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The Gender Drama

August 29, 2015

Vox Nova is pleased to welcome a guest post by T. Renee Kozinski.  She  has her Masters in the Liberal Arts from the Graduate Institute of St. John’s College, Annapolis, and is a teacher, poet, and artist. She is an online tutor with Great Books Discussions.

A recently published article by Benedict Constable at OnePeter5 attempts to provide premises for the conclusion that women lectors fly in the face of not only Sacred Scripture and Catholic Tradition, but also the Thomistic/Aristotelian understanding of form and matter necessary, first, to have the liturgy be a true remembrance or re-calling of the drama of the Last Supper; and second, to enable a full understanding of the liturgy through the symbolism of masculine and feminine.

Indeed, if one looks at the liturgy, the family, indeed, the entire life of the Church as a kind of supernatural drama that builds upon nature, then the relationship of masculine to feminine is both a natural reality and a supernatural lesson, going beyond worldly masculinity and femininity, to active and receptive charity, of God giving of himself to His bride.

Also, if the liturgy, the worship rubric handed down through two thousand years from the Apostles, is “the source and summit” of this Christian communal life (though not it’s final end, which is rather both an individual and communal beatific vision in charity with God in heaven), then the “drama” or “sign” of the liturgy is for human beings, essential: it forms us. Read more…

On the Limits of our Empathy

August 15, 2015

I can remember as a preteen and teenager in the 90’s when I made my first efforts at following current events. What struck me as even more disturbing than the evils of this world was the apparent indifference adults expressed to them. Some horrible thing would happen – a bombing in the Middle East, more lives lost in former Yugoslavia – and life would continue on. Even in history classes, our teachers would carry on with the usual lessons, not stopping to talk about the previous day’s events. There were exceptions to this, of course, when tragedy struck closer to home – the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, The Columbine massacre in 1999, and then, of course, September 11, 2001. But after that, as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, all around me everyone – myself included – continued with business as usual.

The reasons for this limit to empathy are obvious. It is perhaps neurologically impossible to empathize with everyone; we do not have the emotional capacity become outraged over every injustice that occurs in the world. A certain amount of detachment – even coldness – is necessary to function on a day-to-day basis. If I were truly, fully sensitive to all of the pain that exists, I probably would find myself unable to do much more than collapse in despair, unable to help myself, much less the people affected by the problems. Some studies suggest that, rather than making us more effective at helping others, too much empathy can actually hinder our efforts. We rely on a certain amount of detachment and place limits on our empathy as a way of protecting our own interests and getting through our own challenges.

Nevertheless, when I look at the world, I find that we generally err on the side of too little empathy than too much, and this lack has serious consequences. The global community’s collective indifference to the 1994 Rwandan genocide is the first example that comes to mind; some people would cite the current situation in Syria as another. The plight of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean en route to Europe, the systemic racism present in the US, the daily suffering of the animals we raise for food in deplorable conditions on factory farms, the continued practice of abortion, the deaths and disappearances of thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans caught up in the drug trade, and the frequent political deadlock that occurs in an increasingly polarized US – I believe these wrongs and many others could be ameliorated by an increase in our empathy.

This fellow feeling does not necessarily entail an increase in emotional intensity or a collapse into sentimentality. As the French philosopher Simone Weil suggests in her 1947 classic Gravity and Grace, love is not merely an emotive act, but an epistemic one: “Belief in the existence of other human beings as such is love. The mind, is not forced to believe in the existence of anything (…) That is why the only organ of contact with existence is acceptance, love. That is why beauty and reality are identical. That is why joy and the sense of reality are identical” (64).

For Weil, love is the basic requisite for knowledge of the world, for without this love, we fail to notice it at all. Instead, we only see ourselves and our desires. We fail to recognize that the people around us are complete selves in the same way that we are. We are incapable of empathy.

A more recent iteration of this problem can be found in the writings of the late David Foster Wallace, who is best known for his hyper-realist fiction. In “This is Water,” his 2005 commencement address to the students of Kenyon College, he argues that seeing the world from the perspective of another is an effort of the mind as much as the heart. He reveals that in the theatre of our consciousness, we all believe ourselves to be the heroes of our own story:

Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

For Wallace, who was a practising Christian, the challenge of getting out of one’s head is one of the most difficult and components of adult life. Offering the quotidian example of a crowded supermarket at 6 p.m. on a weekday (and then the crowded highway home), he describes the way you or I might view others in that situation: as faceless nothings in our way. He urges us to get out of our default viewpoint and view this reality from a different perspective.

In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Wallace may be stating the obvious, but that is the very point. Like fish that do not know what water is, we are often unaware of the most basic and obvious realities. To see other people as truly, fully human, to break out of our own consciousness and see the world as they do – this requires a conscious, deliberate effort on the part of the rational mind.

In my own undergraduate education I was fortunate to study ancient Greek philosophy with a deeply rational and compassionate professor named Elfie Raymond. For her, philosophy was not a set of historic texts but a living dialogue that we are all called to take part in, and she was determined to help her students live the ideas that we were learning. One concept that she stressed again and again was that of ontological parity, the basic truth that all humans hold the same moral worth, merely on the basis of our existence. This might seem as obvious a truth as the existence of water…But for Professor Raymond, who as a child watched as her hometown was ravaged by the Nazis, it is a reality of which we need constant reminders.

The question that remains, then, is how do we get these reminders? For me, the arts are one point of entry. When reading a novel or watching a film, we encounter characters who are simultaneously different from ourselves and the same; we see our own lives and experiences reflected, but we also encounter realities that might surprise us. Another vehicle of empathy available to us as Catholics is the Eucharist, which reminds us of the mystery of the Incarnation and our own deep connection to one another as the mystical Body of Christ. However, this reality can be easy to lose sight of when, like the people in Wallace’s anecdote, I am waiting in line at the supermarket full of grouchy old men and crying babies. When fellow feeling fails, we are invited to use our capacity for thought, to truly think about the realities too obvious to notice, to keep repeating to ourselves, “This is water…This is water.”


Wallace, David Foster. “This is Water.” Transcription of the 2005 Kenyon Address, May 21, 2005.

Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. New York: Routledge, 1999.

LDS thoughts on Modesty

August 15, 2015

Last year I published three articles on the virtue of modesty:  the first deconstructing the rhetoric surrounding it in terms of the feminist theory of the “male gaze”; the second on modesty and humility, challenging one traditionalist interpretation of modesty; the third on the im/modesty of mixed gender wrestling.  (I guess this is a topic which interests me a lot.)  This particular round of posts was started by a video posted by Kyle Cupp  entitled “Virtue makes you beautiful“, a video produced by and featuring a group of young Mormon men.

So I guess I am bringing things full circle because I want to share an article I found from Meridian Magazine, an LDS oriented publication.  The article is entitled “The Costs of Misunderstanding Modesty“.   Though written by and for Mormons, I think it is a valuable contribution to our Catholic discussion on modesty.

Though it does not mention the video directly, it challenges the assumptions implicit in the video (see Kyle’s excellent analysis) and more generally makes a strong critique of most discussions of “modest dress”.   She makes five main points; here I want to highlight the first two:

1) When we reduce the concept of modesty to what females wear, we are reinforcing the very thing that modesty is supposed to help avoid: the sexual objectification of women’s bodies.

2) Overemphasizing modesty can unintentionally teach that girls are responsible for boys’ sexual thoughts and behaviors.

For me the money quote that really caught my attention is the following:

A woman dressing in a way that a man views as sexually provocative may have an influence on him, but only he is responsible for his behavior.

I think this is an important distinction and I want to keep this in mind should I ever discuss “dress as communication” as I did in one of my posts.

Finally, the author gives 10 tips for talking about modesty, and thoughtfully summarized them in a handy graphic:


Race: A White Father’s Reflection

August 12, 2015

To follow up on our discussion of race last month (see here and here), I want to share an essay in the Boston Globe written by a very old friend of mine, Michael Fitzgerald.  Mike, who is white, is married to a black woman and they have two teenage sons.   He says things I have heard countless black fathers say, but he adds his own poignant perspective.    Here are a few passages:  I urge you to read the whole thing.

Nearly a decade ago, I wrote an article in this space about how being the white father of black children didn’t seem to mean much in 21st-century America. … I probably thought they would be able to pick being black or white or something entirely different. That was naive.

Still, when I look at them, I just see my boys. I need to know better. … Other people see them as black. That means they are subject to a different set of stereotypes and social rules than I. That’s true even in progressive Cambridge, where we live.


I’ll never be a black dad. But I do share some things with black fathers across the country: pride. And fear….I have an inkling of just how sheltered white dads can be. White dads can be angry about the killing of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, because why wouldn’t we be? But dads of white sons don’t get the phone call Trayvon Martin’s father got. White sons don’t get shot because of the way they look. 

A thought on St. Maria Goretti and virginity

July 19, 2015

[Editorial note:  it is summer, and while I cannot speak for my fellow bloggers, I have been busy with other things–mostly my forthcoming move to Alabama.  So I have been remiss in posting and responding to comments.  I responded to several comments today—thanks to my readers for their patience.  I have been quite engaged by these discussions on racism, climate change and related topics.

Moreover, here is a short post that I had hoped to turn into a longer one but it would not come together.

May God bless and keep you all, and pray that my move is an easy one.]

Two weeks ago, Monday, July 6, was the feast of St. Maria Goretti.  Her story is well known:  killed as a young woman by an attempted rapist, she interceded for him in Heaven, prompting his conversion and repentance.  For my own part I have long had qualms about her—or more precisely, the ways in which her story has been told and packaged and the (to my mind) unfortunate baggage about women and women’s sexuality that adhere’s to it.  I wrote about this four years ago in a lengthy post devoted to the category of virginity, prompted by the feast of St. Cecilia.

Last week I stumbled upon a post by Simcha Fisher that I think addresses some of these issues well:  Maria Goretti didn’t die for her virginity.  I recommend you read the whole thing, but here is the money passage for me:

Over and over, I’ve heard [Maria Goretti] praised as a holy girl who prized her viginity so highly that she was willing to die to defend it.  And she did die as a result of defending her viginity.  But when her would-be rapist attacked her, she pleaded with him to stop because he would be committing a mortal sin, and he would go to hell.  She didn’t say, “Please, please, spare my virginity!” She begged him to spare himself.  

This is what it looks like when someone is close to God:  because they love God, they want to spare the person in front of them.  They are in love with living human beings, not in love with virtue in the abstract.  They are focused not on the idea of morality, but on the person whose life and safety (whether physical or spiritual) are at stake.

In Maria Goretti’s case, she was focused on her rapist — and it was her love for him, and not her blindingly pure devotion to virginity, that converted him and brought him to repentance before he died. 

Whenever I think of Maria Goretti, I come back to a passage I found in Augustine’s City of God, which I have also referred to in the past.  In it, he discusses the rape of the consecrated virgins during the sacking of the city of Rome, and whether they should commit suicide (a Roman custom to restore lost honor) because they were no longer virgins.  Here, I have hunted it down to add to the mix.  It is a long quote (Augustine was prolix at times, and the preceding two chapters are relevant as well) but worth reading in full.  I had hoped to find the time to weave this argument together with Simcha Fisher’s, but I will leave that to the commentary I hope you will all provide.

But is there a fear that even another’s lust may pollute the violated? It will not pollute, if it be another’s: if it pollute, it is not another’s, but is shared also by the polluted. But since purity is a virtue of the soul, and has for its companion virtue the fortitude which will rather endure all ills than consent to evil; and since no one, however magnanimous and pure, has always the disposal of his own body, but can control only the consent and refusal of his will, what sane man can suppose that, if his body be seized and forcibly made use of to satisfy the lust of another, he thereby loses his purity? For if purity can be thus destroyed, then assuredly purity is no virtue of the soul; nor can it be numbered among those good things by which the life is made good, but among the good things of the body, in the same category as strength, beauty, sound and unbroken health, and, in short, all such good things as may be diminished without at all diminishing the goodness and rectitude of our life. But if purity[Pg 27] be nothing better than these, why should the body be perilled that it may be preserved? If, on the other hand, it belongs to the soul, then not even when the body is violated is it lost. Nay more, the virtue of holy continence, when it resists the uncleanness of carnal lust, sanctifies even the body, and therefore when this continence remains unsubdued, even the sanctity of the body is preserved, because the will to use it holily remains, and, so far as lies in the body itself, the power also.

For the sanctity of the body does not consist in the integrity of its members, nor in their exemption from all touch; for they are exposed to various accidents which do violence to and wound them, and the surgeons who administer relief often perform operations that sicken the spectator. A midwife, suppose, has (whether maliciously or accidentally, or through unskilfulness) destroyed the virginity of some girl, while endeavouring to ascertain it: I suppose no one is so foolish as to believe that, by this destruction of the integrity of one organ, the virgin has lost anything even of her bodily sanctity. And thus, so long as the soul keeps this firmness of purpose which sanctifies even the body, the violence done by another’s lust makes no impression on this bodily sanctity, which is preserved intact by one’s own persistent continence. Suppose a virgin violates the oath she has sworn to God, and goes to meet her seducer with the intention of yielding to him, shall we say that as she goes she is possessed even of bodily sanctity, when already she has lost and destroyed that sanctity of soul which sanctifies the body? Far be it from us to so misapply words. Let us rather draw this conclusion, that while the sanctity of the soul remains even when the body is violated, the sanctity of the body is not lost; and that, in like manner, the sanctity of the body is lost when the sanctity of the soul is violated, though the body itself remain intact. And therefore a woman who has been violated by the sin of another, and without any consent of her own, has no cause to put herself to death; much less has she cause to commit suicide in order to avoid such violation, for in that case she commits certain homicide to prevent a crime which is uncertain as yet, and not her own. (Book I, Chapter 18)


A Reading for the 4th of July

July 4, 2015

I have some ideas for a post that ties in with July 4, but alas, work is taking priority over blogging.  However, the Lord provides.  As I mentioned a few months ago, I had gotten terribly far behind with my daily gospel readings, and was reading Advent in Lent.  Well, I got pretty far caught up, but then Holy Week hit and I fell off my stride and I am really behind again.

But today, I opened the oldest readings and they were from February 4, and the first reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, seems oddly fitting for our nation as we celebrate the Fourth of July.  A blessed holiday weekend to everyone!

Brothers and sisters: In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.  You have also forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons: “My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him;  for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.”  Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it. So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees.  Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one be deprived of the grace of God, that no bitter root spring up and cause trouble, through which many may become defiled,

Bishop Braxton on Racism

July 1, 2015

I read this six months ago and thought to do a post about racism in America, but it never happened.  Since my colleague Jeannine has thoughtfully raised the subject in her most recent post, I decided to share this.  Edward K. Braxton is the bishop of Belleville in southern Illinois.  He was originally a priest of the archdiocese of Chicago;  I knew him slightly 30 years ago when he was head of Calvert House,  the Catholic center at the University of Chicago.  (I say slightly as I became very close instead with one of his assistants, a Franciscan friar studying for a Ph.D. in medieval theology.)

Last December, for the World Day of Prayer for Peace, he wrote a pastoral letter for his diocese on the subject of the racial divide in America.  It is a long document and I do not have the time to summarize it with any justice.  As I did in a previous post, I suggest you just read it.  It is a lot shorter than the encyclical Laudato Si’, but it is almost certainly going to make you uncomfortable.  I will quote just one passage, where he describes his own interactions with the police:

Before we continue, let me add a personal note. I am not a completely impartial outside observer in the face of these events. I have had two personal experiences with law enforcement officers that made me very conscious of the fact that simply by being me, I could be the cause of suspicion and concern without doing anything wrong. The first experience was when I was a young Priest. The second was when I was already a Bishop. In both cases I was not in clerical attire. I was dressed informally.

In the first experience, I was simply walking down a street in an apparently all-White neighborhood. A police car drove up beside me and the officer asked, “What are you doing in this area? Do you live around here? Where is your car? You should not be wandering around neighborhoods where you do not live.” I never told him I was a Catholic Priest, but I wondered what it was I was doing to attract the attention of the officer? This was long before I heard the expression, “walking while Black.”

In the second experience, I was driving in my car in an apparently all-White neighborhood with two small chairs in the back seat and a table in the partially open trunk tied with a rope. A police car with flashing lights pulled me over. The officer asked, “Where are you going with that table and those chairs? Before I could answer, he asked, “Where did you get them? Then he said, “We had a call about a suspicious person driving through the area with possibly stolen furniture in his trunk.” I wondered what I was doing to make someone suspicious. Many years would pass before I would hear the expression “racial profiling.”

This is an important witness to a near universal phenomenon:  Blacks and Latinos, particularly Black and Latino men, have their lives and perceptions shaped by these kinds of incidents.   As I have indicated in a recent commbox, it has happened to me.  And any discussion of race in America must start by acknowledging this shared experience.


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