But I guess I am subtle. If it is true that all things came to be through the Word, then all things are story.

There is a Franciscan tradition that the mineral world gave birth to the plant world, and the plant world gave birth to the animal world, and the animal world gave birth to the human world, and the climax of the human world is Jesus Christ. The universe grew out of person of Jesus Christ. All things came to be through him. God started with the human body of Jesus Christ and everything in the universe followed from there. And if you want to play with the Letter to the Colossians, you can say that everything in the universe will return there, to the person of Jesus Christ.

For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible, . . .
all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.

I haven’t read Teilhard de Chardin (they told us his ideas were suspect), but I think he had the idea that history was leading up to the point where Jesus Christ would “reconcile all things in himself.”

The Spirit

So if everything is story, and is actually shaped by the story of Jesus Christ, where does the Spirit come in?

I think the Spirit puts a special slant on the story. The Spirit makes the story a story of love. All these patterns in the universe are part of a story of love. God creating and redeeming out of a desire to be involved passionately, respectfully, vulnerably and faithfully with creatures—all creatures. Not only is the universe crammed with patterns, but the patterns are suffused with love. We are bathed in love. Every sparrow is bathed in love.

Psalm 104 tells the story of all creation, nature, animals, humans, and sums it up with the verse:

Send forth your spirit, they are created
and you renew the face of the earth.

*   *   *

As I said, this is all pretty subtle. But as I sit outdoors on one of the first days this spring when we can do that without freezing, I look at the spruce tree and the maple tree and the three sparrows’ nests under construction on the corners of our patio, I think, “This is all shot through with love. We re all loved—me, and the spruce tree and the maple tree and the three families of sparrows.”

It’s enough to make one break into song.




Saturday, April 18, 2020

Adversaries



Media people know that conflict sells. “When it bleeds, it leads.” When you can show video of people protesting, or quote someone disagreeing with an accepted idea, viewers and readers perk up.

My old theological textbook followed a medieval format that is supposed to go back to Peter Abelard: “sic et non.” Pro and con. Make a statement and then present arguments for the statement and arguments against the statement. The opponents to the statement were the “adversaries,” usually Protestants.

Our textbooks were not exciting—the adversaries were often straw men. The textbook authors didn’t want to make the other side look too appealing, or students might get wrong ideas. Our seminary was physically isolated, in the cornfields of southern Illinois. There were Protestants in southern Illinois, but we never set foot off the property so we were in no danger of meeting any.

We live in a vastly different environment today. We live with adversaries from morning to night, beginning with members of our own families. How many devout Catholic parents lament children who don’t go to church any more? And then there are the media. We swim in world views that ignore religious traditions, a business world that seems never to have heard of the Sermon on the Mount. The Republican Party thinks that the center of the country, where religion still survives, can overcome the coastal cultures that regard religion as your grandparents’ fantasies. But what if the coastal cultures are the future?

They are the future.

We need to use our adversaries, not lament them.

We should never state a religious belief without engaging with the people who don’t accept that belief. I think that reading the Gospels makes my life richer. What makes your life richer? What does a rich life look like?

Straw men won’t work. We need to be talking directly with living adversaries, people who have really different ways of looking at things from the ways we look at them. Our goal isn’t to convert the adversaries. Our goal is to understand our own beliefs better.

This reminds me of the “rules for ecumenical dialog” that I first heard from the Jesuit Gustav Weigel back in the early 1960s:

1. I state my belief as clearly and honestly as I can.

2. You state your belief as clearly and honestly as you can.

3. Let the Holy Spirit determine the outcome.

Now we can’t just walk up to people on the street and start talking religion. We need a pretext to talk religion. We need a structure to make conversation acceptable.

One such structure is the PSR class, the “parish school of religion” that most parishes use. Here is what we say as Catholics, and here is why we say it. Who disagrees with it? Can we listen to people who disagree? Can we imagine what they are thinking? Can we get one of them to come to the class and talk with us about what they think?

There have got to be other pretexts for talking religion. Let us get creative.

Catholicism has a rich history of engaging with secular cultures. After a clumsy start (Galileo) we have engaged with the sciences. We don’t need to protect each other from dangerous ideas. We need to face dangerous ideas head on, trusting that the Spirit will help us in the exchange.

I have a sense that much of our religious instruction is boring. It’s boring because it doesn’t make us use our intellectual muscles. It is grounded in fear. It doesn’t capitalize on our adversaries.

Adversaries are not enemies. They are people like us, trying to live rewarding lives just like us, swamped by cultural demands and forces just like us. Sure, there are some people with bad intentions among them, but there are people with bad intentions among us. Even the evil adversary can become an ally—look at Saul of Tarsus.

We should welcome adversaries, and use them to deepen our understanding of what we believe and live by.