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Thursday, April 12, 2018
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I want to talk today about a young Roman Catholic priest from Minnesota who seems to be getting more and more attention amidst the faithful for his social media skills. His name is Father Mike Schmitz, and his videos and use of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram are quite impressive. He appears to be one of the first, if not THE first, Catholic spokesperson to make truly effective use of “the new media”, even though it’s been around now for more than a decade. I think that Father Mike is someone to watch, if you at all interested in the American Roman Catholic Church; I get the feeling that he is a rising star, someone you will be hearing a lot more about.

During the 1930’s, Father Charles Coughlin became know as “the radio priest” and got a national following for his commentaries during the Great Depression and World War 2 (especially considering his often fiery political views, such as his support of Huey Long and his opposition to US involvement in the War). After the War, the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton used the increasingly popular paperback book medium to gain fame through his conservative pro-Church writings. His 1948 autobiography Seven Storey Mountain was said to have inspired thousands of young people to a Catholic clerical vocation. Then in the 1950s, Bishop Fulton Sheehan became the “television priest”, supporting Catholic doctrine with a popular TV show. Then came Mother Angelica and her pioneering use of cable TV in the early 1980’s, with the formation of the EWTN network. The Internet and its social media infrastructure has been awaiting a charismatic Catholic spokesperson to come along and defend the magisterium on YouTube and Facebook, and it looks like Father Mike is the guy. You can check him and his thoughts out at his Ascension Ministries website channel, his page on the University of Duluth Newman Center site, on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

This guy has a HUGE footprint on the Internet !!

Father Mike has a LOT of videos out, over 100; I have watched about 10 or 11 of them so far. Each lasts about 6 or 7 minutes, and each roughly follows the format of a priest’s sermon at mass. For the most part, Father Mike is out to defend the old-tyme religion, Catholic style. Father will tell you that you have an obligation to go to Mass on Sunday and holy days, you need to go to Confession, there is a Hell, and that the Church and all of its structure from the Pope through the Cardinals and on down to the lowliest Deacon and Nun, does indeed convey the legitimate teaching authority of Jesus and his Disciples. I haven’t heard his thoughts yet on homosexuality — he doesn’t seem to have a 7 minute video out on that topic yet, although there are some recordings of longer talks (an hour or so) that he gave regarding sexuality. But I did see his talk about Bruce-nee-Catlyn Jenner and the trans-sexuality question, where Father Mike basically concludes that it’s the body that rules, not what the mind tells you about yourself — no exceptions. In other words, trans-sexuality is a psychological dysfunction — but, Catholics still have an obligation to be nice to them despite their delusion. So don’t expect much liberal sympathy from Father Mike.

For the most part, though, Father Mike seems to avoid the modern hot-button social and political issues. He focuses on more practical concerns for Catholics like “Can I Get a Tatoo” (maybe, but think about it for a year before you decide), “Will My Pet Be in Heaven” (maybe, but only if it won’t distract your attention away from God), and “Why We Don’t Drink Coffee At Mass” (cause you gotta pay attention to the consecration, not to your java). He does however take on the matter of NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem. Basically, he punts — he won’t completely condemn the players, he “gets it” about racial injustice; but he thinks that it’s generally better to focus one’s energies more on personal integrity than on broader social justice matters.

So why then am I taking Father Mike and his video sermons and social media ramblings so seriously? Well, the guy has charisma — he looks to be tall and handsome, just around the age of 40 give or take a year. And his arguments are fairly well reasoned — Father Schmitz knows his Church’s history and doctrines and apologetics quite well and presents them plainly and in a convincing manner. Given his ministry on a college campus, he knows what Millennials are talking about and concerned with, he knows what they like and what they don’t like. As people might have said back in the 60’s and 70’s about priests who had success in working with the (once upon a time) young and restless Baby Boomers, Father Mike is “hip”, he’s “with it”. And yea, if we really want to put-on the retro Sixties, we might even call Father Mike “groovy”. He knows how to make an entertaining video — you don’t get bored watching him. He knows how to be entertaining on the screen, interjecting bits of humor, self-deprecation, funny faces, and occasionally words or images moving across the screen to help keep you awake.

And one more thing — Father Mike appears to be NICE. Even when he talks about hell (it’s real, according to Father Mike), he doesn’t use any fire or brimstone. He doesn’t threaten you, he tries to use the promise of love and belonging instead. But he doesn’t give that love and belonging away for free; he makes it clear, as nicely as possible, that the Church has its obligations and requirements. But he wants you to know that these obligations and requirements are not there to hurt you or use you, but to make you better in the long run. Remember here that Father Mike hails from Minnesota — he clearly has mastered the art of “Minnesota Nice”! As Wikipedia says, “The cultural characteristics of ‘Minnesota nice’ include polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation”.

I stumbled across Father Mike and his videos about a week ago, when I was looking for an article that I once read by a Catholic priest, regarding the religious virtues of the cartoon figure Captain America. During my web search, I found Father Mike’s talk comparing Superman, Batman and Captain America, where he explains that the Captain’s life history and his developed virtues come closest to what the Catholic Church believes about God’s relationship with humankind.

I really liked what Father Schmitz had to say about Captain America — there will be more about my interest in the Captain in a digression at the end of this blog. Back to the good Father, his (seemingly) humble charisma and his reflections on a wise and loving Catholic Church tugged at the strings of my heart. I really want there to be a Church that truly stands for love, wisdom and truth. But in so many ways, I am aware that the Church has not fully lived up to this vision, it has left so many people hurt and disappointed. I grew up as a Catholic, and in my early adulthood I tried to become more involved with the Church, trying to find communities and ministries that reflect its highest values.

For a lot of reasons, I eventually left the Church; I don’t claim all of them to be perfectly justified, and I don’t claim that the Church hurt me directly. Perhaps I expected too much of it — but today I just can’t go back because I can no longer believe in its core doctrine, the trinitarian nature of God’s existence. I discuss my logic in greater detail elsewhere on my web site, but after years of study, after reading many books written by numerous scholars of many different backgrounds and beliefs, it seemed clear to me that Jesus did not rise from the dead; his life was not an exceptional, extraordinary spiritual event manifesting his unique one-ness with the Father. In the end, the puzzle-pieces of history seem to paint an image of Jesus as an innovative apocalyptic Jew of the First Century, one who thought that radical righteousness would inspire God to establish a kingdom of heavenly justice here on earth. Jesus saw himself as God’s “appointed overseer” for that kingdom, and believed that the hour for the coming of that kingdom had drawn nigh, on a Passover afternoon long ago. Unfortunately, the Romans decided to kill him for his efforts to bring about that kingdom, and the sun set that spring evening with Jesus in a grave and the Romans and establishment Jews still firmly in power. And two millennium later, despite so many changes to the world, the injustices of old continue into the future. Jesus was correct in that righteousness will bring eventual reconciliation with God; but he was wrong to think that it could happen in the short run, within the context of an earthly nation.

I truly would like to buy what Father Mike is selling, as he makes such a good sales pitch. And I think that Father Mike, although far from perfect (I hope that his rising fame doesn’t go to his head), ultimately does have a good heart, he is a true man of God. And he and I still share fundamental beliefs in the existence of God, and even of the nature of God’s relationship to man (as summarized in his Captain America video). But given how central the New Testament’s story of Jesus is to the Church, given how vigorously (if nicely) Father Mike defends that story and its transmutation and development by Paul and the leaders of the Western Church over many centuries . . . in the end, Father Mike is not my man. But again, I say that with a touch of sadness — again, I think that Father Mike really does have goodness in his heart, a goodness that I would also like to have.

But whatever my feelings as an old man are, I think that Father Mike is a rising star in the Church; he is their “great nice hope” to get Millennials interested in Catholicism again. What would I wish for Father Mike in the future? Do I want him to succeed in restoring the strength of the American church, to keep its churches from becoming mainly a place of gathering for immigrants from the developing nations where Catholicism is still growing and popular? [NOT that Catholic parishes in America should try to get Filipinos and Nigerians and Mexicans out of its pews — in fact, serving those populations is an obvious part of its ministry! But can Catholicism and its temples also go back to being a place of spiritual focus for the more established populations in our nation?]

Actually, what I would like for Father Mike in the long run is what happened to the monk Thomas Merton. Merton convincingly defended the accepted doctrines and ways of Catholicism before the public from the late 40s thru the early 1960s; but slowly, something changed in his life and in his spiritual outlook. Merton never renounced his Catholic priesthood, his monastic commitment, nor his acceptance of Church doctrine. And yet, he opened up his mind and his heart to other faiths, including Orthodox and Protestant Christianity, Islam, and then finally the east. In fact, during the last few years of his life he was greatly absorbed in studies and discussions regarding Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Zen (along with a growing and supportive interest in the anti-war and anti-racism movements of the 1960s). He was trying to push the envelope of Catholicism in the years leading up to the Vatican II convocation, which sought to “open up the windows” of the Church. Merton ironically died in Thailand in 1968 while on a journey to the lands where these traditions lived. I don’t want Father Mike to die like that, but I do hope that he will someday follow Merton in expanding his spiritual perspectives beyond the confines of Western Catholicism, and looking afresh at how the Church can best respond to the realities of the 21st Century.

DIGRESSION — How I came across Father Mike while looking for the Catholic viewpoint on Captain America —

Some of my Buddhist friends, knowing that I am interested in issues of human consciousness, suggested recently that I have a look at a video discussion between Sam Harris and philosopher Thomas Metzinger, who has written extensively on the nature of consciousness. During this conversation, Metzinger discussed his recent article about “B.A.A.N.” (which stands for “Benevolent Artificial Anti Natalism”). The article and the concept aren’t too hard to understand, but what Metzinger himself is trying to do with them is a bit fuzzy. The B.A.A.N. concept itself is a futuristic “what if”. It relates to the “Singularity” concept, the notion that in the not too distant future, artificial intelligence will become widespread and at some point will interact on a global basis and “run away” in terms of intelligence-acquisition, such that it soon exceeds the intellectual capacity of all humans, both individually and collectively. This idea has been popularized in recent years by computer scientist and futurist Ray_Kurzweil. The expected growth of this “unified intelligence” will be rapid; thus, before long, this “singularity” will think and analyze at a level that far exceeds the capability of humans to understand. Just as a human cannot teach calculus to a dog or gorilla, however smart they may seem, the Singularity will realize things that we could never figure out.

This might be wonderful in terms of finding cures for complex diseases like cancer and solving problems like the unification of gravity and quantum physics. But Metzinger asks us to consider the following: what if this super-machine sees things about us that aren’t terribly flattering? What if the Singularity decides that the human race is beyond repair, that we are on a self destructive path that not only causes more suffering amidst ourselves than joy, but does the same for other sentient species and for all of nature? What if “the Big S” decides that humankind is a big negative and everything would be better if we just called it a day? Metzinger postulates that this super-intelligence (which by then will control just about all of human infrastructure, government, military and the economy, all of the ways that we get our food, power, water, security, information, etc.) will, in its intelligent benevolence (no need to be cruel when you control everything, nothing much more to fight for), convince humankind that we need to end ourselves?

Sure, the Singularity could arrange for that quite quickly, by cutting off all of our food transport and water lines and power utilities, and setting off all of our thermonuclear bombs, as in some sci-fi movie (remember Skynet?). But that would obviously create a whole lot of human suffering in its final hours. The kindest and gentlest way to end the great evolutionary experiment that the homo sapiens species has been, would be to convince humans to just stop having children. Let them live out their lives as comfortably as possible (just imagine, no more school buses stopping for kids in the morning and delaying your drive to work!). “Anti-Natalism” was not invented by Metzinger, it has been discussed and debated for many years by a handful of academics.

There are even some thinking people who feel that Buddhism endorses the notion of anti-natalism. Also, in ancient times there were some Gnostic sects that saw procreation as sinful, and in more modern times, the Shakers banned sex and child-birth in their quest of spiritual union (and thus eventually they went out of business, but are still remembered for their furniture). What interested me was that Metzinger is clearly a Buddhist or Buddhist sympathizer (e.g., he clearly espouses the theory of “no-self”, a key Buddhist tenant), so is he promoting an anti-natal viewpoint? He claims that his article is not argumentative but analytical, it is not urging us to listen to a super-intelligence if it says that we and the world around us would be better off by wrapping up the show, but a “what if” scenario to inspire further thought and discussion. Still, I got the feeling that he would be sympathetic to BAAN if the Singularity comes and proves its ultra-intelligent bona fides to us. I am not the only person to suspect this.

And my personal reaction to the BAAN scenario was quite negative; it just hit me in the stomach. I shared Metzinger’s BAAN article with two people from my Zen group who consider themselves to be active Buddhists, and neither of them shared my dismay; they seemed open-minded to BAAN, if it were truly determined by a future Singularity. I pointed out to them that the BAAN idea was roughly the plot of a 2015 Marvel Avengers super-hero movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron. For a 2 minute movie summary, check this trailer.

Obviously, Captain America and all of the Avengers had a reaction similar to my BAAN reaction, in response to Ultron’s “benevolent” determination that world peace could only come through the elimination of humanity. There is a big difference between Ultron and BAAN, in that Ultron used violent forces of mass destruction to get the job done as quickly and painfully as possible, whereas Metzinger’s BAAN policy would allow existing people to live out their lives in relative comfort. But Metzinger admits in his article that “Homo sapiens would immediately declare war against any compassionate anti-natalist superintelligence of the kind sketched above”. If Metzinger could figure that out, the Singularity would certainly know it too. So why shouldn’t the Singularity, after making its determination, do just what Ultron did — get this over with as quickly as possible; the faster and more forcefully it is done, the quicker the final but necessary suffering will be over. Cruel to be kind, as the medieval Church and its Crusaders felt and acted towards the heretics and the non-believers.

Metzinger and Harris both talked about the fact that humans generally like being alive and staying alive, and feel that this “existence bias” gets in the way of true Buddhist enlightenment. Personally, I am not ashamed of my own “existence bias” (it’s a “Godly thing”, IMHO), and I don’t find Captain America to be deluded in his own strong and obvious existence bias. As I told my Zen Buddhist friends, if the Singularity comes and decides in its immense wisdom to shove BAAN down our throats, I’m on Captain America’s side.

I wonder what Father Mike would say about this? Hey Father Mike, if you ever come across my blog, here’s the link once again to the Metzinger BAAN article. I’m looking forward to your talk on artificial intelligence and anti-natalism!!! And hey Father, I’m sure that you can get your Millennial followers interested in this, because Sheldon of the Big Bang Theory show sometimes talks of his ultimate “ascension” into the Singularity. So, Father Mike, put that brand of “ascension” into your Ascension Ministries pipe !!!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:26 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, This seems a “two-part” post; so it will be a “two-part” comment.

    I am not quite sure what I think of Fr. Mike. From the standpoint of comparing him to Fulton Sheen or Charles Coughlin who were “live” on their programs, whereas Merton and others had their materials transferred by others to tape or disc or video of some kind I do remember the first time I saw Fulton Sheen. He produced a kind of “awe” that a bishop in full regalia of office would be “on television” speaking to a select group of RCs who believed wholeheartedly in what he was saying. But at the time (early 1950s) and in the situation I was a part of, the only part of the world that we knew at the time was that of the Roman Catholics when it came to religion and applying one’s religion to life.

    However, I doubt that many people outside the RCs (if any of them were listening to the Bishop for that matter) paid much attention to him. It was somewhat akin to listening on Sundays to Joel Osteen or one of the other “big church” pastors speak. They have learned how to use the various media to their advantage to address and “keep” the group they want as followers. Fr. Mike seems to be close to the same pastors who address a particular group and keep them for a long while, which has its value for those whom it inspires.

    I do find myself wondering just how much attention Fr. Mike gets from current day young teenagers. I find myself thinking that young teenagers might have much “larger”, more important, questions to ask; “Should I get a tattoo?” seems a kind of “small” question when thirteen and fourteen year olds (perhaps I’m talking more about the females than males here) are asking and seriously wondering about questions such as these: When should I have sex? Or with whom should I have sex?; the next guy who asks or wait until some guy I myself “like” (but notice “love” is not mentioned) asks me to have sex. How do I go about getting birth control? And sure, Fr. Mike would say: “Don’t have sex” and that would be the end of it; after all, what other answer is the “right” answer for young RCs? But THESE are the questions young people have asked for a long time, unbeknownst to most adults.

    I once had a young man back in the 1960s (in this same age group) tell me that he could NOT believe in hell because he refused to believe he would go to hell just because he had a “wet dream” at night. When I told him I agreed with him; I was roundly criticized by the RCs in charge of the school. I think Fr. Mike might meet the same criticism.

    What does a fourteen year old “girl” do when she’s had sex and finds she’s pregnant? What advice would Fr. Mike give that person? Or even give the young boy who made her pregnant? How is a child supposed to deal with supporting a child?

    I am 100% sure these are the types of questions young people today ask their priests – or perhaps better stated: These are the types of questions young people today would ask their priests if they dared. I know they would ask such questions as they were asking them years ago and life itself hasn’t changed that much that these questions are not asked today.

    I can think of other questions too that teenagers may have that don’t come close to being addressed by the Church; heaven knows what an individual priest may give for advice: What does a teenager do when her (it was a female freshman in high school who asked me this question in the 1950s) parents are constantly drunk and fighting but won’t get a divorce “because of the children”? Almost in despair she said something like this to me: “Please! Get a divorce; life would be so much more livable than what we have now”. When the CHILDREN want parents to divorce, things have to be pretty bad; but the only advice the church may give is there is no divorce. Annulment takes YEARS AND LOTS OF MONEY.

    Then too, I’ve read that society has changed its approach to what marriage is. It used to be that one never had sex until one got married; and in some religions this “rule” remains the same; RCs (those that hold strictly to the rules, I should say) and Mormons are two groups I can think of immediately. But these days the “unspoken” rule is to “sleep around” until one finds the person one thinks he/she can live with for a lifetime (or at least two or three decades maybe) and choose that individual to marry. And when I heard that, immediately following it the two examples I heard that went with that were William and Harry of “heirs to Queen Elizabeth II” fame. Each one of them spent a year or two living with the woman they eventually want(ed) to marry; but it was important that the whole sex business came first to guarantee they would have that “out of the way” so that the other things in a marriage that can destroy it rapidly could come to light BEFORE they were married.

    With these kinds of examples in society, I find that having a priest addressing a group of people using current multimedia may be “awe-some”; but I wonder just how important questions such as “going to confession” or the various other questions Fr. Mike does deals with really are. Perhaps it’s the novelty of having a priest use the media that’s attention getting more than the questions he’s answering.

    And as to Part 2 of this post: I have to say that I never have heard of the BAAN concept, much less that the Buddhists are perhaps not averse to the idea. But then I think: Is “God” the Singularity? Made by man? Yet overtaking him?

    I do tend to think that we (“we” as in all human beings) may be in for a surprise when it comes to the kinds of beings who have evolved consciousness. Perhaps the Singularity is a little much for me to deal with. It’s the first I’ve heard of such a concept. But I find myself thinking that before we deal with a Singularity, perhaps we need to deal with how we treat other creatures on this planet who have evolved consciousness that may be equal to or greater than our own. In this case I’m thinking of Whales and octopuses. There’s a book – The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery that deals with such relationships, those between humans and octopuses.

    So it seems that “some” Buddhists are not all that “upset” by the idea of the Singularity. It does seem to me that the whole BAAN concept is a road that leads nowhere as far as humans are concerned. But as I said above, I wonder if humans had a “relationship” with the Singularity would the singularity still feel it important to BAAN man?

    In the end I find some odd tho’ts floating around in my head about the universe and all that might be in its “infinity”. At this point I know there are more questions than answers I have yet to formulate should I spend any real amount of time thinking about this whole thing. But at this point; I’ll leave it at this. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — April 14, 2018 @ 3:49 pm

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