Of Driving Lessons, Fatherhood, and the Moral Life

Conversion to Christ does not automatically make us virtuous.
~ Frank Sheed

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Alone If Necessary: Of Nicea, Nixon, and Nerve

I do not care very much what men say of me,
provided that God approves of me.
~ St. Thomas More

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Of Planned Parenthood, Politics, and the Catholic Glass Ceiling


Because I’m pro-life, my religion is always thrown in there like some little code word saying, “Watch out for this guy. He’s a Catholic. He’s one of those people.”
~ Robert P. Casey, Sr.

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Charles E. Rice (1931-2015): A Remembrance

Being a Christian isn’t for sissies.
~ Johnny Cash

ammonAmmon Hennacy, godson of Dorothy Day, was picketing and protesting war taxes in Phoenix. It was 1949, and folks out west had little experience with political gadflies like Ammon, so they hauled him into the police station. The police captain threatened to jail him, but thought better of it after consulting with higher-ups. The captain let Ammon go and told him he could picket, but that he’d be taking a risk. Here’s how Ammon relates the final exchange:

“You’ll be on your own,” the captain said.

“I’ve been on my own all my life. I don’t need cops to protect me,” I answered.

Later, as he hoisted his signs and took his stand like some latter day John the Baptist, Ammon entertained a journalist’s question:

“Hennacy, do you think you can change the world?” said Bert Fireman, a columnist on the Phoenix Gazette.

“No, but I am damn sure it can’t change me,” was my reply.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a stretch to compare Hennacy, the anarchist rabble-rouser and pacifist, with Dr. Charles Rice, the law professor, boxing coach, and Marine. Still, when I learned of Rice’s passing last week, it was Ammon’s bold defiance in Phoenix that leapt to mind. It’s exactly the kind of single-mindedness and visceral courage that defined who Rice was – a characterization that I was glad to see affirmed by Nell Jessup Newton who wrote the memorial post on the ND law school’s website:

A man who stood by his beliefs no matter what, [Rice] respected those who opposed him, and the feelings were mutual. Never one to shy away from a fight, Professor Rice was willing to take on the difficult battles for what he knew to be the truth.

In particular, Dr. Rice was passionate about fighting for life and for the Faith, and it’s in those arenas that I came to know him best. We’d met each other through mutual friends over the years, and I’d always been an admirer of his writings on abortion and the right to life, so when I had an opportunity to help arrange a series of pro-life speakers on my campus a number of years ago, he came to mind immediately.

“What’s the topic?” he asked when I contacted him.

“We’re bringing in Joe Scheidler to talk about abortion,” I told him, “so we were thinking you could address the issue of euthanasia.” That was fine with him.

last-temptation-of-christ-2The date arrived, and I met Dr. Rice at the front doors of Bethel College’s auditorium where he’d be speaking. His trademark grin was wide and bright, and he shook my hand vigorously as I ushered him inside.

“These are all Christian kids, right?” he asked.

“Yes, for the most part,” I replied. “Mostly evangelical Protestant, so they’ve been hearing the pro-life message all their lives.” He nodded, acknowledging the fresh datum, his eyes drifting upward as he cogitated.

Dennis Engbrecht, the VP for Student Development at the time, introduced Rice to the Chapel audience, and it turned out he had a story to tell. “Dr. Rice is well known for his books and his scholarship and his fearless defense of life,” Engbrecht said. “But my own introduction to Dr. Rice was when the movie version of Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ was released in 1988, and it came to the theater right across the street from here.” That theater is gone now, but I remember it well: A small, two-screen cinema next to the Kroger on McKinley – I saw Gattaca there, and maybe one or two other films.

Back to Engbrecht’s introduction. “The opening night of the film,” Dennis recalled, “Dr. Rice showed up at the theater to picket and protest the movie’s sacrilegious content.”  Picture it now: Dr. Charles E. Rice, acclaimed author, speaker, and legal scholar, a beloved Notre Dame law professor known and respected throughout the world for his efforts on behalf of truth and life and justice, and he was all by himself outside that theater, walking back and forth with a sign – to all the world, a fool and a crank, like Ammon Hennacy. Dennis, however, saw a man of firm and gutsy conviction, a hero. That’s how I saw him, too: A role model of fortitude and unwavering commitment to his beliefs come what may.

And a role model of faith besides. After his remarks about euthanasia and Terri Schiavo in Chapel that day, Dr. Rice encouraged the students to pray for a greater respect for life, womb to tomb, despite the culture’s continual slide toward relativism. “You can always pray to St. Jude,” he recommended, adding, “You know about St. Jude, right? The patron saint of impossible cases?” Rice knew he was tcharles_ricealking to a Protestant audience – I’d reminded him myself – but he nonetheless urged them to pray to Mary and the saints because he knew that such prayers had merit. And you know what? It wasn’t an awkward moment at all. Well, at least not for me.

Aside from those interactions I had with Dr. Rice when he visited Bethel, I rarely had the privilege of speaking with him. Occasionally I’d ask his advice about bioethics and the law, and he even read through drafts of some of my earliest writing attempts before I submitted them for publication. My favorite memory of him, however, are the many times I’d see him and his wife, Mary, at St. Joe hospital for daily Mass. He’d almost always sit in the back, and I’d only catch a glimpse of him as he went forward, head bowed, for Holy Communion. Those glimpses were in themselves moments of inspiration.This great man, possessing such a great mind and great heart, full of love for his cherished wife and family, and yet somehow overflowing with boundless generosity for his students and friends and countless other people and causes – this great man daily approached the throne of grace and ate of the divine banquet. It was his secret, and I felt a privileged kinship with him in sharing it.

After those daily Masses (if I could catch him), he’d always greet me cordially, inquire of my family, and encourage me in my work and writing efforts. “Keep at it,” he’d say. “It’s important.”

Yes, Dr. Rice, I’ll keep at it. You, too.

A version of this memorial tribute was published on LifeSiteNews.

Courage to Fail

The experience of getting things wrong is the incentive for getting them right.
~ Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

Students: Congratulations! We’re all here to celebrate your accomplishment and your future. I know most of you – not all – but even if I don’t know you personally, I do know that if you’re sitting down here in front, then you’ve definitely accomplished something worth celebrating: The completion of your first clinical course in nursing school – yes!

JeffToday we’re glancing back to what you’ve done, and we’re also looking ahead as you continue on your way to a rewarding, meaningful career. We all salute you!

Like I said, I don’t know all of you, but the ones I do know have already had to listen to me plenty – both last semester and, for some, again this semester – so I’d like to suggest you kick back and relax for now.

Instead, I’ll direct my remarks to everybody else out there: The spouses, moms, and dads, the sons and daughters, grandmas and grandpas, the friends and neighbors – all these good folks who’ve come to honor you and share in your triumph. So, good folks, I want to give a testimony – to provide a little inside information as to why today is a big deal, some insight into your student’s accomplishment and future.

We’ll start with the accomplishment: The first semester of nursing school – no small feat, I assure you. Some of these students came into our program with healthcare experience; most of them, with little experience or none at all. Regardless, all of them had to start over from scratch – to learn how to learn differently, in addition to acquiring new skills and knowledge.

If you’re a nurse yourself, you already know that, right? You remember what nursing school was like. For the rest of you, you’ve probably been hearing a bit about the whole scheme the last few months: The massive books; the exams and skill check-offs; the ungodly clinical hours; the grumpy (sometimes) instructors; and (you’ll forgive me) the body fluids – always the body fluids, a staple of the nursing profession.

But that’s too simple, too obvious. There’s way more to it than that, you see. The big picture of nursing education involves much more than simply piling up proficiencies and passing tests. So, to help me draw that bigger picture, I’d like share an email with you. It’s from a friend who’s applying to nursing school, and she wanted some advice.

Here’s what she wrote:

Over the winter break, I am working on my nursing application. The personal statement requires that I elaborate on personal qualities that will contribute to my success as a professional nurse, and I thought it would be a good idea to ask some professional nurses what it takes. I know we talked about this before, but if you wouldn’t mind sending me a line about what first comes to mind for you – of qualities successful nurses have – that would be much appreciated.

Great question, right? If you’re intent on going to nursing school, it makes sense to find out what it takes to be a successful nurse.

I wrote back, of course, but before I tell you what I wrote, I want to share three brief vignettes – three images that capture different dimensions of my answer. All three are from National Public Radio – no surprise there. NPR is on in my car all the time, and I ruminate on the stories over and over as I drive around town.

And, as it turns out, the first story happens to be about driving. It was an interview with reporter Matt Richtel about his book, A Deadly Wandering. Richtel addresses the limits of the human brain, our obsession with gadgets, and the dangers of distracted driving – especially texting while driving.

So let me ask: How many of you text out there? Probably most, if not all. I’d venture to say that all of you avoid texting while driving, right? And that’s what you teach your teens when they’re learning to drive, I’m sure.parentdrivered_wide-18cd991c0945ba2a06de76a6316f4fc5c03df41b-s1100-c15

OK, here’s where I’m one up on you: I do not text – never have; never will. I’m kinda’ proud of that, to tell you the truth. There are a lot of disadvantages, I know, but here’s one definite advantage: When I’m teaching my teens to drive, I don’t have to worry about being called out as a texting hypocrite. For if I don’t text at all? Then they’ll never see me text and drive – case closed!

Of course, there are other mistakes we make as drivers besides texting, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m a perfect driver. However, I’ve managed to get two kids driving without ending up in jail, a lawsuit, or the hospital, and the third is in process – it’s always an adventure, but it’s going well despite my imperfections.

And that’s the key, isn’t it? When you’re teaching someone to drive, you have to accept the fact that the student will make mistakes – which is why professional driving instructors have their own steering wheels and pedals – but you also have to acknowledge that you yourself aren’t immune to error either.

In fact, without the risk of making mistakes, nobody would ever learn to drive. You can only do so much in simulators or the classroom. At some point, you have to be out in traffic, surrounded by other vehicles, and taking the chance that the other guy will do something wrong – or that you will. That’s how new drivers – and nurses – learn, and our role as instructors includes making room for error while ensuring that they avoid the errors that can have catastrophic consequences.

This idea was reinforced by another interview I heard on NPR – this time with Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios. You’ll remember Pixar as the folks who brought us Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life, and the Toy Story movies. Catmull’s book is titled Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration, and what do you guess is his fundamental recommendation? Here’s Catmull in his own words:

People understand that failure is part of learning – it’s like we all get that. But we have a problem: There’s another meaning of failure. That’s the one we learned in school, which was that you weren’t smart enough, you didn’t work hard enough, or you screwed up. So we have these two meanings of failure, and they both exist inside of us. The result is that we tend to interpret failure as a necessary evil. We have to address that head-on – to say, no, failure is not a necessary evil, it is a necessary consequence of doing something new. If you don’t fail, then you’re actually screwing up in a much bigger way.

pixarDid you catch that? Catmull is one of the most successful people in the movie biz, and he’s arguing that if he’s not goofing up, then he’s missing the boat big time. It sounds paradoxical, but it makes sense: If we’re not making mistakes, then we’re not experimenting and exploring new ideas and trying out alternative ways of doing things – what they used to call, “thinking outside the box.” Maybe it would be better to call it: Breaking free from the fear of failure.

And that brings me to my third NPR story. I missed it when it aired, but one of my students – someone sitting right down here – shared it with me. It’s a bit hard to believe, but it seems that an assisted living facility in California shut down suddenly a year or so ago, and the residents who remained were literally abandoned.

Abandoned, that is, except for two employees – cook Maurice Rowland, and janitor Miguel Alvarez – who stayed on, without pay, to serve the residents until help arrived three days later. Here’s how they described their experience:

MAURICE: There was about 16 residents left behind. And we had a conversation in the kitchen – what are we going to do?

MIGUEL: If we left, they wouldn’t have nobody. We were just the cook and the janitor. But I was cleaning people up, helping them take a bath.

MAURICE: I was passing out meds. My original position was the cook. But we had like people that had dementia. I just couldn’t see myself going home…. Even though they wasn’t our family, they were kind of like our family for the short period of time.

A couple things to notice here. First, this janitor and cook: Were they not nurses those few days, despite their lack of training and credentials? Their devotion and loyalty overcame whatever fear they had of making mistakes, and they took a risk, and they acted.rowlandnpredit_wide-ae030fb5aaa1c047787ca0de69bcf3486cf27d62-s1100-c15

That’s one thing; here’s a second: It was my student who brought this story to my attention. It was my student who found it inspiring and wanted to pass it along because she instinctively recognized an affinity she shared with Maurice and Miguel. All of them – the cook, the janitor, my student – had integrated a vision for care and compassion that went well beyond job or paycheck. And that goes for all these students down here as well.

So, back to my friend who was applying to nursing school. After everything I’ve just said, you probably have a pretty good idea what I told her. Nevertheless, for the record, here’s what I wrote, and it can serve as a fitting tribute to your student as well:

I think a successful nurse is one who isn’t afraid to fail. That failure can take many forms – failure to care, failure to rise above fatigue and personal problems, failure to catch everything and know everything.

In short, a good nurse has to accept the fact that she’s human, and plan accordingly. To paraphrase Mother Teresa, expect to get things wrong sometimes, but try anyway; expect to be misinterpreted, but reach out anyway; expect to be hurt, but pour yourself out anyway.

God bless you as you press forward – courage!


An address to first-year nursing students at their Nursing Dedication ceremony, Bethel College, Mishawaka, IN (24 January 2015). An adapted version of this address was published on Catholic Exchange.

Go Ahead and Ask!

ca.-1575-oil-on-canvas-142.3-x-208.3-cm-56-x-82-in-collection-of-The-Nelson-Atkins-Museum-of-Art-Kansas-City-Mo.-William-rockhill-Nelson-Trust-31-73-web-515x352“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul will be healed.”
~ Roman Missal, response to the invitation to communion (cf. Mt 8:8)

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Out of the Game, Into the Diaper Aisle

Russ, do you remember when we first got into this business? We said we were gonna’ play the game like we had nothing to lose.
~ Danny Ocean

It’s hard to pick a favorite character in Ocean’s 11, isn’t it? They’re all crooks, of course, and certainly not role models for our young’uns, but still an affable bunch, and curiously sympathetic. I’m convinced that the likability of the “eleven” is the main reason the film is such an enduring favorite and eminently re-carl_reiner_brad_pitt_oceans_ele-1watchable, over and over again.

In our most recent family screening (“family” minus the wee ones, of course – affability only goes so far), the standout character for me was Saul Bloom, a veteran con-artist recently retired. In one scene, Danny Ocean expresses his hope to recruit Saul for one more big caper. “We need Saul,” he tells Rusty, his partner. “He won’t do it,” Rusty replies. “He got out of the game a year ago.

Out of the game – meaning out of the crime business, out of the craziness and thrill of setting up marks, pulling off jobs, and living on the lam. Saul got out of the game and took up a respectable, domesticated life instead. “I got a duplex now,” he says at one point. “I got wall to wall and a goldfish. I’ve changed.”

Saul came to mind when I heard an NPR interview with Nathan Deuel recently. Deuel had been a reporter in the Middle East during the Arab Spring uprisings, and he wrote a book about his experience living there with a young family. At one point, Deuel responded to a question about how he balanced his work with the responsibilities of fatherhood, and he made this comparison:

In some ways I was so kind of humiliated by all the simple things I had to do like…figuring out what to do with my daughter’s dirty diapers in Istanbul. At the same time, Tahrir Square in Egypt is exploding and there are there are these exhilarating, wonderful things that I feel tangentially a part of, but my duties at the end of the day were to make sure this 1-year-old was happy and learning how to walk and clean and safe and warm.

That’s it! Nathan has gotten out of the game and discovered the secret of dad-hood: Kissing exhilaration goodbye, and learning to thrive in a land of poopy diapers.

We’re never great at this, which is why George Gilder could write so convincingly of brutish men requiring the civilizing influence of marriage and family life. Yet, even when we get married and start raising a family, an ongoing submission of the will is required or the civilizing effects won’t take. Without that submission, we wind up bitter and frustrated, and probably divorced – like the central figure in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle as described by Sam Sacks:

Volume two alternates between Karl Ove’s life as a husband and father and the circumstances that led him to leave his first wife and marry his second. Its most memorable episodes involve the pram-pushing indignities that bourgeois parenthood inflicts on a man possessed by dreams of grandeur and “invincibility.”

It’s true: Pram-pushing and diaper-changing are hard to reconcile with dreams of grandeur, which is why we have to surrender our dreams of grandeur.

Instead, we embrace diaper DisposableDiapersatKrogerculture and its accompanying formation in humility. No grandeur in wrangling wet diapers, that’s for sure, and nothing exhilarating about making midnight diaper runs to Kroger’s. Instead, the diaper aisle and the diaper pail are the dad’s equivalent to St. Benedict’s “school of the Lord’s service,”

in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But even if, to correct vices or to preserve charity, sound reason dictateth anything that turneth out somewhat stringent, do not at once fly in dismay from the way of salvation, the beginning of which cannot but be narrow.

And it’s only the beginning, of course – next up, potty training! Meanwhile, cool stuff is happening in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, and you’re home, keeping tabs on your toddler’s fluid intake and toileting schedule while scrambling to get the lawn mowed and the bills paid. Not exactly exciting stuff, yet the ideal classroom for training in selflessness. Deuel put it this way:

I have to tell you that the birth of our child completely changed me. I found myself worrying more and seeing some of the dangerous — or perhaps adventurous if you want to be charitable — things we used to do; I was no longer attracted to them because I had like this tiny, beautiful human being who needed us.

And here’s the odd thing: It’s unlikely you’ll ever be attracted again to your old life of danger and adventure, whatever form it took.

Striving to be a decent father changes us in ways we could never anticipate: Our priorities change, our interests, our passions. It’s hard to describe, but I’ll tell you what. When the kids start growing up? When they’re graduating from high school and going to college? You won’t start pining for Istanbul and grandeur. Instead, if you’re like me, what you’ll really miss is the diaper aisle, and you’ll get nostalgic every time you pass it by.

I haven’t been down one in a long, long time.

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