Why the name?

"Holy Conversation" does sound like an exceptionally pious name, even for a parish blog. And we can't guarantee that everything here will meet the high standard the name implies. But the phrase comes from the story of our patron saint, and we think it fits. Here's why.

St. Scholastica was a sixth-century abbess who, according to the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I, used to meet once a year with her brother, St. Benedict. On the last occasion they were together, they spent their time "satisfying each other's hunger for holy conversation about the spiritual life."

We hope that this blog can become a place where the members of our parish can find a taste of the companionship and conversation that Scholastica and Benedict enjoyed so much. Welcome!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Faith & Politics, Part 3

A dozen parish members and guests gathered for our final session in the series on a cold wintry evening.  This time, we got a picture before we said goodbye.

In this session, called "Practically Faithful,"  we tried to answer two main questions:

How do we deal with the differences among us?
How do we move toward integrity? 

First, we considered spiritual practices that might help us.  Among the ones the group raised were meditation, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist, and any other kinds of prayer that "open us up" to others.

Then we spoke of interpersonal practices that might help us overcome differences.

One example came from Katharine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech climate scientist, who illustrated a Haidt-type approach to talking with people who did not believe in climate change in this video:

I noted that, in this and other videos, Hayhoe is clear about her Evangelical Christianity as well as her stance on climate science.  By being open about her own life, she acts as a bridge to scientists (who may believe that Christianity is opposed to science) and evangelicals (who may not realize that their faith is compatible with science).

Another practice is "fraternizing with the enemy," illustrated in the story of  Marci Velando, a pro-choice California woman who marched in the West Coast March for Life to support her friends, a group of Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.  Whenever we cross boundaries and get to know people with different views, we are doing something to counter some of our current political polarization.  I shared a little of my experience as a participant in both the Women's March on Washington and the March for Life this year.

It is valuable also to notice, as Gandhi did and Pope Francis clearly does, that no one person or group possesses the whole truth.  Rather, we need each other in order to move closer to the truth.  I cited as an example how, at the recent synods on the Family at the Vatican, Pope Francis gave the bishops room to share ideas and debate opinions, without controlling their discussions.  This is a significant departure from Vatican practice at such synods, which have often been tightly controlled.

Finally, I recalled the "seamless garment" image that Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago used in the 1980s.  In the Wade Lecture of March 11, 1984, Cardinal Bernardin said:
There is, I maintain, a political and psychological linkage among the life issues—from war to welfare concerns—which we ignore at our own peril: a systemic vision of life seeks to expand the moral imagination of a society, not partition it into airtight categories.
Similarly, in On Care for Our Common Home (Laudato Si'), Pope Francis called for an integrated approach:

That is why it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. [224]
In the current American political framework, this is very difficult, with political parties that emphasize certain concerns of Catholic social teaching, but are far afield on others.

In the end, we had to recognize that our efforts to prepare the way for the coming of the Reign of God will always fall short.  This is not a reason to give up, but a reason to open ourselves to God's mercy expressed in Jesus.  We ended our session standing in silence for several minutes before this image of Jesus Pantocrator (the Ruler of All) from the great basilica of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and, once more, we chanted the Lord's Prayer together.

Faith & Politics, Part 2

The second session of our Faith & Politics series was probably the most challenging for the twenty or so participants.  Once again, we tried to "think about our think" in order to gain a new perspective on why good people often disagree about religion and politics.

This time, we used the perspective of moral psychology.  The session was titled, "The Righteous Mind: Evolutionary roots of the human mind."  After a Candlemas prayer, I spent the first part of the session presenting ideas from moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, from his book The Righteous Mind. The presentation was accompanied by PowerPoint slides, a few of them below.

Haidt argues from social science research that we do not tend to use our rational minds to search for truth.  Rather, we form quick, intuitive judgments and use our minds to justify our actions or those of the team we belong to.

An image Haidt uses is to describe our minds as like an elephant and rider.  The rider represents our conscious reasoning; the elephant represents the many mental processes that occur outside our awareness. 

We like to think that the rider is in charge but--at least initially--that does not seem to be the case.  Our animal minds evolved to size up situations quickly with lightning judgments.  Once these judgments are made, our conscious mind tends to act like a press secretary by justifying the things we have already done to others.

Haidt also asserts that different cultures (and groups within cultures) have built their moral outlooks on certain basic "moral foundations" that evolved as humans began to live in communities.  These moral foundations include the following:

When Haidt and his colleagues published a "Moral Foundations Questionnaire"  online, self-described liberals tended to show a different pattern of attention to the moral foundations than self-described conservatives did.  In short, liberals placed more emphasis on the Care and Fairness foundations, while conservatives tended to attend to all five, including the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations ( the Liberty/Oppression foundation was formulated after this research).

So, conservatives tend to have a political advantage because they more naturally address a greater number of the moral foundations.

Three members of our group had taken the Moral Foundation Questionnaire online, and our responses are shown in the chart below.

The green bar represents my responses.  The blue bar represents liberals, the red bar conservatives.  The gray bar is the compiled response of the three members of our group who took the survey before the session.

At least two of our group respondents are self-described political liberals, so the results are a bit surprising.  We show a pattern more typical of conservatives.  I wonder whether Catholic liberals might have a greater appreciation for the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations than other liberals?

Finally, in a third metaphor, Haidt argues that our minds are 90% chimp and 10% bee.

We possess in or minds a mechanism that Haidt dubs the "hive switch."

Experiences  that lift us out of the everyday--experiences of nature, for example, or of charged group gatherings like a rock concert or NFL football game--trigger this switch and make a deep impression on us.

Is there hope for us, with our minds designed by evolution for "groupish righteousness"?  Haidt thinks so, under certain circumstances.

After a break, we watched two more videos on Catholic Social Teaching from Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. bishops.

Which of the two videos do you think would appeal most strongly to political liberals?  to political conservatives?

Finally, in groups, we considered the following quesions:
How do you make everyday decisions?  By rational consideration, or by feeling-based intuition?  Are larger lifestyle decisions different?
            • If Haidt is generally correct, what does that imply for how we treat differences among us?

There is much more that could be said.  Certainly Haidt's naturalistic explanation of our moral frameworks is a challenge to Catholic Christian approaches to morality.  Our moral tradition tends to assume that  the rational mind is in--or ought to be in--control of our decision-making.  Still, the doctrine of original sin allows room for a great deal in our human natures which may make it difficult for us to behave according to our ideals.  And the Christian spiritual tradition--or better, traditions--would not think it strange that we had many mental processes that we are not in control of.  Those processes, too, are redeemed in Christ.

We ended the evening with a "hive"-type prayer by chanting the "Our Father" together.

Faith & Politics, Part 1

How is your faith related to your political convictions?  An intrepid group of parish members and guests met on three evenings in January and February to explore this and other questions.

In the first session, "Rooted in Love?", we began a process of "thinking about our think" by stepping back to remember where our political views originated.

First, we read as a kind of litany part of an article by Bishop Zubik that listed all the many reasons Catholics gave him to urge him to forbid people from voting for Hillary Clinton--or Donald Trump!  [You can read it here (+).]  Clearly, there is a diversity of political opinion within the Catholic Church.  Why do we see things differently?

We sought to explore that question by recalling our own histories.  In small groups we answered questions such as:

As you look back in life, when do you think your basic political outlook was formed?  What was going on in the political world at that time?  Was there a group of people who were important in that development?
After a break, we considered further questions:
   Do your political ideas connect with your religion or faith? 
   When and how did that happen? 
   Who were the people who were most important to you in forming this connection?
Finally, we considered our religious "touchstones" in forming our political views.  That is, which stories (from the Scriptures or from the lives of the saints, for example) or practices (practices of prayer; the Eucharist) inspire and guide our decisions?

As you can imagine, sharing our own stories gave us insight into how we are formed politically--and religiously!  The people we were with at important times in our lives (and especially young adulthood) seem to have had a large influence on us.  And it was easy to see how different experiences led us to differing political ideas.

Before and after the break, we watched short videos on Catholic social doctrine.  We began with one from Trocaire, the international aid organization of the Irish Catholic bishops, on "CST [Catholic Social Teaching] in 3 minutes."  You can watch it here (+).

We also watched a brief video from the U.S. bishops and Catholic Relief Services (our international aid organization) on "Life and Dignity of the Human Person." You can watch it below.

We ended with a different sort of litany--a litany of our hopes for our nation.