ListeningSometimes listening pays off, and it can pay off in various ways. Let me share two revelations I received recently by way of listening. The first is that community organizers are not the Devil. The second is another reason why the liberal Catholic thing is dying.

Let’s take the first one first. I met with a community organizer in my area to talk about… well, just to talk. The fellow is Catholic, and truth be told he is a very nice guy. He did not smack of the ideologue who seeks to bring about a minor revolution against the evil forces that be. He had a sense of real service for the community.

As I was told later, he was hired in the local area to replace someone who had a habit of confrontation for the sake of confrontation. This is of course not a good way to do business – whether that is the business of making money or making friends in the community. One of my major points about the social teaching of the Church is that we have to work towards communion and not opposition. Therefore, angry voices of defiance like that of Jimmie Hoffa, Jr. calling on an army of unionistos to get those bleepiting bleep of bleep Republicans out of Washington… well, it does not sound the same tone as “We Shall Overcome.”

So what do community organizers do? Well, oddly, some of them actually organize communities in order to better people. Take for instance this scenario. A group of refugees comes to the U.S. and they settle in a particular city. Naturally wanting to be around members of their own people – just as the Irish and Italians and Germans did more than a century ago – they congregate in a single apartment complex. However, the landlord of the complex, because these are cheap apartments and, hey, they’re immigrants, does not do the basic work necessary to keep the place up to humane standards. The refugees don’t know the language well, they are not about to rock the boat, and, bless their hearts, they know for a fact that it could be worse.

Enter the community organizer, who, by talking to the community hears about this group of refugees. He investigates and discovers deplorable code violations and general neglect. Through the help of interpreters, who aren’t always easy people to find, he encourages the refugees first to complain and then to allow inspectors into their apartments to see the violations. You can imagine the kind of delicate work this will take telling someone who just fled oppression at the hands of a secret police that they have to let the government in to help them. It reminds one of Ronald Reagan’s phrase about the most feared sentence in America, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Only these aren’t citizens, they are poor immigrants.

Community Service DayNext, the community organizer will petition city hall, or the state legislature to raise the fine on landlords who violate the laws regarding the up-keep of their properties. Apparently, if a fine is less than $50.00 it never shows up on a credit report. There is no incentive, then, for the landlord to do anything about it. They can just sit and do nothing for they’re not even afraid of being caught. In the meantime, inspectors for the state are forced to have to track down violators. This process costs the taxpayer quite a bit of money. So, the community organizer will lobby to have the fine raised in order to get landlords to do their job.

Now, does that sound evil? Not to me. The organizer is helping the state enforce its own laws and acting as a liaison between government agencies and the people they are meant to serve. They are attempting to help streamline the system already in place so as to punish the criminal landowner and save the state money in the meantime. To me that is the kind of concrete work that needs to be done for the sake of the poor. I might also point out this. What charity is going to what I just described? I don’t know of a single one that seeks out problems like that and then attempts to try to get the laws changed in order to benefit a minority population that is being abused. Sure there are constituencies like the mentally disabled or the addicted who are served by charity organizations who will then lobby to have laws changed, but that is not the same thing.

So my view on community organizers has certainly changed, thanks to listening.

But then there was the talk I went to at a Catholic campus on the 1986 document Economic Justice for All. If you have not read it, I would spare yourself. I mean there are some nice bits, but the document is dated, almost necessarily so. It does provide some principles that are universal, but these are things one can find in the papal documents and the Catechism.

Rembert Weakland, OSB chaired the committee that drafted Economic Justice for All. I learned that too.

Rembert Weakland, OSB chaired the committee that drafted Economic Justice for All. I learned that too.

Anyway, the majority of the young people at the talk were there because they had to be. I know. I spoke to their teacher. The rest of the crowd was generally older. The speaker was a Jesuit who had been part of the process of drafting that document way back in 1986. In general, what struck me about the event was that those who wanted to be there were older and they assumed, no – check that – they knew with the surety of Moses when he parted the Red Sea that on a college campus “conservative Catholics” (his words) could be pilloried as morons, John Paul II could be painted as a big meany, today’s bishops could be dismissed for being too concerned with doctrines (cue organ music), and Jesuits… well Jesuits are prophets of a new age… an age entirely populated by people past child-bearing years.

That’s harsh. There were some my age. But honestly, as a definite outsider to this academic event, I got two very clear messages loud and clear: 1) conservatives are not welcome and 2) the youth are by and large apathetic.

The first message came from the constant stream of straw men gussied up as conservative positions in response to Economic Justice for All. Conservatives were the badies. There was no two ways about it. They were puerile and limited and just plain mean. At one point the speaker actually caught himself and said out loud, “well, I guess I can’t assume everyone in this room is a liberal.” This was just followed up with the same stuff he’d been saying before.

There was also this wonderful revelation: apparently the phrase “reading the signs of the times” meant or maybe still means something quite different to the progressive wing of the Church than it has to me or to, um… the Vatican.

I’ve always understood it to mean – and correct me if I’m wrong here – that the Church, in drafting a pastoral letter or what have you, the Church must look at what is going on in the world and then write the letter in light of the current goings on. There is no point in addressing the monothelite heresy today, after all. When was the last time you ran into a monothelite? Well, exactly. You don’t do you. It’s not an every day occurrence. But if you do, by the way, never ever show them your teeth. Just nod and back away slowly leaving your cocktail behind.

This kid can read the signs of the times better.

This kid can read the signs of the times better.

Well not so, according to the elderly Jesuit presenting that evening, not so. Apparently, what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council meant by “reading the signs of the times” is that the Church, i.e. the bishops, ought to ask everyone what they think about a particular topic. Then, the bishops have to take in all the various ideas and opinions and synthesize them, being respectful of every viewpoint. The letter, then, must be a reflection of all the feedback from the people in order for one to be able to say that the bishops have “read the signs of the times.” See?

Only, there is something rather confusing to me about the whole thing. What if, and I’m spit-balling here, what if the ideas and opinions of some people are stultifyingly asinine? That always seems to be the thing that no one wants to take into consideration. Or, perhaps I shouldn’t put it so starkly. Maybe I should just say, what if the opinions of some people fly in the face of revelation and the moral teaching of the Church? Well, apparently the bishops have not just to listen to that but have to incorporate it into their teaching. There’s the rub.

Look, I’m not against the bishops asking the laity for their opinion. I’d like to give the bishops my opinion about this or that thing myself. But this “collective genius” approach to reality and truth is dangerously bad. It fails to take into account that the people of our current culture have consciences and moral judgments so compromised that they cannot possibly add to the conversation, or – more to the point – contribute to the development of a doctrinal system they’ve rejected in part or in whole.

This approach to shaping documents, this “collaboration” between all sides is like the theory of John Dewey from the 1920’s: get as many people around a table as you can and the truth will simply rise to the top. Yikes!

We know what happens when the point of a process is to make everyone heard: everything is said so that the truth is drowned out by the noise or nothing is said but that something ought to be said. Either way truth gets the shaft. Ecclesiatics should listen to many people, but it is their God-given task to sift through the various opinions in order to draw out the truth so that they can govern, sanctify, and teach – for God’s sake teach.

The second message I got from that event was the youth are by and large apathetic. I know this because I watched them around me pass notes, text friends, catch up on facebook, and generally nod off. They were there because they had to be. Certainly some were interested, or wished they could be, but the majority wasn’t. Why? Well I think it may have something to do with the fact that at no point in this entire 45 to 50 minute presentation was anyone encouraged to get to know Je– Jessss— oh I know it’s hard to say it, but try as hard as you might… JESUS!

That’s right, apart from passing Scriptural references to things our Lord said about caring for the poor, the closing salvo launched by the Father at the front was “If you want to make a difference, join a group.”

Join — a — bleeping — group!?

No no, Catholic students. The Church demands nothing of you. There is nothing to be gained in the community in which you are now a member, most of you since before you could hold your own bladders. Nope, go out and join a group. In fact I think Christ said something about that did he not? You are Peter and from this rock I will send you hurtling through space and time to join a group off in distant lands. Or was it go out and make friends with all people by joining their groups in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit… which is my own group… which you can’t join.

No, friends, I’ve little hope that the youth in that room will take up their cross, I am pretty sure Jesus asked us to do that, and live a life of Christian zeal and sanctity when the best and brightest put before them can only muster the battle-cry of “Join a group.” Ugh.

Still, I learned something. I’m not sorry I went to that talk or had the conversation with the community organizer. Both experiences were out of my comfort zone, and I listened, and I learned. In the former case I learned something wonderfully unexpected. In the latter, I learned another reason why I will not see reality in the same way as some. While sad, this is an important thing.

Alright, I’m done writing now. Time to go do some more listening. I think I’ll listen to my baby’s gurgling tummy… or Beethoven.