Friday, July 03, 2015

My response to Matthew Vines' 40 Questions


Matthew Vines has posted 40 questions for Christians who oppose same-sex marriage, and while I do not normally do this sort of thing, I realized in reading through that many of my answers, especially about my personal relationships, are likely different from how Matthew expects people to be answering.  Therefore, I thought I would complete his entire questionnaire.

1.    Do you accept that sexual orientation is not a choice?
Yes. 
2.    Do you accept that sexual orientation is highly resistant to attempts to change it?
I am willing to grant this point.  I know that there are protocols which are reported by some to have a high success rate in changing sexual orientation, but I do not have the time or expertise to dig too deeply into this material.  Even  if it were demonstrated that sexual orientation were easily alterable, it is unlikely that more than a small proportion of persons experiencing same-sex attraction would be interested in changing it, and so there is really no relevance to considering it here.
3.    How many meaningful relationships with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people do you have?
I have had several very meaningful relationships with LGBT persons in my life.  Four stand out as what I would call close friendships.  Of these, three are persons that I currently talk to infrequently  because of the natural flow of life – people grow older, graduate school, get jobs, move away, etc.  The fourth is one of my current closest friendships.
4.    How many openly LGBT people would say you are one of their closest friends?
As of the current time, one.  See #3.

5.    How much time have you spent in one-on-one conversation with LGBT Christians about their faith and sexuality?
Hours upon hours upon hours.  Upon hours.
6.    Do you accept that heterosexual marriage is not a realistic option for most gay people?
Certainly.
7.    Do you accept that lifelong celibacy is the only valid option for most gay people if all same-sex relationships are sinful?
Yes.
8.    How many gay brothers and sisters in Christ have you walked with on the path of mandatory celibacy, and for how long?
Several.  Of the close friends I mentioned in #3, two were gay Christians.  All told, I have spent years with them. There are several other gay Christians who I would not consider to be among my closest friends but who I have also had some form of relationship with for years.
9.    What is your answer for gay Christians who struggled for years to live out a celibacy mandate but were driven to suicidal despair in the process?
My response for and to such persons would be the same response that I would have to anyone who is driven to suicidal despair.  This would include heterosexual persons who have suffered despair or suicidal thoughts or feelings because they were forced to live in *involuntary* celibacy owing to being unable to find romantic partners.  It would also include the homosexual persons who suffer suicidal inclinations because they wish to live out a life of Christian celibacy and feel rejected by the gay community over their choice.  Yes – this is a real phenomenon.  The fact is that suicidal thoughts or feelings or temptations are not a matter of the circumstances in our lives.  They are a matter of depression, a mental illness which affects people of all walks and all beliefs in all circumstances.  It is, quite simply, ill-informed and insensitive to speak about suicide as you have in your question, as though it were simply a response to having a difficult path to walk.
10.  Has mandatory celibacy produced good fruit in the lives of most gay Christians you know?
In every case, the answer is yes.  That includes three people that I know personally, and several others who I know only through acquaintances or my church community.  That celibate gay Christians that I know are in many ways the most faithful, most devout, most knowledgeable, and most generous Christians that I know.  And, in case you thought to ask, yes, I would say that their discipline of celibacy has actually helped to build up these fruits and has not simply come alongside.
11.  How many married same-sex couples do you know?

I do not personally know any same-sex couples.
12.  Do you believe that same-sex couples’ relationships can show the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
Yes.  The Holy Spirit can work in anyone of us at any time. In the Old Testament, the Spirit prophesied through Balum as he actively tried to destroy the Israelites.  In the New Testament, the Spirit worked through the High Priest as well, even though he was working to have Jesus killed.  In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit worked through people who had not yet even become Christian.  The reality is that the Holy Spirit works through all people and all situations as long as we do not put up roadblocks to it. This is also the case in bad situations or in sinning persons.  “God can write straight with crooked lines” is the old saying.  In a same-sex relationship, the Spirit will work whatever good He can, even if there is something problematic about the relationship itself.  This is, as I have hopefully demonstrated, how God approaches all people and situations.

13.  Do you believe that it is possible to be a Christian and support same-sex marriage in the church?
This is somewhat of a complicated question because it depends on what is meant by the term “Christian.”  Obviously, it’s necessary to draw a line somewhere in terms of what beliefs one may hold and rightly be called a Christian.  For example, can a person who believes Jesus never existed be considered a Christian simply because he self-identifies as such?  I think that most would easily answer in the negative here, but where precisely is then the line is drawn?  Different Christian communities will have different answers.

It gets a bit more complicated because of the difference theologies of salvation, justification, and sanctification that different Christian communities have.  Given a person who professes faith in Christ and even many doctrines of the Church but rejects some other doctrines, some theologies would say that such a person is not a member of the Church because we are once-saved-always-saved and the person’s rejection of a key doctrine would preclude him from salvation and therefore he must not have ever been a part of the Church.  Others would say that his faith in Christ is all that is necessary, and others would fall in between or even have entirely different answers to the question.

As a Catholic, I would say that any baptized person is a member of the Church and therefore a Christian, but that those who reject doctrines of the Church are not currently in communion with the Church and not “living members.”  They are united to the Church in virtue of their baptism and so they are Christians, but in their support of same-sex marriage (or slavery, as per #14) they have cut themselves off from the sanctifying and life-giving power of Christ and the Church.

Put more concisely, Christians can sin.  In fact, Christianity has always taught very strongly that Christians will sin as we are fallen creatures.  There is no contradiction between supporting same-sex marriage or slavery or murder or countless other things and holding the name Christian, but in doing so such Christians sin.
14.  Do you believe that it is possible to be a Christian and support slavery?
See #13.
15.  If not, do you believe that Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards were not actually Christians because they supported slavery?
See #13.

16.  Do you think supporting same-sex marriage is a more serious problem than supporting slavery?
Both same-sex marriage and slavery are offenses against the dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God, and so I do not see either as being especially more serious.
17.  Did you spend any time studying the Bible’s passages about slavery before you felt comfortable believing that slavery is wrong?

While I am studied on a great deal of what the Bible says, this is not a question which holds a great deal of meaning for me as I had already converted to Catholicism before the question of slavery really occurred to me, and as Catholics the Bible is interpreted in the context of each book’s literary genre and the teaching of the Church.

18.  Does it cause you any concern that Christians throughout most of church history would have disagreed with you?
This is the first of several instances in which your Church history is quite simply incorrect.  While many of the Protestant reformers and those who followed after them supported slavery for some time, dating back to the earliest Christians chattle slavery (the kind that was prevalent in the United States until the Civil War and which is under discussion here) was not widely supported.

When Christianity first came into existence, it lacked the social power to eliminate all slavery, but Christians did what they could to improve the life of slaves by making sure that they were treated well, were kept together with their families, and were even paid.  There are many records of newly converted Christian slaveowners freeing their slaves.  Several of the first popes were even former slaves.  Early Christian writers such as St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330) and St. John Chrysostom (c. 349) condemned slavery.  Early Church councils in 452, 506, 511, 517, 538, 549, 585, 589, 615, 633, and many others promulgated legislation about the rights of slaves, including in some cases prohibition of slave trafficking.  This is a very, very brief picture and I encourage you to do more research, but suffice it to say that you are greatly mistaken on this point.
19.  Did you know that, for most of church history, Christians believed that the Bible taught the earth stood still at the center of the universe?

Just as in #18, you are at least somewhat mistaken on this point.  There certainly were Christians throughout history who believed in geocentrism and geostationism, but they didn’t get it from the Bible.  They believed in it based on what contemporary science (loose though the term may be) taught.  David Palm, a traditionalist Catholic who has written extensively on the subject, has been unable to identify more than ten writers throughout the entire Patristic period of Christianity (about the first 700 years) who mention geocentrism or geostationism, and of these none cite the Bible or even Christian tradition regarding this belief, while several of them cite mathematicians and natural philosophers (primitive forms of scientists).

This is consistent with the way that early Christians wrote about nature and the faith.  To the early Christians, the Scriptures taught, as the saying goes, “how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”  St. Augustine of Hippo (c. 400) is a fairly standard citation of this belief.  Even Copernicus, who was supported by the Pope and the Church as he helped to pioneer the theory of heliocentrism about a hundred years before Galileo, declared that the Bible did not teach geocentrism.

Yet even if you were unconvinced by this, it is still not relevant.  See the answer to #20.

20.  Does it cause you any concern that you disagree with their interpretation of the Bible?
Even if I believed that historical Christians believed in geocentrism and geostationism, it would not be concerning or relevant because as a Catholic I do not believe that the Bible teaches matters of scientific fact, but that teaches facts on matters of faith and morals.  See #19 and #21.
21.   Did you spend any time studying the Bible’s verses on the topic before you felt comfortable believing that the earth revolves around the sun?
Just as in the case of # 17, this question has little meaning to me because while I am familiar with the Bible’s verses which are sometimes alleged to teach geocentrism, but I have also been aware since almost the beginning of my acceptance of Christianity that that they were not interpreted this way until certain Protestant groups did so in relatively modern times.  For example, there are many extant Scriptural commentaries from early Christianity, and to my knowledge none of them speak to any Scriptural passages as having anything to do with the physical motion of the Earth and/or the Sun.
22.  Do you know of any Christian writers before the 20th century who acknowledged that gay people must be celibate for life due to the church’s rejection of same-sex relationships?

In the early Church there were debates about whether or not all Christians were required to practice lifelong celibacy.  Even after it was settled that this was not the case, lifelong celibacy was still required in many parts of the Church for widows and widowers for some years, and when it was finally settled that this was unnecessary, celibacy was still promoted for centuries as the Christian ideal, and was always mandatory for western priests and for all bishops.  The We also see plenty of statements that those who are separated from their spouses – even if the separation is involuntary or unjust - must remain celibate for life.  In some places in early Christianity, marriages had to be approved by one’s bishop before they could be celebrated, and this permission was sometimes denied.

 This should be sufficient to answer the question, because it establishes that there is very much a tradition in Christian history holding at least some persons to mandatory celibacy, even when it is not voluntarily chosen.

To this, we can add the countless writers - many of the same who wrote of preferred or mandatory celibacy - who condemned homosexual relationships.  The understanding of a homosexual orientation as a fundamental reality to a person’s existence is of course relatively new.  Throughout most of Christian history, people simply didn’t understand it in this way, and so the writers who do condemn homosexuality tend to look at it as some kind of moral condition or disorder more than a psychological or biological reality.  They didn’t understand it as a lifelong intrinsic reality, and so expecting an explicit statement about lifelong celibacy is not reasonable in the same way that it would be unreasonable for an anti-vaxxer to ask for historic Christian statements on the morality of vaccinations because historic Christians had no concept of vaccines.

What would be more reasonable would be to look at the way that historic Christians viewed disease and medical treatment in general and then apply those principles to vaccinations in order to get a sense of what historic Christians would have thought about them.  In fact, the connections between lifelong celibacy for gay Christians and historic Christian writings are far, far more direct than the connections would be if looking for those pertaining to vaccines, or the internet, or carbon pollution, or any number of other things.

Quite simply, early and historic Christians unanimously believed that lifelong celibacy was a difficult but mandatory cross for any person who could for whatever reason not be in a legitimate marriage.  This includes gay couples, because they also unanimously believed that two persons of the same sex could not be in a legitimate marriage.
23.  If not, might it be fair to say that mandating celibacy for gay Christians is not a traditional position?
See #22.  Also, turn the question around and recognize that permitting marriage between members of the same sex is nor a traditional position. It is ultimately a self-defeating argument.
24.   Do you believe that the Bible explicitly teaches that all gay Christians must be single and celibate for life?
The Bible explicitly teaches that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.  It also explicitly teaches that celibacy is the only option for those who do not enter into marriage.  Therefore, by the laws of logic, it does explicitly teach that all gay Christians must be celibate for life.  If you are unsatisfied with this level of explicitness, it is worth noting that the Bible does not explicitly teach that God is Triune and consists of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It does not explicitly teach what books make up the canon of the Bible itself.  It does not explicitly teach many things that all Christians unanimously believe.  Many of them are implicit or require exegesis.  See #25.
25.   If not, do you feel comfortable affirming something that is not explicitly affirmed in the Bible?
I am very comfortable affirming something that is not explicitly affirmed in the Bible.  As a Catholic, I believe that God reveals Himself through Scripture and through Sacred Tradition. Part of this Sacred Tradition is the very list of the Biblical Canon itself.
26.   Do you believe that the moral distinction between lust and love matters for LGBT people’s romantic relationships?
This question really gets to the heart of the issue.  Unfortunately, I am not going to try to invest a lot of time unpacking my answer because it would take far too much time.  For reference, I have a 700 page book on my bookshelf which just goes a tad below the surface of this idea.  What I will say is this:

As a Catholic, I believe that marital love is a total self-giving of one person to his or her spouse which admits to holding nothing back, whereas lust is any use of one’s sexuality whichdoes hold something back.  This includes giving one’s gift of fertility to the other.  This means that contraception or fellatio, for example, would constitute lust, for it would seek to receive some of the goods of sexuality while holding back the fertility of a person.  In the same way, two men or two women who engage sexually by their very nature cannot give their fertility to one another.  Rather, we are called to follow Christ’s words that it is the giving of one’s very life – of everything one has – to another which constitutes love.  Even when a person’s fertility is old or damaged and no longer functions, sexual intercourse between spouses can still offer it in whatever state it is in, in a way that homosexual orcontracepting relations cannot.

If you would like to learn more about this, look into the “Theology of the Body.”  There are many books, articles, and videos available to dig into it in far, far more depth than is possible here.

27.  Do you think that loving same-sex relationships should be assessed in the same way as the same-sex behavior Paul explicitly describes as lustful in Romans 1?
In one sense, yes, because homosexual behavior is intrinsically lustful as per the answer to #26.  However, there is another sense in which we can certainly acknowledge an important distinction between a committed same-sex couple and other lustful behavior.  Some Christians regard morality as having no place for degree or circumstances.  As a Catholic, I do not believe this.

So, for example, even though I regard all unmarried sex as a sin, sex between a committed but unmarried heterosexual couple is better than sex between a heterosexual couple in a one-night stand.  Both are gravely sinful, but in the case of the committed couple, there is present some additional good and right intention which is lacking in the one-night stand. Similarly, a man who steals a toy to give to his child is sinning, but it is still better than a man who steals something for himself.  In the same way, a committed homosexual couple would have some good that is lacking in a homosexual couple which met at a bar one night before having sex.  This goes back to the principle from # 12 that God can do good even in the midst of evil.
28.  Do you believe that Paul’s use of the terms “shameful” and “unnatural” in Romans 1:26-27 means that all same-sex relationships are sinful?
Yes.  In using the term unnatural, St. Paul goes beyond the specific situation in question and addresses the fundamental nature of same-sex sexual relation itself.  If one were to talk about something which was sinful in virtue of the circumstances rather than some intrinsic problem, then one would not use the term “unnatural.”  For example, nobody would call a man having sex with another man’s wife “unnatural,” even though it was sinful and lustful. 
29.  Would you say the same about Paul’s description of long hair in men as “shameful” and against “nature” in 1 Corinthians 11:14, or would you say he was describing cultural norms of his time?

He is making a statement about what is natural and unnatural just as in Romans, but we misunderstand it because of differences in cultural norms – so both, and neither!

There are two factors to consider here.  The first is that cultural norms are different as to just what constitutes long hair.  For example, based on a variety of Scripture passages it is likely that St. Paul himself wore hair that would be considered long for a man by today’s standards.   Jesus may have as well, if as some suggest he at some point took a Nazarite vow. Therefore, St. Paul is certainly not condemning as unnatural hair as one may see on some men today.  The second is that in this passage, St. Paul did not use the typical Greek word for hair, θριξ.  Rather, he used another word, κομάω, which seems to have referred in particular to a particular style of tresses worn by women.

In short, his point was that it is unnatural for men to make themselves look like women.   
30.  Do you believe that the capacity for procreation is essential to marriage?I would not use the term “capacity.”  Rather, I would say that marriage is ordered toward procreation.  Describing it the way you have in your question has an emphasis which is like saying that one wants to have a marriage and asking what the bare minimum requirements are to “get in,” whereas describing it the way that I have and that Catholic philosophers have tended to has an emphasis which is more about asking what marriage is for before deciding whether or not we want to enter into one.

Think of it like two different couples meeting with a pastor as to plan their wedding. One couple is asking the pastor, “If we get married, do we have to have kids?”  The second is asking, “If we want to have kids, should we get married?”  Big difference!
 
31.   If so, what does that mean for infertile heterosexual couples?
Not every instance of an act which is ordered toward some end has to actually achieve that end to maintain its purpose and ordering.  A batter swinging at a pitch may miss, but the act he is engaged in is still an act which is designed to hit the ball.  A little league batter may go up against a major league pitcher and have absolutely no chance to actually succeed, but his swinging of the bat is still the right thing to do at the plate.  On the other hand, a person who stood in the batter’s box grilling a steak wouldn’t be doing something ordered toward hitting the ball, nor would a .350 major league hitter swinging the bat while standing on third base.

An infertile or post-menopausal couple making love are still doing an act which is by its nature ordered toward procreation, even if in their case that act won’t actually procreate, just as are a fertile couple making love outside of the woman’s ovulatory period.  Of course, the little leaguer could, by the grace of God, manage to actually get a hit against the major league pitcher, and sometimes infertile or theoretically post-menopausal couples do in fact conceive.  
32.  How much time have you spent engaging with the writings of LGBT-affirming Christians like Justin Lee, James Brownson, and Rachel Murr
I am not familiar with these authors. However, I have read the works of LGBT Christians such as David Morrison, Eve Tushnet, and Steven Gershom, who oppose gay marriage.  I have also viewed documentaries like The Third Way or Desire of the Everlasting Hills (which gay friends tell me they think is better) featuring of gay Christians who oppose gay marriage. Have you?
33.  What relationship recognition rights short of marriage do you support for same-sex couples?
The same recognitions that any non-married persons have.  Notably, the recognition as human beings who deserve to be treated with love and respect.

34.  What are you doing to advocate for those rights?
I do not believe that there are many legal rights to advocate for, seeing as all non-married persons already have them.  That said, I will certainly speak out and, if necessary, take action against any persecution or hatred toward gay persons, as I would against persecution or hatred toward anybody.  I also make an effort to admonish fellow Christians and others who do not treat gay persons with love and respect any time the need arises.
35.  Do you know who Tyler Clementi, Leelah Alcorn, and Blake Brockington are, and did your church offer any kind of prayer for them when their deaths made national news?

Off the top of my head, I do not.  Of course, I could easily produce a list of names of persons who died from violence, persecution, or suicide who I am sure you would not know off the top of your head, either.  We unfortunately hear these kinds of stories every day on the news.  However, I can assure you that if I did at any time hear or read about their deaths that I prayed for them and their families, as I do for all deaths that I hear about, especially deaths that come from injustice.  I am also quite certain that the Catholic Church has offered prayers for them, as Catholic parishes regularly include public cases such as this in their prayer intentions.
36.   Do you know that LGBT youth whose families reject them are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than LGBT youth whose families support them?No LGBT or any other person should suffer rejection from their families, whether their families agree with everything that they do or not.  I know Christian families who have had gay children and have made sure that those children feel loved.  This is the only approach acceptable for Christians.
37.  Have you vocally objected when church leaders and other Christians have compared same-sex relationships to things like bestiality, incest, and pedophilia?I would not vocally object to these kinds of comparisons, because these kinds of comparisons have their place.  Of course, I have also compared same-sex relationships to lesser sins that all of us fall into, such as lying and jealousy, in order to point out to people that we should not view people in same sex relationships as though they are the greatest sinners in the world as St. Paul does, after all, list them amidst things like jealousy.  I have most often compared them to heterosexual relationships involving pre or extramarital sex.

Noting similarities between two things is not the same thing as declaring moral equivalency between them.  In cases where people have compared same sex relationships to things like the practice of bestiality or the indulgence in pedophilia with the intention of creating a moral equivalency – that is, with the intention of saying that they are just as bad – I have objected.

I must note how in your question you talk about the act of participating in same sex relationships while you talk about the inclination to pedophilia.  This is an important distinction because most Christians who oppose same sex marriage would accept that gay persons are not be responsible for their sexual orientation (as per #1), just as pedophiles are not responsible for their pedophilia.  Both are responsible for their actions alone.
38.  How certain are you that God’s will for all gay Christians is lifelong celibacy?Completely. It is not an easy calling, but we are all called to carry our crosses.  Some of our crosses can be extremely difficult, but God's grace is sufficient, and we have a God who suffered for and with us, and provides an answer to our suffering in the form of Himself on the cross.


39.  What do you think the result would be if we told all straight teenagers in the church that if they ever dated someone they liked, held someone’s hand, kissed someone, or got married, they would be rebelling against God?Such an approach would likely prompt either a very negative or a very apathetic response.  In fact, this is the result that we tend to see in the Church when we tell not only teens, but just about everyone else about any moral issue.  People do not like to hear moral admonitions, and they generally react angrily or with apathy towards the faith. In the general Christian community it is only a select few who are willing to bear all of the crosses that life gives to them.

The difference, of course, is that one’s sexuality is an incredibly integral part – indeed, from a Catholic point of view, the integral part – of the human person.  This means that approaching this particular issue in a callous way would have much, much stronger, painful, and harmful results.  There is no question that same sex attraction and the call to lifelong celibacy is a cross – and a very difficult one to bear.

This is why, for example, the Catholic Church (and many other Christian churches) approach this issue not by speaking about what God forbids, but about the gift of integral sexuality that God calls us to.  We speak about what God has to give us, and the calling to goodness that it is.  Ministries such as Courage, an international organization of and for homosexual Catholics trying to live out Christ’s call to celibacy and sexual integrity are extremely important.  Did you know that it exists? http://www.couragerc.org.
40.  Are you willing to be in fellowship with Christians who disagree with you on this topic?If by this you mean to ask whether I am willing to have personal Christian fellowship with them, the answer is of course.  If you mean maintain a communion of Churches, the answer is more complicated, but it is not limited to gay marriage.  The Catholic Church does not consider itself to be in communion with Churches which disagree onany issue.  However, they will of course maintain a positive relationship with such communities. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Synod's First Document: We Must Meet and Lead the Wounded to the Fullness of Christian Living

After a long week of speculation and, among more conservative Catholics, some trepidation, the first "official" document from this year's Extraordinary Synod on the Family  is finally here.  Suffice it to say, there is a lot of reaction and analysis already out there, and we'll continue to get more daily for the foreseeable future.

In general, the document is encouraging.  There is a lot of good in it.  While we will see a lot of point by point analysis over the coming days, the most important thing to take from it is that the bishops want to encourage a gradual approach to leading those in difficult family situations into the faith.  This has been somewhat expected, as what little information the public was getting out of the synod during the first week was that gradualism had become a very popular topic of conversation among the bishops.  Not unjustly, concerns were raised that this may signal the return of a somewhat dissident idea, condemned by Pope St. John Paul II in the encyclical Familiaris Consortio (34), that God's law could be applied at different levels to different people because of their circumstances.  Fortunately for those so concerned, the document actually references John Paul's very condemnation of the idea and seems instead to suggest the view of gradualism promoted by the sainted pope.

In fact, this "law of gradualism" is ultimately the very theme of the entire document, finding its expression in virtually every paragraph.  The synod fathers are saying this: when a person is living a lifestyle that has fallen short of the teachings of Christ and the Church, it does no good to point out his sin and move on.  On a human level it makes the person suffer and feel excluded, and on a divine level it does nothing to lead the person closer to Christ and to living a moral lifestyle.  Rather, we must go out to meet the person where he is at (like the father in the parable of the prodigal son) and from that standpoint try to lead him away from sin and into the fullness of living Christ's teaching.  

Some may be concerned that this would be an implicit softening of the Church's stance against sin, but this concern is unfounded.  It's very foundation is the very Catholic and very traditional idea that sin darkens the mind and enslaves us, along with the also deeply Catholic notion that the concrete human circumstances of our lives have a profound impact on our spiritual lives.  A couple cohabiting stably for 3 years with a daughter very likely do not have any ability to meaningfully understand the Church's reasons for rejecting this lifestyle as moral, and their basic needs of paying the bills, putting food on the table, and caring for a young child make it very difficult for them to see a way to make radical moral changes even if they can begin to really grasp the importance of Christ's teaching on the matter.  Instead of telling such people that they are in sin and acting as though our job is done, we must accompany them along what is often a very long path towards Christ, meeting them where they are at and helping to move them to the fullness of Christian morals.

This idea is not new.  It's the very essence of evangelization.  The Jesuits who first brought the gospel to Central America in the 16 and 1700s did not make landfall and immediately begin pointing out the problems with the natives' marriages.  They began by introducing these new peoples to Jesus and gradually inviting them to conform their lives to him.  St. Paul did not preach to the Greeks an all or nothing Gospel; he began by presenting Christ in the context of their own experience and inviting them to see in him the fulfillment of their own spiritual beliefs.  The author to the Hebrews clearly took a similar approach, providing for his audience first "milk" before expecting them to be capable of taking "solid food."  Indeed, it's how even very traditional and conservative Catholic commentators and clerics encourage the laity to evangelize today: invite friends to Mass, be open to answering their questions, preach by example, don't push too hard, etc.

While the concept is certainly an old one, I do think its an area that many very faithful Catholics have as a bit of a blind spot today.  We see such sin and disregard for Christ and the faith of the Church all around us that we tend to lock down very hard against it - sometimes at the expense of being willing to allow Christ to lead lost souls to him in his own time.  Put another way, in a world which lives so little of the Lord's teachings we're so concerned with making sure everybody knows and follows what he has taught that we often forget that we need to help a great many people even care what he has taught in the first place - not to mention helping them realize that he cares about them.  Ultimately, that's what the synod fathers are calling us to do.

That doesn't mean that any process of building up a Church-wide attitude of leading people gradually will go smoothly.  I suspect that it will be similar to the process of implementing the teachings of the Second Vatican Council - which may scare many.  Ultimately, the degree to which an approach like this can be faithful has a lot to do with the faithfulness and dedication of the priests and bishops implementing it.  A faithful and tireless priest encouraged to approach things this way will be able to shepherd many souls to Christ.  On the other hand, dissident or more poorly formed priests will find it very easy to use such practice as an excuse to teach people that it is OK to live outside of Church teaching.  Fortunately, it is well established that the priesthood seems to be emerging from the crisis of the past, with more and more faithful priests being ordained each year.  As always, pray for our priests!

That said, the only truly concerning part of the document is truly concerning because it seems to suggest a widespread misunderstanding of mercy that I have written about previously.  At the end of the first part of the document, we read this very confused statement: "This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy."  Thoughtful readers will immediately see the problem.  In suggesting that the doctrine of the faith be presented "alongside" mercy, the it is implied that mercy is somehow not a part of the doctrine of the faith.  This is troubling in many ways.  First, the doctrine of the faith is mercy in its essence.  It is rife with mercy.  It is all about mercy.  Each and every teaching of the Church is nothing less than a declaration of mercy.  To riff on St. Paul, it is mercy to teach that divorce and remarriage is wrong because if not for the law, I would not have known it wrong.  It is also mercy because within that declaration of remarriages moral character is the ever-present offer of forgiveness.  More troubling, though, is a clear and glaring gnostic sense: God's traditional teaching is severe, but the Church must express Christ's "new message" of mercy.  

In any case, it's important to realize that this relatio, as its called, is nothing more than a summary of what's been discussed by the bishops.  It doesn't teach anything, it has no decisions, and it has no real binding weight of any kind.  What it does do is relay a general sense of the way that the bishops at the synod are thinking.  How are they thinking?  They are thinking about reaching out to people who have not lived up to Christ's teachings and trying to walk with them along a path back to fully embracing them.  This is good.  The synod, the discussion, and the spiritual battle are not over yet, however.  Continue to pray ever more fervently for the Spirit to Guide the Church into the way of salvation!


Friday, October 10, 2014

The Extraordinary Synod, Justice and Mercy

As the extraordinary synod on the family presses forward this week, one theme has emerged as clearly predominant: that of the balancing of justice and mercy. From the writing of bloggers, journalists, and priests to comments given by numerous bishops who are actually participating in the synod, it has taken center stage as the great conundrum of the gathering.

God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful at one and the same time, so it is repeated again and again, but we are only human and so have a much more difficult time trying to uphold the teachings of Christ on marriage while being merciful to those who have failed to live up to them.  Because the Church's current practice of denying Communion to such persons is seen as emphasizing justice, those posing the question suggest we have a good grasp on justice. Incorporating mercy into the picture is said to be a much more difficult task because it seems to oppose justice.

But there is in fact absolutely no difficulty or challenge to this question.  None whatsoever.

In fact, the question suggests that many do not seem to understand justice as well as they think. In justice, God recognizes sin and holds people accountable for it.  What he does not do is unwaveringly hold a sin against a person who has turned from it.  Unfortunately, this is most often our human approach. A person who kills another is forever known as a "murderer," even if he should regret his crime and never commit the evil again. During the priestly sex abuse scandals, some priests confessed to years' old sins, declared that they had repented and not perpetrated in decades, and resigned as active ministers to go live alone in a spirit of penance. Protesters followed them to their new homes to ensure that they would never be free of hearing condemnation. Countless other examples, both as serious and less important, could easily be pulled from the life of any one of us.  Fortunately, his ways are not our ways, and so in God justice means that while sin is indeed addressed, it is not held stubbornly against a person without end - even in the tiniest of ways.

In mercy, God forgives those who have recognized sin and decided to turn from it freely and without exception. He requires no atonement before he will forgive (Jesus has already made the atonement in any case), he does not wait for the sinner to be perfect, and he even reaches out to those in sin to offer them forgiveness before they ask for it or even realize that they need it. However, he does not ignore or neglect ongoing sin.  On the contrary, he does everything that he can to lead us out of that sin and away from the darkness that it brings.  

So we see that just because God holds people accountable for sin, it doesn't mean he eternally and unwaveringly does so to those who try to sin no more. In fact, virtually nobody involved with the synod would question this fact - even the most left wing bishop or even a Unitarian would readily agree with the notion.  That question so ubiquitous in discussion of this synod is concerned with squaring this truth with mercy.  However, in exactly the same way that God's justice is concerned with whether a person ceases to sin, just because God forgives sins it doesn't mean that he doesn't hold people accountable for ongoing and persistent sin.  The concept is precisely the same: both God's mercy and his justice by their very nature take into account what a person is doing now regardless of what a person may have done in the past.

When we look at it from his perspective,  we begin to see that justice and mercy are in no way opposed, but complement and, if we may put it as such, have an a symbiotic relationship to one another. They make one another possible. Because in justice God holds us accountable for sin, his mercy can meaningfully pardon that sin.  Because in mercy God moves on from past sins of the repentant, his justice can be concerned with the reality of a person's present state rather than a past which does not define the person.  This is precisely why many of the saints and great theologians declared that in God justice and mercy are not separate;  they have often been described as two sides of the same coin. Indeed, in Aquinas' theology God is perfectly simple, meaning he has no "parts" but all of his characteristics are identifiable with one another. His love IS his truth, his truth IS his mercy, his mercy IS his justice. It fits pretty well with the Scripture's teaching that God is love and that God is truth and that God is life, etc, doesn't it?

To bring this down to that great attention-grabbing issue of the synod, what does this mean for divorced and remarried Catholics?  It means that the Church can very easily know how to be both just and merciful in these tragic situations. Invite those in marriages which contradict Jesus' teachings to try to live by those teachings. Do not allow a person's past sins to define him but look to his ongoing choice to sin or to strive after Christ. Indeed, one of the most common complaints from married and divorced Catholics has been that they feel as though they are defined by one mistake in the past.  Calling these people to live in continence with "second spouses" would, if done with a good explanation, help them to feel and understand that the Church does not care what they did then and that an effort to reject grave sin now is what matters. This would be perfectly just and merciful, as God is.  Of course, other than what truly is a dire need for more outreach and education for those in irregular marriages, this is largely how the Church currently practices.

I would suggest, then, that the real question is not how to balance justice with mercy - or even doctrine with pastoral care when we realize that in these conversations "pastoral" usually means "merciful" and "doctrine" is usually what people have meant when they have said "justice." Rather, the question is that age old question of how to bear the Cross that discipleship in Christ brings. To live in accord with Christ's teachings on marriage will bring suffering to the divorced and remarried - great suffering.  On a human level, this is something none of us wants to put on another person.  It is also true that telling remarried couples that their marriages are invalid makes them feel excluded and hurt. These cases even tug on the heartstrings of those who minister to these people, as not a few bishops have explicitly lamented over this past week of the synod.  The reason we find this all so difficult is not that the question of mercy and justice is complicated.  No, it is because the question is so simple that we know our answer to it must be to lay crosses onto the shoulders of our brothers and sisters whom we love.

There is great suffering here, and helping to shepherd and support and accompany people through it must be a key topic - the key topic - of discussion at the synod. I hope and pray that the bishops realize this and can improve the Church's efforts in this. We must all become Simon of Cyrenes in helping to bear the crosses of our once fallen brothers and sisters - but crosses which they must bear and which lead to redemption.  It would be the most important thing they could hope to do these few weeks!

Yet the profound difficulty of this question must not be confused with the very simple question of how mercy and justice relate. The great preacher and likely eventual blessed and saint Fulton Sheen famously said that any theology which attempts to skip Good Friday to get to the Resurrection, that is, any theology which rejects suffering in favor of an easier resolution, is a sign of Satan's work.  Let us pray that the synod fathers may realize that they must not step a foot down that road.









Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Insidious Trap of "Casual Dating"

Of the many communities and movements making up what is a very exciting contemporary landscape for young adult Catholics, the promotion of marriage and, of course, that whole dating process by which two people actually arrive at marriage is one of the most important and the most discussed.  Over the past decade or so, two particular approaches to the topic of dating have come to dominate the blogosphere and whatever might constitute the "watercooler" for devout 20-somethings (the perpetual adoration lobby?): Courtship and so-called "casual dating."  The emergence of both as a common topic of conversation seems to be predicated on the concern that young Catholics just don't date - however that might be defined - enough.

Casual-dating has been - at least in every circle I have been exposed to - by far the more popular of the two as far as ideas go.  In a recent post on the FOCUS blog, Therese Aaker adroitly lays out the argument in favor of the approach, hitting on all of the points that are commonly made by proponents.  I won't spend time reviewing them here; if you are unfamiliar with the idea then I highly encourage you to read her piece.  What I will do is explain why I could not possibly be more opposed to the idea and why indeed I think it is a bad one.

A very bad one.

First, casual dating greatly devalues the uniqueness and unrepeatable beauty of each human person. In his Theology of the Body and Love and Responsibility, the indisputably most important theology of human relationships, Pope St. John Paul II describes how the mystery of a particular woman in a sense "calls" to a man, inviting him to delve into that mystery.  The importance of this mystery is a theme that he returns to often, and the identity of each person as an unrepeatable manifestation of God's love a key to the whole picture of man and woman.  From the standpoint of St. John Paul II's theology, a man chooses to pursue a woman because something about her has reached out and pulled him into her mystery.  From the standpoint of casual dating, a man chooses to pursue a woman because she has the right biology and happens to be Catholic. Not quite the same, is it?

To be fair, proponents of casual dating would argue that it's purpose is to allow men and women to get to know one another in a low pressure environment and so facilitate a connection that runs deeper than biology.  But this is not the point.  Just as the Church opposes many forms of fertility treatments such as IVF because every person has the dignity of deserving to come from the loving union of mother and father, every woman (or man) has the dignity of deserving to be pursued - even at the outset! - because of an attraction to the unique, unrepeatable person that they are.  No matter how we might try to look at it, being asked on a date because you meet the bare minimum requirements is demeaning.

Second, casual dating does not provide nearly the opportunity to get to know a person that normal dating after a period of acquaintanceship does.  I went on the first date with my now fiancee after having known her for about two and a half months.  In that time, I got to know some of her personality, her history and her interests just as any two friends or acquaintances do.  In short, I got to know her.  Having done so, something of her mystery called me to pursue her and now 10 months later, we are set to be married.  If I had asked her out without getting to know her at least a little bit first, I doubt things would have taken us to this point.

For one thing, the settings and course of discussion that two people can have over the course of a few dates - casual or not - are incredibly limited compared to just getting to know a person naturally.  There's only so much time, and short of going through a mechanical list of topics you are simply never going to be exposed to as much of a person in this way. Moreover, dating is awkward, no matter how much a person tries to think of it as "just a date."  At the end of the day, whether a person is seeing one individual for the next month or has dates with 3 different people over the course of a fortnight, the ultimate purpose is to find a spouse, and that is going to affect people.  Even having known Natalie for nearly 3 months before our first date, it was still awkward and a bit intimidating because even though we knew one date didn't mean we were committed to even "going steady" let alone marrying, marriage was still the ultimate purpose of that date.

Third, one of the central claims in support of casual dating, that it is lower pressure because its "just a date" is simply false.  As I mentioned above, marriage is the ultimate goal in dating, whether casual, "standard," or through courtship.  The knowledge that one has no commitment to a date on Tuesday and an upcoming evening with somebody else on Friday does nothing to change the fact that the purpose of the date on Tuesday is to help find a spouse.  Aaker puts it this way: "our attitude from the beginning should be, “Let’s just get to know each other and have fun..." but you're getting to know each other because you're looking for a spouse, not because you are looking for a new friend!  Put another way, casual dating proponents insist that it is lower pressure because people are not thinking specifically of marriage but only whether or not they wish to "pursue a relationship" with somebody.  Ahh, of course.  In regular dating, there's a lot of pressure because you're discerning marriage, but in casual dating, you're only discerning whether or not you want to discern marriage.  Much different!

To be frank, this argument reminds me a great deal of the kinds that scientific materialists make in asserting that astrophysics or some other such thing has eliminated the need for belief in God.  First its, "The big bag theory explains the origin of the universe, and so we have no more need for God."  When its pointed out that the big bang theory has only pushed the question back a step to what caused the big bang, they may cite string theory.  When it's pointed out that they have just pushed the question back a step again to what caused certain movements on the level of strings to occur, they may cite M-theory, pushing the question back again.  Ultimately, casual dating does the same thing.  The claim that a casual date has less pressure than a "regular" date is really just pushing the "question" of marriage back a step; the question is still there, it's just covered under another layer of pretense.  The important thing is that anyone on a casual date knows that the question is still there - and so the pressure remains the same.

In fact, it might even be worse in many cases.  On a "normal" date there's some established interest between the two parties and there is normally some previous knowledge of one another.  The boy already knows that the girl has some interest in him, and vice versa.  The girl already knows a bit about the boy, and vice versa.  When I went on my first date with Natalie, I had some idea that she was interested in me and I wasn't concerned with laying out who I was - and so I was able to, largely, just be myself.  On a casual date each person knows that they may only have that one meeting to get to know another person or, perhaps more importantly, to show the other person who they are.  As I have seen from the firsthand experience of friends, the experience of going on dates with anyone who seems eligible can also lead to an incredible amount of pressure over time.  No matter how much one tries to tell oneself that it's "no big deal" if a casual date doesn't work out, those "no big deals" begin to pile up quickly into one very big deal of a sense of self-doubt, frustration, or even despairing of one's desirability or lovability.  This brings us to the incredibly important fourth point.

Fourth, casual dating is extremely dangerous to those seeking to guard their hearts.  Some years ago I learned an incredibly important lesson.  I had a female friend - a strong proponent of casual dating, though it's not particularly relevant to this point - who was incredibly rational, preeminently concerned with ceding to the Holy Spirit's guidance about all things in life, patient, and very committed to viewing dating as "no big deal."  Everything about her proclaimed that she was a woman who viewed the world objectively, and so I carelessly offered a thought about her romantic life which I believed would be taken well.  The reaction was immediate, and a deep pain showed itself forth in her eyes.  I realized at that moment in a very close to home and visceral way something which I had seen in St. John Paul II's theology and heard in some Catholic discussion of relationships: for all that made her seem different, she was still a woman, with the heart of a woman.  She still desired to be loved, accepted, respected, and treated tenderly  It is a lesson that I took to heart and have applied well since I met my fiancee, who, though it is in many ways entirely hidden from the world's view, has a  heart seeking love and tenderness.

Women are women, and have the hearts of women.  Men are men, and have the hearts of men.  This is true no matter how much we might try to tell ourselves "this is no big deal," or, "it's just a date," or, "it's casual!"  A young man who takes a woman out on a casual date, only to have it not work out will still feel rejected - a great fear and weakness in men's hearts.  A young woman's experience of casual dating will go similarly.  We can tell ourselves "its no big deal" all we want, but when things do not go well it is a big deal.

This is especially true if both parties are not on the same page.  Consider a man who has developed an interest in a particular woman over the course of a month and asks her out.  As a "casual dater," she may agree even though she has no particular interest.  After "a date or two," as Ms. Aaker puts it, she tells him she is no longer interested and moves on with no trouble.  He will not.  Consider a woman who has been waiting for a particular man to invite her out for two months.  After reading an article like the one I linked above, her decides he should ask her out because, even though he has never felt too much interest, "it might go somewhere," She will be excited, and then wounded - perhaps deeply - when his initial lack of interest proves to be accurate.  This is why I think that it is strongly advisable that we date those that we know at least to some degree and have interest in at least to some degree.  It fits much more properly into the spirit of guarding the heart.

In fact, I dare say in what may be the most controversial thing in my post that the danger to our hearts from the emotional side of casual dating may be just as large as the danger to our hearts posed by the physical side of hooking up.

Fifth and last, I put forth what is admittedly the limited value of my experience.  In nearly 8 years of heavy involvement with the Catholic young adult community of Boston, I have known many casual daters, many standard daters, many who tried both, many couples, and and many who indeed found their spouses and got married.  I am not personally aware of any marriages that were borne out of casual dating.  In every case that I am aware of - including my own - two people who had known one another for a few weeks to a few months recognized a mutual interest in one another, began to date, and eventually discerned marriage together.  Some years ago, I asked another Catholic friend heavily involved in both the young adult communities that I was as well as others of her experience, and she was somewhat surprised to find the same was true for her.  It is not scientific, but it is my (our) experience: getting to know people, recognizing their unique mystery, and the choosing to pursue it with all of one's heart produces faithful Christian marriages.

And hey, it's also the teaching of St. John Paul II, a man who will possibly - nay, almost certainly - one day be declared a Doctor of the Church because of his teachings on human relationships and marriage. For what that's worth!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I finally saw the new Star Trek films - and they were worse than I could have ever imagined

I like Star Trek.  A lot.  I'm one of those nerds who can tell you which episode number certain lines or plots are from - or at least which episode title.  I regularly make profoundly awful Star Trek jokes to anyone who might happen to understand them.  I once spent $700 on a Star Trek costume which I am now condemned to wear every year for Halloween without the possibility of reprieve or parole for the rest of my natural life in order to justify.  I even constructed that last sentence as a quote from one of the movies.

Yet I refused to pay for or even watch the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot films for five years.  They were changing my Star Trek.  How dare they.  My objections ranged from the superficial and ad hominem (TOO MANY LENS FLARES) to the deep and almost philosophical.  In any case, after my own personal 5 year mission to stay as far away from these films as possible, I finally broke down and finally watched both the new Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness.  My conclusion?

These films are worse than I ever expected.

Yes, I was predisposed to hate these things, but hear me out.  After 5 years of refusing to have anything to do with Abrams' Trek, advancing in my life in general, and getting engaged to the most wonderful woman alive, I was able to gain enough perspective on just how important this stuff really is to look at the films objectively.  I resigned myself to the fact that they were going to destroy the second most important planet in all of Trek Lore.  I decided it was OK that they gave everything a different aesthetic (iBridge!).  I accepted that they were going to make a lot of piddly changes to established canon.  Taking all of this as a given, I decided to watch the films expecting nothing more than Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew flying around space and saving the galaxy. In the end, I'm convinced that these films are terrible both as a Star Trek reboot and even simply as films.

First, the characters are simply wrong (this will be the longest point, since its the most important).  Now in one sense, this complaint is one of hanging on to my old beloved Star Trek.  Yes, I am comparing these "new" characters to the old.  Yet at the same time, the identity of the characters is what makes it a Star Trek at all.  Even the filmmakers made this point in explaining why they decided to make this new incarnation of Trek.  The characters were what made Star Trek, they said, but there was too much established canon to be able to tell new and creative stories with them. They wanted to keep the characters - which were the heart of Star Trek - and ditch the reams of established story limiting what they could do with them.  While I disagree that this was a problem, fair enough.

The characters, we were told, had reached such iconic cultural status that they could be rebooted and retold and re-presented.  They were compared to Batman, Superman, and other such characters of such immense and permanent cultural significance that their stories were retold and retold and retold.  Again, fair enough.  Yet this means that the characters are that anchor which keeps Star Trek as, well, Star Trek.  There are many differences between the gritty Batman films of the early 90s, the new Christopher Nolan reboot, and the campy 1960s Adam West version, but the characters are the anchor.  In each, Bruce Wayne is a charming wealthy playboy who lost his parents to a killer at a young age.  He is entrepreneurial, ingenious, and a loner to all but his faithful servant Alfred.  As Batman, he his charm turns to grit.  Even in the goofy 1960s rendition, there is a still a tough, square-jawed attitude that West takes on as Batman - which is what makes the ridiculous lines that he delivers so deliciously campy.  Can anyone imagine a version of Batman in which the Caped Crusader were cowardly, a Wolverine who was patient, or a Captain America who was unjust?  Of course not.  It is the personality of these characters which ties them together through each incarnation and identifies them as who they are.

Yet Abrams' Star Trek and it's follow up Into Darkness get the characters almost universally wrong.  The James T. Kirk of 79 television episodes and 7 films was controlled, pragmatic, and confident.  Christopher Pine's version is wild, impulsive, and portrays a facade of arrogance while harboring nothing short of helplessness under the surface.  The original Kirk was a man of order and command structure, obedient to the chain of command and respecting of the rules and regulations.  He took liberties from time to time, to be sure, but for the new Kirk it is not the liberties but the obedience which happens only from time to time.
Nimoy's Spock was a half-Vulcan you'd never know had any humanity in him until well over 80 hours into his total screen time, logical to a fault, adamant to follow the regulations.  Quinto's Spock is - even before his planet is destroyed - bubbling over with emotions just under the surface and so given to them that he, as an instructor at Starfleet academy, has apparently been having a clandestine relationship with a cadet in Uhura.  The portrayal of Scotty in the new films is nothing short of an insult to the memory of James Doohan.  I don't blame Simon Pegg, who does a brilliant job with the character he was asked to create, but with whoever decided that Scotty should be an utter buffoon, asking for sandwiches in the midst of a blistering assault and bouncing around engineering as he makes repairs more like Batman's Joker than the dignified, proud engineer of the old Trek.

Yet here lies perhaps a clue to just what went so abysmally wrong with these new characters.  The original Scotty certainly had his moments of humor, and he did provide some dignified comic relief from time to time, but, as I said, dignified, and refined - nothing like what Pegg's character offers.  The original Kirk also had his moments of being out of control with emotions, or impulsive, or ignoring a regulation - but these were rare.  Spock's humanity came to the fore on some rare occasion when he was moved by some powerful force.  These behaviors and personality traits were always within the crew of the Enterprise, but they came out only when provoked or pushed.  This is what made them whole and complete characters  - because they had depth and complexities to their personalities, just like real people.  We all have a personality and a manner which is with us most of the time, and deep within flaws, eccentricities, and extremes which come out in specific circumstances.  We all have a family member or friend who is a kind and generous person most of the time, but can become impatient or aggressive when pushed just right.  We have all known a gruff, distant person who on some rare instance shows a tenderness and sense of humanity we did not expect.  This is how real people are, and these complexities are what make great characters.

Upon being hired to direct the new Trek, J.J. Abrams said that he didn't much like Star Trek or know about it.  The truth is, it very much feels like someone watched through the original series and films to learn about the characters but came away understanding only the extremes of their characters without taking the time to grasp the core of their personalities.  The result is that the characters in the reboot seem like caricatures of the original, which ruins it from the perspective of a reboot.  It's like watching some surreal version of Batman where the Joker is almost entirely sane, as if someone took those rare moments of sanity that he could be moved to and built the entire character as though it were all he was.  It also means that, leaving aside the identity of these films as a reboot of established characters, they just aren't very good films to stand on their own: the characters have no core, no depth.

Beyond the individual characters, the crew as a whole also seems to have one major problem: they are entirely inept.  I realize that the plot of the first film involves a bunch of cadets being asked to step up and respond to a threat, but even by the second film the entire crew seems like they have no idea what they're doing.  From the standpoint of a film standing on its own, this gets so bad that the suspension of disbelief necessary for any kind of science fiction film is lost simply because I can't imagine any professional ship's crew seeming like they have so little sense of how to do their jobs.  From the standpoint of a film that is supposed to be a version of Star Trek, it also fails because of how little professional decorum the Abrams crew has.  In every series and film, the crew operates within a clear command structure: the captain and first officer give orders, the rest of the crew follows them and speak when asked for input.  Far too often, the new Trek comes across more like a group of friends with no clear leader all trying to figure a situation out together.  The new Trek feels too much like The Goonies in this regard.

Moving onto some issues which have purely to do with these films in and of themselves (and unrelated to any of the "old" Star Trek), I first have to criticize the acting.  I thought that it was awful.  There were some strong performances - I've already mentioned Simon Pegg playing a terrible version of Scotty, but playing it very well.  Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as always in the sequel. Unfortunately, there were also some awful ones.  Christopher Pine's Kirk reminds me a bit too much of Danielle Radcliffe doing his very best to channel angst and grossly overdoing it.  Quinto's portrayal of Spock didn't so much feel emotionless as mechanical and bland.  Very disappointing was Urban's McCoy, especially because of how much praise reviews gave to his performance.  I may be the only one, but I did not think Urban was channeling Deforest Kelley - by any means.  His attempts at the southern doctor struck me as very overplayed.  Frankly, it seemed to me what a mediocre impression artist would do for McCoy.

Shockingly, Leonard Nimoy's acting was also bad - atrocious, even - but for this I blame the writing.  I do this not out of some kind of fanboyism for Nimoy, but only because I have seen him act more than enough to know his ability, and in watching those scenes of his in the new films, the dialogue he is asked to offer is so painfully bad that I sincerely do not believe there was much to be done with it.  As I see it, Nimoy's acting is not so much a mark against the film's acting in general, but against it's writing.  In particular, his monologue in the first film is so poorly written that it rings more of a child playacting with action figures than a script reading in a major motion picture.

From this note, I will segue into my final issue with the films: the plots and writing simply simply do not have the internal consistency or coherence to be rated as anything beyond mediocre.  In what world does a cadet undergoing a hearing for possible expulsion get promoted to first officer - even temporarily?  What's worse, in what circumstances does he then get designated permanent captain, not only of any old ship, but the fleet's new flag ship?  Sorry, Sulu.  Sorry, Chekov, Spock, and every other officer in the fleet: you have to work your way up the chain of command, but not Kirk.  This plot point alone is sufficient to render the film more middle-school fan-fiction than anything to be taken seriously.

There are other problems.  In the first film, Spock maroons the first officer on an entirely frozen planet as an act of discipline - and nobody in the entire crew seem to have a problem with this (remember the point about the entire crew seeming to have no idea what they were supposed to be doing?) Of course they mustn't have very strong feelings about it anyways, seeing that as soon as Kirk returns to the ship and this time it's Spock who is cast off, they all readily accept this once cadet-then suspended-then stowaway-then first officer-then marooned-now captain's full authority.  A "now captain" who had insisted on staying away from the enemy, knowing how overmatched the Enterprise was (think God versus Daddy long legs) whose plan has now changed to attacking headon - for no discernable reason whatsoever.   I won't spend any more time here because I know I am not the first to make many of these points, or many of the others that could be made.  Suffice it to say, the plots of these films are bad - very, very, very bad.

It really is too bad.  I was truly, honestly ready to like these films.  As I said, Star Trek is one of my favorite fictions to get lost in for a little bit, and even if it really is a little different from the way it used to be, a good Star Trek movie might just be a lot of fun.  The problem is that these aren't good Star Trek movies, or even good movies, by any stretch.

I hope the new Star Wars don't follow this example.