Catholic vantages on Evolution

Fr. Nicanor Austriaco.

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory. — St. John Paul II’s 1996 Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

But the big problem is that were God not to exist and were he not also the Creator of my life, life would actually be a mere cog in evolution, nothing more; it would have no meaning in itself. Instead, I must seek to give meaning to this component of being. Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called “creationism” and “evolutionism,” presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? — Pope Benedict’s 2007 Meeting with Clergy

Recent studies indicate that the Church’s pastors have not been effective in communicating and leading this mission. In her 2015 study “Catholicism and Science,” sociologist Elaine Ecklund notes that 62% of high-attendance Catholics think that the Bible and science can be in conflict, indicating a lack of awareness that, in the words of John Paul II, “The theological teaching of the Bible, like the doctrine of the Church which makes this explicit, does not seek so much to teach us the how of things, as rather the why of things.” This is especially true of younger Catholics; according to the National Study of Youth and Religion, 72% of 18-29 year-old Catholics see science and religion in conflict, and 78% of 18-29 year-old lapsed Catholics cite the “conflict” of science and religion to account for their departure, despite the teaching of the Youth Catechism that “there is no insoluble contradiction between faith and science” (#23). This data suggests that in order to effectively catechize and evangelize this and subsequent generations, Catholic priests must be prepared to address scientific topics in a way that weds faith and reason. — Dr. Chris Baglow, author of Faith, Science, and Reason Theology on the Cutting Edge

That last quote is by my colleague and dear friend, Dr. Baglow, introducing the timely importance of a course he offered this Spring at our Seminary called, The Emergence of the Image: Human Evolution from Scientific, Philosophical and Theological Perspectives. I wish I could take it! It offers seminarians the opportunity to become part of the solution to the crisis these statistics evidence.

Recently he invited microbiologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., who teaches biology and bioethics at Providence College, to give a series of lectures on evolution. Fr. Nicanor received his Ph.D. in Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his doctorate in Moral Theology at the University of Fribourg.

One of his class lectures on “why would God choose to create through evolution” was recorded, and he wonderfully gave me permission to post his lecture for public consumption. I am so grateful! It’s over two hours long, the audio is not perfect, but I think it’s well worth your time. Enjoy…

St. Abba, pray for us

Human fatherhood can give us an inkling of what God is; but where fatherhood no longer exists, where genuine fatherhood is no longer experienced as a phenomenon that goes beyond the biological dimension to embrace a human and intellectual sphere as well, it becomes meaningless to speak of God the Father. Where human fatherhood disappears, it is no longer possible to speak and think of God. It is not God who is dead; what is dead (at least to a large extent) is the precondition in man that makes it possible for God to live in the world. The crisis of fatherhood that we are experiencing today is a basic aspect of the crisis that threatens mankind as a whole. — Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Tomorrow is St. Joseph’s feast day. I have a deep devotion to him. Spouse of Mary, foster-father and guardian of the Redeemer, rock of the Holy Family, patron of the universal church. Jesus first addressed Joseph as Abba. Joseph’s face, more than any other, formed for the “little” Jesus an image of the face of His Father — which Jesus spoke of with such tenderness in Matthew 18:10:

Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven

I’ll share a few brief, scattered reflections on fatherhood. What I share I have learned from great fathers, who helped set my goals and aspirations. And what I say is true for all who rightly bear the title father, including biological fathers, grandfathers, adoptive fathers, sacramentally ordained Fathers and spiritual fathers. And though I will not develop this point, fatherhood is wholly defined by motherhood. As St. John Paul II said, a father “learns his own fatherhood from the mother” — in other words, in relationship to a woman’s maternity.

May these thoughts be pleasing to and inspired by the example of good St. Joseph…

+ + + +

“And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6).

This is, to me, the core of fatherhood — having your heart turned toward your child and receiving back your child’s heart. Terrifying. Guys aren’t often good at heart-matters. The heart takes you beyond the superficial. You look in your child’s bright eyes as they look at you with such intensity. They look with an absolute trust and expectation that you will care deeply about their every word, their every need, their every fear and hope and dream. And then I see how selfish and weak and petty I am, and I beg God: “Make me worthy of them, Father.”

Their natural openness to God finds its first resting place in their father. As the Little Prince said, “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.” Small children live out of their heart, are wide open like baby birds in the nest trustingly awaiting from their parents, with gaping mouths, not poison but nourishment. The intimacy I’ve felt with my children, precisely because their hearts allow and request such complete unfiltered access, is unequaled by any other experience of intimacy. It’s singular.

I was putting my son Nicholas to bed one night, when he was 4 or 5 years old, and as I was trying to bless him he pulled his face up to mine — inches away. He said with his lisp, in a hushed tone, “Daddy, my heart burns for you.”

I was stunned and speechless. I blessed him, left the bedroom and went right over to Patti to tell her. I said, “What does that even mean to him? Where did he learn that?” She immediately said, “Isn’t it obvious? What’s on the wall in our prayer room?” I said, “The Sacred Heart image.” Then I said, “Oh my.” She went on, “Don’t you remember the other night when he asked you why Jesus’ heart was on fire? And you said, ‘Because Jesus’ love for you is so intense that it’s like a raging fire!’ So, clearly he felt love for you and thought that was the best way to express it.”

Fatherhood also “turns your heart toward your children” as you become defined by them, by their needs and their welfare. When you think about anything, they are just there, somehow shaping your attitudes, your responses. Children’s fears elicit from their father an instinct to encourage; their questions, a passion to teach; their bad behavior, a demand to correct; their hesitancy, a hope to inspire; their sufferings, a call to pray; their gifts, a wish to cultivate. The hearts and minds of children inhabit and reorient a father’s mind and heart.

In fact, I’d say some of the clearest signs that fatherhood has defined you is when you find joy in realizing your prayer has turned into an exchange with God about your children; when your conversations with co-workers and friends are frequently seasoned by random references to them; when your times away from them are unsettled by the ache of missing them; when you find yourself able to overcome fears that once paralyzed you because they need you to be strong; or when your peaceful sleep is suddenly overtaken by a waking concern for their welfare and you, instead of being angry over losing sleep, spontaneously say, “Thank you God for this noble burden you’ve entrusted me with. Now let’s talk about him, her…”

Fatherhood is not just an extrinsic role assumed for a period of time to achieve a goal — i.e. raising children to adulthood — that can later be abandoned. No! It inscribes itself into your soul as a permanent identity, a permanent internal posture of facing your children. Even if they die, if I die. I am a father forever, even if in the New Creation my fatherhood simply means rejoicing that my children have achieved the fullness of life, as the need to watch over their steps has now passed away.

An old friend of our family said to me when my oldest son Michael was born: “Don’t believe people who tell you you ‘become’ a father. Nope. Children rip fatherhood out of you. When you find out your wife’s pregnant, when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl’, when you throw that first ball with your son, when you dance with your daughter. With every scream, every tear, every success, every failure — they rip daddy out of you. You just obey the call and step up to the plate.”

Or, in the words of my grandfather, “When they are cut, you bleed.”

Fathers share their life’s wisdom frequently, generously, but they listen even more. They spend copious amounts of time playing with, working with, eating with, tinkering with, fishing with, building with, praying with, biking with. Fathers know, as the saying goes, that children spell love t-i-m-e.

I was going to Confession very recently and was confessing some parenting failures that plague me. The priest, an older Irishman, said very directly to me:

You know Jesus says, “There’s no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends”? There is no more important person on earth, other than your wife, who demands your laying down your life than your child. Each one. Every day. When you’re tired. And the dividends will pay off in the future for them, and for you. This is your one chance. Soon they’ll be gone and your chance to convince them you love them will dwindle away. Love them now, today. Give up anything that’s keeping you from that time, from spending it on them in the way they deserve. No matter how good or important you think it is.

You can save a thousand souls. Yes, very impressive. But if you neglect your children the good you did is to no avail for you; or them. Nothing is worth losing those times you’ve been given to be with them. God will judge you first as husband, then as father, then all the rest. So first things first, son. Get on with it now, will ya? Hug them when you get home. Tell them you love them. But more, show them you love them every day by making them your priority. Making time. Now, before it’s too late.

As I prayed my penance, I thought of my daughters dancing with me at the father-daughter dance back in 2010. During one song, each was standing on a foot, looking up at me.

I have to stop now.

Quelle différence!

My wife, Patti, and I often laugh about the differences between us. And there are many! Personality styles, temperaments, habits, perceptions. On a sliding spectrum, here would be some of our more general differences: She’s an extroverted party girl, I’m an introverted book worm. She’s decisive and clear, I’m deliberative and nuanced. She’s a neat-freak, I’m comfortable with piles. She’s practical, I’m theoretical. She’s able to negotiate complexity with ease, I’m good with one thing at a time. She likes country, I like rock. She loves the city, I love the forest. She’s a night person, I’m a morning person. She’s detail oriented, I’m big picture. On that last point, here’s a wedding anniversary card I gave her ten years ago:

Some of those differences complement really well, others clash, others are tolerated. But both of us would be in full agreement that our presumption of a Jesus-centered marriage that’s a sacramental covenant, our daily life of prayer as individuals and as a couple, really is what makes it possible for all of those differences between us to become material for creativity and growth and color. And humor.

Faithful, thriving and lifelong love between two very different people, who are also sinners, is hard work. But love loves a challenge. My grandfather, who was a business executive, used to extol for me the virtues of manual labor, and the dignity of manual laborers. He would say, “The body was made for hard work.” I would say the same of love, it’s made for hard work. It thrives on hard work. Especially, love loves redemptive work, loves facing brokenness and leading it to wholeness. At least God’s love does.

One of my dear friends, who is a total lol character and is in quite a challenging marriage, says of her husband,

He’s a pain in the ass, but he’s my pain in the ass. I love all of him. But I always tell him, “And I’m fully aware that I’m your pain in the ass, too.” If we both get that, face it, embrace it and get on with it it totally works. But when one of us forgets they’re an ass too, and forgets that love’s a two-way deal, it totally breaks down.

They are both people of faith and they say that without their faith they would likely never have stayed married with all their differences and difficulties. Faith, she’s said, gives them a vision of what tough love looks like, gives them hope that God will provide in tough times, and makes them aware every day of the gravity of their marital vows as something God has joined. “It’s bigger than us,” she once said, “and when you get that it keeps all the small problems small and the big ones manageable.”

I once emailed her this line: “I think of marriage as being tasked by God with carrying your Sacrament through life like it’s a Communion Host that Jesus placed in your joined hands on your wedding day. And that Host is Jesus and everyone else in your life whom Jesus sends your way to be loved. Children, friends, neighbors, co-workers. And Jesus says to both of you: Hold this Host with reverence, don’t drop it, and when you die you can return it to me as your final and supreme sacrificial offering.” She replied to my email, “That’s perfect! And when I think of walking through life with [her husband] with joined hands all the time? And doing that while dealing with kids and in-laws and everybody else who just shows up into our marriage? With love!? Sweet Jesus! That takes a lot of patient balancing and coordination! That’s our 23 years in a nutshell! Pray we don’t drop it!!!”

Let me end with a pair of viral videos that capture humorously the marital difference. The first was a real BBC interview I posted a week or so ago, the second is a funny follow up. My wife sent the second one to me last night, because, in so many ways, This is Us…


I’m on Mashley’s Team

Maria and Ashley bring it home again with another cover, this time with Lorde’s Team.  Their acapella performances are among my favorites. It’s not rushed and the harmonies, which Maria improvised, make the song even richer.

Joie de vivre

“There is a close link between the hope of a people and harmony between the generations. The joy of children makes their parents’ hearts leap and opens up the future. Children are the joy of the family and of society. They are not matter of reproductive biology, or one of the many ways of producing them, much less their parents’ possession. Children are a gift. They are a gift. Each one is unique and unrepeatable, and at the same time unmistakably linked to his or her roots. Indeed, to be a son or a daughter according to God’s plan, means carrying in oneself the memory and hope of a love that has become tangible by kindling the life of another human being, original and new. And for parents, each child is him or herself, different, unique.” — Pope Francis

One of the greatest gifts each of our children have offered us is bringing the light of joy into our life. Yes, challenges. But the overriding reality is unquestionably joy. While we adults try to teach children all about life, children teach us what life is all about.

All this to introduce two videos.

First, by a miracle of biblical proportions, my daughter Catherine agreed to allow me to post a music video — produced, shot and edited by Maria — that she starred in. It replicates the spectacular opening sequence of La La Land in our front yard. Catherine is life’s vitality incarnate.

Second, a news clip that my wife showed me that’s just absolutely brilliant. It’s gone viral so you may have seen it. While adults wax grave about the terrors of geo-politics, children break in and remind us that we are the fools and they, the wise (Psalm 8:2).

Chewing tobacco, gags and Jesus

What do Jesus, chewing tobacco and the Crusades have to do with each other? Read this re-post from 2014, re-posted just because it was such a delightful experience for me! I mistakenly posted this twice recently…so here it is a final time. Enjoy Kari at the end!

I thought today it might be useful to share a recent experience I had attempting to be faithful to St. Peter’s command, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you.” — 1 Peter 3:15

I traveled to Pittsburgh for a conference back in December. On my flight back to New Orleans, I was seated next to a man from rural Alabama who was on his way home for Christmas to visit his daughter. He was a single dad, as his daughter’s mother had abandoned both him and her early on and moved away to another state. His mom and dad helped him raise her. He had a thick Alabama accent, donned a University of Alabama ball cap and chewed tobacco the entire flight, spitting the brown juice every few minutes into an empty Coke bottle with remarkable precision. The indescribable sounds accompanying this 90 minute dip-spit ritual served as a fine appetite suppressant and flipped an occasional gag-reflex on.

He was very chatty, and spent 30 minutes telling me about his six-weeks-on, two-weeks-off contract work in Pittsburgh. I didn’t really understand everything he said, as we were next to one of the jet engines, but it had something to do with dredging contaminated materials. After he shared his last story about his co-workers’ nighttime drinking binges, the stewardess broke his train of thought to ask us if we wanted any of those air-filled packets with 5 mini-pretzels in them. When he picked up the conversation again, he said, “Damn man, I’ve been chewin’ your ear off! Tell me, what do you do for a living?”

I thought, here it comes.

I told him that I taught theology and served as academic dean at a Roman Catholic seminary in New Orleans.

He said, “Whoa. That’s different.”

I replied, “Yep.”

After about two minutes of silence, he continued, “Hey, I’m a history buff, and I’ve always wanted to ask a Catholic this question. Why did the Catholic popes kill all those people in the crusades?”

I spent about 4 or 5 minutes trying to set the crusades in historical context, tried to explain a Catholic take on “just war” and proposed some ways one might consider a medieval crusade as just, as unjust, or as both just and unjust. In other words, I tried to explain that moral judgments on complex historical events should never be oversimplified for the sake of a slam-dunk point. When I had finished my meandering argument, he said,

Cool. Makes sense. Thanks for explaining that. When I went to college I was always told that the Catholic crusades were proof that popes just wanted to control the world and that the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment brought an end to that. You know, there’s no Catholic church anywhere around where I live, so I don’t ever get to talk to Catholics. And when I’m in Pittsburgh I just hang around with my work buddies, and trust me, none of them go to church even if they were Catholic.

Then, without missing a beat, he began to tell me about why he didn’t go to church. He said,

My mom and dad went to the Baptist and Methodist churches once in while when I was a kid, but mostly dad and us went fishing on Sundays. I’ve always thought that people who go to church were just as bad as those who don’t, so I figure, what’s the point? I just don’t get why there’s so many churches and they all disagree. How can Christians say they’ve got the true religion when they don’t even agree on their own? I just try to be a good person and keep to myself. I don’t drink. But I don’t think about God much, either. Just never comes up much. But my daughter [who is 14] goes to a Presbyterian church with her friend these days and when I come back in town she tries to drag me with her. She’s good for me.

I asked him if he planned to go to church with his daughter this Christmas. He said,

Maybe, but we’ll see. I mean, you’re Catholic and you teach the bible to priests. So why do you go to church?

As he continued his ritual spitting, I asked him what he knew about why God asked the Jews to keep the Sabbath holy. We talked about that a bit. Then I explained how Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday morning made Sunday the new Sabbath for Christians, and how it was the eighth day of creation. He thought that was neat. Then I told him the story about what motivated Christian martyrs of 3rd century north Africa to go to Mass on Sundays, even though it was illegal. I told him how this one group of Christians on trial before a Roman prefect explained their choice to risk execution to worship their God this way:

Without Sunday we cannot live!

I also mentioned the need to worship and give thanks to God not just as individuals but as a family of faith. I said only God gets to decide how and when he is to be worshiped, and pointed out the many blessings that God pours out in the celebration of the Eucharist that makes the rest of our week a whole lot better. As he actually seemed to be listening, I asked him why he bothers to celebrate his daughter’s birthdays, why it’s so important for families to gather at Thanksgiving and Christmastime, or why human beings dedicate any special days and times to gather and celebrate important things in life. That then led to a great side-conversation about the devastating effects his grandmother’s death had on his extended family.

She was the anchor of our family. She always brought everyone together for special times and it kept our family close. My happiest childhood memories are being at her house for family get togethers. But now that she’s gone, there’s nothing left to hold us together any more. It’s sad. Now that she’s gone the center unraveled, all the old grudges people had before now keep them from ever talking. My grandma always forced us to get together, and she’d say to anyone who’d complain, with fire in her eyes: “There ain’t nothin’ more important than family!”

What a perfect segue! I said,

That’s exactly what Jesus meant when he commanded his disciples to celebrate the Eucharist together every Sunday as a faith family together. If you look at Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel, they were always arguing. He forced people to be together who would never have otherwise hung out together. Jesus brought enemies and rivals together to show us how God wanted people to live, and that God is the only one who can reconcile everybody together. Take Him out, it all unravels. That’s really what going to church is supposed to be about, God bringing us together, making us forget the grudges and feeding us with His best food just like your grandmother fed you all.

After a brief pause, he said,

Damn, that’s deep. I’ll have to think about that one.

That was the end of our exchange. We were silent for the rest of the flight. After we landed, he told me that his daughter had a serious and chronic illness. I told him that even if he was not ready to go back to church yet, he could pray. And I said I would pray for her. I said, “If you love her, the best thing you can do is pray for her.” He said,

Right. Well, I’ve never been a praying man but that’s a good reason to pray. Thanks, man.

And that was the end of our conversation. I wondered if I should ask him if I could pray for her at that moment, but I didn’t. As I sat in the Atlanta airport, I wished I had. I thought of the charismatic Catholic woman in Florida I know who would pray with anyone anywhere, and thought of her gentle boldness that deeply impacted so many people. But what I was grateful for was the rare clarity of mind I had that so often escapes me when I am taken off guard by deep questions, posed by a stranger seated inches away from me. He challenged me not just to teach theology and history (which for me is safer), but to witness (which is riskier).

I find that my conversations with curious people wondering about faith give me a healthy opportunity to self-critically reflect on what it means for me to share my Catholic faith in Christ in a manner that is respectful and bold, personal and thoughtful. What it mostly looks like is finding natural openings that allow faith to speak to real life concerns — where they’re “at” — and giving God’s Spirit freedom to work through the uniqueness of that moment.

I will end with Mother Teresa’s favorite prayer (penned by Bl. John Henry Newman). It is really the prayer of the evangelizer. Please join me in asking Christ to make us fitting instruments of his Light.

Dear Jesus, help us to spread your fragrance
everywhere we go.
Flood our souls with your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly
that our lives may only be a radiance of yours.
Shine through us and be so in us
that every soul we come in contact with
may feel your presence in our soul.
Let them look up and see no longer us, but only Jesus.
Stay with us and then we shall begin to shine as you shine,
so to shine as to be light to others.
The light, O Jesus, will be all from you.
None of it will be ours.
It will be you shining on others through us.
Let us thus praise you in the way you love best
by shining on those around us.
Let us preach you without preaching,
not by words, but by our example;
by the catching force –
the sympathetic influence of what we do,
the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to you.


“Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12)

Screen Face.

[these are loosely joined reflections on some ‘temptations of new media’ that I wrote about last Lent. I decided to post them now after I happened on an article that seemed to offer a perfect coda]

Today the modern media, which are an essential part of life for young people in particular, can be both a help and a hindrance to communication in and between families. The media can be a hindrance if they become a way to avoid listening to others, to evade physical contact, to fill up every moment of silence and rest, so that we forget that silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. — Pope Francis

I think I can speak for most parents with younger children when I say that one of the greatest struggles these days is how to manage — and teach them to manage — their use of digital technologies and new (especially social) media. Just a very few thoughts on this today.

It’s ubiquitous, what my wife and I call the “screen face.” That blank zombie-like stare, bathed in a dim glow, that eloquently captures the existential state of a child (or adult) caught in the act of tuning out their immediate surroundings in order to enter into a virtual world mediated through silicon chips and LED screens. More and more studies are uncovering the deleterious effects the over-use of screen time can have, including the rewiring of brains in a manner that inverts virtual and real worlds or that produces effects in the brain similar to heroine addiction. Yes, of course, immense good can be accomplished through the medium of screens. This blog I am typing right now betrays too harsh of a protest. And, as Pope Benedict said, “Do not be afraid of new technologies!” I’m presupposing that. But then there’s an insidiously addictive, dissociating effect that over-exposure to phones, laptops and tablets can produce that causes Patti and me — and so many others we know — terrible parenting anxiety.

What to do? When I am asked that, I say that we’re figuring it out with every other parent who has had this challenge thrust upon them from every direction, including school. I will share a very few, mostly general, musings. And all personal examples I use first received permission for anonymous sharing from the main characters.

First, parents must themselves model healthy, balanced, disciplined habits of technology use. What I call techno-asceticism (asceticism refers to habits of discipline that help one achieve self-mastery in pursuit of excellence). Your words mean nothing at all if you are abusing your own rules, or worse, if you have no rules at all and leave technology use to whim. And I don’t mean abusing only when children are around you, watching you, but always, because in the spiritual world every action, even the most secret and interior one, affects all; and especially affects those entrusted to your care. In the realm of the spirit there is no such thing as a purely private sin or vice, as the “butterfly effect” obtains in that unseen realm 24/7. As Fr. Tom Hopko often said, “One secret lustful or hateful thought poisons the whole universe. That’s why we confess those dark secrets aloud in the light of Confession. But just the same, every virtuous act perfumes the world.”

Limits, limits, limits. Strong and smart limits, which include time-use, space limits (e.g. never a phone used at a meal) or content limits with age-appropriate parental supervision & the use of good filters. Our household motto: never never ever allow your child to use devices after bedtime. Sleep should be a screen-free time zone. I know a parent who fairly recently told me that she did not feel she could ever take the phone away from her teenage daughter, even at night, because she feared her daughter would resent her and shut down. But as a result, she said, her daughter is continuously sleep deprived and lost her faith by becoming deeply involved (at night) in a goth-atheist reddit community. I asked her, “What first prevented you from taking the phone away at night?” She described to me her daughter’s reaction when she first took the phone away from her one night. She said, “She screamed and threatened to kill herself. It really terrified me because she seemed to act like a drug addict being deprived of a hit. I felt paralyzed and just gave in because I was afraid of facing those threats, or what was beneath them. I regret it now. I feel guilty about it. But I feel it’s too late.” I said, “It’s never too late.”

As a family we have, for the last 9 or 10 years, practiced “Screen-Free Sundays.” That means extremely restricted use of all screens, limited to communication necessity, family movies, sports on TV. But because negation itself is not sufficient to cultivate character and joy, we work hard to make Sunday a creative, fun, meaningful day with interactive activities like family Mass, cooking, eating out (rarely), board games, feeding the homeless at a local shelter, outdoor activities, zoo, fishing, walking, biking, drawing, painting, visiting with friends. And all homework that requires computers must be completed by Saturday evening, which teaches time management and advance planning.

Once every 4 months or so we have Sunday Mass in our home, inviting our children’s friends and various other people to join us for an afternoon of food, fellowship, secular and sacred music ending with the celebration of Mass on our dining room table. We invite different priests each time to come and share their vocation story and offer some catechesis. We are so grateful for these priests’ generous gift of time and faith to do this!

I have to say with great gusto that the whole screen-free thing is a liberating practice, and my wife is the genius behind it.

Face to face relating with people and things, we insist to our children unto irritation, always remains the Queen, while virtual relating with people and things through screens remains the Queen’s Handmaiden. The temptation is immense to drift off into an online fantasy world to escape immediate life commitments and relationships. Even if it’s called FaceTime or Facebook, it’s not the same as the faces of flesh and blood.

Sacraments are all about “real” presence, about encountering God through the material world and flesh-and-blood neighbors. It’s why Sacraments can never be done through the Ethernet or the Internet. Or why Mass on TV, which does offer enormous benefits for the home-bound, can never equal Mass in person. Spiritual Communion, though marvelously efficacious, always begs for consummation in bodily ingestion of the Flesh and Blood of God. Icons, which allow us to see into the Age to Come through a “mirror dimly,” always lead us toward a face to face and embodied encounter with the Realities they mediate. Otherwise they become idols and illusions, keeping us at a safe distance from Christ and His Mystical Body.

Living at the speed of life. Digital technology too easily gives us the false impression that life, dislikes or boredom can be clicked or swiped away, and that only interesting, entertaining and pleasurable things that I like are worth engaging and hold my attention. This can quickly become a whole worldview. This digital-culture A.D.D. makes it difficult to live life at its real pace, which is an uneven pace. A culture of swipe also makes it really tough to love the people we’re stuck with, people who take time and patience and sustained attention to love. Digital A.D.D. can make it agonizing to listen, in un-skippable silence, to a slowly revolving world that only gradually yields its deep secrets to those who wait long and listen closely.

A college student once asked me to give him spiritual counsel. We met several times and I quickly discerned he was a digital media junkie. So I asked him to spend 10 minutes every morning in total silence, repeating the Jesus prayer. When I met with him the next month and asked him how it went, he said: “Torture. I hated every moment of it. I’d rather have my eyes plucked out.”

Suffering life’s coming at each moment is essential to being human, and our culture of escape, of entertainment-on-demand, of binge-watching, of deletion and x-ing out or scrolling down is no friend to the real work of living, loving, working and growing in wisdom, charity, heroism and faithfulness amid the often droning dull daily duties that are the substance of lasting joy and penetrating sanctity.

One dad I know at our parish told me that one of his ‘tweenage’ sons once said to him, while he was in the middle of trying to explain to his son a consequence he was imposing, “Man I wish I could x you out.” Well, let’s just say that the next month for that child was 100% screen free, and the child had to work out a plan with his teachers of how to do his homework without a computer. #dadpower

Okay, I’ll just stop here and end with (1) an excerpt from an article last week in the Times-Picayune by Laura A. Jayne and (2) a cool video on this topic:

Parents use the devices to keep children entertained during errands and long car rides. OK, whatever. But now they hand the phone over to a child at home so they can make dinner without listening to the kid whine. Listening to your child whine is a time-honored part of parenting. It makes you glad they (you hope) eventually move out on their own. And now children are playing electronic games at parades. We have to decide something is wrong with just turning over a smart phone to a child any time he or she wants it.

I teach at Loyola University, and it can be a challenge getting students to listen in class and ignore their phones. And we are fascinating here! (As fun as Nyx!) So it’s no surprise that researchers also have found that high use of mobile devices is linked to anxiety in college students. Anxiety to stay on top of things. Anxiety that they are missing out. Anxiety when the phone is lost or broken. I see it. We know our kids are using phones too often for too much – but while we complain about the usage of our teenagers, we are handing the phones over to our toddlers. By the time they come to college, the phone is a security device.

Do we want to be a nation of anxiety-ridden adults incapable of enjoying the world around us? No, we do not. So, take the smart phone away from your kid. Relish the boredom.