Category Archives: Human Dignity

Setting the Table for All

GraceGrace Mariette Agolia

Undergraduate Fellow

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I love sharing meals with other people, especially around the dinner table with my family.  In this sense, family, while including the biological, extends beyond that to a spiritual communion of persons, who express vulnerability by welcoming each other to the table, preparing a place for each person, serving each person, and embracing each other as he or she is in God.  You behold the body before you, you receive it, and you give of yourself in return.  It is both a physical and spiritual act.  I learned this experience of family in a special way during my time this past summer at a L’Arche home.

L’Arche is an international organization founded by Jean Vanier through which people with and without intellectual disabilities share life in community, build mutually transforming relationships, celebrate the dignity of each human person, and make known each other’s gifts by working together to build a better world. [1]

At tvince4he beginning and end of each dinner meal at L’Arche, we pray together.  We thank God for the gifts of family, friends, and food before we eat, and afterwards, we light a candle and pass it around to each person at the table as they express gratitude for certain experiences of the day and name their prayer intentions.  We conclude by joining hands to say the “Our Father.”  In gathering together around the table, we share our joys and sorrows, and we acknowledge each other’s dignity as persons created in the image of God.  The meal is not only about the food shared but also about the humanity shared with each other in kinship, where those at the margins are brought to the center.

Especially in a world where many are afraid to confront Lazarus begging for scraps at the table of plenty, this understanding of family where all, especially those on the margins of society, are welcomed at the table is essential for us to encounter God in human relationships.  We are to come to the feast of heaven and earth exactly as we are in God, and we are to embrace the dignity of all persons at the table, regardless of condition or ability.  For people with disabilities, this can be difficult because much of the non-acceptance that they face in society happens because others are not willing to incur a cost to themselves in trying to go beyond their fear in an attempt to understand.  Much of the disabling part is actually a social construction – the terrible feeling of isolation that results when other people, who do not understand because they are afraid, treat people with disabilities in a different way that can be demeaning.

Persons with disabilities are human beings.  Their experience of disability is a very particular type of challenge that they face in their daily lives.  It informs their experience as human beings, but it no way defines who they are.  Like every other human being, they seek love, they seek acceptance, they seek friendship, they seek communion.  Like all people, they must be offered a place at the table, where the human heart is called to relationship, to “a communion of hearts, which is the to-and-fro of love.” [2]

According to theologian Henri Nouwen:

[H]aving a meal is more than eating and drinking [to stay alive]. It is celebrating the gifts of life we share. A meal together is one of the most intimate and sacred human events. Around the table we become vulnerable, filling one another’s plates and cups and encouraging one another to eat and drink. Much more happens at a meal than satisfying hunger and quenching thirst. Around the table we become family, friends, community, yes, a body. That is why it is so important to ‘set’ the table. Flowers, candles, colorful napkins all help us to say to one another, “This is a very special time for us, let’s enjoy it!”  [3]

At L’Arche, we take great care in preparing and setting the table for each meal, ensuring that we have the right lastsuppernumber of places for all the people coming to dinner and that we can accommodate specific dietary needs.  Likewise, at Mass, it is so important to set a place for each person at the table, to invite them, to welcome them because that is true meaning of community.  We are to enjoy the beautiful presence of each other, of God coming into our midst.

This is part of the reason why I enjoyed attending Mass with the L’Arche core members.  They sat right in front at church, participating as fully and joyfully as they could using their gifts, and the whole parish community was so accepting of them as persons, which is a recognition that goes beyond merely accommodating a physical disability.  The accommodation needs to become a spiritual one for both persons in the relationship in order to bring them together, not just as one simply helping the other but as both mutually benefiting and being transformed by the interaction.

As Hauerwas and Vanier wrote,

“The Word became flesh to bring people together, to break down the walls of fear and hatred that separate people.  That’s the vision of the incarnation – to bring people together.  In his prayer for unity Jesus prayed that we might all become one.  We have this incredible vision of peacemaking, two thousand years in the making.” [4]

We are called to break down barriers of misunderstanding that separate us by giving and receiving the kiss of peace each day, and especially so during a family meal by taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing the bread that sustains all.

Sometimes, we have experiences of disruptive meals because of hostility and unreconciled differences among persons.  Those meals often go unfinished, with one person leaving in anger, the food wasted, the other sinking at the table, either no longer hungry, or eating in a futile attempt to fill the emotional emptiness.  Or there is an awkward silence as we cover ourselves by focusing on our food, anxious to get the meal over with so that we can escape the embarrassing situation.  There is no giving or receiving; only fear, and the walls go up.  We are left alone in isolation, in a division that threatens community.  This happens all too often in family life.  Some of us grow up not being able to be vulnerable, and it affects our relationships with other people.

When we are unable to accept the limitations of others, it is often because we are unable to accept our own.  For many of us, it is difficult “to accept our limits and our handicaps as well as our gifts and capacities.  We feel that if others see us as we really are they might reject us.  So we cover our weaknesses.” [5] Each of us has a strong desire to be valued and regarded as a person of worth, and when we discover those things which inhibit us from aspiring to our full potential or those things that are looked down upon by others, we want to hide them so that we may be accepted.  It is hard to expose our true selves because we run the risk of being rejected and hurt.  To give of oneself freely and to be accepting of another comes at a cost, but the rewards reaped can be great when love is returned.

When we accept each other as we are with all our weaknesses and strengths, and continuously come together to partake of the same meal, we grow together on our journey to God. When one gives to another, he or she allows the gift to be received, creating areas of inner spiritual growth.

For Jean Vanier, accompaniment is very much a part of life at L’Arche, but it is ultimately at the heart of all human growth. [6] We are to assume dispositions of humility and mercy for each other, so that we may walk together on this journey, encouraging the other to grow in loving relationship.  This mutual trust and belonging in communion is the “to-and-fro” movement of love between two people where each one gives and each one receives.  Communion is not a stagnant reality; it is continuously growing and deepening but “can turn sour if one person tries to possess the other, thus preventing growth.” [7] Both are enabled in freedom because they are allowed to be themselves.  As we partake of the meal together, we accompany each other in our spiritual journeys to union with God, which involves forgiveness and growth in understanding of each other.

In acknowledging and accepting each other’s vulnerability, we participate in this “to-and-fro of love,” a communion of hearts, where vulnerability and tenderness abounds.  By sharing the same meal and being incorporated into Christ’s loving act of self-gift, we are called to do the same in our lives when we are sent forth into the world after Mass.  We become a living body, unified in love through vulnerability in relationships.

By emphasizing relationships as brothers and sisters in Christ, L’Arche identifies itself as not just a service provider but also as a Christian community.  It is not just assistants caring for persons with disabilities; it is persons with disabilities caring for assistants as well.  The relationship is mutually beneficial and transforming, where both are called to vulnerability and to an ever-deeper love.  This is the nature of self-giving love that is intrinsic to family life.  There must be a selfless desire to give, and a humility to receive, both of which require vulnerability.  The love of husband and wife, the love of mother and father for their children, the love of siblings, the love of children for their parents, especially as they grow older and in turn, now need their children’s care.  We are formed in this love at Mass, at the Eucharistic table, and leaving, our lives become “Eucharistized,” as we share meals at our own family tables in our homes, welcoming all and preparing a place for all, especially those on the margins.

Gratitude is a fruit of this vulnerability of persons gathered together around the table.  Just as one core member at L’Arche expressed that his vision of heaven would be like the “First Thanksgiving,” pointing to a depiction of the Last Supper on the wall above the dining room table, we are called to enact each meal as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, honoring God and those human beings around us with sacred dignity.  We are called to give of ourselves in relationships of humble service and gratitude, as an offering of self-gift modeled on that of Jesus’ own gift on the cross.  Our hospitality to each other is a genuine example of how we should emulate Christ’s vulnerability in our lives.  In coming to the table, we do run the risk of allowing ourselves to be changed.  But unless we are transformed in love, how will we ever be able to kiss the crosses of others?  Our hearts become both the table and the altar where we encounter others and experience the person of Christ, who implores us to do this in his memory.



[1] I participated in the Summer Service Learning Program offered through the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns.  The theme of this year’s immersion experience was “Kinship at the Margins.”

[2] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 63

[3] Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved

[4] Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World:  The Prophetic Witness of Weakness

[5] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 100

[6] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 130

[7] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 28

Cultivating Practices of Life in a Throw-Away Culture

Jessica KeatingJessica Keating, M.Div.
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

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In the ancient Roman world unwanted children—girls, the disabled, those conceived out of wedlock—were abandoned to the elements and wild animals. The practice of infant exposure was a matter of routine in ancient Rome. Though there is historical evidence for the practice of abortion at this time, exposure was the more common way to dispose of an unwanted child. Indeed, we might interpret infant exposure as the ancient version of Western modernity’s widespread practice of abortion. Christians, however, not only rejected the Roman practice of infant exposure, but also rescued children who had been left to die in the city’s outskirts and trash heaps. Indeed, Christian families were easily identified by the presence of multiple female children and disabled children.

We live in a time when it is tempting to adopt a kind of nostalgic amnesia with regard to the past. Faced with the appalling revelation of Planned Parenthood’s horrendous practice of fetal dismemberment and organ harvesting, it is enticing to imagine a piously pristine time, untouched by the disregard for life, which today seems so insidiously pervasive. In every age life has been threatened and it does us little good to imagine that we inhabit a world that is more depraved than the past. What actually sets modernity apart is not the human capacity for holiness or wickedness, but the dramatic scale on which we can both preserve and destroy life. At nearly every point in history, children have been cast out of society, discarded and thrown away. They have endured death, poverty, war, and disease. But we also see that in every age we are called to embrace life, to be concrete signs of witness to the beauty and dignity of the fragile and vulnerable among us.

To be a child is a dangerous thing because childhood resides perilously close to death. It was not until the advent of modern medicine that Western countries began to dissociate childhood and death. This dissociation has a macabre irony: as childbirth became safer and childhood disease rarer, Western countries, under the aegis of autonomy and choice, also began the large-scale practice of abortion.

In many parts of the world, including the United States, children continue to bear the burden of humanity’s failures. They are collateral damage in war and the victims of human trafficking. They bear a disproportionate burden of death from disease, poverty, migration, and persecution. They are disposed of as medical waste, before their first smile, before they gaze into the eyes of their mothers, before they shed a single tear, before they draw a first breath.

In a world where to be small or weak is to reside dangerously close death, the Church dares to proclaim that children are a gift. We dare to say that children are neither reducible to questions of biological reproduction, nor are they one of the many options available to fulfill consumer desire. And we must also dare to take up practices that embody this reality—to open the doors of our hearts and our homes to children.

In the ancient world, Christians rescued children left to die on the dung piles and trash heaps. Today, Christians are called to new forms of hospitality to life, to continue the history of adoption, to provide safe homes of respite for children shuffled around the foster care system, to support struggling families in our neighborhoods and communities, to offer childcare for these families. We are called reach out to women experiencing the confusion and fear of an unplanned pregnancy.

We are called quite simply and quite radically to create communities that make it easier to welcome life. We are called to participate in the transformation of the world, to infuse it with the tenderness of God’s love for the little ones. Such communities require personal sacrifice from every member. We can no longer leave families and individuals to struggle anonymously, claiming, “It is not my responsibility.”

In his Wednesday audiences, Pope Francis has been developing a theology of the family. He has devoted three of these short catecheses on children—more than any other figure or facet of family life. He declares that children fundamentally inhabit the reality of gift. “Children are a gift, they are a gift: understood? Children are a gift” (General Audience, February 11, 2015). He speaks of the tenderness of child, the spontaneity of child, the gift of the child, the generosity that the child calls forth from others.

Yet, to affirm that children are a gift is not to deny that they also elicit a sacrifice. Indeed, children bring consolation and joy, but not without thorns. At the Festival of Families, Francis remarked on sacrifices children call forth.

Children, yes they bring their challenges. And we also are the cause of work and worry. Sometimes at home, I see some of my helpers, they come to work and they look tired. They have a one-month-old baby, and I ask them did you sleep? And they say I couldn’t sleep, Holiness, because they were crying all night. (Festival of Families, September 26, 2015)

Sometimes children cry all night. It is one of the many thorns that pierce parents. Yet in the quiet rhythms of daily life, gestures of hospitality are extended to the family: grandparents who care for grandchildren, friends and neighbors who do not hesitate to comfort a crying child or offer the gift of childcare. These small gestures of love make the challenges of parenting a little easier.

It is dangerous thing these days to say that children are a challenge or that they require sacrifice. We live in a world that has become profoundly adverse to sacrifice. Often I hear people say that if one does not want to bear the burden of a pregnancy, does not want to make the sacrifices a child demands, then it is better that that child never be born. We can never affirm this! In the first instance, children are a gift and sacrifice borne of love.

Yet, when we fail to love, when we fail to cultivate a society that make it is easier to be good, children bear the burden. Thus, Francis has also spoken of the many “passions” children endure in their fragile bodies—neglect, disease, poverty, abortion.

From the first moments of their lives, many children are rejected, abandoned, and robbed of their childhood and future. There are those who dare to say, as if to justify themselves, that it was a mistake to bring these children into the world. This is shameful! Let’s not unload our faults onto the children, please! Children are never a “mistake”. Their hunger is not a mistake, nor is their poverty, their vulnerability, their abandonment — so many children abandoned on the streets — and neither is their ignorance or their helplessness… so many children don’t even know what a school is. If anything, these should be reasons to love them all the more, with greater generosity. How can we make such solemn declarations on human rights and the rights of children, if we then punish children for the errors of adults? (General Audience; Wednesday, April 8, 2015)

In this age, children, along with the elderly, the disabled, and the infirm, have carried the wounds of society’s failures. They are the “victims of the culture of consumerism, the culture of waste, the throwaway culture” (Francis, Sunday Homily, October 4, 2015). Who can forget the photographs of the Syrian toddler, Aylan, lying dead on a Turkish beach? Who can un-see the image of a child’s leg being held up for examination over a pie dish? Adults have the capacity to inflict upon children the most grievous wounds.

We are invited, however, to imagine what society might look like if children were not subjected to the mechanisms of power and the laws of expediency and efficiency.

Think what a society would be like if it decided, once and for all, to establish this principle: “It’s true, we are not perfect and we make many mistakes. But when it comes to the children who come into the world, no sacrifice on the part of adults is too costly or too great, to ensure that no child believe he or she was a mistake, is worthless or is abandoned to a life of wounds and to the arrogance of men.” How beautiful a society like this would be! I say for such a society, much could be forgiven, innumerable errors. (Francis, General Audience; Wednesday, April 8, 2015).

To be sure, such a society requires international, national, and state legislation to ensure that at a bare minimum life is respected and that parents have adequate, meaningful work to support their children, and access to education and affordable childcare. But the society, Francis describes needs more than this. It needs to be animated by the warmth of a smile, the tenderness of an embrace. It needs the little way of love that St. Thérèse learned in the Martin home, noticing the other and caring for the poor and forgotten in their midst. It needs a love that overflows, a love that takes up the small gestures of mercy, gestures “which break with the logic of violence, exploitation, and selfishness” (Laudato Si, §230). A love that makes it safer to be vulnerable and easier to be good.

The Voice of the Poor at the United Nations

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement

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Yesterday, in reflecting upon Pope Francis’s speech to the U.S. Congress and his blessing from the balcony, I suggested that the Pope invited our congressional leaders and the people they represent into a form of intercessory prayer. Following St. Paul, this prayer is predicated upon making room in oneself—in one’s own heart—for the needs and the good of others. As the Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, St. Paul’s prayer was “full of people” because when he offered himself in prayer to God, he offered God all those whose cares he made his own (§281-282).

On the floor of the United Nations this morning, Pope Francis once again embodied the beauty and the power of intercessory prayer. His voice was his own and yet not his own because Francis carried the needs of the poor to the meeting of the nations.

In recognizing the mission of the United Nations to promote the common good and protect the human dignity of all, Francis spoke first to the sickness of the environment. To those who believe that the Pope should speak more about issues that directly threaten the dignity of human beings, it is important to heed the perspective from which Francis looks upon environmental issues: he sees them from the perspective of the poor. Francis argues that “any harm done to the environment is harm done to humanity,” and that the misuse of natural resources and the inequitable commerce of goods and profit (for the wealthy) and waste (for the poor) perpetuates a system of exclusion whereby the few live comfortably at the expense of the many:

The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing “culture of waste”. The dramatic reality this whole situation of exclusion and inequality, with its evident effects, has led me, in union with the entire Christian people and many others, to take stock of my grave responsibility in this regard and to speak out, together with all those who are seeking urgently-needed and effective solutions.

To see the “evident effects” of the “culture of waste”, one cannot look from the perspective of the economically prosperous and financially secure. Rather, in order to see the effects, one must allow oneself to see from the side of those who bear the cost. For the poor who are the most vulnerable to the degradations of the environment, the unjust distribution of goods and wealth, and systemic practices of exclusion, there is no debate about whether or not the ecological threat is real. The urge to commodify the natural goods that justly belong to all is translated, through social and economic manifestations, into the commodification of human beings: “human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labor, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime.”

This speech—not unlike Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si—is oriented to the promotion of the common good. Promoting the common good—at least rhetorically—is not uncommon. What makes the Pope’s speech distinctive is that he speaks to the powerful on behalf of the poor: he is bringing their perspective to the fore and demanding dignity and justice on their behalf. As the Vicar of Christ charged with the office of unity for the entire Church, this is the mission proper to his vocation. At the same time, however, it is yet another illustrative example of his practice of intercessory prayer. His authority—his voice—is filled with the needs and voices of those the Church protects as its special treasure: the poor. In this speech in particular, he cedes the space of his authority to the needs of the neediest. Only from this perspective can any one of us truly understand the common good in which we are called to participate:

The common home of all men and women must continue to rise on the foundations of a right understanding of universal fraternity and respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic.

This is the roll call of those whom the Pope, on behalf of the Church and her Lord, carries in his heart. His speech that advocates for them rises from his heart shaped in prayer for them. In this, Francis is intentionally following the example of St. Paul, who took the good of others as his own good and offered their needs to the Lord in his prayer.

Follow Leonard DeLorenzo @leodelo2.

Reflection From Prayer Service for Sexual Assault Victims

Rose Walsh ’16

Resident Assistant, Lyons Hall

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance. In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.

We know that all things work for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.                   (Romans 8:18-30)

Does that happen here?  Does that happen here?

When I walked into one of my freshmen quads the other night, that was the first question they asked me.  “Hey Rose — those sexual assault emails were pretty scary — does that happen here?”  As a new RA in Lyons hall, a few things went through my mind – first, I was horribly embarrassed that during their first week of class here at Notre Dame, they had already received three notifications that this new home we’re trying to bring them into and create still has a serious problem keeping students safe.  And as much as I wished I could sincerely answer that no, Notre Dame students are above this crime, I knew that the emails were a critical reminder to us all that we are not past our own history of sexual violence.  More importantly, these emails came as a sign of incredible bravery and progress toward a community where any sexual assault is reported and taken seriously.

I thought of the girls’ parents whom I’d met last week, ensuring them I’d help them loft, find classes, and make sure they got home safe at night.  They had come from all over the country and the globe to bring their children, their most sacred gifts, here to South Bend, Indiana, at a school where nothing goes wrong, and there are single sex dorms and parietals and rules and police and RA’s and so many nice brochures; yet without fail, every couple of weeks we still get that email with the subject line, Crime Alert: Sexual Assault and that same body text that starts “Sexual assault can happen to anyone.” And my last thought, looking at the girls in the room I asked myself, are they afraid to be here? Are they afraid of the men’s dorms and the environment and the upperclassmen because this kind of crime regularly happens on campus? Have we tolerated or even created an environment that causes our newest students, our youngest brothers and sisters to be afraid of Saturday nights?  And it broke my heart to think that these new students, my newest residents could be afraid of a place that I love so much — I love the dorms and the people and faculty and beautiful spirit that is Notre Dame.  I know that we are all blessed to be here and Notre Dame has blessed me with the most beautiful friendships and relationships that I’ve ever had, — but why is it that we, as students in this beautiful place continue to fail each other in this grievous, repulsive way?

I am proud to be gathered here with you today because it demonstrates our will as a student body to end this history of sexual assault on campus and beyond, however, while prayer and reflection and awareness are so important, absolutely nothing will guarantee the future safety of the students of Our Lady’s university besides a sincere and relentless effort by each and every student and classmate and roommate to step in, speak up and respect one another.  As we reflect upon the words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we grow in faith and hope with the knowledge that “in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us” and that through the united strength of our student body, these crimes against our friends will become a thing of the past.   And I am confident that one day we will all be ready to answer that question — does that happen here?  Does sexual assault happen at Notre Dame? One day we will answer confidently It absolutely does not.  Because if God is for us, who, then, can be against us?

The View of an Outsider

Molly DailyMolly Daily, ND ’14

Intern, Washington University & Webster University Catholic Student Center Campus Ministry

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I have been the “odd one out” since my graduation from the University of Notre Dame, in widely varying situations. For the first year after my graduation, I worked in the Office of the Illinois Governor. There, I was the baby – the youngest person by far, minus maybe one person, and one of very few people in the office who came in straight from graduation. And interestingly enough, though I worked for six months under a Democratic administration and six months under a Republican one, I was one of a handful of practicing Catholics. While at the Governor’s Office, I learned to see my experience through the realm of being the different one – the token Catholic girl, the baby of the office.

WashingtonUniversityNewmanThough I left the Governor’s Office in July, I have once again found myself in that position – the one who answers the questions; the one whose experience is not the same. Working as a Campus Ministry Intern at Washington University and Webster University means I am surrounded by young people, Catholics, people like me. And yet once again, I am different. After all, my students have yet to go into the “real world” and hold a full-time job. Even among my work colleagues, I’m the only one who has worked in politics. And so, again, I find myself on the outside.

I could take this begrudgingly and complain that I just want to be with people who understand me, but I am far too lucky and surrounded by far too many wonderful people for that complaint. Rather, this “outside” living has provided me with a unique theological opportunity, allowing me to see, seek, and explore the needs and wants of college students and young adults, particularly in regards to what the Church can and should offer them. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that I was one of them – I felt their fears, apprehensions, and desires, and then I left and experienced that  which they now look forward. Having left the safety net of a Catholic college, I am removed enough to see what they cannot yet see, to understand life after college in a way that they simply cannot yet – but I have returned, just a year later, and I see myself in them, see what I wanted and thought I needed and truly did need. I am one of them and yet not, and I see the urgency of their questions and their desires perhaps even more clearly because of it.

SantaRosaIt strikes me that what these students crave – indeed, what I myself craved – is, for the most part, exactly what they are going to need. They may not understand why they want what they want in the church, but the Spirit moves them to demand that which they will need most when they leave this place. My students demand more than lukewarm religion teachers and emotionally-centered praise sessions of their high school years. They see right through the façade of uncaring adults who blow them off with half-hearted attempts to appease them or make church “cool” so they will want to leave. My students crave truth – they are smarter, more perceptive, more driven than we give them credit for. In universities filled with study and argument, they demand truth – they know the faith is intellectual in nature, and they want to understand and articulate that intellect just as they would any other course they take – though here, the stakes are much higher. What they don’t yet understand is how important that knowledge and truth will be when they leave – how the ability to constantly remind themselves of the truth, to articulate their faith to those who challenge it, and to apply that knowledge when weekly bible studies and student-centered homilies now abound. They crave – and need – us to take their thirst for knowledge seriously, to value it, and to encourage it to continue for the rest of their lives.

A perhaps less articulated need for students, and much less explored, is the parish identity and the simple process of finding – and staying with – a parish. This was one of the needs I hardly recognized in myself as a student, and one I only see in my students in passing. They mention their concern about leaving the Catholic Student Center, or they casually say that they know no other church will be like this place. What they don’t yet know is how valuable it will be to process these needs, to understand parish life before they leave. This need didn’t strike me until I was well established in a parish in Chicago. I had a wonderful home with a vibrant, young parish in my neighborhood, but I was struck one evening while attending a young adult event by a very striking, unsettling knowledge – “This isn’t my parish.” Although I had been attending Mass and events regularly for over six months, I still understood myself as a visitor. I was a registered parishioner, but I hadn’t made connections, outside the young adult group, to become a real part of this place. This process of relationship building, of connection is one that is taken for granted in college, and one we hardly mention to our students. We don’t talk to them enough about what happens when they leave – and chances are they don’t even think about it until it’s too late. We owe them our knowledge and our experience.

I’m still not too far out, and I’ve only been at my new job for a month – but so far, I’d say being an outsider has its advantages.

A Divine School of Solidarity: The Hours

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Each morning at 5:00 AM, I rise and plop down upon the couch in my living room to greet the new day. My deepest desire at the time is to consume a cup of coffee and to gaze mindlessly at the television as I recover from slumber. Yet, more often than not, I pass by this temptation to spend the morning “doing” the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer (with a cup of coffee in hand, of course). Before 5:30 AM comes around, I have acknowledged to God the sin that I am responsible for; I have  asked God to let me hear the voice of the Lord thundering over the mountains; I have lamented the sorrows that inflict not only me but the entire People of God; and, I have praised God for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’s recreation of the world.

HoursThe gift of the Liturgy of the Hours as a daily practice is that the Christian is schooled in the fullness of the spiritual life as we meditate morning after morning, night after night upon the Psalms. And these Psalms are given to us. We do not get to choose which ones we pray. We do not simply praise God with timbrel and harp but must also acknowledge our deep woundedness, the injustice of the world, and the sorrow that comes with hearing only silence in the midst of our prayer to God. If I could create my own personal ordo of Psalms that I would pray each morning, I would avoid anything that could be construed as “negative.” I would sip my coffee in peace and sing to God a new song but never acknowledge the depths of mercy that I need in order to love God and neighbor alike. Yet, the Church’s construction of the Liturgy of the Hours is wiser than my personal ordo. It is a school of prayer.

And when we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, it should be noted that this action is never simply about the individual Christian offering his or her prayers to God. The General Instruction for the Liturgy of the Hours notes that praying each morning with the Church is never a private act:

There is a special and very close bond between Christ and those whom he makes members of his Body, the Church, through the sacrament of rebirth. Thus, from the Head all the riches belonging to the Son flow throughout the whole Body: the communication of the Spirit, the truth, the life, and the participation in the divine sonship that Christ manifested in all his prayer when he dwelt among us.

Christ’s priesthood is also shared by the whole Body of the Church, so that the baptized are consecrated as a spiritual temple and holy priesthood through the rebirth of baptism and the anointing by the Holy Spirit and are empowered to offer the worship of the New Covenant, a worship that derives not from our own powers but from Christ’s merit and gift.

“God could give us no greater gift than to establish as our Head the Word through whom he created all things and to unite us to that Head as members. The results are many The Head is Son of God and Son of Man, one as God with the Father and one as man with us. When we speak in prayer to the Father, we do not separate the Son from him and when the Son’s Body prays it does not separate itself from its Head. It is the one Savior of his Body, the Lord Christ Jesus, who prays for us and in us and who is prayed to by us. He prays for us as our priest, in us as our Head; he is prayed to by us as our God. Recognize therefore our own voice in him and his voice in us.”

The excellence of Christian prayer lies in its sharing in the reverent love of the only-begotten Son for the Father and in the prayer that the Son put into words in his earthly life and that still continues without ceasing in the name of the whole human race and for its salvation, throughout the universal Church and in all its members (7).

TheAgonyIn other words, to pray the Liturgy of the Hours is never private prayer. To pray these Psalms and intercessions day after day is to join our voice to Jesus Christ’s continual prayer of praise and lament to the Father. For Christ’s voice still calls out to the Father through the Church. Jesus knows our sorrows, our joys. He knows the suffering of a world where many are forced into migration because of the injustice enacted by political regimes. He knows the sorrows of those who experience radical loneliness, who cry out for God’s help but hear nothing; a nothingness that becomes a taunt. Jesus Christ knows the fullness of the human condition. And through our praying the Psalms within the context of the Church’s prayer, we let his voice resound in our own, offering to the Father a sacrifice of sorrow and praise for the world.

Praying the Liturgy of the Hours each morning is, thus, not ultimately about the development of my individual religious life. Rather, it is an occasion to exercise my baptismal vocation to let Christ’s voice echo throughout the world.

It is to become aware, in praying a Psalm of Lament, that there are fathers and mothers in the world, who have to look upon the body of their child, who drowned while trying to escape from the horrors of a war that no one deserves but those in power feel necessary; it is to take up the voice of my student, who is experiencing deep homesickness and loneliness, afraid that he or she will never find a trustworthy friend; it is to make my own the fear of a colleague, diagnosed with cancer; it is to consider those fathers and mothers, who have made a decision to have an abortion and now deal with the painful consequences on a daily basis; it is to cry out to God in the voice of all those who are denied even the most basic forms of human dignity; it is to recognize my own callousness in the midst of these sorrows, the sin of indifference that becomes my bread. Lord, rouse up your might and come to our help.

To pray these Hours each day, therefore, is to enter not simply into a school of prayer but a school of divine solidarity. For God has taken up in Jesus Christ, the Son, the fullness of the human condition. And even now, the mercy of the Incarnation continues as our voice becomes the voice of the Son.

Of course, the consequence of praying the Liturgy of the Hours is that we must learn to love the world aright. Hans urs von Balthasar notes again and again in his theological aesthetics that the purpose of the Christian life is not “delight” in beauty. It is discipleship. If we are to give our voice over to the sorrows of our brothers and sisters, then we must also give our bodies to their plight. We must care for the sick. We must cry out to those in power to come to the aid of those on the margins. We must go to the margins ourselves, letting the words that we pray echo now in our commitment to love aright. The Liturgy of the Hours invites us not simply to “imagine” solidarity but to practice it on a daily basis.

For each day, we are invited again and again to hear the voice of the Lord, to refuse to let our hearts be hardened. And to enter into radical relationship, through Jesus Christ, to all those who share with us the humanity of the Son.

Dorothy Day on Abortion and Mercy

Jessica Keating_headshot

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

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“Don’t you care about anything other than abortion, like U.S. military plans to invade Iran?,” a middle aged man asked a women holding a sign that read, “Abortion Hurts Women.” I happened to overhear this question a few weeks ago, when I participated in the nation’s largest Planned Parenthood protest in history.

The problem with this question and others like it (don’t you care about poor, don’t you care about the environment, don’t you care about the plight of the immigrant, don’t you care about
homelessness, don’t you care about human trafficking, etc., etc.), is that they attempt to limit the horizon of conversation to predetermined and falsely constructed dichotomies. Such questions are not neutral; rather their framing fossilizes the narrative about human dignity in our country through the unrelenting rehearsal of 11951995_10152931926825793_3853225836498330680_nslogans and arguments. These questions, whether expressed on Facebook or Twitter, in the media, or by presidential hopefuls in what seems like endless election cycles, are nearly always linked to the desire for power, to get candidate X elected. The not-so- hidden implication of such questions is that one cannot care about the unborn and militarism, or human trafficking, etc., etc. I have also heard the question inverted, so as to imply if one is really against abortion, all other human dignity issues must recede from view. In either inflection, there is a lack of nuance, distinction, and vision.

In light of the absurdity of this set-up, I have found myself reflecting on Servant of God Dorothy Day as a particularly important icon for Catholics in America who are daily tempted to fall prey to disjointed “issues”-based politics and to cultivate a comparable “issues”-based gospel. She confounded such tidy divisions and simply declined to engage the American political milieu in such predetermined ways.

Day actually rarely spoke or wrote directly on the topic of abortion. Scour her journals, articles, letters, and books. Search her prolific corpus, and one will find scant reference to that ordeal of which she had a most intimate knowledge. She wrote a fictionalized account of her own abortion in an early work, The Eleventh Virgin, and obliquely gestures to the experience in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness. Indeed, she expended her considerable journalistic talents denouncing state sponsored militarism, detailing the rhythms of Dorothy_Day_1934family life, describing the scandal of the works of mercy, writing letters, and advocating for a new social order. In part, no doubt, this had as much to do with the historical fact that abortion was not available and practiced on the scale it is today until the end of her life, but I also suspect her relative silence on the subject had something to do with Day’s own deeply painful experience of abortion.

In addition to the references to abortion in The Eleventh Virgin and The Long Loneliness, Day speaks of her abortion again in a tender letter written on February 6, 1973 to a young woman named Cathie whose own abortion left her in deeply wounded and contemplating suicide. To Cathie she speaks of pain and hope, healing and prayer. “In a way,” Day writes “to use old-fashioned language, I feel you are a victim of souls, bearing some of the agony the world is in, Vietnam, the Third World, ‘the misery of the needy and groaning of the poor’”(All is Grace, 397).

Day again mentions abortion in a reminiscence to mark her 75th birthday that appeared in the August 10, 1973 edition of Commonweal Magazine. Writing of her conversion, The Imitation of Christ, and Bartolome de las Casas, she writes:

God forgive us the sins of our youth! But as Zachariah sang out, “We have knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of our sins.” I don’t think anyone recognizes the comfort of this text better than I do. I have not yet been attracted by the present tendency to bring everything out into the light of day by public and published confessions. Were we not taught by Holy Mother Church to respect the modesty of the confessional? Or is that a silly expression? But oh the joy of knowing that you can always go there and be forgiven seventy times seven times. (Even though you wonder, in your distrust of yourself, whether you really mean or have the strength to “amend your life.”) I hope your readers can read between the lines from the above and recognize what my positions on birth control and abortion are.

In the same “letter-article,” she recounts being asked by reports in
Australia about her views on abortion and birth control. To these 2251719973_01c2c3fd40questions, she explained matter-of-factly:

My answer was simplistic. I followed Pope Paul. . . . Thank God we have a Pope Paul who upholds respect for life, an ideal so lofty, so high, so important even when it seems he has the whole Catholic world against him. Peter Maurin always held before our eyes a vision of the new man, the new social order as being possible, by God’s grace, here and now, and he so fully lived the life of voluntary poverty and manual labor.

There is a striking similarity between Day’s straightforward answer and Pope Francis’ first interview with America Magazine where, when asked about abortion, contraception, and gay marriage, he said simply, “I am a son of the Church.” And yet, such simple answers are far from simplistic. Rather, they speak of a life lived according to a particular form of life and a particular logic of love and mercy.

Day’s most formal statement about abortion appeared The Catholic Peace Fellowship’s “Statement on Abortion,” which she co-signed with six others on June 28, 1974. Here the authors write:

We make this statement to protest a policy and a practice, not to condemn any individual for a tragic decision she or he may have felt forced to make, just as in our protest against war and its destruction of human life we pass no judgment upon the individual who acts in good conscience.

. . . For many years we have urged upon our spiritual leaders the inter-relatedness of the life issues, war, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia and economic exploitation. We welcome the energetic leadership our bishops are giving in the abortion controversy and we are proud to join our voices with theirs. At the same time we must point out that, ultimately, the sincerity of our words and theirs on any of these issues will be measured by our readiness to recognize and deal with the underlying social problems which turn many people to these deadly womalternatives, to condemn all forms of social and economic injustice and to work for their elimination and the establishment of a social order in which all may find it easier to be “fully human.”

What are we to make of these three references? The first appears in personal letter in which Day recalls her abortion and the healing grace of God. The second appears in a self-described “letter-article,” wherein she speaks of abortion in connection to the mercy and authority of the Church. The third reference appears in a formal statement, in which the authors denounce the policy and practice of abortion and call for a new social order, one which makes human flourishing easier—a society that, in the words of Peter Maurin, “makes it easier to be good.”

Taken together, Day’s remarks on abortion offer two essential insights.

1) Mercy capacitates us to see more. In her “letter-article” for Commonweal, Day quotes the Benedictus: “We have knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of our sins.” The mercy of God, fully disclosed in the person of Christ, and Day’s encounter with God’s mercy enabled her to see more of reality. Indeed, it is a life prayer, of participation in the sacramental life, that forms such a vision. Grace elevates and penetrates even that which is available to reason. It enfolds us into the logic that knits together all “life issues.”

If this sounds similar to a seamless garment life, it is because it is. But let me be clear, such a vision must avoid conflation. The image of the seamless garment like the image of the Body of Christ, with Christ as the head, is a hierarchical image. Abortion, the willful termination of human life, is simply not the same moral act as capital punishment or even economic exploitation. Rather, such a vision requires the careful and precise distinction evident in Evangelii Gaudium, when Pope Francis explained why the protection of the unborn takes primacy of place in the Church’s teaching on human dignity.

Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with
particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless pope-francis-im-not-a-marxistand innocent among us. . . . Defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. No. 213

A society that fails to defend its most vulnerable members will soon find that it is unable to defend other human rights, that indeed, what is considered a “right” increasingly will be determined by the powerful.

At the same time, such a vision can see the inner connection of all life issues. We do well not only to remember that the realities of war, migration, and economic exploitation often disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us namely, children, but also that all offenses against human life, in different ways and at different levels of gravity, participate in a logic of violence, in a logic that produces a throw-away culture. We also do well to remember that the realities of war, migration, and economic exploitation often disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us namely, children. Day expresses this when, in her letter to Cathy, she sees the acute particularity of Cathy’s suffering and its universality. It is precisely because of the Church’s teaching on abortion (and euthanasia) that enables her to to speak and act with clarity, conviction, and authority on all issues related to life, to labor tirelessly against an economy that kills (53). This kind of vision is elevated and expanded by an encounter with God’s fierce and tender mercy.

  1. Mercy is a habit that requires concrete forms of practice. Peter Maurin was famous for saying that the aim of the Catholic Worker was to build a new society in the shell of the old, one that made it easier to be good. In her “letter-article” to Commonweal, Day seems to make a non-sequitur from her affirmation of Pope Paul’s upholding of respect for life to Peter Maurin. As I read over the passage a second time, however, it struck me that her abrupt change in subject was only an appearance. Indeed, for Day (and for us) Maurin is living witness to the gospel of life. He provides, as does Day, a particular enactment of a life conformed to Christ, to the one who reveals the breadth and depth of human dignity, which is made known to us again and again through the tender forgiveness of our sins. It is a life lived within the horizon of mercy.

In his concrete practices of prayer and the works of mercy, the vigorous exercise of his mind and enactment of his vision for an agronomic university, Maurin (and Day) worked to build a “social order in which all may find it easier to be ‘fully human.’” By daily practicing the way of mercy, they labored for a society in which it was easier to be good, easier to choose life, easier to say no to the will to power and violence in all its many forms.

I stood on Grape Road, with my jeans rolled up and my hair pulled back, with the young and old, with men and women who had also come to plead for justice and mercy for unborn, to call for a new 11879275_10152927735535793_2395403451959082158_osocial order, one that makes human flourishing easier—a society permeated by mercy. This work on behalf of the unborn is not exhausted by protesting, though that is critical. It is not exhausted by legal changes, though these are necessary, as the law shapes the imagination. It requires more; it requires concrete practices of care and support for mothers and their children—health care, paid maternity leave, a living wage, etc. Mercy does not choose its own way. It does not say, I will do this work of mercy but no other. Mercy is a bridge, it has wholeness, a breadth and depth that makes it easier to choose life.

Drinking and the Culture of Sexual Assault

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement

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Editors’ note: This is the first of a series that we will be doing on examining the culture that makes possible sex assault not only at Notre Dame but throughout the United States. 

Editors’ note 2.0 (September 1, 2015): This piece offers one narrative-based perspective on the culture of sexual assault that permeates college campuses. It is directed fundamentally to men, inviting them to recognize their own culpability is fostering a culture in which assault is possible. Future posts, occurring throughout the fall of 2015, will attend more to the situations that foster this culture. These pieces, presently being assembled through dialogue among Notre Dame undergraduates and those involved in residence life both here and beyond will deal with power dynamics among men and women; the role of pornography in misshaping sexual desire; the problems of the hook-up and party culture in forming assumptions about sexual activity among undergraduates that leave women in particular vulnerable to assault; and, what it means to discuss “healing” in terms of these assaults.  

Some classes had yet to meet twice when those of us at the University of Notre Dame received the first email of the year reporting an alleged sexual assault in a campus residence hall.  Two days later, another email arrived, this time announcing two possible crimes at once: one was described as “non-consensual sexual contact” and the other was the second reported assault of the week.  To be honest, I sort of forgot about emails like this over the course of the summer.  Even still, when I opened the first one I wasn’t immediately shocked because, for better or worse, the email looked quite a lot like all the other ones I received last year regarding similar incidences.  It has almost become standard in a college environment like ours to exchange these emails every few weeks, sometimes with campus or local news stories to follow, and sometimes not.  If not for an unclear decision made under the influence of alcohol more than 15 years ago, I could have been the reason for a similar report.

I was a freshman living in an undergraduate residence hall at the very same institution at which I now teach.  On some weekend night in the middle of the unending winter months, some of my Zahm Hall dorm-mates were hosting a party in the 1A section.  These guys were very good friends with a group of girls that all the rest of us thought were incredibly attractive (we used different language then).  I don’t remember what we drank that night, but I do know that we consumed plenty.  I was drunk but still had some of my wits about me, while Mandy (not her real name) was probably less aware of herself than I was.

I don’t know how or why I ended up back in my own room—148 Zahm Hall—in the B-section of the first floor while the A-section party was still going strong, but I do know that Mandy ended up back in there with me.  I remember sitting next to each other on the floor next, in between our cheap couch and our cheap TV, and I remember the surprise that, despite what I would have expected, Mandy was coming on to me.

The reason I know that I still had some of my wits about me is because I remember that very moment in clear and vivid terms.  I remember what I felt and what she looked like—that is, I remember that she was as stunning as she ever even as I was dimly aware that she was not fully herself.  Noticing that about her made me feel some kind of inner pause or some stir of conscience or maybe just fleeting fear.  All the same, I also felt excitement.  This was the kind of moment with the sort of young woman that, in some unspoken manner, I wanted to find myself in.  And there I was, and there she was; we were in my room and she was willing, or at least it seemed so.  And then something happened.  I really don’t know if or how I made this decision, but instead of responding in kind to what I perceived as her advance, I took her to her friends and I went back to mine.

I want to be clear about this: though my memory of that encounter is clear, whatever decision I made or instinct I followed was not at all clear to me.  It was not a conscious act of virtue.  It was also not the first time I had been drunk with a girl who was also drunk, but it may have been the first time I noticed the difference in how we were functioning, cognizant of the situational power differential between us.

I want to be clear about something else, too: though I probably went in to that night vaguely or maybe even actively hoping that, by some turn of luck, I would find myself in a situation very much like the one I found myself in, I know for certain that I had no intention of taking advantage of anyone.  I don’t think that thought has ever crossed my mind, thanks be to God.  All the same, had I acted otherwise, I would have had a very hard time convincing myself that I had not taken advantage of her in that situation.  This is the realm of sexual assault, or at least “non-consensual sexual contact.”

I don’t know why I didn’t act otherwise: all the momentum was going in that direction. And yet some momentary flash of recognition passed before me, and for some reason I didn’t ignore it.  But for that, I might have been the reason for one of those emails I received this week.  (The story of my moral growth since then is another story.)

I have observed that when the “issue” of sexual assault on college campuses bubbles up because of some new incident or report or set of statistics, some will point to alcohol and the culture that builds up around it, while others will say that predators are predators and alcohol isn’t the reason they act the way they do.  While research does support the claim that the majority of assaults are perpetrated by a small group of (mostly) men, the environment that makes many of these assaults possible is just the sort of environment my friends and I created at that dorm party.  If only I had had a couple more shots or if only someone who wouldn’t respond to that flash of recognition the way I had was in that room with Mandy instead of me, the night could have ended very differently.

This isn’t only about alcohol impairing my judgment and it certainly doesn’t mean that Mandy was responsible for the situation we found ourselves in—what it means is that that entire night carried the implicit danger of what almost happened.  The line between implicit and explicit in that case was an unwilled thought in the mind of a drunken 19 year-old freshman guy.  It is still hard for me to believe I responded to that thought rather than to what I at least perceived to be Mandy’s invitation.

Here’s my point: those who persist in trying to separate the sexual assault “issue” on college campuses from the alcohol issue are dead wrong.  If this were an academic article, I would try to veil my opinion in some jargon that we academics are trained to assume so that I could back-peddle a bit if need be to give those who disagree with me some room to operate—that’s just part of the game.  Well, this isn’t an academic issue and nothing about this is a game.

So, with all due respect to those who think that sexual assaults and alcohol are separate issues, it has come to the point where all of us involved in higher education are responsible for this culture where section parties in campus residence halls become the occasions for potential or actual sexual assaults.  Even when there is not an outright party, this is still a matter of underage or heavy drinking, or both, on campus and off campus.  I do not lay this at the feet of the administration: we all bear responsibility.  Faculty and staff bear the responsibility for addressing this issue head on, along with the administration, rather than letting it fall back out of view in between emails or academic terms.  Students bear the responsibility of cultivating the kind of environment for themselves and their peers where the likelihood of such acts is dramatically reduced.  That means taking alcohol out of the equation.  This does not just pertain to the partiers; it also pertains to those of us who allow this culture to continue.

In the most direct terms, however, the greatest responsibility belongs to those who continue to create, actively contribute to, or engage in the parties and other events that are the occasions for these crimes against the law and against human dignity.  To those students who think they can manage this issue, I say that while it may very well be true that you can hold your liquor, that you would not assault anyone, and that you stand against sexual assault, it is also true that you have a responsibility to take away the most common conditions in which these assaults occur, as do I.  You have a responsibility to the community of which you are a part and to the students who may otherwise become victims or perpetrators or something in between because of the culture you endorse.  Cutting against that particular culture will certainly cost you some really fun nights.  So be it.

Now in my mid-thirties, I would absolutely choose four years of okay college nights for my younger self if it meant avoiding one really fun night where I contributed to an environment that made a sexual assault more likely.

On Tinder and the Project of Human Character

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement

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The 2010 film The Social Network opens with Mark Zuckerberg—the now ubiquitous founder and CEO of Facebook—sitting in a bar across the table from his college girlfriend. From the get-go, he’s peculiar and awkward whereas she seems self-aware and grounded. Even so, he’s engaged and, in a strange way, engaging. What he’s involved in is something we all recognize: it’s a date. At least he is until his hyperactive mind leads him well beyond insensitivity and rudeness, so that, in true Aaron Sorkin fashion, the whole scene is flipped upside down within a few minutes of dialogue and he is abruptly dumped.

TinderI remembered this scene as I was reading a stunning new piece on Tinder and the hookup culture that has been making its way through social media over the past week.  Reading about the evolution of the dating scene in New York City and on selected college campuses—or, even better, the apocalypse of that dating scene—it is interesting to remember how Sorkin’s biopic of Zuckerberg begins and ends.  In the film’s closing scene, the man whom we first saw on a date in a crowded bar is sitting alone in a conference room waiting for his ex-girlfriend to accept his friend request on Facebook.  This is, of course, a finely crafted portrait of the man who created the most powerful tool for social connection the world has ever seen: in Sorkin’s eyes, Zuckerberg’s very act of creation was concomitant with his loss of intimacy.  This social network isolates, Sorkin seems to say. And as one of the college students in the Tinder article puts it, “[we have all] grown up on social media [so] we don’t know how to talk to each other face-to-face. You form your first impression based off Facebook rather than forming a connection with someone, so you’re, like, forming your connection with their profile.”

According to the Tinder article, the marketplace of digital personae that Facebook established has morphed into streamlined online shopping for sexual partners.  Tinder is predicated on the desire to keep options open and minimize self-investment. According to this logic, who would want to be stuck in a commitment to eating at a lesser restaurant if you are able to get a table at a better restaurant at the last minute? All reservations are provisional, as are all commitments.  “You can’t be stuck in one line… There’s always something better,” reasoned a twenty-something investment banker.

With Tinder, that better something—or that more of something—may come with the next swipe, or the one after that.  So rather than investing a whole night in dating one person or in hanging out at one bar, you can browse countless potential partners in your vicinity.  The payoff, for some, is that “I can go to my phone right now and no doubt I can find someone I can have sex with this evening.”  Why risk ruining the night with a failed date? Just swipe.

While Sorkin’s depiction of Zuckerberg is certainly open to critique, his underlying point is sound: over time, the manner in which you interact with others changes who you are.  This is nothing new, though the mechanisms for training one in such habits are more accessible and more addictive than ever.  Moreover, this isn’t just about dating.  The lost art of dating is representative of a more widespread diminishment of the importance of human character.

features-profile-createThe issue of human character is something to which I have become especially attuned over the course of the past few years as I have built and taught a course at Notre Dame with my colleague Colleen Moore, entitled “The Character Project”.  As David Brooks argues in his recent book The Road to Character (Random House, 2015), we have come to abide in a culture where we all seem to possess “vague moral aspirations” but are generally devoid of any real “strategy to build character.”  We become expert curators of projected personality traits that contribute to a composite persona, making us akin to something like “little brand mangers”, where the brand is who we appear to be.  The separation between who one appears to be and who one actually is is often blurred and quite subtle, especially without the right categories for judging truth from near-truth or apparent-truth or, as Harry Frankfurt calls it in his famous essay on the subject, “bullshit”.  Crafting profile appearances to interact with other profile appearances—both online and off—doesn’t result from a series of rational or intentional decisions; rather, it results from a whole regimen of formative practices that sharpen some attributes while dulling others.  Swiping between the images of potential partners on a screen is one such practice: it sharpens the consumer instinct and dulls the capacity for—and even the desire for—the challenges of face-to-face human interactions where things may or may not go well. You know, like on dates.

This issue demands much more attention than what I am able to provide here. Nevertheless, I do want to point to three areas that I think serve as small antidotes to the dulling of human character and the sterilizing effects that modern practices like Tinder browsing have upon the capacity for intimacy.  I propose that the art of dating—and the art of developing human character, for that matter—requires and will benefit from the recovery of the art of conversation, the art of responsible speech, and the art of commitment.

In our Character Project course, we place a high premium on conversation.  Along with and in fact as part of the theological education in which we are involved, the students share a meal together every week, they talk about moral issues in pairs, and they gather together in small discussion groups based upon the Notre Dame residence halls in which they live (there are four halls represented in each class, by design).  We take time to talk to each other.  I don’t allow any cell phones in the classroom, which means that from the moment they walk in the room to the moment they leave, they are supposed to be as attentive as possible to the other 25 people in the room with them.  If you were to walk into one of the campus dining halls on any given night, you will find tables full of friends and acquaintances, many of whom, at one point or another, will disengage from the table conversation to gaze into their phones.  I’ve seen entire table’s worth of students looking into their devices at once, all alone together.  Then again, I’ve seen the same thing with families out to dinner at restaurants, as well as in my own living room.  Recovering the art of conversation begins with creating the conditions for conversation to emerge, for the challenges to conversation to set in (lulls, misaligned interests, fatigue), and for the skills of a conversationalist to be practiced and become habitual.

Related to but distinct from the art of conversation is the art of responsible speech.  As I have written elsewhere, irresponsible speech is “speech for which no one is personally responsible,” and which thus allows a person to say whatever they want seemingly without consequence, at least to themselves.  Speaking responsibly requires a lot more work and involves a lot more risk.  Practicing responsible speech is one of the learning objectives of the Character Project.  For example, when we study Thomas Aquinas on the question of grace and human agency, we not only attend to the content of what he says but also the way in which he constructs his argument.  When he, in the Summa, presents objections to his proposition in clear and concise terms, a model is offered for how to listen well and seek to understand others.  When he appeals to the tradition, he provides a model for allowing one’s own understanding to be enriched.  And when he offers his own response, he does at least two things at once: first, he elevates the richness of the question, refusing to give in to flat responses that are as simple as a bland ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  Second, and at the same time, he takes responsibility for a view.  He takes up the hard task of saying “I reply that…”  He stakes himself on what he says.  If what he says is wrong, then he is wrong and he will have to adjust accordingly.  When he turns in the end to respond to the objections he previously recited, he is taking responsibility for the consequences of his view and for explaining it to his interlocutors, whether they be real or imagined.  By contrast, Aaron Sorkin seems to have constructed the first 30 minutes or so of The Social Network as a narrative of increasingly irresponsible speech with a broader and broader reach.

SDHFinally, the recovery of the art of commitment is probably the most difficult and the most important dimension in recovering the art both of dating and of developing human character.  To return to Tinder, the entire edifice is constructed upon not just ease of access to potential partners but, as the article emphasizes, the virtually unfettered ability to keep options open.  There is no way around the certain fact that investing time and attention in one event or one place or one person will, inevitably, come at the expense of not being elsewhere with others.  Dinner tables filled with iPhone gazers and weekend nights narrated through Snapchat Stories are, among other things, symptomatic of the now standard Fear of Missing Out. The art of commitment develops with small strokes, beginning with sticking to commitments for projects or groups or plans you’ve made, or at least being honest about why you cannot or will not follow through when such occasions arise.  With a little prodding my students will admit to what is also true about me: when I have to get out of a commitment, I typically at least shape the explanation in such a way as to absolve myself of responsibility.  If I were honest, there are times when I just choose not to honor my commitments.  Even more, we become practiced in making commitments in advance without really considering how exactly we will follow through.  An activities fair on a college campus is as good a place as any to observe this behavior.  Practicing commitment in small matters creates the habits that contribute to becoming the kind of person who makes commitments intentionally and honors them, accepting the costs along the way.

The Tinder article is a rather dark piece, both as alluded to here and in itself. At the same time, though, the interviewees’ notes of regret and dissatisfaction registered throughout are strangely reassuring. If the “dating apocalypse” (and all it symbolizes) is troubling to readers, then what would be even more troubling would be if no one seemed to care, if everyone was satisfied with it. Yet, it seems like even those most caught up in the habitual browsing and swiping and even casual sex are, in some way, unsettled.  It really is reminiscent of that picture of Sorkin’s Zuckerberg sitting alone, longing for intimacy, but seemingly stripped of the capacity for it.  Sometimes, the good news exists as simple and confused desires, which endure even when everything seems bent against them.  Whether in classrooms, on college campuses, or at city bars, building up small cultures with particular practices that respond to those deep-seated desires—for intimacy, for companionship, for being someone—is the personal and communal work of reclaiming the importance of human character and bringing dating back from the brink.

Political Speech, Bull*$!%, and Human Dignity

Jessica Keating

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

A couple of weeks ago I suggested that decadence is a disease of the eye that trains us to see and un-see reality in a particular way. Decadence forms and distorts our vision, not unlike the way cataracts distort and blur one’s physical capacity to see. At this point, I would like to suggest that the widespread use of ‘bullshit’ in public discourse functions as decadence’s corollary with regard to speech. Indeed, decadence and ‘bullshit’ are one another’s helpmates, each mutually reinforcing and cultivating a profound lack of concern for truth.

What precisely is ‘bullshit?’ In his masterful book, On Bullshit, Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt interrogates the term and finds our current definitions wanting. He concludes that ‘bullshit’ is a programmatic form of speech which is unconcerned with truth. On BullshitFrankfurt explains that the proliferation of ‘bullshit’ is a profoundly problematic aspect in much of modern public discourse, which has largely dismissed the very possibility that one can accurately identify the truth. Such a position could lead to total silence, the refusal to make any assertion about the way things are. Yet, modern public discourse has not fallen silent; in fact, there seems to be more to say than ever. Though we have largely eschewed the possibility of accessing truth beyond the subjective and personal, we continue to make “assertions that purport to describe the way things are” (62).

Herein lies the essence of ‘bullshit.’ It is not simply that the ‘bullshitter’ plays fast and loose with the truth; it is rather that the ‘bullshitter’ refuses to submit “to the constraints which the endeavor to provide an accurate representation of reality imposes” (32). Unlike a liar who must believe he knows the truth in order lie, the ‘bullshitter’ engages in a program that is less deliberative, one that is wholly unconcerned with truth. Indeed, ‘bullshit’ is not the limited insertion of a falsehood the way a lie is; it is a program of discourse in which one “is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well” (52). It is a form of speaking that sells a vision of reality which, though it may sometimes be true or sometimes be false, is wholly unconcerned with truth.

As Frankfurt notes, ‘bullshit’ exists in the tension of discipline with regard technique and laxity with regard to correctness (23). In few places do we find more paradigmatic instances of bullshit than in advertising and in politics, insofar as the latter increasingly takes on the form of the former.

Thank you for smokingAdvertising campaigns for tobacco provide one such classic example, so paradigmatic, in fact, they made a movie about it called Thank you for Smoking. In the film we see that tobacco lobbyists never quite lie to the public, but neither do they submit the discipline of accurately representing reality. It isn’t as though the men and women crafting cigarette campaigns fail to get the facts right, it is that they filter them in order to create an attractive aura around smoking. They are prepared to “fake the context.” In short, whether what they say is true or false is irrelevant. What matters is selling cigarettes. According to Frankfurt, it is the ‘bullshitter’s’ disregard for the truth that makes him a greater enemy to truth than the liar.

Political speech often functions in the modality of ‘bullshit’ for two reasons. First, politicians are frequently required to speak about issues that exceed their knowledge. This will, Frankfurt observes, will nearly always produce ‘bullshit’ (63). Secondly, because American politics are irreducibly ideological, politicians can never be too concerned with truth or they won’t be re-elected. They must be more nearly concerned with pandering to voter opinion, power, and money.

Those concerned with issues of human dignity ought to be particularly concerned with the expansion of ‘bullshit’ in political 17trump-web-master675discourse. Like so much political speech on both sides of the aisle, particularly political speech that has to do so intimately with human dignity, both parties demonstrate an utter lack of concern for the truth. Republicans often provide classic instances of ‘bullshit’ when speaking about immigration reform and policies that make it easier to welcome life (see Carly Fiorna’s opposition to government mandated paid parental leave or anytime Donald Trump speaks about immigration reform), while Democrats provide us with equally paradigmatic examples when speaking of abortion.

A particularly timely example of ‘bullshit’ came two weeks ago, when Massachusetts’s Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a rhetorically impassioned defense of Planned Parenthood on the Senate floor. Though the Senate vote was motivated by the recent release of videos showing possible illegal activity on the part of Planned Parenthood executives and doctors, Senator Warren’s speech was more nearly a defense of abortion as such.

The following morning, clips of her speech popped up all over social media with tags branding her a feminist hero. She was touted in Salon as a “badass” for “slamming” the GOP, her two pro-life Democrat colleagues, and by extension anyone who has the temerity to disagree with her.

Recall that unlike lying, ‘bullshit’ is not so much a discrete intervention as it is an overarching program. Yet, concrete examples of ‘bullshit’ are discernable, and Senator Warren’s Planned Parenthood apologia provides us with at least two arcs of ‘bullshit.’

Insofar she is unconcerned with submitting to the kind of
constraints that would provide an accurate representation of reality,
Warren acts in a way similar to the advertiser, the pundit, the lobbyist, and the pollster. She engages in misdirection and deflection, employs information in order to try to sell us a vision of the way things are, a vision that is unconstrained by the demands of truth.

From her use of statistics to her underlying, though unstated (and, indeed, unimportant for the ‘bullshitter’) duel claim that it is better Elizabeth Warrenfor some human beings not to exist or that to be a feminist requires embracing the systematic program of killing the unborn, Ms. Warren’s speech provides us with an excellent example of bullshit. Her argument turns entirely on the rhetorical sincerity, sincerity which itself is rendered bullshit by its very presumption to give an account of reality unconstrained by correctness. In fact, Ms. Warren, like many of her colleagues, trades on a kind of antirealism that pervades modernity, insisting that we cannot reliably access objective reality or know how things really are (Frankfurt, 64).

Ms. Warren rehearses the standard Planned Parenthood tropes, citing the 2.7 million Americans served annually at Planned Parenthood facilities, as well as the 3% statistic, which asserts that abortion only comprises a minuscule fraction of the organization’s overall health care services. Senator Warren isn’t lying by citing these statistics, but she also isn’t concerned with the overall context or correctness of these figures. In fact, these pieces of information are carefully chosen, while others left are out in order to sell Planned Parenthood. Ms. Warren fails to account for statistical data which demonstrates that federally recognized Community Health Centers dwarf Planned Parenthood in terms of numbers served. CHCs provide care to over 21 million Americans a year, offer more robust health care services, and yet receive a fraction of the federal funding that Planned Parenthood receives.

She also goes onto assert that Americans, and American women Beyond the Abortion Warsmore specifically, are sick of the attack on women’s health care
(read: abortion rights). Though it is easy enough to imagine that Americans are, indeed, sick of the vitriolic ways abortion is discussed in the public sphere, Ms. Warren’s assertion seems more nearly to imply that Americans favor liberal access to abortion. This is not, however, correct. As Charles Camosy demonstrates in Beyond the Abortion Wars. Americans are trending pro-life, and women are more likely than men to regard abortion as morally wrong (3, 110-129).

Warren further implies that access to cancer screenings and birth control are somehow irrevocably tied to unfettered access to abortion, and claims that any attempt to unlink abortion from other health services constitutes an attack on women. Abortion is simply the collateral damage we must put up with in order to preserve access to pap smears, cancer screenings, and condoms.

She even wonders aloud if her Republican colleagues had fallen on their heads and woken up thinking it was 1950 or 1890. This sound bite has positioned Ms. Warren as a feminist voice, leading the way against the misogynistic backwardness of anyone who dares to question the practices of Planned Parenthood. But hers is a ‘bullshit’ kind of feminism because it operates only according to ideology (albeit, sincerely held) of freedom of choice. Such an adherence to an ideological context actually attenuates one’s ability to see evidence to the contrary. It makes it impossible to change one’s mind.

Like many elite feminists, Warren does not deeply engage questions such as whether abortion actually solves any of the economic, social, or educational problems that are used to legitimate the practice or how free the choice actually is.

Speaker of the House John Boehner addresses the 113th Congress in the Capitol in WashingtonIn fact, as Camosy astutely observes, 64% of women seeking abortions in the United States feel pressured to do so (126). For this, as well as other reasons, there are feminist scholars who propose that because abortion actually functions within a social matrix of consumerism and power, the rhetoric of choice that surrounds abortion is not merely disingenuous, but functions to benefit and sustain the elite and powerful (121-6).

Why, then, did Senator Warren fail to account for this? Precisely because her intervention on the Senate floor was not intended to represent reality accurately or to engage in a careful or nuanced conversation about abortion. Her purpose is to sell an account of reality and a vision of feminism that creates and sustains a perceived need for Planned Parenthood and legitimates its practices.

The practice of ‘bullshitting’ also has long-term effects. It increasingly weakening one’s capacity to attend to things as they actually are (Frankfurt, 60). The habit of ‘bullshitting,’ which is often the mode in which politics functions, actually renders reality more difficult to know because its sustained in political discourse surrounding any number of human dignity issues, from abortion, to paid parental leave, to immigration reform, to euthanasia, actually corrodes our ability to know the truth and therefore the value of the human person.