No, the church does not have to change to remain "relevant"

One refrain I get deeply exhausted with is the notion that “churches have to change to remain relevant in the modern world.”

The people who say such things usually want their church to behave more like a political party than a religious institution. (Like Pope Francis, who would prefer a Marxist church to the Roman Catholic Church.) The change they want to see is not theological, but cultural. For example, they want the Catholic Church to embrace abortion or LGTBQ rights or to allow priests to marry. Most probably can’t articulate the theological arguments behind the church’s positions. But even the ones who can don’t care about theology.

What really gets me about this statement though is that it is demonstrably, empirically false. Churches that become more liberal experience rapid declines in attendance (and giving), not increasing attendance and more “relevancy” in their communities. This is the lesson of every denominational schism in recent decades.

Take, for example, the rapid decline in the Evangelical Lutheran Church:

According to projections from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) Office of Research and Evaluation, the whole denomination will have fewer than 67,000 members in 2050, with fewer than 16,000 in worship on an average Sunday by 2041.

That’s right: according to current trends, the church will basically cease to exist within the next generation. 

Or the Presbyterian Church USA, which continues to have entire communities leave as the church becomes more liberal:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continued to lose members in 2017, extending a pattern that has persisted since the mid-1960s. At the end of the year, church membership totaled 1,415,053, a decline of 67,714 members from 2016.

At the same time, a five-year period of unprecedented losses neared an end as net membership losses returned to previous levels over the last 50-plus years. The larger losses between 2012 and 2016 were brought on by the dismissal of about 100 churches (and their members) each year to splinter denominations after the 2010 General Assembly voted to allow the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as church officers and the 2014 Assembly voted to allow same-gender marriage.

“It is clear our unusually large losses between 2012 and 2016 are directly related to churches dismissed to other bodies,” says Kris Valerius, manager of records and statistics for the Office of the General Assembly.

From 21 churches and 4,718 members dismissed in 2011, the number jumped to 110 churches and 33,659 members dismissed in 2012. That pattern continued until 2017, when the number of dismissed churches fell to 45 and the number of members dismissed dipped to 6,910. The PC(USA) currently has 9,304 congregations, 147 fewer than at the end of 2016.

You can go all the way down the line with liberal denominations and liberal seminaries. They are not more “relevant,” they are headed for extinction as a matter of fact, not opinion.

The Catholic Church has seen dramatic declines in attendance and giving in the era of Pope Francis, and it’s not because Pope Francis is too conservative for people’s tastes. It’s because people WANT tradition and history. You know what has been growing in the Catholic Church? Attendance at traditional Latin Mass.

This is not rocket science. As people move closer to postmodern worldviews and moral relativism, they see less reason to practice a religion. The first generation post-schism starts going to church less. The second generation becomes a religious “none.”

Another reason for that trend is that the schism rarely stops with one issue. The church splits over gay rights, for example, but ends up talking about environmental sin. So the folks who started off just wishing that the church would not be cruel to gay people wonder how the church became so far gone. Meanwhile, in the conservative churches, things continue exactly as they did before and no one is having an existential crisis. Their kids are more likely to marry in the church (or marry at all) and have kids baptized in the church (or have kids at all).

You have watched this happen in the Democrat Party in the United States at-large too. White Baby Boomer liberals led the charge to change religious institutions toward less traditional positions and practices. Their millennial kids are not religious at all.

You either commit to a tradition or you don’t. You either subscribe to religious discipline or you don’t.

There is not some magical middle ground where you can simultaneously believe in a wisdom tradition and have a postmodern understanding of truth.

Canon vs secular law in the bankruptcies of Catholic dioceses

I’ve written a lot about financially distressed Catholic dioceses and how the financial structure of the Catholic Church insulates the Vatican from accountability. I came across this very interesting article about how dioceses have started moving funds and property into charitable trusts as abuse lawsuits have piled up.

Is it a coincidence of management or a conspiracy to shelter assets from victims? Is it just or desirable to allow alleged victims to go after the assets of schools and other auxiliary charitable causes of dioceses, essentially forcing them out of business over the behavior of an individual clergyman – transferring the damages from individuals to the entire community? Some of these claims involve priests who are no longer alive or allegations that are decades old and can’t be proven or disputed effectively. These are the sort of problems the courts have to sort out.

There seems to be considerable debate over whether this is legal or not. Some scholars argue that the dioceses adopting the charitable trust structure is unrelated to the abuse scandals, and is more about the church stepping into the modern era of nonprofit finance, which can be quite complex.

Any institutional bankruptcy attorney will tell you, however, that if you do this in anticipation of a bankruptcy filing for the specific purpose of sheltering specific assets from specific creditors, it’s likely to be considered fraudulent conveyance.

Pragmatic Catholic dioceses are still likely to adopt the structure because bankruptcy proceedings can drag on for so long that victims are likely to settle anyway. The movement of assets to trusts is a sample of what they are dealing with that puts creditors in their place before the legal fight even begins. By the time the issue is settled, so much of the proceeds will be going to lawyers’ fees that the fight isn’t even worth it.

At any rate, I found the discussion on the collision of canon law and secular law from a historical perspective fascinating:

With millions of dollars at stake, lawyers for dioceses and victims have taken to courts and conference rooms to decide whether money should be allocated to victims or sustain the Church’s ministry. There, they reference two legal codes to answer the question:

Who owns the Church’s property?

Debate about the structure of dioceses did not originate with clerical sex abuse lawsuits.

In the late 19th century, many state legislatures addressed the gap between how secular and canon law view the Catholic Church’s property. They developed the idea of the ‘corporation sole’ for dioceses – allowing bishops to control financial matters, while still allowing the next bishop to take over once his predecessor died or moved dioceses.

“It’s almost like a feudal structure,” said Marie Reilly, a law professor at Penn State who studies the intersection of bankruptcy and canon law. “You needed a way for the king to survive as a political entity so the property of the kingdom wouldn’t pass to his heirs but would remain property of the crown.”

Reilly sees the corporation sole as a ‘centralized model,’ where all diocesan entities are pooled together, and the bishop controls it all from the top.

Meanwhile, in the ‘decentralized model,’ schools and parishes exist as individual corporations or trusts. Instead of directly controlling church entities, the bishop serves as a trustee and the pastor or president of the smaller entity as the trust administrator.

The centralized model is more prevalent in older dioceses on the coasts, while the decentralized model was established in newer dioceses after laws began to define more clearly the status of non-profit corporations.

While both the centralized and decentralized models attempt to realize what is written in canon law, Reilly told Crux that she thinks the corporation sole model falls flat.

“The bishop doesn’t own parish property, property belongs to the juridical entity that acquired it,” she said. “So, when a parishioner or somebody makes a donation to a parish, that property belongs to the parish.”

That is why some dioceses decided to reconfigure their corporate status over a period stretching from roughly 2006 to 2012, including places like Erie, Pensylvania. In the process they moved from a corporation sole, the ‘centralized model,’ and transferred parishes into their own charitable trusts, a move which diocesan officials say better reflects canon law.

While it might look like parishes and other entities belong to the bishop, the diocese and parishes are separate juridical entities, meaning they own different things.

Dr. Kurt Martens, a canon lawyer at the Catholic University of America, said the bishop might oversee the activities of a parish, comparing the system to checks-and-balances, but is bound from doing more by canon law.

“The bishop, canonically speaking, does not own, through the diocese, the assets of a parish,” Martens said in an interview.

While canon law clearly separates bishops from parishes, the argument under secular law is more complicated. As a trustee, the bishop has secular authority over the parish charitable trust, a detail which diocesan lawyers contest is beside the point.

“The distinction between [diocesan] assets and parish charitable trust assets is not eliminated simply because the bishop is a trustee of a parish charitable trust,” said John Fessler, a lawyer for the Diocese of Erie.

The possibility for a bishop to control parish assets in secular law is outweighed by canon law, Fessler explained. Instead, the pastor and finance council of the parish, as trust administrators, would make financial decisions on behalf of the charitable trust.

“[The bishop] is the trustee of the parish charitable trust, he’s not a dictator,” Fessler said.

I also found this academic article from O’Reilly on the battle between canonical and secular legal frameworks, which goes into much more detail. It’s quite a fun topic for finance geeks.

Why Republican governors are choosing to keep their refugee resettlement programs

Elise on the playground with a refugee girl from the Congo.
These little ladies were inseparable.

Tucker Carlson – whose views I increasingly cannot stand – had a segment last night trying to “explain” why it was that most Republican governors have decided to continue and even expand refugee resettlement in their states. Of course, he didn’t know the answer, but he was perfectly fine leaving his audience with an outright lie.

Carlson found it counter-intuitive that Republican governors would choose to continue accepting refugees after President Trump signed an executive order last September that refugees could only be resettled in a jurisdiction if both state and local officials were on board. After all, some current and former Republican governors, including 2024 hopeful Nikki Haley, had lobbied aggressively for this measure. This was their opportunity finally to be free of the social and financial burdens refugees pose to local governments, and they rejected it.

Carlson concluded that Republican governors eventually decided to accept refugee resettlement programs for the financial assistance that accompanied them. Their motive was money, pure and simple, he suggested. As if getting $20,000 in aggregate to help deal with the costs of these programs were some serious consideration. Anyone who has worked in state government can tell you that’s not even a rounding error in the budget of a small agency, let alone something that would drive major policy decisions. It was a ludicrous and offensive claim, and honestly, I have no idea why conservatives continue to put up with Carlson’s bullshit anymore.

The reality of the refugee debate is that resettlement groups in the US primarily receive assistance from churches and religious groups. I know this because I have a lot of personal experience with these programs. My daughter and I volunteered with an ESL program for refugees coming over from the Democratic Republic of the Congo through the Catholic Church for a while. It was one of the most enlightening and fulfilling things I have ever done, and I highly recommend contributing to these causes.

The media loves to portray the refugee issue as a left-versus-right fight, and it’s not. It’s pretty much entirely a right-versus-right issue, with people who like and support Trump generally agreeing to disagree with him on this particular issue.

I guarantee you that very few of those lefty keyboard warriors on Twitter talking about Trump’s “Muslim ban” (most refugees coming into the US are not from Muslim countries – the US is nothing like Europe) have never lifted a finger to help refugees in their lives. It’s the gun-toting, Jesus-loving, Republican voters who are contributing their time and personal wealth to help with resettlement programs and they perceive these to be serious, life-altering causes.

Last year, 2,600 evangelicals participated in a drive to pressure Republican governors into continuing to accept refugees. These folks had established organizations devoted to helping refugees come over to the United States, and had worked aggressively through the bureaucratic maze across years to reunite families. They were not happy at all with the idea that their efforts would be destroyed:

The evangelical refugee resettlement agency World Relief and the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical organizations seeking comprehensive immigration reform, led an effort this past week to send joint letters to 15 state governors.

The letters call for the officials to permit the continued resettlement of refugees through the U.S. refugee admissions program in accordance with Trump’s Sept. 26 executive order giving states and localities the ability to block refugee resettlement. 

So far, 17 of the nation’s 50 governors have indicated that they will continue to allow refugee resettlement in the U.S., according to World Relief.  

One of the letters, which was signed by 294 evangelicals in the state, was sent to Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey before he gave consent last Friday to refugee resettlement in Arizona’s borders. 

Another letter, signed by 136 evangelicals in North Carolina, was sent to Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper, who gave his consent for resettlement in the Tar Heel State to the U.S. State Department on Tuesday. 

Other letters were sent to governors in California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. 

The letter warned state leaders that disruptions to the resettling process in their states could impact the “reunification of many families who have been waiting years to be reunited.”

The letters stress that if states block resettlement in their borders, families looking to be reunited will likely exercise their right to move to those states once they are resettled in the U.S. 

But in doing so, the letters stated, refugees will be forced to “move away from vital employment assistance, language acquisition and cultural adjustment resources offered by their resettlement organization.”

“Refugees can best integrate into the U.S. and quickly become financially self-sufficient when supported both by their family and by a local resettlement office,” the form letters state.

“As our state’s governor, we urge you to keep the option open for local communities within [the state] to continue to receive newly arrived refugees. As always, we are committed to praying for you as you lead our state.”

The letters received a combined total of 2,669 signatories, including 659 on the letter to Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee, 340 on the letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and 231 on the letter to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. 

“After being forced to leave their countries to escape war, persecution or natural disaster and being legally allowed entry to the U.S., the last thing refugees should have to experience is being denied access to communities in which they wish to dwell,” World Relief President Scott Arbeiter said in a statement. “Halting the resettlement of refugees to states will disrupt families and could lead to the end of vital ministries by local churches.”

The Congolese refugees we worked with were all very good and very kind people. Their lives had been displaced by violent conflicts over natural resources that are primarily used by people in rich western countries. (Those smartphones we love so much are ruining a lot of lives.)

They had taken enormous personal risks to come here with their children. Most of those children had not known any life beyond a refugee camp, though one family I met had been previously settled in Russia before coming to the United States. Their kids spoke a few African languages, French, some Russian, and were learning English through our program and public schools. It used to kill me when I’d hear adults talking down to them like they were stupid.

In many cases, the fathers had remained behind so their wives and children could have the opportunity at a new life. This is a horrible fact of refugee life in the United States. In many cases, these refugees are getting resettled in public housing projects, where they see gangs and drugs and often do not have a father figure to anchor them. But stuff like this gets completely lost in the idiotic propaganda wars coming out of Washington. That makes the roles of Christian groups even more important. (It’s also important to the lives of the US-born kids in the same projects.)

The amount of help these churches provide refugees is incredible. They offer English classes. They help them get their kids registered for school and work as liaisons with government agencies and social workers. They provide transportation to doctor’s appointments and to the grocery store. Heck, they even teach the refugees how to shop at a big-box grocery store, which is a phenomenon they have never seen. They provide them with food because benefits do not go very far. They help them obtain clothes for all of their kids, winter coats, and toys at holidays. And beyond all that, they are just there for them through whatever comes up. Volunteers went to refugee weddings and baptisms.

With all of the political division in this country, a lot of “aggressively online” people live in a world of caricatures. This is also true for people who only get their news from one news source. It’s not unique to the left, either. The fact that Tucker Carlson does not understand who is helping refugees in this country means he probably interacts with more liberals in the DC area than conservatives personally. He likes them, in theory, but he’s not visiting their churches.

You don’t have to be some open borders, “we are a nation of immigrants, so let everyone in” nut to support refugees. You can believe that the country should do a better job of vetting refugees and still believe refugees are worth helping. You can believe that locals should have a voice in accepting refugees and simultaneously hope they choose to help. There is room in this country for a continuum of beliefs on any subject, but especially on immigration.

The United Methodist Church files for divorce over LGBTQ rights

Well, it’s pretty much a done deal: the United Methodist Church is splitting up and the two remaining factions will have nothing to do with each other. As with most divorces, this was less about the nature of the disagreement that led to the split and all about who gets to keep money and property:

Leaders of the United Methodist Church have agreed in principle on a deal that will divide the denomination, potentially ending years of discord over the status of gay and transgender people in the church.

The agreement, which was signed by 16 leaders of the church on both sides of the debate, would allow same-sex marriage in the Methodist church and for gay clergy members to serve openly.

Conservative churches that oppose same-sex marriage could leave the denomination and take their property with them, a sticking point that in other denominations facing similar conflicts has led to long legal battles over who owns church buildings.

Since the Episcopal Church began consecrating openly gay clergy in 2003, dozens of churches have split off and sued the denomination in an effort to keep hold of church property.

The agreement would give the conservative churches that leave $25 million to start their own denomination. Clergy members who leave would keep their United Methodist Church pensions.

For the deal to take effect, it will have to be approved at the denomination’s next general conference in May. Several church leaders involved in the deal said that because advocates on both sides of the debate were involved in negotiating it, they are optimistic it will pass.

“We’ve essentially put this conflict behind us,” said Keith Boyette, a signatory to the deal who is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a collection of more than 1,000 conservative congregations that oppose same-sex marriage. “For traditionalists, we can now focus on the next steps. That would not be achievable if there were not this kind of plan in place.”

Mr. Boyette said that he was holding conference calls with members of the association on Friday, and that the group had already put out a draft book of bylaws that a new, traditionalist denomination could use.

He said he hoped to hold a convening conference for a new denomination this year and estimated that as much as 30 to 40% of the denomination in the U.S. would leave the United Methodist Church.

The agreement follows years of rancor over LGBT people’s place in the Methodist church, the third-largest religious denomination in the U.S., with 13 million members world-wide.

Last year, the church convened a special general conference specifically to address the question. But the meeting ended without a clear resolution. While 53% of delegates voted to strengthen the ban on same-sex marriage, more progressive churches across the U.S. continued to conduct same-sex weddings and gay clergy continued to serve. Some prominent conservatives advocated for dissolving the denomination altogether.

Ken Carter, president of the United Methodist Church’s council of bishops and a signatory of the deal, said he had hoped to keep the denomination from splitting, but was convinced to give churches a path to leave after witnessing the damage that the continuing fight was causing at the conference.

“There are simply some convictions and matters of conscience that do not allow people to be in unity with each other,” he said.

Sad to watch things like this happen, but it is probably a sign of things to come for the Roman Catholic Church too. Even the pope has resigned himself to the idea of a schism.

Netflix's The Two Popes gets Catholicism humorously wrong

I have been waiting for Netflix’s The Two Popes to be released for a while. It is a visually gorgeous, well-acted movie. It is also a disturbing piece of revisionist history.

It’s clear from the outset that the movie aspires to rebuild the corporate media mythology of Pope Francis. Pope Francis’s reputation has been thoroughly tarnished in recent years by a number of events – well, more like trends – in the church.

Pope Francis has failed to address the existence of predatory priests and has been credibly accused of engaging in a cover-up of abuse scandals involving those at the highest ranks of the church.

Francis failed to reform the Vatican bank and the corruption during his tenure is shocking. It has been revealed that money raised from the faithful for charitable works instead was used to fund the Vatican’s budget deficit and to speculate in luxury real estate in London in hedge fund-like investments. Only about 10% of the funds ever made it to charity. Dozens of Catholic dioceses in the United States have filed for bankruptcy over settlements with abuse victims while the Vatican under Francis spends money like it is going out of style. The reality of the Vatican stands in sharp contrast to the Hollywood mythology of Francis as a humble man who devotes all his attention to the poor.

Francis has distracted from these issues by making radical changes to the church’s core practices. He has made changes to the catechism on a whim. He is considering allowing married clergy. He’s held ceremonies deifying plants as a tribute to his environmentalism. He shrugs at the idea of a schism, whereby conservative Catholics would leave a church that is already suffering catastrophic losses in participation. It’s not a great time for the church, and Francis has been a willing participant in the church’s myriad problems.

All this is to say that there is an incentive to try and whitewash some of Francis’s leadership failures. And it’s clear that is what this movie tries to do.

I often joke that Francis is primarily loved by people who are not Catholic. Hollywood liberals love the idea of Francis because they feel a political kinship with his socialist background and believe (incorrectly) that he will eventually change the catechism to endorse LGBT folks. But they hate Catholicism; you will never find any of these folks in a pew. What they want to see is the political conversion of a group of people they otherwise believe subscribe to a litany of dumb superstitions. Although loved by non-Catholics, Francis drives many traditional Catholics away. And there are a lot of traditional Catholics.

What you see in The Two Popes is Hollywood fan fiction. It is not even a remotely accurate portrayal of Benedict’s scandalous retirement from the papacy or the internal dramas and intrigues that drove him away. In fact, the movie outright dismisses a conflict with the Curia as contributing to Benedict’s renouncing the papacy, which is absolutely false. The movie suggests that the conservative Benedict came around to thinking ultra-liberal Francis would make a better pope than he would, and that is why he left. It’s incredible.

While the movie lavishes praise on Francis, it is an absolute hatchet job on Benedict – which is stunning, as Benedict is a thoroughly decent person. Benedict is a deeply intellectual hermit, who established himself as a renowned theologian before becoming pope. He was a prolific writer. In the movie, Benedict is portrayed as a machine-politics wheeler and dealer who connived his way into becoming pope and then decided he didn’t want it after all. More Rahm Emanuel than Thomas Aquinas. It’s like the screenwriter has no idea whatsoever whom he is talking about. About the only accurate thing the movie shows about Benedict is that he really loves music.

At many points in the movie, the conversation becomes comically heretical. For example, in one exchange between Francis and Benedict, Francis explains that the church is a plastic, ever-changing organization. He says that there was no discussion of angels whatsoever in the church until the 5th century, “and then they were everywhere.” (This argument is used to justify Francis allowing people who are in a state of mortal sin to participate in the Eucharist contrary to church dogma.) But anyone who has ever bothered to read the New Testament knows there are dozens of references to angels in the text. An angel informs Mary that she will give birth to Jesus for crying out loud. No serious biblical scholar, let alone a cardinal in the Catholic Church, would make such a preposterous claim.

Then the conversation really goes off the rails. Francis informs Benedict that not only does the Holy Catholic Church “change,” but God also “changes.” This is directly antithetical to the beliefs of the church, and well, pretty much every Protestant denomination too, while we’re at it. I cannot imagine Francis would find that line particularly flattering. But when Hollywood does religion, they know so little about the topic that they are bound to include some stupid stuff.

The climax of the movie is when Benedict confesses to Francis that he covered up crimes committed by the founder of the Legion of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel. This is vile slander and I almost did not finish the movie at that point. Truly, the church should vocally condemn the movie on this disgusting plot device alone.

We are also treated to numerous instances of Benedict being called a Nazi for no reason other than the fact that he’s German, which has to be the most 2019 thing ever. Hey, I don’t know anything about this guy, but he’s old and white and he has traditional beliefs, so he’s “literally Hitler,” as the kids say.

One of the biggest issues with this movie is that the performances of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, being excellent actors, will be quite convincing to non-Catholic audiences. It’s like they are exploiting the ignorance of those who are not capable of discerning the fact that this movie is a fabulist trainwreck written by someone who clearly needs to brush up on their theology and cultural literacy. It’s revisionist history and the most dangerous sort of revisionist history at that.

The more I think about this strange movie, the more I think it is a brilliant example of why the absurdist political agenda of corporate media is becoming a major problem in our public discourse. This is fundamentally dishonest content, but not quite propaganda. (The church surely does not want people to believe the pope is an illiterate heretic. But in the era of Francis, perhaps I should prepare myself to be surprised.) I am reminded of a tweet by New York Times author Maggie Haberman, who suggested that Edelweiss was a Nazi anthem for no other reason than the song is used in the opening to The Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s bastardization of Philip K. Dick’s story. It’s a stunningly stupid claim made for a stunningly stupid reason, but now her legions of followers believe it too. This entire movie is like that but on a larger scale. We live in an era where the tech industry has made information very easy to come by, but disinformation even easier.

I think, in general, there is now a lot of garbage content about religion in the digital space. Evangelicals have been similarly plagued by people who left the church (and in some cases, have fully transitioned to atheism) speaking viciously and falsely about their former communities. I’m sure this has always been the case, however. It’s just now the unreliable narrators have grander platforms financed with junk bond offerings and their ignorance is unrelentingly amplified.

If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad

A couple weeks ago, I read philosopher Jonathan Lear’s book, Aristotle: The Desire to Understand. If you are looking for a book that explains Aristotle’s philosophy in fairly straightforward terms, this would be an outstanding choice. Though I would obviously recommend reading Aristotle himself first.

Perhaps it is my Roman Catholic background, but I have considered Aristotle to be the authority on a life well-lived for as long as I can remember. (In the Catholic Church, Aristotle is regarded as The Philosopher, and was the subject of much scholastic criticism.) All this is to say, there are not many people who can make me view Aristotle through a different lens because Aristotle is the language my brain is programmed in. But Lear accomplished that, or at least made my code more efficient.

In his discussion of Aristotle’s Ethics, Lear says something that has stuck with me for a while: Ethics is not about adhering to an arbitrary set of rules. Ethics is about the proper organization of desires.

This is antithetical to the way we talk about ethics in modern society, mostly because we don’t care about establishing a metaphysical foundation for any beliefs nowadays. What is ethical is mostly a function of who is in power rather than what is good from an eternal perspective.

All of Aristotle’s philosophy comes down to his concept of the life well-lived as a sort of flourishing (the Greek εὐδαιμονία, sometimes poorly translated as the passive term “happiness,” rather than flourishing).

If you are living an ethical life, your desires are properly organized and that supports flourishing in a personal and social context. The logical corollary is that having desires that are in disarray makes you miserable.

A dear friend of mine who is gifted at needlepoint sent me some photographs recently of her latest (gorgeous) project, which involves stitching out the Ten Commandments. She told me that she thinks every family (within the Judeo-Christian wisdom traditions, I assume) should have the Ten Commandments on display in their house.

That remark had me thinking about how many people nowadays would perceive posting the Ten Commandments anywhere, even in one’s personal space, as inhospitable or archaic. Certainly most liberal Christians prefer some gooey caricature of Jesus in the New Testament to the legalistic notion of religion the Ten Commandments present. Lost is any concern that this was the actual cultural landscape that the real persona of Jesus was born into. They would like to think he obliterated the Commandments both literally and figuratively. Or, from a metaphysical perspective, they would like to believe that it doesn’t matter how you live – if you have the “right” emotions about God, you will ultimately be happy.

But imagine if you looked at the Ten Commandments through the lens of Aristotle’s Ethics. Instead of being arbitrary rules to follow chucked from the sky by a terse deity, the Commandments exist to help you organize your desires properly. They are divine wisdom regarding how to flourish in the world. In other words, they exist to save you from yourself. They are not a cage, but a gift.

Keep a day for meditation and to be surrounded by loved ones. Be loyal to your spouse, because it is impossible for you or your children to flourish if you do not keep your family intact. Respect your parents, otherwise you will regret being unkind when they are not around and you can see past events with mature eyes. Do not covet what other people have, because the rat race leads to a dead end. Instead, appreciate the real life that you and your family have built. Don’t be an unreliable narrator because unreliable narrators are not welcome in decent communities. These aren’t tedious rules. They are solid advice on how to live well, and that starts with having your desires aligned. To have a good life, you have to want good things. You have to care.

I think our culture probably did regard the Decalogue this way, but it’s now a core assumption of postmodern society that there is no one path to flourishing. Based on that assumption, folks like to deny the validity of ancient wisdom on the topic. “Wisdom” has become synonymous with “rules,” and rules are oppressive. And we have an increasingly strung-out world to show for it.

Part of the All Souls Deuteronomy, the oldest existing copy of the Decalogue.

Remember who you are

We spent yesterday driving up to Lake Hartwell, Georgia, to spend Thanksgiving with family. Along the way, we decided to stop in and see good friends who relocated to Georgia from Kentucky, whom we had not seen in years. They have found a truly beautiful spot to live here. The Georgia forests are alive with fall colors. We found ourselves gasping at the woods and creeks with each curve of the road or descent into a valley. It was a spectacular drive.

While we were visiting, one of their teenage daughters asked permission to go out with some of her friends from school to look at a display of Christmas lights. Her parents asked who she was going with, who else might be there, who was driving, and so on, before telling her she could go.

As she was walking out the door, her mother stopped her and said, “Remember who you are. Make good decisions.”

Remember who you are. Make good decisions.

That succinct delivery of wisdom stunned me. Her daughter received the words thoughtfully too, even though you knew she was accustomed to hearing it. I told our friends that I was going to make a note of those words for when Elise is old enough to venture into the world independently. That will become my mantra too.

As a young adult (heck, even as a mature adult), you get so caught up in being popular or trying to attract the attention of certain people that you tend to forget existential decisions often seem like small matters. That pushing through what seems like a porous boundary on one occasion – what might seem like a small or even reasonable gamble – can end up having life-altering consequences.

And beyond that, we now live in a society that is actively encouraging children to forsake the wisdom of millennia for cheap pleasures or a fleeting sense of belonging. How do you tell a child to be wise when every other social influence – even perceived authorities and institutions – are telling them to be stupid and make mistakes? How do you help your child navigate cultural influences that now have quite the track record for producing lost and miserable generations?

Our friends are Mormon. Although I am Roman Catholic, I have always respected the practical wisdom of Mormon parenting and felt a kinship to their virtue ethics.

After our conversation last night, I Googled the phrase “remember who you are” and learned that this is a common refrain in Mormon communities. The reason the words are so effective is they cut to the core of what it means to be a person of faith and live with dignity.

When someone tells you to remember who you are, you do not only think “I am a person from a good family, who was raised correctly, who genuinely wants to live a good and virtuous life and bring honor to my family name.” It goes well beyond filial piety (not that filial piety is a bad thing). Rather you think, “I am a child of God and everything I do is a demonstration of my relationship with God. What will doing this say about who I am as a person and what I value? Do the people around me care about what they are doing in the same way?”

To that end, I enjoyed reading this article on Mormon parenting:

We have been up in Logan this past week caring for Richard’s wonderful 91-year-old mother who sleeps about 20 hours a day and retains her wonderful, sweet personality, though for the last two or three years, she can’t remember who we are or who she is. Seasons revolve, roles reverse. She took care of me in that same house on Fifth North when I was a small boy, and now we take care of her in the same rooms.

I don’t want the forgetting part to happen to me, but I do want what she has had — another really good 20-plus years beyond 65. During that autumn of her life, she created lesson plans for a national chain of preschools, wrote a remarkable history of her Swedish ancestors, managed her investments, real estate and rental properties, dabbled in poetry and art, traveled around the country and around the world, and maintained great relationships with every one of her children and grandchildren. She’s in her deep winter now, and in her lucid moments wishing to go to a better place to be with my dad, who has been gone for 50 years.

There is a certain irony in the fact that she can’t remember anything, because I used to think I was the only boy with a mother who, every time I left the house, and I do mean every time, would yell at me, “Remember who you are!” I have since learned that it is quite a common parting shot among moms, including Teddy Roosevelt’s mother.

You guys know I love Teddy Roosevelt, so the idea that Roosevelt’s mother used to say this too is just fantastic. But anyway, back to the article:

“Remember who you are” means a lot of good things, like uphold the family name, make me proud, don’t do anything stupid, be careful, think, etc. But have you thought what it means in the eternal context? Remember who you really are — a child of God, a spiritual being having a mortal experience, a person who has taken upon himself the name of Christ, a priesthood holder, etc.

We want our children to remember those things not just so they will behave better, but so they will feel more self-worth, treat their body with respect, make good choices, be kind to others, protect themselves and their standards. We could give them continual lectures on all these points, but maybe the best way to say it really is “Remember who you are.”

It strikes me, however, that this approach only works on children if their lives up to that point have had some sort of spiritual information.

If you told a child who was raised by moral relativists to remember who they are, they would not respond with “I am a person who genuinely wants to lead a good life.” They would say, “I don’t know. Who am I?” This is one of the many reasons social institutions now fail to produce kids who are capable of flourishing at all, let alone flourishing through periods of adversity.

You can’t ground someone who has come to view their personhood as some plastic cultural context. Similarly, a person who does have a life with spiritual content cannot remember who they are without placing the small stuff within an eternal context.