Articles and Drafts

Criticism and Apology

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is the relationship between apology and criticism, which I take to be two distinct intellectual activities.

Apology, as I'm using the term, is the activity of finding and presenting reasons or justification for the beliefs, actions, or practices of some corporate entity or individual. It's what you do when you research your political party's position -- or your favored candidate's track record or policy with regard to gun-control -- and offer that research to those who are skeptical of the normative status of that position, record, or policy. It's also, of course, what you're engaged in when you search for and offer reasons to think that theistic belief is rational (or perhaps rationally required), or that the resurrection is metaphysically possible.

Criticism, on the other hand, is the activity of finding and presenting reasons that challenge the rationality or justification of some target domain of the beliefs, actions, or practices of some individual or corporate entity. It's what you do when you challenge an institutions policies regarding the circumstances under which they are required to report suspicions of child abuse, or an individual with respect to their position on abortion or euthanasia.

What interests me is both what these practices or activities have in common, and what sets them apart:

  • Apology and criticism are both forms of inquiry, they both involve the discovery, presentation, and exchange of reasons (or reasoned argument). They both, thus, presuppose common intellectual ground with the object of one's efforts.
  • Apology and criticism are both regulated -- in idea circumstances -- by the aim of uncovering the truth and bringing the practices and actions of some entity in accord with that truth.
  • On the other hand apology is often entirely outward facing: it attempts to justify to an external audience the behavior (practices, etc) of some entity in terms they would accept as reasonable. By contract, criticism (whether it be self-criticism or criticism of some group that one is a part of) has an inward aim. It attempts to change behavior, policy, or action rather than justify it.

One thing that I think about a lot is whether we -- as individuals -- have duties to be critical or apologetical in certain circumstances, and what those circumstances are. For instance: I believe that I have an obligation to present groups and institutions that I am a part of in their best light. In some ways, I represent these groups (or at least represent myself as tacitly accepting the ideals, practices, actions, etc. of the group), and I think it is thus a duty of mine to uncover and present what I take to be the best / most respectable reasons for why that entity behaves in the way it does. Interestingly, though, we don't always have choices regarding which groups we're a part of. I'm American, and, while I suppose I could in some sense change that fact about me, I think it's my duty to answer for the cultural, political, and social norms and practices of America as a whole. I also think, of course, that I have strong obligations in the opposite direction: that is, to critically examine those practices in ways that could help shape them in more positive ways.

But when should we criticize, and when should we apologize? Are these roles incompatible? Are they merely aimed at different audiences? Or should we ideally integrate those roles into a single perspective, so that we are presenting unified views to the communities we're a part of and to the outside world?

For what it's worth, the tentative answer to these questions that I'd like to explore is something like: intellectual integrity is a virtue that's sensitive to the different obligations that we have to different audiences in virtue of the social roles we occupy. Developing this virtue and properly exercise it will require us to engage in both sorts of intellectual practices at different times, though it'll be difficult to spell out -- in a general way -- what exactly the relevant factors are in determining when its appropriate to engage in either. In any event, this is something I'm going to be working on in the coming weeks, so these are questions I'll continue to explore. If you have any thoughts (or concrete cases to think through) feel free to post them in the comments.

Fr. Hesburgh on the Balance Modern Catholic Universities Must Achieve

Fr. Hesburgh on the Balance Modern Catholic Universities Must Achieve

Fr. Ted took the relationship between Catholic Universities and the secular societies in which they exist seriously. Perhaps we can learn something about Notre Dame's decision to aware this year's Laetare Medal to two Catholics who exist in the space where that tension is greatest.

Part 2: The Problem (Continued), Its Nature and Scope

A Screenshot from the "Fishers of Men" video, Grassroots Films

A Screenshot from the "Fishers of Men" video, Grassroots Films

In the last post in this series I tried to sketch one major element of the current priest shortage crisis. Here’s my diagnosis in a nutshell: the current recruiting model emphasizes one’s vocation to spiritual and sacramental leadership. Insofar as pastoral care is mentioned, it’s in connection with the spiritual and human needs of one’s parish; serving the elderly and the homebound, creating dynamic ministries for the young and the disenchanted. And all this in the context of a life of heroic virtue and spiritual adventure. For a sense of what I’m talking about, just watch the USCCB’s official recruitment video, Fishers of Men:

 I watched this film over and over when I was thinking about entering the priesthood, and it had a huge impact. The priesthood depicted in that movie is the sort of thing I’d be willing to make huge practical sacrifices for.

But the reality doesn’t match this fantasy.

Priests are given minimal training in business, management, human resources, and educational leadership, and for good reason: they’re too busy getting philosophy and theology degrees, and training in liturgy, moral theology, and catechesis! But almost immediately after ordination, many of these priests become pastors of up to three or four parishes. Unlike in the sixties, when bishops had the luxury of setting up “apprenticeships” wherein a priest would serve as an assistant or associate pastor -- sometimes for 20 or 25 years -- today’s priests don’t even get much mentorship these days.

And this transition, from seminarian to priest-pastor without much on-the-ground training, it can take a toll. A bishop I recently spoke with said that this is a problem he and his fellow bishops are well aware of. “There’s a lot of talk about whether there’s a place in the priesthood for men who aren’t called to be pastors,” he told me. “I [my home diocese] we noticed this trend with a several men where they’d be an associate for two or three years and they’d be fine. But then you put them in the role of pastor and they just self-destruct.”

While it’s obviously not the only reason a man leaves, these bishops have reason to be worried about this phenomenon. According to an article published by Commonweal Magazine last year “The number of men being ordained each year is only about a third of the number needed to replace priests who are retiring, dying, or leaving. In fact, in the United States more priests die each year than are ordained.” In short, our recruitment rates aren’t great Statistics on retention are harder to find, but they don’t look good either. All this, while the number of American Catholics is growing substantially: 

What I’m suggesting here, is that one reason why it’s gotten hard for us to attract and retain talent in the Catholic priesthood is because we -- the Church -- is just not doing a good job of leveraging our human resources. Men who are encouraged to discover, discern, and develop a deep spiritual calling, and then handed the keys to a musty parish center and told not to let them shut the lights off must feel somewhat hoodwinked. Watching the Fishers of Men video you may get the sense that a priest’s biggest worry after ordination is whether and how he’ll intervene in catastrophe’s to save souls. The reality, as detailed in Notre Dame’s Study of U. S. Pastor’s Faith, Finances, and the Future, is much different. Pastor’s of parishes with Catholic schools, for instance,rank concerns of Catholic identity behind much more practical concerns: enrollment management, financial management, fundraising, and capital improvements. With so many pressing practical concerns, these priests will be lucky if they have three or four hours a week to devote directly to the spiritual and sacramental health of his local community.

Faced with such a crisis it seems like the hierarchy would be busy, decades into a comprehensive strategy for solving this crisis in management and human resources. But so far as I can tell, this just isn’t the case. Vocations directors that I’ve communicated with express a worrying reliance on a recruitment and retention strategy I would describe as the “The Holy Spirit will take care of it" approach.

Of course, the Holy Spirit will take care of it. But, as a good Catholic, I recognize that grace requires cooperation. We’re given choices, presented with challenges, and God allows us to exercise free will and discernment in how we address those challenges. So far, I haven’t encountered anyone who’s been struck -- as I have many times -- but the thought that maybe this crisis is part of the Holy Spirit’s plan. After all, we were guided by that Spirit fifty or sixty years back to reimagine the organization and authoritative structures of the Church. Some pretty radical experiments in parish management came out of Vatican II’s encouragement to reimagine the role of the laity, at least one of which I’ll be examining in more depth later in this series. Before we do that, however, we’re gonna need to make a pit stop. 

In my research I’ve continually come up against a question I didn’t anticipate: “If we reorganize church management, how will we deal with the explicit structures of authority set out in Canon Law?” Since I’m no Canon Lawyer (thanks be to God), I’ve called up some friends of mine to help me get clear on this question. I’ll tell you all in my next post.