Thursday, December 29, 2011

Obedience to Authority

After hearing Nazi War criminal Adolph Eichmann claim he “simply followed orders” as his defense for ordering millions of Jews’ deaths, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to measure obedience.  Milgram asked participants to electrically shock a student with increasing voltage levels (30 to 450 volts) whenever the student responded incorrectly.   The “student” was actually an actor and didn’t receive the shocks but did act increasingly distressed as the administered voltage increased to tortuous levels.  Participants believed they were helping Milgram study the impact of physical pain on the learning process when actually Milgram was studying participants’ obedience to authority.  He wondered why people obey authority, especially when it conflicts with their conscience, or when prima facie evidence contradicts the authoritative figure’s assertions. 

Highly orthodox and conservative religious camps stress unquestioned obedience to religious authorities, even when it conflicts with personal consciences or when prima facie evidence contradicts leaders’ assertions.  They too justify their actions, including bullying tactics or violence, based upon it.  Thus, I too wonder about the power of authority.    

Though Yale students predicted at least 97% of participants would disobey authority rather than torture a human, only 35% of participants disobeyed.  Many were distressed by their student’s reactions but still obeyed the experimenter, administering shocks to the highest voltage levels.  According to participants, they continued to tortuous shock levels because they felt the sponsor was a competent, truthful authority, and because an authoritative figure was physically present encouraging their compliance.

Milgram concluded, "Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.  Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

In Milgram’s experiment the authoritative figure was just a secular university researcher, a position commonly considered of lesser moral authority than a religious leader.  Other than possibly displeasing the experimenter, there were no consequences for disobedience.  Yet, most people lacked the internal fortitude to disobey, even when obedience meant delivering obviously tortuous levels of voltage.  How much more do you suppose people struggle disobeying religious authorities especially when it involves less blatant forms of torture or damage, or when there are looming threats of consequences such as eternal damnation, censure, job loss, or being ostracized from their faith community?

I could elaborate on many examples in the Catholic Church where people blindly obey or support religious leaders who call them to actions that conflict with their consciences: the clergy abuse scandal and bishops’ lack of accountability, religious leaders blatantly lying, re-writing history or manipulating facts, the treatment of women and homosexuals, clergy celibacy, marital sexual relations and conception decisions, or even the new English translation of the Mass.  But each religion has examples and the more orthodox the religious group, the more insistent the call for obedience.   

Such orthodox leaders label disobedience as “selfishness” or “pride” – an unwillingness to sacrifice yourself for the greater good.  However, there is a tremendous difference between selfish insistence on getting one’s way and disobedience inspired by a well-formed conscience.  The disobedient people acting from well-formed consciences are the 35% of people willing to say “no” rather than deliver torture to another human.  Would you be in the 35% or 65%?  What examples from your past behavior support your prediction?

Milgram conducted another experiment to measure the impact of having a dissenting voice present that counter-balanced the experimenter’s encouragement.  In this experiment, 90% of participants disobeyed authority rather than torture a human.  The 65% are strengthened by the 35%.  If you are in the 65%, do you associate with some of the 35% folks that can help insure your obedience doesn’t enable or deliver abuses? 

Within the Catholic Church, the topic of obedience is very interesting because those policies that people most sense as conflicting with their consciences constitute several of the topics that current religious leaders most insist receive blind obedience: female clergy, married clergy, treatment of homosexuals, and the privacy of spousal sexual intimacy as well as family planning.  Some small progress has been made improving the abominable obedience policies pertaining to clergy sexual abuses but still bishops don’t unilaterally follow their improved policies and they spend millions of dollars lobbying against extending the statute of limitations to prosecute pedophiles so as to get them off the streets. 

Obedience to authority in the Catholic Church is also an interesting topic now because Pope Benedict was a member of Hitler’s Youth and the German military, joining both in obedience to authorities.  Family accounts indicate in some cases he begrudgingly complied or offered resistance.  Therefore he knows the power of dissenters and the tactics authorities use trying to neutralize them. 

Given Benedict’s cultural heritage, should we be especially alarmed that he has silenced over 90 dissenting theologians?  Are they the 35% whose concerns we should very carefully consider lest we become automatons complicit in destructive activities?  Should we be especially alarmed that Benedict has instilled a culture demanding blind obedience to him?  Should we be especially alarmed that he encourages and aligns himself with organizations espousing militant cultures of obedience such as Legionairies of Christ and Opus Dei, organizations that succeed in turning well-intentioned people into bullies? 

Benedict XVI lived in a culture that demanded blind obedience to Hitler, someone seen as standing for pure evil.   Does Benedict see himself as the anti-Fuhrer, someone also demanding blind obedience but for causes of “pure good” rather than “pure evil”?   If the pope were God or beyond human fallibility, blind obedience to him might not be a problem.  But, he is a fallible human who has used his authoritative offices as Pope and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith to distort and abuse infallibility doctrine to get his way.  Should we obey or disobey him when prima facie evidence tells us he acts contrary to the gospel?  Do we have a moral duty to challenge him or any religious leader lest they blasphemously consider equality or superiority to God?  Do we have a moral duty to our fellow humans and ourselves to disobey religious leaders sometimes lest we stand at our final judgment with the same defense as Eichmann, receiving similar sympathy from our judge? 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Come let us adore and follow...

I hope this Christmas Season especially is blessed with taking the real presence of Christ and making it a real presence for others.  Be present to one another throughout life’s journeys, especially the poor, marginalized, sick, lowly and religious outcasts.  This imitates Jesus, the god-man who intimately walked with such people in their daily struggles. 

Rather than imitate Jesus, some lock him in a tabernacle and declare others unworthy to carry him, proclaim his messages, or receive him.  They seem fearful for Jesus and try to protect him.  But, Jesus does not need protection from any person or circumstance.  He came into this world in extreme vulnerability - by choice.  He lived in extreme vulnerability – by choice.  And, he died in extreme vulnerability – by choice.  Are not those who attempt out-maneuvering God by keeping Jesus from “danger” acting as foolishly as Peter when Jesus chastised him, calling him "Satan"? 

Let yourselves be touched by the God who walks without fear.  Fear not for God.  Fear not for yourself. 

When we allow ourselves to be touched by God's love overflowing for us, we are so filled, we cannot help but overflow ourselves.  The abundance is more than we can contain and spills over so that all things around us soak up some of it as well.  We overflow in forgiveness, generosity, compassion, and care.  We accept that this same God touches with loving care those whom we fear and we cannot help but do likewise.

This is such a different message than the bishops currently preach through their words but most especially through their examples.  They fear “improper thought”; they discredit and dismiss those who think such thoughts.  They fear those who question; they discredit and dismiss them.  They fear, vilify and dismiss people who commit certain sins.  They fear people who are different and label their differences as “sin”; they vilify and dismiss these people also.  They fear people who want to hold clergy accountable; they discredit, vilify and dismiss them.  They fear people of different religious beliefs; they belittle and dismiss them.  They fear for their personal comfort and safety.  They fear secular governments.  They fear politicians who disagree with them; they discredit, vilify and dismiss them.  In any of these circumstances there also seems a tragic willingness to distort or dispense with facts and truth to serve their interpretation of “right” and “wrong”, all the while overlooking the blatant wrong of bearing false witness.

No wonder people flee the church.  Our leaders do not proclaim the gospel, fearlessly walking in vulnerability.  They preach and act in fear, toy with truth, and dismiss people.  Ironically, those whom the bishops declare “least worthy” are precisely who God sent his son to touch, and that God uses as instruments to proclaim.  God is that powerful.  Therefore, let us not be prisoners to religious structures, laws or institutions that dilute the power of the incarnation, walking by choice in vulnerability.   

It is fitting church leaders call themselves apostles since the first apostles committed these same errors, locking themselves away in fear, dismissing people they felt unworthy of Jesus’ presence, etc….  But, Jesus said the Spirit is always with us to guide and correct.  Listen and have the courage to act - even if it causes disfavor with the pious, priests, bishops or the pope.  Until one risks disfavor with peers and superiors, there is a very strong inclination of mistaking these humans for God.  God is always still wiser and more perfect than any collection of humans.

Believe in that God who is so powerful as to be born a human infant into poverty and vulnerability, who favored and desired the least favored and desirable, and who relinquished all earthly powers, and yet triumphed.  This God reigns over the pious, priests, bishops and pope.  However, the god of many such people seems subject to them and their Canon Law.  But, God is more powerful than any human folly of clergy.  Come, let us adore and follow that God.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Advent Reflection

“Advent” is a word formed of two Latin words “ad” and “venio”.  Literally translated, it means, “to come to”.  According to Church teachings, Advent is a time to prepare for the annual commemoration of Jesus’ coming to Earth as well as his second coming. 

This year the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website offered a calendar suggesting one Advent activity per day for such preparations.  The bishops’ specific suggestions are listed at the end of this article but can be summarized as follows:
  • 12 personal piety activities (43% of suggested activities)
  • 12 activities for personal and/or spiritual development (43%)
  • 2 activities to indoctrinate yourself in the bishops’ political lobbying efforts (7%)
  • 1 activity to pray for someone else (3.5%)
  • 1 activity for the church’s benefit (3.5%)
  • 0 activities to help other people (0%)

This list of activities confuses me…greatly.

Jesus came into the world to live and preach the two great Commandments: Love God, and love people.  He instructed the disciples to follow and actively imitate him – not follow and passively watch in awe and hushed reverence like spectators hiking a golf course adoring their favorite master.  He never told them to get down on their knees and worship him.  Actually, at the Transfiguration when some of the disciples wanted to initiate pious rituals, God redirected their enthusiasm, saying “This is my beloved son, listen to him (MT 17:5, MK 9:7).”  Note: God did not say, “Stand here in paralysis and worship him.” 

If you listen, you hear him teach that the Kingdom of God is at hand (MT 10:7) because God dwells among us (John 1:14).  God is not some distant, detached, unreachable concept but a reality in our midst, very integrated in our very selves and daily lives. 

The Kingdom of God is realized when the poor, whether or not you think they are “deserving”, receive needed food, clothing, shelter or simple human compassion.  It is when the sick receive care and compassion without judgment or qualifications.  It is when the lonely or imprisoned receive companionship and compassion.  It is when the marginalized are included and treated with compassion even if you don’t like them.  It is when erring people receive compassionate, unconditional loving forgiveness rather than judgment or dismissal, and they receive this not because we believe we are better people than them, but because we realize we are no better people than them (MT 9:1-7, MT 9:18-26, MT 9:35-36, MT 15:21-28, MT 15:29-31, MT 18:1-5,MT 20:29-34, MT 25:31-46, MK 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17, Luke 18:35-43, John 8:1-10 plus many, many more references). 

Jesus taught that when he comes again, our judgment will not be a written or oral examination on dogma as though we are defending a master degree thesis or a doctoral dissertation.  It won’t be an evaluation of our performance of piety rituals, as though scoring a gymnast, diver or figure skater on execution and technical difficulty.  It will quite simply be this: Did you compassionately feed the hungry, welcome strangers, clothe people, care for the sick, accompany the lonely, and include the marginalized (MT 25:31-46)?  And did you do this especially for those whom you disliked, who hated you, and with whom you disagreed (LK 6:27-32)? 

Jesus prayed, not in pious paralysis or as an end in itself; he prayed unceasingly to know what to do.  Then he did it.  And the things he did were focused on caring for others, not on himself.  He calls us to do likewise.  Why don’t the bishops?

As I look at the bishops’ recommended activities, I see a lot of inwardly focused activities.  I see a lot of personal piety.  I see activities that exploit Advent, trying subtly to manipulate people to join the bishops in their secular political lobbying activities.  I see only one activity that focuses outside of self or church.  I see no recommended actions to help people other than retired religious, which is an inward assistance to the church.  Why is this? 

Amongst the orthodox and conservative crowds, including the pope and many clergy, there is renewed focus on various piety rituals venerating Jesus.  Eucharistic adorations, perpetual adoration chapels, and other pious devotions are being re-emphasized.  For example, yesterday I saw a YouTube video of a California parish that took the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance to a shopping mall and waved it around while people dropped to their knees in adoration.  However, they did not feed the crowds by distributing communion.   They worshiped Jesus, but did they follow him?

It is good and fitting if staring at the Eucharist inspires people to “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor (MT 19:21, MK 10:21, Luke 18:22)”, “Cure the sick (MT 10:8), “Judge not lest ye be judged (MT 7:1)”, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (LK 6:27)”, or forgive others “seven times seventy times (MT 18:21-22)”, etc…  However, I’m afraid more and more often it is becoming an end in itself as many Catholics and most Catholic leaders increase piety efforts while decreasing efforts that truly care for fellow humans.  They seem to increase judgment and decrease unconditional forgiveness.  They make excuses to cleave to their personal wealth and possessions rather than “rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (MK 12:17)”, or relinquishing their wealth to care for others - outside of token gestures that assuage consciences.  They vilify their enemies rather than love or help them.  Sometimes they even seem to invent enemies to vilify.   

The priest, Aaron, fashioned a golden calf (Ex 32:1-8) that the people worshiped.  Moses, who was not a priest, smashed it.  Are today’s priests imitating Aaron their priestly predecessor or Moses?  When we stare at a monstrance or tabernacle fashioned of gold, are we listening to God’s instruction so as to actively imitate Jesus?  Or are we repeating the error of the early Israelites by piously worshiping these tools as golden calves? 

I appreciate that we believe these tools hold the real presence of Christ.  But, when Christ comes again, will he find us worshiping our own golden calves, worshiping his deceased corpse entombed and imprisoned in gold, or will he find us following him, alive freely working amongst all people?  Keep in mind Jesus warned, “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather (MT 24:28).” 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Recommended Advent Activities
Personal Piety Activities (I categorized them)
Use an advent wreath
Pray the Rosary (2 times)
Pray the Immaculate Conception prayer
Pray the Juan Diego prayer
Bless your Christmas tree
Pray the Our Lady of Guadalupe Prayer
Pray the St. John of Cross Prayer
Set up your Nativity set and bless it
Pray the O Antiphons
Receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Personal and/or Spiritual Development
Read the Bible (2)
Learn about a saint (2)
Read Benedict XVI reflections (3)
Learn about Human Rights Violations
Learn about Catholic Social Justice and how you might include it in your daily life
Learn about Catholic teaching on criminal justice
Learn about Fair Trade shopping and consider adopting these practices
Read and reflect upon the Christmas Readings

Promoting the bishops’ political lobbyist agenda
Learn about “Faithful Citizenship”
Learn about “Catholics and Religious Liberty”

Pray for someone else
Pray for those with HIV/AIDS

Do something for the church
Donate to the religious retirement fund

Do something for someone else
No activities listed

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What should be held bound?

Last week the Detroit Archdiocese announced recommendations to close 9 parishes and merge 39 of 60 other parishes into 21 parishes.  The Detroit Archdiocese undertook a similar effort about 20 years ago, closing and merging dozens of parishes.  Detroit is not unique.  Many dioceses and archdioceses, including mine, have undertaken similar efforts.  The result has been larger, more centralized parishes – many in suburbs - and a reduced percentage of inner-city parishes. 

Every time I hear of such undertakings, I am confused.  Here’s why.  Jesus commissioned the eleven disciples to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (MT 28:19).”  He also said that a good shepherd will leave the flock to go after even a single sheep, and rejoice over that one (MT 18:12-14).    

Since my childhood, those passages conjure mental images of shepherds relentlessly dispersing outwardly so as to expand the flock.  I envision shepherds doing whatever it takes to ensure inclusivity and completeness, retaining all sheep. 

Those passages would seem to suggest that Jesus called shepherds to movement, not the sheep.  Expect sheep to be sheep; go find them and make it easy for them.  Don’t expect them to find you.  And when you find them, care for them.

In direct contrast, parish closings and mergers conjure a mental picture with reversed directional flow and, somewhat, role swapping between shepherds and sheep.  If shepherds believe the flock is too small, they move away from their sheep – a far cry from leaving the ninety-nine sheep majority to rejoice over reaching the one outlier.   Then, the shepherds’ actions cause the sheep to go looking for their shepherds as though the shepherds are the lost ones.  Instead of shepherds moving outwardly, sheep must move inwardly.  Should we then be surprised shepherds, behaving the opposite of Jesus’ directives, tend a shrinking flock? 

I have heard multiple conservative, orthodox priests and laypeople say that the Church is purifying its ranks with an objective to shrink the flock.  They want a flock with only “highest quality” sheep.  Thus, perhaps such people rejoice at the smaller flock, expecting that only the “right kind” of sheep will exert the effort to find shepherds.  However, does God rejoice in the smaller flock?  Does God rejoice in excluding rather than including?

The Detroit Archdiocese’s recommendations were made by a panel that examined parish membership and finances.  If the Church were a corporation making decisions to maximize financial profits, this might make sense.  But, the Church is supposed to use a very different set of decision-making criteria.  Therefore, this confuses me too.  Flocks that struggle financially often have economically challenged sheep – sheep least financially positioned to afford the expense of tracking down a shepherd.  Often their financial circumstances introduce other life challenges that would make easy access to a shepherd very comforting. 

Furthermore, shepherds are supposed to feed their sheep.  In the Catholic Church the Eucharist is a key part of this nourishment.  But sheep in financially challenged flocks often are the working poor with less job schedule flexibility.  Thus, in addition to the personal financial impact these sheep endure by traveling to find their shepherds, reduced Mass schedules also impact their ability to be fed.  Conversely the sheep of economic means can afford to travel to find shepherds and often have flexible job situations.  Yet it seems that shepherds move their flocks catering more to feed the economically blessed sheep rather than the impoverished sheep.  Jesus’ teachings in the gospel cause me to assume good shepherds would do the opposite.

But, even if shepherds left parishes open with abundant Mass options, they still seem to make the sheep jump through hoops before they will feed them.  They lock the Blessed Sacrament (Jesus) in the tabernacle, hiding him from the sheep.  They introduce awkward stilted language in the Mass.  They declare some sheep unworthy of being fed.   

Eventually those shepherds and their groupies who desire a shrunken flock succeed in both driving off wounded sheep, and in inflicting wounds upon other sheep, subsequently driving them away as well.  Does God rejoice in paring the flock based upon humans’ judgment? 

I imagine the ultra-orthodox crowd might counter that Peter was given the keys to the Kingdom and instructed, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (MT 16:19).”  Perhaps they feel this statement by Jesus gives shepherds free reign to judge and dismiss people.  Only sheep on their “A” list should get into heaven. 

But the prophet Ezekiel gives us some indication of what God wants “bound”.  I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest.  The lost I will search out, the strays I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, and the sick I will heal (Ez 34:15-16).  It would seem that Jesus, one in being with God (“consubstantial” for those who only speak the New English Translation), expected Peter to bind the wounds of the broken, not judge and dismiss them. 

If shepherds bind the broken on Earth, they will deliver to God all the sheep, even the broken ones.  However, if shepherds judge and dismiss “inferior” sheep, binding them to manufactured laws, they will deliver God a ragged fraction of the flock entrusted to them.

Do parish closings, excommunications, censures, and inaccessibility to the Sacrament bind the broken so as to ensure they will be bound in heaven?   

Are church leaders behaving more as shepherds or corporate executives?