My Personal Journey from Ethnocentrism towards World Centrism (8th in series on critical thinking)

 

worldcentrism

[In this series, I’ve been describing my personal development as a critical thinker. I’ve been using the matrix supplied by Ken Wilber who understands human growth as advance through the stages of egocentrism to ethnocentrism and (for some) to world centrism and even cosmic centrism. Each one of these stages, I’ve been arguing, recognizes its own set of “alternative facts.”]

My ethnocentrism grew alongside the first stage in personal development described here last week as “egocentrism.” Ethnocentrism meant that I was fiercely Catholic. For me, that was my primary group identification, my tribe. At this stage, in terms of critical thinking, no other denomination, and certainly no other religion had anything to do with truth that really mattered. All Protestants were simply wrong and destined for hell. For me, that was a fact.

Such conviction stuck with me and grew after I entered St. Columban’s Minor Seminary in Silver Creek, New York (40 miles west of Buffalo) at the age of 14. The seminary belonged to the Society of St. Columban – a missionary group founded in Ireland in 1918 as the Maynooth Mission to China. Its calling involved converting Chinese “pagans” who without our ministries, we all believed, would themselves be bound for hell – another fact.

At this stage, my second ethnocentric form of allegiance was to my country. I remember being confused during a “day of recollection” that our entire seminary (about 100 students) attended at a corresponding institution run by the Passionist Fathers in nearby Dunkirk, New York. That was around 1955, only 10 years after the conclusion of World War II. A rather elderly priest from the host seminary gave some kind of keynote talk. In its course, he described the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “the most immoral acts in history.” I was shocked and entirely confused. Was this man a communist or what?

My suspicions were aroused by the fact that missionaries on leave from assignments in the “Far East” often regaled us with stories of the evil communists who had by then driven our men and other foreigners from China following Mao Tse-Tung’s revolution in 1949. Communist Marxists hated the Blessed Virgin, we were told. That was enough for me. Communists were evil incarnate.

Similarly, those who opposed them at home were correspondingly virtuous. One evening in 1957 during study hall, one of my most admired professors who was proctoring the session, passed by my desk and whispered, “A great man died today.” He was referring to Senator Joseph McCarthy who died on May 2nd of that year.

In 1964, at the age of 24 I cast my first ballot for president. I voted for Barry Goldwater. That shows how ethnocentric I was. In terms of critical thinking, my proud and sincere guideline was “My country right or wrong.” My facts were those of Mr. Goldwater, the Catholic Church, Joseph McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover.

World Centrism Emerges

My horizons started broadening in 1962. It was then that I began accepting “alternative facts” soon after Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).  

That represented the thin end of a wedge that would gradually change forever what I considered true. The Second Vatican Council seemed to call my most cherished beliefs into question. It recognized that Protestants were “Separated Brethren” rather than enemies surely destined for hell. The notion of priesthood was widened to include their notion of priesthood of the faithful. Council theologians also problematized conceptions of church as the “perfect society” as well as papal infallibility. That in turn led to conclusions about an “ecclesia semper reformanda” (i.e. a church in need of continual reformation). Mandatory celibacy was criticized as an impediment to personal growth among the clergy. Seminary curricula like the one I was following in St. Columban’s Major Seminary were disparaged for their narrowness and tendencies to indoctrinate rather than educate.

Initially I resisted all of that in the name of my faith and tradition. But my ethnocentrism was under assault.

Rome

My resistance though couldn’t last. Following ordination, I was sent to Rome to secure my doctoral degree in moral theology. So I left the seminary hot house, where I had spent my formative teen age and early adult years. Suddenly, I found myself in an international atmosphere that in every dimension was so much more sophisticated than anything I had previously experienced. Rome’s context was still electric in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. And the Council’s spirit was reflected in the courses I took at the Athenaeum Anselmianum and Academia Alfonsiana. In their light, my secure notions of theological truth underwent continual challenge.

Gradually I found it all quite liberating.

However, on the political front, it was shocking and embarrassing. Remember, these were the late ‘60s. The anti-war movement was in full swing, along with the struggle for Civil Rights and women’s liberation. It was the era of “Troubles” in Ireland. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968. My last year in Rome (1972), George Wallace was shot, and the Palestinian group, Black September, terrorized the Olympic games in Munich.

Meanwhile, I was living in the Columban residence on Corso Trieste with about 15 other young priests all pursuing graduate work. Two of us were American. The others came from Ireland, England, Scotland, and Australia. Our conversations over meals revealed to me my narrowness of perspective. All my colleagues were better informed than me. They even had a superior grasp of U.S. history.

I resolved to remedy that and gave myself a crash course in current events courtesy of Time Magazine. I even ended up winning our small community’s annual political literacy contest. However, that sort of knowledge turned out to be quite superficial.

Gradually, especially because of my theological studies, I was drifting more and more leftward.  In the field of theology, I frequently challenged my colleagues about the humanity of Jesus, the faults of the church, and the whole idea of trying to convert “pagans” from Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam to Christianity.

None of that sat well with superiors in the Society of St. Columban. Towards the end of my stay in Rome, I was informed that plans had changed. Whereas the whole purpose of sending me to Rome had been to prepare me to teach in our major seminary, I was now considered too “dangerous” for that. I would be sent to Mindanao in the Philippines instead.

For the first time, I considered leaving the priesthood.

Politically, I became similarly alienated. It stemmed from my thought that if what I had been taught about God, the Church and even Jesus were untrue, if I could question the pope, whom I had always considered infallible, why not the U.S. government? Daniel Ellsberg’s publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971 sealed the deal. Now I strongly opposed the War in Vietnam. I became a McGovern Democrat.

My journey towards world-centrism advanced. In terms of my evolving criteria for critical thought, I could already see that leaving ethnocentrism behind would mean expecting challenge.

How I Became I Child of the Sixties – Thank God! (Personal Reflections Pt. II)

Hippie Art 

The craziness my children see in me isn’t simply knee-jerk. It was a long time in coming and accompanied by a lot of internal resistance.  

In fact, I’m the product of an extremely conservative upbringing. True: I come from a working class family where my dad (a truck driver) was a member of the Teamsters Union. And my parents both claimed to be “Independents” who voted for “the man not for the party.”  However, deep in their hearts, they were, I believe, Republicans. Nonetheless, politics wasn’t a big concern in our family. As a result, I grew up without clear ideas about differences between Democrats and Republicans.  

And then my formal education took over.  It occurred entirely within the Roman Catholic Church, one of the most reactionary forces in the world. That meant Catholic grammar school from K thru 8, then 12 years of seminary training, followed by 5 years of graduate school in Rome, where I received a doctorate in moral theology in 1972. All that time I don’t remember a single teacher who wasn’t either a nun (for the first 9 years) or priest (for the rest). The intense 26 years of indoctrination didn’t end till I was 32.  

The process was entirely apolitical even though virulently anti-communist. Throughout high school and the first years of college, we weren’t allowed to read newspapers or watch television. Luckily we had Christmas and summer vacations at home, where I lived with my family and worked with ordinary people (for me at a Sinclair gas station and later with the grounds-keeping crew on a golf course). I was suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement and of anti-war protestors. Throughout our years of training, missionary members of my order, the Society of St. Columban returned from China, Burma, the Philippines, and Korea with tales of communist atrocities. Communism, we were told, was the world’s worst evil.  (I remember the day Joseph McCarthy died. One of my seminary professors told me, “A great man died today.”

No wonder I ended up being a Republican myself.  I cast my first vote for Barry Goldwater.  

In the seminary I wasn’t a great student until my freshman year in college. I tried hard. But I remained pretty much a high “B” student.  I did well in languages – especially Latin, which was extremely important in those days, but also in Greek and French.

Outside of class, I was obedient and pious, so I always ended up being the equivalent of “the head boy,” which we called “Class Senior,” and eventually “Senior of the House.”  Till college (and long afterwards) my real interests were basketball, baseball, running, ice hockey, and (to some extent) football. If it hadn’t been for sports, I don’t think I would have survived the seminary.

Then as a freshman in college I met Fr. Jim Griffin, the most important teacher in my life. He finally awakened my inner student in a serious way. Father Griffin was tough: unmerciful in his criticism of our writing, and unsympathetic about excuses of any kind. He was a worldly, Renaissance man who loved poetry, classical music – and golf. Father Griffin enkindled in me a love for the kind of music I had always resisted, for art, drama and for poetry which till then I thought of as somehow unmanly. Most significantly he exposed me to what is now called “critical thinking” and to the art of literary criticism. (The latter joined with exposure to modern scripture scholarship subsequently gave me courage to trust my own analysis of biblical texts.) I am forever indebted to Jimmy G. who died about 15 years ago. I remember him every day in my prayers.

That was the other important element of my education – I mean exposure to modern scripture scholarship.  Here I must mention my second most important teacher, Eamonn O’Doherty. Over our four years of State-side post-grad theological studies (for which we received no additional degree) Eamonn helped us understand text criticism and form criticism. To this day that orientation remains the firm foundation of what I’ve learned since from the Jesus Seminar and liberation theologians (more about that later).

As for politics, a turning point came for me in Rome where I finally escaped the seminary hothouse. My real education began there as I was exposed to new thought and ways of looking at the world I had never considered before.  It was all so new to me after all those years cooped-up in the seminary. During two summers I traveled on my Vespa through Italy, Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany, Poland, France, Spain, England, Scotland, Ireland. I also studied German for two sessions at the University of Vienna. In 1970 and ’71, I spent two one-month periods in Ireland, where I was a delegate at the “Chapter” of my order which was rewriting its constitution.  Two of my summers I returned to the U.S. and worked as a priest in St. Augustine’s parish in Culver City CA. From the day I arrived in Rome, I began seeing the world in an entirely new perspective.

In “the Holy City,” it didn’t take me long to discover that the dozen or so young priests I was living with (from Ireland, England, Australia, New Zealand) at Corso Trieste 57 were much more advanced than I was in their understanding of the world – and of theology. I remember feeling embarrassed about that and determining to catch up. I became a voracious reader.

That was 1967, right after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council which had ended two years earlier. The city, the church and its theological universities were still electric with the new ideas the Council represented. Everything was up for grabs. Everyone was calling the unquestionable into question: the church, the priesthood, mandatory celibacy. My student colleagues (mostly priests at the Atheneum Anselmianum and Academia Alfonsiana) were generally quite critical of the United States. They came from all over the world – Europe, Africa, Latin America, Australia, the Middle East . . . I was playing basketball for a minor league affiliate of the Roman pro team (Stella Azzurra) — scrimmaging the pros, interacting with my Italian teammates, fans, and officials. It was all so very exciting. I found myself reading all the important books, rethinking everything, and debating my friends endlessly.

It was the sixties! Back home the Civil Rights and anti-war movements were in full swing. Even from Rome I felt the influence of the Democratic Convention in 1968, the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia, Jane Fonda’s visit to Vietnam. . . .  Martin King was shot, then George Wallace, and Bobby Kennedy. “What kind of country do you come from?” my friends asked. “What’s wrong with America?” Like other Americans, I was wondering that myself.

There is so much to tell. But I’ll cut to the chase. . .

A year or so before leaving Rome, I had already nearly decided to leave the priesthood. But before doing so, I requested from my sponsoring missionary group, the Society of St. Columban, a year of discernment. I had changed so much that I was suddenly perceived as too radical. I was no longer pious obedient Mike. So my superiors decided not to assign me to seminary teaching as they had originally planned. Instead, they wanted me to take up missionary work in the Philippines. However since that would involve even more (language) schooling, I asked to be given a more immediately pastoral assignment. After all, at 32 years of age and six years into my priesthood, I still didn’t really know what it meant to work full-time as a pastor.

My request was granted. I was assigned to work with the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) in Kentucky.

(Part Three: next Tuesday)

Returning to Rome after 43 Years!

St Anselmo

(My Alma Mater: the Atheneum Anselmianum, Rome)

So there I was, last July 24th returning to my old haunts in the Holy City. As mentioned in previous postings, Peggy and I had returned to Italy with our family – with my daughter Maggie, her husband Kerry, and their four children, with our youngest son, Patrick, one of our nieces, and with my brother-in-law and his family of five. Late in the trip, a friend of Maggie also joined us. In all we were 17 people!

It was hard to believe that so much time had passed since those halcyon days when I was studying in Rome. I had actually spent five wonderful years there from 1967-’72. It was a time of unprecedented personal growth for me as I passed from my late 20s to my early 30s.

The Second Vatican Council had just concluded (1965), and the city was still electric in the aftermath. Everything I cared about was under question – the nature of God, Jesus, morality, the church, papal infallibility, the priesthood, and mandatory celibacy.

After 12 years of being cooped up in highly regimented seminaries in Silver Creek, New York; Bristol, Rhode Island, and Milton Massachusetts, I had at last been ordained. In Rome I found myself living in a community of 20 priests also involved in their graduate studies. Our home was a sprawling house belonging to the Society of St. Columban, of which I was a member. It was located on Corso Trieste 57, right next to the Russian Embassy. I can still smell the fumes of the city busses that passed our front door.

Only two of us in our community were from the U.S. The others came from Ireland, Great Britain, Australia, Scotland and New Zealand. I was studying systematic and moral theology. Others were similarly occupied or focused on Canon Law, liturgy, or Sacred Scripture. Daily meals around our huge refectory table were usually raucous affairs as we bantered over the new theology or political questions – often surrounding “the troubles” then afflicting Ireland or the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements in the United States, or the youth revolution sweeping Europe especially in France. The times couldn’t have been more exciting.

Every couple of weeks we’d have special guests at table (bishops, theologians, politicians, intriguing women). All of them were passing through Rome on business or vacation. Those, I remember, were special feasts. The guests enriched our table-talk. And the elaborate dinners were always followed up by “retiring” to our community parlor for cognac and cigars. Then the guitars would come out, and everyone would do their party-pieces. It was all great fun. Unforgettable.

So on July 24th I was trying to recapture some of that. On that day, our daughter, Maggie, had arranged for a tour of Rome in long “golf carts” to accommodate that family party I mentioned.

I begged off saying I’d rather revisit my old schools – the Athenaeum Anselmianum (where I had gotten my licentiate in systematic theology), and the Academia Alfonsiana (where I received my doctorate in moral theology). Generously, Maggie and everyone else let me go. I had a great day.

Two years ago, when Peggy and I were in Rome, I had tried to do the same thing. But at both my schools, the portieres were so uptight that they wouldn’t let me in. This time was different.

At the “Anselmo” (pictured above)  I met the same dour doorkeeper of two years ago. But this time, I somehow persuaded him to let me enter – though he stipulated “for one minute only!”

So I walked quickly around the monastery’s ample cloister where the main classrooms were located. I poked my head into the Aula Magna, where I recalled the life-changing lecturers of the great Magnus Lohrer. I had so admired him – that chubby red-cheeked German theologian (who I was told died about six or seven years ago). He was such a great teacher. I wanted to be like him – smart, committed, energetic, enthusiastic, interested and interesting. It was such a pleasure sitting at his feet – even when the lectures were in Latin!

Despite the portiere’s injunction, my personal tour took at least five minutes. Afterwards I went to the monastery chapel to do my day’s second meditation. I was slightly distracted by a couple whispering in a pew across from me. It turned out that they were celebrating their 57th wedding anniversary. They had been married in the Convento Church where the three of us were sitting. When we spoke outside, they told me of their wedding, their life together, their children and grandchildren. They seemed so happy to be in Rome. I was too.

Next, I took a cab to the Alfonsiana, just down the Via Merulana from Santa Maria Maggiore. The portiere there let me in with no stipulations. I explored the rambling set of attached buildings at my leisure. I recalled lectures by Bernard Haring and Francis X. Murphy (who mysteriously had reported on Vatican II for The New Yorker under the pseudonym, Xavier Rynne).  In theological terms, Haring was a giant. I didn’t really hit it off with Murphy though. That was probably because he gave me a lower grade expected on a paper where I argued that Vatican II represented the Catholic Church finally catching up with the 16th century Protestant Reformation. I remember appealing that grade to no avail. I still think I was right.

As I left the Alfonsiana, I spoke with a very pleasant 45-year-old Polish woman who directs maintenance there. (She had been a librarian in Poland.) She asked me about my impressions of the school after so many years. I told her it all seemed renovated, shiny and up-to-date.

Finally, I took another cab to Corso Trieste 57. There I had a most interesting conversation with Fr. Robert McCullough, the Procurator General of the Society of St. Columban and the rector of the house that now has a much-reduced population.  Fr.McCullough had a lot to say about Pope Francis.

I’ll tell about that in a future posting.