Notre Dame program seeks to help nation’s Catholic schools
[Editor’s Note: Bill Mattison is a Senior Advisor for Theological Formation at the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program, and has a joint appointment in Notre Dame’s Department of Theology. His scholarship has focused on Catholic moral theology, especially virtue ethics. His most recent book is Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology: A Virtue Perspective. He is currently completing a book tentatively titled Habit and Grace: A Thomistic Perspective. He spoke to Charles Camosy.] Camosy: I’ve come to know you as one of the most significant Catholic moral theologians of our generation, but one of your relatively new roles is as Senior Director for Theological Formation with Notre Dame’s “ACE” program, the Alliance for Catholic Education. I’ll ask you more about the specifics of the program in a moment, but let me begin by asking you this: What kind of challenges was ACE designed to address? Mattison: The Alliance for Catholic Education was formed 25 years ago to support and reinvigorate Catholic K-12 schools in the United States. Our Catholic school system was born and developed on the shoulders of giants such as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. John Neumann, and St. Katherine Drexel. These schools are a 19th and early 20th century product of what has been described by Robert Putnam as the most intensive period of social entrepreneurship in the history of the United States. By their enrollment apex in 1965, some 5,000,000 students attended 12,000 schools in the United States. Yet due to a variety of reasons including the decline in (especially women) religious, increased financial pressures, secularization, and shifting urban populations, those numbers have fallen to 1,750,000 students in 6,300 schools today. Therefore the late 20th and early 21st century have presented an opportunity to sustain the traditional successes of Catholic schools – including academic excellence, faith and character formation, and the fostering of strong community both within the school and in the civic arena – while at the same time adapting the Catholic school model to a new crop of teachers, different societal settings, and new policy and regulatory settings. When ACE began in 1994, its focus was on supplying well-formed teachers to Catholic schools especially in the Southeast. That program has seen tremendous success and explosive growth in numbers and geographic reach. ACE soon expanded its focus to include not only teacher formation but also leadership formation, policy advocacy, and targeted interventions to new challenges in Catholic schools, including STEM training, teaching English as a new language, training inclusive educators for special needs students, and improving access to Catholic schools for Latino students. The joys and challenges of Catholic schools are many. In running into the breach to address them, ACE teachers and leaders have joined not just a program but an apostolic movement, animated by the Holy Spirit as we are joyfully committed to serving students in Catholic schools. ACE has been around for over a quarter-century trying to address these significant problems. What progress has been made over that time? ACE began in 1994 with what is still its flagship program, now called ACE Teaching Fellows, through which recent college graduates serve as full-time teachers for two years in under-resourced Catholic schools, all the while pursuing a Master’s degree in education, living in intentional communities, and growing spiritually in discipleship to Jesus. What began with 40 pioneer (largely Notre Dame) college graduates that first year has blossomed into a program that accepts 90 new men and women each year and has already formed over 2,000 Catholic school teachers. We have grown from serving schools in 8 communities in 1994 to now serving more than 120 schools in 35 communities, from New York to Los Angeles and from Brownsville, Texas, to Minneapolis. That growth is not an end in itself, but a sign of the extraordinary impact that ACE teachers have had on their schools and the 13,500 students they serve every year. ACE teachers comprise a new face of Catholic school teachers, a well-formed and joyfully faithful diverse group of lay men and women who serve students in a culturally responsive manner that is a hospitable and personal invitation to encounter Jesus Christ in the context of excellent education. Two-thirds of ACE graduates remain in education in some way, and more than a dozen colleges and universities have joined with ACE to form the University Consortium for Catholic Education, a collaboration to design and implement graduate-level teaching programs for Catholic schools. All this points to the impact ACE is having on Catholic schools in the United States. As noted, ACE Teaching Fellows is now complemented by a host of other formation programs in service to Catholic schools, including the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program for Catholic school leaders, the Notre Dame Center for STEM Education, the English as a New Language Program, and the Program for Inclusive Education. ACE is also active in expanding publicly funded school choice and research that supports our work. The revolution in Catholic education goes on! What is typically expected of ACE students? And why do you think it is important that they get a strong grounding in Catholic theology? ACE Teaching Fellows are recent college graduates who come to Notre Dame in the summer to begin their teacher formation program. Over two summers and the school years following, Teaching Fellows teach full time as they take courses toward completing an M.Ed. degree, usually with state certification. Yet their formation is not simply professional; through retreats, weeknight summer liturgies, and integrative seminars they are nourished in their faith lives. They also live in intentional community in groups of 4-6. Three pillars characterize life in ACE – becoming excellent teachers, building community, and growing spiritually – and they are deeply intertwined with one another. As to faith formation, I’d actually say ACE is committed to helping ACE teachers grow in their faith lives as disciples, more so than developing a strong grounding in Catholic theology. These are related of course, and ACE teachers do take a course (which Holy Cross Father Lou Delfra and I teach) on being teachers in Catholic schools, a course that guides students through the Catechism. But more than theological formation, we endeavor to help ACE teachers grow as faithful disciples to Christ through liturgy, retreats, regular communal prayer, as well as embarking on teaching and community in a manner animated by faith and mission. You’ve had some fantastic speakers and guests. This summer, for instance, I noticed that Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame addressed your students. These kinds of speakers have to make a big impact. Great speakers indeed – and do not forget Jesuit Father Greg Boyle last summer and Sister Norma Pimentel who spoke to us the same week as Sister Helen. Each of these speakers, and others, was truly inspirational to our teachers and leaders. They share an important commonality. They all work at the margins to mercifully accompany people who are marginalized in society. Our Christian faith is in a God who reaches to humanity despite our (self-) alienation from God, who loves us first, and who sends His only Son to reconcile us with God and bring us fullness of life. Jesus modelled this mercy to His disciples as he literally touched the sick, the dead, sinners – people for all sorts of reasons at the margins of society – in bringing them life. In ACE we believe God calls us to exactly this same merciful accompaniment to those in need – in our schools, our communities, and our families – and so we proudly invite contemporary witnesses of such lives of discipleship to share their stories with the ACE teachers and inspire all of us on that path of discipleship. Latinos are the fastest-growing part of the U.S. Catholic Church–but they are generally not served well by Catholic education. Is ACE doing anything to address this structural problem? You are right that Latinos historically in the U.S. have been under-served by Catholic schools. One-third of Catholics in the U.S. identify as Latino, but only 17 percent of children in Catholic schools are Latino. Notre Dame and ACE recognized that we must do more to attract Latino families, so we started the Catholic School Advantage and English as New Language programs to help schools recruit Latino families and serve them in ways that meet their educational and cultural needs. This is especially important when Latinos who attend Catholic schools are 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 2.5 times more likely to graduate from college than their public school peers. Programs such as the Latino Enrollment Institute and School Pastors’ Institute and professional development offered by our English as a New Language team work with teachers, principals, and pastors to create a welcoming school environment that honors these families’ culture and gives students – who often don’t speak English as their native language – the skills to succeed. ACE’s work is not only important work for the Church. Catholic parish-school communities have been among the most important mediating institutions of civil society in the United States–the increasingly rare kinds of communities which take people outside of their own ego and offer a genuine feeling of belonging and interdependence. In my opinion, ACE is doing the best work out there trying to save and support these communities. How can those who would like to learn more about ACE do so?  I am so glad you mentioned the crucial impact of Catholic schools not only on the Church and people’s faith lives, but also on our civic communities and people’s lives as thriving members of their communities. My colleague Nicole Garnett has written, with Margaret Brinig, Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America (University of Chicago Press, 2014). This book documents the positive impact of urban Catholic schools on social capital and cohesiveness in their neighborhoods, and the corresponding negative impacts of the closures of Catholic schools on the local communities. As Catholics we believe this is true because of the relationship between nature and grace. The graced life of discipleship neither negates nor leaves untouched the honorable natural goals of strong community, effective learning, and civic participation. It fuels how people do these activities that are not unique to faith, but nonetheless supported by the Catholic faith and the Catholic mission of our schools. On a related note this is why Catholic schools can be focused on the Catholic mission of passing on the Gospel, and welcome teachers and students who do not share the Catholic faith. We believe that we Catholics share with other Christians and non-Christians a commitment to human flourishing in matters such as learning and community. While we understand these as intimately related to our faith, there is much we share in common on these matters and can pursue together. Anyone who wishes to know more about ACE – or even apply – should check our website. We welcome all to join the ongoing revolution in Catholic education.
Pope Francis, the challenge of next fall
In a letter sent from prison, waiting for the appeal sentence to be handed down on August 21, Cardinal George Pell stressed his preoccupation about the upcoming Special Synod on the Panamazonian Region. The letter revamped the discussion on the Synod, which will likely be one of the main crossroads in Pope Francis’ pontificate. Pope Francis underscored that the issue of “married priests” (i.e., viri probati) is not the center of the synod, while evangelization is. However, the debate around the synod indicates that the admission to the priesthood for married people (under exceptional conditions) will monopolize it. As always, the debate is polarized. On one side, those concerned that the fundamental principles of Catholic doctrine will be jeopardized. On the other hand, support for theological change, in the name of a so-called evolution of doctrine. It is an old discussion that dates back to the Second Vatican Council. Unlike the Second Vatican Council, we are not talking about two different theological positions clashing. There is instead a clash between a theological and a political position. The theological position is focused on the notions of truth, tradition, and the deposit of faith. They do not discard the evolution of doctrine, but they note that it must never break with the tradition of the Church. This was the position of Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Walter Brandmueller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences; and Cardinal George Pell. Supporting those who showed their “traditional” positions, there are many worried about the upcoming synod. One of their main concerns is that the Synod on the Panamazonian Region will mimic the debate of the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family and of the 2018 synod on young people. It is noteworthy that the last synod introduced the term LGBT in the working document – the first time that the term had entered an official Vatican document. Looking at the “political front,” we can see that the theology of reference is Germany’s. Most of the prelates active on the issue are German or of German origins. Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the general relator of the Synod, comes from a family of German descent. Bishop Erwin Krautler is a Brazilian-naturalized Austrian. Bishop Franz-Jozef Overbeck of Essen is German and is also the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, which delivers financial aid to Latin America. Bishop Overbeck said there would be a “paradigm shift” with the Synod, while bishop Franz-Jozef Bode of Osnabrueck already announced he would ordain married priests if the Synod introduces the possibility. German Theology is very pragmatic, has no fear to think politically, and appears to look at the Church more as a social actor than as a force to proclaim the Gospel. Benedict XVI warned about this in his last trip to Germany in 2011. This kind of theology also uses a “social sciences” terminology. For example, priests are often described as “pastoral agents”. In the end, a political perspective goes beyond pragmatism. It has a direct impact on theology and on the way elements are described. It is analogous to the change of terminology that took place in United Nations documents. Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi, who for more than ten years served as the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, often shed light on the issue. He identified the beginning of the shift in terminology in the 1968 “cultural revolution,” and noted that this new terminology spread after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the UN documents, as in many speeches by Churchmen, the terms gender, homophobia, sexual orientation, inclusive approach, agents of social transformation, and sustainable development are used all the time. On the other hand, words belonging to Jewish-Christian traditions tend to disappear from the public discourse: there are always fewer occurrences of terms like truth, moral conscience, reason, will, complementarity, sin, dogma, nature, or marriage. The discussion around the synod is not, then, only about the married priests’ issue, and is far from being merely about ecological issues. The debate will impact the way the Church describes herself and perceives her mission. This pragmatic, quasi-political, mentality permeates the synod’s working document and often asks the bishops to voice their concern on political issues. Is the working document representative of a “pastoral” synod, in the words of Pope Francis? The answer must be left unanswered since Pope Francis’ approach is also very pragmatic. To be clear, Pope Francis is not aiming at changing the doctrine. When Pope Francis speaks about abortion, he has strong words of condemnation. Pope Francis did not even ever accepted the gender theory, that he labeled as demonic. When it comes to practical issues, Pope Francis stops acting as a Pope and becomes a good confessor who discerns case by case. All confessor practice discernment on issues. However, no judgment aims at changing the doctrine of the Church. Not even the Pope does. However, his pragmatic approach to issues leaves a chink that the quasi-political propaganda aiming at the change of the doctrine of the Church can exploit. The polarization of the discussion fuels the political approach, since the polarization generates division rather than communion: politicians are better versed than theologians in divisions. One of the results of this polarization is the always increasing mentioning of an anti-Francis lobby. Proof of the existence of the lobby is generally vague, and is not revealing of a real lobby. The mere fact that the presence of this lobby is continuously mentioned, however, leaves the impression that this lobby exists, is active, and that it is more influential and persuasive than realized. Pope Francis’ big challenge for next fall is, then, that of taking the Church out of this narrative, this “divide and conquer” that generates division. The discussions of a synod never arose so much interest. They have become a source of interest only now, under Pope Francis. While net stances on doctrine are missing, the synod is seen as a soft institution, the ideal place from which a revolution can be started. Pope Francis is called to become a mediator between these two positions. It is an arduous task.
Our New World Without Kith or Kin
The Japanese word kodokushi roughly translates to “lonely death.” The term might be a touch poetic for what it actually describes, conjuring as it does the romantic image of an individual stoically riding off alone into oblivion. An existential cowboy leaning in his saddle towards the darkening horizon, embodying all the heroic maverick energy that our contemporary world so highly values. The apotheosis of freedom in current Western society being a complete atomization of self, an undoing of all the bonds which constrain us, kodokushi almost sounds like something to aspire to. The material reality of the “lonely death” is grim. Disgusting, even. It is an odor the neighbors do not notice until it is already too late. It is the kinetic hum of maggots digesting an undiscovered corpse. It is the slow accumulation of “past due” notices in the mail, piling up until a stranger comes to query the “customer” in person and finds their liquefying remains. It is the cagey instinct of the entrepreneurs who have capitalized on kodokushi as a business opportunity, monetizing their lurid and sad deaths by offering special cleaning services for the tiny apartments of elderly folks who have died alone and unnoticed and are well into decomposition. In a phrase, it is the complete thing-ification of people who have outlasted their use-value. It is the fate of people who, as Simeone Weil quoted from The Iliad in a similar context, have become “dearer to the vultures” than their loved ones or community. Kodokushi is the process of humans being reduced to garbage. And it is not unique to Japan. As the first generation of humans “liberated” from kin-connections ages and dies, kodokushi becomes a global phenomenon. Scholars who study demographic shifts refer to what happened in relatively wealthy, Western countries after the Industrial Revolution—a decline in both death and birth rates—as the First Demographic Transition. You can basically sum it up as the process of large, extended families, shrinking down to the nuclear unit. What is occurring now—the epidemic of loneliness, the severing of deep familial ties, kodokushi, etc.—is known as the Second Demographic Transition (SDT). A recent article in City Journal describes the SDT as something that: Began emerging in the West after World War II. As societies became richer and goods cheaper and more plentiful, people no longer had to rely on traditional families to afford basic needs like food and shelter. They could look up the Maslovian ladder toward “post-material” goods: self-fulfillment, exotic and erotic experiences, expressive work, education. Values changed to facilitate these goals. People in wealthy countries became more antiauthoritarian, more critical of traditional rules and roles, and more dedicated to individual expression and choice. With the help of the birth-control pill, “non-conventional household formation” (divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, and single parenthood) went from uncommon—for some, even shameful—to mundane. [Belgian demographer] Lesthaeghe predicted that low fertility would also be part of the SDT package, as families grew less central. And low fertility, he suggested, would have thorny repercussions for nation-states: he was one of the first to guess that developed countries would turn to immigrants to restock their aging populations, as native-born young adults found more fulfilling things to do than clean up after babies or cook dinner for sullen adolescents. An emphasis should be put on the phrase “more fulfilling” in the paragraph above, because along with the technological means to survive without the assistance of a large kin-network comes the shift in values which defines human fulfillment in a manner largely de-contextualized from social ties. Someone of a Hegelian bent might say that this redefinition of human needs made possible the creation of the technology in which to manifest the atomized lifestyle. A Marxist might insist that the chicken always comes before the egg. Either way, and however far back in the dim memory of the human story you might trace the lineage of the drive to sever connection to and responsibility for one another (we can certainly go back at least to Cain), when taken to its logical conclusion the result always seems to be the same: people are transformed into refuse. In his Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino wrote about Leonia, a city which worships trendiness. Every morning the citizens revel in new songs on the radio, new products delivered to their doors, and brand-new fashions in clothing and food. Of course, the hidden god of Leonia is not necessarily the novel, but the discarded. As Calvino writes, It is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, bought, that you can measure Leonia's opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new. So you begin to wonder if Leonia's true passion is really, as they say, the enjoyment of new things, and not, instead, the joy of expelling, discarding, cleansing itself of a recurrent impurity. The fact is that street cleaners are welcomed like angels. In our new kinless world, where people are discarded the same as refrigerators or sneakers, the folks who dispose of our refuse are also angels of death. The desire to collapse in on ourselves like dying, solitary stars, might be older than ancient. But more recently we can see it manifest in last centuries various ideological turns against both tradition and, more importantly, the notion of a transcendent reality. The Italian scholar Augusto Del Noce writes in The Age of Secularization that “the two poles that ultimately define all of today’s conflicts are traditionalists versus progressives, and all positive values reside with the progressive cause.” It is this same overly-simple dichotomy in which the student “rebellions” of the 60’s (and those of today, as well) placed themselves. As Carlo Lancellotti, Del Noce’s translator, sums up the situation in the introduction to The Age of Secularization, The students confused the affluent society in which they had grown up with “tradition,” and thus rejected the very institutions (the family, the church, liberal education) that still resisted the technological mindset. This tragic misunderstanding led them to extremism, that is, to a form of revolutionary utopianism that fails to critique the society of well-being “because it supinely accepts, as fragmentary mush, the ideal principles that started the process that led to the current system, the system it would like to oppose.” This does not just explain why both the hippies and their contemporary social justice equivalents are so easily co-opted by corporate enterprise, but also why so often the end results of their agitation lead to the exact opposite of what they claimed to be agitating for. The communitarian bliss of the hippie transformed into the individualized aggression and greed of the 80’s and 90’s. The monomaniacal focus on “safety” of the contemporary SJW is not unrelated to ongoing suicide and depression epidemics. This is because, says Del Noce, with some sympathy to their sensitivity to the imperfections of society, progressives have misdiagnosed the causes of suffering and dedicated themselves to working against the very institutions and ideas which not only humanize us, but save us from psychological and spiritual deterioration: the family, the church, the transcendent. The lonely death is part of the cultural effluvia of this progressive miscalculation. We occasionally get glimpses of it here and there in our art, literature, and music; but often with the same attendant misdirected anger towards the vestiges of institutions which might help to prevent anomie. Any number of contemporary songs or movies come to mind where the family is seen as something to liberate oneself from in order achieve a deeper contentment and truer sense of self. Few examples exist of art which conveys the horror of the isolated individual, imprisoned by solitary desire. French author Michel Houellebecq might be the rare example of an artist who unflinchingly gazes into the abyss of modern self and, with a cold eye, catches sight of all the ways in which constructing a world composed simply of desire sated and desire thwarted contributes to profound human misery. In what might be his most accomplished novel, The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq directly confronts the failures of 60’s radicalism, particularly where it pertains to so-called sexual liberation. A few quotes might better articulate the spirit of the novel than a recounting of its plot: It is interesting to note that the “sexual revolution” was sometimes portrayed as a communal utopia, whereas in fact it was simply another stage in the historical rise of individualism. As the lovely word “household” suggests, the couple and the family would be the last bastion of primitive communism in liberal society. The sexual revolution was to destroy these intermediary communities, the last to separate the individual from the market. The destruction continues to this day. Or: What the boy felt was something pure, something gentle, something that predates sex or sensual fulfillment. It was the simple desire to reach out and touch a loving body, to be held in loving arms. Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction, which is why it is so difficult to give up hope. Or: It's a curious idea to reproduce when you don't even like life. And, most importantly: Love binds, and it binds forever. Good binds while evil unravels. Separation is another word for evil; it is also another word for deceit. Houellebecq plays the role of prophet of our kinless world, a world attempting to denude itself of intimacy and profound joy. And he is excellent at articulating the plight of the solitary sufferer, of telling us where we went wrong. He is sensitive to these metaphysical wrong turns because he is naturally a pessimist. This same pessimism that allows him clarity in one sense also blinds him to the ways in which we might recover or rebuild societal structures for encouraging human flourishing. He seems to understand that life without family-bonds or the church is terrible, but he has trouble saying why family is good. For that we might turn to Christopher Lasch, the American historian and social critic. To understand Lasch’s defense of the family, we need to also know what he meant by “family”. So often, at least since the Second World War, when people say the word, the image that comes to mind is a nuclear family of husband, wife, and children. But Lasch wants us to understand that this emphasis on the nuclear family is itself a kind of neologism, a kind of larval stage of the kinless individualism we’re currently experiencing. As George Scialabbia summarizes Lasch’s take: Far from idealizing the nuclear family, Lasch portrayed it as a doomed adaptation to industrial development. The transition from household production to mass production inaugurated a new world—a heartless world, to which the ideology of the family as a domestic sanctuary, a haven, was one response. The premodern, preindustrial family was besieged (and vanquished) by market forces; the modern family is besieged by the “helping” (which has turned out to mean “controlling”) professions. The latter development—the subordination of the family to the authority of a therapeutic ideology and an impersonal bureaucracy—is the story told in Haven in a Heartless World and its successors, the very well-known Culture of Narcissism and the not very well-known The Minimal Self. A few things are happening here, Lasch tells us. Most people are familiar with the critique that market forces abolished the “productive household” of the extended homesteading family, forcing each individual to leave the home, starting with the father and the extending to the mother, in desperate search for financial security. But Lasch contends that this process continues psychologically by the various distant and abstract bureaucratic forces, the “helping” entities, which step in to take on a greater role in parenting children. Whereas familial authority was once experienced as something intimate and personal, it is now a far-off thing which the nuclear family is at pains to defend itself from. In Lasch’s formulation, a conscience is formed by a combination of love and authority. When the authority of a nuclear family is taken (as Lasch insists it always will be in a society bent on atomization), and it is left only with love, it is not too much of a leap to expect that children will be made into narcissists. Lasch defines the narcissist as: Wary of intimate, permanent relationships, which entail dependence and thus may trigger infantile rage; beset by feelings of inner emptiness and unease . . . ; preoccupied with personal “growth” and the consumption of novel sensations; prone to alternating self-images of grandiosity and abjection; liable to feel toward everyone in authority the same combination of rage and terror that the infant feels for whoever it depends on; unable to identify emotionally with past and future generations and therefore unable to accept the prospect of aging, decay, and death. Unfortunately, these traits strike us as being all-too familiar. We know them. They are the atomized individuals of our kinless world. They are us. Lasch is critically incisive when it comes to describing how a family effectively socializes the young and generally makes itself useful, but one wonders if even an extended family network is able to defend itself against the vagaries of Houellebecq’s deceitful evil of “separation”. In order to guard against nihilism, the traditional family structure needs to be more than self-referential. What seems to be needed is a kind of spiritualized version of Lasch and Hourellebecq, defending kinship not in reactionary and secularized terms, but in the context of the metaphysical excess of which all goods partake. Any proper defense of the family should take pains to avoid the logic and vocabulary of atomization, of things and people being ends unto themselves. As we have seen, this sort of overly simple rationalization tends to harvest the very results which it claims to defend against: the individual exalted becomes a forgotten bit of refuse, left to die in an apartment forgotten and alone. Channeling the late Wittgenstein, we can say that the secret to the family lies outside the family. Not coincidentally, Pope Francis echoes Lasch’s use of the word “narcissism” in Amoris Laetitia to describe the qualities of someone enmeshed in our “culture of the ephemeral”: Here I think, for example, of the speed with which people move from one affective relationship to another. They believe, along the lines of social networks, that love can be connected or disconnected at the whim of the consumer, and the relationship quickly “blocked.” I think too of the fears associated with permanent commitment, the obsession with free time, and those relationships that weigh costs and benefits for the sake of remedying loneliness, providing protection or offering some service. We treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits, and squeezes the last drop. Then, goodbye. Narcissism makes people incapable of looking beyond themselves, beyond their own desires and needs. Yet sooner or later, those who use others end up being used themselves, manipulated and discarded by that same mind-set. It is also worth noting that breakups occur among older adults who seek a kind of “independence” and reject the idea of growing old together, looking after and supporting one another” (§32-3). So far, we could be reading Lasch or DelNoce, but where His Holiness parts ways with them is in acknowledging that “Scripture and Tradition give us access to a knowledge of the Trinity, which is revealed with the features of a family. The family is the image of God, who is a communion of persons” (§53). In other words, marriage and family both are more than sociological events. In a kind of spiritualization of Lasch’s description of the role of the family in psychological formation, we have marriage as a sacrament and family as symbolic confirmation of the higher order of reality, and we develop a deeper spiritual awareness through these relationships: Marriage is a precious sign for “when a man and a woman celebrate the sacrament of marriage, God, as it were, is ‘mirrored’ in them; he impresses in them his own features and the indelible character of his love. Marriage is the icon of God’s love for us. Indeed, God is also communion: the three Persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit live eternally in perfect unity. And this is precisely the mystery of marriage: God makes of the two spouses a single existence” (§82). What we are left with is the antithesis of Houellebecq’s evil “separation”. Our new kinless world, where social lives are defined in large part by the harsh realities of the Second Demographic Transition, seems more then than simply the effect of material shifts and technological progress. What we might reduce “the lonely death” to is the severance of the symbolic nature of our human relationships to the divine. The etymology of “symbol” being “to join together”, we can say that our atomization, our unjoining (etymologically related to the word “diabolic,” dia-ballō, to divide) has occurred simultaneously on many levels. Unfixed from the cross, we are unmoored ourselves, and bereft. Separated from the Father we are without authority. Unjoined from the Son we are without love. Cleaved from the Holy Spirit we are left as the narrator in Eliot’s Wasteland: “On Margate Sands / I can connect / Nothing with nothing./ The broken fingernails of dirty hands.” Disposing of lonely corpses for a paycheck before eventually being disposed of ourselves, whenever we happen to be found . . . like junk.
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by Bill Coffin (@billcoffin) 8 Must-Read Marriage Blogs Morgan Cutlip, My Love Thinks Growing Old and Back in the 'Bouncy House," More Grandparents Are Raising Grandkids Robert Weisman, The Boston Globe Love in an Age of Information Overload Phillip Johnston, Convivium Magazine Texas Tech Professor Says Parent Involvement Linked to Student Success in the Classroom Katie Main, KCBD FRPN Grantee Report: Considering Contextual Influences on Fatherhood Program Participants' Experiences in Alabama Francesca Adler-Baeder, Julianne McGill, Ami Landers, et al., Fatherhood Research & Practice Network
Thank God for courageous priests like Fr George Kuforiji
When parishes as extreme as St Francis, Portland come along, bishops and priests must act decisively
Big families will be the next target in the culture wars
An angry lobby declares that we need to cut family size to save the planet. It’s time to fight back
What are the Social and Psychological Costs of Our Computer-Mediated Lives?
by Clay Routledge (@clayroutledge) The Internet is an incredible technological advancement that has allowed people to access information, products, and services, connect with others, and mobilize social causes in ways not possible in the past. And now with over 90% of Americans under the age of 50 and the majority of people in many nations around the world owning smartphones, we have this amazing power right in our pockets. Yet, there are reasons to believe this technology comes with serious social and psychological costs. While some dismiss concerns about our computer-mediated lives as little more than “kids these days” complaints, the evidence that these concerns are warranted is growing. Psychologists have linked poor social and psychological well-being among young people to time spent in front of screens at the expense of time spent engaged in other activities that typically involve face-to-face social interaction. Though some have challenged the idea that screen time is harmful by pointing to the correlational nature of much of the data, new experimental studies are providing additional evidence that there are reasons for concern.  For example, in a field experiment, researchers found that having cellphones present during a meal with family or friends decreased enjoyment of that social experience. Another experiment that involved pairs of college students waiting together with or without their cellphones found that those who were phoneless were far more likely to smile at and interact with one another than those with cellphones. And one study found that having college students severely limit their daily social media use over a three-week period decreased both loneliness and depression. In short, a growing body of experimental research is providing empirical evidence that cellphones distract us from fully experiencing the real world. But are these issues really that big of a deal? After all, most people aren’t on their phones all the time, right?  Surveys indicate that young people are increasingly devoted to having their social lives mediated by technology. For example, surveys conducted by Common Sense Media show that between 2012 and 2016, the leading choice for how teenagers prefer to interact with their friends changed from face-to-face interaction to texting. The majority of teens also reported that social media often distracts them when they should be paying attention to people in real life. Pew Research Center further reports that about 3 in 10 adults, ages 18 to 49, indicate being online all the time. More and more, humans are growing up in a world that privileges technology-mediated living over face-to-face interaction. We tend to think about individual users when discussing the potential harm caused by smartphones; however, research is beginning to reveal how this technology is bad for family life. For example, in one recent experiment published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, psychologists Kostadin Kushlev and Elizabeth Dunn recruited parents at a science museum with their children and randomly assigned them to high or low cellphone use conditions. Parents in the high-use condition were instructed to spend as much time as they safely could on their phones while at the museum, and parents in the low-use condition were instructed to refrain from using their phones as much as possible. Prior to leaving the museum, parents completed questionnaires assessing their subjective experience of spending time with their children at the museum.   The researchers found that parents in the high-use condition, compared to those in the low-use condition, reported feeling less attentive and less socially connected, and reported lower meaning in life while with their children at the museum. In a follow-up diary-based study focused on parent and child interactions at home, the researchers found additional evidence that when phones distracted parents, they felt less socially connected to their children.  Regarding smartphones and family life specifically, a Pew survey found that around half of teenagers say their parents are distracted by their phones when they are trying to talk to them, and over 70% of parents report that their teenagers are distracted when they are trying to have a conversation with them.  Smartphones may be a wonderful technological achievement that make our lives easier in many ways, but they also undermine the quality and meaningfulness of time spent with loved ones, including our children, and make even more casual social encounters less pleasant and less likely.  Take for instance a new YouGov survey that finds that 30% of Millennials report always or often feeling lonely, and 22% report that they have no friends. Furthermore, Pew reports that over 70% of young adults believe that people just look out for themselves most of the time and that most people would try to take advantage of you if they had the chance; 60% believe most people can’t be trusted. Older generations, particularly those over the age of 65, are far less inclined to have such a pessimistic view of their fellow Americans.  There are many other worrying trends related to our psychological and social health, such as rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. Such trends undoubtedly have multiple causes, including the rise of individualism. As I discussed in an article for the New York Times, there are many reasons to believe that social and cultural changes that are at least partially rooted in individualism are contributing to a crisis of meaning in our society. And individualism may play an important role in how we think about and use technology. For instance, the more socially disconnected or alienated people feel as a result of the individualistic worldview that privileges personal freedom and independence over social duty and interdependence, the more they may look to social media to meet their basic social needs, even if online connections are poor substitutes for deeper in-person relationships.  Regardless, there is a growing body of survey and experimental research that indicates that our online lives are harming our real lives, from our relationships to our mental and emotional well-being. Even as we celebrate our increasing technological advances, we should not ignore the real social and psychological tradeoffs that we may be making in the process.
Catholics should be worried about the ‘fact-checking’ of a satirical site
Snopes labeled an obviously satirical story as 'false', potentially threatening the future of the Babylon Bee website
Atheism's Lessons for Theists
We think we know what atheism means. An atheist holds this proposition: God does not exist. The definition is clear and the group it designates is obvious. Such propositional atheism is the dominant way we think of atheists. But theists should reconsider the term in order to understand it, and ourselves, better. We understand by means of contrasts. How we understand our “other” has implications for how we understand ourselves. If we misconstrue our other, we will misjudge ourselves. We need, then, to complicate our understanding of atheism and see it in various historical formulations. These formulations challenge us to reconsider the propositional focus of our idea of atheism and so to call into question our own theism by shifting our understanding of it and by showing the porosity of the borders between theists and atheists. What is required is a map of some of the ways that atheism appears and what it discloses about theism. This will not be a comprehensive genealogy of atheism but a view of certain historical manifestations of atheism, especially in Plato, Augustine, and Nietzsche. These figures show us that atheism is not primarily propositional but positional. As such, they reveal that atheism is a kind of internal threat to theists who, either in taking up the wrong position to God, or putting God in the wrong position, can find themselves in the position of the atheist. Prior to any proposition, atheism is marked by the dual denial of God’s transcendence height, and immanent centrality. Consequentially, prior to any proposition, Christians must ask themselves in what position do they place God. Atheism is thus the besetting sin of all humans in seeking to make the human the highest and most central. As such, it is also the central crisis of modernity and one which calls into question the theism of theists. But we find our hope in it, because this sin requires that God make straight our hearts, which he does by passing through atheism on the Cross in order to form the theocentric community of the Church. This community is the place that we must turn to in order to be theists in this atheistic world. Plato’s Three Atheisms The term “atheism” shifted its meaning in ancient Greece with the rise of the Sophists and the natural philosophers. It was in this context that the religious reformer and philosopher, Plato, sought to clarify what it meant to be an atheist. Plato did so regarding the new thinking of the Sophists and natural scientists, but also regarding the traditional religion of the Greeks. Plato writes in The Laws that there are three ways to be godless. They are that: “the gods do not exist, or that they exist but take no thought for the human race, or that they are influenced by sacrifice and supplications and can easily be won over.”[1] For Plato, propositional atheism is lumped together with two other forms of impiety. They are presented as being of a kind together, because each acts as a denial of the gods. These three forms of atheism were a grave threat to a flourishing human life. For “the most important [thing] of all . . . is to get the right ideas about the gods, and so live a good life—otherwise you’ll live a bad one.”[2] These three modes of atheism threatened the prospects of living a good life because the human person requires a measure for determining and pursuing the Good. For Plato—in contrast to Protagoras—“it is God who is preeminently the ‘measure of all things,’ much more so than any ‘man.’”[3] With Plato, we see the origins of a struggle between an anthropocentric vision (man is the measure) and a theocentric vision (God is the measure). The ways of turning against the transcendent which Plato critiques all make man the measure for each marks the person with an “extreme love of himself.”[4] On the other hand, to be virtuous requires that the person “be loyal to his superior instead.”[5] Loyalty means following, for to follow the gods is to follow the wise. Each atheism entails extreme love that makes the self the measure of the good. By denying what is higher, they make the human the highest being. This is clear with the first atheist, the one who claims that the gods do not exist. Having denied God, they make themselves the highest by default. In contrast, the one who denies that the gods take concern for us is an atheist because they make the gods irrelevant to us because we are irrelevant to them. Having exalted God so far away they make it impossible for the gods to be the kind of superiors we could follow. These two forms of godlessness were relatively new in Plato’s time. Plato wrote to resist these trends, but he also wrote to reform traditional religion. The last form of atheism was that of the older form of Greek religion. It was based in a system of sacrifice that was meant to win the gods over. For Plato, the hoi sophoi were the unusual atheists, whereas the civil religion of Athens, that governed the life of the hoi poloi, formed the mass of atheists. This form of atheism was convinced that it was, in truth, theistic. Plato saw this as its great danger and the cause of its moral hypocrisy. It was thus the seedbed of the two newer forms of atheism. Why can we understand these religious practitioners as atheists? They did not follow the gods but sought to compel the gods to follow them. In their behavior, they set their own measure of the good and then bribed the gods to correspond with it. Man was not only the measure of all things; man was the measure of the gods who must act according to our desires as conveyed by our sacrifices and supplications. It was for this reason that Plato saw the last atheism as “the worst and most impious of the impious.”[6] It did not deny the gods, it subordinated them to us. For Plato, this was blasphemous and made following the gods impossible. It was particularly pernicious because one thought one was following the gods as one bribed them. The worst kind of atheism for Plato was an atheism that did not know it was atheism. Augustine and the Crookedness of Hearts This tradition of thinking about different forms of atheism carried over into early Christianity. Augustine again lumps atheism within three false positions towards God which he describes as “grave impieties.”[7] These were the “denial of God’s existence, or charging him with injustice, or doubting his governance of the world.”[8] Here again denial of God’s existence is clustered with two other rejections of God. All three rejections of God—as non-existent, unjust, or absent from governance—lead to the false liberty of being able to act immorally. While Augustine follows Plato to a certain extent, the differences are important. Augustine is less concerned with bribing the gods but with our denial of divine justice. If God is unjust, then I do not need to be just. The human person needs exemplars and an unjust God will make for unjust people. This can be taken in different ways. Augustine looks to the Latin playwright, Terence for one. Terence writes of “a disgraceful young man” observing Jupiter’s adultery with Danae. Augustine writes that “he finds, in so great an authority, a patron for his own wickedness.”[9] Unjust portrayals of the gods act as bad exemplars and we cannot be just without good exemplars. Augustine is also concerned with the way we try to offload our responsibility by positing our own personal purity detached from any exterior contamination. If God is unjust then there is a source of injustice and so I am not responsible for my injustice. This is part of his critique of the Manicheans. In positing a divine source of evil, they liberate us from actual responsibility. Human persons are not the source of unjust deeds, God is. This allows me to do what contemporary banks do when under financial duress. They form “bad banks” in which they offload their bad investments and so offload their responsibility for them. What is left is their supposed purity. Similarly, the sinner—believing in an unjust God—offloads their irresponsibility onto God directly. No longer being responsible, they are not responsible for conforming their will to God. In the third impiety, the denial of God’s governance, we see a more communal maleficence. To deny God’s governance is to deny the eternal standards that guide us to love rightly. These standards are ones we participate in, and so to deny them is to privatize justice and so to deny our place in God’s City. We love ourselves to the extent of despising God.[10] Such a mode of thinking allows us to dwell in a city of our own construction in which we make the laws unconcerned with a higher law. Having placed God outside our city—neither higher nor central but irrelevant—we are able to be autonomous. The atheist is thus the one who lives in the city without God. They found a city bound by the earthly logic of the libido dominandi in which the self dominates by denying the law of the Other. For Augustine, people hold such views because “they are crooked of heart.”[11] As crooked, they do not want to be made straight. To deny that there is divine rectitude is to deny any rectitude not of our own making. If God does not exist, there is no need to make straight our hearts; if God is unjust then we can be unjust without being responsible for it; if God does not govern then we can govern ourselves according to our own crookedness. Importantly, Augustine emphasizes that these atheisms lie in our heart for each denies the centrality of God. More than Plato, Augustine is concerned not only with God as the higher, whom we must follow, but also as the center of our hearts. These three atheisms recognize that if “God is straight and true” then a “crooked heart is not at peace with him.”[12] God’s reality, as the Good and so the just measure of our lives, takes away our false tranquility. We find ourselves like “a warped beam on a hard, level surface” we “do not fit or square up properly or lie flat.”[13] If we can eliminate the true surface, then we can be at rest with our crookedness. But God ceaselessly bothers us with his rectitude. These atheisms are ultimately the hatred of the truth, for truth is being in accord with Divine Rectitude. God’s summons to rectitude means that we “will always shake and wobble, not because the surface where it was placed is uneven, but because the beam itself is lopsided. As long as a heart remains crooked, it cannot be aligned with the rectitude of God.”[14] As carpenters will say, this requires “truing the board” for the twisted board cannot straighten itself. The atheist refuses this straightening. In contrast, the theist is receptive to being made straight. Augustine sees atheism as a crookedness that can only be made straight by a God intimately in contact with us. The Carpenter must place his hands on the bent beam, apply the lathe, and humble the proud. For Augustine, the Platonists pointed to the Measure but could not provide the Lathe that would straighten us. Our prideful crookedness wants to pretend to be straight, but the presence of God as the True Measure constantly unsettles us until we allow the Carpenter to humble the proud. Nietzsche and Atheism as Apathy To leap forward to one last example of a mode of atheism, we should turn to Nietzsche. We misunderstand Nietzsche if we take him to mean that an actual God died, or even that he thought there was no God. Nietzsche has little interest in propositional atheism, because he saw that a theism that was merely propositional was itself an atheism. The line that “God is dead” occurs in a curious parable that Nietzsche tells. In the story, a madman runs into a town square shouting “I seek God! I seek God.”[15] The townspeople, whom we should take as Christians, laugh at him. The idea that someone would eagerly search for God is amusing to them. What Nietzsche sees in this passage is that the death of God is the death of the centrality of God in our lives. Unlike Augustine’s crooked hearts, we are no longer unsettled by God because God does not matter to us. God no longer forms the central demand on our lives and no longer guides our thinking on communal existence. The ultimate question no longer affects us. The madman sees this apathy towards God as the murder of God. For Nietzsche, this is the most momentous event in history. It alters everything to live in the wake of the death of God. “What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move?”[16] Our very existence is altered by the murder of God and so he asks “How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of murderers? . . . Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us?”[17] The response of the townspeople is a blank stare. God dies in this blank stare. God is dead because when we receive news of his death, we respond as though hearing of the death of someone we care not a whit about. Consequently, the murder of God by the townspeople “is as yet further from them than the furthest star—and yet they have done it!”[18] God is dead because we have made existence revolve around our banality and so collapsed the theocentric into the anthropocentric. For Nietzsche, this should move us to self-exaltation: “Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods?”[19] There is no longer a central or a highest, there is just us—so now we make ourselves gods. We are not conformed to God in Christian divinization, nor do we join the company of gods by following them as they follow the Good; rather, we make ourselves gods by making the standards for life. Nietzsche actually here proposes a new form of theocentrism. The ubermensch takes the place of the gods. Nietzsche was no humanist; the values of the humanists were too petty for him. It could not be that mere humanity could be the measure; rather, he wanted to make men gods. If the humanists thought man was the measure, Nietzsche thought the overman would forge a new measure. By transvaluing values, they make a new measure according to their exalted selves. We might call this uber-anthropocentrism. However, the madman sees that both theocentrism and Nietzschean uber-anthropocentrism is impossible for the small-minded inhabitants of the liberal order. They do not care about God and do not care that they do not care. God is dead to them because something is dead in them. In the spiritually vacant West, we now live under this atheism which is an amalgamation of these atheisms. There may be few propositional atheists, but we now live within the societal position of atheism. Positioning God; Positioning Ourselves What is the status of the believer under the sign of atheism? Each form of atheism, though understood differently, is primarily a matter of position. The questions they ask are “Where is God?” rather than “Is God?’ The atheist is primarily the one who denies that God is the highest and the central. If the divine is then it must be both central and highest. This is the importance of Anselm’s dual claim that God is that-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought and that we find God in our intellect. Whenever, we place something above God, we are atheists—not because we deny God’s existence (which is impossible for Anselm)—but because we move God out of God’s place. But God is not only above for Anselm but within. The great insight of Anselm is not that God exists in phenomenal reality, but that God exists in our intellect. The atheist is the fool who says in their heart there is no God. This does not require a proposition but a shift in position. It is this that Anselm (building on Augustine) knew when he argued that God must be the greatest that can be conceived (so great is he that he must be conceived as being beyond conception) and that God lies at the center of our soul. This is why most of the Proslogion is not about God’s existence but about the Goodness of God as expressed in both mercy and justice and thus the requirement that we conform to God’s Goodness through mercy and justice. Atheism is thus disclosed primarily as the denial of theocentrism in our practice of living. When we act as though God is not the heights and the center, we fall into atheism and this is what we see in our secular age. For Plato, Augustine, and Nietzsche, theists can be and often are atheists. For Plato, they refuse to see the higher and follow it to the Good. For Augustine, the crooked-hearted do not want to see themselves as crooked and so seek to ignore God or even to bend God according to their own crookedness. For Nietzsche, the theistic atheist may subscribe to the proposition of God but in so doing negates God as actually central to being and to their way of life. These modes of atheism disclose that for the believer that, properly speaking, atheism is not primarily a false position that others take but a false way of existing that believers themselves fall into. We are atheists when we see to make ourselves the measure, when we seek to bend God to our earthly injustice or our party politics, when we, in our banality, ignore the majesty of God. Such forms of atheism cannot long last before they become propositional atheism, which is revealed as primarily a consequence of positional atheism. In fact, propositional atheism is merely a mode of positional atheism. The Saving Atheism To be a theist then is to always place God as the highest and the most central. It is, in each moment, to place God as the measure of our acts and so the intended goal of each act. If God is the height and the center, then theocentrism cannot be occasional. We live this centrality in measuring all our mundane acts against the measure of Divine Rectitude. Any act which is not ordered towards God is an act that displaces God. Atheism is thus the persistent moral threat. It is the reason why all sins are sins against God. In each sin, we lower and decenter God and so deny God. We say in our hearts, “There is no God.” To make of atheism a mere proposition is too easy on the Christian. It displaces the threat of atheism onto a group of others, rather than seeing atheism as a matter that requires an examination of my own atheisms. This is the challenge of Nietzsche who reveals to us how empty our faith often is. We fail even to notice that we have displaced God. This is the scandal of atheistic theism. We propositionally proclaim what we positionally deny. As Christ teaches, it cries “Lord, Lord” but does not do “the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). It is this scandal that is rife in a Christianity that beats the drums for war, that colonizes nations, that drives away the refugee, and oppresses the poor. This is the atheism described in the judgment of the sheep and the goats in which theists are disclosed as atheists for denying the poor and so denying God. For the theist to truly speak of atheism requires that we repent of our atheism. Our prayer, attention, and work then should be to restore the theocentric position in our hearts and communities. The prayer of the atheistic theist is: “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief” (Mark 9:24) We atheistic theists should see in this prayer that we are not far from our fellow atheists. For Augustine, it may be that the atheist will ultimately be the theist and vice versa: You do not know what that person is in God’s sight . . . It is our neighbors who lie hidden in these people who are not yet in the Church. Come to think of it, there are others hiding in the Church who are far away from us. We do not know what someone who just now was nothing may turn out to be.[20] Our own atheism should remind us of the possible theism in all non-believers. Our prayer is echoed in the atheist, who when acting according to God’s standards, silently prays, “Lord I don’t believe, help though my unbelief.” The modern theist, dwelling under the sign of atheism, must offer their vocal prayer along with these silent prayers. A model of theocentric life is found in St. Dominic’s desire to “speak only of God and with God.” In everything, God should be central; everything should be done for and with God. For fallen persons, this moral standard is a recipe for despair. Not only do we all sin; we constantly act without considering God. Our default mode is not theocentric; because, we cannot maintain our attention on God. Default atheism is ultimately the nature of Original Sin, which is exacerbated within an imminent frame marked by the Nietzschean death of God. The original sin was, in a sense, the original atheism. Adam and Eve displaced God as the height and center of their lives. They denied that God mattered, that God governed, that God was the true measure. They did not care about God and therefore they were the first atheists. Atheism is our inheritance from them. Modernity suffers under the double sign of atheism because we so chronically displace God. Yet, if atheism is our default mode, the question is: “who in the world can be saved?” (Matt 19:25). To answer this, we must turn to the strangest atheism of all, found in Christ on the Cross. Jesus cries out in his death throes: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). Christ experiences himself as a-theos, as without God. G.K. Chesterton writes that we will “let the atheists choose their god, they will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”[21] On the cross, Jesus passed through the trial of atheism. This is salvific because he did this out of his total theocentrism. Following the Good by being the Good he poured himself out for us. The Theocentric God is kenotic because, to save us from our anthropocentrism, he centered himself on the man Jesus. Jesus, pure of heart, suffered for our crookedness and so justified us according to his perfect rectitude. Dying, he destroyed atheism. At the heart of Christianity is this saving moment of atheism. The true Theist passed through atheism, so we erratic theists may pass through into his theocentrism. In our atheistic time, we must still pass through Christ’s Cross. This is the only theism available to us. We receive our theism vicariously through Christ’s total theocentrism. Through the outpouring of the Spirit, God repositions God at the center of the human heart thereby founding the community that has God as its highest position. The Church is the theocentric community because God promises to always be at the center of this community of atheistic-theists. This means that the theism of the Christian is not primarily propositional but positional. To be a Christian is to stand within the community whose theocentrism is not guaranteed by us but by God. Yes we should affirm God’s existence, but to be a theist is to be a follower of the Good; to participate in the community that offers true sacrifice and right supplication; to live under the governance of God by conforming to his rectitude; to do his will by loving the unloved. We can pass through atheism, even that of Nietzsche, if we pass through it from within the Body of Christ. The final atheism, that of Christ, is the atheism that reforms our crooked hearts and fills them with God. From the position of the Body of Christ, our creedal claim—I believe in God—becomes more than a proposition, it becomes our salvific position. [1] Plato, The Laws, trans. Trevor J. Saunders, in Plato: Complete Works. ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), X 885b [2] Ibid., X 888b. [3] Ibid., IV 716c. [4] Ibid., V 732b. [5] Ibid., V 732b. [6] Ibid., X 907b. [7] Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms 1-32 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), Exp 2 Ps. 31, 25. [8] Ibid. [9] Augustine, City of God against the Pagans (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), II:7. [10] Augustine, Civ. Dei, II:7. [11] Augustine, Exp. Ps. 2,31, 25. [12] Augustine, Exp. Ps. 2,31, 25. [13] Ibid. [14] Ibid. [15] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science with a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix (Cambridge: CUP, 2001), 120. [16] Ibid., 120. [17] Ibid, 120. [18] Ibid, 120. [19] Ibid, 120. [20]Ex. Ps. 2,25,2. [21] GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), 145.
Sex and the Single Evangelical
by David J. Ayers (@GCCAyers) Evangelicals share something in common with every other branch of conservative Christianity. They hold to a simple view of sex outside of marriage, rooted in many centuries of historical teaching and what appear to be the plain teachings of the Bible, especially the New Testament—don’t.  Yet most self-identified Evangelicals1 engage in premarital sex. And doing so has become increasingly morally acceptable among them, regardless of what their churches teach. We have seen a long trend toward greater liberalization of sexual ethics among Evangelical laypersons over the past several decades, underscored in recent years by several prominent Evangelical leaders breaking ranks to embrace progressive views on sex.  The recent, highly public defection of a superstar of the “sexual purity” movement, Josh Harris, is a dramatic case in point. Starting with the repudiation of his own best-selling books promoting courtship practices that promoted abstinence until marriage, on to pursuing his own “amicable” divorce, and then rejecting Christianity entirely—all on social media—Harris has become a poster-child for the “new” Evangelical sexual ethic. Unique, perhaps, only in indicating that his views are no longer Christian (rather than the more typical attempt to claim that Christianity allows for pre-marital sex), Harris is indicative of a larger shift away from traditional stances on sex within Evangelical circles. For example, in the General Social Survey (GSS), in 2014 through 2018 combined, only 37% of “fundamentalist2 adults said that sex outside marriage was “always wrong,” while 41% said it was “not wrong at all.” From 1974 to 1978, the same percentages were 44% and 27%, respectively.  Meanwhile, the GSS shows that among never-married fundamentalist adults between 2008 and 2018, 86% of females and 82% of males had at least one opposite-sex sexual partner since age 18, while 57% and 65%, respectively, had three or more. These percentages were even higher for those under 30. In my recent book, Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction, I looked at data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), which provides a lot more detail on sexual activity and includes a larger number of respondents.3 In this article, and in the corresponding research brief, I incorporate the most recent NSFG cycle released in December 2018 to further explore the sexual practices of young, never-married Evangelicals, combining the surveys for 2013-15 and 2015-17. I summarize my findings below.  The following figures compare the percentages of never-married respondents in these NSFG cycles, by gender and in two age groups and five major religious affiliation categories, who have ever engaged in sexual intercourse, as well as those who have ever engaged in any sexual activity (vaginal, oral or anal) with an opposite-sex partner. As Figures 1 and 2 below show, by the time they are young adults, roughly two-thirds of Evangelical young people have engaged in sexual intercourse, and about three-quarters have engaged in at least one of three forms of sexual activity. Among those ages 15 to 17, those percentages were about one-quarter and well over 40%, respectively. Although Evangelicals mostly compare favorably to respondents in the other religious groupings shown, the percentages are not very comforting to those Evangelicals who believe in premarital chastity. “Looking under the hood” at specifics would be even more shocking to many Evangelical leaders. For example, roughly one-in-five never-married Evangelicals 18 to 22 years of age have engaged in sexual behavior as risky as anal sex (findings not shown here).  Moreover, as Figure 3 below illustrates, for those who have ever engaged in sexual activity, the percentages who have had multiple sex partners is quite high. Focusing just on Evangelicals, we find that roughly one-third of those ages 15 to 17, and over 40% of females and over 50% of males ages 18 to 22, have had 4 or more opposite-sex partners. Overall, these percentages were not consistently lower than those of the other four Christian groups. When those who had refrained from sexual intercourse were asked to identify their most important reason for abstaining, the response of Evangelical singles was not that encouraging, either. Among both age groups combined, 59% of young women said it was because they did not want to violate their religion or morals, but only 42% of young men cited this reason (figure not shown here). Other reasons were quite prominent, including simply not having the opportunity, or waiting for the right time, for premarital sex. Thus, even for many Evangelical abstainers, religious beliefs about premarital sex were not very relevant to their sexual behavior. In further analysis (explored in the full research brief), it becomes clear that church attendance and the importance of religion to the respondents’ daily lives are both strongly associated with reduced involvement in premarital sexual activity. For example, looking at only Evangelicals ages 18 to 22, 51% of those who attended church weekly or more had engaged in sexual intercourse. Percentages for those who attended at least monthly and less than that were from 17% to 31% higher, and percentages for those who never attended church were even greater.  Differences between those who regarded their religion as “very” or only “somewhat” important were similar.4 Among 18 to 22-year-olds, for example, 54% of young women who regarded their religious beliefs as “very important” had ever had intercourse, versus 82% of young women who said their religion was only “somewhat important.” Among young men, it was 56% versus 76%, respectively. Unfortunately, for both age groups combined, only 55% of young women and 48% of young men attend religious services at least weekly, while 25% and 31% (respectively) do so less than monthly or never. Moreover, 70% of young women and 61% of young men consider their religion to be “very important” to their daily lives—majorities, but still not too impressive. This certainly helps explain why being Evangelical is, in itself, not as correlated with lower levels of premarital sexual activity as we might expect given the substance and importance of Evangelical teaching on this issue. Although we must be careful about making any kind of causal claims from data such as this, given all we know about the impact of commitment and social support, teaching young people to prioritize church attendance and to keep religion central in their daily lives will most likely help them to be more faithful to their churches’ sexual teachings. It is certainly hard for religious leaders to effectively instruct their members on these matters if most are not present in church or committed to applying their faith. This is especially true in a culture where classical Christian teaching on sex is increasingly rejected. Casual, lax Christianity is not going to encourage young people to swim against the currents of their time and the influence of their peers. David J. Ayers is currently Professor of Sociology and Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. His latest book is Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction(Lexham Press, February 2019). Dr. Ayers has taught college-level classes in Marriage and Family for well over 30 years.  Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies. 1. By the term ‘Evangelical’ I am referring specifically to a definition consistent with the National Association of Evangelicals understanding of this term, and what denominations who are part of the NAE generally embrace. See full research brief for the complete definition. 2. Fundamentalist” and “conservative Protestant” in the GSS both match typical understandings of “Evangelical.” 3. Op cit., see especially Chapter 7. 4. There were few who identified with an Evangelical Protestant church who said their religious faith was “not at all” important to their daily life, hence that category was excluded.