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James Martin, S.J.May 29, 2010

It isn’t every day that I come upon a word that I don’t know.  Not that I’m some sort of super-genius, or a wordsmith like the late William Safire, or even a crossword puzzle maven who finishes the Sunday Times’ puzzle in ink.  (I can barely finish it in pencil.)  But after ten years of helping to edit a weekly magazine, one figures that one will know most words that one will stumble upon.  At least this one does. 

This week, however, I stumbled upon a strange new word in a terrific piece by John Heilemann in New York magazine on the turbulent relationship (which began as an infatuation and ended more like as a high-profile divorce) between President Barack Obama and Wall Street.  Here’s what Heilemann wrote in "Obama is from Mars, Wall Street is from Venus," about Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geitner:

That Geithner had worked side by side with Paulson during the crisis was seen by Obama as an enormous asset. Here was a guy who understood the financial system inside out, who knew the Wall Street kingpins, grokked their psyches, had their confidence.

Grokked? Well, I thought, I’m a writer and an editor; I can suss this out. From the context, I initially suspected it meant “stroked” or “flattered.” 

Not exactly. Doing some high-level sleuthing (i.e., checking the web) I discovered that the word originated in the 1961 science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein. It was a fictional “translation” of a Martian word referring to the deep ways that the Martians connect with the world around them.  Here’s Wikipedia: “Things that once had separate realities become entangled in the same experiences, goals, history, and purpose. Within the book, the statement of divine immanence verbalized between the main characters.”

The lengthy, detailed and passionate descriptions I found elsewhere on the web reminded me of the connection, or merging, of various physical entities in a more recent science-fiction offering, “Avatar.”  Remember when Sam Worthington’s avatar finally connects with his winged whatever-it-was, and they’re off and flying through the forests of Pandora?  That’s grokking. 

In essence, grokking is a deep identification or, likewise, a deeply felt understanding of another.   Apparently, I’m the last one to know this word, since besides the Heinlein book, one reference on Wikipedia is to the 1985 TV series “Different Strokes.”  So, grokking: “To share the same reality or line of thinking with another physical reality or conception.”

That made me wonder: Does the Catholic hierarchy grok the laity? 

Recent pronouncements make me fear that they may not.  At least not yet.  The first was the statement, from several months back, by the Archdiocese of Washington that the archdiocese would pull out of social-service programs if they were forced to go along with a new city law requiring them to give benefits to same-sex couples.  The second was the dismissal of an eight-year-old child from a Catholic elementary school in Boulder, Co., upheld by the local bishop, because the child’s parents are a lesbian couple. The third was the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ letter to the U.S. Congress weighing in against same-sex marriage and against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.  The fourth was the public excommunication of a sister working in a hospital in Arizona who had given her assent to an abortion to save the life of a critically ill mother.  (The sister technically excommunicated herself, but the bishop announced it publicly.)  And the fifth (which doesn’t sound connected to the other two but raises the issue of a male hierarchy critiquing the actions of women) was the Vatican’s ongoing investigation of women’s religious orders in this country.  All these public statements, pronouncements and procedures touch on, even if obliquely, matters of sex and sexuality.

Chances are, if you ask a Catholic layperson about the hierarchy today they will bring up, in the most forceful terms, sexual abuse: the overlooking (and worse) of the sexual molestation of minors by priests and those in religious orders.  The laity are, by and large, infuriated.  

So does the hierarchy grok the People of God? Do they have a sense of what the laity is thinking? Are they in tune with them? In other words, do they realize that Catholic laypersons are absolutely, and justly, horrified over how many of those in hierarchy handled the molestation of children and adolescents by priests?  Do they realize that on matters that touch, even remotely, on sex or sexuality that, at this moment, official church statements will inevitably be seen in the light of the abuse scandal? 

In the public imagination, the "same" hierarchy that turned a blind eye to child sexual molestation is now disciplining others in sexual matters. Now, many bishops in office are not the same ones in leadership roles when the abuses occurred. But in the public imagination the two topics—failing to prevent sexual abuse and pronouncing on sexual matters—are linked. So should church leaders pronounce on sexual matters at this moment and, in particular, issue condemnations? 

To be clear, I’m not disagreeing with any of these positions, nor am I saying that bishops should not teach on matters of sexual morality, nor am I saying that strong words are not often called for in the public square. Teaching is one of the traditional three-fold role of a bishop: to teach, to govern and sanctify. But as for teaching about sex and sexuality, maybe not now. And this is more a question of timing than theology. More a question of strategy than dogma.

Many defenders of these pronouncements will doubtless say that the time for the truth is always. That the time for prophetic utterances is always. That church leaders must speak out on every matter, including sexuality, no matter what the public thinks.

But there is also the Gospel notion of the kairos. For the Greeks, and therefore for the writers of the New Testament, there were two types of time: chronos and kairos. Chronos is the time that we’re most familiar with: the time that moves ahead from moment to moment, day to day, week to week. It’s where we get the word “chronology.”  Kairos is different: it’s the right time. The auspicious moment. The appointed time. “The time has come,” says John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark, “the Kingdom of God is near.” And the word he uses is kairos.  And the kairos is not something that can be rushed. 

To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, there is a good time to speak out and a not-so-good time. And if we speak out in a not-so-good time, not only will our message get lost, but in that loss our credibility may be diminished. So I’m not sure this is an auspicious moment for the church to make pronouncements, especially condemnatory ones, on matters relating to sexuality—whether it’s same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and, frankly, anything related to women. To me, it doesn’t seem like the kairos. 

I hope that the church groks this.

James Martin, SJ 


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ow lafaye
12 years 7 months ago
If there were a Jesus such as the Catholic religion describes and venerates, he certainly would not have chosen Ratzinger as a disciple.  They elected a criminal, put him in jail.
Michael Brelsford
12 years 8 months ago
I met with one of my professors yesterday for an independent study.  she and i got talking about the relationship between the jesuit administrators at fairfield and the faculty.  she admitted humbly and serenely that she felt they do not listen to the lay, or more specifically noncatholic/christian faculty.  i was surprised, but i believe her emotions are quite true, quite legitimate
Tim Sampolesi
12 years 8 months ago
>>the time for the truth is alwayskairos''?
Tim Sampolesi
12 years 8 months ago
Sorry, my post above did not appear as typed.
Most of these bishops were not in power at the time of the transgressions. Also, if the bishops take a sabbatical from the truth, how many more problems will have to be corrected when it is kairos?
Tim Sampolesi
12 years 8 months ago
My apologies.
Tim Sampolesi
Michael Brelsford
12 years 8 months ago
also, to add to what i said. my dad, a very conservative catholic and full time employee of the church, saw this article and added that he also feels that the clergy, with exceptions, is like distant royalty
Charles Erlinger
12 years 8 months ago
It might be a good idea to explain why or how the sister technically excommunicated herself and why abusive priests and bishops did not technically excommunicate themselves.  What is self-excommunication and to whom is it applicable?  Also, is it always automatic?  Is attribution of motive and intention automatic?
12 years 8 months ago
I hate that word, 'grok'! When I first read Heinlein, I thought it was an incoherent notion, to have a complete neologism stand as a 'translation' of an idea. It's nothing but an obfuscation. People forget that in Heinlein's novel, 'grokking' involves a lot of drug-induced, laid-back 'grooviness' that has an awful lot to do with a certain time in the mid-1960s and little to do with reality. I'm not being a stick in the mud; I'd have been a hippy if I'd been born about eight years earlier. But saying someone 'groks' something usually means they've had enough illicit drugs to think they've seen into the essence of things, behind the masks and all.
Having said that, your article is a good one. I just had to rant about that stupid, unnecessary, philosophically incoherent word.
Claire Mathieu
12 years 8 months ago
Jesus to his disciples in tomorrow's reading:
"I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now".

What a timely post!

John Sobecki
12 years 8 months ago
I am a little older than you Father James but I can 't remember a time when the ''Church's'' hierarchy was ''grokking'' with the laity. About ten years ago our archdiocese was conducting a capital campaign called ''prepare the way.'' The rationale was that there was a shortage of priests and the church needed to fill in the gaps by hiring lay people to help the parishes with mundane administrivia such as parish and school administration, budgeting and so on. We were told that this way done so the priests could get on with the ''important work of God.''(Actual quote.) The campaign was proclaimed instead of a homily with a slide show after the reading of the gospel. I guess they figured they had a captured audiennce. During the pastor's remarks my then ten year old daughter tugged on my sleeve and whispered ''Wouldn't they solve their problem if they ordained women and married men?'' Even a ten year old knew that grokking was absent!
But like her older sister the deceipt , ineptitude and inconsiderateness  of the church's hierarchy did not prevent either one of these young ladies from  selecting on their own , attending and getting  degrees from St. Joseph's University.My older daughter shared something that she'' wasn't going to let the insecurities of a few small minded  men who were clearly out of touch with the trials and joys of the real world interefere with her faith and relationship with God.''
I wrote once that just because one wears red robes does not mean he has authority over another's relationship with God.
12 years 8 months ago
Stranger in a Strange Land  :)  one of my favorite books from my teen years.
I don't know if there will ever be a right time for the church to give some of the pronouncements it's given lately.  Speaking for myself, I've lost pretty much all the respect I've ever had for the hierarchy.
Alana Schrader
12 years 8 months ago
Fr. Martin, in reference to this sentence near the end:
So I’m not sure this is an auspicious moment for the church to make pronouncements, especially condemnatory ones, on matters relating to sexuality—whether it’s same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and, frankly, anything related to women.
Could you clarify what you mean by ''and frankly, anything related to women.'' I'm sure you mean something other than its implications.
It implies that women are nothing other than their sexuality, while men get to be more.
Molly Roach
12 years 8 months ago
The hierarchy does not grok the people of God at all.  They rather regard us as the extras in a movie that is all about and only about them.  They do not know how to listen and they seem to believe that they and only they are worried about anything of any importance.   They seem to believe themselves to be the only real humans in the church.  And they sold us down the river when generations of bishops hid sex offenders rather than reached out to their victims.  They may have formal authority by virtue of their ordination but I see no evidence of personal or reality-based authority to teach because they are incapable of acting on the truth.  They're still waiting for us all to say, "Oh, they didn't mean to do anything bad."
ow lafaye
12 years 8 months ago
It is a MORTAL SIN to grok (whatever that is)
ow lafaye
12 years 8 months ago
EMPATHY is not an attribute of the Roman Catholic Church...
ow lafaye
12 years 8 months ago
''America'' as a title is designed to mislead...It is ''America Catholic Weekly''...typical
John Sobecki
12 years 8 months ago
"When authority is the problem, authority is the least capable in solving it."
- Pedro Arrupe SJ
Fran Rossi Szpylczyn
12 years 8 months ago
Very well done and meant to be shared, Facebook here I come.
That said, and with all due respect, I am a lay person who is immersed in church work. As a result I am in contact with many people in the pews... Honestly Father Jim, I wish there were more outrage. I myself am rather struck by the outrage I find out here on the internet versus the outrage -or the lack of it, in my daily dealings.
People wonder why I am not more outraged - and I wonder how and why they cannot see it. To me outrage has yet to engender departure but no lack of engagement. I worry about the real wounds of not only the current crisis, but of the ''pray-pay-obey'' that still seems to permeate so much of the church.  I think that it is the people who define as Catholic but not people who are involved laity who are yelling the loudest.  Thanks be to God for them!
I am deeply grateful to be associated with more than one parish that can be described as vibrant and alive but I wonder about the church at large.
12 years 8 months ago
"As long as I live, I will never forget the retreat of the late Fr. Daniel Lord gave us scholastics before our ordination. He recalled the episode of a conversation that Pope Pius had with Fr. Edmond Walsh, then of Georgetown who had just returned from a mission in Russia, where millions were starving because of the treachery of their Communist overlords. After the famine had abated, Fr. Lord was told to meet with the Holy Father. Late into the night Pope and Jesuit were in conversation over the conditions of the Church in that day. And the Pope asked Fr. Walsh who do you think are the greatest trials to the Church? Are they the persecutors, the Neros and Attilas, the Communists? The Pope answered his own question. No, they are unfaithful priests. It is no overstretch of language to say as the priesthood goes, so goes the Church".

John Hardon SJ

I refer here to thoses priests who proclaim not the Truth.
David Cruz-Uribe
12 years 8 months ago
For those who do not appreciate the neologism "grok", the Germans have several which can serve:  zeitgeist, weltanschauung, gestalt.  But whatever, the name, I believe that Fr. Martin has a good point:  the hierarchy just does not get it at times, and consequently their message in all areas is simply not heard. 
Part of the problem is that they do not seem to grasp the perspective of the folks in the pews, preferring either to listen to one another or a small subset of the laity who perform all manner of mental gymnastics to conform themselves to whatever the bishops say.   I am saddened by this not because I disagree with the bishops, but rather because I do agree with them.  It is just that their empahsis, their timing, their failure to understand the context in which they are speaking, and often their failure to understand their audience makes them ineffective in proclaiming the gospel message.  I am in the process of discernment about whether to become a permanent deacon, but I fear that, in my diocese, my voice may be redirected into the same fruitless paths, rathering than being allowed to preach Christ Crucified in a way that will be heard.
12 years 8 months ago
It seems to me kairos event is divine/conscience influence at any chronos. It may be an unconfortable time but needs to be
reponded to. Also as you imply this may be personal or
communal.Like the New Yorker article including Cardinal Ratzinger's view of Hitler's just war. He walked from the allied d-day cemetary celebration to the SS German plot up the road and blessed the SS graves. His response to the New Yorker writer's question was an explanation why Hitler's war was a just war for Germany. Now when the America editors read this they may have decided to ignore it or maybe they did not read the long article in the New Yorker several months before the vote for Pope. If they read it, it was a kairos decision.
Another kairos:we believe that the Eucharist is central to Catholic belief. Yet in Roman (not Eastern)Catholicism it is
limited to about about 25% of the church because of the late
fallible teaching that celibrants must be celibate.In next
twenty years fewer will have the opportunity for Eucharist. It would be communal kairos if America printed this in BOLD print in every issue, in large type.
anne southwood
12 years 8 months ago
I nearly missed this post. The word "grok" is not enticing. I would have been sad. I don't think our hierarchy "groks" laity. We need to talk to each other honestly and they need to listen. It is important that a priest with a public face like Fr. Martin speaks up. The first part of his post articulates irritation sources well. It is honest and accurate. 
The second part, on Kairos, is smart. The Church credibility quotient is at an all time low. The public announcement on the AZ sister described as saintly by her amazed fellow workers fits perfectly under the Kairos concept. Americans react strongly when they perceive that a sister has been roughly treated. This was not well received in the still testy atmosphere of visitations of women religious.
Stanley Kopacz
12 years 8 months ago
Jesus chose his first apostles well,  fisherman and other down-to-earth types.  They didn't have a problem communicating with people the Lord wanted to communicate with because they were the same type of people.  Relatively uncontaminated by Greek philosophy, too, I would imagine. Maybe we should broaden the pool from which the hierarchy is drawn.
Mark Harden
12 years 8 months ago
''The sister technically excommunicated herself, but the bishop announced it publicly.'' In regard to the kairos of Bishop Olmsted's public statement, he did not make it on his own initiative, but in response to a journalist investigating the matter for the local newspaper. See
''From the way this is being reported, you’d think that Bishop Olmsted was issuing thundering public denunciations of Sr. McBride, that he took the initiative to sent out some kind of press release announcing the excommunication, perhaps to warn members of his flock that Sr. McBride is to be publicly shunned or something.
''From what I can tell, this is the exact opposite of what happened. It appears that Bishop Olmsted issued his statement only in response to the hospital confirming the story for the press. Had the hospital kept its mouth shut, Bishop Olmsted would not have made it public.
''To minimize public humiliation of Sr. McBride, Bishop Olmsted did not say in his statement that she had been excommunicated. In fact, she was not mentioned in his statement at all. The only mention of excommunication the statement makes is a general one, with no specific individuals in focus. It is just the general caution, “If a Catholic formally cooperates in the procurement of an abortion, they are automatically excommunicated by that action.”
''Reporter Michael Clancy also seems to acknowledge that the Bishop did not speak explicitly of Sr. McBride, stating in his story only that he “indicated” (as opposed, e.g., to “said”) that McBride was excommunicated.
''My guess is that what happened here is that the Bishop wanted to deal with these matters privately, but someone at the hospital tipped the press, which then asked both the Bishop and the hospital about the matter. When the hospital confirmed, the Bishop felt obliged to respond as well, but of a desire to protect the reputations/privacy of those involved, he responded only in general terms, acknowledging that an abortion had taken place, that he was horrified by this, and explaining the Church’s position on such matters.
''Scarcely the “Cruel Bishop vs. Victim Nun” narrative. No thundering public denunciations of Sr. McBride; no attempts to publicly shame her—quite the opposite!
''But the press ran with it, making explicit the fact that she had been excommunicated. The bishop hadn’t said so, but presumably she and/or someone else who knew about it told the Arizona Republic, and the Arizona Republic took the reference to the Church’s law in the bishop’s statement as confirmation.
''The story then went all over the place, and the diocese felt obliged to provide a Q & A to clear things up.''
12 years 8 months ago
Thank you Michael Harden for your comment.  It is well for us to remember when we are evaluating or judging the situations such as those that Father Martin mentioned in his post that there is often more to the story than what we are getting in the media.  Some years ago i belonged to a dissident organization where I learned some techniques for advocating one's ideology.  The technique of "setting up" a person in authority in the church (bishop or cardinal) was used to make the bishop look foolish, mean, stupid.   The group used the newspaper (which was quite willing) to accompany the group members who would confront the bishop in a way that no matter how he answered he ended up looking bad.  The reporter would file her report.   (for this and other reasons I left the organization).
It is not unheard of for advocacy groups to use children to achieve their goals.  Sometimes the "best interests of children" is just a convenient phrase  which advocates use to rationalize their use of children.    I'm afraid we are going to be seeing more and more of this.  As an advocate, myself, (for persons with disabilities), I'm well aware of that temptation.  It is a matter of continual discernment for me and I would hope for others.
12 years 8 months ago
I'm a little confused by this post by Fr. Martin. It begins by addressing the term "grok" and whether it applies to the relationship between the Church and the laity, and just when Father is about to say what we all know he believes (that is, that an avowed celibate group of old men should not be in the position to dictate how the laity, especially women, should live their lives in matters of sex), he expressly disclaims such belief so as "to be clear," and changes the subject to the hierarchy's timing of its proclamations on such matters.

I'm sure Fr. Jim is holding back here for a reason; is it fear of backlash from the hierarchy or from the laity? I'm guessing that despite what Father suggests is the case, the hiearchy does, indeed, grok the laity in large part.

Here's a question for Father Jim: While the Church is being attacked in the public forum because of the sexual abuse scandal, is the timing right for a priest to be expressing doubt about the solidarity of the Church, joining the ranks of the angry mob?
James Lindsay
12 years 8 months ago
Fr. Jim, I am surprised you had not read the Heinlein before, although it is probably one of those books that future priests (or priests) don't read. Stranger is tamer than some of his other works, since his literature often reflected his personal moral philosophies, including those on sexuality.

Drugs and groking have nothing to do with each other. I'm not sure Michael Valentine Smith could get high, actually.

As for the Sister in New Mexico, National Catholic Reporter covered her case quite well, especially with regard to whether she should have been publicly excommunicated without first being afforded her due process rights under Canon Law. The reporting on the story suggests that not only was she not afforded such rights, but that given the circumstances of the abortion, it was not illicit to either approve it or perform it at a Catholic hospital under Canon Law. Indeed, the Bishop's comments show a lack of familiarity with both the language and spirit of the relevant Canon, the spirit of it being that it is better that one die than two.

I think the Church does a better job in groking its funders than the people in the pews. In a decade the composition of the funders will change radically - as well as the composition of the episcopacy. This is all but certain given the mandatory retirement age of bishops and the views of the cohort of priests who will replace them.

As for the abuse crisis, I hope that it will come out that those Bishops who are most in trouble as those who followed the advice of their lawyers a bit too zealously in protecting the diocesean purse. It is not a matter of groking.

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