Language, Please


In these dishearteningly contentious times, nothing discourages me quite like people using vulgarity, especially the F Bomb’s distressingly and progressively commonplace use. When strangers use it, however, you can block their posts, or pass by them when they curse on their cell phones.

But it particularly deflates me when people I know, like, respect, and admire use the F bomb or other profanity in public spaces.

Of course, the large majority of us are profane when we suffer an accident or injury, or someone else’s fecklessness or thoughtlessness aggravates us or our own stupidity or foolishness hurts or offends others.

We wouldn’t be human if we weren’t profane. As a Catholic, however, I believe all should aspire toward holiness. But we won’t progress up Jacob’s Ladder by eschewing or repressing the vulgar. To be fully human and become holy, we must reconcile the sacred and the banal in our hearts and the world.

We shouldn’t, however, abandon our mutual understanding of what language is acceptable in civil society, but an unfortunate cultural shift has eroded our sense of what’s acceptable.

When you go to the movies, or turn on HBO, it feels as if they pay screenwriters by the F bomb.

While employing profanity is sometimes the only way a writer can portray how their characters authentically speak and think, in my humble estimation, writers should use this language only when it’s precisely the right word to use, and other choices have been exhausted.

Too many screenwriters depend upon foul language because they’re too lazy to find the right word to amplify their characters’ emotions. A facile way to grab viewers’ attention, this language, however, is so prosaic listeners are inured to its coarsening.

Instead, audiences expect and welcome the harsh vernacular because it provides them a cheap, vicarious thrill. This cultural osmosis encourages many to speak publicly as though they were characters in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

The reality of everyone having a platform to broadcast our views amplifies people’s use of coarse language. Many clamor to be heard, and trying to be outlandish and provocative, they drop the F bomb.

Emboldened, they employ it deliberately and indiscriminately, without any regret or shame, which erases our mutual sense: this kind of speech should be expressed spontaneously, inadvertently, and to our regret, and occasional shame.

People consequently use that word cavalierly. It can mean: anger, desire, contempt, and astonishment, among other emotions. Absent reflection, many don’t fully appreciate the F Bomb’s harsh intent: reducing romantic love’s most profoundly, intimate expression to a violent, unfeeling, immediately, selfishly gratifying transaction.

The F Bomb’s application then is emotional violence, which assaults and degrades the people who hear it and degrades the people who speak it. That word’s use also erodes our society’s rapidly deteriorating comity.

Foul language also inflames the hostility, which prompts many to take cheap shots at others, whose behavior they don’t like.

This kind of language also stokes and exacerbates other kinds of violence: domestic, road rage, and workplace. And the F Bomb’s liberal employment helps create a mindset, which emboldens some to harass and assault others sexually.

It’s simplistic to suggest eliminating the F Bomb’s use will, by itself, reverse our society’s pervasive and distressingly increasing violence. But we can, at least, become more mindful about how our speech impacts others. Instead of dehumanizing them, before we speak we should contemplate our common humanity.

As God’s children, all possess indispensable dignity yet as humble sinners, all need God’s love, grace, mercy, and help to sustain them. To lead meaningful lives, all want: good health, jobs, homes, schools, families, and to live peacefully with their neighbors.

Our awareness of what unites us will sharpen our empathy, and spur us to speak more carefully and thoughtfully.

This behavior should discourage our society’s mean-spiritedness, which sees people who disagree with us as our enemies. And reducing this hostility should, I hope, increase dialogue, which encourages us to find common ground on the issues that divide us and solutions to our most pressing problems.

More committed to mutual respect and the common good, not only will we strengthen our society’s civility, we will move toward the solidarity, which recognizes, as Dr. King wrote: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a seamless garment of destiny.”

Amid the great fractiousness, which sadly marks our days, to heal the chasms, which unfortunately separate us, nothing is more than important than to reclaim the sense: we are brothers and sisters in the same human family.

Instead of tearing each other down, by elevating our language, we can lift each other up. In that way, we can bless others instead of cursing them.


Wuerl Pastoral Urges Catholics To Confront Racism


cardinal wuerl

Cardinal Wuerl.

Released in November 2017, “The Challenge of Racism Today,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s timely, welcome, and important pastoral letter to Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington urges them to confront “the persistent evil of racism,” with renewed energy and dedication.

The Cardinal asserts today’s divisions are “not part of God’s plan.” He reminds believers all men and women were born in God’s image, and as such, possess an indispensable human dignity. Equal in dignity in God’s sight, we’re called to live as brothers and sisters in the same human family.

Racism is a sin because, as the US Bishops’ 1979 pastoral letter “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” says, it “divides the human family,” and “blots out the image of God among specific members of that family.”

More than fracturing the solidarity that ought to exist among people, racism is also a sin because, Wuerl says, it supports sinful “systemic social, economic, and political structures.”

The pastoral correctly asserts, racism manifests itself in several guises: personal, institutional, and social. And working to overcome racism requires we change the “attitudes that nurture” it in our own hearts and in our neighbors’ hearts and “the actions that express it.”

Working to overcome racism, Wuerl believes, should lead to greater human unity, which nonetheless acknowledges “each person should be seen in his or her uniqueness as a reflection of the glory of God and a full, complete member of the human family.”

To promote the unity, which disavows racism, Wuerl urges the faithful to “move to the level of Christian solidarity,” a fundamental and ancient Catholic principle, which reflects our persistent “commitment to oneness at work.”

To manifest their renewed dedication to oneness, the Cardinal wants Catholics to embrace Pope Francis’ challenge to promote a “culture of encounter, respect, understanding, and mutual forgiveness.”

Beyond our own hearts and homes, creating this culture will happen first, Wuerl correctly believes, in our parishes. We come to our parish home each Sunday to be restored in our faith.

And, sustained by the Eucharist and God’s words, we are then sent out into the world to live what we have heard in our encounters with our brothers and sisters.

We should also experience this when attempting to live what our Church teaches about racism. As Wuerl says, “the Sunday Eucharist offers a wealth of opportunities to reflect on this issue” for priests to urge parishioners to confront “racist behavior and prejudice.”

Parishes, he says, should also encourage dialogue on racism. Studying the pastoral would be a good way to begin that discussion.

These good suggestions will invigorate parishioners’ work to challenge racism, but more should be done. Acknowledging most parishes aren’t as diverse as they could be, pre-dominantly white parishes should enter into formal relationships with pre-dominantly African American, Latino, or Asian parishes.

These parishes could worship and socialize together and dialogue about finding ways to work together to address racism. Going through an Undoing Racism workshop together will challenge them to move further out of their comfort zones and enrich their relationships and their anti-racism work.

These partnerships will fortify Catholics for the work, which, as Wuerl correctly suggests, must be in done in the community to address racism in housing, the workforce, education, and the criminal justice system among other arenas.

When confronting racism, it’s especially important for Catholics to make the connection between poverty and racism. For instance, African Americans and Latinos are twice as likely to live in poverty as whites. As a consequence, persons of color are much more likely to suffer poor health, and experience shorter life spans.

A lethal combination, poverty and racism kill, which is precisely why the Church, which stands for life, should combat poverty and racism together. Our commitment to end poverty is unmatched, but in the past, our Church’s response to racism was often acquiescent, and inadequate.

Our religious orders owned slaves, our parishes and schools weren’t always fully integrated, and only this year did the USCCB establish its Ad Hoc Committee on Racism. While a welcome development, it should be a standing committee, and should have been established a long time ago.

“The Challenge of Racism Today” presents Washington Catholics an opportunity to demonstrate our Church can do better when fighting racism.

To capitalize on this moment, the Archdiocese should coordinate a campaign, which promulgates the pastoral fully to all parishioners, encouraging them to study and discuss it and reflect and act upon it.

This campaign could become a model, which inspires others to work for “a more perfect union.” This campaign won’t flourish, however, as Wuerl suggests, without God’s help.

And while prefect unity may elude us, we shouldn’t worry about that. As TS Eliot reminds us: “Ours in the trying. The rest is not our business.”




Creative Maladjustment Will Help End Poverty


The site of a proposed shelter for homeless families. Why can’t we eliminate the need for these kinds of shelters?

In my Washington, DC neighborhood – the most affluent in the city – people are upset about a homeless shelter proposed to be built in the neighborhood.

Some of my neighbors’ NIMBY attitudes aren’t unexpected, but our neighborhood hasn’t been singled out. Part of a city wide plan, which attempts to re-structure the way the city houses persons who are homeless, the proposed shelter is one of five designated to support homeless families throughout the city.

Instead of housing 270 families in one central shelter, which, all agree, is dangerous and overcrowded, these new shelters would house 50 families in each shelter, offering them more privacy and dignity.

With fewer families to help, the new shelter system’s proponents believe case managers won’t lose track of families or neglect their needs, and receiving more individualized attention, families will more readily escape homelessness.

Because these shelters promise a better future to these families than our current broken system, in one way, I hope the city overcomes my neighbors’ objections and builds the shelter. But, in another sense, if for the wrong reasons, my neighbors are right: no one should want a homeless shelter built in their community.

Each new one our society builds signals a collective failure of will and imagination to think more ambitiously about eradicating homelessness.

We shouldn’t debate where to put shelters and how many persons to house. We should work instead to eliminate the need for shelters. Because, however, it feels as if there are homeless persons on each corner asking us for spare change we can’t conceive of ending homelessness.

We’ve become too well acquainted with the wide range of reactions we experience when we encounter homeless people. We think nothing of walking past someone sleeping on a subway grate. Or we avert our eyes or walk to the other side of the street. Their begging exasperates us or we’re ashamed of our failure to act.

Unable to sort through these conflicting emotions, and overwhelmed by a problem that feels too enormous, we feel powerless to act, and have become too accepting of the status quo.

We need a revival of what Dr. King called, “creative maladjustment,” which refuses to adjust to the scandalous outrage of more than 560,000 persons nationally living without homes. Our maladjustment, I hope, will disquiet us enough to engender the creative solutions necessary to end homelessness.

Bringing together people irrespective of their ideologies, we should create greater solidarity among poor and non-poor persons that encourages them to work to end homelessness. Fully aware it’ a symptom, we’ll understand poverty is the disease we must overcome.

To convince others to end poverty, we should help them understand current government programs and private charitable efforts haven’t lifted 43 million of our brothers and sisters out of poverty.

Programs such as SNAP and Medicaid generate $2 for each dollar spent, and create jobs, and it’s estimated SNAP kept 4.7 million Americans out of poverty in 2014, and Medicaid kept 2.7 million people out of poverty in 2010. These effective programs shouldn’t be cut.

However, the reality of 43 million persons reliant upon SNAP, and 69 million persons reliant upon Medicaid starkly remind us of the great need that stubbornly persists, despite our best efforts and intentions.

In similar ways, programs that help feed families, and help them meet their rent and keep their utilities connected are admirable, but only help so many. Requiring furthermore people go one place for food and another for clothing and three more to pay their bills diminishes their dignity.

And when you spend most of your time and energy scrambling to gather resources to survive, you can’t think about how to create a better future for your family.

Poor persons are best qualified to articulate they deserve much better. And their non-poor allies should empower them to advocate for solutions for their problems: greater societal investment in a stronger safety net, preparing and training people for jobs that pay living wages, affordable housing, food security, affordable and outstanding education, universal health coverage, and safe and peaceful neighborhoods.

Better advocacy by itself won’t overcome poverty, however. Poor persons won’t escape poverty until they can determine, as all people desire, their own futures. With others’ support and that of a better safety net, poor persons will need to avoid the destructive behavior that traps them in poverty and take advantage of the educational, training, and economic opportunities, which present themselves.

But those who don’t believe poor persons can rise or change haven’t paid attention. They’re among the more creative and resourceful people in our society. If we channeled the effort poor persons make gathering resources into creating good jobs or helping poor people own their own businesses, that could mean homelessness and poverty’s demise.