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Entries from May 2024

The Tyranny of Usefulness and Social Poetry

In the Catholic intellectual tradition seminars at Sacred Heart, students read a small section of John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University on the uses of knowledge. Students inevitably struggle with the excerpt, not only because of Newman’s Victorian prose, but also because the Lockean vision of education that he critiques is so often the vision that they have been raised with. When we arrive at Newman’s quotation of Locke, we read it aloud to hear the scorn lacing the philosopher’s words as he disparages the teaching of Latin to a young man bound for a trade and recounts the terrible fate that might befall the student who learns verse-making:

“I know not what reason a father can have to wish his son a poet, who does not desire him to bid defiance to all other callings and business; which is not yet the worst of the case; for, if he proves a successful rhymer, and gets once the reputation of a wit, I desire it to be considered, what company and places he is likely to spend his time in, nay, and estate too; for it is very seldom seen that any one discovers mines of gold or silver in Parnassus.

What living is there to be earned as a poet? Locke asks, insisting that it is far better to learn the practical skills of a trade. The “use” of education in this vision is primarily economic—the preparation of individuals to participate in the labor force and contribute to a growth in capital.

Nearing two centuries on from Newman’s book, this economic understanding of what is “useful” has become all-pervasive. As my colleague Brian Stiltner described in his final column for this blog, higher education is no exception, often operating in vocabularies and logics taken more from corporate boardrooms than from classrooms. Recently, I listened to a lecture from the economist Ha-Joon Chang, who put it succinctly, “In a capitalist society, especially the kind of market-oriented one that we are living in now … everything has to justify its existence in terms of money—so, literary festivals, teaching about ancient languages in universities, preservation of our cultural heritage.”

Usefulness, in this economic sense, has become a tyrannical interpretative framework, impressing itself upon us all. Even as I aim to invite students into Newman’s perspective, that there might be a “use” to poetry and to education beyond this economic one, I feel the weight of the Lockean scorn echoing through our society: Who would want their child to be a poet?

And yet, Pope Francis has claimed that the role of the university is just that—to form “social poets.”  This phrase is one that Francis first introduced in his address to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, an initiative begun under his papacy that gathers grassroots organizations from across the globe to creatively address the needs of land, labor and lodging. In his 2021 address, he explained that he chose this phrase because “poetry means creativity, and you create hope.” By refusing to conform to the tyranny of economic usefulness and its “throwaway” logic, these grassroots organizations creatively work towards a world where all have access to housing and dignified work and where the land is cared for as integral to the community of creation rather than treated as a resource to be exploited. Out of communities that appear “useless” to the gaze of the market, these poets craft practices of hope.

By expanding this role of the social poet to universities, Francis invites those of us in higher education to understand our work as the formation of individual and collective creativity towards the “poetry” of a new society—one not governed solely by economic profit. He calls for the mission of the university to be the training of social poets who “upon learning the grammar and vocabulary of humanity, have a spark, a brilliance that allows them to imagine the unknown.” The grammar of humanity must go beyond market-driven usefulness to uncover the intrinsic value in human reflection, artistry and community. As Francis stated earlier this year in an address to the International Federation of Catholic Universities, education must “awaken and cherish in each person the desire to ‘be’.” Being, not earning, is the basis of worth.

In the same talk on economics and democracy, Chang (speaking to a British audience), describes how the need to justify all things through the market leads to a reduction in meaning, such as arguing for the British monarchy on the basis that it brings in tourist revenue. Whether one is a monarchist or a not, Chang points out that this is a “demeaning, ridiculous” way to argue for an institution as foundational to society. With this example, he invites us to look at the tyranny of market usefulness from the outside, if only momentarily, in order to see that we might interpret the world otherwise.

The brilliance of poetry, I would submit, lies in the ability to see things at a “slant,” to borrow a term from Emily Dickinson. Forming our students as social poets means forming them to be able to see the world from a new angle. From this perspective, they might reimagine what it means for something to be useful—and indeed, ask whether that category is sufficient to the dignity and wonder of creation. If, as Francis encourages us to, Catholic universities are able to live this mission, we will not only be continuing a legacy of education extending far beyond Newman into the past, but also moving into the future with creativity and hope.

Callie Tabor is a lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.

The Challenge of Race and Place for Local Synodality

At the heart of the Church’s ongoing synodal reform lies Vatican II’s theology of the sense of the faithful. This conciliar teaching locates the Church’s capacity to identify and know the Gospel truth in the entire people of God. For this reason, synodal reform at the local level (diocesan level) has primarily involved broadening lay participation through listening sessions, communal discernment and online surveys.

Yet, only focusing on this type of reform overlooks the movement required to overcome the challenges of race and place for synodality in the U.S. For example, in the segregated city of St. Louis, the archdiocese (my local church) took a more centralized approach to its one and only listening session with racial minorities. Rather than holding this single listening session in Black St. Louis north of the segregating line (known by locals as “the Delmar Divide”), the diocese held this listening session in midtown – an area that boasts a burgeoning cornucopia of restaurants, access to expensive, organic grocers and two Catholic institutions of higher education.

Although the synthesis report demonstrates that the listening session involved authentic sharing, surfaced real challenges and was by many measures a genuine experience of synodality, the diocese’s approach required the periphery of the local church to move toward the center instead of the center moving toward the periphery. This approach discouraged participation of those at the racial margins wary of diocesan intentions and in the end, only 25 out of approximately 477,000 non-white Catholics participated in this diocesan-wide listening session. At the same time, the preference for a non-peripheral place prevented diocesan leaders entrusted with discerning insights from this listening session from sharing in the racially unfamiliar lifeworld of St. Louis’ periphery. Indeed, there is a difference between listening to Black Catholics in a white space and listening to Black Catholics in their space.

Although one can certainly scrutinize the mechanics of event planning to find reasons for low participation, a more fundamental, theological problem lies in this centralized approach to synodality itself. Indeed, Pope Francis has repeatedly urged those who are ecclesially centered as pastoral leaders to move to the peripheries: “Pastors must have the smell of the sheep… Go down among your faithful, even into the margins of your dioceses and into all those ‘peripheries of existence.’” This is not simply a metaphorical mandate, but a missionary demand to move to unfamiliar spaces of the periphery. There, we can find the “smell of the sheep” that is the sense of the faithful. As Pope Francis puts it in Let Us Dream: “You have to go to the edges of existence if you want to see the world as it is. I’ve always thought that the world looks clearer from the periphery.” In other words, we cannot make for the margins in the abstract, but rather we must go close and touch the marginalized as Jesus did.

Like most local churches, race and place are not small obstacles to synodality for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. I have found that many white residents disordered by the sin of racism—Catholics included—are hesitant to make the 20-minute drive from the suburb to the city. Yet, what if we actually lived the preferential option for the poor as the Church itself teaches? What if we as a Church understood Pope Francis’ exhortation to go to the periphery with the literality that he intends? What if we left the 99 sheep for the one as Jesus did? Doing this in the abstract is easy; doing this concretely—especially in the context of race—is hard.

So let me ask again in concrete terms. What if we as a Church centered the margins by locating our listening sessions among the marginalized in the places that are the margins? As a synodal Church, we should have a multitude of listening sessions, but if we can only have one, why not hold that at the racial periphery north of the Delmar Divide? When holding listening sessions about parish and school closures, what if we primarily (but not exclusively) held these in the racial peripheries north of Delmar? Why not ask those who are racially centered to drive the 20 minutes to the margins? Why not use listening sessions and communal discernment to begin a process of racial conversion through which the racially centered can begin to see the world through the eyes of the racially marginalized? Why not enable those unfamiliar with the racialized peripheries to hear the faith, witness and challenges of Black Catholics in the place that gives their witness context—the place that is the racialized periphery?

Indeed, synodality is a “journey together” and requires widespread consultation and increased lay participation. Yet, the end of synodality is not consultation or even decentralization but rather attentiveness to the Spirit corporately at work through the sense of the faithful.

Consequently, local synodality requires missionary movement that can overcome the movement of race and place. If the church of St. Louis’ approach to synodality typifies the approach taken by other local churches in the U.S., this indicates how much further local churches need to go to become truly synodal. Only when those of us who are ecclesially and socially centered move north of Delmar can we “hear the Spirit of God speaking to [us] from the margins."

Deepan Rajaratnam is a doctoral candidate in Christian theology at Saint Louis University.

Catechesis and Superheroes for the Digital Age

Rebuilding the Church of the future is in the hands of the young. As a religious sister and pediatrician, I am deeply concerned about the physical, emotional and spiritual consequences of pandemic-related trauma, secularization, economic instability and global violence for children and youth. These realities have compromised their ability to build a post-pandemic Church of inclusion, justice and mercy.

In December 2021, the Pontifical Academy for Life recognized the impact of the COVID pandemic on the lives of children and adolescents as “a parallel pandemic” to the infection itself. It exacerbated the longstanding lack of accessible, affordable health care for all, inadequate mental health and protective services, and crucially important preventive care. It revealed systemic issues of poverty, racism, sexism, exploitation and social marginalization with higher illness and death rates among the most socially disadvantaged.

Public health advisories to “shelter in place” at home assumed one had a home and that it was safe. The stark reality is that one hundred million homeless families had been displaced by war, poverty, persecution and natural disasters. The isolation of children with stressed parents confined to small spaces as well as school closures increased physical and sexual abuse.

The pandemic produced an explosion of research in developmental traumatology on the psychiatric and psychobiological effects of overwhelming stress during the crucial periods of growth and development for infants and children. Adolescence is a period of rapid development of the brain’s socio-affective circuitry that drives a need for affirmation and high sensitivity to internet bullying and phishing.

The Synod recognizes that our first formation in faith takes place in the family. Parents hand down beliefs and form their children as moral agents. They are “first responders” to the trauma of profound disruption of the family, faith and cultural rituals necessary for children’s sense of identity and security. Historically, children heard cultural and religious stories that helped them cope with difficulties and presented models of good and bad behavior.

Tragically, quarantine increased the time young people spend on addictive social media, which bombards them with very different models and stories. Exposure to interactive screen media begins for many North American children before the age of two. By adolescence, they are fully immersed as it steals time from sleep, exercise and in-person activities. In a pathological paradox, constant virtual interactions have unmasked deep loneliness and a loss of meaning and hope.

The shift from oral tradition to screen began in the late 1800s when motion pictures provided graphic images of real heroic soldiers sacrificing their lives. By the 1930s, Walt Disney’s tamed fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson established a new secular genre with good and evil characters clearly identified. Television brought screens into the home.

I had a new insight into the magnitude of the challenge of faith formation in post-Christendom one evening during Easter week. As I channel-surfed my television, the only program about Easter was on the “religion channel.” Strangely, there was massive hype about a rerun of the visually amazing initial Harry Potter film from the book series written between 1997 and 2007. As of 2023, it became the best-selling book series in history, selling over 600 million copies. Published in 85 languages, the total franchise is estimated at $25 billion! It presents coming of age and fantasy issues in dark themes of prejudice, corruption, madness and fearful death. How can faith formation compete? The Synod concluded, “The synodal culture needs to become more intergenerational, with spaces for young people to speak freely for themselves, within their families, and with their peers and pastors, including through digital channels.”

At every mass Catholics hear “the greatest story ever told,” which reveals the depth of God’s love for us in the Paschal Mystery and stories from salvation history. Today, these are among many competing, contradictory, fast-paced, interactive stories offered to youth.

The challenges are clear:

Renew inclusive, accessible Scriptural language and restore the importance of the proclamation of the Word.

Resuscitate personal encounters in the Eucharist, as a welcoming community of friends sharing a meal and giving thanks for a real incarnational presence.

Acknowledge and address the trauma of divisive polarization of beliefs and practices on the young.

Find new ways to educate youth in discernment of the perils and possibilities of the digital age, now compounded by AI, especially about the ways in which they can be manipulated.

Commit to being credible witnesses and “walk the talk” of our teaching.

Address the key ecclesial, moral and anthropological questions of our time raised in the Synod.

Recognize youth violence around the world as a cry for help: build on the courage and selflessness youth showed during pandemic as aid to isolated and vulnerable persons and on their concern for the environment.

Promote resilience to the inevitable traumas of life in prayerful, generous communities.

Rebuilding the Church of the future requires the formation of a new generation of superheroes, rooted in the hope of the incarnation and resurrection and powered by the Holy Spirit. “Make it so.”

Sister Nuala Kenny, emerita professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., is a pediatrician and physician ethicist.

Grace, Not Grievance

I recently read the 2024 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) report Religious Change in America, which states that “one-quarter (26%) of Americans now identify as religiously unaffiliated.” The report adds that 35% of these people are former Catholics. It states that nearly half (47%) of respondents cited negative teachings about LGBTQ+ people in their religious tradition as a primary reason for leaving.

I also know that research shows that disaffiliation within the Catholic Church has increased among young adults, some of whom I am in conversation with because they are in my classes. So, I brought this topic to my Catholic Intellectual Tradition (CIT) Seminar class. In our CIT seminars, we process in a synodal model where we listen carefully, reflect intentionally and engage in courageous civil dialogue about big questions and difficult topics. Their conversation was vigorous, animated and consistent with the PRRI report: “The Church says, ‘love one another’ but it does not show love for LGBTQ people;” “The Church does not treat women equally;” “The Church is not inviting.”  This is a class of mainly women and every one of them said they had a friend or a family member who is gay.

In CIT seminars, the faculty member steps back to allow the space for students to feel safe and free to discuss, and the faculty member does not dominate the conversation. But I did make minor contributions as the discussion unfolded. I mentioned Fiducia Supplicans, the Vatican’s declaration on the blessing of same-sex couples as well as divorced and remarried couples (many of my students’ parents are divorced and remarried). I also mentioned how we understand and practice the Catholic intellectual tradition as an ongoing conversation where dialogue, inquiry and questioning can bring new understanding to the Church. They were deeply engaged in the conversation but I knew that there was no encounter with God’s love in this dialogue.

Shortly after this class, Dignitas Infinita was released, and I read it with mixed reactions. This declaration has been commented on thoroughly both on this blog and other news outlets, so I will not repeat what has already been cogently critiqued and analyzed. When I read the document, I was so glad to see the Church emphasizing its long-held core belief of the inviolable dignity of every human person, created in the image of God, and extending human dignity to capital punishment, violence against women, poverty, the status of migrants, human trafficking and sexual abuse. I was glad to read the declaration affirming human dignity regardless of sexual orientation and rejecting discrimination against LGBTQ people. But I was confused because the document also reinforced the discrimination it stood against. While I recognize that the Church must assert truth as it defines truth, I could not see in this declaration where faith and reason were in dialogue or where there was any intellectual engagement with the science that it outright denied. I could not see a listening or synodal Church accompanying, with compassion, the full range of the lived experience of transgender and non-binary people.

I felt too discouraged to want to continue the conversation I had days before with my students. I thought instead of the son of my friends and the eight-year journey that began in high school when he exhibited out of control behavior and abused drugs. Many psychiatrists and psychologists could not help. Finally, he was sent to a therapeutic wilderness program for six months where he was able to express the turmoil inside him. I had witnessed the pain and anguish, love and support that this family experienced until now when they celebrate their daughter who is happy and settled in her true gender identity.

Several weeks later, Cardinal Cupich came to Sacred Heart University and gave a talk on his reflections on Fr. Timothy Radcliff’s pre-synodal retreat last October. Cardinal Cupich selected three of Fr. Radcliff’s insights “as a pathway to confront our fears, doubts and divisions.” The one that struck me was Eucharistic hope in a time of division. Eucharistic hope looks at Catholic theology’s both/and approach: scripture and tradition, faith and works. Eucharistic hope looks at the renewal of the Church like making bread—bringing the margins to the center and the center to the margins. The Cardinal’s talk lifted the darkness in my heart and brought me a moment of Eucharistic hope. My students were in the audience and I wished that they too experienced hope. I hoped for grace, not grievance.

In Monday’s Fourth Week of Easter Reading, Peter is chastised for eating and spending time with uncircumcised people. Peter tells his chastisers that he has had a vision and that “the Spirit told me to accompany these people without discriminating,” (Acts 11:1-18). Would it be Eucharistic hope to imagine that synodal conversations in the Spirit would renew the Church’s thinking—like making bread, like Peter’s vision?

Michelle Loris is the director of Center for Catholic Studies and associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Sacred Heart University.