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May 16, 2012

Who notices when someone drifts away from the church? - Strengths and risks in our strong convictions - When hatred divides society

In this edition:
1. Strengths and risks in strong convictions.
2. Reflecting on conviction's power.
3. Harsh, deepening polarization.
4. Ministry and the plugged-in age.
5. Ideological battles.
6. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Pope: Serving beyond partisan divides.
b) Land of immigrant saints.
7. No one noticed them gone: evangelization.
8. Nuclear arms: A concern for the bishops.

1. Strengths and Risks in Strong Convictions

Of all the questions posed in this U.S. election year, "the most important one is rarely asked," Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, said May 7 in a commencement address to the graduates of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. He said the question that needs asking is this:

"Can citizens of the United States learn to express their convictions in more skillful, more respectful ways?"

The question is important at a time "when the country is increasingly diverse, when the number of disputed moral questions is rising, when citizens have deep and opposing passions that neither side will give up for the sake of civility," he explained.

It is a question in need of an answer, he thinks. For, "a country whose citizens treat one another with scorn does not have a bright future."

Conviction, polarization and hatred were themes of Father Jenkins' speech.

"Hatred is rising" in America, "yet all sides feel more virtuous. We're asleep to the threat," said Father Jenkins. He added:

"We can have the most sophisticated Constitution, a brilliant system of checks and balances and a Bill of Rights to safeguard against the tyranny of the majority -- yet none of it can stand against the power of hatred. It can all be thrown down."

Love constitutes "the greatest commandment," but hatred "is at the heart of the greatest sins," Father Jenkins told the graduates. He labeled hatred "the great destroyer, the great divider."

The speaker judged hatred "more dangerous to us than any other threat because it attacks" society's immune system - "our ability to see danger, come together and take action."

He said, "If we can help solve the problem of hatred, we have a chance to come together and solve all the others."

Students at Wesley Theological Seminary, a Methodist-affiliated school, are drawn from more than 30 denominations. (Father Jenkins' speech appears in Origins, CNS Documentary Service, May 24, 2012.)

2. Reflecting on Conviction's Power

Conviction, Father Jenkins affirmed, "is indispensable to every good deed."

Yet, he said, conviction "is not all to the good." That is because conviction easily gets "corrupted by pride and greed," and thus can "lead to hatred and division."

It is good that conviction has a way of defying "the forces of inertia -- the prevailing winds and currents that fight to keep everything the way it is, or worse." Father Jenkins said that "without conviction, there would be no hope."

He noted, though, how in 2011 elected officials in the U.S. capital "nearly shut down the government in April, nearly defaulted on the debt in August, nearly shut down the government over disaster relief in September, failed to reach an accord for debt reduction in November and forced another showdown over the payroll tax in December."

Those "stalemates proved that our political leaders don't suffer from a lack of conviction," Father Jenkins observed.

However, he continued, "in many cases they expressed their conviction as would a bitter couple seeking a divorce, using all manner of coercion to get the best deal -- dismissive of the misery their hatred would create in their own lives and the injury it would cause in the lives of the children."

3. Harsh, Deepening Polarization

The U.S. is "in the midst of a social crisis, a harsh and deepening split between groups that are all too ready to see evil in each other," Father Jenkins told the 2012 Wesley Seminary graduating class. "Each side has never been more eager yet more unable to dominate the other," he said.

He viewed this as a situation in which "both sides call for change, but each believes it's the other side that must change." Moreover, "we cannot pretend to stand outside this. We are woven into it," he said.

Are people in today's America following "the script for creating factions"? Father Jenkins suggested that the instructions of such a script are to:

"Develop strong convictions. Group up with like-minded people. Shun the others. Play the victim. Blame the enemy. Stoke grievance. Never compromise."

He commented that "at a time of expanding diversity of people and moral opinions -- when we need more skill and wisdom in engaging those with other views -- we seem to be less skillful, less wise."

Persuading others about one's beliefs is a good thing, though it is essential to consider how persuasion works, Father Jenkins proposed. He said, "If I am confident in my beliefs, and I have love and good will for the other side, then it would be my duty to try to persuade them."

However, he said, "if I want to persuade them, then how can I vilify them?" The question matters, he suggested, because "people are not persuaded by those who attack their character." Furthermore, "if I don't try to persuade them but only condemn them, then I am not showing the respect that love demands," he said.

People cannot responsibly blame this situation on politicians, according to Father Jenkins. For, "the hostility they expressed did not originate with them." It reflects the social crisis.

Most people "would prefer there were less hatred in the world, yet there seems to be more," Father Jenkins said. He called this "indirect proof that no one apparently wants to give up any of their own" hatred.

In order "to do battle with hatred, we have to accept for practical purposes that hatred is not out there. It is in here -- ready to rise in disguise inside of us," Father Jenkins advised his audience.

Hatred's "most effective disguise" often comes in the form of "self-righteous conviction," Father Jenkins said. Thus, people are able to see it "as driving the effort toward a noble goal." The reason "hatred is so hard to see" is that "it can hide from our conscience by entangling itself in our most noble beliefs," he said.

It is important today that people explore their convictions and how they express them, Father Jenkins proposed to the graduates. He said:

"Even in the case of my most noble belief, I must ask myself: Am I trying to advance this belief through persuasion or coercion, with respect or contempt, by accepting sacrifice or imposing sacrifice?"

In another thought-provoking observation, Father Jenkins said:

"The moment I venture into tone and language that is unlikely to persuade, it can be a signal that I have left the sphere of respectful discourse. Once I do that, my odds plunge of winning over another, and the chances rise that I am expressing hatred -- which will lead to factions and fracture the common good. With the common good fractured, any individual good becomes a very fragile hope indeed."

4. Ministry and the Plugged-in Age

Today's "fast-paced, plugged-in information age, which leads us to believe that we can do many things simultaneously, quickly and efficiently without critical reflection, contemplation and the requisite silence, is beginning to wear on us," Basilian Father Thomas Rosica said in an April 19 speech at DePaul University in Chicago.

The fact is that "silence and contemplation" are essential, he proposed, because they "help us to wait for and discern" right answers instead of quick answers. Out of "silent contemplation springs the mission that inspires and compels us forward."

Also essential for the church is the face-to-face presence to people that Jesus modeled, Father Rosica suggested. He is founding CEO of Salt and Light Catholic Television, Canada's national Catholic TV network. His speech appeared in Origins, CNS Documentary Service, May 10, 2012.

"We are rushing everywhere with wires in our ears, decked out with Bluetooth apparatus, laden with smartphones, iPads, and soon-to-be outmoded laptops," Father Rosica observed. But he asked his audience when the last time was that they "had a significant one-on-one, face-to-face conversation with another human being?"

A problem and challenge posed by social networking is "that we no longer need to be in one another's presence in order to enjoy the other's company," said Father Rosica. He indicated that this reality raises questions for many, including those in ministry.

He insisted there is much to be learned "from Jesus' style of being present to others and communicating with them -- from his use of parables and stories, from his attentiveness to the different audiences with which he engaged, from his personal involvement with each individual he encounters."

All of this points "to the essence of Jesus as one who gives his life, who spends himself gladly for others," Father Rosica commented. Jesus never "'did' people or worked the crowds like a politician," he said. Instead, Jesus "paid careful attention to each and every human being who stood before him, ate with him or knelt at his feet to seek healing and pardon."

Father Rosica said that "Jesus had the ability to wow simple and sophisticated souls alike." He added:

"I am sure he did it with his powerful words but also with a gentle smile, with humor, kindness and just plain love." Jesus "looked upon people with love and compassion, and did not allow anything to distract him from the person in front of him."

5. Ideological Battles

Concern was expressed by Father Rosica about continuing ideological battles within the church. He said, "Today some of us seem to be stuck in the ideological battles that followed the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps we are frozen in categories of left and right, traditional vs. avant-garde; male vs. female; hierarchical vs. lay-led, or prophetic vs. static."

Father Rosica encouraged his audience to ask "what ideologies have dominated" their lives and how they "minister and function beyond ideology." Again they might ask, "Is joy present in our communal and individual witness?"

He cautioned that "when we sell ourselves to cynicism and despair, meanness of heart, smallness of spirit and harshness in ecclesial discourse, we betray our deepest identity as bearers of joy, hope and truth."

For, he said, "the manifestations of the Spirit must be accompanied by positive energy -- because they are liberating. They ultimately set people free and do not lead them into depression, sadness, cynicism, indifference or anger."

6. Current Quotes to Ponder

Pope on Serving the World, Reaching Beyond Partisan and Private Concerns: "Today it is particularly important for the church's service to the world to be expressed through illuminated lay men and women, who are able to work inside the city of man, moved by a desire to serve that goes beyond private interests and partisan concerns. The common good is more important than the good of the individual, and Christians too must contribute to the growth of a new public ethic. ... I invite young people to think big: Have the courage to dare. Be ready to give new flavor to civil society, with the salt of honesty and disinterested altruism." (From remarks of Pope Benedict XVI during a May 13 visit to the Italian town of Sansepolcro, in Tuscany; the town is celebrating its 1,000th year. The pope said one of the main challenges facing the ancient town is "harmonizing a rediscovery of its own centuries-old identity with welcoming and incorporating other cultures and sensibilities" so that all can work together for the good of the whole.)

Land of Immigrant Saints: "Except for a few, all of our saints, blesseds and venerables were immigrants. Today we seem to be losing this sense of America's heritage -- as a land of missionaries, immigrants and saints. A land where men and women from every race, creed and nation can live as brothers and sisters. That's why this Arizona case [now before the U.S. Supreme Court] is important. Every year state governments keep passing new anti-immigrant laws. These laws express people's anger and frustration. Everyone knows our national immigration system is broken. So far Congress and the president have not found a way to fix it. Our national 'policy' right now is to arrest and deport as many illegal immigrants as we can. Many are mothers or fathers who, without warning, won't be coming home for dinner tonight. Many may never see their children grow up. We are a better people than this. We can find a better way. It begins by remembering the promise of America - as a land where poor immigrants can become great saints. We can find the courage to create [an immigration] policy that includes a just solution to the problem of those who are here in violation of our laws. A policy that secures our borders against illegal crossings and welcomes new immigrants who have the character and skills our country needs." (From a May 4 column by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles in The Tidings, the archdiocesan newspaper)

7. No One Noticed Them Gone: Evangelization

Research indicates that "people drift away or leave the church because of hurt or simply because of neglect," Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, said April 28 during a London conference devoted to ministry for Catholics who no longer participate in the church.

"What is interesting," he said, "is that those who are asked, who have left, who have gone, comment quite often that, 'Nobody seemed to notice whether I was there or not.'"

Two other points he gleans from research on nonpracticing Catholics were mentioned by the archbishop. He said:

-- "People who have been asked say that they are open to a request, they are open to the suggestion that they might want to talk about how this happened. Ninety-five percent of people say they would welcome an approach which addressed this issue in their lives."

-- A return to the church is not accomplished "in a single and simple step." In fact, "returning to the practice of their faith within the community is not that easy" for people who drift away or cease practicing their faith.

Archbishop Nichols suggested that people who may to some extent be nonpracticing Catholics or wonder if there is a place for them in the church do not necessarily stop praying. In this context he mentioned a relative of his and a BBC film titled "Catholics -- Women," which presented the voices of women "who spend time and pray in Westminster Cathedral."

The film, he said, showed "how central the relationship with the Lord of those women was." Borrowing a statement made by his relative, the archbishop said the film also "showed that 'there's room in the church even for me'" -- that is, for someone "whose life is not particularly conforming to the patterns for which we might strive."

He said his relative commented that listening to the women who spoke in the film and sensing their relationship with the Lord "gave her a clear understanding that there is room in the church for her too."

Many families, as well as many friendships, are touched by "the loss of faith or the absence from the practice of faith" of someone they care about, Archbishop Nichols said. He explained that:

"Faith is of great value to those who, as it were, have put their lives into the community of faith, so when it is lost or even scorned by somebody close to them, then this is a theme that is very important and often quite painful in the lives that they share."

In his experience, the archbishop said, it is "often husbands and wives and children who bring each other back to the practice of the faith," though they "don't do all this work on their own but within a wider community, especially the community of the church."

8. Nuclear Arms Concern Bishops

A petition presented to the White House May 7 on behalf of some four dozen national organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged President Obama to "act now to reduce the nuclear danger and the role of nuclear weapons." The petition called for change in the nation's nuclear arms policy, describing it as "outdated."

The petition called for a dramatic reduction in the number of U.S. nuclear weapons, as well as in the number of submarines, missiles and bombers carrying these weapons. It asked also that the U.S. take nuclear weapons off high alert in order to decrease the "risk of accident or miscalculation."

The Arms Control Association spearheaded the petition. Daryl Kimball, the association's executive director, said U.S. nuclear weapons policy still is burdened by Cold War thinking.

Earlier this year, Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, asked the White House to pursue "further reductions in U.S. nuclear forces." Bishop Pates chairs the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace. A March 2 letter he sent to National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon said:

"The Holy See and the U.S. bishops have long supported reducing the number of nuclear armaments, preventing their spread to other nations and securing nuclear materials from terrorists. For decades they have promoted the twin and interrelated policy goals of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation."

Bishop Pates said that "at a time of fiscal restraints, tens of billions of dollars currently allocated to maintaining Cold War-based nuclear force structures could be redirected to other critical needs, especially to programs that serve poor and vulnerable people at home and abroad."

He recalled that Vatican Council II regarded the arms race as "an utterly treacherous trap for humanity and one which ensnares the poor to an intolerable degree."

President Obama has an opportunity with the administration's review of nuclear weapons policy "to honor his commitment to 'put an end to Cold War thinking' by pursuing further steps that will make our nation safer from the threat of nuclear weapons," said Bishop Pates.