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Entries from April 2021

The Gamification of God

The confounding state of discourse in society, and in the Catholic Church as an extension of that society, is never far from my mind these days. How could it be? What is so frustrating is the lack of any nuance or ambivalence in our arguments. Instead we are afflicted by a Manichean division into Good and Evil, Light and Dark, and the absolute conviction that we are on the right side. These instincts are not new but they seem to be on the increase, and that is a concern for those of us who spend our personal and professional lives debating ideas and ethics and ultimate things.

In discussing all this recently with a colleague, at Fordham, he mentioned a 2019 talk by C. Thi Nguyen, a philosophy professor at the University of Utah. Nguyen writes about “the ways that our social structures and technologies shape how we think and what we value,” and he is an engaging presenter, as evidenced by the virality of the online video of his lecture.

In his presentation, “The Gamification of Public Discourse,” Nguyen explicates his research on echo chambers and online outrage and the damage it is doing to society. “We are simplifying our morality and our values for pleasure,” Nguyen says. The problem, he explains, is that “having more complex and nuanced values is a little more painful to go about in the world, and that having simple ones is a little more safe, secure …”

But that sense of security is a false one, built on a moral system of “false clarity.” This false sense of moral certainty is enhanced by the appeal of echo chambers “where you are taught to distrust the other side.” It’s not just ignorance, a “silo” where you are not exposed to other views. “An echo chamber has the structure of a cult,” he says.

The upshot of Nguyen’s argument is that this development is all about maximizing pleasure and reducing the anxiety of dealing with real life. Hence his other two explanatory categories for our current dysfunction: pornography and games. “Instead of trying to get your moral beliefs to match what is morally true or good, you move them around to maximize the pleasures of moral outrage porn,” he says.

Add in the gamification of morality and the epistemic loop is closed. “The medium of games is rules,” Nguyen explains. You have a scoring system, and that creates clarity and motivation – the gratification of winning. “In games you put value blinders on,” he says. False clarity plus the gamification of morality all locked inside an echo chamber creates what we see today: “All these systems reinforce and encourage a narrowness of moral vision.”

Nguyen doesn’t reference religion in his talk but the dysfunctions of Catholicism could reinforce every element of his thesis.

So much of Catholic discourse is focused on using doctrine to dunk on an opponent. Too many Catholics somehow find a false clarity in the multiform and ever-changing tradition, reducing complexity to simplicity and doing a disservice to the Gospel in the process. They live in a cult-like echo chamber, not a communion of believers.

In the public sphere, abortion has long served as the stalking horse for this reductive version of Catholicism, and the election of Joe Biden as just the second Catholic president has sent the moral simplifiers into overdrive. The push is on to have the U.S. bishops issue a document on “eucharistic coherence,” which is basically a universal law aimed at denying communion to one man, Joe Biden, and thereby scoring points in the never-ending culture war. It is the gamification of the sacraments, with abortion invoked as the one “non-negotiable” issue, or, more recently, the “preeminent priority.”

Within the church we see this kind of gamification playing out in other ways. For liturgists, the old ad orientam Latin Mass is simply the best Mass, and for many church leaders a legalistic Pharisaism substitutes for pastoral engagement. “Confusion” is the great lament of the anti-Francis crowd, those captious critics who say that the pope’s pastoral approach will muddy the waters of doctrine. Every problem must be resolved by a dubia. Every answer must be black and white. Every Catholic must be in or out.

This is all counter to every aspect of the Catholic moral, theological, intellectual, philosophical and spiritual tradition. People are complex and the Catholic tradition embraces that: discerning together, walking together, learning from each other. “If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good,” as Pope Francis said back in 2013. “For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself.”

Using religion for himself – exactly. What is most disturbing about this phenomenon is that, following on Nguyen’s argument, this perversion of the Catholic imagination is ultimately pornographic, a self-indulgent desire for immediate gratification. Our ecclesiastical scolds are, in fact, today’s pleasure-seeking sybarites, with moralism as the medium for their fantasy games.

Perhaps there is some hope. In April, Francis named an Italian theologian, Father Armando Matteo, as a top official in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Matteo has written widely on how to engage today’s culture without resorting to oversimplifications that draw only fundamentalists. “Certainly, this approach, the super-clear and super-distinct ideas, has a certain attractiveness,” he said in a 2018 interview. “But I do not think it is the best answer, also because the attitude of stiffening is always a short-term strategy, and the human species does not act like that. The epochal turns are painful, but there is always the ability to adapt.”

Let’s hope that we continue to adapt, and that the church embraces the tension inherent in the ambivalence of being the human beings that God created.

David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. 

A Church of Grace

He is Risen! The most powerful Christian proclamation: the triumph of Love over sin; the victory of Life over death.

This overwhelming proclamation of the Good News, although celebrated at this time, too often takes second place to our predilection to focus on sin and judgment. The result is a Christian community that appears either effervescent and unwaveringly optimistic or sullen and condemnatory of others: a community, overtly or covertly, at war with itself. This was my first response to the fallout from the CDF’s March 15 Responsum regarding same-sex unions: a community at war with itself. Consider contraception, regularizing married priests in the Roman Catholic tradition, women priests, etc. Our Church is mired in debates over sin, seemingly afraid to embrace the power of divine blessing. Rather than living and witnessing the truth of the Resurrected Lord, the Church recedes into the comfort of old formula or historic squabbles.

I confessed that this binary framing was my initial response. Yet, then I recognized something else happening. I see a Church finally beginning (however cautiously) to deal with its own legacy of acquiescence to homophobic culture; a Church beginning to understand Pope Francis’ call to dialogue and synodality; a Church entering into the conversations of our age—not with the voice of certainty, but rather with voices of discussion, challenge, and yes, even dissent.

For many, including me, the Responsum was not welcome. I think it ill timed, outdated in its language and simplistic in its argument. I believe the issue of blessing same-sex couples is entwined in many issues that Catholic theology needs to confront with balance and an integrated theological anthropology. We must address the question of sexual intimacy outside of marriage impartially, not differentiating between same-sex or heterosexual couples; we must have a better understanding of the sacrament of marriage as a loving union that witnesses the creative love of the Father for all of us; and we must challenge our historical prejudice against members of the lgbtq+ community: a prejudice that causes shockwaves when the Pope says “who am I to judge?”.

My hope—that we can move beyond the simplistic binary to a mature Church that struggles with the questions, listens to the voices and celebrates the Resurrection—is strengthened by the response to the “response.” The CDF’s document motivated new, unexpected voices of the episcopate, previously muted or acquiescent in the face of formal Vatican declarations.

In preparation for the upcoming German synod, Bishop Helmut Dieser stated that they will consider the CDF document while “further developing the Church’s teaching on sexuality.” Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, no starry-eyed progressive, raised concerns about the document’s fundamental understanding of a blessing: "If the request for a blessing is not a show ... if the request is honest and is really a plea for God’s blessing of a way of life that two people want to embark on together, then such a blessing will not be refused.” Bishop Glettler of Innsbruck admits: “We still have a lot to learn (about homosexuality),” including that “same-sex relationships can be based on faithfulness and mutual devotion.” Bishop Büchel of St. Gallen recalled that “The mission of the Church is to bestow this blessing from God and to promise it to the people—not by its own means, but as an intermediary.” The Responsum has generated the honest and authentic dialogue required by Pope Francis’ call for synodality. A perspective perhaps best summarized by Bishop Coleridge of Brisbane cited in The Tablet: “It’s just not enough to say ‘we can’t,’ … That may be important, but it’s only one word in a much, much longer and more complex conversation. In that sense, what the CDF has said in that statement isn’t by any means causa finita est, the end of the conversation. I think it should give greater impetus to another kind of conversation about inclusion.”

A synodal church is a messy church—more committed to dialogue than judgment; more involved in the joy of grace than defining the limits of grace; a Church that embraces the voice of St. John Chrysostom in his Paschal homily: “Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; … All of you enjoy the banquet of faith; all of you receive the riches of his goodness … for Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the Leader and Reviver of those who had fallen asleep … Amen.”

Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic priest.

Gallup-ing Out of the Church?

The Easter season is traditionally a joyful time for Catholics both because it commemorates the most important mystery of our faith and because the Easter Vigil and its liturgy of baptism welcomes many new Catholics to the fold. There was particular joy this year for many who were able to celebrate the sacraments in person after last year’s somber Holy Week and Easter during the darkest time of the Covid-19 pandemic. For many Catholics, however, this Easter still came with tinges of regret, particularly as many understandably did not feel that their local churches were safe enough given the greater likelihood of churchgoers to resist masking and other safety measures. For those paying attention, there was also concerning news from a Gallup poll indicating the increasing disaffiliation of Americans from religion, especially Catholicism.

In addition to showing that American participation in religious institutions on the whole has declined below the 50% mark, the Gallup poll show a decline among Catholics from 76% to 58% over the period beginning roughly in the early 2000s. Given that this period coincided with the first major revelations of clerical sexual abuse in Boston and elsewhere, this should come as no surprise. Between events that have frayed the loyalty of older generations for whom belonging to the church was a matter of course and generational replacement trending in the direction of disaffiliation, the church as an institution and more importantly as a people is experiencing decline.

Expert commentators such as Kaya Oakes have rightly noted that disaffiliation and secularization are not coterminous. Just because people do not belong to a church does not meant they are not religious, and it does not even mean they are no longer engaging with that particular church institution, but simply that they do not choose to be a registered member of the congregation. Recent trends, such as the cult-like belief in Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” about the election being stolen, highlight both the danger of post-religious substitutes for belief but also the disturbing number of religious believers who themselves accept such ideas. Indeed, many white evangelical and Catholic congregations have been active drivers of these exact problems, and Catholic leaders have fed into this dynamic by their willingness to criticize President Biden’s Catholicism in often more direct ways than they challenged the manifold evils of President Trump’s administration. Polls from the past few years showing religiously unaffiliated Americans as more receptive to the welcoming of refugees than Catholics and other Christians also demonstrate how the worldview of many Christians has been shaped more by identity politics than by Gospel values.

It is clear that those of us concerned with the future vitality of Catholicism in the U.S. have a problem on our hands. The number of people interested in the church, particularly among the young, is diminishing, and the actions of church leaders in response have not been encouraging. This is particularly true in the online Catholic world – the most likely place that young people will encounter the church and its witness. With a few exceptions led by Fr. James Martin, this space has been dominated by right-wing voices, many of them full of vitriol against Pope Francis and Catholics who disagree with them. Bishop Robert Barron, whose large Word on Fire media ministry has avoided Pope-bashing and exhibited a more general balance, has increasingly positioned himself to appeal in a rightward direction, particularly with recent criticisms of the “woke” movement as “vile” – a casual dismissal of a complex phenomenon mainly centered on questions of racial justice.

I have learned through years of engaging with the question of Catholics and disaffiliation that there is no easy answer to the questions raised by data such as the recent Gallup poll. Conservative efforts to promote a “thick” Catholic culture have often relied on rational choice theories emphasizing that a religion that makes higher demands on people will be more appealing and more conducive to forming a culture over time. Such approaches, I believe, lead to sectarianism and thus an exclusionary vision of what it means to be Catholic. The many connections of conservative Catholic leaders to the Trump movement, including the Big Lie, show the danger here also. On the other hand, more progressive approaches, while making a home for many Catholics otherwise alienated by the church and bishops, have a somewhat marginal influence on the church institution itself and have not been a demographic panacea. A deeper, long-term conversion of the institution is required, demanding structural change that we have not yet begun to realize even with the helpful tone and actions of Pope Francis.

With this sober news amid the joy of Easter, I suggest we look to the culmination of this joyous season, namely, Pentecost. Ultimately, the future of the church will come about by having faith and discerning where the Holy Spirit wants us to go. This is what John XXIII meant when he referred to Vatican II as a kind of new Pentecost, and it is the case for our own predicament. The plan is not clear, and as always in life, doing the right thing will not always be immediately popular or successful. The future will no doubt be different than what we have known and perhaps what we hope for, but this is nothing to fear.

Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.

On Ideology, Identity and Gender

I knew that I would be courting controversy when I agreed to review Abigail Shrier’s provocative book, Irreversible Damage: Teenage Girls and the Transgender Craze, for The Tablet. The book had been positively reviewed by respected journals such as The Economist and The Sunday Times, and slated by no less respected journals such as The Los Angeles Review of Books. Having studied, taught and written about gender for many years, I felt qualified to review it.

I have long been a moving target of the U.S. Catholic Far Right, but my review of Shrier’s book turned the tables. This time, the counterblast came mostly from outraged U.S. Progressives on various social media platforms. I’d been expecting criticism, but the vehemence and vitriol from some I regard as thoughtful intellectuals astonished me.

I used the word “transgenderism,” not knowing that it had been added to what I might call the Index Verborum Prohibitorum—the Progressive equivalent of the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Apparently “transgenderism” implies an ideology and is therefore offensive. When I said to an English trans friend that I probably shouldn’t have used that word, she dismissed my concerns. “Let’s not get caught up in the culture wars,” she said.

I made clear in my review that the book was problematic and that Shrier was an unreliable witness. I wish that I had been more critical of her inflammatory use of words like “virus” and “contagion” in connection with those who are already disproportionately targets of violence, exclusion and abuse. Nevertheless, the book raises important questions about a dramatic increase in teenage girls developing gender dysphoria and being offered puberty blockers, testosterone and sometimes double mastectomies as they progress through the transitioning process, and what Shrier sees as the collusion of a powerful transgender lobby in suppressing any opposition.

It is to be expected that, as attitudes change, the number of trans persons will increase, because they no longer have to conceal what they believe to be their true gender. Moreover, when religious and political conservatives have reduced the rich diversity of human genders to two narrowly defined categories, it is hardly surprising that some question their own gendered identities if they fail to conform to such constricting stereotypes. But there is a difference between supporting young people who are experimenting with their identities, including their genders, and offering them life-changing medical interventions during the turbulent hormonal and sexual changes of adolescence. Puberty blockers risk infertility, and testosterone induces physical changes that are irreversible.

The High Court of England and Wales recently ruled that  a court order must  be obtained before those under age 16 can be treated with puberty blockers, on the basis that children of that age cannot give informed consent to such treatments. This has been one of several controversies surrounding the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) run by the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, which has been accused of failing to provide adequate therapeutic guidance before prescribing puberty blockers. Shrier’s book focuses on the U.S., but she addresses these issues. The response to my review has convinced me that she is on to something, in spite of her blatant prejudice.

Many who criticized my review refused to allow even a glimmer of doubt about the universal competence and reliability of teenage girls who self-diagnose as transgender and the therapists who support them. Meanwhile, a few stories have leaked through from concerned parents—some shared, a couple by way of private messages—who believe that their daughters are being exposed to the kind of pressures Shrier describes. These are liberal parents who are supportive of their daughters, despite their misgivings. One pointed out that her daughter’s gender dysphoria was the latest in a number of behavioral problems such as eating disorders and self-harm, another issue to which Shrier draws attention. Of course, in some cases such behavior might be symptomatic of the underlying anxiety associated with being transgender and fearing what it will mean to come out, but even so, I’m left with many questions that I don’t have space to explore here.

Like many feminists, I find myself under increasing pressure to explicitly include trans women in anything I want to say about the dignity and rights of women and girls. Yet there are injustices that are specific to anatomical females in relation to their sexual and reproductive capacities and the ways in which, to borrow Freud’s phrase, ‘anatomy is destiny.’ Not least of these is the continuing power that the Catholic hierarchy wields over women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights through its doctrinal and political interventions. Being born female condemns many millions to lives of poverty, illiteracy, domestic and sexual servitude and early death through causes associated with pregnancy and childbirth.

The female body is today an object of commodification, violation and exploitation in ways that are often first experienced in puberty. It is not transphobic to suggest that in some cases the onset of gender dysphoria may be a desperate desire to escape the body-shaming pressures and sexualized predations that eat away at the self-confidence of teenage girls, nor should it be wrong to argue that, before endorsing a self-diagnosis of transgender, every effort should be made by therapists and educators to understand the corrosive effects of an inherently misogynist social environment on the formation of female identity. None of this is to deny the different, but no less significant, challenges experienced by trans people, but there must surely be space for feminists to continue to explore what it means to be a woman, and even to challenge those who lay claim to that identity when many of us are just beginning to dismantle the essentialized and idealized concept of “Woman” that we have carried around as our God-given destiny since birth.

An ideology is a set of beliefs by which one seeks to bring about change in society, and as such it is a neutral term. However, benign ideologies seek change through understanding, not through diktat. They are open to different views and refined through debate and reflection. Destructive ideologies are those that impose their views on others and seek to silence or eliminate all dissent. These last few weeks, I have experienced the latter. I have in the past paid a high price for refusing to be silenced by the sexual ideologues of the Catholic Right. I am not now willing to be silenced by Progressive gender ideologues.

Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.

Worshipping at Saint Cubiculum's

Once again, Christians around the world have observed the liturgical season of Lent under numerous restrictions imposed by efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Measures to prevent the spread of the disease have varied from nation to nation and even among regions, states and cities of each particular country. But there is hardly a place on earth where people have not had their patience pushed to the limit during these 14 or 15 (or is it now 16?) months that the pandemic has been raging.

While folks in the United States are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to what appears to be an effective vaccination campaign, here in Europe we’re still stuck in the gloom of uncertainty. The rollout of vaccines, let us say, has not been so good here on the Old Continent.

Pope Francis has noted that, at least here in Italy, we were shocked and badly shaken last year when we had to face our first Holy Week in lockdown. This year, he's said, the feeling is more one of exhaustion, of being worn out.

From a religious point of view, much of that sentiment is because the preventive measures have included the suspension of congregational worship or strict limits on how many people can gather in those places where churches are actually allowed to remain open.

And that it is tiresome when, for a second year in a row, we cannot celebrate Holy Week and Easter properly—or in the pre-pandemic manner.

Catholics, probably in a way more pronounced than those who belong to any other community in the one (though fractured) Church of Christ, feel a need—indeed, they are told it is their duty—to “attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.”

This, of course, is not a divine law or a scriptural injunction. It is human application of the third commandment in the Decalogue. And most religious authorities (i.e. the bishops) have exempted Catholics from the “obligation” during the pandemic.

And most Catholics have accepted this, not because they have been granted a dispensation to “skip” Mass without committing “grave sin,” but because they want to stop the spread of a potentially deadly virus.

But other believers (a minority, thank God) have denounced the restrictions on worship as a violation of religious freedom.

In Poland, where new cases of infection are currently skyrocketing to their highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, the Catholic bishops are insisting that churches be to allowed to stay open. “Leaving churches open is extremely important, because a person is not only a body, but also a soul," said Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the national episcopal conference. “And prayer – especially in moments of trials and hardships – strengthens us on the path to salvation,” he added.

Perhaps the archbishop skipped Mass on Ash Wednesday. It’s possible, since this is not a Holy Day of Obligation. Or perhaps he forgot the Gospel passage for the day’s liturgy (Mt 6,1-6;16-18), for it was many weeks ago. These lines in this passage—the one with which the Church began the Lenten Season—are worth recalling: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Mt 6, 5-6).

I'm not sure how those verses are translated in Polish, but the archbishop will recognize them in the Vulgate:

Et cum oratis, non eritis sicut hypocritae, qui amant in synagogis et in angulis platearum stantes orare, ut videantur ab hominibus. Amen dico vobis: Receperunt mercedem suam. Tu autem cum orabis, intra in cubiculum tuum et, clauso ostio tuo, ora Patrem tuum, qui est in absondito; et Pater tuus, qui videt in abscondito, reddet tibi.

The bottom line is that one does not have to go to church to pray. And in times of pandemic, there are very good reasons why one should not do so.

That there are bishops and priests—and other baptized faithful—who see “temple worship” as absolutely essential, in all circumstances, to what it means to be a faithful Christian, is indictment on their vision of Church. It is but hollow shell. The phrase the Nazarene used was “whitewashed sepulcher.”

It is a Church that puts considerable emphasis on the externals—its impressive buildings; its well-funded projects; its rules and precepts; its legal statutes and its “power” to summons people to Mass each Sunday. 

We must admit that we all buy into this exact type of Church to some degree or another. And, so, it is to all of us that Pope Francis has placed the challenge of conversion—the need to change our attitudes, our mentality.

These past many months of “liturgical lockdown” should be seen within the context of the pope’s challenge. Have we used this time to discover our “inner room” our own cubiculum? Most presbyters and bishops have been incapable or uninterested in helping Catholics develop that inner room into a place of true worship and not just some second-class waiting room until churches are opened and Mass can be celebrated.

In fact, our “cultic priests” have only been able to “say Mass” for us on social media or television, allowing us to watch them perform true liturgy.

This has certainly been one of the biggest missed opportunities and saddest spectacles of clericalism in the post-Vatican II period. But not all Catholics have fallen into this clericalist trap. More and more have taken Matthew 6:6 to heart and have discovered that church is not the only place (and perhaps not even in the most important one) where we go to pray and deepen our faith. They’ve discovered that true religion and true worship can also be experienced at Saint Cubiculum’s.

Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.