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Good news and bad news

28 Sep

Results from a recent survey are out, and they contain some good news and not so good news. The survey has nothing to do with politics in this election season. Rather, it has to do with knowledge of religion in the U.S.

What I found encouraging is that 89% of the people surveyed know that public school teachers cannot lead their students in prayer. Still encouraging, though less so, is that 68% of the people surveyed know that the U.S. Constitution says the government cannot establish a religion nor can it interfere with one’s religious beliefs. It is discouraging, though, that less than a third know that public school teachers can read from a religious work such as the Koran or the Bible as examples of literature or teach a class on comparative religions.

I have long felt that the public largely misunderstands what the First Amendment allows and doesn’t allow. For example, I encountered a group of college students who thought that the law would not permit a public display of the Ten Commandments. They did not realize that a public display of the Commandments on private land is perfectly legal, while the same display on public land has constitutional problems. People often think, incorrectly, that public school students cannot pray in school. Nothing prevents a student from saying a silent prayer before lunch or before a difficult exam.

Often, I find myself thinking cynically that these sorts of misunderstandings are fostered by certain groups as a way of gathering supporters and donations. There are apocryphal stories of students who are told not to wear a watch with the face of Jesus on it, but further digging reveals the student was told to leave the watch home because she kept setting off the musical alarm and disrupting the class. If a student is being told to leave a watch at home solely because it is a religious watch, then I’ll be the first to represent her against the school.

The misinformation in this nation about church and state is frustrating, but we cannot lose hope. Religion flourishes in the U.S. because of our First Amendment, not in spite of it. As long as we can keep our government out of religions–and our religions out of government–we will continue to do quite nicely (on that part of our culture, anyway). If we can cut down on the misinformation, that would be a big help.


Galileo was right–accept it and move on

27 Sep

Just when you thought things could not get any crazier…I learned over the weekend that South Bend is going to be the location of the first conference on geocentrism. For those who aren’t aware, geocentrism is the belief/argument/position that the Earth is the center of, well, everything. Despite hundreds of years of actual, empirical science, these folks maintain that the sun, the planets, the galaxy all revolve around the earth. The conference bills itself as a Catholic conference, but I think the Vatican observatory would disagree with the conferees’ papers and presentations.

It seems likely that the geocentrists are an offshoot or subset of the creationists. Either way, it’s disturbing that Americans’ ability to reason critically has fallen to this low level. There are people who still believe that the earth is flat. Sadly, I bet the local media covers this conference and thus gives legitimacy to the group’s views–all in the name of telling “both sides” of the story. Never mind that one of the “sides” is demonstrably wrong and is a fringe of a fringe movement.

The real challenge here is that these folks are not likely to change their views, regardless of the facts. You cannot reason a person out of a position that he or she did not reason himself or herself into. And when the conference attendees point out that their position is “correct” because the Bible backs them up, there’s no way to even argue with them. All we can do is hope that they stay out of the science classrooms in our schools.

U2 fans–I am the dumbest in the whole world

11 Sep

Quite a few people have heard this story before, but I am still beating myself up over it, so here goes.

I’m a U2 fan. Do I memorize every minute detail? No. But I really enjoy their music. I’ve listened actively since about 1984 and have loved almost every minute of it. (Pop took a while to grow on me.)

Back in 2001, U2 announced they would kick off the second leg of their North American tour by playing the Joyce Center at the University of Notre Dame. My wife worked for the athletic department at the time, so she could get tickets in advance. We were psyched beyond being psyched. A small venue. U2. Advance tickets.

Then I realized the concert was on the same night I had to teach a class at Indiana University South Bend. So I told Catherine to take a friend. And I went ahead and taught the class.

I could have just canceled it.

The program director all but called me a moron (she was at the concert).

I am as dumb as a bag of hammers. I should have canceled that class.

I am stupid.

I am dumb.

Here we are, nine years later, and I STILL can’t get over it.


I was fortunate enough to see U2 live in Chicago in 2005 on the Vertigo tour. It was an incredible show. I don’t know I’ll get to see them again–$250 a seat in 2010 is getting way beyond ridiculous. I loved the ’05 show. I’d love to see them again.

But I am so dumb. I should have canceled that class. Rescheduled it. Found a sub. Anything.

Guys–could you maybe swing back through Notre Dame again? Help out a dumb guy whose mother’s maiden name is Duffy, whose roots go way back into Celtic families? Please?

Burn the Quran? No, thank you

9 Sep

An open letter to Muslims of the world, from one embarrassed American

Dear Friends:

By now, you have heard about the plans of an American minister to burn the Quran on Saturday, September 11. I know it upsets you. It upsets me, too, and I’m not a Muslim. But rather than spend time trying to convince this individual that he shouldn’t burn a holy book, I’d like to try to explain what’s going on in our country. Maybe a little more “light” and less “heat” will help your communities understand us.

The simple answer is, we Americans are insane. There are over 300 million of us, and we disagree on a lot of things. We argue over the dumbest stuff–which lousy television show is better, which crummy movie deserved to win an award, which football team is going to win next weekend. Those things really do not matter, but we argue about them anyway.

Besides being prone to argue with one another, there are other reasons we are insane. We do stupid things in this country–and this preacher in Florida who wants to burn the Quran is a perfect example. We have a lot of freedoms here, and sometimes that means the freedom to be dumb. But the rantings and actions of this one guy do not represent all of us.

Yes, I know, a lot of our leaders are doing stupid things, too. For example, one of your faith’s leaders in New York City wants to open a cultural center near the site of the Twin Towers that fell on September 11, 2001–what too many people refer to as “ground zero.” Despite all the good that could arise from this center, our political leaders (who are also insane) are saying stupid things like “it shouldn’t go there.”

So how are you all supposed to deal with our insanity? Hopefully with signs of compassion. We should know better than to behave this way, but we sometimes forget ourselves. It must be tempting for you to give in to the urge to fight back. After all, we Americans are not doing a very good job of being good neighbors. But I’m hopeful that you can remind us what a great people–or a great faith–can do when their neighbors are acting foolishly.

Go on about your normal business, and forgive us for being foolish. Hopefully we will wake up and realize what we’re doing. In the meantime, your kindness and compassion will drive that lunatic in Florida who wants to burn your holy book even crazier.

An open letter to the Catholic bishops

8 Apr

Dear Bishops:

First, forgive me for not knowing the proper title for your offices. After the papal “Your Holiness,” they run together in my memory.

I write to offer the insights of a sole Catholic who feels alienated from the Church. I can only assume my feelings are shared by others, since I have had some conversations with other Catholics who identify with my dismay.

Since the 1990s, the Church’s hierarchy in the U.S. (as well as in Rome) have said and done things that make me feel less and less welcome in the only church I have ever known. Statements from the hierarchy that have indicated that Catholics who vote for candidates like John Kerry or Barack Obama are somehow committing sin have hurt members of your flock. These statements have been most lately exemplified by the protests over the invitation by the University of Notre Dame to President Obama to speak at the University’s commencement.

These actions–and the judgmental character behind them–have served to push Catholics like me away from the Church. We have received the message that you do not want us in the parishes, despite the “welcome home” movement in my own diocese. Rather than fostering an atmosphere of inclusion and tolerance, you have created an environment where I cannot be certain I want my first born child (who will arrive this summer) to be baptized in the Church. It pains me deeply to write that and to acknowledge it is even a consideration. Ten years ago I would have thought these feeling to be impossible for me. I hope and pray that God will find a way to help me resolve these conflicts. But it seems that prayer may go unanswered.

I wish I did not feel like I was being pushed out of the Church. I wish I felt that I was still at home during Mass. And while I know that the rank and file pastors and associate pastors are often far more willing to celebrate common ground and to encourage people like me to continue to pray and let the Holy Spirit work, I feel like these good men are having their hands tied tighter and tighter.

My prayer for this Easter is that the Holy Spirit will move the Church’s leadership to be more pastoral and less judgmental, to be more welcoming of Catholics who follow their conscience and support candidates that may not agree with the Church on every issue, to be mindful that our common belief in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit is much greater than the things that separate us. I also pray that one day, I will feel at home again in the Church and can share the joy of celebrating the sacraments with my fellow parishioners and my family.