A Dangerous Generalization
We, each of us, have our own experiences. Mine, it appears, have differed substantially from John Cort’s as regards the use of the consensus approach to decision making (see his Nov. 1989 column).
To begin with, I must confess that my qualifications certainly cannot equal Cort’s. My experience has included only the chairmanship of a church council, the presidency of a large organization of representatives of industrial companies (both of which were run via Robert’s Rules of Order), and the chairmanship of a large social service agency which is run by the consensus approach.
It is true that I found no difficulties in operating by Robert’s rules and that decisions were made well and fairly.
My experience with operating via consensus, even though I went into the experience with questions, was not a disappointment at all, however. In fact, I found that the consensus approach helped me accomplish some things that the Robert’s approach might not have.
One thing I learned was that it was not necessarily effective for those responsible for conducting a session to assume they are right about an issue, or, for that matter, that the “majority” is, by definition, right. It has been surprising to me to find how often the minority, when we had the patience to listen to them, helped us see how wrong we, the majority, could be. Another experience I had was to learn how effective the consensus approach can be in an area of serious conflict. My conclusion has been that it is wrong to conclude that the consensus method cannot work in a stress situation. Actually, the consensus approach helped us resolve a particularly difficult problem without tearing the organization apart, which might have happened under Robert’s.
For Cort to call the consensus approach “lazy” may be a reflection of not knowing how much effort and patience are required to make that method work. It may also reflect not knowing how effective the method can be when properly used.
No doubt, Cort is genuinely convinced that the consensus approach cannot work well. I would encourage him to keep an open mind and permit the possibility that generalizations are dangerous.
St. Gregory's Parish
Hightstown, New Jersey
My Little Sect
I enjoy the NOR and continue to find it stimulating to both mind and spirit. However, your November 1989 issue was awfully hard on my little sect.
First John Lukacs plants the Quakers on the political Left. Although many of us happily admit to leftward politics, aligning Quakers exclusively to the Left is mildly ludicrous, for there are several branches of the Society of Friends in the U.S. producing members with unwaveringly conservative opinions on many matters. Then John C. Cort reviews a book on “secular consensus” with only a fleeting reference to the Society’s 300-year history of consensus practice. Finally, you devote six pages to those most devoted of our historic persecutors, the Puritans (coup de grace). Given our small group’s disinclination to proselytize, I suppose I am grateful for any publicity concerning the Society of Friends that does not appear on an oatmeal carton or a Pennsylvania license plate.
Sour grapes aside, I have read Cort’s writings with interest, always finding something of value, whether or not I agree with the opinions so cogently expressed. But I was disappointed to see the Quakers’ successful experiences with consensus decision-making in a spiritual community given little notice, and thus presented as irrelevant to the secular versions of this practice. I realize that religious groups differ from secular ones, but this should not sideline us from the discussion.
Admittedly, Quaker consensus is not a set of rules codified for the convenience of groups of people who need exact procedural guidance, don’t want to know each other well, or lack the commitment to discovering the spiritual unity for which we “Seekers” search. We see consensus-seeking, at its best, as a communal journey under the guidance of our Inner Teacher. It has been used well, however, by secular groups of people with a commitment to hearing each other’s words with the heart as well as the ears. Indeed, consensus-making is an art and not a science, and like any art it takes patience and practice to perform it well.
We work toward an atmosphere where dissenting concerns can be expressed with the confidence that those assembled make the effort to listen to “that of God” within the speaker. Decisions are often put off, or made with extreme slowness, because a member has a specific concern and the Meeting is not ready to be in unity. With time and prayer, a solution is usually found that takes all concerns into account. Decisions made in this often exquisitely time-consuming fashion will not satisfy those impatient for immediate action, but tend to stand more strongly and have the momentum of the community behind them once made. A dissenting voice which cannot, after much consideration, be included in the decision will be recorded in the minutes as having “stood aside.” This means that perfect unity has not been achieved, but since human beings have never been perfect vessels or conduits of the truth, this is the best we can do to insure that no voice, however much in the minority, is lost from the discussion or considered without care.
Cort is correct that larger groups are more difficult to bring to unity. Otherwise, the Society of Friends would not have had the schismatic troubles that have split it so painfully. Striving for perfection does not necessarily mean reaching it, but we consider this method to be preferable to a majority vote which allows a group to discount minority opinions once decisions are made.
We call the meeting’s facilitator “clerk,” and do not rotate the position frequently because we need to choose clerks who have demonstrated talents for gentle group guidance and well-practiced listening skills. These are rare and treasured qualities, and we try to nurture them where we find them.
If Cort is interested, I am sure that the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Library would be happy to provide him with books which will describe our practices better than I have done.
It is a consolation that, having dismissed our experience as irrelevant to his discussion, Cort “does not believe that the Quakers are in any danger of turning into actual terrorists.” We will endeavor, of course, to prevent this, and I thank him for his confidence.
Sarah Milburn Moore
Princeton, New Jersey
Sin is Sin
James Hanink’s review of Edward Sheehan’s Agony in the Garden: A Stranger in Central America (Nov. 1989) contains a statement that is at variance with both experience and Christianity: “The links between promiscuity and poverty are plain enough in our own culture.” Hanink’s statement seems to imply that promiscuity is somehow caused, or at least somewhat exculpated, by poverty. On the contrary, promiscuity is a characteristic of sinful human nature, is to be found in all socio-economic strata, and is neither caused, nor in the least exculpated, by poverty.
Jesus rightly said: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Mt. 15:19; my italics). All sin has its origin in the human heart, i.e., the human mind and will. The poor, and all who sympathize with them, are harmed by any other teaching.
Los Angeles, California
To Soothe Jewish Pain
My heart went out to Larry Chase, whose letter appeared in the November 1989 NOR. Chase is a Jewish reader who had many complimentary things to write about the Catholic Church.
However, he is needlessly living with misinformation, which, if corrected, might soothe his pain regarding the role of the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII during the Nazi Holocaust. While many Christians contributed actively and passively to the extermination of millions of Jews and Christians, Pius XII was not one of them.
I would like to suggest that Chase read Pius XII and the Holocaust, published by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. In this fine work he will find documentation which proves that Pius XII was personally responsible for saving thousands of Jews. The facts about Pius XII are conveniently ignored by those who find it in their interest to perpetuate the fable that the Catholic Church and the Vatican were somehow in league with the Nazis.
Also, the Vatican’s reluctance to establish diplomatic relations with the state of Israel is not a refusal to recognize the existence of Israel. It is a recognition that certain issues of concern need to be worked out between the Vatican and the Israeli government before the exchange of diplomats. These issues pertain to the status of Jerusalem, the rights of Arab Christians, etc. Let us all hope such issues can be quickly resolved.
I commend Chase for his openness. All people of good will unite with him over his loss of 45 relatives in the death camps. Continued dialogue and openness to one another in faith in the One God can only strengthen the bonds between Catholics and Jews.
The Rev. Michael Parise
Regarding the letter entitled “A Jewish View” from Larry Chase (Nov.): I feel I could tell him so much he does not know! I would be so happy to have this gentleman, who has such an open mind, get in touch with a Jewish Catholic brother of his: Fr. Arthur Klyber. Fr. Klyber heads the organization Remnant of Israel, composed of Jewish-Catholics.
Palm Desert, California
Clubbish & Hypocritical
Before raising investment capital, perhaps you should examine your November issue more carefully.
Why, of all the possibilities, is Witness by Whittaker Chambers your “Vital Works Reconsidered, #1”? If that is vital, then we’re all dead and dreaming.
When an essay develops an analogy of reading as hiking, why is the meandering piece entitled “Reading as Sacrament”?
Why is a special issue which is devoted to book reviews so clubbish and hypocritical, so unimaginative and uninspiring, so protective and smug? Perhaps it’s I.
But for the NOR to have existed for over 12 years, and now to do so little, disappoints me terribly. I’m sorry, but to invest in the NOR seems nostalgic. Like some character in No Exit, this reader will leave you so you can admire each other better.
Joseph F. Keppler
Ed. Note: Clubbish! You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We’ve formed an honest-to-goodness club in L.A. See the next letter.
Studio City, California
Personalism in Los Angeles
I am pleased to report that the first “New Oxford Review Forum” was held Saturday, October 21, 1989, at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
James G. Hanink, NOR Associate Editor and Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, presented a revised version of his March 1989 NOR article on personalism. Hanink described what he called the contemporary “signs of organized disorder”: arms trade, nuclear war potential, and the virtual “redefining of human life” which underlies the maltreatment of the unborn, the aged, and the infirm. In the face of depersonalizing violence and bureaucracy, our present society, he believes, is suffering a “philosophical failure of nerve.”
“Conversion” is a desired response to this crisis, Hanink stated. It must begin with a deepening of personal faith and conviction, and then be activated in family and community.
The Forum then heard responses from Rhonda Chervin, a philosophy professor at St. John’s Seminary, and William Fitzgerald, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount.
Chervin, a member of the Bishops’ Commission on Women, addressed the predictable charge of “utopianism” that personalists will face when attempting to relate their ideas to present society. If we view personalism only as a philosophy, she stated, it will seem utopian and detached from life. We will be discouraged by the gap between the real and the ideal, a contradiction rooted in the distinction between Greek “impersonal” truth and Christian “incarnational” truth. Christian and personalist ideas must be “lived,” expressed directly in both our spiritual life and in social action. She pointed out that there is a current tendency even to pray in a way that omits God’s Personhood by substituting symbols and “archetypes.” The goal of personalism is to probe beneath merely habitual forms of relating to God and to human beings. Chervin stressed that “persons are saved by persons, not personalism.”
Fitzgerald, a political activist and former congressional candidate, analyzed some of the basic elements of personalism, including the concepts of distributive justice, pluralism, and subsidiarity. He asserted that personalist thought challenges present concepts of property, pointing out that St. Thomas’s view of private property was that it was good in that it can be given away!
In supporting Hanink’s distinction between “a pluralism of conviction or indifference,” Fitzgerald spoke of the danger of moving from extreme individualism to totalitarianism due to a lack of natural social defenses “in between,” such as family, neighborhood, and community. He concluded with the reminder that the “real world” has a capacity for goodness as well as evil, and that the “Augustinian” sense of sin must always be balanced with the hope of redemption.
Over 20 people were present and participated in afternoon discussion groups. Suggestions for future Forum topics included “The Seamless Garment,” “Walker Percy,” “Liberation Theology,” and “Spirituality in the Arts.” Since the participants came from all part of L.A. County, it was proposed that, in addition to seminars, smaller discussion groups be formed.
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