#6 – The Grammar of the Soul

In previous articles, I have written about the existence of the human soul, justifying it using Aristotelian and Thomistic logic. Expounding on the logic is difficult for a new reader, laborious for an amateur explaining it, and grueling for an academic trying to add to the already standing body of work around Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysical ideas. Of course, the intersection of my academic studies and Aristotle or Aquinas really collide when speaking about language. While there is plenty to speak of within the Thomistic tradition about the nature of language, it is done in one sort of way.

Seemingly from age to age, it is enough to send the minds of philosophers spinning to contemplate the fact that the phenomenon of language is so uniquely intertwined with the human soul, indivisible from our nature as both rational and animal. Most of the energy that St. Thomas puts toward contemplating the nature of language and the mind deals with the nature of man’s reception of knowledge. The reception of knowledge is the grounds on which we formally understand that we do have souls, and rational ones at that. This fact, as O’Callaghan writes, is closely intertwined with St. Thomas’ understanding of the purpose of man.

“Not only is it the case that for St. Thomas our mental life is incomplete without its welling in the world of animals, plants, and inanimate objects, but perhaps even more striking is St. Thomas’s position that the created world of animals, plants, and inanimate beings is itself incomplete until it is taken up into the mental life of the human person who dwells within it. This mutual indwelling is for St. Thomas the perfection of the created order, a more perfect image and likeness of God” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 280-281).

Man’s teleos, final purpose, is to behold God as He truly is, for “final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence” (Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Q. 3, Art. 8) This is the Beatific Vision. God is a truly infinite being, infinitely higher in nature than we ever could be, and our purpose is to spend eternity beholding Him, coming to know Him. We could spend all of eternity beholding Him and still never find an end of wonder.

For Aquinas, the human soul is, primarily, receptive in nature. Its teleos is receptive, therefore Aquinas understands the whole of the soul as primarily being a receiver in and of the world, and more so a receiver of God. Thus, when exploring the soul’s relationship to language, Aquinas primarily engages in the notion of comprehension, the work of such contemplation leading to my aforementioned articles.

Yet as many know, this is not the whole of language. Sure, language is comprehended, but how does an integral view of an ensouled human explain the action of speech? How does it explain where languages come from and how they develop and change? There are many questions that we could get to, but for now my big question is this: how do we explain the phenomenon of language grammar within a Thomistic framework? Modern linguists all have their ideas about how words exist in the human mind, but a large part of my linguistic studies at university were not so much interested in how words are and become manifest in the human mind (though that was certainly of interest as well) but also how those words cooperated, whether in comprehension or production, to produce elements bigger than themselves.

Curious to my experience, there, was how the most successful language acquisition models would often sidestep some of these questions of the nature of grammar, deeming any one model or idea insufficient, ultimately claiming it wasn’t an important enough question to satisfy before looking on to classroom practices. It was especially odd since most of my other classes spent time looking at just how language is constructed in the mind, such as my syntax classes. It didn’t take long, though, to notice a particular obsession with my favorite acquisition theories that was common to my favorite philosopher: comprehension. From observing Stephen Krashen to Bill VanPatten and beyond into the larger community of language instructors that were hyper focused on enveloping learners with mountains of opportunity for purposeful comprehension, it was impossible to not connect my favorite academic subjects.

The theories expounded by these academics, the Input Hypothesis and the Input Processing theory, subordinate or eliminate grammar lessons in the language classroom when practically applied to curriculum. Overt grammar knowledge, they argue (and prove), is unnatural and isn’t effective for novices. What is? Many repeated innocuous exposures to significant forms of grammar in context.

So can Aquinas explain why these theories are true? Can Aquinas explain how the human mind learns grammar without overly explicit lessons? I firmly believe that a Thomistic Theory of Grammar would help explain and inform many courses of modern linguistic study.

The Proposition

Grammar exists as Aristotelian form knowledge in the intellect as abstracted relationships.

In Article #3 of this series, I presented the facts that words are equivalent to the passiones animae, the impressions made on the soul from reality around it. As an important beginning point, I wish to recap the way that words exist in our minds. From the perspective of comprehension, we see that a set of phonological or orthographical conveniences become associated with a distinct passion of, or impression on, the soul. The human subject perceives something in reality, or rather, something in reality makes an impression on the human senses, and the intellect becomes impressed upon by the senses themselves. While the true Aristotelian form of the perceived object never leaves itself, the very what-ness (quidditas) of the object becomes grasped at by the soul, and the impression can be called a passio animae. The act of receiving the passio and remembering the passio within the passive intellect becomes comprehension.

Now, in my classes and in the field of study of linguistics, grammar is classified as a unique branch of the reality of language, because it seems to be its own category. Suddenly one is not considering the abstraction of ‘dog’ or even the abstract motion of ‘eating’ but the strange application and rules of how these words work together. We do not say “Eating dog” or “Eat dog” or “Dog eat” but rather “The dog eats.” It is no surprise that multiple words get strung together, but the linguist studying grammar wishes to understand not only why we string words together in this specific way, but how we implicitly know and control this construction of language and how we know when to add or remove different linguistic affixes. Perhaps, even, the linguist wants to know why an incorrect construction of these elements leads to miscommunication. The average man does not overtly think about constructing his sentences, but simply communicates his observations, needs, desires, and inquiries. Even an educated man, though, can be quite confused by obscure sentence strings and sentences that ignore standard grammar conventions.

Returning to our information of St. Thomas Aquinas, we see that when words work together, there is in fact a single passio animae that results from the conveyed information. All of the individual components work together and create a single impression, a “complex concept” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 19-20)  . Thus informed, one might ask where grammar fits in. It cannot be ignored, as clearly incorrect grammar leads to obstruction of comprehension, but done well or with little deviance it is unnoticeable.

Since language is particular, and not universal to all of mankind, it would be easy to propose that grammar somehow belongs solely within the material domain, in the brain, or, at the very least, as a sensory phenomenon. This would likely be akin to a behaviorist understanding of language and grammar, where there are positive associations built up with certain word or sound relationships, and negative associations with incorrect relationships. If I said to my friend “Nosotros hablas mucho bien español” I would suffer some negative reactions, but if I then corrected to “Nosotros hablamos muy bien el español” I would be received much more positively. The issue with this approach is that it ignores the fact that words and grammar conventions themselves carry meaning, which within the human mind properly belongs to the intellect. There’s a reason that behaviorist ideas of psychology haven’t aged well.

If grammar somehow belongs to the intellect, then we have to differentiate grammar and words. Words observe a singular entity, while grammar primarily entertains multiple entities. Here it is helpful to consider what sorts of substantial categories of things the intellect abstracts. Aristotle long ago distinguished between substantial forms and accidental forms, substantial being something like “human” whereas accidental is “red hair.” Within the concept of accidental forms, Aristotle described nine types, and one of the most significant here for us to understand is that of relation. Mere relationships are themselves abstracted accidental forms, beings, that the intellect entertains, separate even from the things that a relationship enjoins.

In Spanish, there are many suffixes for verbs which convey a range of information, from the time of the action and the subject that performed the action to subtle mood differences of the action (whether it for sure happened or whether it is desired that it happens). Certainly, then, the suffixes connect the primal identity of the word with more subtle applications of that word with other abstract notions of ‘past’ and ‘unfulfilled’ and ‘by us.’ At play is a distinct relationship. But this distinct relationship does not exist solely to that unique action in that one context. It can be applied to many words describing different actions, but it is the same abstract relationship at play.

When students learn a new language, it can be fascinating to learn about the novel grammar constructions of new languages. One of my favorites of these is one I learned of Irish Gaeilge, where possession cannot be expressed by a transitive verb. One must say that a certain object is “at” them. But by saying something is “at” one self, they have thus expressed possession.

Tá  an   uisce agam.

Is   the water at-me.

I have the water.

Yet, as wild and foreign as the grammatical concept may propose itself to be, it is nonetheless still comprehensible to the student, even if only after many exposures to the various instances in which the language proposes it to the student. In my experience of teaching language, this is the part that students struggle with the most. It’s not necessarily learning that certain phonetic or orthographic pieces are constructed together, but that the abstract relationships proposed by the grammar are actually meaningful and appropriate.

Why can’t I just say that I LIKE the food Mr. Skipper? Why do I have to say that it pleases me? That’s so wEiRd.

So inevitably, grammar is a composition of certain abstract relationships that one language orchestrates very differently than another. In Spanish one of the most important relationships is between Action, Time, and Subject. The importance can be seen in not just the primacy in a phrase, but how convenient the expression of this relationship is in phonetics. It all gets conjoined in the very same word.

Fuimos – We left

It is not impossible for other languages to convey similar meanings, but the conventions of expressing those meanings look differently, and the attention given to those conventions and relationships take on different value as an abstract whole. The fact that prepositions are always connected to other subjects or objects means that in Irish, personal pronouns become subjugated as suffixes to the pronoun in question. Yet that is the key – the two separate elements of preposition and pronoun, in Irish, are subject to a grammar relationship that results in a phonetic merge.

Ag + mé
(At    me)
= Agam

Where Grammar Comes From

This is a point I want to address with particular importance and stress. In an “I-make-me” world, we want to decentralize power into the individual, often to the detriment of our communal nature.

When a baby learns a language, they have to learn about the conventions of grammar and the abstract relationships that the language of their parents prioritizes. But the parents do not take the baby to school to expound on the nature of those relationships, and the baby still learns the language just fine. In general, it’s probably a common assurance that most parents are not able to expound on those relationships. For them, the language is as much innate given as it will be for their child.

Here I want to stress the obscure nature of the soul. You see, when Aquinas investigates the nature of the soul and talks about comprehension, he is never speaking about an overt process. He doesn’t talk about the intellect recognizing the act of cognition. He talks about the immediate and incognito effects of cognition. For Aquinas, comprehension is not really a voluntary action, it is mostly involuntary. Callaghan explains that, “in the case of intellect, a potentially intelligible thing extra animam, rendered actually intelligible by the agent intellect, moves the possible intellect to its act” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 214), where the motion of intelligibility and comprehension begins outside of the intellect. The intellect is capable of recognizing how it works, but it is a complex act of self-analysis, a reception of itself into itself, only after the primary acts of comprehension are already complete. So when one speaks of analyzing grammar, we are already speaking about things that we have understood, and are grasping at how it is possible for our intellects to have already done what they have. In other words, we do not know what the primary relationships motivating our language’s construction are until we are able to later reflect on them.

Initially, of course, humans did not just have their languages. They had to have come out of something else. What is innate to humanity as a source out of which language came? Perhaps philosophers like Naom Chomsky want to talk about the powers of Universal Grammar, where there are certain neurologically based constructs that predict the growth of language in the human person, and are evident in the analysis of syntax across languages. Later advocates, such as Ray Jackendoff, will of course be sure to tell us that such explanations are possible without resorting to a ‘magical’ view of the mind as soul. Yet, truly, it is the intellect and will, that which makes us rational creatures, that is the true substrate of the human person, which gives rise to language.

At some early point in human development, historically and not in any one person, groups of humans could have begun with artificially and intentional phonetic relationships that conveyed abstract relationships. One can think of how a string of words can convey grammatical notions:

Dog eat now but cat eat morning not now.

The children of those who came up with the more artificial constructions of language would receive them more naturally, and it would not be so difficult to use and explicitly remember those linguistic conventions. They might even feel so free as to build or synthesize more linguistic conventions and further their language into something more advanced. There is modern evidence of this behavior with the phenomena of pidgin and creole languages, where a certain community synthesizes two or more languages, oftentimes with difficulty or with novel structures and what would previously be considered unconventional, but then the children of that community acquire the synthesized language as its own and do so with ease, essentially creating a new language. To conceive of primitive human communities doing so without a previous linguistic base is not difficult. Certainly within three generations it is conceivable to think of a human community moving from not having a language at all to having an incredibly elaborate language. Yet, as the third generation carries on to the fourth, there is no need to overtly convey linguistic grammar conventions, if there ever was a need to do so.

Wherefore doth it import to us?

In the general process of abstraction, there is  an observation of particulars that contributes towards a non-specific thing which is shared between all of them. In the case of grammar, I have appealed to something of a grammatical relationship that guides specific linguistic constructions. But, one may ask, why is that any different than the more recent tradition of understanding a linguistic ‘rule’? In other words, how is a rule different than a relationship?

Before even engaging in the specifics, I think the description of rule vs. relationship is already a tangible difference. One can think of rule as something with authority that imposes on another, that conveys overt control, and paints an image of very finely tuned divisions between correct and incorrect. Yet quite readily anyone who has spent time in the language classroom will be able to observe that the ‘authority’ of a rule is realistically only a façade, that overt knowledge of rules does not guarantee fluency in the language, and that there are always exceptions. In other words, while there is speak of grammar ‘rules’ it’s really difficult to maintain such an appearance. Instead, a relationship implies something that works dynamically between idea and user, even between ideas, that more often exists implicitly, and is much more forgiving, or even encouraging, of deviances from any norm.

More critically, the average grammar rules are often too dependent on the material elements of language. I can easily picture a Spanish textbook in my head which looks at grammatical categories that are based on purely orthographic and phonetic differences, such as the difference between –ar and -ir verbs. Yet there is no movement of difference in meaning when analyzing these categories.

Fruitfully one can look at these textbooks and see the relationships that stand out as foundational. Ironically they can be found when textbooks attempt to explain the rules, talking about why exceptions exist, what the goal of these different grammatical forms are, etc. When looking at the differences between –ar and -ir verbs, for example, one might end up instead contemplating the relationship between verbs and the present sense of their action as compared to the relationship between verbs and a future sense of their action. While the traditional rules are generally divided somewhat arbitrarily, understanding grammar as a set of relationships is a notion fraught with meaning and purpose. Instead of a learner being taught how to create “correct” phrases, they are instead oriented towards finding meaning and purpose in phrases, and are oriented towards creating meaning and purpose in production.

Now, I hear the critics crying out, “the lists and divisions may be arbitrary, but they help divide up what is a long and complicated list of deviations! There’s no other way to learn so much content! Textbooks can still be used in the classroom if they were to perhaps include more organization around these relationships!” And in a sense, they are correct. Trying to organize grammar lessons and principles around relationships, one may inevitably separate out –ar, -er, and -ir verbs because of the ease of demonstrating their orthographic and phonetic differences, but this returns us to our friends who are teaching language in input-intensive comprehensible classrooms.

Comprehensible Input

The goal of the Input Hypothesis in a practical application is to provide a language learner with a ton of rich and meaningful input, input that actually bears meaning and relevance to a student, so that the student comes to possess the language. The input is often context-rich, heavy with cognates at the beginning of education, and long and drawn out towards a lofty goal at the end of every lesson, filled with many repetitions along the way. It draws the student with purpose towards a third-party goal that immerses and guides the student through language growth the entire time.

Over the years countless studies around input comprehension have demonstrated that students exposed to this rich input perhaps do not develop a rich overt knowledge of textbook rules, but that they have a high implicit understanding of how a language works. They do not struggle in reading books (yes, full books) that target their language level, they engage in relatively fluent conversations, and otherwise have a quite natural possession of a language.

In other words, students taught in Comprehensible Input based classrooms, classrooms that might be considered ‘immersive’ and most often without textbooks or guided curriculum, come to possess a language much in the way that a young child comes to possess their first language(s), without overt grammatical knowledge of a language. They implicitly have formed an understanding of the way that grammatical relationships work within a language, possessing those abstract forms within their intellect that easily guide their comprehension and production of a language, no matter the format.

The Soul is Necessary to Explain Language.

In the end, we return to the main point of this article. At the beginning I asked: “how do we explain the phenomenon of language grammar within a Thomistic framework?” to which we have this answer:

Grammar exists as Aristotelian form knowledge in the intellect as abstracted relationships.

Since grammar in practicality is a set of organizing principles of language that relate two or more meaningful notions together, then those organizing principles, relationships, must exist somewhere that can implicitly exert a governing dominance over the words and affixes that need to be arranged together. Since it has already been established that words root themselves in the abstract formations of the intellect, then it follows that grammar relationships need to similarly take residence in the intellect. Once again we find ourselves needing philosophical logic of the human soul in order to explain the phenomenon of language.

Of course, while this doesn’t seem to have any practical applications, we see that it is incredibly relevant not only to scientists and academics who are trying to explore the nature of language and the forces that govern it, but also to those who teach and learn language. Before you say “I’m not taking a foreign language class!” I just want you to think about how you’re understanding the words of this article, and how you perhaps have taught your own children to speak. What about that word you saw last week for the first time and you had to google search its definition? Language acquisition is most effective, it has generally been documented, when set up with effective Comprehensible Input. As a whole, also, language knowledge is largely implicit, and this Theory of Grammar – a Thomistic Theory of Grammar, finally explains what is going on at the root of our human nature to make it all possible.

CHRISTVS RESURREXIT

~ * ~

Rising high in the midst of beautiful lands,
Are great ugly spires of death and decay.
Built to mimic ascent and to help men pray,
They created dissent, and made it a brand

The men who traipse in the mire below,
Only partially less happy than they
Who in misery built their prisons so gray;
The commoner, at least, is blessed to not know.

In great waves of toil, all fell in to fight,
Donning breastplates of old,  effaced with  great age,
Under those great towers of pleasure, their cage,
But heraldry, also, aloft at great height.

Recalled not their steps from afore, just what’s next,
They billowed into a carcass of salt,
A desiccate ocean where life came to halt.
So came these armies; into battle they trekked.

~

Grimly opposed, there sat fathers and brothers,
Staring down a world they’d ne’er think to bear.
Caressing the breeze, plate hard-cut, like feathers,
Capturing the sun and suspending the air.

Their vestments were white, full of color and life.
Calling on their Remittress, heraldry shone.
Close aligned they marched on, more keen than a knife,
Their strike ordained as much as mission condoned.

Plowing through their foe, relentlessly they flayed,
Laying waste to the mobs, though bearing no sword.
They descend’d up that hill whence fell their poor prey,
Sparing not mind nor heart ’til all heard their Lord.

~

Form never broken, their numbers now higher,
Their order never more graceful and tame.
Hardened faces and eyes ablaze with white fire,
In singular passion and voice they acclaim:

CHRISTVS RESURREXIT

~ * ~

 

 

The Choice to Choose

One of my favorite political comments that I have ever heard was given by Bishop Robert Barron. He said, perhaps not exactly, that America has a fickle relationship with the law. In his book Catholicism he writes, “For those who love freedom as choice, the law is, at best, something grudgingly accepted” (p. 40). America is not the only recipient of his comment, as the U.S. is only one of many nations which share a Western history. As my patria and especially as the cause of this article, I will really only focus on the U.S.

In grad school one of my professors engaged us with the topic of epistemology in the vein of historical critical studies. The notion is that communities of men, at different times, had such different views of the world that we could not somehow equate our perspective with theirs, even if we live in the same region and culture as they did. Of course men have always had their disagreements, but there is always something that they have in common, uniting them without even realizing it. At one point in the course my professor asked us: “What is it in our modern time? What do people share in common now without even realizing it?”

I won’t pretend to have an answer to his question, as in many ways the changes that occurred at the beginning of the 19th century have persisted, even if radicalized. I do think, though, that there is something that the modern mind in the U.S. shares, and that is the notion of freedom of choice. This is such an essential characteristic of American identity that it may seem redundant to talk about it in the land of liberty, but there is more to it than that. As my patron was oft fond of doing, we here must make distinctions.

Freedom of choice, the ability to choose everything for oneself internally and externally, may be contrasted with freedom for excellence, the ability to know one’s limits and freely pursue excellence without excessive worry. If “liberty” is a positive trigger word for Americans, “limit” is certainly the opposite. As Barron says, lovers of choice only grudgingly accept limits as necessary evils, mostly to keep “others” from infringing on their own choices.

The wild thing for me is that everyone along the political spectrum is extremely concerned with freedom of choice. Many of our current “hot topics” can be boiled down to a preoccupation of choice. The ability to choose an abortion, to choose citizenship, to choose gender, to choose marriage, to choose gun ownership, to choose schools, to choose careers, to choose pleasure, to choose religion, to choose luxury, to choose healthcare, and, most recently, to choose stock investments. In order to maintain freedom of choice in areas one is interested in, there must be tolerable laws in place that protect one’s right to choose, but that is the extent to which most believe law should go.

I’ve made this observation before in a more casual circumstance and it was, naturally, deflected very quickly. Living in a hyper-politicized environment, it’s not a simple matter of picking and choosing what topics you want to be able to fight for. If one supports freedom to choose abortion, they likely support a specific set of other choices, and deny others’ right to choices as somehow infringing on their own. I know of an individual who is homosexual and obviously supports the freedom to choose what marriage looks like; but they also support the freedom to choose guns! One can imagine the controversy.

More often than not I see that if someone truly aligns themselves with an ideology or with a system of thought outside of the U.S., like religion, they might think outside of this framework. They might conclude that abortion is wrong, not because it impedes choice but because it commits a mortal evil. They might conclude that freedom to choose stocks is too volatile and there need to be strict rules in place not to impede choice, but to stabilize markets. They might conclude that the government should regulate a static income for all citizens, because self-interested companies are unlikely to provide fair wages ALL of the time.

Yet even if one perceives themselves as being outside of this struggle, as being part of an intellectual and moral framework that denies certain pleasures to achieve higher goods, there are temptations, ways that a priority of choice makes its way into one’s mind. Even if one perceives themselves as having concluded that their beliefs are based off of some external logic and not innate desires, I would imagine they are still prone to this way of thinking.

On a day to day basis, when one grows frustrated in not being able to choose the course of their activities and instead has to participate in something of someone else’s design, it is a frustration with freedom of choice. I teach middle-schoolers; I have an idea of what I’m talking about.

A preoccupation with freedom of choice is also really evident in the way that my contemporaries approach raising families, as well. That is, if they do at all. Many people cannot imagine having children because once one does, one has many less options about how to spend their time. Who wants to give up that freedom?

Going to work is a chore; it is the 9-5 grind that we are all trained to brace for and endure. One works for the weekend. Why? Because one does not choose what their daily life looks like while working. On the weekends, one has all the control they desire.

I know I myself get frustrated when my weekend is filled with obligations, and I love when I get to do my choice of activities.

So when a secular gun rights advocate is opposed to abortion, and vice versa, I truly stand astounded. When arguing on purely secular terms, and when both prioritize such freedom to choose, it makes no sense for there to be opposition. Surely both parties can agree and value the priority of choice that the other desires. After all, when someone’s choice might seem to conflict with yours, but you want to honor their difference, the first thing you say might be “it’s your choice!”

Overall when our very politically divided nation can’t find anything to agree on, it’s important to fight and find common ground, or at the very least create it. What better ground than this?

This is only the beginning, though.

As Bishop Barron illustrates,  Freedom of Choice is something of an illusion. The appearance goes something like this:

  • Pleasurable activities make me happy.
  • The more good activities I do, the more happy I am.
  • I have to choose activities to do them.

  • Therefore: I should choose as many of my activities as possible.

Everyone knows, though, that having a lot of choices to make is often burdensome. In fact what Bishop Barron might point out is that when one is consumed with prioritizing a freedom of choice, one becomes a slave to their choices. Time has to be spent, effort has to be made, and consequences must be faced, all to prioritize a freedom of choice.

Counter to Freedom of Choice, as I have said, is Freedom for Excellence. By appealing to a higher or more external authority to determine what is or isn’t appropriate, correct, or quotidian, one is more truly free to excel at what is presented to them. Bishop Barron’s classic examples of two people who have done this are Shakespeare and Michael Jordan. Both have found excellence and goodness not because they made all the right choices from scratch, but because they stuck to all of the rules (of the English language and of basketball, respectively), and made artistic choices within the proper confines of them. This is the true mark of their excellence : that they stuck to the rules.

Some see the Catholic Church’s depth of regulation as an obstacle to happiness, but the reality is that it is actually essential to any chance of lasting goodness.

The Atlas Complex

The unspoken burden of the modern teacher.


Atlas is a famous titan of Greek mythology, condemned to forever bear the weight of the world. He alone is responsible for holding it on his shoulders; if he falters for even a second, the world will fall away and perish, and he will forever bear the fault of it.

Today’s teachers stand in Atlas’ place. The educational success of each student that comes through their classroom rests entirely on their shoulders. It is fair to say that this was not always the expectation of society. In more recent years there has been an excessive attempt to standardize and systematize education so that all who participate may receive equitable profit, yet this mission is fraught itself with iniquity. Most importantly, here, is that the teacher becomes the focus point of education, and this is no good thing.

Standardization

Standardization was generally achieved through a few main channels. Standardized tests is the most recognizable, but textbooks are also significant for this process. Most importantly is the notion of Standards Based Grading (SBG), where students are graded according to content mastery rather than assignment completion.

Most definitely, at face value, we see that standardization really helps students. By establishing a system for better education and for more regular education, we find less educational performance gaps, regardless of where the students are living and regardless of who the teachers are. I personally have found that SBG really does seem to take away the “racing” mentality of school. Students are less focused on earning all their points and are more focused on mastering content knowledge.

At its root, standardization is an attempt to systematize what already existed. Standardization determined education to be a good thing and disparities in education to be a sad thing. That one child in rural Arkansas might not be getting the same level of education as a child in a well-to-do area of Washington D.C was not okay. By systematizing the medium of education (curriculum, grading policies, etc.) then education itself became systematized. The ultimate goal? To fine-tune the system of education so that every child, no matter of background, strengths, or interests, will come out the other side as a well-educated and well-rounded individual.

An Unintended Consequence

For a moment, I will lay aside some philosophical concerns about the nature of systemizing a civic institution. I instead want us to think about the effects of standardization and what it does with its participants. For the children, there are a mountain of benefits. There are, perhaps, some drawbacks when we think about creativity, but on the whole we find that more children are improved than not. But children aren’t the only people in this scenario: teachers are also in the midst of it.

Instead of an approach to education that begins with the unique qualities of all participants, standardization methods begin with predicting appropriate or inappropriate methods of instruction. With this understanding, teachers are part of the medium itself. Just as textbooks have to be standardized in order to deliver a standardized curriculum across broad circumstances, teachers also have to be standardized. This is necessary in order to truly establish a singular standard of education across the nation, but it has a serious side effect:

When teachers themselves are seen as part of the system at hand, that means that they are attributed direct causal authority over the outcomes of said system.

Your standard drip coffee maker has a filter holder, a filter that you insert, a water vat, a heating element, a switch, and an electrical plug. Each of these elements are arranged in such a way that they all have a causal effect on the outcome of the coffee maker. They are individual pieces, but there are a cascade of causes that make them work. If you have your coffee maker plugged in, and it doesn’t make coffee, what is to be assumed? Certainly that something in the middle isn’t working.

We can think about a standardized education system looking something like a coffee maker. We hope to design such a system that when used, produces expected results; if it’s plugged in, it should make coffee. When something goes wrong in the educational system, we can assume something similar to the coffee maker problem: something in the system failed. There could be a number of things that end up receiving the blame: the textbooks, the structure a school administration has put in place, or, most importantly here, the teacher.

Under the principle of subsidiarity, the teacher is the most significant element in a system of education, as they are the closest human element to the students. Being human means they are the most variable, and so the most problematic in the face of standardizing education.

The Teacher, Atlas

The teacher is the last domino to hit the children, so to speak. They are the final deliverers of content, the assessors, the troubleshooters, etc. Now, when I was teaching as a graduate student at the university, my role was extremely minimized into being a mere facilitator of content. I had no design authority and it was not my place to change anything; I was merely meant to deliver. My professor meant it when he said that we were not responsible for our students’ outcomes. Barring some major immoral act, the challenge of our university level classes was between our students and the content. We were not Atlas.

When I got my first public teaching job, I got the complete opposite message. It was told, albeit not directly, that my students’ performances were a result of my efforts. If my students failed, it was my fault. If my students succeeded, I had done my job sufficiently. The idea was that the curriculum and knowledge was already standard, and so any variance in student performance would be a result of my effectiveness as a teacher.

The first test I gave went very poorly for my Spanish students. I’ll never forget when a student asked me:

“Well you’re going to curve the grades, right? That’s what all the other teachers do.”
“No, absolutely not!”
“Why? It’s only going to look bad on you if you don’t.”

Even my students thought that their failure was actually mine.

The teacher, here, is the Atlas that holds up the classroom. Whereas my college professor told us that we were nigh an independent variable when it came to student success at the university, my new school’s policy was telling me that there were nigh any other variable as causal as myself. The most crushing reality of my new job was in this difference: that an entire world came down on my shoulders, and nearly swallowed me up.

“Oh, get over yourself Robert. You just don’t get it. One group is made up of university students and the other is made up of high schoolers.”

“You’re just upset because you finally took on a real job instead of babysitting university level students, and you don’t actually like having responsibility.”

Thankfully no one has ever said these things to my face, but I’m just anticipating the most likely responses to my article. They might even be comments I would have levied against myself, had I not experienced it for myself. Now, though, with more experience I am able to look back and realize that I had been thrust into Atlas’ place without warning. The newfound weight was unbearable.

The Difference

When teachers become part of the system, their individuality is forgotten: their strengths, weaknesses, and unique experiences are pushed aside in the interest of standardization. What is worse, though, is that children are almost forgotten, too. As previously discussed, children do indeed reap many benefits from standardized education, but by forgetting their individuality along with their teachers’, their learning is negatively impacted.

Think back to the coffee maker example: in order for the device to be effective, and for the resulting cup of coffee to be the same every time, the coffee grinds going into the filter need to be the same as well. If the grinds are different, you notice.

It goes without saying that children are even more diverse than coffee grounds.

Any perfected system of standardized education necessarily forgets that all human beings have free will.

For teachers, the issue of human will is a pretty easy variable to rule out. We want to be there, either intrinsically because we want to teach and we want the kids to be successful or extrinsically because we want to be paid for doing a good job. That means that our will power is automatically counted in and you don’t have to worry about whether the teacher is invested. There are, of course, exceptions, but by and large this rule applies.

Students are not equally incentivized. Students are not coffee grounds that can simply be placed into the machine: they have to will themselves to be educated. In application, standards-based education suggests that motivation is irrelevant. As long as students are put through the best system their motivation doesn’t matter, because the best system has accounted for their motivation and has provided the right tools to get the students engaged.

But this makes my analysis too shallow. I’m not just addressing the issue of intrinsic motivation in students. If that was my issue alone, I might get on board the “gamification” trend within education. What I am getting at is a deeper reality within the culture. Students are not only human beings that have will power that needs to be engaged at school. How they are raised at home to handle life’s challenges are dramatically more important than what they learn at school.

First and foremost, parents are the primary educators of children. 

This is a teaching of the Catholic Church. Part of the burden of parenting is that as a parent, you become the primary teacher and role model of your children.

Does the parent:

  • Care that students master content or only care that students bring home a letter grade?
  • Think education is about getting a good job or that education is primarily about self-improvement?
  • Care more about their own work and interests over their children’s growth?
  • Foster that inner moral compass innate to us all?

Teachers are sometimes recognized as spending more active time with children than parents, but this isn’t ever just one teacher. Usually it’s multiple, and even then it’s with a large group of children. The time that matters most is the time at home and the voices that matter most are the ones that feed them every night.

Not only are parents’ voices the ones that matter most, but parents’ actions are the things kids watch the most. We tend to think of our sins as private, but the reality is that our children are very perceptive of us at home. They’re very quick to recognize hypocritical tendencies. They know our habits sometimes better than we do. They hear what we say about government, about our own friends, about our worries, and about school. Sure, they know what you want them to do at school, but what do they think you would do if you yourself were sitting in a classroom?

It is said that actions speak louder than words.

When I talk about the unique human quality of will when it comes to understanding children, I do not exclusively mean intrinsic motivation. I instead mean the entire culture that students carry with themselves as they enter the school doors, and that is nothing a teacher has ordinary power over. It has everything to do with priorities in a student’s home life.

Upon the many goats and the few sheep.

Christ tells us in Matthew 7:13 that the way to hell is broad and easy to follow, while the path to heaven is narrow and difficult. Many will enter through the wide gate, he warns. Thus in an operative way we are obliged to have great hope that many will be saved, but we must live with the reality that this will probably not be the truth of what occurs. This is the shadow under which the Church operates. The most fundamental reality which we face, the existence of God and the necessity that we cooperate with the Church, is something that we don’t expect everyone to conform to.

Certainly we don’t expect that there is some miraculous system of evangelization that will convert the whole world, if Christ Himself didn’t even convert every person He came into contact with.

Education is a process that involves the human will, just like religious conversion. We might refer here to St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s notion of assent. As much as any human individual needs to assent to something for it to be manifest in them in a real way, education must reach past logical agreement and into a deep assent. But it will not reach into a real assent if the student never consents to receiving educational content.

If the Church herself does not assume that all she preaches to will be receptive of God’s word, why does educational policy assume that all it drafts into its curriculum will be receptive of its content?

By no means does this mean that the Church does not have hope that all she preaches to will be receptive. Similarly, too, it does not mean that the educational system itself must fail to hope to reach all of its recipients in an authentic way.

What I am trying to address in this article is the ultimate issue of the Atlas Complex. When we forget that the ultimate source and goal of education is a group of human beings, we might have the arrogance to assume that there could ever be a perfect system of education. Most importantly, when we forget that students are also human beings with will power, with their own ideas, with their own goals, with opinions, with problems, we think that they are all average and adequate recipients of educational formation. Thusly, and usually unfairly, we attribute student success and failure to the next most variable portion of the educational system: teachers.

When standardization is the primary organizing principle for education, and when it is allowed to play out, then teachers bear the weight of the responsibility for the success of their classrooms. If my student fails, it is my fault. If they are successful, it is due to my good effort. This is a detriment to the student because it forgets them and their inherent personality and ignores their necessary volition as a part of the educational process. We must not forget our students’ humanity. We must not be so arrogant as to assume that we can perfect human institutions and that we can solve all human problems with them.

No matter the system of education in place, students will fail. No matter the quality of teacher, students will fail. No matter the accessibility of knowledge, students will fail. We must always remember that public and standardized education exists at the service of parents, the primary educators. If parents raise and teach their children to be cynical and untrusting, then the children stand a good chance of becoming cynical and untrusting. If parents raise their children to value education (in and of itself, not for some further goal of money or status), then their children stand a good chance of making something of their education.

Of course, I would be remiss to leave it at that and possibly leave you thinking that parents are Atlas in place of the teacher. As much as a perfect system of education and the perfect teacher will not lead to 100% student success, I must also emphasize that perfect parents and a perfect family will also not lead to 100% student success. The nuclear family is just the most basic unit of societal structure and is where people are most affected by others’ opinions and beliefs. If anyone stands a chance to make a drastic impact on children, it is the people that exist within that unit.

The issue in this article is that teachers, especially in public education, have been encouraged to have an Atlas Complex. If the main factor contributing is that the educational system has shifted all responsibility of success onto the teacher, the antidote is to successfully remember the place of student assent. Instead of further questioning teachers and encouraging an Atlas Complex, we should focus on supporting families and fostering a culture that values education for its own sake. Then, of course, remembering that nothing we do will establish a perfect system for success, we must incorporate an expectation of failure into our systems of education, and do our best to accommodate those failures with compassion and charity.

Kyrie, eleison.

A Home Altar

Protestants may shudder at the mere mention of the word altar, a word that is inherently tied to the notion of sacrifice, perhaps supposed to be a relic of an ancient Israelite past. Yet every Catholic church has an altar within it, where we believe that the same sacrifice Christ offered which was Himself to the Father and is as eternal as Himself, is re-presented during every Mass. In other words we say, by Christ’s own authority, His flesh is made present to us in the Eucharist. Since this is His sacrificed flesh which we are called to consume, as the Jews of old were to eat the sacrificial lamb, then the Altar in a Catholic Church is the dignified place where the very flesh of Christ is again made present.

Now this Holy Sacrifice is only ever had under the authority of a priest, as he has particularly been handed the authority through Apostolic Succession, an authority which is sourced  first in Christ at the Last Supper. Lay Catholics may not do this on their own as they have not been handed the authority to do so, but we are all called to present ourselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1), and so we ought to find ways to do this. One way we can do this is by offering our prayers, which St. Paul suggests we do without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). At home we can have our own altar dedicated to prayer, and this is what I have done in our own home.

Of course the first place I had to begin was by planning. I drew up some rough plans:

Now, this is where I began:

Incredibly modest, using what was available around the house we had just moved into, it was enough. Using a table leaf on top of storage boxes, I set it up with some basics: A diptych as the central focus as well as a few appropriate candles. Of course, this is highly unsustainable. It was only a matter of time before my infant crawled and pulled something down!

Initially we found a local craftsman who was putting together custom tables from pieces of a building that fell in Nashville after a really large tornado. Ultimately, for a couple of reasons, the plan fell through. Yet nearly as soon as we forwent our deal with the craftsman we stumbled across a lovely buffet table on Facebook Marketplace. That, combined with a crucifix and icon of the Theotokos, really made a big difference.

With the buffet table serving as a base I was finally ready to begin on the back, which I generally have referred to as a retable. This is because it sits primarily on the back of the table rather than having support from the ground.

I went to the local hardware store and picked up my next supplies. My plan? Use a smooth-sided piece of plywood as the base and find some molding pieces to serve as columns. I would find a jigsaw to cut out the main shape of the retable as well as form my own molding for the arches from the remaining plywood.

When I got there, I actually found newel posts that had been cut in half length-wise. It was perfect!

The first thing I did was cut the newel posts down by taking off the heads and most of the bases.

Having a general idea of where the pieces would lay and what I wanted the arches to look like, I went ahead and stained the columns. I also drew out the arch shapes onto the plywood.

After getting my hands on a jigsaw, which was most generously gifted by a new friend, I got to work cutting.

My cuts were far from perfect, but I also knew I would be layering it with some higher trim pieces, so I let it be okay…not that the trim pieces were much better!

Using paper towels I made stencils for the trim pieces.

The trim pieces…well…required much trimming. But the result was pretty neat! I prioritized the fullness of the outside arches while cutting the middle arch pieces into finer tips so that the result was a mostly-seamless  connection between the arches.

Next was putting stain on the trim pieces and the back of the retable!

In line with the design I began with, I also painted the face of the plywood with a light blue in honor of our Blessed Mother.

With an extra set of hands (clamps), I held the columns and trim pieces to the board while I screwed them in from the back.

Once the pieces were on I used wood putty and stain to fill in those cracks. I also put wood putty on areas of the plywood that had knots, painting over it once it was dry.

Once it was put together, it was just a matter of using trim screws to secure the retable to studs and rearranging the altar pieces.

Just in time for Advent!

Sovereign Mother – A Sonnet

Adornéd maid, never lacking in beauty,
Within and without, life ever begetting,
Her veil her virtues, by Him ever breathing,
Highest of all by fulfilling her duty.

She is ancient and worn, her gown just now rags.
Vain children, forgetful, grown into their own,
Cast aside their life-giver to play, then groan,
Treasures of her bosom sit out in dead bags.

Here, as much as then, does her splendor abound.
Only the wise, between Mother and Daughter,
Can discern, and then, understand and behold.

For none is her love concealed, though she offers.
Her prayers, her tears, unceasing aid through night’s hold,
Caressing this vine planted in her womb’s ground.

Too Much Religion For Me

“I’m sorry, that’s too much religion for me.”

“I wanted to make sure my kids had enough religion, but not that it consumed their whole life.”

“Christianity is about faith, not about religion” or “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.”

I’ve had about enough of this statement. Let’s look at a bit of a hypothetical conversation.

Michael: Here, sir. Consider the Catholic faith. We go to Church every Sunday, we receive the very Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we go to confession to restore our relationship with God every time that we cause God pain through sin, we hold that sacraments have literal effects in the world, we formally pray about five times a day, and we hold that God wants to invade every part of our lives. Won’t you join us?

John: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well, then, consider going to Church every Sunday, receiving Holy Communion, participating every so often in the sacraments, pray five times a day, but just ask Jesus to forgive your sins personally.

J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well, then, consider going to Church every Sunday, participating every so often in the sacraments, pray a few times a day, and we won’t worry about regular reflection and repentance.

J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well, then, consider going to Church every Sunday, we’ll extend the preaching so you don’t have to study Scripture on your own, pray every once in a while, and just make sure you’re baptized at some point.

J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well, then consider going to Church every Sunday, and make sure you say some prayer at some point during the week.

J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well…come to Church every Sunday?

J:

 

What is the notion of ‘religion’? Where does that come from? Even in ancient Rome the origin of the word was not exactly known. St. Augustine considers multiple, good, potential etymologies, but the most significant one he entertains is connecting the word to religare, which means ‘to bind together again’, ‘to reconnect’.

People who have fallen away from Catholicism or people who would never in their right mind consider it as a legitimate expression of Christianity (much less the expression of Christianity), see the notion of religion as a stumbling block.

“It’s just a bunch of stuffy rules.”

“It’s not authentic.”

“If you are following a religion, you are trying to work your way into heaven. That’s not faith.”

Let’s walk through a little exercise together, if you don’t mind doing a bit of work.

John has, for some personal reason, accepted the Lord Christ into his heart. He believes He died and rose again, won victory over Sin and True Death, and that He truly loves him.

Great! Now what? Does John lie back and wait for Christ to come again, or until death takes him?

I should think not. He should engage his faith! React to it! But how?

He could start by going to Church every Sunday. He could start by joining a community. This way he is not practicing his faith in isolation, something very counter to the nature of God. By going to Church every Sunday he can also open his heart and mind to hear the Word of God, to increase his faith in previously unknown ways. At what point, though, is prioritizing this important faith activity and regularly participating in it then “too religious”?

He could pray more. Prayer is not an act that changes God, as God does not change, but primarily an act that draws us closer to Him! Be it the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), a Hail Mary (Luke 1:28, Luke 1:42-43, James 5:16), singing/chanting/meditation on any of the 151 Psalms, or spontaneous prayer, these are all opportunities to engage with the Lord. St. Paul exhorts us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). All of these are ways for John to do that. At what point, though, is prioritizing this important faith activity and regularly participating in it then “too religious”?

He could follow Christ’s commands.

Christ said for His disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So John could participate in baptism.

Christ said “This is my Body” and “This is the Chalice of my Blood” and “Do this in remembrance of me” (wherein remember means more than just recall the fond memory). He said whoever does not eat His flesh and drink His blood will have no life in Him (John 6:53).

Christ told His disciples that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in Heaven and whatever they loose will be loosed in Heaven. This is the power Christ gives to His disciples to bind and loose sins, not in their own power, but as avatars of Christ on Earth.

At what point, though, is prioritizing these important faith activities and regularly participating in them then “too religious”?

I’m sure you understand my point, but let me make my point clear:

One may shove off religiosity in the name of faith, assuming that these elements are contrary to each other. But in the act of faith, seeking and trying to bind ourselves to our Creator and Sustainer, what better way is there to join ourselves to our God than through regularly practice and custom, or even ritual?

I think there is a misconception against religion that begins with an understanding of God as unchanging and immutable. Because He is unchanging, then we assume that our participation in His saving grace is similarly unchanging and immutable. But remember the dynamic of prayer: it is not about changing God, it is about changing us. While here on Earth our mission as Christians is not about passive participation in faith, it is about actively approximating ourselves to God, it is about sanctification and justification.

A faith without works is dead (James 2:17), but works alone does not save. The Catholic Church has long recognized (since the beginning) that one must receive faith and then respond to the faith with works of love.

The truth of the matter is that religion is a tool wherein one can deepen their faith, their hope, and their charity.

The other truth of the matter is that even those who say they do not like religion, yet have deep faith, actually practice religion. They have habits that actively deepen their faith. They have habits that protect them from sin and from breaking away from God. They have habits of learning more things about God. They have habits of participating in Community around God’s love and grace.

The phrase “I’m sorry, that’s too much religion for me” is a dangerous slippery slope.

Even if one maintains proper religiosity, but utters this phrase or expresses it in some way to the people around them, they promote an air of disregard for the Faith. It tells people that “you can do what you want, so long as you acknowledge God,” yet doing whatever one wants is exactly what drives us away from God.

Don’t be afraid of religiosity. Embrace it.

Watch out, it’s a Trad!

I’ve only been a Catholic for two years. Two years. That’s not long, in Catholic terms. And of course, when you enter a community, you don’t begin by first understanding every nuance of their people. You get to know the surface level of the people and the core tenets of their bond. But as you sink in longer, you start to see more and more sides of people, their delights, their frustrations, their arguments, etc. Since I came into the Catholic faith already barreling through books and podcasts at a million miles an hour, I didn’t stop, and these two years have been almost as enlightening as the one leading up to my conversion.

One thing of interest to me is the general Catholic community’s response to traditionalists (rad-trads, glad-trads, etc). Ironically, since I converted from a pretty vague and liberal non-denominational Christianity, I’ve seen it in other people’s faces as I myself have approached them. My goal in this article is to offer a method of healing conversation in this rift between modern Catholics.

The source of conflict seems to arise from the Second Vatican Council, started in the early 60s, generally concluding around 1965. This council was different than many, primarily being *more of a pastoral council, rather than being a doctrinal council, as almost all others in the past had been. One of the documents from this council was Sacrosanctum Concilium, a document that addressed the shape of liturgical life within the Catholic Church. In and of itself it left a lot of wiggle room, but the idea was to remember the way that the early Church adapted itself to the many cultures it was evangelizing to, and the way that it married the sacred and true, within the church, with the beautiful that was found uniquely expressed in the people it was preaching to. Pretty soon after the Second Vatican Council, however, came up a group called the *Concilium, who took it upon themselves to respond to Sacrosanctum Concilium‘s demands and modify the regular Catholic Church’s liturgy so that it conformed to the Council’s demands. It is generally agreed that the *Concilium was much more left-leaning than the Council Fathers themselves, and modified the liturgy in much more extreme ways than anticipated. The result? The *Missal of Paul VI, or the Novus Ordo Missae, the New Order of the Mass, standing in contrast to the Tridentine Mass of old. As you can imagine, not everyone was happy with the new changes.

Imagine Father Michael, a priest at a pretty normal parish. He knows most of his parishioners well. One of the parishioners, John, has talked with Fr. Michael often about the Liturgy and traditional elements of the old Latin Mass. But John is not the only trad that Fr. Michael has known. He’s encountered many trads in the past who are angry, perhaps vitriolic in their speech, and who waste no time in correcting Fr. Michael or his fellow priests on ‘abuses’ of the liturgy. John has never himself demonstrated these negative behaviors towards Fr. Michael, but he has been talking more and more about traditional liturgy and traditional Catholic practices.

One day, John approaches Fr. Michael with a calm smile on his face, excited to talk about a new element of traditional liturgy he learned about the other day. Fr. Michael sees John coming and immediately tenses. What will he do this time? Is he finally going to be angry? Reprimand him with false authority? Call him a bad priest? Fr. Michael steels himself, puts up a wall to genuine conversation, and hopes the barrage passes soon.

Sadly this reaction is not uncalled for. Recently Bishop Barron directed a video to trads who, while claiming to uphold a better example of the faith, are spewing vitriol all over the internet and social media, committing the mortal sin of calumny. Despite the novelty of my own Catholicism and the staunchly different origin of my conversion, I have encountered the same measure of ‘shut down’ from priests and other church leaders that I have directly spoken with. Once they learn that I’m even interested in elements of older liturgy, they seem to stop listening, and steel themselves against whatever I might say next. It seems to me that this conflict of the recent past has erupted into mountains of pain and ill-speak. The result? Liturgy has almost become a taboo topic within the Catholic Church. People put themselves and others into camps, they don’t open themselves up to hear what other influences might offer, and nothing productive seems to be done.

My goal here is to offer a bridge of connection, a way for non-trads to understand trads.

Firstly, why are trads always so angry? Why do they hurt people so recklessly? There may be a mountain of reasons, but one thing most trads have in common is this: a desire for beauty.

Think about walking into a beautiful old Cathedral, that has stood since the time of the Roman Empire, but has been burned down and abandoned. What is that pain that you feel, watching something so beautiful be cast to the wayside?

Recently I walked into St. John’s Episcopal Church for the first time in Tallahassee, Florida. BeautifulStunning. Compared to the Catholic Cathedral of St. Thomas More down the street? A hundred times more beautiful. But when I thought about that Church not being in Catholic hands? When I thought about the Catholic Church just down the street not having the same level of beauty? I felt a pain in my chest. A heartache.

The main source of anger, or, if more vulnerably revealed, sadness and hurt, is having a high expectation of beauty and reverence in every aspect of the Catholic faith, but not having those expectations fulfilled.

The Catholic Church is nigh 2,000 years old. It’s traditions are old and beautiful, and have had much time to refine themselves and become elevated to all new levels. Architecture, music, art, iconography and liturgy have all had so much time to be taken to such high levels of sophistication that the trad has many expectations for the current Church. Yet when a trad walks into a Church shaped by the Novus Ordo Missae, he typically does not find these things. Along with many of the adaptations of the Novus Ordo in the late 20th century, architecture became increasingly simplified. Music was taken in from local cultures, and Gregorian Chant was all but deleted. Art was infiltrated by modernists and postmodernists. Liturgy had many elements of mysticism erased, and, comparatively, can be incredibly less reverential.

When a trad looks at a ‘progressive’ Catholic Church, they feel pain from the lack of fulfillment of their expectation.

Regarding Vatican II

Certainly, yes, there are trads who actually have beef with the Second Vatican Council documents themselves. They think the Church has somehow ‘protestantized’ itself, abandoned Church teaching, and is living in some sort of apostasy. But not all trads are that way. I, for one, enjoyed the Vatican II documents. Were it not for them, I don’t think my article here would be very welcome by clergy. Even understanding Sacrosanctum Concilium, while I admit has been difficult for me, is something I can get by. But in processing that document and coming to terms with it, it has helped me understand something about the relationship between more progressive and conservative strains of Catholics.

The Sacredness of the Liturgy

What I think non-trad priests and clergy may not understand about the trad movement is that the manner of celebration of the liturgy and conformity to the Second Vatican Council are not a unified identifier for trads. In other words, just because I as a trad do not like the Novus Ordo Missae as much as I like the Tridentine Mass, does not mean that I don’t agree with the Second Vatican Council. These things are separate.

Bishop Barron, in a video (1:20) recently about the Second Vatican Council, reminded viewers that the Novus Ordo Missae spiritually fed the lives of saints such as Mother Teresa and St. John Paul II. While it might be easy to retort that the Tridentine Mass spiritually fed almost all of the other saints in Catholic history, it is important to recognize what Bishop Barron is getting at. In many ways this is what a lot of non-trad clergy would wish for trads to understand. Since the Novus Ordo is valid and licit, it means that Christ is present just as much there as it was in the old Mass. It is an objectively good thing. We don’t need to return to an older liturgy just to find Christ’s presence, or to be reverent when praying the Mass. Reverence is just as possible in the Novus Ordo as it is in the old Tridentine Mass.

Fr. Michael O’Loughlin, a Byzantine Rite Catholic priest, once said something that made me think about this. He highlighted on the podcast Catholic Stuff You Should Know that the Novus Ordo may not be as outwardly obvious when it comes to portraying reverence for Christ, but does not negate it. It just means that the responsibility for reverence lies more within the heart of the mass-goer to seek out and give that worship. This, compared to something like the Tridentine Mass, where directions for reverence and general beauty are simply more obvious and easier for people to understand. Fr. Michael’s point here is that it actually demonstrates a stronger faith if someone is able to find Christ in the Novus Ordo, as much as that person is able to find Christ in the heart of a homeless person, because they don’t need all of the outward beauty in order to carry their minds into the deep heart of Christ’s love.

A bridge between these two perspectives.

Wise trads will legitimately recognize the validity of the Novus Ordo, and should even agree that reverence is just as possible. But how do we find a path forward between self-identified trads and non-trads? What do we talk about?

The first point is that just because reverence and beauty are possible does not mean that they are effectively implemented. In order to make the Mass adaptable and understandable to the many cultures it has reached out to in this globalized world, many optional instructions had to be introduced. Even though the general structure is the same as the old Tridentine Mass, there are many ways to adapt the Novus Ordo Missae that may make it look very similar or incredibly different.

One of my firm beliefs, and this may be the most important section of my articleis that there are many ways that the Novus Ordo Missae can be implemented that would actually form a bridge to those trads that people seem to be so afraid of. My suspicion is that upon implementing these changes, or at least seriously entertaining these more traditional aspects, many may find that rad-trads will be plenty appeased. As I previously said, the source of pain in a trad’s heart is usually about a lack of beauty within the Church. When the only people offering these elements of beauty are those offering the Tridentine Mass, should we be surprised that people would flock to that? *After listening to a recent episode of the Burrowshire Podcast, I would even go so far as to say that the Novus Ordo Missae can be done incredibly reverently.

Here is a list of things (in no particular order of importance) that should not bring any conflict, and, if implemented reverently, may inspire all to a deeper beauty and reverence for the Mass, all the while *properly and actually conforming to the demands of Sacrosanctum Concilium:

A. Reception of the Eucharist

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish, the Eucharist is primarily received on the hand, while standing. After receiving, the communicant steps to the side and then crosses themselves. They then receive the Eucharist under the species of wine from a common cup. Communicants alternatively may receive the Eucharist, under the species of bread, directly on the tongue, usually while standing as well.

More traditionally, the Eucharist is only received on the tongue while kneeling at an altar rail. Yes, many elders find it difficult to kneel, and an accommodation seems to be in order, but on the whole, what is the best way to receive the sacrificed corpus of the King of the Universe? Tradition says that we should kneel before our King. By receiving directly on the tongue, we are letting the hands that consecrated the Eucharist, the hands of the priest, be the only hands that are worthy of touching something so precious. This posture of receptivity, more reverential towards the magnitude of God-made-flesh, communicates this reality not only to the communicant, but the whole community around them. Then, the communicant does not cross themselves. Why? When crossing oneself, we are calling to us the presence of the triune God in our prayer. In the reception of the Eucharist, have we not received the most perfect earthly presence of God into ourselves? At best, crossing oneself is redundant, and at worse, it is border-line heretical, not acknowledging the true presence of Christ within the Eucharist, thinking that there is some ingredient further necessary in the reception of the Eucharist.

Lastly, regarding the common cup containing the Eucharist under the species of wine, we traditionally find that the laity does not regularly consume it. The Catholic Church teaches that the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist under each species. If you only receive one form, you receive it all (hence during this time of pandemic, we do not commonly find the distribution of the common cup). At times of importance in one’s life (confirmation, first communion, marriage) it is encouraged that the laity may receive under both species, but certainly not every Sunday. Some of the reasons are for logistic purposes, but generally it is so that the Eucharist is handled as carefully and reverently as possible.

B. Celebrating Mass Ad Orientem

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish, the priest celebrates Mass while facing the people. More things are typically pronounced aloud so that the people can hear and generally feel more included in the act of consecration.

More traditionally, the priest celebrates Mass while facing away from the people, typically facing the crucifix that the laity themselves look at. Did you know that Catholic Churches are typically constructed so that the laity faces the east (oriens)? The idea of the Mass is that the priest, as the representative of Christ, offering up the sacrifice of our Lord, is doing so with the people. In the modern sense this would seem to suggest that the priest face the people, as an act of cooperation, but in tradition the priest also faces the east (ad orientem). With everyone facing the same direction, it helps everyone call to mind that what is happening during the mass is not something that is internal to the Church; it is directed towards something Heavenly, something outside of the Church.

An often circulated idea around the internet is this question: Which way would you prefer your bus driver to face? Towards the passengers, or away from the passengers, leading them as they travel on?

C. Using Gregorian Chant

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  Sacred Music takes on the form of hymns in the local language, or in the language of most of the parishioners. Sometimes other music like popular Christian Rock songs may find some adaptation into the liturgy as well. Many instruments are potentially used: guitars, violins, trumpets, keyboards, pianos, etc, in addition to the traditional organ. There are many ways that the ordinaries of the Mass can be sung, usually with one overriding melody that repeats throughout the ordinaries.

More traditionally, Sacred Music exists in the form of Gregorian Chant or Polyphony. Many people find this daunting because of the use of Latin, but more on Latin in a second. Polyphony is when multiple voices come together and harmonize around the traditional Gregorian Chant music. This music has, intentionally, a more solemn tone than much modern music. This is not contrary to the Christian image, it is to be encouraged! The documents of the Second Vatican Council say that Gregorian Chant should be the golden standard of Sacred Music. This does not mean to cast it aside: it means that Sacred Music should conform largely to the form of Gregorian Chant, excepting some differences for how it can be localized in different regions. One example of this is how we might view chant in the High Anglican Church or in The Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (The rite within the Catholic Church that is an Anglican celebration of the Mass properly ordered under the rule of the Catholic Church). Because of a more intimate familiarity of the use of the English language within a holy setting, the Ordinariate and the Anglican Church, I believe, contain more Sacred Music that is in the form of Gregorian Chant, but which properly recognizes the way that it interacts with the English language. In the end, this is what I think Vatican II wanted to see, not upbeat guitar music in Mass.

Unfortunately when the Norvus Ordo was implemented, the standard of Gregorian Chant materials for it were delayed and not fully implemented. The result is that Gregorian Chant has fallen to the wayside in the modern Church. It needs to be revitalized!

D. Using Latin for the Ordinaries of the Mass

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  Latin is not used. It might be used on occasion during extra solemn occasions (during Lent or Advent). Even then it might only be used for the penitential rite and for parts of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, like the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. When combined with some sort of chant, the music tends to have a simple tone (compared to a highly variant tone).

More traditionally, Latin is used for the whole of the Mass, except for the Homily. Vatican II documents call for, at the very least, that Latin be used for all of the Ordinaries of the Mass. These are the parts of the Mass that don’t change week to week. The goal is that the laity learn what the Latin is for these parts of the Mass and don’t have difficulty encountering them on the regular.

Further, by using Latin, a language not commonly used by the laity, the Mass becomes a place of extraordinary difference. It becomes the most out-of-place element of our lives. It stands out. By using this different, albeit common, language across the same rite, the liturgy itself helps Catholics remember that the world they are living in is a passing and fleeting place, that the reality of Heaven is more beautiful and other compared to the world that we currently live in. Latin helps draw the Catholic out of the haze of this world and encourage them to seek what is holy, which is often considered illogical by the world.

The goal is not to alienate the laity from the Church, it is to remind the laity that they are aliens to the world and the world’s ways.

E. Bowing when certain names are pronounced during the Liturgy

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  everyone bows during the pronunciation of the Nicene Creed, when acknowledging the conception of our Lord by the Holy Spirit through Mary. Entering the Church, and ideally every time that someone crosses in front of the altar, all genuflect.

More traditionally, in addition to the elements above, everyone bows at the pronunciation of the name of our Lord and when the Trinitarian doxology is pronounced, and during the Nicene creed everyone genuflects instead of bowing. These extra gestures of physical movement, which are inherently reverential, direct the worshiper towards Christ and towards God many times throughout the liturgy. Call it Active Participation, if you will.

F. Forgoing the assistance of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  there are a regular squad of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, who help distribute the Eucharist and, ideally, speed up communion. They make the whole process more efficient. These are especially necessary when considering the distribution of the common cup, as the priest alone cannot effectively distribute both forms of the Eucharist in a timely and careful manner. By distributing the work out, it is possible to help everyone receive under both species in a safe way.

More traditionally, the laity do not receive from the cup. They only receive the Eucharist under the species of bread, except for special occasions. Calling back to the idea of receiving the Eucharist in a more reverential way, the use of Extraordinary Ministers presents conflict for the traditionalist. Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist are not able to consecrate the Eucharist itself. They have not been ordained to consecrate it. The priest’s hands, by virtue of his priesthood and by virtue of the hand cleansing that he does prior to the consecration of the Eucharist, is particularly disposed to handling the Eucharist in a reverential way. No matter how much hand sanitizer an Extraordinary Minister uses, it does not change that they do not share themselves in the priesthood and that they do not set aside their hands for holy purposes the way that a priest does, especially during Mass. They are not as “set-aside” as the priests intentionally are. You will also find trads become uncomfortable if they see a priest touch his face after having consecrated the Eucharist, prior to completing the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Ironically, while Extraordinary Ministers are Extraordinary, they are a pretty ordinary staple of most Novus Ordo parishes.

G. Vestments for Lectors and Cantors

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  Lectors and Cantors (much less Extraordiary Ministers) are not vested. They are not marked as set aside for the purpose of Holy Mass. I have always seen Altar Servers vested, but I have only ever seen Lectors vested in one Church, and I have only ever seen Cantors vested in one other.

More traditionally, anyone directly supporting the flow of Holy Mass, be it lectors, cantors, or altar servers, are all vested. By having some kind of vestment, however simple, it helps all involved recognize the measure that the Holy Mass is “set-apart.”

Something else about these roles that disrupts an air of reverence is how the altar is approached and treated by these figures. In the Tridentine Mass the priest spends a significant time in prayer before ascending to the altar to begin the Mass, yet in the Novus Ordo Missae lectors, cantors, and extraordinary ministers seem to simply walk up to that area around the altar with a simple bow, if any reaction at all. My wife and I first served as lectors at our Church, but thinking about how casually we were able to enter the area of the altar put us in a place of great discomfort. We initially thought that our Pastor’s restriction of needing to wear fancy clothes was a burden, but we came to think that even that wasn’t enough.

H. Incense. All the time.

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  incense is used on special occasion, typically in times of solemn celebration.

More traditionally, incense is used

every.

single.

Sunday. (and every sung mass)

’nuff said.

In Summary

Should all of the more traditional elements of the liturgy, as lain out above, be incorporated into the Novus Ordo Missae, I imagine you would find many trads happily cooperating and participating in non-Tridentine Mass. I truly believe that much of the unrest in trads’ hearts lies with the way in which the Liturgy is reverentially treated.

These suggestions are not somehow contrary to the Second Vatican Council. They are very much in line and are able to be used in the Novus Ordo Missae. The desire for their inclusion is not bad, either. The desire for the more traditional implementations of these elements of the Mass are holy. We are an institutional Church. We desire not only to be more holy at the individual level, but also as parochial , diocesan, national, and global communities.

Don’t be afraid talking to a trad. Some are scary, I give you that. Some are spiteful, hateful, and are in deep need of love, just as much as anyone. But if we, as Catholics, were more unified and more reverential in our conduct of the Mass? I think we would find this source of division to be a source of holy unity and power in the modern world. Church isn’t where we go to be comfortable. It’s where we go to seek that which is out of this world, which is truly “set-apart,” or holy. Let’s treat it like that.

The most important thing is that we celebrate one Eucharist, and that we know Jesus loves us.

Yes, yes, we know. We get it! But more and more young people do not platitudes. We don’t want to be appeased. We don’t want to be handheld through the faith and through the liturgy.

We want to be challenged.

We want the liturgy to put us in our place.

We want to worship God.

We want to break that jar of perfume for our Lord’s feet.


Post Script

Resources:

#011 – What You Need to Know about Vatican II – Burrowshire Podcast

This podcast, hosted by Brandon Vogt and Father Blake Britton, delicately and profoundly engages the meat of the Second Vatican Council. They address the notion of the Para-Council which dramatically affected the Post-Conciliar Church, especially when considering the Liturgy.

*Based on listening to the Burrowshire podcast, I made a number of edits to this article. Any changes will be noted by this asterisk note.

Have you tried Language-Bending?

Did you ever wish you could firebend like Uncle Iroh? Airbend like Aang? Metalbend like Toph? Then maybe you should think about learning a language.

Learning a language is a lot like learning to bend any of the four elements.

Just like many of you out there, my family and I have been rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender ever since Netflix managed to get it put up (and save their revenue numbers, let’s be real). As we have rewatched this series I have had a whole slua of thoughts, but one big one is the connection that it has with language.

Besides the incredible amount of world building, character development, and awesome plot line, there is a basic element of awesomeness about this show and it’s fictional universe: people can control and bend the natural elements, namely Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. With gestures of the human body and movements of the will, people can make the natural elements conform to their desires. It is the subject of pure awe and wonder. I imagine you, as I, feel incredible envy when watching this. How awesome would that kind of power be?

Of course, one has to walk away sad from watching this series (not just because of the emotions that it really wrenches out of the audience) but because you know you will never be able to have that kind of power in the real world…

or can you?

Let me now draw a number of comparisons between language and the ability to bend the elements.

It is an ability confined to a specific group of people. The basic premise of the show is that if a person can bend the elements, it is a trait that is passed on genetically. So you end up with not a conglomeration of different element benders in the same place, but a divided set of nations, each with it’s own relationship to one of the elements (Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, Water Tribe, Air Nomads). Additionally, a bender can only bend one element. If you are a bender in the Earth Kingdom, you likely are only an Earthbender.

Languages are also (typically) confined to a specific group of people. It is passed on, albeit non-genetically, from parents to children. There are of course exceptions which I will address later on, but the principal of language is that it has existence first within a defined community. Typically, also, we see that amongst most nations there is one overriding language that is either the norm or is simply used in the majority.

It has a unique manifestation within the people that use it. Bending is not any sort of willy-nilly movement of the body – it is a cultivated art. It is clear from the show that for a bender to become a master of their ability, they need to cultivate purposeful forms and learn to direct their abilities through refined and designed forms of body movements. Once someone has really learned the rules and principles of it, they can push the limits and even come up with new expressions of bending (like how Toph creates metalbending).

Scientists know that different language users have different biases, or skews, that affect how they view the world. More than that, the body has to become accustomed to contorting features of the mouth so as to produce specific sounds of a language. Every language is made up of different structures, and the body has to conform to these various structures. These language-specific conformations become so ingrained in the users that the users don’t even think consciously about how they do it – it becomes like breathing.

It has a unique relationship to culture. Even though not everyone is a bender in each of the societies, the nature of the element has a specific relationship to the people that, at the very least, live around it. It affects the way they dress, what kinds of values they hold, non-bending rituals, nomenclature, everything. In many ways, bending becomes a lens through which the entire people sees themselves.

Language, conversely, is used by nearly every single human being within a society. But certainly language is intimately married with every cultural expression found within the society that uses it. Language becomes the condensed expression of that culture, and is the entry point for looking into the culture and society that uses it.

While each bending ability is unique, it is centered in a common motion. At one point, Aang (the main character, the Avatar), learns from a Guru about chakras and about how spiritual energy flows through the person. It’s a bunch of hullabaloo in real-world terms, but the Guru gives a lot of insight into how this fictional universe is constructed. At one point, especially, he teaches Aang that even though people are bending different material substances, all benders access their abilities and manifest their abilities through the same motion of energy. Essentially, the stuff that makes up the different elements aren’t really all that different at a core level (so, atoms). The biggest difference comes in how that energy is moved by the bender, and from the bender’s relationship to that general energy.

When looking at language, here is the comparison. All human beings are using the same thing when they accomplish language – reasoning. This core ability to reason is common across all of the languages. They are the physical manifestations of rational thought and ability, but are different in how the language speaker moves these reasonings, and from the speaker’s relationship to rational knowledge.

There are, however, some important differences.

Firstly, as I mentioned, not everyone in each nation is a bender of their affiliated element, but every member of a society is a user of that society’s language (generally). But this pales in comparison to a larger difference:

In the universe of Avatar: The Last Airbender, you can only ever bend one element, if you can at all. The story follows the path of Aang, the Avatar. Aang is unique because as the Avatar he can bend not just one, but all four elements (he in fact has a responsibility to do so). Beyond the primary envy of the viewer of wanting to bend any of the elements, their is an additional envy of being able to bend all of the elements.

Unlike people within the universe of Avatar, we in the real world can revel in the fact that language, the most approximate form of bending we could be capable of, is not strictly limited to any one person or group.

Make no mistake, learning a language is a lot like learning to bend an element (in the sense that it takes much time and effort), but the fact is that you can do it! Not only do all humans have equal access to the beauty of our first languages, but we can also learn any other language.

The universe of Avatar only has four nations, for the four elements. Comparatively, we would say we have something like 6,500 “nations.” That’s a lot of languages!

If you have ever watched the show, if you have ever marveled at the power of these benders and said “Man, I wish I could do that,” then learning a language might be exactly what you are looking for. If you have always wondered what the point of learning a language even was, then look no further than here: the majesty and beauty of learning a language is the same majesty and beauty that you can observe in the benders of the universe of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

P.S. Don’t know how to get started with learning a language? Click here to find out how!

Love is Love is…Love?

Postmodernism, the umbrella term for today’s most prevailing philosophical thought, covers a wide range of topics. Previously I have even shared a picture I found which I dubbed ‘The Postmodern Creed’:

Like any creed, there are mountains of literature that could be written on elaborating the various points, most specifically targeting how you arrive very squarely at the summative points of the creed, but also like any creed there are some core underlying currents of thought that propel the philosophy or belief forward.

One of the core notions of Postmodernism is the idea of deconstruction. Our society is currently facing this tenet of Postmodern belief with unbelievable force, as those who are in a position of power and privilege (white people) are being asked to recognize mountains of implicit biases against those who are oppressed (black people), and, most importantly, are being asked to remove systemic issues that enforce such a divide between the powerful and oppressed. What is interesting about the idea of deconstruction is ultimately that postmodernists aren’t trying to tell white people that they are literal racists (although there are plenty of explicitly racist people and they are saying that, too), but that the systems of societal structure and thought into which we are all born have shaped us to believe these things.  In some ways we are all slaves to the systems that we are born into. So even if we do not intentionally hold racist beliefs or actively try to make a systemic gap between white and black people, our passive existence in a society that does therefore means that we are complicit with racism and are allowing it to exist.

A core understanding of deconstruction is that any formation of society relies on social constructs of some kind. Social constructs can be any formation of spoken or unspoken law that dictates some element of reality (black people are genetically inferior, poor people should stay poor, marriage is solely between a man and woman). Postmodernism holds that all of these social constructs are artificially put in place by man at some point in history and have no ground in a deeper reality than man’s own desire for power over others.

Whatever you may say or think about this way of thinking (for it or against it), it has a lot of merit in helping us realize that what we believe matters. Whatever you think about reality affects all of your decisions, explicitly or implicitly. Psychology has demonstrated that the brain makes sensory ‘leaps’ when observing and helping us interpret reality. We cannot possibly think about everything that we sense (that bell ringing in the background, the feel of your phone in your hand, the two people talking with you, how one of them smells, the coffee that’s being made behind you, whatever your toes are feeling, the AC running in the background, etc). So the brain makes shortcuts and only focuses on some of those things as relevant. This shapes what we think because we do not think or make decisions without some biases (focusing on the coffee instead of the sound of the bell). There is, though, a good chance that the kind of person you are or the philosophy that shapes the framework of your thought is going to modify what you pay attention to and think about. So even if you don’t explicitly think about how you feel about a person of a different skin color, there is a good chance (in the U.S. in the modern time) you have some bias about it. Whatever systems of thought have formed you will affect how you operate at every level (implicitly or explicitly).

There are many things that true adherents of Postmodernism want people to call into question and to deconstruct within themselves and in society as a whole. We could really spend a long time talking about all of them: economy (financial disparity), education (enslaving to old systems of thought rather than liberating from them), religion (disguised oppression), etc. But there is one thing that I want to focus on, as it actually serves to highlight a core issue in the larger field of Postmodern thought:

Sex.

Now, the truth here is that as Postmodern thought is growing in popularity, it’s seeing some growing pains. Not everyone is of the same opinion on this subject, but there are some basic agreements. Firstly, and most importantly, is that centuries (millennia) of thought have informed and told us (humanity) that sex equals 1 man and 1 woman, with the inevitability of children. This system of thought about human sexuality has been, as you may guess, oppressive. When adhering to this system of thought, there are consequences, such as the oppression of women where they are not allowed to work outside of the house or make authoritative changes in their own lives. Without any birth control, women would have to have many children, they wouldn’t be able to get higher education or a high paying career, and so they are subjugated to men who do have access to these things. Furthermore both women and men in a society that enforces such a relationship (implicitly or explicitly) are not truly free to decide how their sexuality and gender may express itself. Maybe someone doesn’t want to have a sexual relationship with someone of the opposite sex. Maybe they like both. Maybe they feel like they were born the wrong sex? Maybe they just aren’t interested in engaging in it at all? Maybe they think there is no binary of sexual identities?

The main point is that what needs to happen in every person and at the societal (and therefore systemic) level, is deconstruction. We have to all throw off these old shackles that are holding us back from being truly free to choose. As long as we are stuck in old ways of thinking, as long as we are relying on tradition and especially western colonial thinking (residual culture and thought from Colonizing Europeans), then we are enslaved to that singular mindset. Postmoderns are very interested in attempting to unveil cultural views from non-western groups of people to show that the western way of viewing sex or any other constructed system is not the only way, and that it is not arbitrarily more correct than any other.

You might think that Postmodern thought is purely destructive in this manner, and that there are no positive contributions to the discussion, but this wouldn’t be true. Ultimately Postmoderns (politically liberal or conservative) are interested in freedom of choice, and then love.

Love is love is love.

Once somebody makes a choice, love them! That choice, for all you know, is exactly right for them. Don’t judge them. Don’t oppress them with whatever system of thought oppresses you. Don’t obligate someone else to conform to your view. Love is almost single-handedly the antidote to oppression, as love allows the other person to make choices free of any such oppression. If the problem at hand is being trapped by old systems and not being free to choose how you live your life, then loving people, who make choices you think are weird or morally unsound, is the answer. Love empowers people to be free and and to shed an oppressive past.

Mind you this doesn’t mean open relativism, where everyone has an inherently different worldview and there is no founding truth. A Postmodern does not truly think that murder or stealing is okay, even if the murderer or thief thinks it is the “right choice for them.” There is an inherent ground of good and evil, a necessary and basic social construction; good lying with liberation and love, evil lying with oppression and hate. Someone murdering someone else is hateful and oppressive.

This month is pride month.

This month and this time of year this oppressed group of people gets a platform to express themselves, and the rest of the world outside of the LGBTQ+ community has the opportunity to respond. Do they respond with oppression and hate? Or do they respond with love and welcoming arms?

But…what is love?

Love is love is…love? Where does this talk take us? Certainly they do not mean a romantic love, as no one is insinuating that that Bill Gates needs to develop a romantic love for every single person in the LGBTQ+ community in order to be good towards them. Some people in this community even define themselves as aromantic, meaning that they have sexual attractions but explicitly do not have any romantic attractions.

We could go through a list of multiple kinds of loves, but we don’t have to go very far to demonstrate that the LGBTQ+ community is describing a more ethereal love. But it still seems to lack a defining feature. What does this love look like?

On the one hand, it has unique expression in every relationship or case. Maybe it looks like a heteronormative (1 man+1 woman) relationship. Maybe it looks like two men who have no formally contracted relationship. Maybe it looks like a relationship between someone who identifies as a woman and someone who identifies as a man, even though appearances suggest something else. In any case, these individuals may have genuine love for each other, so it exists at a unique level, but is still more abstract.

I would suggest that there are two forms of love that exist ethereally behind the idea of generic Postmodern love.

One idea is delightDelight is a form of love that gives one those fluttery feelings. It moves one in the direction of something (abstractly or physically) because it makes one feel good. It gives one pleasure to think, to interact, and to just exist in proximity to something or someone else. This is where we see love as feeling. Wherever one finds delight, romantically, sexually, or generally, then they are encouraged to seek it out and to live as approximately to it as possible, because having these positive feelings is exactly the kind of happiness one can get in life.

A second idea is affirmation. This is probably the most important one for the Postmodern philosophy. Affirmation is not based in feelings. Affirmation is rooted in the higher philosophical truth of Postmodernism that is essentially the opposite of oppression. Instead of someone choosing to oppress an individual in the LGBTQ+, the opposite motion is to affirm them. Not only do you validate their position and identity, but you affirm them and tell them that it is good, and that they should pursue it and pursue what makes them happy. You support them in their diversity. It is contrary to affirmation that we find the idea of hate. To not support and affirm someone is to condemn them and say that they are wrong, which is inherently hateful.

Okay…great…so what?

Postmoderns’ relationship to the idea of love is flawed. It misses the mark. It falls short.

Delight is good, but it is fleeting. If a parent bases the love for their child in delight, then both parent and child are bound to suffer infinitely. Children do not yet understand the world. They are selfish. They don’t know any better. They have to grow and have to learn about other people around them, which is the root work of parenthood. But this root work is anything but delightful. It is tough and gritty, and involves a lot of tears. It leads to delight (uhm, hello, baby giggles? omg so great), but delight is a bonus, not the root location of relationship. If you only seek out delight in a relationship, but avoid the difficult and gritty work of growth in relationship, then you are looking at a poisonous and dishonest relationship. Resentment, conflict and pain will be the fruits instead of happiness and growth. If you teach a child that relationships (romantic, sexual, or whichever otherwise) are about being happy with other people and that true relationships never really have conflict, then that poor child will have a frightful life, filled with anxiety and doubt.

Affirmation, as an ultimate level and distinction of a type of love, is poisonous in and of itself as well. Affirming someone can be good, as affirmation is fuel. It gives someone else the power to move forward and to confidently make choices. Affirmation is a necessary ingredient for growth, because how else will someone know that they can and should keep going? Affirmation is necessarily communal. One can push ahead on their own towards what they believe is good, but being alone is difficult and depressing. Receiving affirmation tells you that what you are doing is worth the gruel and grime of life. But blanket affirmation, affirming someone wherever they are and however they think it is good to proceed forward, is not an inherently good move. In general, black and white affirmation means affirmation in spite of knowing what it is the person is engaging with. Indeed black and white affirmation is part of the mental framework that says there is no singular good towards which to work. It means letting people find their own good in the world, wherever that is and however it might appear. It would be reckless to simply affirm my child whenever they engage in an activity that they would assume to be ‘good.’ At the end of the day, I might not have a house left to live in. As stated previously, though, Postmoderns do not think that it is okay to affirm a murderer. Affirmation requires nuance, attention to that which is good (but we’ll get to that in a second).

Of course, these two loves within Postmoderns do not exist in isolation: they cooperate together. When these two loves work together, they come in and contribute love where the other is deficient, and work together to create a higher experience of love. Delight helps define the limits of good and evil so that affirmation is more effective in community, so that healthy boundaries are found for people and for relationships. Affirmation, as a more abstract experience and expression of love, gives relationships substance even when delight is not to be had. Affirmation itself as an act introduces a level of delight in the one who gives as well as the one who receives, though. In the end, the ideal of love is embodied by these two dimensions of delight and affirmation.

There is, however, a more important form of love. There is a love that is greater than these two, a more ‘noble’ form of love, if you will. In truth I believe it is the type of love that Postmoderns are trying to establish and maintain where they are instead conveying affirmation, or a mix of affirmation and delight.

This more noble form of love is present in delight and outside of delight. This more noble form of love is pure, it expects no good feelings in return. This more noble form of love is entirely focused on the other, and it strengthens others. But, most importantly, this more noble form of love is good. Objectively good. It cannot deviate from good otherwise it is no longer the same love.

The best definition I know of this love is this: to will the good of the other, for the sake of the other. In traditional Catholicism this is called caritas (charity).

We could rephrase it like this: to desire and want objective goodness for someone that is not yourself, for the benefit of this other person and for no other ulterior motive.

Now, this may look like affirmation. When someone else is pursuing something that is good, one affirms them and encourage them to continue on pursuing such a good.

But, and this is the bad news, if someone is pursuing something that is not good, caritas means not affirmingIt even means, God forbid, correction.

One can see how, in the Postmodern mindset, this immediately translates to hate. To oppression. If one disagrees with another on the premise of what is good and therefore does not affirm that other person in their choice and identity, then that equates, in the postmodern mindset, to not loving. Even worse, if one even pretends to correct someone, one is talking about about oppressing that person with one’s own views, as that other person likely sees no wrong in how they have chosen their identity and life.

As I have said, caritas is not present within Postmodern thought, as it inherently does not think that there is a singular and ultimate good worth pursuing that does not end up becoming a rule of oppression. One might argue that sacrifice is a key point of liberation, and that caritas does exist within the postmodern mindset, but the sacrifice is not oriented towards objective good – it is oriented towards an inherent lack of objective good. If Postmodernism opens itself up to the idea of objective good, a subject of debate and inevitable ‘oppression,’ then it would defeat itself in argument. Sacrifice? Yes. Caritas? No.

The moment, though, one refers to objective good, an argument of religion is inevitable. Any source of discussion that may arise in the correction of someone LGBTQ+ brings itself back to religion and back to God. The objective is to shift the location of the discussion. Instead of objectively analyzing where Postmodern philosophy or new wave feminism takes a stand, the location shifts to the philosophy and theology of religion (however shallow), attempting to deconstruct the idea of an objective good. First and foremost in the arsenal of retorts is Christ’s own commandment to love one’s neighbor:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40).

“How can you pretend to love God and not love someone that is LGBTQ+? How do you synthesize those two things? Jesus never specified that you should love everyone except LGBTQ+ people.”

The issue, here, is that a Postmodern reads “love your neighbor,” and understands this to mean love on their own terms rather than what religious tradition has taught. It means to not judge, to not hate or oppress. It means to affirm and to delight in them, without desiring them to change.

Remember, though, that caritas is desiring the objective good for others. It’s not about delight, it’s not about blind affirmation, it is about desiring others to pursue good. Even outside of the context of religion and the LGBTQ+ community we see that this is a higher good. If someone has racist views or racist biases, then we should want that person to change, not just for how that person impacts others, but also for improving their own lives and liberating them from such toxic thoughts and ideas. There is good in wanting someone to change for the better, regardless of how that change might return and affect the agent of change themselves.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

The Bible only ever makes reference to two genders – male and female. These two sexes. New Testament exhortations are directed at husband and wife, not two wives and not two husbands.

“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Ephesians 5:3).

In Romans 1, St. Paul shows the Romans what sinful lives looked like when people turned away from God:

“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:24-27)

In all of the years of the existence of the Church, there has never been a hint of support for a sanctified sexual relationship that was not defined as being between one man and one woman, that is inherently open towards the possibility of life.

Ultimately there is no place for someone to practice and/or prioritize a life as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Why? It prioritizes delight, self-interest, and pleasure over the caritas that we receive from God. The individual prioritizes their chosen identity over the identity which was given to them. God was not afraid to give us morals, to give us a perfect ideal to work towards. One of these ideals is the beauty of sexual relationships. Say what you want, there is only one combination of sexual organs that has the potential to create life. Even if a singular act does not ultimately result in procreation, it had the potential to. No other combination works to make that happen.

Just stop and think about it for the second. We are talking about the ability to create another living human being. Do you know how long science has dreamed of doing that artificially? It is an awesome power, something akin to superpowers (that’s right ladies, I just called you superheroes).  By reason alone, and especially informed by Divine authority, we can see that this form of sexual relationship (1 man + 1 woman) is more noble and more correct than any other form. It can inherently produce goodness (more life), even if the act was performed in an evil way.

For this reason the Church says that homosexuality (or other forms of sexual relationships that are not heteronormative, and even masturbation) is intrinsically disordered. It means that these sexual acts go against the design that God has given us, and that they defile the natural beauty of what sex is meant to be.

“It’s God’s fault that He made me this way. Being gay isn’t something I can control, it’s not a choice. If God didn’t want me to be this way, then He shouldn’t have made me gay.”

There are many elements of human nature that we don’t really have a choice over. Our hearts beat without our willpower, neurons fire without our permission, so to speak. We get hungry against our wills. We feel sad, sometimes, without our willpower. Some people are born infertile, some people are born with bodily deformity. Some people are inadvertently affected by drug consumption, and without having any willpower, are more easily addicted to material substances. All human beings, however imperfect, are beautiful children of God. We are born, however, into an imperfect world and we have many affectations that withhold us from the glory that God originally designed us by. What the Church responds, in any of these situations, is that we work through our weaknesses and deficiencies to more conform ourselves to Christ, through the Holy Spirit, for the glory of God. In the case of LGBTQ+ relationships, the Church asks not that they change the very substance of their being, and ‘make themselves straight.’ No, it asks them to set aside their personal desires and delights (to experience sexual pleasure in a specific way) and, in St. Paul’s words:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1)

One of the images of the Holy Spirit is that of fire. When we speak about God we talk about the definitive Being that is Truth, Love, and Goodness. He is perfect and without flaw. We, as humans, are full of flaws (that’s right, me too. I’m full of flaws). How can a flawed being even approach God? With much mercy and grace. Most people understand this much, but does that mean that we as humans don’t change? God just takes us up the way that we are and doesn’t worry about changing us?

No!

He calls us to perfection!

“You therefore must be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)

Most people don’t understand the Catholic teaching of purgatory. They think it is extra-biblical knowledge that is simply untrue. But it is rooted in this element of caritas and of God. God is so pure, so good, so true, and so loving that if we choose to come close to Him we have no choice but to be purified, like iron ore that is having its impurities burned and sifted away, so all that is truly good is left to be presented to God. Any time (if we put the analogy of time in a timeless place) in purgatory is time where you are burning away your imperfections and the scars of your imperfections so that you may be presented whole and renewed to God, through Christ.

Here then, once again, the Postmodern reads in and sees hate and oppression. They see God as abusive. He says that He loves but He expects us to be different than “how we were created?” Even if the Postmodern might reject the notion of Hell even existing, they’re happy to be afraid of it, or at least rhetorically ask:

If God is all love, how can He condemn someone to Hell?

God does not want anyone to go to Hell. That is not what He desires for people. Since He is Caritas in its most pure form, He desires to be reconnected with us. But He is also Veritas (Truth). If we choose to live in a way that is not true, then therefore we reject Him. Heaven is the beatific vision, the pure sight of God. Hell is separation from God, the most separated we can possibly be. God does not send people to Hell, people choose to go there. Yet it is even God’s love that makes Hell possible.

God loves us so much, and He desires to have a true relationship with us, which means that we would choose Him. Definitionally, if we have the choice between God or not God, then God has to allow there to be a way for us to not choose Him. There has to be a way that we can reject Him. Hell is that possibility. Hell is anything but evidence against God. It is evidence of God’s caritas and mercy that allows us to choose Him and to choose love.

Love is…caritas. And in lesser forms it can be delight and affirmation.

Sometimes before engaging in discussion with someone, we have to realize that we have very different founding principles about how we view our world. Even if one understands themselves to be wholly correct, they have to comprehend the root thought of the people they are talking with. One of the biggest areas of disrupted conversation is when people are talking about the same concept, in different words, or the same word, but different concepts.

When Christians engage Postmodern thinkers, or when Christians confront their own Postmodern tendencies or flaws, they must realize this inherent difference between the love that is God, and the love that Postmodernism preaches. We must also realize the inherent difference between understanding a founding Truth of the world, rooted in God, versus an open pluralism, and championing of pluralistic societies. Postmodernism yields enough to religion, for now, but soon their will be no room for it. This notion of love, which we thought we all agreed on, is indeed not the same. Let us come to terms with it.