Bad Words

September 17, 1990… a day that will live in infamy.

Okay so I exaggerated… it wasn’t up there on a par with the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor or any other big dates in textbook history. However for those of us fascinated with words and the use and abuse thereof, that day ought to be enshrined in some sort of “Free Speech Hall Of Fame”. On that day on the CBS television network, actress Sharon Gless playing the title character of her new short-lived drama series “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill” muses to her psychiatrist “I’m thinking about getting my tits done.”

The use of the word “tits” was as far as I can tell the first non-accidental breach of George Carlin’s infamous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television“.That famous comedy routine was recorded May 27, 1972 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and appeared on Carlin’s live comedy album Class Clown. Carlin was once arrested for obscenity for performing the routine live. When a similar routine called “Filthy Words” was aired uncensored on a radio station in California, it led to a famous Supreme Court decision that has formed the basis for most broadcast obscenity cases ever since then. A Wikipedia article about the routine does a fairly good job of recounting its history and its consequences.

An illustration of the ridiculousness of banning words is the use of one of the banned words “piss”. Its past tense form “pissed” is perfectly acceptable in certain contexts on broadcast television when used to indicate a state of anger. You can say “I’m pissed off” but you can’t say “I was so drunk I pissed on my shoes.” I’m not really sure whether or not “I’m pissed” meaning a state of inebriation would make it past the censors or not. Carlin was quick to point out the hypocrisy regarding banned words when he notes that even your mother would say “shoot” when she really meant “shit”. The words are used identically in both meaning and context yet one is acceptable and the other is not.

Of course “fuck” is widely considered the dirtiest of dirty words yet television programs routinely substitute similar words with obvious identical meaning and get away with it. Police dramas such as “NYPD Blue” routinely substituted “freakin” for “fuckin” when used as an expletive. However such substitutions on broadcast television rarely extend from mere expletive all the way to the literal meaning as a sexual act.

I always admired the Sci-fi Channel series “Farscape” for its use of the substitute word “frell” because it used a variety of forms of the word. It wasn’t just “oh frell” when trouble occurs or a personally directed “frell you”. You would also hear it used in a context such as “Come on baby let’s go frell.” Hands down the ultimate substitute word is Battlestar Galactica’s “frak” which is probably my favorite. I have to admit surprise when I read a recent recent article that reported the use of “frak” actually dates back to the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica TV series and not just the current remake which as been running since 2004. The use of “frak” in the show is used in absolutely every conceivable way that you would use the original “fuck”. I’m certain I’ve heard everything including but not limited to “Oh frak”, “come on lets frak”, “get the frak outta here”, “frak you”, “hand me that frakin wrench”, “I don’t give a frak”, “frak off”, and probably others I can’t recall right now. The only version I don’t believe I’ve heard is “mother-fraker” or “mother-fraking” but I wouldn’t swear they’ve never used it.

Although Sci-fi Channel is cable, it is basic cable which usually adheres to broadcast standards and I’m pretty sure that reruns have appeared on NBC broadcast uncensored. The hypocrisy of banning the use of a word while permitting a nearly identical word with identical meaning in a variety of contexts just drives me crazy the more I think about it.

While I appreciate the desire to in some form shield young children from vulgarity, somehow society has gotten to the point where the word itself… the symbol and not the thing or concept which the symbol represents… is what gets banned. If we really wanted to protect their children from vulgarity then a phrase like “go frak yourself” ought to be just as a offensive as “go fuck yourself”.

I’m not suggesting that censorship ought to be stronger and that “frak” in all its forms ought to be banned as well. I’m saying that if we are going to regulate speech at all (which I would rather not do either) then we ought to regulate the ideas rather than the words themselves. Again let me be clear I’m all in favor of free speech under 99.99% circumstances. I could even argue that could go as high as 100% deregulation of words because I think there is something to be said for going ahead and exposing small children to real-world discourse no matter how bad it is. Such exposure can then be used as a teachable moment. We need to teach our kids that there are “bad things” in the world. There is evil, hatred, prejudice, injustice, intolerance, violence and all sorts of other things which they should avoid if they want to be “good little boys and girls”. But the words in and of themselves are not bad. The things which the so-called bad words communicate is where in the evil lies.

Another problem with the idea that we must use only politically correct words is that times change and what is the proper word for one generation is improper for another generation. Descriptions of race are the prime example. The scientific and technical term for a person with dark skin and African heritage is “Negro”. The use of such words today outside some sort of biology or sociology text is archaic at best is offensive to many.  To some extent one can get away with using the word in those contexts on a limited basis. You can talk about the Negro race but you can’t call a particular person a Negro and get away with it. The word has stuck around as marginally acceptable simply because there are times when you need to describe that particular race of people as distinct from Caucasian, Asian, etc.

Next we come to “nigger”. I’m not going to argue in favor of its use because it has and always will be a “bad word”. But it is bad because of the concept which it denotes, not because there is anything inherently wrong with the word. It has always been a deliberate derogatory term designed to demean people and it is inextricably attached to the practice of slavery. So it really is a bad word if there ever was one.

For some time African-American culture especially comedians like Richard Pryor in reflecting his culture use the word liberally in an attempt to diffuse the power of the word. By co-opting the word and changing its meaning as a piece of slang used by African Americans affectionately to describe one another it power was indeed diminished. Co-opting the word for another use made my point that the word itself is not bad. I always felt it was a clever attempt to take the sting out of the word. Rap stars and others have tried to make a distinction between “nigga” and “nigger” with the former being the affectionate slang for intra-racial address and the latter being the derogatory term it had traditionally been. However recent use of abuse of the word has even got the hardest of hard-core rappers reconsidering its use. They are, probably correctly, beginning to realize that legitimizing one use of the word invariably legitimizes all use of it.

For decades the politically correct term for people of African descent was “colored” but even that word took on a negative connotation with signs like “no colored allowed” or “colored only”. “Colored” became as tied to the practice of discrimination as “nigger” was tied to slavery. The word “colored” gave way to “black” which is still in use of course. At one point “black” gave way to “African-American”.  Technically a Caucasian from Africa… even a racist, apartheid loving South African… who moved to the United States is ironically “African-American”. So the term African-American is probably a little bit problematic from a technical point of view.

One of the problems with ever evolving politically correct terms is that certain anachronisms cannot be eliminated. The largest and most important civil rights organization in the country remains the NAACP which of course stands for the “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People”. There is a bitter irony in the fact that millions of black people proudly support the organization but would be highly offended if you called them a “colored person”.

In the end I appreciate and sympathize with people who are offended by insults. I’m not arguing in favor of maliciously insulting people. But I really think we’ve gotten much to sensitive and much too hypocritical about the use of words and their power to offend. I really wish people would go back to the “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me” lesson that used to be taught to children.

Unless you’re from another planet you didn’t need me to recount the history of derogatory terms for African-Americans. But I wanted to draw parallels between that terminology and another set of terminology that is much more personal to me. As a person who has spent their entire life in a wheelchair, I’ve had to deal on a regular basis with the variety of shifting politically correct terms to describe people like me. In the next installment we’ll explore terms like cripple, handicap, disabled, challenged, differently abled (yech) and a variety of other labels related to disabilities.

About Words

“So the LORD God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals…” Gen 2:19-20

The above passage from Genesis is not alone in its opinion that the ability to name things is something that separates us from other species. The use of words is really an amazing concept when you think about it. What is it about certain sounds emanating from a person’s mouth, certain symbols printed on a page, or written with a pen that allows us to transmit so much information. It is awesome to ponder the ability of the human brain to make the abstract connection between words and the endless variety of things which those words represent . Words allow us not only to name physical objects but to describe them. And it’s not just physical reality… abstract words can be symbols for abstract concepts such as love, hate, fear, beautiful, good and bad.

Some words such as “bang”, “tinkle”, “ding” have a direct connections to the things they represent. These words are symbolic of sounds and the words themselves are reminiscent of the sounds they represent. Such words are called “onomatopoeia”. However these words are the exception to the rule. For example if I write or speak the word “elephant”, there is nothing about either the sound of the word nor the written letters that make up the word that has any remote connection to the thing it represents. Yet if I speak the word or write it on the page for someone to read, immediately creates a picture in their mind of a large gray animal with a long trunk, floppy ears, and tree trunk legs.

In John 1:14 the evangelist describes Jesus as “the Word made flesh” with the word “Word” capitalized like a proper noun. He does so because Jesus is the ultimate example of the phrase “the medium is the message”. Jesus is both message and messenger. He is the perfect communication of the Father about who He is and His plans and expectations for humanity. Like all “words” he is a symbolic representation of something far bigger and far more difficult to grasp than the word itself.

Information technology pioneer Alan Turing once speculated that someday computers would achieve the level of artificial intelligence that was indistinguishable from genuine human behavior. He suggested that if you got in a chat room with an intelligent computer and could not tell whether or not you were talking to was a computer or a live person then that computer had been passed the Turing test of artificial intelligence.

Jesus being “the Word made flesh” is such a perfect symbol… such a perfect expression of that which He symbolizes… that He passes the theological equivalent of the Turing test.  In John’s 14:8-9 the disciple Philip asks Jesus to “show us the Father.” Jesus replies almost in anger “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”

In my own struggles of faith to understand what it means to say that there is “real presence” of the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist and in wrestling with the millennia-old debate about whether the Eucharist is just a symbol or is something real, it’s been useful to me to think of the Eucharist as a perfect symbol in the same sense that Jesus is the perfect Word. Jesus is such a perfect representation of the Father that he becomes indistinguishable from and one with the Father. For me that Eucharist is such a perfect symbol that it becomes indistinguishable from that which it represents. That’s probably not a theological explanation that would get an imprimatur from any Catholic cleric but it sure helps me wrap my brain around the biggest of Christian Mysteries.

Unfortunately not all words are as perfect at representing or communicating what was intended as is Jesus as the Word made flesh or Jesus in the Eucharist. Words are only effective if both the transmitters and receivers have some sort of communal agreement as to what the words really mean. The Oxford English Dictionary is by consensus the ultimate collection of definitions of words in the English language. However it’s not just a bunch of stuffy British linguists sitting around in overstuffed chairs with leather patches on their elbows and bow ties around their necks arbitrarily deciding what is or is not proper English. It is a large group of researchers who scour the written and spoken word to gauge how words are used in society. When a new word gets sufficient use in public discourse or an old word takes on a new meaning with sufficient frequency, in the dictionary is augmented or amended to reflect these changes in the living English language.

One of my favorite (somewhat ridiculous) pieces of the English language which has come into existence in my own lifetime is the suffix “-gate” meaning some sort of political scandal. I’ve not found a better example of how a word has taken on a new meaning so totally unrelated to and so abstract from its original meaning. The source of this strange usage is of course the Watergate scandal in which the Nixon administration engaged in burglary and other illegal acts in order to preserve the Nixon presidency. This scandal ultimately led to his downfall because of the egregious obstructions of justice carried out at his orders in order to cover-up the offenses. A few years later Lieut. Col. Oliver North under the Reagan administration was caught in a scandal involving Central American rebels and the illegal sale of arms to Iran. The scandal became known as “The Iran- Contra Scandal” which was soon redubbed by the media “Iran-Contra-Gate”. From that moment forward the suffix “-gate” took on a whole new meaning. Of course the media had a tough time adapting this strange new meaning of the word when Bill and Hillary Clinton were investigated regarding a questionable real estate deal known as “Whitewater”. Somehow calling it “Whitewater-gate” just didn’t seem to work given that the whole “gate” thing began with a different kind of Watergate.

Words are a strange thing indeed. They make civilization possible because they allow us to communicate. They allow us to grasp the ungraspable and ponder the unreachable. Words are such a bizarre thing that we even send our children mixed messages when trying to teach them about the power of words. On one hand we teach them “The pen is mightier than the sword”. On the other hand we teach them “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” In that respect words are like water. Water is essential for life but too much water is deadly. If the pan is indeed mightier than the sword then perhaps it is a two edged sword that cuts both ways.

In my next installment I hope to explore how words, especially words whose meanings evolve over time, strangely seem to evolve from innocuous and neutral means of expressing reality into powerfully painful weapons some of which society has concluded ought never be wielded.

Changing my blog software

You may have noticed that my blog looks significantly different than it used to. That’s because I switched from using Google’s service to using WordPress installed on my own domain. I’m going to be using WordPress for blogs on my website for St. Gabriel Church so I thought I would just convert everything over.

This means that many of my intra-blog links will be broken for a while and if you’ve bookmarked any of my links they will no doubt be broken. As far as I can tell all of the content including comments is still there. It just is probably going to have a different name.

I hope this isn’t too confusing for my readers but in the long run I think it will work better.

One of the things I like about WordPress versus blogger is that WordPress automatically cross-links each individual entry so that I don’t have to put any “next entry” and “previous entry” link in each of my posts. Because I write so many blog entries that are actually serial articles it was really hard to navigate under blogger unless I went to a lot of trouble to manually add links. I won’t have to do that anymore.

Fall TV schedule

Every year for my own purposes I put together a fall TV schedule that shows me what’s new, what got canceled, what got moved etc.

I figure if I’m going to go to all that trouble just for myself I might as well share it with everyone else. Usually I get the information directly from the network websites but they didn’t do a very good job of putting up an actual schedule. Fox used to put up one that not only showed the upcoming fall season but previewed the January replacements as well. No more this time.

Wikipedia has a pretty good schedule and it was the source for much of what I did. You can find it here.

Click here for my version of the schedule especially color coded to show what’s new and what moved.

My Internet Ad Worked!

Tomorrow night at my church St. Gabriel the Archangel, we are starting our fourth or fifth year of a program called Catholics Returning Home. It’s a six-week seminar for people who used to be Catholic but for one reason or another have drifted away (or run away) from the Catholic Church. We try to do whatever is possible to help them feel welcome again. My pastor Father Larry says that the second-largest religious denomination in the United States is ex-Catholics. As someone who grew up in the Catholic Church, left it, and then got back involved again I’m ideally suited to be the group leader. The past few years it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done at church.

Although we generally get three or four people each year, unfortunately last year we only had one guy show up and he wasn’t even Catholic. A Catholic friend invited him just so he could find out a little bit about the Catholic faith even though the program wasn’t really geared for him.

We’ve tried all sorts of ways to promote the program.

This year for the first time we tried Internet advertising using a feature called Google adwords.
Here is how it works… When someone does a Google search on a word like Catholic or Catholic faith or other pertinent phrases, our advertisement pops up next to the searches. The advertisement says…

Attn: Inactive Catholics
Feel at home in the church again!
Learn about today’s Catholic Church

You can select a specific geographic area to limit where the ad is shown. In our case the ad only appears in Marion County and in a 10 mile radius of our church which includes parts of Hendrics County. It has been shown just over 30,000 times. Fortunately we only have to pay for it when someone actually clicks on our ad and goes to our webpage promoting Catholics Returning Home. We have 54 clicks recorded in the approximately 3 weeks the ad has been running. The Evangelization committee (which is run by my mom) has paid $28.53 or just over $.50 per click. By the way if you see our ad, don’t click on it… it costs us $.50! Click the fake version of it above or here is a link to the page the ad would take you to…

The great news is it works!

We just got a phone call from a woman seeking more information about the program. She and perhaps her adult son will be attending tomorrow night. We asked her how she found out about the program and she said she googled the word “Catholic” and there was our advertisement. Besides Google searches the ad also appears in various websites which are supported by Google advertising. Some of the people who clicked on our ad side in places like, online Catholic encyclopedias and other Catholic related sites.

Unfortunately sometimes the ad has appeared places we sort of wish it didn’t. A few weeks ago someone in the Vatican was interviewed and said that in modern times there are new ways to sin. Sin is that we didn’t even think about a few years let alone a few centuries ago. Among the things that were listed as new sins are “destroying the environment”. Normally I wouldn’t mind if our ad pops up next to such an article however online editions of two different British tabloid newspapers: The Times and The Telegraph ran articles which said something like “Recycle or go to hell Vatican warns”. Not exactly the image of the church we want to promote 🙂 It wasn’t just the terrible tabloid headlines but the stories themselves were chock full of inaccuracies about the teachings of the Church. Fortunately Google lets you block certain sites from showing your advertisements so I put a block on both of those tabloids.

I had tried doing similar advertising with various fundraisers at church. I promoted last years church festival poker tournaments and I’m pretty sure we got a few people showed up because of the advertising. I also tried it for a NCAA tournament team auction fundraiser we had a couple of weeks ago but I’m not sure that really attracted anybody. We did get some clicks but I don’t think anybody actually showed up at the event.

Anyway I think it’s really cool that the advertising really works. Believe it or not I get much more excited about saving souls than I do about playing poker despite the fact that I play a lot of poker! Now were trying to brainstorm other ways to use this advertising for other programs and events.

Anyway the Catholics Returning Home program starts tomorrow night and runs for six weeks. Say a prayer, wish me luck, cross your fingers, or whatever it is you do at your house that we get more people and that I do a good job in making them feel welcome in the church again. If you know anybody else who’s an ex-Catholic who might be interested… send them our way.

Political Virgin

Although my dad rarely discusses politics my mother has always instilled in me an appreciation for politics, political action, social justice etc. The earliest election I recall was the 1960 presidential election even though I was only five years old at the time. I suppose what I really recall was my mother’s enthusiasm for JFK. I remember mom making a big deal about the fact that Kennedy was a Catholic and that that was controversal. I recall election Day my Aunt Jody had to babysit me after school that day because mom was working the polls.

Continuing to be aware of political events I recall saying “What’s a blockade mommy?” During the Cuban missile crisis. I always enjoyed watching the political conventions on TV and of course growing up in the Vietnam era and through the Watergate scandals you couldn’t help but be aware of politics if you watch the news at all.

I was also blessed with an excellent junior high social studies teacher named Ron Kohl. I remember him promising us that Lyndon Johnson would be the Democratic nominee. I couldn’t wait to get to school one day to hear him eat crow after Johnson’s famous “I shall not seek and shall not accept the nomination of my party…”.

I also like to tell people I was in Chicago in the summer of 1968 and remember all the hippies in Grant Park. Of course I neglect to tell people I was 13 years old and on vacation with my parents to visit places like Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. We were there two weeks before the fateful convention.

I’m not sure what was the first election in which I voted. I turned 18 in 1973 and I think they had lowered the voting age by then to 18 from 21. With the exception of a few meaningless primaries in a couple of boring off year municipal elections I’m sure I’ve voted in most every election that could.

Being very liberal and very Democrat is not only my heritage but by my choice and I’ve always voted Democrat for president. I have occasionally crossed over to vote for Republicans I admire such as Richard Lugar and William Hudnut.

Basically I’m a political junkie and always have been. Now that I’ve got a DVR if made it even easier for me to watch more politics on TV. I can easily record the Sunday morning political talk shows as well as catch an occasional episode of Keith Olbermann on MSNBC each night. This political season has been a great joy to watch although I have a lot of anxiety that the Democrat party might self-destruct.

Despite all of this political history there is one area where I’ve still been a “political virgin”. That he did today when I did something I’ve never done before. I actually contributed money to a political campaign. I logged into, gave them my credit card number, and donated $300.

Not only was I amazed and inspired by the straight talk of his speech on race relations (see my earlier post) , I find myself in agreement with Caroline Kennedy that no candidate since her father or perhaps her uncle Bobby has inspired people to the extent that Barack Obama has done.

And why did I donate the amount of $300? You would think someone who was on Social Security disability of about $800 per month wouldn’t dare to afford such an extravagant donation but I did something else today. I filed a tax return even though I own no taxes and have had none deducted. The Bush administration in its infinite wisdom has decided to “stimulate me” by giving me $300 tax rebate for no good reason. I think therefore it’s ironic yet justified to put that windfall $300 to the best use I can imagine. Helping someone who I admire and respect to become the next president of the United States.

What a country!


Reflections on Obama Race Speech

Yesterday Senator Barack Obama made a speech about race and politics and religion in America. It’s prompted me to reflect on some themes that he touched on as they relate to my own life. You can find complete video of Obama’s speech on my YouTube channel under favorites.

He spoke about his white grandmother who despite her undying love and dedication to him she expressed her fears of confronting black men on the street and her offensive use of racial and ethnic stereotypes. It caused me to remember my own maternal grandmother who was very much a kind and gentle woman who loved people of all kinds and never really expressed what I thought was much of a racist attitude except for one time. When I was very young, perhaps five or six years old, my parents that I had a membership in the West Lake Swim Club. It was a private swimming pool on the west side of Indianapolis which is no longer there but it was at or near the current site of the West Lake Apartments. In order to be a member of the club you had to show a special photo ID that they would issue you. It was explained to me that this was a thinly veiled attempt to “keep the coloreds out”. I distinctly remember a conversation with my grandmother in which I asked her why we wanted to keep colored people out of our swimming pool. I sarcastically exclaimed “it’s not like the stuff comes off when they get wet is it?” Of course I knew it didn’t and I was being facetious even at that early age.

Grandma Osterman had a tough time trying to justify the situation to me. She explained that colored people had swimming pools they could use. They were public pools run by the Parks Department. They had their pools and we had our pools and so it was fair. By the way I’ve not found my parents to be particularly racist. We join the West Lake Swim Club because it was nearby and had a really great pool. My parents attitude at the time was they didn’t care if there were blacks there are not.

I always found it strange thinking back on the conversation with my grandmother because nothing else in my entire experience of her until her death in 1990 lead me to find hurt to be even the slightest bit racist. She had worked with black people for years and her job at Fort Benjamin Harrison Army Finance Center. She was always very friendly and cordial with black nurses and caregivers who cared for her in her later years. She was never condescending towards them and always treated them with respect.

I think it really wasn’t until Obama’s yesterday that I really got a good grasp on her incongruous comments about the all white swim club. It wasn’t that her attitude about the all-white facility was some expression of deeply hidden racism. It was simply a product of her upbringing. She was born in 1900 and this conversation with her took place in the early 1960s. At that point she had lived her entire life where it was a given that whites and coloreds were to remain separate. It was the natural order of things and she had known no different her entire life. It wasn’t that she saw anything inherently wrong with black people. Her experience, her attitude was simply a statement of fact that this was the way things were and since there was nothing unusual about it there must be nothing wrong with it.

Moving on to the issue of ethnic stereotypes especially in regard to humor. I’ve always been an incredibly politically incorrect person when it comes to humor. Rarely have I ever shied away from telling ethnic jokes of any variety whether it was blacks, Polish, Kentuckians, Jews, Italians and especially my own religion Catholics. I’ve always felt that recitation and/or appreciation of ethnic jokes was not an indication (at least in my case) of any kind of prejudice whatsoever. I should also say that I also deeply appreciate humor regarding people with disabilities. I’ve always had a difficult time understanding how people are offended by humor. I think something either is funny or it isn’t and the level of offense that someone takes at it isn’t significant. To quote one of my heroes Lenny Bruce “Fuck them if they can’t take a joke!”

The only handicapped joke I ever found mildly disturbing was the following riddle…

Q. Why shouldn’t you have sex with a vegetable?
A. Because it’s too difficult to get them back in the wheelchair once you’re done with them?

When I heard that, I laughed really hard and it was genuine laughter… not the kind of nervous laughter that emits when you’ve heard something offensive and don’t know if you should laugh or not. It was not the kind of laughter you generate to cover-up a difficult or embarrassing situation. I laughed because I thought it was genuinely funny. But then I cringed…

Two reasons actually… the first of which isn’t as obvious as the second. My first reason is I’ve always thought that the word “vegetable” was a totally ridiculous use of the word in regards to comatose people. Even the medically correct term “persistent vegetative state” seems ludicrous to me. I think it’s the scientist in me and a lover of words that just thinks the word vegetable is stupid in such circumstances. You don’t call a sleeping dog a vegetable. He’s a sleeping animal. So is a comatose or even totally brain-dead human being. Being unconscious doesn’t convert you from animals to vegetable no matter how unconscious you are! A vegetable is a plant for God’s sake! It’s red or green or white and is stuck in the ground and has no nervous system and makes food through photosynthesis. So I’ve always been a little bit offended by the word vegetable in regards to human beings.

The second reason that I cringed at the joke was a little closer to home. I think all really offensive humor offends people because it has more truth in it than they’re willing to accept. The joke caused me to wonder how many opportunities I had lost at getting laid simply because it would’ve been too hard to get me out of and back into the wheelchair! In the end I had a very deep appreciation for the joke because it got a rise out of me in the way no other piece of humor ever did. It did not however set me off on a political tirade like offensive humor does for so many people.

Finally we come to the topic of being held accountable for the bizarre statements of our religious leaders…

On a worldwide level there are a number of statements and positions by various popes and other upper-level church leaders with which I have had serious disagreement. I don’t particularly see myself as one of those “Cafeteria Catholics” who pick and choose which doctrines they are going to believe in which ones they are going to ignore. The particular issues with which I disagree with the institutional church are issues which I’ve taken the time to study and understand the church’s position. I understand the position completely. In many respects I understand why they profess what it is they are professing. I simply disagree. I’m also aware that not everything that comes out at the mouth of a pope or a church official or a bishop or priest has the same weight of authority. Some issues are core issues of dogma that you either accept or you need to start looking for a different religion. Some issues are in the form of guidance which you should seriously heed but are not necessarily going to cost you your soul if you don’t.

Among the teachings of the Church which trouble me is its attitude towards homosexuals. In one respect I’m extremely proud of the Church in that it is much more accepting of homosexuals that many more fundamentalist Christian faiths. The Catholic Church recognizes that most and perhaps all homosexuals are simply wired that way. Their stance is that a homosexual orientation is not in and of itself sinful. However it firmly believes that sex outside of marriage is sinful. Marriage is only for heterosexual couples. And therefore all homosexual sex is sinful. So basically they say you can be gay all day long at longer
you don’t do anything about it. In some ways it treats them a lot like it treats me: a single, not likely to be married, heterosexual. It acknowledges that I am a sexual being but until and unless I can find someone to get me in and out of that wheelchair every day in the state of marriage… I need to keep it zipped.

That said… I really think committed, monogamous, homosexuals ought to be free to go beyond just being homosexually oriented and become homosexually active.

I am so embarrassed by the Church’s position on this issue that it cost me a friend in a very strange way. Many years ago I became good friends with a Catholic priest. He was a good spiritual director for me. I continue to teach classes in the Catholic faith based upon some of his classes and homilies. I have great admiration and respect for him. At one point he felt it necessary to leave the priesthood and come out of the closet and live an openly gay relationship with a partner. It completely destroyed my ability to continue my friendship with him. I’m not homophobic… I’m just damned embarrassed as a Catholic. I’m pissed off that he had to leave the priesthood. I’m pissed off that he is unwelcome in the church. I found it impossible to continue to share with him what was going on in my life because so much of what I do revolves around my work in the church. I’m embarrassed that my life in the Catholic Church goes on and he has to find alternate ways to express his faith and do God’s work because of an institution I belong to. So much of our friendship was based on our shared faith that I just don’t have the guts to spend time with him and talk about it anymore.

So I really understand what it’s like to be embarrassed by the proclamations of your religious leaders.

On a more personal note there have been a number of things which various priests whom I’ve considered friends have said things that I totally totally disagree with. Here is a short list in no particular order.

  • Although it’s okay to use Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader as excellent symbols of the battle of good versus evil. Harry Potter ought to be banned because all witchcraft is evil! In short light sabers are good… magic wands are evil. It’s okay to kill Darth Vader but it doesn’t matter if you’re battling Lord Voldemort who is evil.
  • The film “The Last Temptation of Christ” ought to be banned because it would dare to suggest that Jesus was never tempted by sex. This is despite the fundamental dogma that Jesus was not only divine but he was human in every way. Of course the opposition to this film was vehemently stated without ever having seen the film itself.
  • People who have a vasectomy or tubal ligation have engaged in self-mutilation because they cannot control their baser instincts.

Those stances were held by priests who I consider to be very good friends then and now. They are men of God for whom I have the greatest respect. However they… like Obama’s grandmother and mine are products of their time and upbringing. They’re a part of my heritage and history and while I completely disagree with them I cannot disown them.

There have been other things that priests I know have said and done which have caused me to lose complete respect for them personally but I managed not to take it out on the Catholic Church in general. I continue to worship in the Catholic faith despite its many flaws.

Even the horrendous cover-up of the whole child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church which is a major embarrassment has its roots in its history and heritage that cannot be denied. In the face of the Protestant Reformation the church became fanatical about the idea that the Church must be seen as a pillar of perfection. Therefore any imperfections have to be hidden from public view at all cost. That’s an insane and inadequate defense for the cover-up but it is an explanation that makes a twisted kind of sense no matter how misguided that is.

In conclusion I think the real strength of Senator Obama’s speech yesterday was not what he said about race or religion or politics. It was that he touched a chord that resonates with virtually everyone. Our ability to love friends, leaders, and institutions despite their most aberrant flaws is a real paradox. But it’s part of the human condition and it’s something that we ought to appreciate, recognize, and honor.