Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bishops Behaving Badly

If the Catholic hierarchy were to design a plan for driving people away from the church, they could not have found a more effective method than the ongoing embarrassments coming from Rome and from certain American bishops.

The bishop of Peoria, IL, who compared President Obama to Hitler and Stalin, is too stupid to warrant much response. He condemns himself out of his own mouth. The bishops who excommunicate politicians who do not vote the pro-life agenda do everyone involved a disservice.

The recent Vatican action of stripping American nuns of the right of self-governance by condemning the Leadership Conference on Women Religious has prompted Garry Wills to react, somewhat overheatedly, in the New York Review of Books. "Is it any wonder so many nuns have left the orders or avoided joining them? Who wants to be bullied?"

Wills is one of many intelligent Catholics who try to remain faithful to a life of prayer and the sacraments while deploring the reactionary activities of the men in power, celibate men who are afraid of women, sexuality, change, and even discussion of such issues as clerical celibacy, the ordination of women, the rights of homosexuals in the church, and contraception.

The Vatican officials involved in the recent scrutiny of U.S. nuns, Wills says, are upset that these women, who have done heroic work for generations, do not follow the bishops' thinking. We should be grateful they do not. "Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them."

Strong stuff, yet the state of the macro-church, as opposed to the parish-level life of the church, is in a crisis that will lead either to a second Reformation or a tragic schism.

The nuns are accused of being more interested in ministering to those affected by the AIDS crisis, just as their forbears ran soup kitchens and hospitals and supported the civil rights movement, than in the Gospel teachings on contraception, which do not exist (Wills notes). They are criticized for teaching the "social Gospel" as if there was another kind --one that doesn't say love thy neighbor or challenge injustice.

While mixing politics with religion at the highest levels in Washington, in an effort to defeat Democrats, the bishops oppose religious women and laypeople from being overly political. How long can thinking people tolerate such hypocrisy?

As Wills and other have long observed, women in particular must be singled out by our frightened hierarchs for public chastisement, the very women whose humility stands in such stark contrast to episcopal arrogance.

So we have a hierarchy distrustful of the People of God, as the Second Vatican Council defined the church, and interested in reverting to Latin ritual practices, turning the clock back while the world moves on. These leaders are fearful of the intelligent discussions that female and other progressive theologians want to have, and their fear leads to anger and the threat of excommunication of anyone who dares defy church teaching on sexual morality. These are, of course, the same bishops who, as a group, have mishandled the sexual abuse crisis to the great shame and embarrassment of us all.

Calling the state of the church sad, a writer in Commonweal (4-9-12), Jo McGowan, addresses the blindness of many clergy in the area of sexuality. She does so as a prolife Catholic mother who has "practiced only Natural Family Planning." She is saddened by the priests' limited understanding of contraception as it re-surfaced in the recent debate over health insurance (and the candidacy of Rick Santorum).

She finds it "unsettling when men who may never have experienced sex feel qualified not just to speak about it but to pronounce on it with certainty." She wants the clergy to understand that defending contraception within marriage is not defending sexual license. "The church has made a spectacle of itself by promoting an immature version of sexuality that is missing the sinew of lived experience." (emphasis added)

She does not raise the issue of mandatory celibacy for priests, but this is obvious from her heartfelt and thoughtful article. Insisting on all priests remaining permanently celibate, however noble and beautiful, is at the root of the shame and ignorance that church leaders have displayed for years whenever issues of sexual morality arise.

What we face in the future is the decline of a church as a large tent that can embrace all--even gay men and women, even dissidents from the official teaching--and focus on the Gospel mandate for social justice in the world rather than a small-tent church of narrow thinking and exclusion. (Sister Joan Chittister has, among others, used this helpful tent metaphor.)

I pray that one day, after I am gone from this earth no doubt, the Catholic Church will become more inclusive, the kind of church envisioned by the Second Vatican Council that the bullies in Rome seem determined to thwart. These men need more than prayers. They need to be called to account regularly, as Garry Wills and members of Call to Action have been doing, demanding change.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Writing by Hand in the Electronic Age

I recently read an article about Robert Caro, the American author who has spent 36 years writing the biography of Lyndon Johnson and has already published several massive volumes, beautifully written--and done by hand.

I am always surprised to read of authors who still write lenghty works in longhand or who use the typewriter since it seems from my experience as a writer and teacher of writing that the flow of my work, and my ability to revise, has been much improved over the past twenty years or so because of word processing.

In my earlier days, when I typed, I invariably wrote out every word, then would make minor changes in the typing, which was laborious. I cannot imagine having had to write by hand all that I have published in the past twenty years, but I know that, on some occasions, when I write a personal note, for example, the old, familiar pressure of the pen inscribing the words on the paper is akin to cutting into wood: there is pleasure in the slowness of the process. And in the very physicality of the act.

In reading some recent ruminations by Kevin Hartnett on writing by hand, I expected him to say more about the appeal of slowing down. Instead, he reflected on bigger issues: the relation of thinking and writing. (I found the article "High Wire Act in for April 16.)

Since Hartnett often finds that the blank computer screen is intimidating, he tried an experiment: writing a full article entirely in longhand before typing it. He suspects that the old-fashioned way might be better, although all the reconfiguring he does on the computer produces more sophisticated thoughts.

He has learned that he must always form a complete thought in words in his head before he can inscribe it on paper, so that the correlation between his thoughts and what he writes is closer than if he had composed the article on the computer.

So writing by hand "alters the relationship between forming a thought and recording it in words." On the computer, Hartnett finds that he begins (as I do) to type at the onset of an idea and then completes the idea/sentence, which he figures out in the process of recording it. His thoughts come out "cleaner" when he works in longhand, he thinks.

And he uses shorter, simpler words. I assume his sentences, too, are different and his overall style is more spare than if he used the computer since the complete thoughts he is able to hold in his head until he gets them down on paper are briefer. His cross-outs or revisions tend to be fewer by far than if writing electronically. This is one obvious advantage of word processing: that it makes changes almost enjoyable and, at the same time, facilitates the flow of interesting, expansive sentences, the kind that reflect the immediacy of unfolding ideas. This is why I value the computer for writing and have no interest in returning to the older technology.

Hartnett speculates that there is, for him, a higher reward in writing by hand, self-indulgent though it may seem. He may not be aware that academic research in the composing process of students has long been concerned with the cognitive aspects involved in his experiment. The complex relation of thinking, learning, and writing is still not fully understood, and Hartnett's article, which suggests some ambivalence about which method if preferable, is a valuable contribution to this field.

I would welcome the reactions of any writers who have a preference for writing by hand or by computer and the reasons for the choice of one over the other: write to me at (type "revision" in the subject line).

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Science of Laughter

My interest in happiness studies, and comedy, includes a curiosity about laughter. We all know it's healthy and relaxing to laugh, and that we adults don't do enough of it. A friend of mine is a humor therapist who says we should laugh even if something isn't funny: the stomach doesn't know the difference.

Whether we can enjoy a good belly laugh alone, with no incentive, is debatable. This is the area of study undetaken by Robert Provine, who has been recording human laughter for years. This comes from a piece in Mental Floss by Judy Dutton.

Provine finds that babies laugh about 300 times a day whereas adults on 20 times. His theory is that, as we grow up, it's not just humor that's involved but bonding: laughter is a social lubricant. No wonder we tend to laugh 30 times more often in the presence of others than when alone. (Consider the canned laughter on TV.)

Laughter is really contagious, he finds: hearing a laugh activates the brain's premotor cortex, preparing the face muscles to smile and laugh in return. Provine is a scientist who approaches his subject with academic seriousness.

Although scornful laughter can be harmful, most laughter, even if humor is not directly involved, is a natural bodily function. And we don't do enough of it: so much for the science of laughter.

Isn't there more to it? My question, to which I have no immediate answer, is: does laughter cause happiness or come from happiness, or is happiness irrelevant? Is laughing really contagious, or does one have to be in a relaxed, receptive (happy) state of mind before joining with others in laughing?

It's one of those seemingly simple, basic human activities that is anything but simple. It seems to me that the mind perceives a sense of the absurd or incongruous and the body responds. But then I am talking about comedy, not laughter in isolation.

I would welcome responses from readers: Thanks.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The death of boredom?

Is it possible to be bored to death? A lot of kids say they are bored, even with more distractions (electronic and other) than I ever had growing up. Whether they suffer from some mild depression is possible in some cases. The same is true of many retired men, who don't know what to do with themselves. They can become depressed without the stimulation of learning or interacting with others.

Is it possible that the Internet will do away with boredom? This is what Clay Shirky suggests in a recent online interview. He says he was often bored as a boy and now is saved by the endless fascination of the Internet. He realizes that millions of others out there surfing the web are also bored--a communion of boredom that's a far cry from Merton's community of silence--and so he sees the value of being bored.

I suspect that when Shirkey gets to be my age, he will have different ideas. I doubt if any technology can alter human nature, which is essentially restless. The more intelligent we are, the most restless we become. And anyone who looks at sexual desire and its relation to spirituality begins, as Ron Rolheiser does, with a recognition that our hearts are restless, easily dissatisfied with what the world offers.

And so we seek constant stimulation. Or (if we are on a path to wisdom) we find some peace in meditation or in the practice of mindfulness. For me, the many routine, mind-numbing tasks we all have to do can be practices in the presence of God: reminders to be fully present to the special features of each day: to the way light comes in through a certain window or the breeze that I notice today that I didn't notice yesterday--these and many more can be opportunities for being grateful. And to pay attention to the reality of the present. Today IS unique even if it seems a dull reproduction of yesterday.

If boredom is the fear of running out of things to do, then we must curb the fear before it runs our lives and drives us to distraction. The Internet can help me when I feel restless or bored, but there are more satisfying ways to fight the onset of boredom. Perhaps, like Shirky, we should welcome the feeling of boredom since it can lead us to do something about it that is good for the soul.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Question for Discussion: Science vs. Religion

Here is an intriguing statement found on the Internet (probably on the consistently revealing blog "Daily Dish" by Andrew Sullivan) and paraphrased:

Throughout history, the religious impulse and the impulse to create have been closely allied, as seen in the great cathedrals of Europe and in many parts of Asia. This correlation cannot be said of science, which does not produce great art leading to a sense of wonder.

Is this true? Can any of my viewers offer evidence to support or contradict this assertion? I would appreciate hearing from anyone who wishes to make a comment.

If it is easier to contact me via e-mail, as I think it is, than to make a comment here on the blog, please do so at Type "blog response" in the subject heading. I hope to return to this topic soon.

Thank you!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Standards in Higher Education

This is Part II of a discourse on college education, a follow-up to my Feb. 13 post, "How Valuable is a College Education?" and a more recent one on testing. Several readers who contacted me via e-mail ( suggested that I should say more.

It so happened that the Sunday NYTimes (4-8-12) ran an article on colleges measuring what students are learning. The article suggested that this was something new, yet I well remember the amount of assessment that was done in Florida universities in the 1990s. The problem is that the results were not disclosed to the public and the point of these tests seemed vague and pointless.

The Times quotes the president of Lehigh University: "I'm not sure any standardized test can effectively measure what students can gain in problem solving." Amen. Same is true of the other major goal of education: critical thinking.

It's no wonder that the Ivy League and related schools insist that what students learn "becomes evident over decades" and warn about "what is easily measured."

The folks making Big Bucks at the Educational Testing Service would not want to hear this, but it is easy for administrators to use numbers from test scores to "prove" student proficiency, and it is also misleading. It is tempting to reduce huge numbers of learners to figures on a page, overlooking all the individual differences and experiences that make up education.

I am on the faculty of the second largest university in the nation, with 58,000 students, and growing; when I came to the Univ. of Central Florida in 1970, we had about 8,000 students. Our administration opens the door to all who are able, based on the admirable democratic notion that everyone in America should have an opportunity for higher education.

This is a suspect notion: many students are not prepared intellectually or academically for a four-year degree, nor do they need one. Technical training at a 2-year institution is available for such students. It's no wonder so many incoming freshmen get discouraged, drop out, maybe return when they are older. They need life experience at 18, not necessarily four more years of study. Nearly all who do enroll are seeking future employment, not learning.

So when my faculty colleague recently asked, how do we educate the masses without lowering standards? I reply: a perennially important question, but one that assumes that the "masses" should be given a university education. I firmly believe that every American has a right to all the learning he or she can handle; I do not believe that everyone has a right to attend a university. It is not intended as a ticket to employment.

To say this raises questions about the purpose of a university or 4-year college that have been the subject of many books. Newman in the 19th century laid the groundwork in his Idea of a University. It has to do with cultivating the individual mind.

What I have seen over the years of poorly prepared and motivated students raises a more limited issue: the relation between high school and college. The late Roger Shattuck in a 1997 piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education minces no words:

Secondary schools, he says, have "increasingly allowed ill-prepared students to graduate from high school while colleges and universities willingly admitted these students into diluted undergraduate programs." Except in science and engineering, few students are required to undergo a comprehensive examination that pulls together and connects the bits of learning from disparate courses.

In reminiscing recently about my education at St. Louis University, a fellow alum agreed that the "comps," as they were called were a rigorous senior requirement: a six-hour exam that tested all the material that should have been read and learned in the major field. This was not only essential for those of us going on to the graduate level but it gave all the students a 'big picture' as they saw the relevance and historical context of the readings they had done. Passing courses is not enough.

I return to Shattuck for the second volley of his argument: "The slackened admissions requirements of all but the most prestigious institutions [of higher educaiton] deprive high schools of a major incentive to maintain rigorous standards." [emphasis added] I know of no other statement that captures as well the symbiotic relation between secondary and post-secondary education.

He goes on to point out that the responsibility for the "malfunction of our elementary and secondary schools lies in great part with the bloated system of higher education..." with its massive bureaucracy. I commented earlier on the folly of relying on Schools of Education to prepare teachers; I noted earlier the 39% national increase (between 1993-2007) in the various associate deans, vice presidents and other university administrators, while faculty hiring has been frozen or nearly so, stretching the workload of the instructors and requiring more and more reliance on underpaid and often underqualified adjunct faculty to "handle" the basic required courses, many of which have enrollents of 300 or more in a class. The other option is equally distasteful: distance learning in which the instructor seldom if ever meets his students personally; they communicate via computer.

Is this the brave new world we envisioned when new universities like mine were being created in the 1960s? Shattuck was there, at the University of Texas at Austin, where he says the enrollment grew from 17,000 to 35,000 by 1970, "with no corresponding improvement in SAT scores."

In painting such a bleak picture, I must recall all the bright, gifted young people I worked with and was proud of, some in the Honors courses, many not. They had a solid foundation and were willing to work hard and thrive in an often impersonal system. They were the all-important exception to the prevailing trends that make higher education, at least on the big scale of the state university, in need of some radical reform and re-thinking--in partnership with the public high schools.

I am grateful to Roger Shattuck and others like him for sounding the alarm. Will enough people in the bloated bureaucracy hear it?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Vile Bodies: Reflection for Holy Week

Good Friday, a somber day this week for Christians, is not hard to enter into. We are surrounded by pain and suffering and often ask, Why? It is natural to identify with the human agony of Jesus on the cross, with the reality of death.

Yet to move from darkness to light, to grasp the mystery of Easter with its story of resurrection, is much harder, I think. I don't mean we necessarily doubt the reality of Christ's ability to overcome death, but the resurrection of what the Book of Common Prayer calls our "vile bodies" implied in his Resurrection is something else again. It requires a greatest act of faith possible.

I think of the ashes of those scattered at sea, of those ancient kings whose hearts were buried on one place, the rest of them somewhere else, and of all the billions of bodies burned, unidentified, buried in mass graves, tossed into the sea and lost. Yet we must believe that the power of God is able to bring them all to life again one day and re-unite them with their souls. The Nicene Creed makes it clear.

But it's not easy to think about or to grasp such a power; it is the ultimate test of our willingness to believe in what we cannot understand yet hope for--a greater challenge even than the idea that the Son of God could die.

This Holy Week I think of all those I know who suffer, including a 21-year-old man named Derek, who endures great pain and knows he might die. I hope he feels the strength of those praying for him. I hope that all the others in pain, many old and yearning for death, know that the pain will end and that their death will be a new beginning. Somehow, as John of the Cross wrote, a great love awaits us.

But the full meaning of Easter and our radical transformation is beyond all knowing.