The Digital Revolution and Imperfect Intimacy

One of the concerns I often hear when talking about digital tools and faith formation is that it’s impossible to form relationships online. I this this is a false assumption with a grain of truth — in fact, I think the internet can form and strengthen relationships in two ways.

First, new media helps connect people who may never have an opportunity to meet face-to-face. My own experience on Twitter and blogs has led me to connect with dozens (maybe more) of catechists and catechetical leaders from all over the world. The insights, resources, and support I have received from them — and I hope returned — have been invaluable to my work and ministry.

Second, new media helps us to strengthen existing relationships by connecting us to our friends and family even when they are physically removed. Stefana Broadbent offers some examples in the video above; personally, I love the story of the family who uses online video to have dinner with family members on the other side of the world!

Of course, neither of these types of connections are as intimate or strong as true face-to-face interactions. But in an increasingly mobile world they are better than being completely disconnected. (I recently heard someone say that we may be entering an era when we no longer have “former friends” — just people we moved away from and now connect with online!) Managing these new forms of relationships will be tricky, but they demonstrate the power of new media to form and strengthen relationships, even if they don’t reach the “more perfect” types of face-to-face relationships we need in our lives.

Tis the great fault of our age to underrate parental dignity

‘Tis the great fault of our age to underrate parental dignity. In the easy-going world, preference is given to profligate celibacy over honorable wedlock; marriage itself is degraded to the level of a purely natural contract, its bond has lost its character of indissolubility and its obligations are shirked to meet the demands of fashion and convenience. When parents, unworthy ones, do not appreciate their own dignity, how will others, their children, appreciate it? And parenthood will never be esteemed while its true nature and sanctity are ignored and contemned; there is no dignity where the idea of God is excluded.

– Rev. John H. Stapelton, Explanation of Catholic Morals (1913)

On the Usefulness of Death Panels

It seems to me that, in the cacophony of debate surrounding health care reform and the so-called “death panels,” that a simple foundational reality has eluded some people: Death panels would be immeasurably useful in modern American society.

Which is to say, they are useful in a society that has largely abandoned the traditional family and the network of support it ensures.

In the past, the elderly were largely taken care of by relatives — usually adult children — in the context of an extended network of family who lived in geographical proximity to one another. There was no question of mom or dad moving to an assisted   living facility; they simply moved in and were cared for at home, with other family members offering support and assistance as needed.

Today, this reality no longer exists — as I see it, for two primary reasons. First, children no longer live close to their parents. I live six hours from my mother; many of the friends I know live even further than that from their parents. In a mobile society, distance limits the amount of direct care children can provide for their aging parents. And given the quality of health care seniors now receive, most are able to live more active lives than their parents are their age. (My mother certainly doesn’t want to leave her home to live with my family. We’d crimp her style!) Second, the Boomers had fewer children than their parents did. This means fewer children sharing the responsibility of caring for aging parents which leads to additional stress as family.

These two factors are only exacerbated when aging parents enter the final phase of their life on earth. Again, given the quality of modern health care, this phase is often marked by catastrophic illness that even the best hospitals and doctors are unable to treat. In this situation children are called on to make excruciating decisions regarding how their parents will be treated and what medical interventions are appropriate. Most are not prepared to make these decisions, either a) because they do not know what their mother or father   would want, or b) because their own unresolved emotional issues make them less likely to accept the reality of impending death and more likely to choose superhuman interventions that only prolong dying. (I’m speaking here extraordinary measures such as choosing to resuscitate a patient in a coma who has gone into cardiac arrest while in the final stages of pancreatic cancer, not ordinary care such as nutrition and hydration either naturally or artificially administered.)

Caring for the dying elderly, especially those we love, is a thankless and heartrending task! And given that reality, the truth is that death panels would be enormously efficient and useful by taking the messy, painful, difficult — and most of all human! — process of dying and placing it in the hands of an impartial and disinterested group of individuals.

And isn’t that what we all want for our loved ones?

“Sic transit mundus”

Comparing the United States to the Roman Empire seems to be a fashionable thing to do lately. And the argument is certainly not without merit. As the only superpower left its natural to make judgments based on the worlds great empires and to ask if we are making the same mistakes that caused their downfalls. The real question, of course, is whether we can learn from history in order to avoid those same mistakes.

Which is just another way to say that I recently read A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr. Published in 1960, the book may be best described as a work of “Catholic science fiction.” It follows the travails of a monastery in a post-apocalyptic world where, following a massive nuclear war, humanity turns against intellectuals and learning in a great “Simplification.” Books are burned, universities torn down and the general populace intentionally becomes illiterate in the hopes that another “Flame Deluge” may be averted. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz (ironically, and unintentionally, abbreviated to AOL) have been charged with protecting what writings they are able to smuggle into their great collection (the “Memorabilia”) in the hope that humanity might one day be ready to accept them again.

The book is divided into three sections, each separated by 600 years. The first deals with a young postulant’s discovery of relics of Blessed Leibowitz, whose cause for canonization has been opened. The second chronicles the arrival at the monastery of Thon Taddeo, the age’s greatest secular thinker, and the world’s re-discovery of the treasures hidden there. In the last part humanity is once again threatened by the re-development of nuclear weapons and the Church must decide how best to preserve the world’s knowledge and ensure the survival of future generations.

One of Miller’s main themes is the cyclical nature of history: in forgetting its own past, the world inadvertently makes its second annihilation possible. Miller makes a fairly explicit comparison between ignorance and violence on the one hand and knowledge and peace on the other. The tribal factions of the outside world are constantly at odds, fighting over territory, food and other resources. They are unable to work together and, as a result, can build nothing of lasting value.

Yet there is still hope in the form of community. By maintaining their connection to the past — by remembering who they are and passing on that knowledge to future generations — the monks are able to keep their charge for over 1200 years while, all around them, empires rise, reign and fall. It is the thankless dedication of generations of monks that allows humanity to pull itself from a second Dark Age.

The book also highlights the perennial struggle between science’s pursuit of fact, the state’s pursuit of power and faith’s search for truth. This is especially evident in the second part, during which Thon Thaddeo is at odds with the Order over access to the Memorabilia (he wants to relocate the archive to make them more readily accessible to other scientists) and in the third part in which the state sanctions euthanasia camps for radiation victims. How the monks deal with these threats to their mission says a great deal about how and why the Church pursues knowledge (as opposed to science and the state).

Although it met with mixed reaction upon its release, A Canticle for Leibowitz went on to win a Hugo Award and is now considered a modern classic in science fiction. I highly recommend it to any fan of the genre or anyone interested in the mission of the Church, even in the most trying of times.