1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A blog. A resting place for what's unfit to publish.

Denver Post? Not interested. Denver Catholic Register? Not interested. My blog? Well, of course I'll publish my own material.  This is a response to an article entitled "Discrimination is not Religious Liberty" and found in the Denver Post.


 Any time a privileged white male starts speaking for all women, I get suspicious.  Nathan Woodliff-Stanley knows what all women want and need: contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization. He also knows who should pay for it: all Americans. He sees no problem with the State mandating the coverage of these newfangled drugs, devices and procedures in the name of “health.” 
My understanding of health is that it refers to the correct functioning of an organism. The Pill and sterilization -- chemically or surgically -- ensure that a woman’s body malfunctions. How is that healthy?  Heavens, Orwell would love this: Sterility Is Health.  Fertility is a sign that a woman is healthy. Any dumb white male ought to be able to figure that out.
We Catholics are not opposed to legitimate healthcare for all. What we are opposed to is the imposition of a degenerate sexual ethic on all Americans by the State in the name of health. The HHS mandate is no law, but a kind of bureaucratic violence. Years ago, Richard John Neuhaus wrote about a “Catholic moment” in American history; it appears we Catholics now have something even more interesting: our “Gandhi moment.” I pray we’re up to it.

Questions I ask myself as I prepare for a catechetical lesson

 Fourteen Questions to prepare a lesson

Preface: I wrote this for the incoming catechist taking over a Confirmation class. I haven't sat down and thought about how I do what I do when I catechize until now. The elements below that connect to Francis Kelly's “Ecclesial Method” are numbered in bold.

These elements are 1. Preparation, 2. Proclamation, 3. Explanation, 4. Application, 5. Celebration. (Here's a link to Chapter 3 of his book, The Mystery We Proclaim).

1. 2, 3. What is the most important thing to say about the doctrine or theme?

2. 2. How can it be said in a way that is short and memorable?
• The “in brief” sections of the CCC are a great source for short doctrinal statements. Here's an online resource that I use weekly: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc.htm It has the Table of Contents linked to paragraph numbers, so you can do all kinds of quick searches.)
• Sample proclamation: While looking like simple bread and wine, the Eucharist is the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

3. 2. What is a Bible passage or sentence that connects with the doctrine? Here are three easy to use
sources for cutting and pasting text once you have a Bible passage: http://bible.oremus.org/
http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/   I like to use both a “higher” translation and a “lower” when possible, especially if I give the kids a handout.
• Higher (better at the literal level): RSV, NRSV, NAB
• Lower (easier to understand but sometimes the meaning gets lost): CEV, GNT, NIV
A great place to find Bible passages is the Catechism of the Catholic Church

4. 2. When I read a short Bible passage and then state the doctrine concisely, do I have the Scripture and Catechism in harmony? Are they clearly related. One good example and a bad example:
Good example of proclamation:
◦ [Scripture: John 1:1-14] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.... And the Word became flesh and lived among us.
◦ [Doctrine: The Incarnation] Jesus is really God and really man (see CCC 480).

Bad example of proclamation:
◦ [Scripture: Matthew 26:24] “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”
◦ [Doctrine: Dignity of the Human Person] From the moment of conception, each of us is destined to live with God forever (based on CCC 1711).
Discussion: The passage from St. John teaches exactly what the doctrine proclaims; the passage from St. Matthew actually seems to undermine a discussion of human dignity. Jesus words are directed specifically at Judas, not all of humanity!

5. 3, 4. What are some of the implications of this/these truth/s of the faith? (If 'X' is true, how does 'Y'

6. 3, 4. What are some related doctrines? (They are all related! Some are just more obvious – with
junior/senior high school, I go for the obvious ones)

7. 3, 4. Why is this doctrine important? (If it doesn't matter, why tell them?) The doctrine must connect with their lives in some way or it is simply an abstraction.
• So, for example, not just: “Don't sin, it's bad,” but “You were made to be happy and God is the source of all happiness; if you sin, you push yourself away from God and you won't be happy.” More complicated? In a sense, yes, but also more realistic: everything in our culture says “Do what you want,” but our faith says, “Do what will make you deeply and eternally happy – don't be satisfied with easy answers to the questions of your heart!”
Find the deeper meaning.

8. 3, 4. Is there something “out there” in the culture that connects to this doctrine that will help them to see our Faith is not something distant from “the world” but immersed in worldly, fleshy realities and explain worldly things in their true context? Remember, the Word was made flesh, not Idea or
• So, for example, I recently used a clip from the film Signs to show how reality can be interpreted as “for us” or “against us”; it doesn't mean truth is relative, but that our freedom is engaged in the interpretation of reality: If I'm closed from the possibility of God being good, I simply won't see God's goodness; if I'm open, then I can see it.

• Music too is a great resource – and I don't just mean “Christian” music. Also literature or passages from the Bible that kids “act out” or simply read aloud with assigned roles (Just like we do at Mass for the Passion of Our Lord).

9. 4. How can I get them to engage the doctrine with their own lives? (The answer, of course, is “I can't!” This is where there freedom gets engaged. Don't try to force the issue – it'll just piss you off and the student!)
• This can happen in small groups and through questions, but the catechists have to allow “an open space” where students can step into it without feeling like they have to give the right answer.

• Small groups can be a place where students really VERIFY the propositions of Catholic doctrine.

• Or it might happen by asking them to reflect throughout the week on how and if they pray (for example). So, what “provokes” them to pray? Is it part of their lives or something they're told to do or do they not pray at all?

10. 4, 5. Can I put the student in the position of explaining the doctrine? We've used “Demonstrations of Learning” for this purpose. The basic idea is to give them some raw material (Bible, Catechism and doctrine that has already been taught and have them throw together a teaching using everything a hand. This can be through a poem, art, a skit -- whatever.  We did this a month ago and the kids were fantastic when we did this. They know more than we (or they) realize.
• This can also be an opportunity to answer questions and/or clarify misunderstandings
• Be gentle with them; adolescents have fragile egos, so even if they spout off a heresy, treat it gently
and affirm the truth of something they've said

11. 1, 5. Is there a particular prayer that relates to the doctrine? For example, if I talked about the reality of evil and the Devil, how about praying the prayer to St. Michael? This helps us all to experience prayer as something related to reality, not simply a pious exercise.
• Prayer and doctrine go together – we should some this is true by letting them see it explicitly.

12. 3. Am I trying to say too much? In my early days of catechizing, I used to try to say everything in one lesson. That's silly. Get at the core of things: what's really essential? Only 90 minutes are available, so make what you say count and better to explore one doctrine in ways that are interesting than to recite ten doctrines in an abstract way.

13. 2, 3, 4. Am I simply talking too much? Am I afraid of silence and trying to fill it with myself instead let of letting the Holy Spirit speak to me, to the students, to the other catechists? Learning to shut my mouth is a great ascetical practice, but very useful for everyone!

14. 1, 5. The first thing last: Have I prayed that the Lord would guide my steps and purify my heart? Have I “seen” the face of one student as I prepared and prayed for this one kid? Have I begged that this would be an encounter for all of us with the Risen Lord? Yeah, stuff like this is really important. This isn't a technical or professional work only – it is the fruit of prayer.

There you have it: all the "wisdom" I accumulated in earning a Masters in Theology but without the student loan debt! What a bargain.

Email me if you have questions! mjmcguiness@gmail.com

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

I'm focusing on keeping the machinery running

Did I just say that? Indeed I did - to a group of students. How shameful.

Herein lies the danger to any educational endeavor: inverting ends and means. Clearly excellent teaching, challenging students, wisdom, knowledge, a passion for truth...these are the ends of education. Yet in our bureacratized age, administrative realities tend toward the subordination of everything else. To steal the title from one of the Terminator films, it is the "rise of the machines."

How can a school be designed wherein the necessity of administrative functions is done (and done well) while at the same time keeping the real focus on education?

Shared Leadership 

Where is it written that there must be only one head of the school and that this person alone is the principal leader? Why not have two or three leaders who share administrative responsibilities, while at the same time focusing on key areas?

Why not a CEO, CFO and CPO? Say what? Yes, executive, financial and pedagogical "operations." Such a division of labor might prevent the abstraction that principals often face: they get removed from the classroom and within 90 days forget what it is to teach and to relate to students in the classroom. Their imaginations run wild with "what can be done," but this is only in their minds, not in reality. A sense of unreality permeates the entire school. Division and sabotage are the results.

There has to be a better way.  Maintaining machinery is not the proper vocation of a teacher.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


Two Venues, One Hubris 

Of late I have found myself working and studying in two different worlds: the college scene, studying nonprofit management, and the world of "church work" at my local parish.  The differences are not as great as one might expect, and, indeed, there is a common thread running through both secular and religious zealots.  It is this: the notion that "we" have the answer for "them."

Exhibit A: The Nonprofit World

One needn't be a disciple of Ayn Rand (does she rate disciples?) to observe that there is something morally ambiguous about helping others. Not with respect to the concrete action one might take, such as feeding a hungry person, but when one moves beyond the physical need to the social or spiritual. If I set out to help you, it means that I know (or think that I know) what you need. 

I see the homeless man with the sign that says, "Will work for food" and I immediately think of both what he really wants and what I know he really needs. He really wants booze and/or drugs, but I know he needs Jesus or housing or a hair cut and a job.

Entire organizations begin from the premise that they have the solution or solutions to the problems of others. Most of this is admirable and beautfiul. But the dark side is when an organization thinks of the human condition is "solvable" (cf. gulag, concentration camp, re-education camp, etc.) and sets out to eliminate the shortcomings inherent in the human condition by ... eliminating humans.  Obviously, this is an extreme case, but the spirit of perfecting humanity is alive and well. To see it play out in a microcosm, see Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birthmark."

Exhibit B: "Orthodox" Catholics

Among we so-called orthodox Catholics (a term I dislike but it will do), I see the temptation to look at "the world" (as if Christians are disconnected from biological life!) as the place that needs "to be saved." Ah, the world is fallen, but Christ has saved me, ergo, I will plunge into the fray and save those who are in pernicious error: heretics, political liberals, peace and justice Catholics, pro-choicers, fundamentalists -- you name 'em, we've got a solution to what ails 'em.

Hmm. Sounds similar to Exhibit A, doesn't it? Yeah, amazing.

The Existential Alternative

 So how can I -- someone who would call himself a teacher! -- reject the notion that I have the solution to others' problems and simultaneously insist that I possess at least something that is useful to others?  As I see it, the only justifiable position is taking my own education, and hence my own humanity, seriously.  "Physician, heal thyself" (see Luke 4:23).  It is a matter of extracting the 2x4s from my own noggin first and/or caring for my own development concurrently with educating, helping, healing, assisting others. 

How can I expect others to take education seriously if I don't take my own education seriously?

The alternative is unrealism and unbridled arrogance. Now, if I can just remember these wise words of mine...

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Meaningful Education

This was published in the web edition of the Denver Post on 11/27/11 (here the link)


I was recently at our local public library and overheard two high school girls discussing teen pregnancy. Why, they wondered, would a girl do that? I had to bite my lip to not offer my opinion: "They get pregnant because it's more interesting than school."

Motherhood — even teen motherhood — is both an adventure and an opportunity filled with possibility. It promises a new life, the deepest affection thinkable (that of mother and child), and, yes, possibly great peril. Through pregnancy, the teenager enters into a dramatic story.

The story public schools tell girls (and boys) is decidedly less interesting. It is the story of so-called success through studying hard and getting a good job. For those students who — because of habit or incuriousity — are content to study bits of knowledge disconnected from each other, public education "works": they study hard, get good grades, get accepted to college, finish college and (perhaps) get a decent job.

For many other students, this vague success narrative is neither appealing nor credible. It is no wonder that so many are drawn to drugs, alcohol, bad music, video games, and promiscuity. Beyond the anesthesia, these things provide a guide for life which is more compelling than the tale of economic utility and suburban respectability. Since the schools won't provide an interesting or compelling hypothesis of meaning, the kids find one ready-made or invent one.

Some will argue that the role of public schools is not to dabble in questions of meaning or anthropology or, heaven forbid, metaphysics, but it is obvious to any clear eyed observer that they have been doing this for some time. The meaning of life as envisioned by the public school system has already been summarized: you exist to be a productive member of society; whatever else you do is up to you.

The tacit anthropology is that the student is a weird hybrid of snowflake and machine: utterly unique but capable and urged to emit correct responses that the teacher-technician has inputted. Metaphysically-speaking the schools flail about in a case of terminal agnosticism: God may or may not exist, but in a clever reversal of Pascal's Wager, it is best to bet everything on the chance that He does not.

For more than ten years I taught in public schools: one prison and three high schools (in four different cities). One might think I saw a great deal of diversity (I did), but the underlying assumptions of these four institutions was fundamentally the same. Two major assumptions are that the person needs a lot of information but very little else, and that education can be separated from the question of what makes for a good life.

In the midst of my present "sabbatical," I've had the opportunity to teach some homeschooled Catholic high schoolers and the contrast with them and their public school contemporaries is amazing. They are bright, curious and open; they are not sullen and bored. The homeschooling parents aren't rich but they have communicated a rich hypothesis of meaning to the kids and the kids have an opportunity to verify something concrete and definite about life.

Such possibilities ought not to remain the privilege of the rich or those willing to make huge familial sacrifices. It is imbedded in our nature to seek the meaning of our lives.

Some find that meaning in religion while others find it in irreligion. Some find it in the "bad infinity" of pursuing wealth and shopaholicism.

Still others find the present public secular education perfectly acceptable because existential questions are of no interest to them. The point is this: if we take the idea of American pluralism seriously, this pluralism ought to extend into K-12 education. If the State cannot do this (for whatever reason), perhaps the State needs to get out of education.

Or, if not out entirely, then it may be necessary to radically reconfigure how the government funds education so that the idea that parents (not the State) are the first and irreplaceable educators of their children is properly supported. This isn't rocket science; it's simple democracy.

Matt McGuiness is a freelance instructor. He can be reached at mjmcguiness@gmail.com.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Sometimes soundbites speak volumes...

I caught this on the radio (AM 710, KNUS), but I'll have to paraphrase it because I didn't write it down (nor could I find it on the station's website).
In an interview about a sexually explicit texting case at an area school, the principal said in response to a suggestion that students be barred from bringing cell phones to school, "We can't do that, cell phones are so much of their culture."
Ah, yes. The schools don't have a culture of their own to propose; rather, they are in perpetual retreat against the forces of barbarism. Yet another example of how schools simply react instead of acting.

A simple question: What is the purpose of education? If it is just to keep kids busy, well, then yes, the principal is correct: short of killing each other, let them do what they want. If, on the other hand, school is a place where cultural presuppositions can be challenged, then perhaps the cell phones can and should go. Placate or educate? The choice is ours.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

One of these is not like the other?

Multiple choice quiz. The image below best refers to
A. George II
B. Mitt Romney
C. Ralph Nader
D. Barack Obama
E. Hugh Hefner