The Full-Time Job of Being a Catholic

We had one of those rare moments on social media yesterday, when Catholics and non-Catholics alike came together to collectively roll our eyes at the mainstream media’s continuing efforts to deliberately misrepresent Catholicism.  In case you missed it, the touchstone was an address by Pope Francis in which His Holiness touched upon issues of science.  The breathless response of most secular media outlets was to proclaim that the Holy Father was once again challenging the establishment, changing Church doctrine, and so forth.

Except, of course, that he wasn’t doing any such thing.

I’m not going to attempt to write a blog post about the Church’s teachings on the Book of Genesis, the origin of human beings, and so on; that has already been done, by far better writers than I; you can find all kinds of information on Catholic Answers, for example.  Nor am I intending to take this brief amount of space to provide a lengthy rebuttal to the notion that the Church is somehow anti-science.  There are in fact plenty of others who are doing just that, such as my friend Ian Maxfield in Scotland, who has spent years chronicling the contributions of the Church and Catholics to all areas of science, many of which remain completely unfamiliar to most.

Instead, this is an opportunity to address something else, which I suspect many have been asking themselves over the past several years, not just under this Pope but indeed under the two previous popes as well.  Why, one may reasonably ask, are we always having to explain what the Catholic Church does and does not believe?  The answer is, I’m afraid, that it’s our full-time job. Allow me to explain.

Last evening I was watching a PBS travel show in which the host, whose anti-Catholic bent is often thinly-veiled, used the word “worship” when describing Catholics pausing to pray before a statue of the Virgin Mary at a chapel in Croatia.  As Catholics know, and indeed non-Catholics should know, we don’t worship Mary AT ALL (let alone statues.) Period.  Worship is for God alone; Mary is a creature rather than a creator, a human being and not a goddess.  To use the word “worship” in this context is either to spread anti-Catholic misinformation, or a demonstration of spectacular ignorance about one of the core beliefs of the Church, which those who are unfamiliar with Catholicism will simply accept as true, because it happens to have been broadcast on television.

Notice that I just managed to tell you, my readers, what the truth is, and it did not require a special Vatican commission to be appointed in order for me to do so.  Because you see with all the fuss and fumbling over the Church – what did the Pope say or what did that bishop remark – one thing that Catholics often forget is that the Church hierarchy is there to shepherd us, but not to fight all our battles.  We are like sheep, but we are not actual sheep; even sheep know that for the most part, they need to stick together.  Otherwise, the wolves will have a field day.

All Catholics are called upon to evangelize, not just the ones wearing robes and funny hats.  The Vatican isn’t going to come running to the rescue every time someone says something about Catholicism that is untrue. It may be somewhat inside baseball to remark that the press office there could be a bit more organized and consistent, but that being said, only God is omnipresent, not Father Lombardi.

Christ expects that the job of each one of us is to live out the Christian life where we are in life, whatever our station.  I may not be able to get on NBC and denounce their bad reporting, but I can sure raise a stink about it among my friends on social media, or indeed on this blog. And you can do the same, gentle reader.

These continuing opportunities to re-discover what Catholics believe, and to share that belief with those who might otherwise never hear it, is something that all of us must do, even if we’re just having a chat with the neighbors over the back fence.  The final command of Jesus before His Ascension, that His followers go do the  job of teaching all nations, should start right where we are, now.  We need to realize that it is our job to do so, whether in responding directly to a large media organization, or right in our literal back yard.

Detail of "St. Peter Preaching" by Fra Angelico (c. 1433) Museo di San Marco, Florence

Detail of “St. Peter Preaching” by Fra Angelico (c. 1433)
Museo di San Marco, Florence


Phone Booth Friday: Superhero Chemistry

Today’s Phone Booth Friday post is all about science, or more specifically elements and chemistry. Now, I’ve noticed that there’s been a lot of blowback recently in the social media commentariat about how it’s not cool to say that you love science, when you’re not actually a scientist. If you’re just someone who enjoys reading about things like space exploration or physics in popular publications, then geeking out over some discovery you find fascinating is apparently bad form. So before I get into the meat of today’s post, I will simply say as an initial matter that while it’s true watching a NOVA episode on the Valley of the Kings does not make you an Egyptologist, it’s only fair to point out that being able to cite the stats of a particular college football player because you happen to watch him play on television every week doesn’t even make you so much as a benchwarmer for Notre Dame, either.

Alright? Then let’s move on, those of you who are still with me.

Earlier this week I was pleased to come across this truly, deeply nerdy post on the Periodic Table of Superhero Elements. In it, the authors comb through the DC, Marvel, and other comic universes to list those fictional substances which have caused an impact on the lives of many of the characters we know, both for good and for bad. In doing so, they may also be revealing why it is that the superhero genre seems to be able to infinitely expand as it does, thanks to our acceptance of the ever-changing aspects of science and technology.

Most of the superheroes we’re familiar with have their origins either on another planet, as a result of interaction with someone from another planet, or they have undergone some kind of mutation as a result of an experiment or accident. Even the ones who are just earthlings with extraordinary talents and resources, like Batman or Ironman, hone and improve their abilities through the study of science and technology. It’s interesting then, in reviewing this superhero periodic table, to note how often something as basic as a particular element – albeit a fictional one – can have a significant impact on the lives of these larger-than-life characters.

Kryptonite, for obvious reasons my least favorite element, is very well-known, even among those who aren’t really fans of the superhero genre. Although it does not exist in real life, when someone refers to something as “my kryptonite”, we all understand immediately that they are identifying a particular weakness that they have. Oddly enough, in real life “krypton” itself is one of the noble gases, rather than a long-gone planet, and is used in lighting and photography.

Sometimes these fictional elements don’t have a physical effect on our hero or heroine directly, but rather aid them in some way. Vibranium, for example, is the key component of Captain America’s iconic shield, while Amazonium is forged to make Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting bracelets. The properties of these substances are determined by the writers of the stories, of course, and some of these can a bit far-fetched indeed.

Nevertheless, we always suspend our disbelief regarding fictional elements such as these, and don’t seem to give much thought to the fact that many of the things we see in a superhero film, for example, are not actually possible on a scientific level – at least, not yet. I suspect that part of the reason why we’re willing to accept these things is because of science fact, even though in the superhero world we are looking at science fiction. In real life, we have come to accept that science leads to new discoveries of unknown substances and elements all the time, with possible new chemical properties and practical applications, as well as risks and dangers.

Consider the actual periodic table of elements and chemistry itself, which you probably had to memorize in high school. That grid layout of numbered and stacked boxes, as most of us would recognize it, first appeared nearly a century ago now, but it has grown considerably in size since that time as new elements have been discovered. The most recent of these, fierovium, livermorium, and ununseptium, have only been named and accepted by the scientific community within the last five years.

Who knows what the table may look like a century from now, as science advances?  What elements will there be, and how may we be able to use them in things like chemical applications?  Things like this make science perpetually exciting, frankly, even when you’re not a Nobel Prize nominee, but just someone who has a big imagination.  And it shows that the hero can just as easily have a great mind, as be able to toss the bad guys about like paper bags.

So for those of you who enjoy the world of superheroes, whether you are a full-blown collector and cosplayer, or whether you just enjoy catching the odd film or TV show when it’s on, go right ahead and enjoy learning about science. No, taking an interest in science does not make you a nuclear chemist. Yet by appreciating the study of science, and indeed encouraging the study of it among the young people of your acquaintance, you not only open a wider world of knowledge and lifetime learning for yourself, you also can help show others that studying science is not a chore, but actually rather heroic – in an elemental sort of way.


New Study: Friends Really Are Like Family

“Friends are the family you choose for yourself,” the old saying goes, but new research indicates that your close friends may be more like your family than you realize.

A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at 1,367 pairs of close friends from Framingham, Massachusetts, who had been friends since the 1970’s.  Researchers compared the participants’ DNA to one another, and then to the DNA of approximately 1.2 million pairs of strangers.  In their research, scientists from Yale and the University of California at San Diego looked at well over 400,000 points of comparison along the DNA strands of each of the participants in the study.

Surprisingly, the study revealed that close friends tend to be more genetically similar to each other than they are to strangers, including strangers with whom they share the same ethnic background.  In fact, the average genetic similarity among close friends was equivalent to the level of genetic kinship that exists between fourth cousins, i.e. people who share a set of great-great-great-grandparents.  That’s a pretty distant familial relationship, obviously, but still statistically significant enough that scientists are baffled as to why good friends could be so genetically similar without technically being related.

One explanation may be that people with similar genetic makeup tend to live in or move to similar environments, increasing the chances of their meeting and becoming friends.  It may also be that people with similar genetic traits also tend to share similar skills, making it more likely that they will find themselves engaged in the same type of work or activity.  Interestingly, the study revealed that close friends tend to share a closer sense of smell than any of the other senses.

A possible implication from the study, if the results are eventually shown not to be specific to the good people of Framingham, is that you might be able to create and take a genetic test, to determine whether you and someone else should become friends.  At first glance this might seem to be a pointless test, since even genetic similarity does not guarantee the bonds of friendship.  After all, almost everyone has at least one genetically close relative whom they do not get along with or do not speak to, for various reasons.

However, if these findings hold up over time, there could be potential practical implications beyond scientific theory.  For example, one could imagine that, in the formation of sports teams or military units, such a genetic test for similarity could be viewed as increasing the statistical chances of the members of the group being able to work well together.  Although not a guarantor of success, genetic closeness could be one factor among many to be taken into consideration, in the formation of productive groups.

Admittedly, most of us don’t need a test to tell us whom we care about the most.  By its very nature, true friendship doesn’t require a scientific explanation: it’s simply a gift, one freely given, received, and reciprocated.  Yet at the same time, it’s still interesting to learn that those people in your life whom you love as much as your own family may, in a sense, be just like family, on a genetic level.

"Snap the Whip" by Winslow Homer (1872) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“Snap the Whip” by Winslow Homer (1872)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York