Recently had an interesting discussion with a dad regarding his 3 year old daughter. She had been expelled from her preschool for biting. Now, having been father to 5 preschoolers, and having been involved in a number of preschools for a number of years, a couple things sprang to mind:
- This is probably not a single-incident thing. 3 year olds are working through a bunch of complicated social development (that’s what preschool if for, or should be for) and will do any number of inappropriate things. Experienced staff have seen it all, everything from hitting and pushing and using potty talk and refusing to keep their clothes on. So, a one-time incident of a kid biting would demand a certain amount of attention, but not usually an expulsion, unless it were take-a-chunk-outta-ya level.
- Some kids bite. If they can’t be convinced to stop, they can’t be allowed around other kids. I don’t want my kid getting bit, even if no real physical damage is done. It ruins play for everybody if the other kids have to watch out for little Suzy because she might hurt them. This is a ‘Life isn’t fair’ moment – the lesson the biter must learn, despite being too young to really understand, is that she doesn’t get to play with her friends if she bites them. No way around it.
- All kids are different, and we seem to have hit the lottery on well-behaved from a young age kids in our family, so maybe I’m wrong here, but: I’m more than a little worried about a kid who hurts other kids in this way and can’t be convinced to stop. If the screaming and crying of the other kids doesn’t discourage them, or they find the resulting adult intervention desirable, there’s a problem. For acting out older kids, it’s real clear there’s a problem. Not totally sure about 3 year olds, but I suspect it.
- Of course, in the old days, she’d have gotten decked. Moms and dads, without much fear of repercussion, would have told their kid the victim to hit the biter in the face as hard as they could until she stopped. Probably work, and has the added advantage of not making an appeal to an outside authority. Nowadays, there’s no hitting allowed. I don’t know this is an improvement.
Anyway, the punchline: the child in question is a ‘person of color’. The majority of the preschool staff are not. The staff voted to expel, according to her dad, along racial lines. How he knew this, I don’t know.
This happened in the Bay Area, the most enlightened, progressive place on the planet, as anyone here will tell you. The chances that the staff at a preschool are biased *against* ‘children of color’ is pretty slim.
Unless: there’s unaddressed microaggression within the preschool power dynamic! Then the issue isn’t whether or not, in the judgement of the staff, it’s safe to allow a 3 year old biter around the other little kids – no, now the issue has grown monstrous, the ‘R’ word, and the biter, rather than being a perp, is a victim. The kids who got bit – well, they don’t really have a place in the narrative, unless – well, of course! – their getting bit is a result of the power dynamic as well. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to come up with how, exactly, that would work. My head’s beginning to hurt.
He went there. Not in the colorful, yet direct, way I just did – but he went there, with a little implied ‘check your privilege’ for good measure.
Now, what has this got to do with parish life? I think sometimes we look to some sort of global mega-issues to swallow up what are in fact local, and even personal, problems. This was brought to mind by our infatuation with the recent synod. Do we really need another synod to tell us we need to be more loving, kind and gentle with each other? The 30% or so of Catholics who show up every week more or less – do we not get this? Have we not at least occasionally awakened for the readings and the homily?
Let’s take an extreme example from dear Dr. Boli. Here’s how he describes Pope Leo X’s position regarding to Luther’s issues with the selling of indulgences:
The problem with Luther’s plan was that the pope in question was Leo X, one of the Three Worldlies. Leo was not strongly motivated to reform the Catholic Church. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about the Christian religion; it was just that there were more important things that he cared about much more—things like, for example, Leo X. The corrupt and unreformed Catholic Church had been very good to him. He really had no complaints. As a lifestyle, being pope had considerable attractions. Why would he want to give up a life of luxury and set an example of monkish abstemiousness? What was in it for him? Had his father Lorenzo the Magnificent bought him a cardinal’s hat so he could live in a Motel 6 and eat celery? Had he schemed and backstabbed his way through the College of Cardinals for a bowl of lentil porridge? Was he even now making the papal military the terror of Italy so that he and his extended family could live in becoming poverty? No! “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it”—those were his words on ascending the throne of Peter. Or at least those were his reported words, though he may have said something more like “Party time!”
We should thank God with tears of gratitude in our eyes for the last 150 years or so of Popes. Saints! We’ve even had saints in the Chair of Peter! As Belloc put it, the Church is
An institute run with such knavish imbecility that if it were not the work of God it would not last a fortnight.
Amen. So, when we have bishops and a pope who can do *anything* right beyond not screwing up dogma, it is more than we deserve.
Parishes exist in a place and across time. They are incarnational yet full of human flaws.
Applied Catholic theology tends to be a bit fractal: images and duties repeat at intervals of scale. Thus, we have the Holy Family as the model for our family lives, and call each other brothers and sisters in our parishes with God as our Father and the priest as His agent – acting in the person of God, most especially in the Mass. The Bishop serves that role at the diocesan level; the Pope at the level of the Universal Church. We all have the duties of children at some levels; few of us have any other role outside our own families. .
Now look at the lamentable Leo X. We would expect, people being people, that the Church corruption he personified to likewise be fractal – that we’d see the monumental selfishness, self-indulgence and dereliction of duty repeated in bishops, priests and households. The ill effects will be seen in dioceses, parishes and homes.
It certainly doesn’t help us live better lives when the shepherds are doing ill. Two things to keep in mind: nobody makes us fail – that priests, bishops and popes fail to live holy lives doesn’t touch on our responsibilities to live holy lives; and there’s always a crowd of people who like it however it is. Dr. Boli slyly mentions the expectations of the extended family – it’s not like only Leo was corrupt, there was a regular army of people who benefited from the way things were.
Finally – and this takes a bit of effort to get my head around – a lot of bad things we see done up and down the Church’s structure are done by nice people. They think they’re helping. Leo X probably thought the Papacy having a big army was a good thing, required by the fallen world we live in; that making sure Medicis were in charge of things simple prudence – you wouldn’t want those crass Borgias running things, would you? And what’s the harm in giving indulgences to people who donate toward the new and grand St. Peter’s? It’s a good deed, indulgences are to be giving in response to good deeds, and we all get to use the nice church we get out of it. What’s the big deal? Of course, lamentable things might have to be done…
And that’s the ticket. I have come across a couple out of control egomaniacs in my dealings with my parishes – over half a century, it would be amazing if I hadn’t. But far, far more common are people who think they are merely trying to hold things together and move them forward. The innumerable parishes that purged their libraries of anything pre-Vatican II because those old books just weren’t applicable any more; the countless ‘music’ leaders who decided that we needed to sing more modern songs about us and less old hymns about all that fuddy-duddy stuff; all those religious ed instructors who felt it more important to get in touch with the god within than teach any doctrine; all those liturgists (like ‘educators’ a new species created ex nihilo to fill a new need) who just wanted to get people more actively participating; all the old ladies who got used to whatever is was Fr. X was doing – he was such a nice man! – that they make life hell for Fr. Y, who has to pick up the pieces – all these folks see themselves as doing good stuff.
That’s not even counting the people in the pews – me, for example – who fail to do what needs doing, or do things that need to not be done. A smile and a nod in greeting is a good thing; a quick catch-up conversation after mass on the steps or over donuts and coffee is a good thing; remembering people’s names is a good thing; talking to people who seem lost or new is a good thing. In other words, treating people like guests in your home – at the appropriate times and places, of course – is a good thing, and is the absolute minimum required of us sheep.
Making a spectacle of your disdain for goofy songs and practices – not good. Think of St. Thomas More, who struggled mightily to see if there were any way he could sign the King’s oath – he wanted, if at all possible, to go along. You only take your stand and get your head chopped off (and deprive your wife of a husband and children of a father) for actual martyr-worthy causes.
Singing Be Not Afraid and holding hands during the Our Father do not rise to that level.
Returning to what I thought was the point of this post when I came up with the title (funny how that works, isn’t it?) the worst attitude of all is that the problems in your parish are not the result of us people in the pews failing to be charitable and loving, but rather due to some Cosmic Issue with the Church. We become, in our minds, not the perps but the victims. Our actions are not the real problem, no, it’s what our priest told the parish council, or some goofball bishop said at some synod, or some evil Cardinal did at Vatican II, or some Pope failed to do once when somebody asked him a question.
All those bad things that happen in the church – and they can be very bad, I often imagine the millstone factory on triple shifts, just to keep ahead of demand – they just aren’t our problems. At worst, they become crosses we must bear, such as when our parish priests seem hellbent on making the Mass as much a rap session/birthday party as they can.
Our problems are the ones we can actually do something about. As part of the church, we are victims of exactly one global conspiracy – the efforts of Satan to be our master and destroy us. But even there, we are willing victims, and we do not fight, but rather cooperate with our own enslavement when we think we’re victims of the hierarchy’s knavish imbecility rather than active participants in our own sins.
Something like 30 million Catholics split from the Church for Protestantism, and Leo X – may God have mercy on his soul! – carries some large part of the blame. Some similar number of Catholics in the US today have stopped going to mass, stopped listening at all to anything the church teaches that is contrary to what their buddies say at school or work, yet see no conflict with the church except insofar as a bunch of celibate old men keep saying stupid stuff about things they don’t understand.
We don’t fix this – New Evangelization, anyone? – by whining about how we are victims of bad decisions in the church. We don’t fix it at all – God does. But we pray fervently, and love passionately, and suffer meekly – and don’t blame anybody else when we fail.
St. Monica, St. Padre Pio & St. Philip Neri, pray for us!