Category Archives: Theology

The Church hurts, justice, & the Holy Spirit


-by Mark Shea, former Baptist and now Catholic apologist

“The good news about the Catholic Church,” said a friend of mine “is that it’s like a big family.”

“The bad news about the Catholic Church,” he continued, “is that it’s like a big family.”

A basic fact of life is that the same Body of Christ that is the sacrament of salvation, the fountain of so many graces, the home of so many amazing and wonderful people, so much healing, so much beauty, and the glorious treasury of saints to whom we owe so much…that same Church is the scene of incredibly devastating hurts dealt out by traitors, perverts, scoundrels, monsters, selfish jerks, liars, grasping careerists, Pharisees, libertines, and fools.

Just about everyone has a story to tell: the scheming chancery functionary bent on inflicting economic harm on some struggling Catholic self-employed businessman; the priest who was an insulting, despair-inducing buffoon in the confessional; the sexually abusive cleric and the bishop who protected him; the Church Lady with her petty hurtful gossip; the jackass who poses as the uber-pious Catholic while he cheats on his wife; the nun who shamed and scarred the little girl in third grade; the crazy mom who destroyed her kids lives while yakking about God, dragging them from one quack visionary to the next and then running off with the priest; the liturgist who decided the mandate was not “Feed my sheep” but “Try experiments on my rats”; the Catholic schoolteacher who destroyed your shot at college because she was a vindictive psycho who hated males.

It is, in fact, a story as old as the New Testament. Jesus’ story is, after all, a story of betrayal. It’s easy to forget that Judas was, at one time, a friend of Jesus’. And so one of the great psalms of the Passion records the messianic sufferer lamenting, “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (Psalm 41:9).

Nor did the other apostles always present a sterling example of loyal friendship. They fought amongst themselves about who was the greatest, even as Jesus was celebrating the Last Supper and warning of his betrayal (Luke 22:24). James and John elbowed each other for a coveted spot at Jesus’ left and right hands, and even sent their mom to run interference for them as they jockeyed for position (Matthew 20:20-24). Peter, who had massive failings of his own when it came to denying Jesus and chickening out in a pinch, was also frustrated by Simon Magus, a baptized Christian who saw Jesus as a potential source of super powers and who tried to buy Peter off (Acts 8:9-14).

Similarly, Paul has to write on a number of occasions to express his exasperation, not with persecuting pagans outside the Church, but with his own fellow Christians within it. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel” he tells the Galatians, adding later (of those Judaizing Christians who were tempting the Galatians to abandon the gospel and return to salvation by circumcision): “I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12). (It’s been a while since a bishop blurted out in frustration that he wished members of his flock would castrate themselves.)

In various letters, Paul complains about Christians getting drunk at their agape meals, embarrassing the poor, having relations with their stepmother, rejecting the resurrection, getting puffed up with pride, refusing to work since Jesus was coming soon, and rejecting himself as an apostle since was not one of the original Twelve. Indeed, for all the abuse and beatings Paul got at the hands of both Jews and pagans, the greatest pain and frustration he felt was at the sheer ingratitude and hostility he received from fellow Christians, a fact easily verified from 2 Corinthians 10-13, in which the apostle “vents” (as they say these days) about the exasperation he feels at having to establish his bona fides as a “real” apostle to the spouting popinjays at the Church in Corinth who were simultaneously undermining all his hard work—work done at the cost of beatings, shipwreck, stoning and abuse—while leading the thankless Corinthians away from apostolic tradition. Paul practically pioneered the discovery of many a Catholic saint since that no good deed goes unpunished.

And all this sets the stage for a rich and colorful pageant of Catholic history in which Catholics drive each other crazy, hurt each other, lie to each other, cheat each other, make war on each other, rape each other, and kill each other. And by this, I mean Catholics from every walk of life. You can find everybody from Pope to dog catcher in the rogue’s gallery: clerical, lay, male, female, young, old, black, white, unlettered ruffian, cultured scholar, foreign, and domestic. No wonder Paul has to exhort us to bear with one another (Colossians 3:13) and Jesus tells us to forgive one another. It’s easy to forget that these instructions are not some platform for general social reform in which saintly Christians march out and show a barbarous world of buffoons the True Path.

Rather, the instructions to bear with and forgive one another are given to Christians first, because we need to hear them first. The New Testament documents are meant to be read in Christian assemblies of worship and are calculated to help Christians get along with each other. They were not written for classes on Civilizational Uplift to be taught by Holy Christians to a rabble of unwashed pagan thugs. Nor were they written for Christians to study in a class on “how to endure persecution from non-Christians” (though a few remarks here and there do, indeed, instruct Christians on how to cope with persecution from non-Christians).

On the contrary, the command to forgive—a command so crucial that it is the only part of the Our Father on which Jesus comments (warning “if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15))—frankly presupposes that the Church is the rabble of sinners who hurt each other before it is the communion of saints that reaches heaven.

Because of all this it’s worth looking at some of the biblical principles by which the Church orders its life for when its member don’t act like saints. In a world of pain infliction like ours, it’s easy to leap to a variety of conclusions that can hurt rather than help our faith and our obedience to Jesus Christ. We can assume that the person who hurt us meant to hurt us. We can assume that the hurt is proof the person is not really a Christian and is bound for Hell. We can assume the sinner is acting with the power and the authority of the Church (a particularly easy assumption when the sinner is a cleric). We can assume the hurt is proof that we “had it coming”. We can assume the hurt is proof the entire Catholic faith is a fraud. We can assume the hurt is proof Jesus Christ is a fraud. We can assume the hurt is proof the existence of God is a fraud.

Because of our tendency to draw unwarranted conclusions from the pain Catholics cause each other as they bonk into each other in the hurly burly of life, it’s wise to think about such matters and plan ahead for the moment when (not if) somebody in the Church hurts you.

The Mark Twain Principle

The first and most sensible thing that Catholics can do is not borrow trouble by presuming the worst right off the bat. Mark Twain said we should never attribute to malice what can be sufficiently explained by stupidity. His humorous point, of course, is that while there certainly are deliberately hurtful acts, an awful lot of what we do to one another is caused by ignorance and can even have a good-hearted intention behind the misfire if we can get past our pain to see it. The child who tries his best to be nice to the neighbor lady and ends up saying, “Gee, for a fat lady you sure don’t sweat much!” may deeply hurt with his words, but he does, after all, mean well. So our tradition counsels us to always assume the best first. With each pain we encounter, we have to develop the habit of asking “Was this grave? Did the person who did it have freedom? Did they understand what they were doing?” This spells the difference between excusing and forgiving. A lot of evil done us doesn’t even rise to the level of a sin. So we excuse the person who steps on our toes, or the verbal klutz who means to compliment us but winds up saying “You’re a lot smarter than I thought you were.”

Cultivate a 70 X 7 Habit

Of course, not all evils are excusable. Sometimes people commit actual sins against us. They fail to render the love or justice we were properly owed. They cut in line. They steal our stuff. They cheat us. They cheat on us. They abuse us. Whether by action or by failure to act, they knowingly and willingly hurt us. What then?

The command of Jesus is famous—and scary: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also Who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25) Peter, standing at the head of a long line of Christians who couldn’t even begin to imagine what Jesus really meant by that, summoned his magnanimity to its height and suggested that instead of the rabbinic custom of forgiving people three times, perhaps we should go all out and forgive them seven times. Jesus countered, “Not seven, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). How many times must we forgive? Infinity. As many times as we are sinned against. And that forgiveness is to be extended “if you have anything against any one”. No qualifications on whether or not they reciprocate or say they are sorry or show contrition.

The reason for this, of course, is for our good. Unforgiveness is, as has been famously observed, like drinking poison and expecting the other guy to die. To refuse to forgive is not to maintain power over our victimizer. It is to hand all power over to them and leave them in control of us for the rest of our lives and (if we let it destroy our souls with bitterness) possibly for the rest of eternity. In forgiveness, we hand the person who has sinned against us back to God, release them from our judgment and entrust them to the mercy of God. In doing so, we are set free from their power and can stand in the place of Christ the Beloved Son who likewise forgave and enjoyed—even on the cross—the love of God.

Don’t Blame Yourself

The Christian tradition has a healthy habit of self-criticism enshrined in the Confiteor. We are sinners, it is true. At the same time, there can be a certain pathology in which we can blame ourselves for sins committed against us. The child blames himself because his uncle beat him. The abused woman says it’s her fault that her husband gave her a black eye. The victim of priest abuse believes (and in some cases was shamefully told by ecclesial authority) that the abuse was their fault because they “asked for it”. The Church’s actual moral tradition, however, stands against this: the sinner is responsible for his sin, not somebody else. The victim of abuse needs to lay hold of Christ, the innocent sufferer, who did not say, “Maybe I had it coming”. He knew he was innocent. But neither did he allow the injustice done him to conquer him with bitterness. He showed the way between self-blame and hatred of his victimizers: the way of love rooted in the knowledge that he was the beloved Son of God. You are likewise a beloved child of God and the sin committed against you is not a sign that you had it coming or that God is angry at you. It is a sign only of the fact that we live in a fallen world. United with Christ crucified, your suffering can even help in the redemption of the evil done you, and can be a way that God will defeat Satan’s attack on you with a good that conquers and overwhelmingly triumphs.

Forgiveness Does not Mean Inaction

One great fear that can seize people is the mistaken notion that the command to forgive is a command to be passive—as though forgiveness means sitting on your hands while somebody gets away with fleecing you blind or beating you up because to oppose them would be “judgmental”. In fact, however, the New Testament knew as well as we do that sometimes sins require action:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)

Clearly, what Jesus has in view here is the twofold reality that sins and conflicts are going to arise within the Church and that his disciples need to find a way to deal with them effectively. For much of our day-to-day life, these problems are the equivalent of pin pricks and paper cuts in the body of Christ. Somebody sins. You show them their fault with mercy and charity. They repent. All’s forgiven. You don’t call your pastor because your husband left the toilet seat up. The bishop is not on speed dial to adjudicate how the monies from the parish bake sale will be distributed. Subsidiarity means that the people closest to the problem will, nine times out of ten, be competent to deal with the problem.

However, sometimes a bit more is required. So you call in a second opinion when your son is blowing off his schoolwork, making you and your spouse the united front who forbid the hike or the video games till the sin is remedied. Other times, the two or three witnesses may point out that there is blame to go around on all sides. On occasion, it may be necessary to bring a conflict to a pastor, such as with marriage issues, parenting issues, or some sort of struggle with how the school, or the finance committee are doing. A huge amount of our daily life never goes further than these levels of conflict and arbitration because most of us do not live epic lives of conflict that rocks the Church.

That said, of course, there are moments when some sin is so grave that ecclesial and even civil authority must be called in. A good rule of thumb is that ecclesial authority is necessary for ecclesial issues and civil authority should be contacted for issues in which the common good is threatened. So if your parish or Catholic educational institution is, for instance, fomenting rank heresy or open contempt for the faith, it may be time to contact the bishop. The trick, of course, is that very often the people most eager to make such calls are the people least qualified to do so. Every diocese has its wannabe Inquisitors who contact the chancery on a weekly or daily basis to complain that their parish sings hymns they don’t like, or the priest does not elevate the Host as high as the Inquisitor thinks proper, or women are not wearing veils as they should or what have you. Bishops have a lot on their minds, so a good rule of thumb is to ask whether the thing I think of such burning importance seems to be of burning importance to other good and holy folk I know in the diocese. If they do not think it worth going to the mat for, say, having to sing the umpteenth chorus of “Anthem” at the family Mass, probably this is not the battle that needs to be fought right now. On the other hand, if there are really serious theological and liturgical abuses, the bishop needs to know.

With matters of civil law such as theft, sexual abuse and such like, the proper place to go is to the cops. As Paul says,

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:1-4)

So, for instance, to draw from the very stark and disastrous example of the priest abuse scandal, if a layperson has evidence that a priest has been harming a child, this is not a matter for internal discipline in the diocese. This is a criminal matter and the police should be contacted. It is not “unforgiving” to do so. It is an act of justice to the victim, an act of charity and protection for potential victims, and a work of mercy to the Body of Christ.

One temptation that faces us when a member of the Church sins against us is to conclude that the sinner is “not really a Christian” or that the whole thing—Church, Jesus, God—is a sham. As to the question of whether somebody who sins is “really a Christian”, C.S. Lewis gives us a good perspective via his demonic correspondent Uncle Screwtape, who advises his nephew, the junior tempter Wormwood, on how to help sow the seeds of bitterness and pride in his human “patient” when he discovers his fellow Christians are all quite capable of sin:

All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?’ You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy(God) to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these ‘smug,’ commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.

Remember Why the Church is Called “Holy”

It will be noticed that throughout this article I have not confined the discussion to what the press typically means by “the Church”: namely, the hierarchy and the ordained office. That’s because, of course, the Church is all the baptized. When we speak of “the Church” hurting us and think only of the clergy we are taking a radically impoverished view of the Church. And this is of a piece with a general tendency to think of “the Church” merely as a sort of institutional structure. It’s not. The Church is the Body of Christ. But what makes it the Body of Christ is not the Pope, bishops or priests. It’s not the saints. It’s not radical empowered laity full of progressive fervor bringing an antiquated institution into The Future. It’s not properly observed liturgical rubrics. What makes the Church the Body of Christ is the Holy Spirit, Who is the soul of the Church. We say the Church is holy not because we are stone blind Kool-Aid drinkers who imagine Catholics never sin despite two thousand years of evidence to the contrary, but because, through thick and thin, the Holy Spirit continues to make it possible to forgive, heal, and be reconciled despite the worst wounds—the wounds we receive in the house of our friends (Zechariah 13:6).”

Lord, strengthen me against my own hypocrisy, which is daily.
Love,
Matthew

Historical Jesus

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-Brant Pitre is a professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the author of the bestselling book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper (2011) and Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Every Told (2014). Dr. Pitre is an extremely enthusiastic and highly sought after speaker who lectures regularly across the United States. He has produced dozens of Bible studies on both CD and DVD, in which he explores the biblical roots of the Catholic faith. He has also appeared on a number of Catholic radio and television shows, such as Catholic Answers Live and programs on EWTN. He currently lives in Louisiana with his wife, Elizabeth, and their five children.

Are the Gospels historically accurate, and can they be trusted?

Many modern scholars believe that the Gospels are not biographies of Jesus, that they were not authored by disciples of Jesus, and that they were written too late in the first century to be based on reliable eyewitness testimony.

In The Case for Jesus (on sale Feb. 2), Dr. Brant Pitre, bestselling author of Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, taps into the wells of Christian scripture, history and tradition to ask and answer a number of questions about the origins and validity of the Gospels and one big question: Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be God?

“Confusion about who Jesus claimed to be is everywhere and it’s spreading,” writes Dr. Pitre. “In fact, the idea that Jesus never claimed to be God may be more widespread today than ever before in history.”

In The Case for Jesus, Dr. Pitre offers compelling reasons for concluding that the four Gospels are first-century biographies of Jesus, written within the lifetime of the apostles, and based directly on eyewitness testimony.

The findings outlined in this book, which includes an afterword by Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire, a global media ministry, have the potential to pull the rug out from under a century of skepticism toward the apostolic authorship and historical truth of the traditional Gospels.

“This book will prove to be a most effective weapon in the arsenal of Christian evangelists in their struggle against the debunking and skeptical attitudes toward the Gospels that are so prevalent, not only in academe, but also on the street, among young people who, sadly, are leaving the Churches in droves,” writes Bishop Barron.

In The Case for Jesus, Dr. Pitre asks and answers a number of questions, including:

-Who wrote the four Gospels? Were they really anonymous?
-What do we make of the so-called “Lost Gospels”?
-Are the Gospels fact or fiction? Folklore or biography?
-Did Jesus really claim to be God?
-Did Jesus fulfill the Jewish prophecies of the Messiah?
-Why was Jesus crucified?
-What is the evidence for the Resurrection?

Advance Praise for The Case for Jesus:

“Thanks to Dr. Pitre’s magnificent book, you will now be equipped to make the case for Jesus and the veracity of the Gospel to even the most ardent skeptics.” —Jennifer Fulwiler, author of Something Other than God

“The Case for Jesus topples the naive skepticism that too often dominates the study of the Gospels…” —Mary Healy, Sacred Heart Major Seminary

“A robust and rock-solid case for Jesus. The sensationalistic claims of super-sceptics are exposed as a sham as Pitre provides a meticulous presentation of the evidence about the reliability of the Gospels, who Jesus thought he was, and what he means today.”—Michael F. Bird, Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia

——————————

In the fifteenth year of the rule of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, Philip his brother tetrarch of the region Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene… Luke 3:1

Some people claim that Jesus Christ never existed. Allegedly the life of Jesus and the Gospel are merely myths fabricated by the Church. This claim rests mainly upon their belief that there is no historical record of Jesus.

This lack of secular reports should not be too surprising for modern Christians. First, only a small fraction of the written records survived those twenty centuries. Secondly, there were few, if any, journalists in Palestine during the time of Jesus. Thirdly, the Romans saw the Jewish people as merely one of many ethnic groups that needed to be tolerated. The Romans held the Jewish people in low regard. Finally the Jewish leaders were also eager to forget about Jesus. Secular writers only took notice after Christianity became popular and began to disturb their lifestyle.

Even though early secular reports on Jesus may have been rare, there are still a few surviving references to Him. Not too surprisingly, the earliest non-Christian reports were made by the Jews. Flavius Josephus, who lived until 98 A.D., was a romanized Jewish historian. He wrote books on Jewish history for the Roman people. In his book, Jewish Antiquities, he made references to Jesus. In one reference he wrote:

About this time arose Jesus, a wise man, who did good deeds and whose virtues were recognized. And many Jews and people of other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. However, those who became his disciples preached his doctrine. They related that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Perhaps he was the Messiah in connection with whom the prophets foretold wonders. [Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, XVIII 3.2]

Even though several different forms of this particular text have survived through the twenty centuries, they all agree with the above cited version. This version is considered to be the closest to the original – the least suspected of Christian text-tampering. Elsewhere in this book, Josephus also reported the execution of St. John the Baptist [XVIII 5.2] and St. James the Just [XX 9.1], even referring to James as “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ.” It should be noted that the past tense in the clause, “Jesus who was called Christ,” argues against Christian text-tampering since a Christian would prefer to write instead, “Jesus who is called Christ.”

Another Jewish source, the Talmud, makes several historical references to Jesus. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the Talmud is “the collection of ancient Rabbinic writings consisting of the Mishnah and the Gemara, constituting the basis of religious authority for traditional Judaism.” Although not explicitly referred to by name, later rabbis identify the person as Jesus. These references to Jesus are neither sympathetic to Him or His Church. Also these writings were preserved through the centuries by Jews, so Christians cannot be accused of tampering with the text.

The Talmud makes note of Jesus’ miracles. No attempt is made to deny them, but it ascribes them to magical arts from Egypt. Also His crucifixion is dated as “on the eve of the Feast of the Passover” in agreement with the Gospel (Luke 22:1ff; John 19:31ff). Similar again to the Gospel (Matt. 27:51), the Talmud records the earthquake and the tearing in two of the Temple curtain during the time of Jesus’ death. Josephus in his book, The Jewish War, also confirmed these events.

By the beginning of the 2nd century, Romans were writing about Christians and Jesus. Pliny the Younger, proconsul in Asia Minor, in 111 A.D. wrote to Emperor Trajan in a letter:

…it was their habit on a fixed day to assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as a god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, not for any crime, but not to commit theft or robbery, or adultery, not to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded. After this was done, their custom was to depart, and meet again to take food… [Pliny, Epistle 97]

Special attention should be made to the phrase, “to Christ as a god,” an early secular witness to the belief in Christ’s divinity (John 20:28; Phil. 2:6). Also it is interesting to compare this passage with Acts 20:7-11, a biblical account of an early Christian Sunday celebration.

Next the Roman historian, Tacitus, who is respected by modern scholars for historical accuracy, wrote in 115 A.D. about Christ and His Church:

The author of the denomination was Christ[us] who had been executed in Tiberius time by the Procurator Pontius Pilate. The pestilent superstition, checked for a while, burst out again, not only throughout Judea…but throughout the city of Rome also… [Tacitus, Annals, XV 44]

Even with disdain for the Christian faith, Tacitus still treated the execution of Christ as historical fact, drawing connections to Roman events and leaders. (cf. Luke 3:1ff)

Other secular witnesses to the historical Jesus include Suetonius in his biography of Claudius, Phlegan recording the eclipse of the sun during Jesus’ death and even Celsus, a pagan philosopher. It must be kept in mind that most of these sources were not only secular but anti-Christian. These secular authors, including the Jewish writers, had no desire or intention to promote Christianity. They had no motivation to distort their reports in favor of Christianity. Pliny actually punished Christians for their faith. If Jesus were a myth or His execution a hoax, Tacitus would have reported it as such. He certainly would not have connected Jesus’ execution to Roman leaders. These writers presented Jesus as a real historical person. Denying the reliability of these sources in connection to Jesus would cast serious suspicion on the rest of ancient history.

Now these ancient secular writings do not prove that Jesus is the Son of God or even the Christ, but that is not the goal of this tract. These reports show that a virtuous person named Jesus did live in the early first century A.D. and authored a religious movement (which still exists today). This Person was at least called Christ – the Messiah. Christians in the first century also appeared to consider Him God. Finally these writings support other facts found in the Bible surrounding His life. The claim that Jesus never existed and His life is a myth compromises the reliability of ancient history.”

Love,
Matthew

I have a PASSION for the virtue of HOPE!!!!: Grace & Hope

Hope

It burns.

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-by Br Hyacinth Grubb, OP

“What do you do when those you trust let you down, when you’re confronted with human failure and frailty and faults?

Often when we think of hope, our thoughts rise to the great mysteries of the faith, as they rightly should. We hope in Christ, in His resurrection, and even in our own. But sometimes our thoughts skim too lightly through these mysteries and reduce them to abstractions which are beautiful but remote from life. We can know in some vague way that grace is active, making “all things work for the good of those who love God,” and at the same moment fail to see grace when it works in front of our eyes.

Yet grace is not an abstraction: it is a living, breathing reality that is present in the messiness of real life. Do you see it?  (I DO!!! I DO!!! CONSTANTLY!!!!) 🙂

Do you see it at work in your brother or sister, friend or coworker? (YES!!!YAAASSSS!!! PRAISE HIM CHURCH!!!  PRAISE HIM!!!) Because God is there in those moments when life hits us hardest, when people act unimaginably terribly. God is there in those thousands of moments when life grinds us down, when people live selfishly and carelessly in monstrous little ways. God is there, and He is working to transform their hearts, and ours, in ways that we can’t always know and on a schedule slower than we desire. Do you hope in Him, and in them?  (YAAAASSS!!  YAAASSS!!!)

It’s easy to give up on another person, to say, “he is who he is, and he won’t change,” to avoid him or to grit our teeth and muscle through—but this is much more than giving up on his own ability to live well. (I HAVE SEEN!!!!  I HAVE WITNESSED RESURRECTION IN THIS LIFE!!! I have.) This is giving up on God’s work in our fallible neighbors, it is despair in their potential for goodness and in God’s power to redeem. It says to Christ, hanging on the cross, “This neighbor of mine, this brother or friend, he is not worth saving, and Your sacrifice has not the power to do so.” We might never say it aloud, but each one of us has said it in our hearts. And so it is no little matter to assert that hoping in God is not merely trusting in His action in our lives, but also in His work in others.  (The ultimate thing Satan desires is our despair.  1 Peter 5:8.  Amen.  Praise Jesus!!  Praise Him, Church!!!  Amen!!!)

This hope is not abstract but real, and because it is real, it isn’t always easy; it requires patience and fortitude. This hope is given to us by God; prayer helps us to receive it; and an intentional and active love for our neighbor keeps it alive. Sometimes it may demand, only out of love for another, a little instruction or admonishment on our part. Most of all it requires—and enables—a transformation of perspective, as we learn to see ignorant and selfish and sinful men as not only ignorant and selfish and sinful, but at the same time as subjects of the divine action that redeems them and that makes them deserving of our love and hope.”  (AMEN, BROTHER!!!  PUHREACH!!! SING IT, BROTHER!!!  SING OUT LOUD!!!!  AMEN!!!)  🙂

His love, hope, grace, and victory,
Matthew

Sexual orientation & gender identity: what does the science say?

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“Washington D.C., Aug 27, 2016 / 07:09 am (CNA/EWTN News).- For most young people who experience feelings of gender dysphoria, the experience is in fact temporary, and a non-heterosexual orientation is not as fixed as sometimes claimed, a new overview of the relevant research says.

“Only a minority of children who experience cross-gender identification will continue to do so into adolescence or adulthood,” said the report, published in The New Atlantis Journal.

As many as 80 percent of men who reported same-sex attraction as adolescents no longer do so as adults. There were “similar but less striking” results for women. The idea of innate sexual orientation is “not supported by scientific evidence,” the report said.

Titled “Sexuality and Gender: Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences,” the report reviews various research studies to examine claims about sexuality and gender.

It was authored by Dr. Lawrence S. Mayer, Ph.D., a biostatistician and epidemiologist now a scholar in residence at Johns Hopkins University; and by Dr. Paul R. McHugh, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University.
The report considers various claims like the basis and permanence of gender identity and sexual orientation.

It found there is a lack of scientific evidence for claims that gender identity is an innate property “independent of biological sex.” Scientific evidence also does not support claims that a person might be “a man trapped in a woman’s body.”

Gender identity problems can arise for someone with Intersex conditions, where a person has ambiguous biological sex due to genetic abnormalities.

However, brain structure comparison of transgender and non-transgender individuals show only “weak correlations” between brain structure and cross-gender identification. These correlations are not evidence that this identity has a basis in the biology of the brain.

Similarly, sexual orientation’s neurological basis can be overstated. Against the “born that way” claim, the report authors write: “While there is evidence that biological factors such as genes and hormones are associated with sexual behaviors and attractions, there are no compelling causal biological explanations for human sexual orientation.”

The report also considered sexuality, mental health, and social factors.

Non-heterosexuals are two to three times as likely to have experienced childhood sexual abuse.

The authors weighed the evidence that non-heterosexual attractions, desires and behaviors may increase the risk of suffering sex abuse, or that sexual abuse may cause non-heterosexual attractions, desires and behaviors. They said that more research is needed before claiming a link between sex abuse and non-heterosexual attractions.

Non-heterosexuals do face elevated risk of adverse health and mental health outcomes. They are estimated to have a 1.5 times higher risk of anxiety and substance abuse than the heterosexual population. They face double the risk of depression and 2.5 times higher risk of suicide.

The transgender population, recently estimated to make up 0.6 percent of the total population, suffers a lifetime suicide attempt rate of 41 percent, compared to 5 percent of the overall population.
There is “limited, inconsistent and incomplete” evidence that social stressors like discrimination and stigma “contribute to the elevated risk of poor mental health outcomes for non-heterosexual and transgender populations.”

The report said clinicians and policymakers should not assume that models focused on social stressors offer a complete explanation for these health differences.

“Just as it does a disservice to non-heterosexual subpopulations to ignore or downplay the statistically higher risks of negative mental health outcomes they face, so it does them a disservice to misattribute the causes of these elevated risks, or to ignore other potential factors that may be at work.”

Adults who undergo sex reassignment surgeries continue to show a high risk in mental health, being about 5 times more likely to attempt suicide and 19 times more likely to die by suicide compared to a control group.

Regarding therapies for children that delay puberty or modify sex characteristics of adolescents, there is “little scientific evidence” for their therapeutic value, the report said.

At the same time, “some children may have improved psychological well-being if they are encouraged and supported in their cross-gender identification.”

“There is no evidence that all children who express gender-atypical thoughts or behavior should be encouraged to become transgender,” the report added.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Greek philosophy & Truth

Raphael_School_of_Athens
-Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’, 1504, please click on the image for greater detail.

The Catholic Church makes some rather strong claims, now and consistently throughout her two thousand year history.  These claims, while understood by serious Catholics, are in modernity, couched in such language as to deliver “truth-in-love” without necessarily exasperating or panicking the listener out of either fear, defensiveness, or anger.  These are not the hallmarks of intentional dialogue, either by secular mores or Christian.

Well and good, I say.  There is no rational, proper, or polite reason to put emotive obstacles in the way of potential candidates, listeners, aspiring admirers, or intellectual curiosity seekers of the Church.

However, for the sake of brevity and clarity, let us be clear here.  The Catholic Church’s primary claim, in a nutshell, is “We are made for happiness!”  Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?  Nah.  That almost everyone, except the mentally or emotionally ill/disturbed, sadists, or other misanthropes may take issue with.  Catholic thinkers, though, would argue even the negative Nells above are still seeking happiness.  It is irrational not to seek happiness.  The Church would add, though, for those who seek it through disordered means it is impossible to find; truly, completely, without equivocation.  Those merely in denial need not apply.  They will only add to their sorrows.  Truth is a bitch, because it is the hardest thing to hold and maintain.  It costs, but its rewards are sweet and infinite, transcending this mortal existence.

Another word the Church uses is beatitude, or utmost bliss.  We are made for this bliss, always have been, the Church would say, whether in Eden or Heaven.  The Greeks struggled to understand their/the world.  They understood intellectual or theoretical perfection such as a circle, or a triangle, or the aesthetic perfection of mathematics.  They also understood the imperfection of reality.  What made a tree a tree?  How did things unknown/unknowable grow into things recognizable and known?  How can this be?  It is from the earliest Greek thinkers the idea and word “soul” comes.

Early thinkers among the Greeks were known as Sophists.  Contrary to their name, they believed nothing was knowable, there was no objective truth or morality, and, basically, anything goes.  This type of thinking, ideas have consequences, led the Athenians into pointless wars, un-winable wars with its adversary Sparta.  When the Athenians had been defeated as an independent city-state for the last time, along came Socrates, who had been a soldier, but now began asking questions of “experts” whom, he assumed, should know the “why” of their expertise.  They did not.

David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates
-‘Death of Socrates’, Jacques-Louis David, 1787, oil on canvas, 129.5 cm × 196.2 cm (51.0 in × 77.2 in), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, please click on the image for greater detail.

For Socrates, “knowledge is virtue, and ignorance vice”.  What is a good life?  What is good?  What is evil?  How should we live?  He became so annoying to the elites of Athens with his questioning, making them them plainly appear the fools they were, Athens held a trial and condemned Socrates to banishment or death.  Few stories save the Passion of our Lord itself, strive in the Western mind to be more compunctive than the trial and death of Socrates.

Plato was the student of Socrates, and attempted to continue his work by opening a school.  The motto “Know Thyself” was placed over the door of Plato’s Academy and marked an important change of emphasis in Greek and other philosophy, one from studying external mysteries of the universe, to the equally, or moreso, daunting interior exploration.

For Plato, attempting to explain the nature of theoretical perfection of the mind versus the reality of the world surrounding us, those two realities bifurcated into a theoretical realm of perfection “Ideas”(Heaven?), as Plato called them, and the physical world, which Plato held askance as almost not real because of its constant change and nature of being in flux from the perfect.  As  advanced as Plato’s reasoning was, he could not reconcile the concepts of permanence and change in a single world.

Along comes Aristotle, a student of Plato, teacher of Alexander the Great, and inspiration for St Thomas Aquinas.  Aristotle rejected Plato’s two worlds concept.  Rather, Aristotle explained the physical world in terms of form (or theoretical/intellectual perfection) and matter, which changes.  He also explained the concept of the material world’s ability to change as act (fully realized reality) and potency/potential, the ability of something in its current state to become something else.  Act & potency made me think of kinetic and potential energy, but I digress.

Socrates had made knowledge the equivalent of virtue. Aristotle, however, emphasizes the fact that to know is not the same as to do. In the realm of acting the fact of free will makes it possible for us to choose in contradiction to what we know is right. He stressed, therefore, the importance of developing the virtues in man for the strengthening of the will and for the control of the animal appetites.”1

Through reason ALONE we can come to proofs by reason that God does indeed exist, even Aristotle acknowledged this.  It is beyond the scope of this post to explore them, but they exist.  You can google them.  🙂

Love & reason,
Matthew

  1.  Sullivan, Daniel J. (2015-09-23). An Introduction to Philosophy: Perennial Principles of the Classical Realist Tradition (Kindle Locations 696-698). Ravenio Books. Kindle Edition.

Death

empty_tomb11
Make us know the shortness of our life in order that we may gain wisdom of heart. –Ps 90:12

graziano
-by Br Joseph Graziano, OP

“To behold death is profound for the living.

We live comfortably forgetful of our mortality, busying ourselves with the delights and sorrows of the world, blissfully ignoring the fact of death.

But death will not be forgotten. Unannounced, death rudely rears its head in our lives: a family member dies, or we witness a car accident, or we are simply deluged by the constant stream of ghastly shootings in our country. We want to block these out, to condemn violence, medicate sickness, and numb ourselves to reality. After all, “human kind cannot bear very much reality” (Eliot, Little Gidding). Yet being forced to witness others’ death makes us realize that we too are only here a while. Eventually, we come face to face with our own mortality.

We were not made for death, for “God did not make death, nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living. For He fashioned all things that they might have being” (Wis 1:13-14). Jesus makes clear that God wills life, not death, saying “I came that you might have life, and have it to the fullest” (Jn 10:10). If God wills our life, why do we have to die? Why must we say goodbye to friends and family, torn from the times we spend with them: the sunset’s glow, a fire-lit room, a jovial feast.

Though we may “know” that death is not the end, it is the only end that we can see. Whatever lies after it is hidden behind the veil.
If the death that we witness is the death of a loved one, the effect is even more profound. Not only do we have to face the jarring truth of our mortality, but we must also deal with the terrible emptiness of the hole which our dear one has left behind. If the process of dying is long, there is added anguish of being incapable of being truly with our loved one in their final throes; death is a solitary affair, no matter how many are standing around the bed.

Having worked this Summer with families at hospice care, I have had the singular experience of being with them as they see this empty hole gape open before them, as their loved ones slip past the veil. What can I say? How can I help them? Though it is surely true that their loved one must trust in the mercy of God, I cannot assure them salvation (Ed. as Catholics, we do not know, no one can say, the Church does not guarantee, it is His decision, alone.  Praise Him.  We trust in His promises.  However, we do believe the saints are in Heaven, hence the request for miracles for beatification as proof), and even if I could, how can my little words even begin to blunt the pain of so great a wound, the loss of an irreplaceable image of God in their lives?

All we can offer is a reminder that we have hope. It does not seem like much, but true theological hope is strong indeed. In Josef Pieper’s words, “hope is the confidently patient expectation of eternal beatitude in a contemplative and comprehensive sharing of the triune life of God; hope expects from God’s hand the eternal life that is God Himself. (On Hope, 30)

Neither presuming that this eternal life is ours, nor despairing any chance of receiving it one day, we can cling to an assurance that Jesus Christ trampled death: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor 15:55). We know that “the outcome of this death [now is] life in God in place of our life of sin and misery” (Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity, Letter, “The Greatness of our Vocation”).

Christ has made death the path to life: not just life, but Life in perfect union with Him in the inner Life of the Divine Trinity for those who believe. And no matter the pain death causes us, we can place all our hope in Him.”

Love & much joyful, healthful Life,
Matthew

A Universal Church has universal opinions….shocker!!!!

A 3d graphic of the words in the question What Do You Think? This could be used to encourage people to participate in a survey or poll and ask their opinion or

Some people are surprised, or scandalized, or relieved, or whatever, to learn Catholics have differing opinions from each other, ALL THE TIME!!!  Some of this results from inadequate, eighth grade level catechesis, at best, and even then of questionable quality, but exactly how many sublime and nuanced truths as contained in philosophy and theology can you really communicate to college students, let alone eighth graders?

My humble opinion is, with the elevated level of education on the part of the laity, the Church has relied too long on its old, old model of the ignorant and illiterate peasant farmer or such, Catholic, Catholic ghetto, immigrant getting off boat, train, etc., and making a bee-line for the rectory where the good Father, the only literate Catholic within miles, will secure housing, food, employment, etc. for said peasant.  See where priests get there historical power, besides the obvious?  Not a healthy, mature, relevant, sustaining, Christian, 21st century, empowered (and, I hate that word, as used in “corporate”) model, but, still.  We’re still using that ancient model.  The world HAS changed, and so have most Catholics; maybe not clergy, sharing power is a BITCH, like surrendering one’s divinity to become mortal, or even going to the Cross, out of love, but they are dependent on their bishop for everything, ok.  And, a bishop is dependent on Rome to even be called Catholic.

Granted, not every Catholic wishes to enter into post-graduate theological catechesis, or the relevant discussion therein implied.  However, this is where REAL answers begin to emerge.  Sorry, not sorry.

Some may be scandalized to realize Catholics are not a monolithic thought block.  We’re not.  Once formally declared as teaching of the Church, however, things become more linear, they do, or they should. This is pretty much where Luther, and other Reformation leaders, fell off the boat. Obedience is a virtue. No matter how right I think I am, I will NOT disobey Holy Mother Church. She is my mother, after all. Lord, have mercy on my soul. Please!!!!

However, anyhoo, even with THAT, Catholics would have raging differences of opinions on EVERYTHING.  It’s very Catholic.  As I have mentioned MANY times and places, asking questions, and I know I have a problem with asking questions and with the truth, I like them both TOO MUCH!  But, asking questions is VERY Catholic!!  Deo gratias!!

Trigger warning!!!  🙂  Let’s have an example!!!!  Yeah!!!

Q.  Do homosexual unions have moral value?  (No ez ones in my class!!  They’re boring, anyway. 🙂 )

matthewcullinanhoffman_avatar_1435256636
-by Matthew Cullinan Hoffman

Kardinal_Reinhard_Marx
-Cardinal Marx

“According to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, homosexual relationships have “worth,” a worth that must be recognized by the Catholic Church.

“We have to respect the decisions of people,” Marx told the media last week in Dublin after delivering a speech at Trinity College, according to a recent report in the Irish Times.

“We have to respect the decisions of people. We have to respect also, as I said in the first synod on the family, some were shocked but I think it’s normal, you cannot say that a relationship between a man and a man and they are faithful [that] that is nothing, that has no worth,” he said.

Consequently, according to Marx, the Church owes homosexuals an apology for its historical treatment of homosexuals. “As Church and society, we have to say ‘Sorry, Sorry,’” Marx said. He added that the Church should support “regulating” homosexual partnerships. “We as church cannot be against it.”

Marx’s statements seem to fly in the face of repeated affirmations by some of the Catholic Church’s most authoritative documents, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which calls homosexual sexual acts “acts of grave depravity” which are “intrinsically disordered,” and “can never be approved.” They also contradict the Vatican’s 2003 instruction on homosexual unions, which forbids support for legal recognition for homosexual unions of any kind.

St. Peter Damian, a cardinal who wrote the most extensive treatment of the issue of homosexual unions in the Church’s history, also had a very different understanding of the value of homosexual relations from that of Cardinal Marx.

According to Damian’s work on the subject, the Book of Gomorrah, written in the 11th century in response to a plague of homosexual vice among priests and clergy, homosexual unions are in no way beneficial to their participants; to the contrary, they are utterly destructive to them, spiritually, psychologically and even physically, throwing them into an emotional and spiritual confusion that makes them subject to demonic manipulation.

Damian writes that “this vice, which surpasses the savagery of all other vices, is to be compared to no other. For this vice is the death of bodies, the destruction of souls, pollutes the flesh, extinguishes the light of the intellect, expels the Holy Spirit from the temple of the human heart, introduces the diabolical inciter of lust, throws into confusion, and removes the truth completely from the deceived mind.”

Damian recognizes that the logic of homosexual vice leads to ever-more degrading and self-destructive acts, a reality confirmed by those who have come out of the gay lifestyle. The homosexual relationship “violates sobriety, kills modesty, slays chastity,” writes Damian. “It butchers virginity with the sword of a most filthy contagion. It befouls everything, it stains everything, it pollutes everything, and for itself it permits nothing pure, nothing foreign to filth, nothing clean.”

The homosexual relationship removes “the armaments of the virtues, and to strike them down, exposes them to the darts of every vice,” Damian writes, adding that it “removes the foundation of faith, enervates the strength of hope, breaks the tie of charity, destroys justice, undermines fortitude, banishes temperance, and blunts the sharpness of prudence. And what more shall I say? Since indeed it expels every cornerstone of the virtues from the court of the human heart, it also, as if the bolts of the doors have been removed, introduces every barbarity of the vices.”

Damian notes that individuals who involve themselves in homosexual relationships suffer from anxiety and other psychological disturbances, a fact that has been repeatedly confirmed by numerous peer-reviewed medical studies in recent decades.

Of those who participate in such relationships, Damian writes: “His flesh burns with the fury of lust, his frigid mind trembles with the rancor of suspicion, and chaos now rages hellishly in the heart of the unhappy man while he is vexed by as many worries as he is tortured, as it were, by the torments of punishment. Indeed, once this most poisonous snake has sunk its teeth into an unhappy soul, sense is immediately taken away, memory is removed, the sharpness of mind is obscured; it becomes forgetful of God, it forgets even itself.”

In some ways Damian seems to foresee the behavior of the modern homosexual movement. Using a metaphor that seems particularly appropriate, Damian refers to the homosexual lifestyle as “the queen of the sodomites,” who enslaves and degrades her victims, taking away their peace and instilling in them a frenetic obsession with pleasure. He also notes that those who involve themselves in such behavior feel compelled to draw others into the same wretchedness, by becoming homosexual “militants.”

“This most pestilent queen of the sodomites renders him who is submissive to the laws of her tyranny indecent to men and hateful to God,” Damian writes.

“In order to sow impious wars against God, she requires a militancy of the most wretched spirit,” he continues. “She separates the unhappy soul from the fellowship of the angels, removing it from its nobility to place it under the yoke of her own domination. She strips her soldiers of the armaments of the virtues, and to strike them down, exposes them to the darts of every vice. . . . She gnaws the conscience like worms, burns the flesh like a fire, and pants with desire for pleasure. But in contrast she fears to be exposed, to come out in public, to be known by others.”

In contrast to Cardinal Marx and other Catholic prelates who have recently advocated affirming homosexual relationships or tolerating them, Peter Damian writes that we must avoid the “cruel mercy” of staying silent in the face of evil, and even warns that we become the “murderer of another’s soul” if we do not speak against the immorality of their behavior.

“Who am I to watch such a noxious crime spreading among those in holy orders and keeping silent, to dare to await the accounting of divine punishment as the murderer of another’s soul, and to begin to be made a debtor of that guilt of which I had been by no means the author?” writes Damian, adding later, “For how am I loving my neighbor as myself, if I negligently allow the wound, by which I do not doubt him to be dying a cruel death, to fester in his soul? Seeing therefore the spiritual wounds, should I neglect to cure them by the surgery of words?”

St. Peter Damian’s words were well-received by Pope St. Leo IX, who said “everything that this little book contains has been pleasing to our judgment, being as opposed to diabolical fire as is water.” Today, however, Damian’s warnings are increasingly ignored by European and American prelates in favor of an indifferent and even benign understanding of the sin of sodomy.”

Love,
Matthew

Who needs Jesus? Really. Really? Really!!

Savior_jesus

I DO. As someone who suffers from MDD – Major Depressive Disorder, diagnosed in 1994, having had three major episodes, only medication and therapy having prevented more, and told I should expect at least six in my life, and takes daily meds and weekly therapy, I can relate. The experience is of excruciating emotional pain, laying on the couch not wanting to breathe, feeling the ground fall away from underneath your feet, moaning and writhing in a recliner at your in-laws. You just want the pain to stop. You don’t care how. You lose all perspective on how any decision you make will affect others. You just want the pain to stop. You don’t care how.

“The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in Him, and He helps me. (He does.) My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise Him.” -Ps 28:7

Don’t take symptoms lightly. Get help. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found that suicide rates in the U.S. spiked between 1994 and 2014. While women are less likely to kill themselves than men, their rate of suicide jumped by 80 percent over this period. But not all women are at risk.

A study released this week by JAMA Psychiatry, an American Medical Association journal, reported that “Frequent religious service attendance was associated with substantially lower suicide risk among U.S. women compared with women who never attended religious services.” To be exact, the researchers studied approximately 90,000 nurses, mostly women, and found that Catholic and Protestant women had a suicide rate that was half that for women as a whole.

Of the nearly 7,000 Catholic women who went to Mass more than once a week, NONE committed suicide. Overall, practicing Protestant women were seven times more likely to commit suicide than their Catholic counterparts, suggesting there really is a Catholic advantage. Indeed, the 2015 book, The Catholic Advantage, substantiates this finding.

Today, those without a religious affiliation have the highest suicide rates, illustrated most dramatically in San Francisco: someone jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge to his death every two weeks. It is not the faithful who are waiting in line to jump—it’s the non-believing free spirits.

On a related note, Gallup released a survey yesterday (6/29/16) that shows approximately 9 in 10 Americans believe in God. But as we learned from the JAMA Psychiatry study, only those who regularly attend religious services are less likely to commit suicide.

In other words, mere belief, and amorphous expressions of spirituality, aren’t enough to ward off the demons that trigger suicide. And no group is more at risk than atheists.”

Freakonomics – Suicide

Internet Broadcast

-by Stephen J. Dubner

“Suicide rates in the U.S., they’re the highest they’ve been in 30 years.

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “The Suicide Paradox (Rebroadcast).” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

There are more than twice as many suicides as murders in the U.S., but suicide attracts far less scrutiny. Freakonomics Radio digs through the numbers and finds all kinds of surprises.

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.
* * *
Today we are playing an episode from our archives — an important episode, called “The Suicide Paradox.” We first put this out in 2011. Now, five years later, suicide rates in the U.S. have risen to their highest in 30 years, with suicide a particularly pressing problem in the military. We’ll be back next week with a new episode.
* * *
DAN EVERETT: There won’t be a word for college or professor, but I can say, “Tíi kasaagá Paóxaisi. Ti kapiiga kagakaibaaí.” And that just means, “my name is Paoxaisi, and I make a lot of marks on paper.”

Dan Everett is a college professor — a linguist. Off and on for the past 30 years, he’s lived with a tribe in the Amazon called the Piraha.

EVERETT: I originally went to the Piraha as a missionary to translate the Bible into their language, but over the course of many years, they wound up converting me, and I became a scientist instead and studied their culture and its effects on their language.
The Piraha live in huts, sleep on the ground, hunt with bows and arrows. But what really caught Everett’s attention is that they are relentlessly happy. Really happy.

EVERETT: This happiness and this contentment really had a lot to do with me abandoning my religious goals, and my religion altogether, because they seemed to have it a lot more together than most religious people I knew.

But this isn’t just another story about some faraway tribe that’s really happy even though they don’t have all the stuff that we have. It’s a story about something that happened during Everett’s early days with the tribe. He and his wife and their three young kids had just finished dinner. Everett gathered about 30 Piraha in his hut to preach to them:

EVERETT: I was still a very fervent Christian missionary, and I wanted to tell them how God had changed my life. So, I told them a story about my stepmother and how she had committed suicide because she was so depressed and so lost. (For the word “depressed” I used the word “sad”.) So she was very sad. She was crying. She felt lost. And she shot herself in the head, and she died. And this had a large spiritual impact on me, and I later became a missionary and came to the Piraha because of all of this experience triggered by her suicide. And I told this story as tenderly as I could and tried to communicate that it had a huge impact on me. And when I was finished everyone burst out laughing.
* * *
EVERETT: When I asked them, “why are you laughing?,” they said: “She killed herself. That’s really funny to us. We don’t kill ourselves. You mean, you people, you white people shoot yourselves in the head? We kill animals, we don’t kill ourselves.” They just found it absolutely inexplicable, and without precedent in their own experience that someone would kill themselves.
In the 30 years that Everett has been studying the Piraha, there have been zero suicides. Now, it’s not that suicide doesn’t happen in the Amazon – for other tribes, it’s a problem.

EVERETT: And as I’ve told this story, some people have suggested that, well it’s because they don’t have the stresses of modern life. But that’s just not true. There is almost 100 percent endemic malaria among the people. They’re sick a lot. Their children die at about 75 percent. Seventy-five percent of the children die before they reach the age of five or six. These are astounding pressures.

MUSIC: Matthew Reid, “Quietus” (from Courtyards and Fairgrounds)

A group of people that laughs at suicide? Doesn’t sound much like the U.S., does it? Suicide’s not a laughing matter here; and it’s not so rare, either. Now, compared to the rest of the world, our suicide rate puts us right about in the middle. But here’s what’s interesting. The U.S. is famous for a relatively high murder rate – it’s double, triple, even five times higher than most other developed countries. So if I said to you: what’s more common in the U.S., homicide or suicide, what would you say?

Listen to Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author, an economist at the University of Chicago. He’s been studying crime for years.
STEVE LEVITT: Homicides, per one hundred thousand, have fallen from something like ten to something like five over the 15 years I’ve studied crime. So essentially, homicide has fallen in half.

STEPHEN J. DUBNER: Wow, so let’s say it’s roughly five per hundred thousand people now, do you have any idea what the suicide rate is?
LEVITT: That’s about twice as high. It’s surprising because it doesn’t usually make the newspaper when someone commits suicide, but it always makes the newspaper when someone commits a homicide, but twice as many suicides as homicides.

It is surprising, isn’t it? The preliminary numbers for 2009, the most recent year for which we have data, show there were roughly 36,500 suicides in the U.S. and roughly 16,500 homicides. That’s well over twice as many suicides. So why don’t we hear more about it? Partly because, as Levitt says, most suicides don’t make the news, whereas murders do. But also: they’re different types of tragedy. Murder represents a fractured promise within our social contract, and it’s got an obvious villain. Suicide represents – well, what does it represent? It’s hard to say. It carries such a strong taboo that most of us just don’t discuss it much. The result is that there are far more questions about suicide than answers. Like: do we do enough to prevent it? How do you prevent it? And the biggest question of all: why do people commit suicide? Steve Levitt has one more question:

LEVITT: I always think to myself: why don’t more people commit suicide? If you think about the poorest people in the world surviving on less than a dollar a day, having to walk three miles to get water and carry 70-pound packs of water back just to survive, and those people do everything they can to stay alive. Whereas I think if I were in that situation, wouldn’t I just kill myself?
DUBNER: And what does that say to you about human nature that people in situations way, way, way, way, way worse off than you don’t kill themselves in large number?

LEVITT: My guess is that evolution has built in to us an unbelievable desire to stay alive, which when looked at from a modern perspective doesn’t actually make that much sense.

So how should we make sense of suicide? If you, personally, have been affected by suicide, if you’ve lost a friend or family member, it may be hard to even think about “making sense” of it. But, at the risk of shining a light into a darkness that’s usually left undisturbed, let’s give it a try. The first thing we need is a Virgil of some sort to guide us —someone who’s been thinking about suicide, and death, for a long, long time.
DAVID LESTER: I was born in 1942. I lived in London for 22 years of my life. And for the first three years of my life, my mother told me we slept in an air raid shelter every night.

David Lester is a professor of psychology at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, about 20 minutes from Atlantic City.

LESTER: The classic bomb that came over was called a buzz bomb because it was buzzing and that meant that the engine was going. Once it stopped buzzing it meant it would drop and maybe hit your house. My mother says that even as a toddler, I was very concerned about them. And actually she said that I would hear them before the air raid warnings went off, and I would warn everybody about a buzz bomb, and I would rush into the air raid shelter. Then 10 years ago, I remembered this picture of this little toddler who’s very worried about buzz bombs and hiding from them probably without a material concept of death, but obviously perhaps, laying the seeds of some interest that manifested itself later in life. I’ve become a thanatologist in general, and a suicidologist in particular.

Lester is president-elect of the American Association of Suicidology, and the eminence grise of suicide studies. He’s also alarmingly prolific — he’s written more than 2,500 papers, notes, and books, about half of which are on suicide. So people expect him to know things that he says are not yet known.

MUSIC: Abstract Aprils, “Parallels” (from Translucence)

LESTER: First of all, I’m expected to know the answers to questions such as why people kill themselves. And myself and my friends, we often, when we’re relaxing admit that we really don’t have a good idea of why people kill themselves.
So what do we know about suicide? As you drill down into the numbers, one thing that strikes you are the massive disparities — the difference in suicide rates by gender, by race and age, by location, by method and many other variables. In the U.S., for instance, men are about four times as likely to kill themselves as women.

LESTER: Yes, about three to four, yes.

About 56 percent of men use a gun, compared to just 30 percent of women.

LESTER: Yes, men tend to use what we would call more active methods.
That helps explain the gender gap, since suicide by gun is usually successful. The primary method for women is technically called “poisoning” – usually some kind of overdose.

LESTER: The easy access to medications these days makes medications an important method.
For men and women, being unmarried, widowed or divorced increases the risk. The most typical American suicide is a man 75 or older. But in that age bracket, where a lot of people are dying from a lot of things, suicide isn’t even a top 10 cause of death. For people from ages 25 to 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death. And it’s in the top five for all Americans from ages 15 to 54. In terms of timing, suicide peaks on Mondays:

LESTER: There is a blue Monday effect.
But not, as many people suspect, around Christmas and New Year’s.

LESTER: People do not kill themselves more on national holidays.
There is a seasonal spike, but it’s not in the long, dark days of winter.

LESTER: In fact, suicide rates peak in the spring in most countries. It’s as if you expect things are going to be better, and when they turn out not to be better, you’re more likely to be depressed in a suicidal way.

David Lester is willing to entertain any theory, to examine any pattern. Interestingly, he’s found that suicide and homicide are often perfectly out of synch with each other. Homicide spikes not on Mondays but on the weekends and on national holidays and during the summer and winter. Homicide is also much more common in cities than in rural areas; for suicide, it’s the opposite.

MATT WRAY: The American suicide belt is comprised of about 10 western states, this sort of wide longitudinal swath running from Idaho and Montana down to Arizona and New Mexico.
That’s Matt Wray, a sociologist at Temple.

WRAY: To sum up what I do in a word would be to say that I study losers. And I am interested in those who lose out on societal gains and opportunities. It’s another way of saying I’m interested in inequalities and stratification.
Wray found what he has taken to calling the “Suicide Belt.”

WRAY: So, yes, the inner mountain west is a place that is disproportionately populated by middle-aged and aging white men, single, unattached, often unemployed with access to guns. This may turn out to be a very powerful explanation and explain a lot of the variance that we observe. It’s backed up by the fact that the one state that has rates that is on par with what we see in the suicide belt is Alaska.
Alright, so now you can get a picture of the American who’s most likely to kill himself: an older, white male who owns a gun, probably unmarried and maybe unemployed, living somewhere out west, probably in a rural area. Now, don’t you want to know: where aren’t people killing themselves?

VERALYN WILLIAMS: OK, so I’m standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital. It’s got the lowest suicide rate of any American city: just six per 100,000 people. We sent Veralyn Williams there to ask strangers a couple of strange questions.

WILLIAMS: Do you know anyone that committed suicide?

TYRONE: Personally no.

AMINA: No.

WILLIAMS: Do you know anyone that’s died of homicide?

AMINA: Yes.

SAMIAR: Yes, I do.

BARNES: I got a son that’s been murdered. I’ve got cousins that’s been murdered. I’ve probably been to 100 wakes in the past year. But I can’t tell you one person that I know that’s committed suicide.
Now, as we told you earlier, there are more than twice as many suicides each year in the U.S. as there are homicides. There are just three places where the homicide rate is higher than the suicide rate: Louisiana, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. It’s not a coincidence that these are also places with large African-American populations. African-Americans are only about half as likely to kill themselves as whites. When it comes to murder, meanwhile, African-Americans are nearly six times more likely than whites to die.

DONNA BARNES: In our community, it’s different. We have low rates of suicide and high rates of homicide.

WILLIAMS: Why do you think that is?

BARNES: I think a lot of those homicides are probably suicides.
Donna Barnes works at the suicide prevention center at Howard University.

BARNES: It’s very easy when you are stressed and you don’t want to live anymore and put yourself in harm’s way and somebody will take you out. And many times, we will externalize our frustration, meaning that we’re going to take it out on other people. And then you might have more folks, maybe from the dominant culture, who internalize their frustration and take it out on themselves. We have been socialized to believe that a lot of our disadvantages are based on our surroundings — racism, discrimination and all of that. So it’s really easy, for us, when we become frustrated and we look at what’s going on around us, to take it out on the environment and other people rather than ourselves.
I asked David Lester if he had an explanation for the black-white suicide gap.

LESTER: If you’re white and in psychological pain, what can you blame it on? Other people are doing well, why aren’t you doing well? Other people are happy why aren’t you happy? So maybe that, in part, accounts for the higher suicide rate in whites as compared to African-Americans is because whites have fewer external causes to blame their misery for.

MUSIC: Morrison 78s, “Goodbye Little Girl Goodbye”

I find this idea fascinating. As Lester is quick to point out, it is little more than an idea – it’s pretty much impossible to prove. The fact is, we usually don’t know much about what’s going through a person’s mind as they consider suicide. But when your life is miserable, when it seems beyond redemption or repair, where do you put the blame? You can blame other people. You can blame yourself. What if you could blame … a song?
* * *
As we said earlier, there are about 36,500 suicides a year in the U.S. That’s an average of 100 a day. The vast, vast majority of them, you never hear about. They don’t make the news. That’s not an accident. For decades, sociologists have been studying the media’s impact on suicide rates. And some say they’ve proven that a widely publicized suicide – when described in a certain way – can lead to copycat suicides. A suicide contagion.

SEAN COLE: All right so we’re gonna have to go all the way back to 1774… when this novel came out.

READER: The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. May 4. How happy I am that I am gone! My dear friend, what a thing…

COLE: For those of you who have never read it – I had never read it – “The Sorrows of Young Werther” is written mostly as a series of fictional letters by a young, dilettante artist named Werther. He travels to the countryside, falls in love with a girl who’s already engaged, despairs, and then borrows two pistols from her fiancé.

READER: “They are loaded. The clock strikes twelve. I say Amen! Charlotte! Charlotte! Farewell! Farwell!”

COLE: Sorry to spoil the ending. Now, this book was really popular when it came out. Scholars talk about legions of men in Europe dressing like the character, in blue swallowtail coats and canary yellow pants. And while this next part is probably apocryphal, the story goes that…

DAVID PHILLIPS: Many people who read the book killed themselves by the same method and sometimes they even killed themselves with the book open to the page where he was described as killing himself.

COLE: David Phillips is a sociology professor at U.C. San Diego and the father of imitative suicide research in America. In 1974, exactly 200 years after Werther was published, he released a seminal paper called, “The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect.”

PHILLIPS: My students and I were the first to provide modern large scale evidence that there is, in fact, such a thing as copycat suicide. And we called this, I called it, the Werther Effect.

COLE: Now, Werther is a work of fiction. But the Werther Effect focuses more on true stories about suicide. The theory goes that whenever the media runs with a big sensational suicide story, especially if the victim is famous, you can expect a bump in suicide rates. Phillips and company gathered 20 years of suicide data, 1948 to 1967, from The National Center for Health Statistics. Then they combed through back issues of three major newspapers and honed in on front-page suicide reports: the actress Carole Landis; Dan Burros who ran the KKK in New York; one of the most famous stars in Hollywood history.

NEWS REPORT: One of the most famous stars in Hollywood history is dead at 36. Marilyn Monroe was found dead in bed.

COLE: Of course, this was back before all of the conspiracy theories about how she died. Anyway, in 27 out of 33 cases like this: suicide rates were higher than expected for about two months following the story. So for example, Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962. For the rest of that August, U.S. suicide rates were 10 percent higher than normal.

PHILLIPS: How do we know that there’s a 10 percent increase in August of ’62. We’re comparing the number of suicides in August of ’62 with the number of suicides in August of 1961 and the number of suicides in August of 1963.

COLE: So those other Augusts are the controls.

PHILLIPS: That’s right.

COLE: In some cases, the bump was a lot smaller. But it’s not so much the size, says Phillips, as the consistency. And it wasn’t just suicides that went up after these media reports.

PHILLIPS: You also get a spike in single-car crashes after suicide stories. And you see that the driver in the single car crash is unusually similar to the person described in the suicide story. So if the person described in the suicide story is unusually young, then the spike in single-car crashes just afterwards has drivers who are unusually young.

COLE: So to close that loop — they’re not accidents. They’re people who are committing suicide.

PHILLIPS: Right. So all of these things together make it very difficult to think of an alternative explanation.

COLE: But this is not to say people kill themselves because they read a big, splashy suicide story in the paper.

THOMAS NIEDERKROTENTHALER: It’s not really about the causes of suicide. It’s about the trigger of suicides.

COLE: This is Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, an assistant professor at The Medical University of Vienna in Austria. About 10 years after that original study, the Werther Effect hit Vienna in a big way.

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: There was a tremendous increase of subway suicides and suicide attempts on the Viennese subway in the early 1980’s.

COLE: In 1983 there was just one jumper in the Viennese subway and that person lived. The next year there were seven suicides by subway in Vienna. And the big Austrian newspapers ran graphic stories about them. 1985, 13 jumpers, 10 deaths, more splashy articles. At the peak, in 1987, there were 11 successful suicide attempts in the Viennese subway and 11 unsuccessful. Though granted, three of those were the same guy. Finally, the Austrian Association of Suicide Prevention told the press to tone it down. They issued a whole series of recommendations: don’t include the word “suicide” in the headline. Don’t print pictures of grieving relatives.

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: But you should also mention help-lines. Helping opportunities for people in crisis.

COLE: Amazingly, the Austrian media listened. The stories were less graphic, and they stopped running so many of them.

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: And at the same time the number of suicides and suicide attempts on the Viennese subway decreased by nearly 80 percent. And this is really stunning— the numbers remained relatively low in all the years up until today.

PHILLIPS: Yeah, I thought that was a pretty study.

COLE: This is David Phillips again. He says he’s actually not so comfortable telling the media what to do. He thinks freedom of the press should be inviolate. But both the World Health Organization and the AP Managing Editors Association asked for his advice. So he basically told them, ‘Think of a suicide story as a kind of commercial. If you make the product attractive, people will want it.’ But if you say…
PHILLIPS: “By the way, when a person kills himself, let’s say by shooting, he looks terrible afterwards.” Or, “When a person poisons himself, he often fouls the bed sheets.” And things like this. If you talk about the pain and the disfigurement, then I thought that would make it less likely that people would be copying the suicide.

COLE: And there may even be a trend growing in the other direction. Thomas Niederkrotenthaler and his team in Austria did their own study looking at nearly 500 newspaper articles from the first half of 2005. He says not only did they find more evidence for the Werther Effect, but they saw suicide rates go down when the media wrote about someone who found an alternative solution to his or her problems.

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: So this may be exactly the opposite side of the same thing. And we called this effect: the Papageno Effect.

COLE: Papageno is another fictional character, from Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute.” Like Werther, he’s in suicidal crisis over a girl, his beloved Papagena. But just as he’s about to hang himself, three young boys rush the stage and tell him not to do it. They say…

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: “Papageno use your magic bells and Papagena will come back.” And psychologically speaking, we can say this is what we believe that those newspaper or press articles do. They remind people what they can do other than commit suicide.

WRAY: Now I should say that I’m pretty agnostic about this. My sense is that what this literature misses are all of the times that high profile suicides occur that don’t spark contagion. The one that comes to mind is Kurt Cobain. So everyone was expecting a rash of shotgun-induced, blow-your-head-off suicides in the wake of Cobain’s death. They did not materialize. And so the question is…

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: Why was it so? There was some specifics about Kurt Cobain’s suicide. In particular, Cobain’s spouse…

COLE: Courtney Love. Yeah.

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: Yeah, Courtney Love. She was broadcast in the media immediately after his suicide.

COURTNEY LOVE: I’m really sorry you guys. I don’t know what I could have done.

NIEDERKROTENTHALER: And she told to the audience this was really the wrong thing to do. And there is one study, actually from the U.S., which showed that reports that use negative definitions of suicide — so such as suicide is something that is stupid that you should not do— that those reports are 99 percent less likely to identify a copycat phenomenon than other reports.

COLE: So, listen, suicide is something is stupid, that you should not do. After all, I am the media. And this whole show is basically one big suicide article. And as I said to Matt Wray, I’ve been wondering which type of article it is.

WRAY: Are you guys trying to figure out how to report on this story without, like, sparking suicides?

COLE: Well, it is an odd little meta problem isn’t it. I mean, I’m doing a story about whether what I’m doing a story about could possibly cause a suicide contagion.

WRAY: Yes, I’m well acquainted with that dilemma.
* * *
But what about a song? David Lester, the psychology professor, tells us about the time…

LESTER: In the 1930s, two Hungarians wrote a song called “Gloomy Sunday” that was thought to precipitate a wave of suicides across Europe.
Freakonomics Radio producer Suzie Lechtenberg went to Hungary.

SUZIE LECHTENBERG: Rezso Seress’ piano still sits, rather benignly, in the restaurant in Budapest where he used to play his most famous song. The person in the song is thinking about suicide. He, or she, wants to be reunited with a lover who has just died. Today, it sounds a bit melodramatic, but as many as 200 people might have killed themselves after listening to this song.
ZOLTAN RIHMER: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

LECHTENBERG: Because they heard the song?

RIHMER: Yeah. But it was just the trigger.

LECHTENBERG: It was just the trigger, Hungarian psychiatrist Zoltan Rihmer says. But it had to be stopped. The Budapest police enforced a Gloomy Sunday ban. And the BBC…

LESTER: The BBC banned that song until 2002.

LECHTENBERG: These days, the owner of the restaurant where Seress used to play, still gets requests. He’s not afraid to play it. But he feels certain that this was a suicidal song. It should come as no surprise then…

RIHMER: Rezo Seress completed suicide. He was around 70.

LECHTENBERG: In 1968, Rezo Seress — Gloomy Sunday’s composer — jumped to his death from the window of his small apartment in Budapest. Unfortunately, this Hungarian suicide story isn’t unique to this one man, or this one song. Suicide has been epidemic in this country. For most of the last century, Hungary has had the highest suicide rate in the world. Right now, it’s more than double the suicide rate in the United States. So what is it about this place? Why are so many people killing themselves here?

SZILVIA LADONMERSZKY: Oh, my husband. My husband was very handsome. Great looking. Very intelligent.

LECHTENBERG: Szilvia and Levente Ladomerszky met at a concert. He was a neurologist, she worked in finance. He was cool, she says. They fell in love. Married. Had a daughter. But they didn’t have a fairy tale ending. Levente’s family had a history of mental illness. It was something he was afraid was in his blood.

LADONMERSZKY: Before we married, were sitting at the kitchen table, and he told me that, if it ever happens to him, that he gets ill, and he will need treatment with drugs, then he will refuse the drugs. And he will never take drugs, he prefers dying because drugs, psychiatric drugs, will change personality and he wants to remain himself all the time.

LECHTENBERG: Levente’s mental state deteriorated. He was hospitalized.

LADONMERSZKY: And a few years after, it happened to him exactly what he described.

LECHTENBERG: When he had a few moments alone, when the doctors and nurses left his room, Levente Ladomerszky hanged himself.

LADONMERSZKY: My own suicide I was able to completely ignore, but my husband’s is somehow still with us.

LECHTENBERG: “My own suicide was something I was able to completely ignore.” Szilvia tried to kill herself years before she and Levente met. But she says, she didn’t want to die. It was a cry for help more than anything else.

LADONMERSZKY: I took a bunch of pills, but made sure that it won’t kill me.

LECHTENBERG: Everyone in Hungary knows someone like Szilvia, like Levente. The World Health Organization says in 2008, about 2,400 people committed suicide here. To put that number in context, around the same time in Greece, a country that’s roughly the same size, there were 394 suicides.

RIHMER: Yes, my name is Zoltan Rihmer.

LECHTENBERG: I met Dr. Zoltan Rihmer in his smoke-filled office in Budapest. He’s a professor of psychiatry at Semmelweis University, and he says, there are two main reasons the suicide rate is so high.

RIHMER: The prevalence of bipolar disorder. We have found the lifetime prevalence of bipolar disorder in Hungary is five percent.

LECHTENBERG: The worldwide rate of bipolar disorder is about half that.

RIHMER: The risk of suicide is much higher among patients with bipolar disorder. It can be one factor. But it is just one factor. Alcohol. Alcohol plays a very important role in suicide.

LECHTENBERG: And Hungary has the third highest alcohol consumption rate in the world. This country is about the size of Indiana. From the window of a train, the Hungarian Great Plains look like it too. In the southwest, there’s a small town called Kiskunhalas.

KATALIN SZANTO: It’s a nice little town.

LECHTENBERG: That’s psychiatrist Katalin Szanto.

SZANTO: So, there is a little lace museum there, and there are these women making beautiful laces. On the other hand, if you walk around, you see drunken people outside the pubs. If you visit the local hospital in the psychiatric ward, there the circumstances were very, very poor.

ÁGNES RACZ NAGY SPEAKING IN HUNGARIAN through TRANSLATOR: My name is Dr. Ágnes Rácz Nagy, and I’m the leader of this psychiatric department of the Kiskunhalas hospital.

LECHTENBERG: Until 2005, Kiskunhalas was the epicenter of suicide in Hungary. Suicide in this town was double the national rate. As one cultural critic put it, living here, was like living on psychic death row.

NAGY: I’ve seen a family — it was a big family — and there were more than 10 suicides in the family.

LECHTENBERG: In 2001, Dr. Agnes Rácz Nagy and a colleague began 100 “psychological autopsies,” meaning, they interviewed families, in depth, after a loved one committed suicide.

NAGY: In 67 there was mood disorder, and 60 alcohol. And of course there were overlaps as well. But this number is huge.

LECHTENBERG: This was part of a study that ran for five years in Kiskunhalas. Dr. Katalin Szanto and colleagues trained 28 of the town’s 30 general practitioners in suicide prevention. They set up a suicide hotline, and made low-cost anti-depressants available to residents. Then they compared their results to a neighboring town — a control group. And it worked.

SZANTO: Yeah, there were, like, 34 less suicides during these five years than in the previous five years.

LECHTENBERG: Overall, the suicide rate in the region decreased sixteen percent. The suicide rate for women decreased 34 percent. This shouldn’t be that surprising. Research by academics in the United States, like Jens Ludwig, has shown that anti-depressants do lower the suicide rate. But here’s the thing: even though the suicide prevention program in Kishkunhals was a success, this model just hasn’t caught on elsewhere in Hungary. The country still has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. So, why?

BELA BUDA: Well, we can see a part of the bridge, the Margaret Bridge.

LECHTENBERG: Back in Budapest, everywhere you walk, there are musicians playing classical music in the streets. The Margaret Bridge stretches over the Danube, which is the lifeblood of this city. It’s stunning, but it’s also the place where many Hungarians have jumped to their death. I met psychiatrist Bela Buda on the banks of the river.

BUDA: I am 73. I was born and lived in Budapest in all my life.

LECHTENBERG: He looks exactly how you want someone named Buda to look: graying, rotund. I’ve been told he speaks 17 languages. He says it’s just 12. Buda has tried to solve the problem of suicide his entire career. He started the first suicide hotline in the country; he worked in psychiatric wards when the suicide rate was soaring. But, he says, this problem is hard to solve, because a lot of people here don’t see anything wrong with suicide.

BUDA: The Hungarian general opinion is very favorable towards suicide. If somebody commits suicide, then it is commented as a brave act. That somebody had the courage to end suffering. For instance, these old men who hang themselves are praised in the community that he was brave enough to free the family from the burden of his existence.
* * *
Next year, the Golden Gate Bridge will celebrate its 75th anniversary. You’ll hear all kinds of tributes to it, all kinds of facts and figures. One number you probably won’t hear, at least in the official proclamations, is the suicide toll: since the Golden Gate Bridge opened, more than 1,400 people have killed themselves by jumping off it.
There is another place that now attracts more suicides each year — the Aokigahara Forest in Japan – but, historically, the Golden Gate is still the world’s No. 1 suicide spot. Last year alone, 32 people jumped and died. Now, it should be said that every weekday, about 5,000 people walk across the bridge and don’t jump. And 100,000 cars cross it every day.

TAXI DRIVER: My name is (name in Thai). That’s 17 letters all together.
He moved here from Thailand in 1968, and he drove a cab in San Francisco for 15 years.

TAXI DRIVER: One night I picked up a guy, I think down nearby Tenderloin, and he want to go Golden Gate bridge. Must be 11 o’clock at night. And I said “OK,” so I drove on Franklin Street. He said, “You want to ask me why I go to Golden Gate Bridge this late?” I said, “No, but if you want to tell me, I guess I will listen to it.” And he said “I’m going to go and jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.” And I said, “OK.” “You’re not going to stop me?” I said, “Why should I?” So I get out to the Golden Gate Bridge, I think the fare was like $7 or something at that time. And he looked in his wallet and found $10, so he give it to me, the $10. So I told him, “I don’t think you need any change.” He said “I guess you’re right, I don’t need any change.” So, I let him off at the side of the bridge, and once he get off, I turned around the cab and called my dispatcher. I told him, “Why don’t you call the harbor patrol there?” And he did. Maybe, I don’t know, maybe I was too cool to him. I don’t know what happened— if he was really going to jump.
Now, we don’t know if this man did, in fact, jump off the Golden Gate Bridge that night. If he did, he almost certainly died, since only two percent of jumpers survive. We also have no idea what was going through his head that night. Did he have a fight with someone? Did he lose his job? Did he maybe just have one drink too many?

LESTER: I’m expected to know the answers to questions such as why people kill themselves.
If you unpack that “why” in “why people kill themselves,” there are all kinds of other things we don’t know about suicide either. For instance: the percentage of people who seek help, or get help, before committing suicide. We don’t know. Or even how many people who commit suicide are mentally ill. Lester says there is so much disagreement on this question that estimates range from five percent to 94 percent. And then there’s the mystery of the suicidal impulse.

LESTER: And I just found a case, which I’m using in an article that I’m writing, where the time between the impulse and the act was something like five seconds.
Think about that: five seconds.

LESTER: The man was walking over a bridge, and suddenly the thought came to him.
One.

LESTER: He was in some, I think, financial distress,
Two.

LESTER: But he hadn’t thought about suicide before.
Three.

LESTER: And he said, I ought to kill myself.
Four.

LESTER: And he immediately jumped off the bridge.
Five.

LESTER: And he was saved. And that’s the shortest interval I’ve come across.
One academic study looked at attempted suicides in Houston among 15-to-34-year-olds. It found that in 70 percent of the cases, the time between deciding to commit suicide and taking action was under an hour. Seventy percent of the cases. For about one-quarter of the people involved, the time gap was five minutes or less. That’s pretty stunning. People are making a permanent decision to end their lives, on the spur of the moment. How are you supposed to stop that? Remember this guy?

TAXI DRIVER: My name is (name in Thai).
He didn’t try to stop his taxi passenger from jumping.

TAXI DRIVER: “You’re not going to stop me?” I said, “Why should I?”
“Why should I?” Sounds cold-hearted, doesn’t it. Or does it? Your life belongs to you. It’s a crime to take someone else’s life. But not yours, at least not a crime in practice. So: should we consider the suicidal impulse a rational choice? I know what you’re thinking: only an economist would say something like that, an economist like Dan Hamermesh, at the University of Texas. He once wrote a paper called “An Economic Theory of Suicide.”

DAN HAMERMESH: Well, I think there’s an epigraph to the paper, which I cannot quote exactly, it’s by Arthur Schopenhauer: “When the value of a man’s life is less…” You can read it there, I don’t have it with me, now. Why don’t you read it.

DUBNER: “As soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to him life.”

HAMERMESH: Exactly. Well, that’s just an economic statement. You’re weighing the benefits on one side of the equation, the costs of the other. If the costs exceed the benefits, you chop off the investment.
Back in the spring of 1972, Dan Hamermesh was hunting around for a research topic. And he thought of a poem he’d read back in high school.

HAMERMESH: The poem is “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson, written in the last decade of the nineteenth century. “Whenever Richard Cory went downtown, we people on the pavement looked at him…
There was something about the poem that nagged him.

HAMERMESH: …and he was rich, yes richer than the king, and admirably schooled in every grace. In fine, we thought that he was everything to make us wish that we were in his place. So, on we worked and waited for the light, and went without the meat, and cursed the bread. And Richard Cory, one calm summer night went home and put a bullet in his head.”
That’s it, the last part. It didn’t make sense to him.

HAMERMESH: I was always very bothered by the notion that suicide’s a problem of rich people. And that always struck me, as an economist, as being really stupid since rich people are generally going to be happier, utility is higher, income goes up, you should be less likely to kill yourself. So those were the thoughts running through my mind that spring afternoon of 1972.
So Dan Hamermesh did what economists do. He wrote a model to determine the conditions under which suicide might be considered a rational choice. He came up with three predictions. Suicide, one, rises with age; two, falls as income increases; and three, falls if your “desire to live” is high. Nothing so radical, but at the time, no one had tried anything like this.
Then, Hamermesh plugged some suicide data from the World Health Organization into his model. His predictions were right. He also calculated the opportunity cost of a suicide. A 50-year-old person and a 70-year-old person have different expectations of future happiness, income, and so on. So the price of suicide is higher for the 50-year-old. But whether it makes economic sense for either person to commit suicide depends on what economists call the utility function – how much you value your life.
So it all goes back to the Schopenhauer quote at the beginning of Hamermesh’s paper: “as soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life.” Hamermesh may have been the first economist to wrestle with suicide in this way, but he was hardly the first to intellectualize it:

MARGARET BATTIN: Plato, Aristotle, the Greek and Roman Stoics, the early Church Fathers on up to Durkheim and Freud.
Margaret Battin…

BATTIN: Sometimes called Peggy.
… is a professor of philosophy at the University of Utah. Plato, she says, argued that suicide was wrong in some cases, not wrong in others. Aristotle thought it was cowardly, an offense to society.

BATTIN: The Stoics, on the other hand, thought that suicide was the act of the wise man. This is not done in desperation or agitation or depression or any of the things that we ordinarily associate with that term, but it’s the reflective responsible act of the genuinely wise man.
For the Stoics, suicide was a procedure. People who wanted to commit suicide would plead their case before magistrates to get permission; the magistrates kept a supply of hemlock on hand.

READER: “Whoever no longer wishes to live shall state his reasons to the Senate, and after having received permission shall abandon life. If your existence is hateful to you, die; if you are overwhelmed by fate, drink the hemlock. If you are bowed with grief, abandon life. Let the unhappy man recount his misfortune, let the magistrate supply him with the remedy, and his wretchedness will come to an end.”
But going forward in history, this was hardly the mainstream view. Christianity held that suicide is a sin; Dante set aside one ring of his Inferno for suicides. Fast forward about 700 years, and we’re still firm in our moral stance. We can’t really consider suicide a rational choice, can we?

MARGARET HEILBRUN: We would wake up to the sound of her typing at an astonishing speed on her Smith Corona typewriter.
Margaret Heilbrun is talking about her mom. Carolyn Heilbrun was a Virginia Woolf scholar at Columbia; she wrote mystery novels on the side. She was famous for making grand pronouncements, for saying outlandish things.

MARGARET HEILBRUN: A partner of mine enjoyed drinking Stolichnaya vodka, so she took to having it on hand, but she insisted on calling it “Solzhenitsyn” vodka. And she knew it wasn’t, but she just, you know— “I’ll go get the Solzhenitsyn.” So, it was the same with her once she started saying that she would kill herself when she reached a certain age. But it was another one of those sort of pronouncements. And one thought, “oh well, Mommy’s prone to pronouncements.”
Carolyn Heilbrun had decided that, by the time she turned 70, she would have accomplished what she could accomplish; she would have had enough of life, and she’d end it. Her family – her husband and three grown kids – they weren’t quite sure what to make of this. It was a relief when her 70th birthday came and went without a suicide. Apparently she had changed her mind. She even wrote a book called The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty. Her daughter says she took a lot of pleasure in life, even the small things.

HEILBRUN: She loved to get gifts. And it was quite easy to please her with a gift. And she’d made some sort of remark about she wanted to start listening to sextets, I think she said. No longer string quartets, no longer string quartets, I want quintets and sextets. And I was at Borders bookstore and found, could it have been a sextet by Elgar? And this was on Tuesday, the 7th of October. And I pulled out my cell phone to call her, and her voicemail came on, and I thought, “well I don’t really feel like talking to her right now.” I was going to call and say, “oh you don’t really want Elgar do you? You really want me to buy you Elgar?” And I hung up before she picked up, and I never spoke to her again.
Carolyn Heilbrun waited until she was 77, and then she did kill herself on October 9, 2003. She wasn’t sick; she wasn’t depressed. But she did feel she’d come to the end of her writing life. And that was that.

HEILBRUN: She left a note out in the foyer that said, “The journey is over, love to all. Carolyn.”

DUBNER: Did anyone know that she was planning to kill herself now? Did you father know, for instance?

HEILBRUN: Oh no, he didn’t know.

DUBNER: Your father — he was an economist, yes?

HEILBRUN: Yes.

DUBNER: So, economists are practiced in the art, or science, or whatever it is, of what’s known as rational thinking. Here is the wife of an economist, your mother, who seems to have approached suicide, at least life and the end of life, as a rational decision. Did you see it that way, or no?

HEILBRUN: No, I think it’s: if you’re mortally ill and in great pain, I can see seeking to end your life. But no, I think it was unreasonable, irrational of her. But, I think she felt it entirely reasoned out and rational.

DUBNER: Well, Margaret, I’m sorry for your loss and again, I very much appreciate your willingness to come speak to us.

HEILBRUN: Well, thank you.
For David Lester, the dean of suicide studies, 40-plus years of research has yielded some answers about the “what” of suicide – who’s most likely to do it, and when, and how. But the “why” remains elusive. The people who do it aren’t necessarily the ones you might expect.
Remember the point Steve Levitt made earlier in show – how puzzling it is that people whose lives look so hard don’t kill themselves in huge numbers? Remember the Piraha, the Amazonian tribe with their outrageous rates of infant mortality and malaria – but no suicide? Or African Americans, who trail white Americans on just about every meaningful socioeconomic dimension – but commit suicide half as often? Here’s what David Lester has been thinking about:

LESTER: Actually, I’ve done studies on the quality of life in nations and the quality of life in the different states in America. And regions with a higher quality of life have a higher suicide rate. Now, quality of life is more than wealth. The people who try and rate the quality of life use a variety of indices: health, education, culture, geography, all kinds of things. So they put more into it than just median family income, or individual per capita income. And what I’ve argued, therefore, is it seems to be an inevitable consequence of improving the quality of life. If your quality of life if poor— and it may be you’re unemployed, you’re an oppressed minority, whatever it might be, there’s a civil war going on, you know why you’re miserable — you know, as the quality of life in a nation gets better and you are still depressed – well, why? Everybody else is enjoying themselves, getting good jobs, getting promotions, you know, buying fancy cars. Why are you still miserable? So, there’s no external cause to blame your misery upon, which means it’s more likely that you see it as some defect or stable trait in yourself. And therefore you’re going to be depressed and unhappy for the rest of your life.

DUBNER: It’s so interesting. There are just so many pieces of this puzzle, as you put it, that are fascinating, but confounding. I mean, what you’re talking about now, when there’s a higher quality of life, suicide tends to rise. Your wife, who’s an economist, I wonder if she would consider then calling suicide to some degree a luxury good?

LESTER: Yes, now, there’s an anthropologist in the past, Raoul Naroll, who considers suicide an indication of a sick society. And so, in my writings I’ve argued that no, it’s an indication of a healthy society. So, it is a puzzle. There’s a paradox, perhaps we should say.”

Love,
Matthew

Sin? WTF? What’s that? Who cares? What’s the diff?

chastity

There’s a BIG diff. Holiness “integrates” the entire human person, as God intended, repairing the wounds of sin in that person and their community; and is achieved ONLY through His most merciful grace. Sin, the rebellion against God and His Holy Will, therefore, “disintegrates” the human person. We can see this now, here, in our lives through greed, lust, envy, pride, divorce, addiction, adultery, even atheism/agnosticism, heresy, and their counterparts all disintegrate the human person from what God intends. Praise His most holy name. Praise Him. Please, please pray for me in my struggles against my own temptations, that I might not be disintegrated in His sight. He has been so good to me! 🙂 1 Cor 9:27. Pray that I may turn from my sin, and LIVE!!!! 🙂

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-by Br Hyacinth Grubb, OP

¨Bob is Bob,” and “Dan is Dan;” these statements are tautologically true. Yet we also say that “Bob isn’t himself today,” and this manner of speaking gets at something profound. We can, somehow, be more or less “ourselves.” But what does that mean, exactly?

It doesn’t mean that personhood changes or disappears, or that someone becomes someone else. Rather, it is a statement about wholeness, completeness, and integrity of life; or the lack of integrity and that absence of a proper order in life—being scattered, fragmented. And there is, ultimately, only one thing that can destroy integrity: sin.

Sin wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 1849)

Sin is not an offense against an arbitrary standard concocted by a devious divinity. It’s an offense against reason and truth. As such, its effects are not only external, breaking the divine and eternal law, but also internal. It wounds human nature by destroying the proper ordering of life, by twisting nature to perverted counterfeits of the good it seeks. Sin makes us less ourselves.

All sin and vice lead us to lose ourselves, but some kinds more than others. This depends not only on the gravity of the offense, but also on the role that each virtue and vice plays in human life. One virtue is particularly important, and particularly neglected in our era: that of chastity. Chastity is especially important not because Christians are obsessed with controlling a particular, and personal, aspect of people’s lives, but because it reflects and informs integrity and self-possession throughout all facets of life.

The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift … Charity is the form of all the virtues. Under its influence, chastity appears as a school of the gift of the person. Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of self. (CCC 2337, 2346) (Ed. Since when I was in novitiate and missioned to St John’s food pantry in Cincinnatti, where I heard the true, true maxim, oft since reheard, “You cannot give what you do not have!”)

The proper ordering of life is, ultimately, one of self-mastery and self-gift, for “man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes, 24). Chastity is a virtue exemplifying both self-mastery and self-gift. Self-mastery, since “the alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy” (CCC 2338). Self-gift, since “some profess virginity or consecrated celibacy which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a remarkable manner,” and some profess vows “in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman” (CCC 2349, 2337). Chastity, thus, is worth our special concern.

In today’s age, in a culture of explicit and unbridled and almost unavoidable unchastity, sin has harmed each of us, distorted your integrity and mine, in a drastic way. It is no surprise that so many people are “not themselves” and are unable to gather the scattered fragments of life. It may tempt us to despair, but we are comforted by our Savior and the confidence that “where sin abounded, grace did more abound” (Rom. 5:20). It is by grace, purchased at great price, that sin is expelled, virtue gained, and our selves made whole.”

Love,
Matthew

“We’re FREE!” & miserable: women & hookups

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anne_maloney
-by Anne Maloney

“A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”
∼ Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“…The young women I encounter every day on the campus of the university where I teach are worse off than the Stanford University victim, because they do not know what has gone wrong in their lives. Nonetheless, something has gone terribly wrong, and on some level, they know it.

In thirty years of teaching, I have come to know thousands of women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. These women are hurting. Badly. Consider these examples from “the front lines”: a young woman says to me with all earnestness, “This weekend I went to my first college party, and I hit it off with a guy so we went into the back bedroom where the coats were and started kissing, but then he reached down, moved my panties aside and penetrated me, so I guess I’m not a virgin anymore.” Another young woman came to me in tears because her doctor told her that since she has genital warts, she may have trouble conceiving children in the future. She had always assumed she would get married and have a family someday. “And the worst part is,” she wailed, “I’m not even promiscuous. I’ve only had sex with six guys.” This young woman was nineteen when she said this to me.

Once, in a writing assignment about Socrates and the Allegory of the Cave, a student wrote that she decided to make better choices after she woke up one morning in a trailer, covered with scratches, naked, next to a man she didn’t remember meeting. At least she knew there was a problem. All too often, these women come to me in a state of bewilderment. Women have never been more “sexually liberated” than these women are, or so they are told. No more are they shackled by ridiculous bonds like commandments, moral rules, words like “chastity.” They shout: “We’re free!” Yet they whisper: “Why are we so miserable?”

It is no coincidence that the top two prescribed drugs at our state university’s health center are anti-depressants and the birth-control pill. Our young women are showing up to a very different version of “college life” than that of the previous generation. One woman, while in her freshman year, went to her health center because she feared she had bronchitis. In perusing her “health history,” the physician said, “I see here that you are a virgin.” “Um, yes,” she responded, wondering what that fact might have to do with her persistent cough. “Would you like to be referred for counseling about that?” This student came to me to ask if I thought she should, in fact, consider her virginity—at the age of eighteen—a psychological issue. (I said no.)

In a seminar I teach every other year, we discuss the ways that addiction reveals certain truths about embodiment. One of the books we discuss is Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. The students adore this book, and we have fascinating conversations in class. The chapter that generates by far the most passion, however, is the chapter on drinking and sex. Knapp speaks honestly about the key role that alcohol played in her decisions to have sex, sex that she regretted and that made her feel terrible. My students resonate deeply with Knapp’s experiences, and I continue to be struck by how unfree these students feel. Once the culture embraced non-marital sex and made it the norm, women who do not want to have casual sex often feel like outcasts, like weirdos. College is the last place where one wants to feel like an utter misfit; couple that with the fact that first year students are away from home for the first time—lonely, vulnerable, insecure—and you have the recipe for meaningless sexual encounters followed by anxiety and depression.

Why don’t these women just stop it? Rather than get drunk in order to have casual sex, why don’t they put down the glass AND the condom? The world we have created for these young people is a world which welcomes every sort of sexual behavior except chastity. Anal sex? Okay! Threesomes? Yep. Sex upon the first meeting? Sure! Virginity until marriage? What the hell is wrong with you?

I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the reason so many college-aged women binge-drink is so that they can bear their own closeted sorrow about what they are doing. The woman who got drunk and got raped behind the dumpster is the victim of a toxic culture. But my students are also the victims of a toxic culture. Small wonder that the number of women suffering from eating disorders, addiction, anxiety and depression is at an all-time high.

They end up in a stranger’s bed with a bad headache, a dry mouth, and an incalculable emptiness. An entire generation of women is wounded yet unable to find the source of the bleeding. There is, indeed, an “unconscious despair” behind their “games and amusements.” They “hook up,” feel awful and have no idea why. It’s hard to heal when you don’t know you’ve been damaged. And the despair and shame that these women who hook up feel is real. Contemporary sexual culture is toxic for young women, and until women stand up and acknowledge that fact, despair, sadness and regret are going to be the underlying chord structure of their very lives. We fail an entire generation when we withhold from them the “wisdom not to do desperate things.”

Love & prayers,
Matthew