There is a wonderful insight from St Vincent de Paul, in the Office of Readings on his feast day. It’s an insight that probably every saint has received and shared — not to mention countless disciples who aren’t canonised. But St Vincent has most famously formulated it:
Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. So when you leave prayer to serve some poor person, remember that this very service is performed for God.
Godly “distractions” aren’t limited to serving the poor. For example, when you’re trying to meditate, focusing your thoughts on God, but other thoughts invade — that conversation you had yesterday, or that friend you haven’t called for a while — that may not be a “distraction.” That may be an indication, from God, to pray for that person, for his or her intentions; or to get in touch.
In the same way, although it is understandable to consider the clergy abuse scandal as a devastating distraction from the Church’s mission, maybe even a diabolical means of destroying the Church’s moral authority, I suspect the opposite. The never-ending Royal Commission, the hostile media coverage, the horrendous stories and shameful statistics — maybe none of this is a distraction. Maybe this is where God wants the Church to focus its attention. Maybe this is central to the mission of the Church in Australia.
It’s becoming more and more evident, I think, that the sexual abuse of children is not ‘a Catholic problem,’ and nor is it an historical problem. Studies suggest a substantial proportion of Australian children are abused, and that the rate of abuse is growing. This is a universal problem, and a current one. The world is in trouble. And the Church exists for the world, not for itself.
The Catholic Church has sustained a humiliating exposé which has done a lot of harm. But it’s not in vain. In fact, I think the benefits of this shameful exposé outweigh the costs. Catholic schools and parishes are now the safest places for children in Australia, and Catholic schools and parishes are the most dangerous places for paedophiles. The staff in my parish schools, and all the people on my parish councils, and I, have signed and abide by codes of conduct which eliminate opportunities for adults to prey on children. We all know what to do if we believe someone violates the code — how to respond, who to speak to, which legal authorities to call. That’s significant. Paedophiles cultivate and groom adults, not just children. They depend on the naiveté and inaction of good people. A culture which eliminates that possibility saves children.
That’s the future, but the present is maybe even more important. A lot of pastoral care is owed to a lot of people who have suffered from clerical child abuse. And a lot can be learned from them too. Their suffering is not in vain either; their experiences and their insights can enrich the Church and assist its mission. These victims and survivors are not apart from the Church. They are the Church. Christ identifies with them, and so should we all. I hope Church leaders are listening to them. We have so much more to learn.
To paraphrase St Vincent:
Do not become upset or feel guilty because the evangelising mission of the Church is interrupted by the fallout and response to the clergy abuse scandal. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. Remember that this very service is performed for God.
None of this is a distraction. This is where we need to focus our energy. Our prayer. Our apostolic zeal. God knows what he is about.
One thing’s for sure: the 2016 US Presidential election has ruined my interest in future campaigns. Other election cycles will never be as interesting as this one.
In the meantime, though, I can enjoy reading and thinking about what’s left of this campaign. Scott Adam’s prophecy of a landslide victory to Donald Trump may not come to pass. If the lewd hot mic video in the present media cycle isn’t enough to kill Trump’s candidacy, the release of similar tapes may finish it.
Or maybe this is a storm in a teacup, which won’t impact voters who have already made up their minds. All will be revealed soon — on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, when Americans vote.
Here are my thoughts.
1. The video should surprise nobody
What Trump says in that video is gross and indefensible, but none of it is surprising. Everyone knew already that Trump is a womaniser and an adulterer. His sexual immorality is notorious, and so is his crass language. As soon as I watched the video, I recalled an article published ten months ago, wherein Trump is quoted saying something similar:
About 15 years ago, I said something nasty on CNN about Donald Trump’s hair. I can’t now remember the context, assuming there was one. In any case, Trump saw it and left a message the next day.
The quoted message, like the hot mic video, is lewd. Follow the link at your discretion.
Many people are offended by Trump’s personal values and sexual behaviour. I’m one of them. But his values and behaviour isn’t news. Trump has been a playboy since, forever. The hot mic video doesn’t bring anything new to the table. I doubt this will sway Christian voters who were already holding their nose to vote for him anyway.
That ten-month-old column makes the point well:
You read surveys that indicate the majority of Christian conservatives support Trump, and then you see the video: Trump on stage with pastors, looking pained as they pray over him, misidentifying key books in the New Testament, and in general doing a ludicrous imitation of a faithful Christian, the least holy roller ever. You wonder as you watch this: How could they be that dumb? He’s so obviously faking it.
They know that already. I doubt there are many Christian voters who think Trump could recite the Nicene Creed, or even identify it. Evangelicals have given up trying to elect one of their own. What they’re looking for is a bodyguard, someone to shield them from mounting (and real) threats to their freedom of speech and worship. Trump fits that role nicely, better in fact than many church-going Republicans. For eight years, there was a born-again in the White House. How’d that work out for Christians, here and in Iraq?
2. Much of the criticism is transparently opportunistic
I like Senator John McCain. I’ve followed his career since his presidential run in 1999, when he almost vanquished George W. Bush. I think he would have made a good president. But I think his recent conduct towards Trump is cynical and opportunistic.
The same goes for all those critics on the right, who initially endorsed Trump, only to rescind after the hot mic video was broadcast. If what Trump says on that video disqualifies his from office, then so does his myriad of public affairs and serial divorces. If Trump’s character is a problem to them, McCain and the others had no business endorsing Trump in the first place. They were either insincere in the first instance, or insincere in the second. Or, most likely, they were insincere both times.
Trump’s critics on the left, meanwhile, are hypocritical. The progressives who insist Trump’s private vices have disqualified him from public office, have previously insisted that Bill Clinton’s private vices had no bearing on his public office. But even more galling is the progressives’ pretence at offence, when most of them are moral relativists. Here’s a well-reasoned article which calls out the double standards:
For years, Christians in particular have been attacked and silenced as they’ve tried to challenge the immorality that is pervasive in today’s society. When they tell people casual sex is wrong, they get the inevitable, “You have no right to tell me what I can or can’t do.” If they oppose sexual immorality in any form, including adultery, they’re maligned as sanctimonious puritans by lovers of libertinism.
Those who are complaining about Trump today have no basis for their moral outrage. That’s because their secular amoral worldview rejects any basis for that moral judgment. Any argument they make against the “immorality” of Trump is stolen, or at least borrowed for expediency, from a religious worldview they have soundly rejected.
The faux outrage of the unapologetic architects of our cultural decline is almost enough, in itself, to compel a vote for Trump. If I could vote. Nonetheless:
3. #NeverTrumpers deserve an honourable mention
A month ago, another priest and I debated the merits of Trump’s candidacy. I think, if I was American, I would probably vote for Trump. My friend could not countenance voting for him, because Trump’s character flaws are disqualifying.
I see his point. It’s one shared by Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas, who insisted that only the most virtuous should lead the polis. Many #NeverTrumper conservatives have invoked this rationale for their position.
Joshua Mitchell put it well (again, last month, well before the hot mic video), in an excellent survey of the intellectual currents informing this year’s election campaigns. He called it ‘The Aristotle Problem’:
One can say that Trump has revealed what can be called The Aristotle Problem in the Republican Party. Almost every cultural conservative with whom I have spoken recently loves Aristotle and hates Trump. That is because on Aristotelian grounds, Trump lacks character, moderation, propriety and magnanimity. He is, as they put it, “unfit to serve.” The sublime paradox is that Republican heirs of Aristotle refuse to vote for Trump, but will vote for Clinton and her politically left-ish ideas that, while very much adopted to the American political landscape, trace their roots to Marx and to Nietzsche. Amazingly, cultural conservatives who have long blamed Marx and Nietzsche (and German philosophy as a whole) for the decay of the modern world would now rather not vote for an American who expressly opposes Marx and Nietzsche’s ideas! In the battle between Athens, Berlin and, well, the borough of Queens, they prefer Athens first, Berlin second and Queens not at all. The Aristotle Problem shows why these two groups—the #NeverTrumpers and the current Republicans who will vote for Trump—will never be reconciled.
Kudos to the #NeverTrumpers, whose criticism of Trump is consistent, and depending on the election results, may well be vindicated.
The last word goes to Scott Adams, just because his blog posts and tweets have so enhanced my enjoyment of this very long election campaign. He’s good at one-liners:
A full year has passed (hard to believe) since I blogged about Donald Trump: clown or genius?
Back then, the first primary elections were still four months away, but already Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon, was predicting that Donald Trump would win in a landslide. Trump certainly did win the Republican nomination — setting a new record for the most GOP primary votes. But the primary election polls always presented Trump as the Republican front runner. The general election polls have him lagging behind Hillary Clinton, where he’s been for many weeks now.
So does that mean that Trump will lose the general election after all? Scott Adams doesn’t think so, and neither do I. First, here’s a 3 minute clip presenting Scott Adams’ case. Donald Trump, he says, is a master persuader who has manipulated people’s emotional responses and will achieve “one of the biggest margins of victory in history:”
But what about all those polls predicting Hillary Clinton’s victory? There are reasons to doubt them. (This is my own analysis now, not Scott Adams.) The polls presume more Democrats will vote than Republicans. In 2012, Democrats who voted outnumbered Republicans who voted. But this year, all the energy is on the Republican side:
- The last open primary was in 2008. Compared to that contest, this year the Democrats attracted 8 million fewer voters while the Republicans attracted 10 million more.
- In August, both candidates held large rallies to energise supporters. That was the plan, anyway. Trump held 29 events, attracting 168 thousand people. Clinton held 11 events, attracting 10 thousand people.
Given these contrasts, I’m not convinced pollsters are wise to apply 2012 figures to voter turnout.
Then there are the “October surprises,” which can reshape the race. As Scott Adams argues, Trump has forward engineered his campaign to exploit a number of possible developments. If terrorists attack, or the economy tanks, or a political scandal breaks, it fits into Trump’s narrative and he benefits. The only October surprise that benefits Clinton is something directly implicating her opponent.
So I maintain that Trump is still on the way to a landslide victory in November. Of course I could be wrong. This is just for fun. Aussies don’t get to vote!
Here’s an interesting video. It exposes the myth of ‘radical Islam’ which populates the Western imagination. The subjugation of women and execution of gays is actually mainstream religious belief in the Islamic world.
The larger point is that the present conflict between the West and Islam is the consequence of a clash of ideas, not economic inequality.
As a religious believer myself, I have no problem recognising that sacred texts and spiritual leaders can shape hearts and minds and direct a person’s entire life. Perhaps people who do not attend to the spiritual life, people who are more or less materialist, are blind to this.
I mean that respectfully. It’s the only way I can account for the strange zeitgeist of denialism which informs public debate.
Sometimes, when I read or hear about the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, I am filled with righteous anger. Anger at the priests and religious who did this, and maybe even more so, anger at the bishops and others who covered up and enabled heinous evil. It’s hypocritical, and it’s disgusting.
But at other times, I am filled with anger at the media and critics of the Church. There are times — and this past week, with its malicious attack on Cardinal Pell is a good example — when public figures and commentators indulge in vicious anti-Catholic bigotry. The noble goals of truth, justice and healing are sacrificed, even if momentarily. But worse than that: the terrible trauma of victims and survivors is exploited. It’s hypocritical, and it’s disgusting.
But here’s the thing: while I periodically navigate between these extremes, I can find myself irrationally reacting against a media article I’m reading, or a person I’m engaging in conversation. Let me give you a few examples:
- In private conversation, a Catholic from an older generation decries the media obsession, and the slavish position of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council. I feel anger boiling up within me, and a dismay that the Church doesn’t whole-heartedly and without qualification accuse herself and engage in radical penance.
- I read a newspaper article which unjustly pillories individuals within the Church, and reduces the scourge of clergy abuse to something marginal, like celibacy for the Kingdom. I feel anger boiling up within me, and a stubborn defensiveness of the Church.
These are just two examples from a spectrum that covers every position and every reaction. But there’s a common denominator: I respond with self-righteous anger, which is quite different from righteous anger. Maybe you experience something like this yourself.
Because of this, I now studiously avoid second- and third-hand accounts of the Royal Commission and the cases of abuse. I still open myself up to first-hand accounts. The direct testimony of Royal Commission witnesses for example, and confidential conversations with victims and survivors of sexual abuse. In those instances I am moved by compassion, not self-righteous anger.
But I avoid TV and newspaper coverage, facile musical parodies, and even artful treatments (by all accounts) like Spotlight. These second- and third-hand accounts too easily stoke my passions in negative and destructive ways. Which tells me something I knew already: in the midst of this terrible sin and scandal, which teems with human vice and worldliness, the devil also prowls. There is something truly diabolical about all this, which we must attend to.
I repeatedly remind my parishioners, at the beginning of the media’s periodic coverage of the Church’s sins, to consciously foster a supernatural outlook:
- To match every minute consuming media treatment of this evil, with another minute prayerfully reading the life of Christ in the Gospels.
- To debrief with the Lord each evening, examining one’s emotional responses to the latest news or commentary, and placing it all in God’s hands.
- To choose one’s words carefully, and listen with real compassion when others speak about these matters.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I counsel visits to the Blessed Sacrament. To go out of one’s way and kneel before a tabernacle, even if only for a minute, to remind oneself that Christ is the head of the Church; he is the reason we are Catholic; and he is always present to us in the Eucharist, regardless of the virtue or vice of his ministers. When we do these things, I think, we are better able to respond to this terrible evil just as our Lord responds. Not with self-righteousness, but with real compassion, sorrow, and righteous anger.
One more thing: suffering is not in vain. Suffering can be redemptive. As St Paul so beautifully puts it,
“the Sinless One became sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.”
What is true of Christ is also true of the Church, and it’s true of us individually too, Christ’s members. We can assume sin, and carry its consequences within us, for the good and healing of others. So we should meet this current affliction with sincere hope in healing and redemption. For the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection.
American presidential elections provide me with hours of entertainment. I love this stuff – especially the “process stories” and “horse race coverage.”
This time round it’s even more entertaining, because Donald Trump is running. But boy, has the media got him wrong! For several months now, Donald Trump has been presented as a clown and amateur, who stumbles from one gaffe to another. And this is the result:
Scott Adams, the author of that comic, is best known for his Dilbert cartoon. He’s also an amateur hypnotist, and author of several books on negotiation and persuasion. He seems pretty good at it. Consider this anecdote from his Wikipedia entry:
In 1997, at the invitation of Logitech CEO Pierluigi Zappacosta, Adams, wearing a wig and false mustache, successfully impersonated a management consultant and tricked Logitech managers into adopting a mission statement that Adams described as “so impossibly complicated that it has no real content whatsoever.”
I think Adams sees a kindred spirit in Donald Trump – who, after all, literally wrote the book on The Art of the Deal. And unlike every other commentator I’ve read, Adams gives a compelling explanation for Trump’s success: the Donald is systematically playing the media, exploiting the visceral reactions of voters, and slaying his opponents. Nothing in his campaign is accidental.
Here is one example:
When CNN anchor Chris Cuomo asked Trump to react to the Pope’s criticism of capitalism, Trump correctly saw it as a trap. If he engaged with the question he would be quoted on this topic and smeared with the association of Trump-capitalism-corruption. Tomorrow the headlines would be some form of “Trump blah, blah, corruption.”
Trump couldn’t bluntly refuse to engage in the question because that would look weak. So how does Trump wiggle out of such a well-crafted media trap?
Trump responds that he would tell the Pope that ISIS is coming to get him, and that they have plans to take the Vatican, which I assume is true, or true enough.
Do you even remember the question anymore?
Now compare the wattage coming from these two thoughts:
1. A boring discussion about corruption in capitalism. (Cuomo’s question.)
2. A mental picture of ISIS taking over the Vatican.
No comparison. Corruption and capitalism are mere concepts that have no visual appeal. The ideas are important yet inert. But an ISIS overthrow of the Vatican is so visual you wonder why it isn’t already a movie. And that visual is all anyone will remember of that interview in a week.
Do you still think Trump’s clown act is random?
Four weeks ago, Adams said that “Hillary Clinton has a 95% chance of being our next president unless we get some surprises. But the other 5% is all Trump.”
Now he says that Trump has a 98% chance of winning the election. He’s the only one saying it, but then he’s also the only one who has been right about Trump so far. It is fascinating commentary. Read it all at blog.dilbert.com.