Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Easy to Preach, Not So Easy to Practise

I have posted a few articles recently on issues like surrender over struggle, following one’s bliss and trusting God, and practising the virtues of charity, humility, and forgiveness. These articles usually arise from some incident or crisis or conversation in my personal environment that has caused me to reflect on how I—and others—react to life. The musings that are these articles come from an inclination to transcendence and from a passionate heart, but they have yet to be translated into a mode of living that is a true imitation of Christ.

I suppose I can say that I live “in community.” I have been hosting international students in my home for the past seventeen years; I am what is known in the international education field as a homestay father. So far, more than seventy-five students have lived in my home for periods ranging from two weeks to more than six years; they have come from Japan, China, and Korea, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, and several Western European countries. Overall the experience has been more than positive as most of the students have been “family” in the warmest sense of the word and there are many with whom I still keep in touch.

This year, however, has for some reason been rather difficult. There has recently been a spate of students who have been variously unbelievably boorish, unengaged and uncommunicative, boorish 2, and finally prima-donna-like. These characteristics often manifest themselves in behaviour that is thoughtless, insensitive, and self-centered or just plain selfish. They also show themselves in attitudes toward food. Here are some recent behaviours and comments at the dinner table:

  • A student who likes his meat well-cooked comments on a barbecued steak (expensive cut) prepared for him: “What is this black thing you’re giving me?”
  • A student vigorously scrapes the blackened surface of broiled ribs, completely oblivious to the incredulous stares of everyone else at the table
  • A student requests soy sauce to put on the curried fish he was served
  • When asked how they liked meatballs cooked in the slow cooker (and they were delicious), one complains that he only likes “classic” meatballs; another complains of too much garlic
  • A student grinds enough salt to preserve a whale on his food at every meal

Most of these students never offered/offer to help with the preparation of a meal by setting the table or making salad, preferring to lie on the sofa or sit in the big easy chair watching TV while the work goes on nearby. Students are often late for dinner and on numerous occasions have called from downtown an hour or less before the meal to announce that they will not be eating at home. On several occasions I received no call at all.

All of my students are “adults.”

As you can see from the tone of what I have written so far, these behaviours do not sit well with me, especially where they concern food. Often a great deal of preparation, as well as expense—not to mention love—goes into an evening meal in our home. The lack of manners, and more important, of appreciation are appalling to me, and on a few occasions over the past few months, I have found myself so angry I have been unable to sleep and have stayed angry for more than a day.

I am relating this in order to point out that there is a profound disconnect between what I have been preaching—to myself primarily, if truth be told—and what actually happens in my daily life. It seems that the habits of a lifetime—reacting to perceived insults or offences due to over-sensitivity—are not magically transformed with a few pretty phrases about charity and forgiveness and surrender. Old baggage must be consciously cast off through practise, and the practise of observing the ego so that it may be dissipated must be as constant as one can make it.

I am reminded of the story told by Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. When Tolle was a university student in London, he often saw a woman “who appeared to be quite insane” on the train as he rode to school. “She looked extremely tense and talked to herself incessantly in a loud and angry voice….There was the angry tone in her voice of someone who has been wronged, who needs to defend her position lest she become annihilated.” It turns out that the woman got off at the same stop as Tolle and actually walked to one of the university buildings and entered, all the while talking aloud in the same aggrieved voice.

I was still thinking about her when I was in the men’s room prior to entering the library.  As I was washing my hands, I thought: I hope I don’t end up like her. The man next to me looked briefly in my direction and I suddenly was shocked when I realized that I hadn’t just thought those words, but mumbled them aloud. “Oh my God, I’m already like her,” I thought. Wasn’t my mind as incessantly active as hers? There were only minor differences between us. The predominant underlying emotion behind her thinking seemed to be anger. In my case, it was mostly anxiety. She thought out loud. I thought—mostly—inside my head. If she was mad, then everyone was mad, including myself. There were differences in degree only.

Some of us have had a lifetime of this angry or anxious mental activity, reacting to the world around us, near and far. It seems to be very difficult, especially as one gets older, to even be conscious of the voice, let alone to let it go by surrendering in love and forgiveness to a greater voice.

It seems that I am being tested these days on my ability to practise what I preach. I don’t think I want to show anyone my report card just yet.

Photo Credit

"Anger" by sahlgoode

Creative Commons: some rights reserved


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Book Review: What Happened at Vatican II, by John W. O’Malley

In the Introduction to this marvellous book, Father O’Malley states his purpose as author:

In this book I will analyze [the sixteen conciliar] documents, but I will not provide a detailed theological commentary on them….What I will do, rather, is put the documents into their contexts to provide a sense of before and after….Only by tracing the documents’ genesis, and even more important, locating them in their contexts can their deeper significance be made clear.

He identifies the main historical contexts for Vatican II as “the long and the broad history of the Western church” from Constantine and Nicaea to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation; “the long nineteenth century,” including the French Revolution and Pius IX and Vatican I; and “the period beginning with World War II and continuing up to the opening of the council.”

O’Malley also identifies what he considers to be the most important issues dealt with at Vatican II. These included the place of Latin in the liturgy, the relationship of Tradition to Scripture, the relationship of the church to the Jews and then to other non-Christian religions, religious liberty, the role of the church in the modern world. There were many more.

But the author believes that it is really the “issues under the issues” that characterize Vatican II and make it unique in the history of ecumenical councils. These are:

1. The circumstances under which change in the church is appropriate and the arguments with which it can be justified.

2. The relationship in the church of center to periphery, or put more concretely, how authority is properly distributed between the papacy, including the Congregations of the Vatican Curia, and the rest of the church.

3. The style or model according to which that authority should be exercised. Here the council becomes more explicit by introducing a new vocabulary and literary form. Words like “charism,” “dialogue,” “partnership,” “cooperation,” and “friendship” indicate a new style for the exercise of authority and implicitly advocate a conversion to a new style of thinking, speaking, and behaving, a change from a more authoritarian and unidirectional style to a more reciprocal and responsive model.

I believe that this is the issue captured by the expression “the spirit of the council,” that is, an orientation that goes beyond specific enactments.

Once O’Malley’s account reaches the opening of the council, the book often reads like a novel, filled with characters in conflict with each other, intrigue, surprises, and pathos. The council fathers quickly split into what the author calls the majority and the minority. The latter group was made up of members of the Roman curia and its supporters who believed that the council should be a reaffirmation of doctrine laid down by previous councils and by popes like Pius X. The majority, on the other hand, soon recognized that the council was an opportunity to bring about significant change in the way that the church related to the modern world. These two opposing views resulted in four years of tension and more-than-occasional vitriolic outbursts.

While faithfully recording these dramatic moments, the author does not fail to bring us back to the issues he laid out in his Introduction, placing events and outcomes in their proper historical and ecclesiological context.

Let us take the “lightning-rod issue” of collegiality—“the relationship of the bishops, or episcopal hierarchy to the papacy”—as an example.

What kind of authority did the bishops have over the church at large when they acted collectively, that is, collegially; how was that authority exercised in relationship to the pope; and how was collegiality different from “Conciliarism” (supremacy of council over pope), a position condemned in the fifteenth century and repeatedly condemned thereafter?

The issue of collegiality was addressed primarily in chapter two—later to become chapter three—of the much revised schema on the church, which in its final form would be entitled Lumen Gentium. One of the points made by this chapter was that bishops were ordained rather than consecrated and that this sacrament of ordination conferred on them “the tripartite office of teaching, sanctifying, and governing their flocks.”

O’Malley tells us:

It was over the last of those three—governing—that the difference arose. Thus this difficult topic blended into the final point [of chapter two], episcopal collegiality. The original [version of the schema, prepared by members of the curia] insisted that, though the sacrament conferred the office (munus) of governing, it did not confer the power to exercise it, which bishops received from the Roman Pontiff.

The new text was more intent on emphasizing that bishops have inalienable authority by virtue of the sacrament….This text agreed with the original that bishops were “vicars of Christ,” and a few lines later added a telling quotation from Leo XIII that they were “not to be thought vicars of the Roman Pontiff. They are called bishops (antistites, overseers) because they exercise an authority properly their own and really govern the flocks that are theirs.

Discussion of chapter two, which was often heated, went on from October 4 to October 15, 1963 during the second session of the council. Finally, in “a congenial meeting” with Pope Paul VI, the council moderators came up with the idea of asking the fathers to vote “on the contested issues of chapter two in a way that would indicate where the bishops stood on them and also be binding on the Doctrinal Commission in its revision of the chapter.”

On the day of the vote, however, it was suddenly announced that it had been cancelled; no explanation was given for this move. According to O'Malley, “Somebody had got to Paul VI.” As a result of his unexpected intervention, the pope was “besieged” for several days, and following a series of negotiations and no doubt due to pressure from leaders of the majority, a revised ballot was created and the vote took place.

The issue of collegiality was addressed in one of five questions to be voted on by the council fathers:

Should the schema assert that the so-called Body or College of Bishops in its evangelizing, sanctifying, and governing task is successor to the original College of the Apostles and, always in communion with the Roman Pontiff, enjoys full and supreme power over the universal church?

The result of the vote on this question was 2,148 affirmative, 336 negative. But as we shall later see, this was not the end of the story for collegiality at the council.

In his Conclusion O’Malley underlines the overall significance of this issue for the council and for the church.

No instance of ressourcement was more central to the drama of Vatican II and to its aspirations than collegiality. Proponents of collegiality at the council saw it as a recovery of an aspect of church life increasingly sidelined in the West since the eleventh century. It had been virtually pushed off the ecclesiastical map by the ways the definition of papal primacy of Vatican I had been determined and implemented. Yet, though the church had never officially defined collegiality as part of its constitution, for centuries it had taken it for granted as its normal mode of operation. The church of the first millennium functioned collegially…and in local councils and other ways the collegial mode continued to function even in the West well into the modern period.

In the West, papal primacy “developed” incrementally in a steady and almost continuous line up until the long nineteenth century when it accelerated at (for the church) almost breathtaking speed—papal definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, the growth and increasing authority exercised by the Roman Congregations, the devolution of the appointment of bishops almost exclusively into the hands of the pope, and of course, in 1870 the definition of papal primacy and infallibility.

The majority at the council certainly did not press for a statement on collegiality merely to make a theological point. They brought it to the fore, like other ressourcements, because it had practical ramifications. The bishops who promoted the doctrine and fought for it so passionately wanted to redress what they saw as the imbalance between the authority exercised especially by the Roman Congregations and their own authority as heads of “local churches.” Collegiality was the supreme instance in the council of the effort to moderate the centralizing tendencies of the ecclesiastical institution, of the effort to give those from the periphery a more authoritative voice not only back home but also in the center.

I had hoped that Father O’Malley would deal with the apparent reversal of at least the spirit of the council by John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger. He does not do so in this book but his treatment of Pope Paul VI gives a clear indication that this process was underway long before John Paul II was elected; in fact, the dismantling began during the council itself.

By the time the second session of the council opened in September 1963, it was clear that the majority of the council fathers would be more and more insistently calling for the reform of the curia. “The Curia abused its authority, its critics maintained, and tried to lord it over the bishops. The behavior of some its members during the first period seemed to justify the indictment. The animus was widespread, by no means confined to the leaders of the majority.”

In a an address to the curia shortly before the resumption of the council in 1963, Paul admonished its members to cooperate more fully with the council and informed them that changes would have to be made to the curia’s mode of operation. At the same time, “he communicated that he was removing reform of the Curia from the agenda of the council. ‘The reform will be formulated and promulgated’, he said, ‘by the Curia itself.’” Naturally, a curia that has no interest in reform in principle will be unwilling to consider reform for itself; John Paul II had a ready and willing tool waiting for him when he ascended the throne of Peter and began dismantling Vatican II and restoring the Church of the “long nineteenth century.”

Unlike John XXIII, Paul intervened often and significantly in the business of the council. “His interventions and the way they were made are a crucial part of the story of Vatican II and of the larger problem of the relationship of center to periphery” and they reflect a preference for the primacy of papal authority over episcopal collegiality.

The most substantive—and to some, the most egregious—intervention came in the last week of the third session. The pope “communicated for Lumen Gentium [the final text of which was due to be voted on during this last week] a ‘Preliminary Explanatory Note’ (Nota Explicativa Praevia) that interpreted the meaning of collegiality in chapter three.” Most commentators agreed that the Note did not change the meaning of the text, but Joseph Ratzinger “found this ‘very intricate text’ marked by ambivalence and ambiguities and saw it tipping the balance in favour of the primacy.”

The Note won the support of the minority for the chapter and for the schema, as shown in the final voting— only 5 negative votes out of 2,156 cast. The price for that virtual unanimity was high. No matter what the pope hoped to accomplish, he in fact gave those opposed to collegiality a tool they could—and would—use to interpret the chapter as a reaffirmation of the status quo.

Father O’Malley has successfully incorporated a thoughtful and credible analysis of the issues treated by the council into the gripping story of Vatican II. I could not help but wonder, all the way through, how such a seemingly powerful wave of optimism and enthusiasm for change, such a compelling movement for dialogue and conciliation could be so quickly and so thoroughly subdued.

This book will never spend long enough on my bookshelf to gather much dust. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Two Kinds of Naïveté

Isn’t it interesting that so many people consider it naïve to think that belief in and the practice of the virtues of charity, humility and forgiveness are one way to save this troubled world. It is more fashionable to believe that small-government or trickle-down or tax-and-spend economic policies or trade protectionism, or trade liberalization, will save us. We just have to elect that other guy, not the loser we elected last time, and we'll be back on the right track headed toward prosperity and economic security. We prefer to put our trust in governments who tell us that tightened airport and border security or gun control or sending young people to fight in foreign wars will keep us safe from the threat of terrorism. We think that all we have to do to be happy and safe is to make our country stronger and richer (than those other countries) by spending more at Wal-Mart (on credit, of course).

No, no, we are not naïve. Everyone knows that the only way to win is to beat the other guy. Those old sayings like “Love thy neighbour” and “Turn the other cheek” are for dreamers and wimps.

It just might be time for us to open our eyes and look around at what our lack of naïveté has brought us. If we are truly not naïve, we will quickly see that it ain’t prosperity, it ain’t security, it ain’t happiness.

We are, in fact, profoundly naïve. If we think that the politicians we send as our representatives to state/provincial and federal governments have our interests at heart, we have not been paying attention. If we believe that the increasingly large corporations from whom we purchase our goods and services hold up excellent customer service as their chief ideal, we have not been paying attention.

When Barack Obama’s stimulus package went to a vote in the U.S. Congress earlier this year, not a single Republican voted in favour of the bill. Are we naïve enough to think that every one of these representatives believed that it was in the best interest of his or her constituents to vote against this bill rather than put individual political aspirations to one side and enter into a dialogue with the Democrats in a spirit of selfless service to the people of the United States in a time of great crisis and need? I wonder what the outcome might have been if every Democrat and every Republican had practised the virtues of charity, humility, and forgiveness in the process of dealing with the economic crisis.

The other day I received an e-mail with the following (unverified) information about Wal-Mart:

  • At Wal-Mart, Americans spend $36,000,000 every hour of every day (and Wal-Mart is not only in the U.S.)
  • This year, 7.2 billion different purchasing experiences will occur at Wal-Mart stores
  • Wal-Mart now sells more food than any other store in the world, including Safeway. In the fifteen years it took to accomplish this end, 31 supermarket chains sought bankruptcy
  • The value of products for Wal-Mart passing through the port of San Diego each year is a larger sum than 93% of ALL countries’ Gross National Product (GNP) ...and that is only ONE port way that Wal-Mart gets its stuff
  • Of the 1.6 million Wal-Mart employees, only 1.2% make a living above the poverty level
  • There are more millionaires per square mile in the city of Bentonville, Arkansas, the location of Wal-Mart's head office, than any place on earth
  • Wal-Mart, and MOST large companies, takes out life insurance on its employees, without the employees’ knowledge. If an employee dies, all the life insurance benefits go to the company. For example, if an employee making $18,000 per year dies, the company could reap as much as $1 million. This money is usually paid out to executives as bonuses
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is responsible for calculating the consumer price index (CPI), Wal-Mart’s prices are not significantly lower than those of other retailers
Even if this information is only somewhat true, the situation is still shocking. In our naïveté we are contributing to the concentration of more and more wealth in the hands of a few corporate moguls. Even we are not naïve enough to think that Wal-Mart is a charitable organization.

And while it may be the largest, Wal-Mart is not the only corporate entity that relies on our naïveté to make its executives and shareholders rich. Yet we continue to shop in these places while the local shopkeeper is forced to live hand to mouth or is driven out of business altogether.

I realize that we live in a democracy and in a capitalist economic system, which is generally understood and accepted as the best available system at the moment. But we have failed to recognize that the freedom this system affords us in order to prosper and live well must be balanced with the responsibility to be moderate in our appetites for material wealth. Our naivete is actually the gullibility that is the result of our greed.

Our greed has led to a state in which we believe the false claims and promises of politicians who, for the large part, represent no one other than themselves. We should know by now that only certain types of people enter politics; such awareness should inspire us to keep a careful watch on their activities. Our greed has led us to a state where much of our lives are controlled by very large corporations. The quality of the food we eat, the programs we watch on television, the working life of the appliances or automobiles we purchase, the money we entrust to banks—the list is endless—are all controlled so as to maximize profits and return on investment. There is no concern for the individual customer.

Our greed has brought us to this state, so there is no point in blaming the politicians or the giant corporations because they are better at being greedy than we are.

We must get off this treadmill and retake control of our lives, first by recognizing the mess we have made and then by embracing the other kind of naïveté, the sweet one that Jesus taught. We must admit to ourselves that our greed has not brought us happiness. We must understand that, regardless of whether we are Christian or not, whether we belong to a church or not, practising the virtues of charity, humility, and forgiveness will put us on the path to true joy.

Photo Credit

Creative Commons: Some rights reserved