Thursday, September 27, 2012

Comment on Bishop Myer's Pastoral on Homosexual "Marriage" as Reported

As true as the remarks of B. Myers ares, the content as reported in the National Catholic Register is still not dead center on the Christian anthropology. Homosexual union cannot be marriage not because it is not capable of procreation, but because it cannot be mutual self-gift. Male and female are constitutively relational, the male as donation of self to other, the female as reception of the male self. The sexuality manifested in the body is constitutive of personality, and the act of becoming one flesh is the enactment of imaging the One God of Three Relationalities (Persons). Openness to procreation is constitutive of this one flesh union. The actual achievement of children is not.
The reasoning of procreative achievement is valid for the state since the ontological existence of the body politic depends on this, but it is not the grounding argument against "gay marriage." 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Texts For Short Presentation of The Year of Faith

Benedict XVI: Year of Faith, October 11, 2012 until the Feast of Christ the King November 24, 2013.

The Meaning of Faith: Vatican II – Dei Verbum #5: “‘The obedience of faith’ (Rom. 16, 26; cf.. Rom. 1, 2; 2 Cor. 10, 5-6) must be given to God as he reveals himself. By faith man freely commits his entire self to God, making ‘the full submission of his intellect and will to God who reveals….”

Instrumentum Laboris – The New Evangelisation for the Transmission of the Christian Faith: Synod of Bishops: 2012.[1]

“18. The Christian faith is not simply teachings, wise sayings, a code of morality or a tradition. The Christian faith is a true encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ. Transmitting the faith means to create in every place and time the conditions which lead to this encounter between the person and Jesus Christ. The goal of all evangelization is to create the possibility for this encounter, which is, at one and the same time, intimate, personal, public and communal. Pope Benedict XVI stated: ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice of a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. (…) Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn, 4, 10), love is now no longer a mere ‘command;’ it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.’”

Autobiographical Summary of Benedict XVI’s Thesis on Revelation and Faith (1956):

 “I had ascertained that in Bonaventure (as well as in theologians of the thirteenth century) there was nothing corresponding to our conception of ‘revelation’ by which we are normally in the habit of referring to all the revealed contents of the faith: it has even become a part of linguistic usage to refer to Sacred Scripture simply as ‘revelation.’ Such an identification would have been unthinkable in the language of the High Middle Ages. Here, ‘revelation’ is always a concept denoting an act. The word refers to the act in which God shows himself, not to the objectified result of this act. And because this is so, the receiving subject is always also a part of the concept of ‘revelation.’ Where there is no one to perceive ‘revelation,’ no re-vel-ation has occurred, because no veil has been removed. By definition, revelation requires a someone who apprehends it. These insights, gained through my reading of Bonaventure, were later on very important for me at the time of the conciliar discussion on revelation, Scripture and tradition. Because, if Bonaventure is right, then revelation precedes Scripture and becomes deposited in Scripture but is not simply identical with it. This in turn means that revelation is always something greater than what is merely written down. And this again means that there can be no such thing as pure sola scriptura… because an essential element of Scripture is the Church as understanding subject, and with this the fundamental sense of tradition is already given…. Michael Schmaus… saw in these theses not at all a faithful rendering of Bonaventure’s thought (however to this day I still affirm the contrary) but a dangerous modernism that had to lead to the subjectivization of the concept of revelation.”[2]

Again in another publication of Ratzinger: “(Y)ou can have Scripture without having revelation. For revelation always and only becomes a reality where there is faith. The nonbeliever remains under the veil of which Paul speaks in the third chapter of his Second Letter to the Corinthians. He can read Scripture and know what is in it, can even understand at a purely intellectual level, what is meant and how what is said hangs together – and yet he has not shared in the revelation. Rather, revelation has only arrived where, in addition to the material assertions witnessing to it, its inner reality has itself become effective after the manner of faith.

Consequently, the person who receives it also is a part of the revelation to a certain degree, for without him it does not exist. You cannot put revelation in your pocket like a book you carry around with you. It is a living reality that requires a living person as the locus of its presence.”[3]

The Realism of the Word of God: Word-Person:
“ (…) (T)he Word of God is the foundation of everything, it is the true reality. And to be realistic, we must rely upon this reality. We must change our idea that matter, solid things, things we can touch, are the more solid, the more certain reality. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount the Lord speaks to us about the two possible foundations for building the house of one's life: sand and rock. The one who builds on sand builds only on visible and tangible things, on success, on career, on money. Apparently these are the true realities. But all this one day will pass away. We can see this now with the fall of large banks: this money disappears, it is nothing. And thus all things, which seem to be the true realities we can count on, are only realities of a secondary order. The one who builds his life on these realities, on matter, on success, on appearances, builds upon sand. Only the Word of God is the foundation of all reality, it is as stable as the heavens and more than the heavens, it is reality. Therefore, we must change our concept of realism. The realist is the one who recognizes the Word of God, in this apparently weak reality, as the foundation of all things. Realist is the one who builds his life on this foundation, which is permanent. Thus the first verses of the Psalm invite us to discover what reality is and how to find the foundation of our life, how to build life. [4]
The Content of the Word of God:

          “As we have seen, the Word of God is the Person of the Son. He is the revelation of the Father. But what is the content of that revelation? Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in 1993: “What does the Church believe? This question includes the others: who believes and how should one believe? The Catechism has dealt with both fundamental questions: the question of ‘what’ to believe and of ‘who’ believes, as one question with an interior unity. In other words, the catechism illustrates the act of the faith and the content of the faith in their inseparability. Perhaps this sounds a little abstract; let’s try to develop a little what’s intended by this.

            “One finds in the confessions of faith both the formula ‘I believe’ and the formula ‘we believe.’ Let us speak about the faith of the Church, and let us speak about the personal nature of the faith, and finally let us speak about the faith as a gift from God, as a ‘theological act’ in accordance with an expression that’s current today in theology.

            “What does all this mean? The faith is an orientation [relation] of our existence as a whole, in its completeness. It is a basic decision, one which has effects in every aspect of our existence and one which is realized only if it is supported by all the efforts of our existence. Faith is not solely an intellectual process, or solely one with will or emotions; it is all of these together. It is an act of the entire self, of the whole person in the unity of all the elements of that person gathered into one. In this sense it was described by the Bible as an act of the ‘heart’ (Rom. 10, 9). It is a highly personal act. But precisely because it is this, it surpasses the self, the ‘I,’ the limits of the individual. Nothing belongs to us as little as our self, St. Augustine affirms in one passage …
“The faith is a disappearing of the simple I and so the resurgence of the true I, a becoming oneself through freeing oneself from the simple I in communion with God, which is mediated through communion with Christ.”[6]

* * * * * * * *
Benedict XVI continues in his labor of moving the Church across the threshold of a consciousness of God by an experience of Christ. This seems to be the one goal of his pontificate: To move the Church to the consciousness and concept that faith and revelation are one subjective act of God revealing Himself, and the whole person of the believer receives Him and becomes Him. More scripturally and concretely: Simon enters into the prayer of Christ to the Father (Lk. 9, 18) and experiences within himself the consciousness that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Mt. 16, 16). For that consciousness to have taken place, Simon had to become rock (Peter) as Christ is “cornerstone” (Acts 11, 4). He had to do what Christ does (and "is"): pray. Like is known by like: Stone is known by rock and confesses: “You are the Christ, Son of the living God” (Mt. 16, 16).

[1] XIII Ordinary General Assembly, Chapter I – Jesus Christ, The Good News of God to Humanity.
[2] J. Ratzinger, “Milestones, Memoirs 1927-1977,” Ignatius (1997) 108-109.
[3] J. Ratzinger, “God’s Word”  Ignatius (2003) 52.
[4] Benedict XVI, Keynote Address – Synod on the Word of God, October 6, 2008.
[5] Benedict XVI  Synod on the Word of God, 10/6/2008.
[6] J. Ratzinger, “What Does the Church Believe?” The Catholic World Report March 1993, 27.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Catholicity of the Catholic Church

Since Jesus Christ is uniquely God and man, there cannot be salvation outside of Jesus Christ. And if Jesus Christ is the sole source of salvation, the Catholic Church founded by Him must be universal. But the Church makes a critical distinction: that between object and subject. Only subjects subsist.  Objects exist. The Church teaches in Vatican II (Lumen Gentium) that Jesus Christ, as Subject (“I Am” [Jn. 8, 24]) subsists only in the Catholic Church, while objective elements of holiness and salvation exist outside of the visible Catholic Church.[1] Only the Catholic Church has all the means to become one with Christ such as to be “alter Christus” and thus achieve salvation. Hence, only the Catholic Church, with Peter in Rome has a universal- catholic – dimension.

In the light of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 1, 4 which reads “Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish in his sight in love,” Bl. John Henry Newman argues that elements that are found outside Christianity in reality have always belonged to Christianity because Christianity pre-existed creation as did Christ whose humanity is continuous with the entire material from the beginning.

            Newman wrote: “The Anglican disputant took his stand upon Antiquity or Apostolicity, the Roman upon Catholicity. The Anglican said to the Roman: ‘There is but One Faith, the Ancient, and you have not kept to it:” the Roman retorted: ‘There is but One Church, the Catholic, and you are out of it.’ … The cause lay thus, Apostolicity versus Catholicity.”

John Jay Hughes wrote: “It is worth noting in passing that his standoff is replicated today in the dispute between the members of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and Catholics united with the Pope. The SSPX takes its stand upon the statements of 19th century Popes and Vatican I (with occasional side glances to the Council of Trent) and charges Catholics with having abandoned these immutable teachings at Vatican II. Catholics respond today as they did in Newman’s time: ‘There is but one Church, and you are out of it.”[2]

            Note that Newman also wrote: “In a higher world it is otherwise. But here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”[3]

“Now, the phenomenon, admitted on all hands, is this:—that great portion of what is generally received as Christian truth, is in its rudiments or in its separate parts to be found in heathen philosophies and religions. For instance, the doctrine of a Trinity is found both in the East and in the West; so is the ceremony of washing; so is the rite of sacrifice. The doctrine of the Divine Word is Platonic; the doctrine of the Incarnation is Indian; of a divine kingdom is Judaic; of Angels and demons is Magian; the connexion of sin with the body is Gnostic; celibacy is known to Bonze and Talapoin; a sacerdotal order is Egyptian; the idea of a new birth is Chinese and Eleusinian; belief in sacramental virtue is Pythagorean; and honours to the dead are a polytheism. Such is the general nature of the fact before us; Mr. Milman argues from it,—"These things are in heathenism, therefore they are not Christian:" we, on the contrary, prefer to say, "these things are in Christianity, therefore they are not heathen." That is, we prefer to say, and we think that Scripture bears us out in saying, that from the beginning the Moral Governor of the world has scattered the seeds of truth far and wide over its extent; that these have variously taken root, and grown up as in the wilderness, wild plants indeed but living; and hence that, as the inferior animals have {232} tokens of an immaterial principle in them, yet have not souls, so the philosophies and religions of men have their life in certain true ideas, though they are not directly divine. What man is amid the brute creation, such is the Church among the schools of the world; and as Adam gave names to the animals about him, so has the Church from the first looked round upon the earth, noting and visiting the doctrines she found there. She began in Chaldea, and then sojourned among the Canaanites, and went down into Egypt, and thence passed into Arabia, till she rested in her own land. Next she encountered the merchants of Tyre, and the wisdom of the East country, and the luxury of Sheba. Then she was carried away to Babylon, and wandered to the schools of Greece. And wherever she went, in trouble or in triumph, still she was a living spirit, the mind and voice of the Most High; "sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions;" claiming to herself what they said rightly, correcting their errors, supplying their defects, completing their beginnings, expanding their surmises, and thus gradually by means of them enlarging the range and refining the sense of her own teaching. So far then from her creed being of doubtful credit because it resembles foreign theologies, we even hold that one special way in which Providence has imparted divine knowledge to us has been by enabling her to draw and collect it together out of the world, and, in this sense, as in others, to suck the milk of the Gentiles and to suck the breast of kings.
“How far in fact this process has gone, is a question of history; and we believe it has before now been grossly exaggerated and misrepresented by those who, like Mr. Milman, have thought that its existence told against {233} Catholic doctrine; but so little antecedent difficulty have we in the matter, that we could readily grant, unless it were a question of fact not of theory, that Balaam was an Eastern sage, or a Sibyl was inspired, or Solomon learnt of the sons of Mahol, or Moses was a scholar of the Egyptian hierophants. We are not distressed to be told that the doctrine of the angelic host came from Babylon, while we know that they did sing at the Nativity; nor that the vision of a Mediator is in Philo, if in very deed He died for us on Calvary. Nor are we afraid to allow, that, even after His coming, the Church has been a treasure-house, giving forth things old and new, casting the gold of fresh tributaries into her refiner's fire, or stamping upon her own, as time required it, a deeper impress of her Master's image.
“The distinction between these two theories is broad and obvious. The advocates of the one imply that Revelation was a single, entire, solitary act, or nearly so, introducing a certain message; whereas we, who maintain the other, consider that Divine teaching has been in fact, what the analogy of nature would lead us to expect, "at sundry times and in divers manners," various, complex, progressive, and supplemental of itself. We consider the Christian doctrine, when analyzed, to appear, like the human frame, "fearfully and wonderfully made;" but they think it someone tenet or certain principles given out at one time in their fullness, without gradual enlargement before Christ's coming or elucidation afterwards. They cast off all that they also find in Pharisee or heathen; we conceive that the Church, like Aaron's rod, devours the serpents of the magicians. They are ever hunting for a fabulous primitive simplicity; we repose in Catholic fullness. They seek what never has been found; we accept and use {234} what even they acknowledge to be a substance. They are driven to maintain, on their part, that the Church's doctrine was never pure; we say that it never can be corrupt. We consider that a divine promise keeps the Church Catholic from doctrinal corruption; but on what promise, or on what encouragement, they are seeking for their visionary purity does not appear.”[4]

[1] Lumen Gentium #8.
[2] Inside the Vatican, August-September 2010, 38.
[3] J.H. Newman, “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine” (1844).
[4] John Henry Newman, “Essays Critical and Historical,” XI: Milman’s View of Christianity (1871), vol. 2, 232-233.

From Fr. George Rutler


September 23, 2012

By Fr. George W. Rutler

Pope Benedict XVI was in Lebanon last week where the principal Catholic rite, the Maronite, traces its roots to Saint Maroun, who in the fourth century was a friend of Saint John Chrysostom. The Holy Father spoke to people who “know all too well the tragedy of conflict and . . . the cry of the widow and the orphan.” Like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, the Pope linked violence to contempt for the right to life: “The effectiveness of our commitment to peace depends on our understanding of human life.” The defense of life “leads us to reject not only war and terrorism, but every assault on innocent human life, on men and women as creatures willed by God. Wherever the truth of human nature is ignored or denied, it becomes impossible to respect that grammar which is the natural law inscribed in the human heart.” 
   This contradicts those in our own country who plead for peace while violating the innocent unborn. Our current President has defended “partial-birth abortion” when (in arguing against the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002), as he infelicitously put it, “. . . that fetus, or child, however you want to describe it, is now outside of the mother’s womb . . .” It is not surprising that The New York Times should be so opposed to the Catholic Church whose teaching on the sanctity of life exposes the hypocrisy of that publication. If, according to the adage, “hypocrisy is the tribute which vice pays to virtue,” there is much vice promoted by The New York Times, but one is hard pressed to detect the remnant virtue.

   Pope Benedict's final Mass in Lebanon attracted 350,000, yet the largest gathering of faithful in the long history of that ancient land was mentioned only on the bottom of page eight of The New York Times with a tiny photograph. The same issue's “Quotation of the Day” was by an “Egyptian religious scholar” Ismail Mohamed: “We don't think that depictions of the prophets are freedom of expression; we think it is an offense against our rights.” This is where hypocrisy burst into a veritable tap dance, for in March of this year, the Times ran a full-page advertisement mocking the Catholic Church, and a few days later refused to run a similar one mocking Islam. 

   The “Grey Lady” is only a few shades removed from what our Lord called “whitewashed tombs.” The mainstream media have defended vulgar and even pornographic anti-Christian films, stage plays, sculptures and painting as “art” entitled by free expression. When it comes to Islam, there is a different standard. Perhaps it is because newspaper editors know that Pope Benedict XVI will not demand that they be decapitated.
   The Pope risked his life to go to the Middle East. At 85, he still is on active duty. And so will his successors be, long after the last subscriber to The New York Times has cancelled his subscription.  
Fr. George W. Rutler

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Re-Evangelization: Build the People Around You

Evangelization before catechesis
Marybeth Bonacci
Why do you suppose Blessed John Paul II talked about the “new evangelization” and not the “new catechesis”?
Until recently, I was the director of evangelization and catechesis at a large parish here in Denver. And in that time, it became clear to me that (1) there is a significant difference in meaning between those two terms and that (2) most parishes don’t fully understand that difference, and that hurts our ability to reach the people in the pews.
To put it simply, “evangelization” is the process of introducing someone to Jesus Christ. It is about sharing His good news with them, and inspiring them to make the radical decision to follow Him. It is the fundamental turning of the heart toward God, the reorientation of one’s entire life to live not primarily for self, but for Him. Evangelization is the “why.” Why do I renounce this world for the next? Why do I follow Christ?
“Catechesis,” which happens after evangelization, is the nuts and bolts of instruction — the “how.” It is where we learn in a systematic way what we need to do in order to follow Christ, how to live as a Christian, how to grow in faith and love and grace.
Catechesis, then, presupposes evangelization. It would make no sense to teach people how to live a certain way if they don’t understand why they would want to live that way. It would be like giving someone a road map to a place they have no interest in going. They’d have no use for the map. They’d be more likely to use it to line the bird cage than they would be to actually follow it.
And here is where I see the disconnect in most parishes.
Most churches operate on a presupposition. They assume that their congregations consist of the “faithful” — people who have been evangelized, who have made the decision to follow Jesus Christ, who desire to become “new creations” in Him. They are gathered together to pray, to worship and to learn how to deepen that relationship. The church’s catechesis exists to help those people, who have already made the decision to follow Christ, to follow Him more closely.
Only, in many cases, that presupposition is wrong.
It may have been true, in previous generations, that a majority of the people in the pews on Sunday mornings were fully evangelized, committed Christians who had given their lives to following Jesus Christ. That may still be the case in some evangelical congregations. But it is not the situation in the average Catholic parish here at the dawn of the 21st century.
I believe that there are a lot of people in those pews who have never been evangelized. They’re probably sincere people, for the most part. They’re there. They want to be “good.” They want to meet nice people, maybe please the grandparents, maybe fulfill some kind of obligation. But they don’t get it. They don’t understand the power of Christ to transform their lives. They don’t see the need for the radical, life-altering transformation that He offers.
It’s no wonder our catechesis doesn’t seem to be getting us too far. We’re offering them a road map to a place they have no interest in going.
And hence, the primary need in the average Catholic church is not for catechesis. It’s for evangelization. As Blessed John Paul II said in “Novo Millennio Inuente,” “Even in countries evangelized many centuries ago, the reality of a ‘Christian Society’ which, amid all of the frailties which have always market human life, measured itself explicitly on Gospel values, is now gone.” Our mission fields are no longer in far-off lands. They are right here, in our own cities, amongst the people who gather with us for Mass on Sunday mornings. Those are the people we need to introduce, or reintroduce, to the truth about salvation in Jesus Christ.
Hence the need for the “new evangelization.” There’s nothing really “new” about it, in the sense of new information. As John Paul II himself said, “The new evangelization does not consist of a ‘new gospel.’ … Neither does it involve removing from the Gospel whatever seems difficult for the modern mentality to accept.” What we need to do is to restore the ancient truths, in all of their splendor, and release them from the extremes of sterile question-and-answer catechesis on one side and “Kumbaya and felt banners” emotionalism on the other. We need to speak those ancient truths in ways that are relevant to our modern culture, without watering them down or losing what is essential in them.
How do we do that? Unfortunately, there is no road map for that. It isn’t just a matter of purchasing the right curriculum or scheduling the right programs. It is a matter, first of all, of allowing ourselves to be transformed in Christ. It is about becoming witnesses — showing them what transformation in Christ looks like, and inviting them to pursue the same through the power of our example.
To quote John Paul II one final time: “The new evangelization is not a matter of merely passing on doctrine, but rather of a personal and profound meeting with the Savior.” The first goal of parish ministries should be just that — to facilitate a “personal and profound” meeting between worshippers and the object of their worship, Jesus Christ. We shouldn’t assume they’ve already met Him personally, or that they even know much about Him. Because I’m betting that, in many cases, they haven’t.
But I’m thinking that, if they got to know Him, they’d probably really like Him.
Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We’re On a Mission from God and Real Love.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Benedict Schulerkreis



Mariapoli Centre, Castel Gandolfo
Sunday, 2 September 2012

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The words of Cardinal Schönborn’s exegesis, three years ago, of this Gospel passage still resonate within me: the mysterious correlation of the intimate and the exterior are what makes man impure, that which contaminates him and what is pure. Therefore, today I do not wish to comment on this same Gospel passage, or I will only touch upon it. I will try instead to say a word on the two Readings.

In Deuteronomy we see the “joy of the law”: law not as a constraint, as something that takes from us our freedom, but as a present and a gift. When other nations look at this great people — as the Letter says, as Moses says — they will say: What wise people! They will admire the wisdom of this people, the justice of the law and the closeness of God who is at their side and answers them when called upon. This is the humble joy of Israel: to receive a gift from God. This is different from triumphalism, from the pride that comes from ourselves: Israel is not proud of her law like Rome may have been of the Roman Law that it gave to humanity, perhaps like France of the Napoleonic Code, like Prussia of the “Preussisches Landrecht”, etc. — legislation we all recognize. But Israel knows: this law was not made by her, it was not the fruit of her genius, it was a gift. God showed them what the law was. God gave them wisdom. The law is wisdom. Wisdom is the art of being human, the art of being able to live well and of being able to die well. And one can live and die well only when the truth has been received and shows us the way: to be grateful for the gift that we did not invent, but that we were given, and to live in wisdom; to learn, thanks to the gift of God, how to be human in the right way.

The Gospel shows us, however, that there is also a danger — as it says right at the beginning of today’s passage from Deuteronomy: “Do not add anything and do not take anything away”. It teaches us that with the passing of time applications, works, and human customs have been added to this gift from God that increasingly hide what is proper to the wisdom given by God, so as to become true bondage that needs to be broken, or to lead us to presumption: we invented it!

But let us now turn to ourselves, to the Church. According to our faith, in deed, the Church is the Israel made universal, in which all become, through the Lord, children of Abraham; Israel has become universal, in it the essential nucleus of the law endures, free from the contingencies of time and people. This nucleus is simply Christ himself, the love of God for us and our love for him and for all men. He is the living Torah, God’s gift to us, in whom we now receive all the wisdom of God. In being united to Christ, in the “co-journey” and “co-life” with him, we ourselves learn how to be upright men, we receive the wisdom that is truth, we know how to live and to die, because he is the Life and the Truth.

It is fitting, then, for the Church, as for Israel, to be full of gratitude and joy. “What people can say that God is so close to them? What people have received this gift?”. We did not make it; it was given to us. Joy and gratitude for the fact that we can know that we have received the wisdom to live well, that it is what should distinguish the Christian. In fact, in early Christianity it was like this: being free from the shadow of groping along in ignorance — what am I? why am I? how should I move forward? — being made free, being in the light, in the fullness of the truth. This was the fundamental awareness. A gratitude that radiated around and united people in the Church of Jesus Christ.

But even in the Church there is the same phenomenon: human elements are added and they lead either to presumption, the so-called triumphalism of praising self rather than God, or to bondage, which needs to be removed, broken and smashed. What must we do? What must we say? I think that we are precisely at that impasse in which we see in the Church only what we ourselves have made, and our joy in the faith is marred; that we no longer believe and no longer dare to say: he has shown us who the truth is, what the truth is; he has shown us what man is; he has given us the law for an upright life. We are concerned only with praising ourselves and we fear being bound by rules that hinder our freedom and the newness of life.

If we read today, for example, in the Letter of James: “You were made in the word and in the truth”, which of us would dare to rejoice in the truth that we have been given? The question immediately arises: but how can one have the truth? This is intolerance! Today the idea of truth and that of intolerance are almost completely fused, and so we no longer dare to believe in the truth or to speak of the truth. It seems to be far away, it seems something better not to refer to. No one can say: I have the truth — this is the objection raised — and, rightly so, no one can have the truth. It is the truth that possesses us, it is a living thing! We do not possess it but are held by it. Only if we allow ourselves to be guided and moved by the truth, do we remain in it. Only if we are, with it and in it, pilgrims of truth, then it is in us and for us. I think that we need to learn anew about “not-having-the-truth”. Just as no one can say: I have children — they are not our possession, they are a gift, and as a gift from God, they are given to us as a responsibility — so we cannot say: I have the truth, but the truth came to us and impels us. We must learn to be moved and led by it. And then it will shine again: if the truth itself leads us and penetrates us.

Dear friends, let us ask the Lord to give us this gift. St James tells us today in the Reading: you must not limit yourselves to hearing the Word, you must put it into practice. This is a warning about the intellectualization of the faith and of theology. It is one of my fears at this time, when I read so many intellectual things: they become an intellectual game in which “we pass each other the ball”, in which everything is an intellectual sphere that does not penetrate and form our lives, and, thus, does not lead us to the truth. I think that these words of St James are directed to us theologians: do not just listen, do not just intellectualize — be doers, let yourself be formed by the truth, let yourself be led by it! Let us pray to the Lord that this may happen, and that like this the truth may have power over us, and acquire power in the world through us.

The Church has set the words of Deuteronomy — “Where is there a people to whom God is so close as our God is close to us, every time we invoke him?” — at the centre of the Divine Office of Corpus Christi, and gave it new meaning: where is there a people to whom God is as close as our God is to us? In the Eucharist this has become the full reality. It is of course not merely an exterior aspect: someone can stand near the tabernacle and, at the same time, be far from the living God. What matters is inner closeness! God came so close to us that he himself became a man: this should disconcert and surprise us again and again! He is so close that he is one of us. He knows the human being, he knows the “feeling” of the human being, he knows it from within; he has experienced all its joys and all its suffering. As a man, he is close to me, close “within earshot” — so close that he hears me and I am aware: He hears me and answers me, even though perhaps not quite as I imagined.

Let us be filled again with this joy: where is there a people to whom God is so close as our God is to us? So close that he is one of us, touches me from within. Yes, he enters me in the holy Eucharist. A bewildering thought. On this process, St Bonaventure once used in his communion prayers a formula that shakes, almost frightens, one. He said: my Lord, how did you ever think of entering the dirty latrine of my body? Yes, he enters into our misery, he does it knowingly and in order to penetrate us, to clean us and to renew us, so that, through us, in us, the truth may be in the world and bring salvation. Let us ask the Lord forgiveness for our indifference, for our misery that makes us think only of ourselves, for our selfishness that does not seek the truth but follows habit, and that perhaps often makes Christianity resemble a mere system of habits. Let us ask that he come with power into our souls, that he be present in us and through us — and that in this way joy may be born in us again: God is here, and loves me. He is our salvation! Amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?


Published: September 14, 2011

Dominic Randolph can seem a little out of place at Riverdale Country School — which is odd, because he’s the headmaster. Riverdale is one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, with a 104-year-old campus that looks down grandly on Van Cortlandt Park from the top of a steep hill in the richest part of the Bronx. On the discussion boards of, worked-up moms from the Upper East Side argue over whether Riverdale sends enough seniors to Harvard, Yale and Princeton to be considered truly “TT” (top-tier, in UrbanBabyese), or whether it is more accurately labeled “2T” (second-tier), but it is, certainly, part of the city’s private-school elite, a place members of the establishment send their kids to learn to be members of the establishment. Tuition starts at $38,500 a year, and that’s for prekindergarten.

Randolph, by contrast, comes across as an iconoclast, a disrupter, even a bit of an eccentric. He dresses for work every day in a black suit with a narrow tie, and the outfit, plus his cool demeanor and sweep of graying hair, makes you wonder, when you first meet him, if he might have played sax in a ska band in the ’80s. (The English accent helps.) He is a big thinker, always chasing new ideas, and a conversation with him can feel like a one-man TED conference, dotted with references to the latest work by behavioral psychologists and management gurus and design theorists. When he became headmaster in 2007, he swapped offices with his secretary, giving her the reclusive inner sanctum where previous headmasters sat and remodeling the small outer reception area into his own open-concept work space, its walls covered with whiteboard paint on which he sketches ideas and slogans. One day when I visited, one wall was bare except for a white sheet of paper. On it was printed a single black question mark.

For the headmaster of an intensely competitive school, Randolph, who is 49, is surprisingly skeptical about many of the basic elements of a contemporary high-stakes American education. He did away with Advanced Placement classes in the high school soon after he arrived at Riverdale; he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign; and he says that the standardized tests that Riverdale and other private schools require for admission to kindergarten and to middle school are “a patently unfair system” because they evaluate students almost entirely by I.Q. “This push on tests,” he told me, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”

The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Randolph has been pondering throughout his 23-year career as an educator the question of whether and how schools should impart good character. It has often felt like a lonely quest, but it has led him in some interesting directions. In the winter of 2005, Randolph read “Learned Optimism,” a book by Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who helped establish the Positive Psychology movement. Randolph found the book intriguing, and he arranged a meeting with the author. As it happened, on the morning that Randolph made the trip to Philadelphia, Seligman had scheduled a separate meeting with David Levin, the co-founder of theKIPP network of charter schools and the superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City. Seligman decided he might as well combine the two meetings, and he invited Christopher Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, who was also visiting Penn that day, to join him and Randolph and Levin in his office for a freewheeling discussion of psychology and schooling.

Levin had also spent many years trying to figure out how to provide lessons in character to his students, who were almost all black or Latino and from low-income families. At the first KIPP school, in Houston, he and his co-founder, Michael Feinberg, filled the walls with slogans like “Work Hard” and “Be Nice” and “There Are No Shortcuts,” and they developed a system of rewards and demerits designed to train their students not only in fractions and algebra but also in perseverance and empathy. Like Randolph, Levin went to Seligman’s office expecting to talk about optimism. But Seligman surprised them both by pulling out a new and very different book, which he and Peterson had just finished:“Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification,” a scholarly, 800-page tome that weighed in at three and a half pounds. It was intended, according to the authors, as a “manual of the sanities,” an attempt to inaugurate what they described as a “science of good character.”

It was, in other words, exactly what Randolph and Levin had been looking for, separately, even if neither of them had quite known it. Seligman and Peterson consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters, and they settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras. The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, gratitude.

In most societies, Seligman and Peterson wrote, these strengths were considered to have a moral valence, and in many cases they overlapped with religious laws and strictures. But their true importance did not come from their relationship to any system of ethics or moral laws but from their practical benefit: cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to “the good life,” a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.

Six years after that first meeting, Levin and Randolph are trying to put this conception of character into action in their schools. In the process, they have found themselves wrestling with questions that have long confounded not just educators but anyone trying to nurture a thriving child or simply live a good life. What is good character? Is it really something that can be taught in a formal way, in the classroom, or is it the responsibility of the family, something that is inculcated gradually over years of experience? Which qualities matter most for a child trying to negotiate his way to a successful and autonomous adulthood? And are the answers to those questions the same in Harlem and in Riverdale?

Levin had believed in the importance of character since KIPP’s inception. But on the day of his trip to see Seligman, he was feeling a new urgency about the subject. Six years earlier, in 1999, the first group of students to enter KIPP Academy middle school, which Levin founded and ran in the South Bronx, triumphed on the eighth-grade citywide achievement test, graduating with the highest scores in the Bronx and the fifth-highest in all of New York City. Every morning of middle school they passed a giant sign in the stairwell reminding them of their mission: “Climb the Mountain to College.” And as they left KIPP for high school, they seemed poised to do just that: not only did they have outstanding academic results, but most of them also won admission to highly selective private and Catholic schools, often with full scholarships.

But as Levin told me when we spoke last fall, for many students in that first cohort, things didn’t go as planned. “We thought, O.K., our first class was the fifth-highest-performing class in all of New York City,” Levin said. “We got 90 percent into private and parochial schools. It’s all going to be solved. But it wasn’t.” Almost every member of the cohort did make it through high school, and more than 80 percent of them enrolled in college. But then the mountain grew steeper, and every few weeks, it seemed, Levin got word of another student who decided to drop out. According to a report that KIPP issued last spring, only 33 percent of students who graduated from a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college. That rate is considerably better than the 8 percent of children from low-income families who currently complete college nationwide, and it even beats the average national rate of college completion for all income groups, which is 31 percent. But it still falls well short of KIPP’s stated goal: that 75 percent of KIPP alumni will graduate from a four-year college, and 100 percent will be prepared for a stable career.

As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class. Those skills weren’t enough on their own to earn students a B.A., Levin knew. But for young people without the benefit of a lot of family resources, without the kind of safety net that their wealthier peers enjoyed, they seemed an indispensable part of making it to graduation day.

What appealed to Levin about the list of character strengths that Seligman and Peterson compiled was that it was presented not as a finger-wagging guilt trip about good values and appropriate behavior but as a recipe for a successful and happy life. He was wary of the idea that KIPP’s aim was to instill in its students “middle-class values,” as though well-off kids had some depth of character that low-income students lacked. “The thing that I think is great about the character-strength approach,” he told me, “is it is fundamentally devoid of value judgment.”

Still, neither Levin nor Dominic Randolph had a clear vision of how to turn an 800-page psychology text into a practical program. After that first meeting in Seligman’s office, Levin and Randolph kept in touch, calling and e-mailing, swapping articles and Web links, and they soon discovered that they shared a lot of ideas and interests, despite the very different school environments in which they worked. They decided to join forces, to try to tackle the mysteries of character together, and they turned for help to Angela Duckworth, who at the time was a graduate student in Seligman’s department (she is now an assistant professor). Duckworth came to Penn in 2002 at the age of 32, after working for a decade as a teacher and a charter-school consultant. When she applied to the Ph.D. program at Penn, she wrote in her application essay that her experiences in schools had given her “a distinctly different view of school reform” than the one she started out with in her 20s. “The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves,” she wrote. “Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”

Duckworth’s early research showed that measures of self-control can be a more reliable predictor of students’ grade-point averages than their I.Q.’s. But while self-control seemed to be a critical ingredient in attaining basic success, Duckworth came to feel it wasn’t as relevant when it came to outstanding achievement. People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word “grit.”

She developed a test to measure grit, which she called the Grit Scale. It is a deceptively simple test, in that it requires you to rate yourself on just 12 questions, from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” It takes about three minutes to complete, and it relies entirely on self-report — and yet when Duckworth took it out into the field, she found it was remarkably predictive of success. At Penn, high grit ratings allowed students with relatively low college-board scores to nonetheless achieve high G.P.A.’s. Duckworth and her collaborators gave their grit test to more than 1,200 freshman cadets as they entered West Point and embarked on the grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks. The military has developed its own complex evaluation, called the Whole Candidate Score, to judge incoming cadets and predict which of them will survive the demands of West Point; it includes academic grades, a gauge of physical fitness and a Leadership Potential Score. But at the end of Beast Barracks, the more accurate predictor of which cadets persisted and which ones dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s 12-item grit questionnaire.

Levin and Randolph asked Duckworth to use the new methods and tools she was developing to help them investigate the question of character at KIPP and Riverdale, and she and a handful of Penn graduate students began making regular treks from Philadelphia to New York. The first question Duckworth addressed, again, was the relative importance of I.Q. and self-control. She and her team of researchers gave middle-school students at Riverdale and KIPP a variety of psychological and I.Q. tests. They found that at both schools, I.Q. was the better predictor of scores on statewide achievement tests, but measures of self-control were more reliable indicators of report-card grades.

Duckworth’s research convinced Levin and Randolph that they should try to foster self-control and grit in their students. Yet those didn’t seem like the only character strengths that mattered. The full list of 24, on the other hand, felt too unwieldy. So they asked Peterson if he could narrow the list down to a more manageable handful, and he identified a set of strengths that were, according to his research, especially likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement. After a few small adjustments (Levin and Randolph opted to drop love in favor of curiosity), they settled on a final list: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

Over the course of the next year and a half, Duckworth worked with Levin and Randolph to turn the list of seven strengths into a two-page evaluation, a questionnaire that could be completed by teachers or parents, or by students themselves. For each strength, teachers suggested a variety of “indicators,” much like the questions Duckworth asked people to respond to on her grit questionnaire, and she road-tested several dozen of them at Riverdale and KIPP. She eventually settled on the 24 most statistically reliable ones, from “This student is eager to explore new things” (an indicator of curiosity) to “This student believes that effort will improve his or her future” (optimism).

For Levin, the next step was clear. Wouldn’t it be cool, he mused, if each student graduated from school with not only a G.P.A. but also a C.P.A., for character-point average? If you were a college-admissions director or a corporate human-resources manager selecting entry-level employees, wouldn’t you like to know which ones scored highest in grit or optimism or zest? And if you were a parent of a KIPP student, wouldn’t you want to know how your son or daughter stacked up next to the rest of the class in character as well as in reading ability? As soon as he got the final list of indicators from Duckworth and Peterson, Levin started working to turn it into a specific, concise assessment that he could hand out to students and parents at KIPP’s New York City schools twice a year: the first-ever character report card.

Back at Riverdale, though, the idea of a character report card made Randolph nervous. “I have a philosophical issue with quantifying character,” he explained to me one afternoon. “With my school’s specific population, at least, as soon as you set up something like a report card, you’re going to have a bunch of people doing test prep for it. I don’t want to come up with a metric around character that could then be gamed. I would hate it if that’s where we ended up.”

Still, he did think that the inventory Duckworth and Peterson developed could be a useful tool in communicating with students about character. And so he has been taking what one Riverdale teacher described as a “viral approach” to spreading the idea of this new method of assessing character throughout the Riverdale community. He talks about character at parent nights, asks pointed questions in staff meetings, connects like-minded members of his faculty and instructs them to come up with new programs. Last winter, Riverdale students in the fifth and sixth grades took the 24-indicator survey, and their teachers rated them as well. The results were discussed by teachers and administrators, but they weren’t shared with students or parents, and they certainly weren’t labeled a “report card.”

As I spent time at Riverdale last year, it became apparent to me that the debate over character at the school wasn’t just about how best to evaluate and improve students’ character. It went deeper, to the question of what “character” really meant. When Randolph arrived at Riverdale, the school already had in place a character-education program, of a sort. Called CARE, for Children Aware of Riverdale Ethics, the program was adopted in 1989 in the lower school, which at Riverdale means prekindergarten through fifth grade. It is a blueprint for niceness, mandating that students “Treat everyone with respect” and “Be aware of other people’s feelings and find ways to help those whose feelings have been hurt.” Posters in the hallway remind students of the virtues related to CARE (“Practice Good Manners . . . Avoid Gossiping . . . Help Others”). In the lower school, many teachers describe it as a proud and essential part of what makes Riverdale the school that it is.

When I asked Randolph last winter about CARE, he was diplomatic. “I see the character strengths as CARE 2.0,” he explained. “I’d basically like to take all of this new character language and say that we’re in the next generation of CARE.”

In fact, though, the character-strength approach of Seligman and Peterson isn’t an expansion of programs like CARE; if anything, it is a repudiation of them. In 2008, a national organization called the Character Education Partnership published a paper that divided character education into two categories: programs that develop “moral character,” which embodies ethical values like fairness, generosity and integrity; and those that address “performance character,” which includes values like effort, diligence and perseverance. The CARE program falls firmly on the “moral character” side of the divide, while the seven strengths that Randolph and Levin have chosen for their schools lean much more heavily toward performance character: while they do have a moral component, strengths like zest, optimism, social intelligence and curiosity aren’t particularly heroic; they make you think of Steve Jobs or Bill Clinton more than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi.

The two teachers Randolph has chosen to oversee the school’s character initiative are K.C. Cohen, the guidance counselor for the middle and upper schools, and Karen Fierst, a learning specialist in the lower school. Cohen is friendly and thoughtful, in her mid-30s, a graduate of Fieldston, the private school just down the road from Riverdale. She is intensely interested in character development, and like Randolph, she is worried about the character of Riverdale students. But she is not yet entirely convinced by the seven character strengths that Riverdale has ostensibly chosen. “When I think of good character, I think: Are you fair? Are you honest in dealings with other people? Are you a cheater?” she told me. “I don’t think so much about: Are you tenacious? Are you a hard worker? I think, Are you a good person?”

Cohen’s vision of character is much closer to “moral character” than “performance character,” and so far, that vision remains the dominant one at Riverdale. When I spent a day at the school in March, sitting in on a variety of classes and meetings, messages about behavior and values permeated the day, but those messages stayed almost entirely in the moral dimension. It was a hectic day at the middle school — it was pajama day, plus there was a morning assembly, and then on top of that, the kids in French class who were going on the two-week trip to Bordeaux for spring break had to leave early in order to make their overnight flight to Paris. The topic for the assembly was heroes, and a half-dozen students stood up in front of their classmates — about 350 kids, in all — and each made a brief presentation about a particular hero he or she had chosen: Ruby Nell Bridges, the African-American girl who was part of the first group to integrate the schools in New Orleans in 1960; Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation helped spark the recent revolt in that country; the actor and activist Paul Robeson.

In the assembly, in classes and in conversations with different students, I heard a lot of talk about values and ethics, and the values that were emphasized tended to be social values: inclusion, tolerance, diversity. (I heard a lot more about black history at Riverdale than I did at the KIPP schools I visited.) One eighth-grade girl I asked about character said that for her and her friends, the biggest issue was inclusion — who was invited to whose bat mitzvah; who was being shunned on Facebook. Character, as far as I could tell, was being defined at Riverdale mostly in terms of helping other people — or at least not hurting their feelings.

Randolph told me that he had concerns about a character program that comprised only those kind of nice-guy values. “The danger with character is if you just revert to these general terms — respect, honesty, tolerance — it seems really vague,” he said. “If I stand in front of the kids and just say, ‘It’s really important for you to respect each other,’ I think they glaze over. But if you say, ‘Well, actually you need to exhibit self-control,’ or you explain the value of social intelligence — this will help you collaborate more effectively — then it seems a bit more tangible.”

When I spoke to Karen Fierst, the teacher who was overseeing the character project for the Riverdale lower school, she said she was worried that it would be a challenge to convince the students and their parents that there was anything in the 24 character strengths that might actually benefit them. For KIPP kids, she said, the notion that character could help them get through college was a powerful lure, one that would motivate them to take the strengths seriously. For kids at Riverdale, though, there was little doubt that they would graduate from college. “It will just happen,” Fierst explained. “It happened to every generation in their family before them. And so it’s harder to get them to invest in this idea. For KIPP students, learning these strengths is partly about trying to demystify what makes other people successful — kind of like, ‘We’re letting you in on the secret of what successful people are like.’ But kids here already live in a successful community. They’re not depending on their teachers to give them the information on how to be successful.”

At KIPP Infinity middle school, which occupies one floor of a school on West 133rd Street, across from the M.T.A.’s giant Manhattanville bus depot, report-card night last winter fell on a cold Thursday at the beginning of February. Report-card night is always a big deal at KIPP schools — parents are strongly urged to attend, and at Infinity, almost all of them do — but this particular evening carried an extra level of anxiety for both the administrators and the parents, because students were receiving their very first character report cards, and no one knew quite what to expect.

Logistically, the character report card had been a challenge to pull off. Teachers at all four KIPP middle schools in New York City had to grade every one of their students, on a scale of 1 to 5, on every one of the 24 character indicators, and more than a few of them found the process a little daunting. And now that report-card night had arrived, they had an even bigger challenge: explaining to parents just how those precise figures, rounded to the second decimal place, summed up their children’s character. I sat for a while with Mike Witter, a 31-year-old eighth-grade English teacher, as he talked through the character report card with Faith Flemister and her son Juaquin Bennett, a tall, hefty eighth grader in a gray hooded sweatshirt.

“For the past few years we’ve been working on a project to create a clearer picture for parents about the character of your child,” Witter explained to Flemister. “The categories that we ended up putting together represent qualities that have been studied and determined to be indicators of success. They mean you’re more likely to go to college. More likely to find a good job. Even surprising things, like they mean you’re more likely to get married, or more likely to have a family. So we think these are really important.”

Flemister nodded, and Witter began to work his way down the scores on Juaquin’s character report card, starting with the good news: every teacher had scored him as a perfect 5 on “Is polite to adults and peers,” and he did almost as well on “Keeps temper in check.” They were both indicators for interpersonal self-control.

“I can tell this is a real strength for you,” Witter said, turning to Juaquin. “This kind of self-control is something you’ve developed incredibly well. So that makes me think we need to start looking at: What’s something we can target? And the first thing that jumps out at me is this.” Witter pulled out a green felt-tip marker and circled one indicator on Juaquin’s report card. “ ‘Pays attention and resists distraction,’ ” Witter read aloud, an indicator for academic self-control. “That’s a little lower than some of the other numbers. Why do you think that is?”

“I talk too much in class,” Juaquin said, a little sheepishly, looking down at his black sneakers. “I sometimes stare off into space and don’t pay attention.”

The three of them talked over a few strategies to help Juaquin focus more in class, and by the end of the 15-minute conversation, Flemister seemed convinced by the new approach. “The strong points are not a surprise,” she said to Witter as he got up to talk to another family. “That’s just the type of person Juaquin is. But it’s good how you pinpoint what he can do to make things easier on himself. Then maybe his grades will pick up.”

A month later, I returned to KIPP to visit Witter’s classroom. By that point in the school year, character language had permeated Infinity. Kids wore T-shirts with the slogan “Infinite Character” and Seligman’s 24 character strengths listed on the back. The walls were covered with signs that read “Got self-control?” and “I actively participate!” (one indicator for zest). There was a bulletin board in the hallway topped with the words “Character Counts,” where students filled out and posted “Spotted!” cards when they saw a fellow student performing actions that demonstrate character. (Jasmine R. cited William N. for zest: “William was in math class and he raised his hand for every problem.”)

I came to Witter’s class to observe something that Levin was calling “dual-purpose instruction,” the practice of deliberately working explicit talk about character strengths into every lesson. Levin wanted math teachers to use the strengths in word problems; he explained that history teachers could use them to orient a class discussion about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. And when I arrived in Witter’s class at 7:45 on a Thursday morning in March, he was leading a discussion about Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart.” Above Witter’s head, at the front of the class, the seven character strengths were stenciled in four-inch-high letters, white on blue, from optimism to social intelligence. He asked his students to rank Okonkwo, the protagonist, on his various character strengths. There was a lot of back and forth, but in the end, most students agreed that Okonkwo rated highest on grit and lowest on self-control. Then a student named Yantzee raised his hand. “Can’t a trait backfire at you?” he asked.

“Sure, a trait can backfire,” Witter said. “Too much grit, like Okonkwo, you start to lose your ability to have empathy for other people. If you’re so gritty that you don’t understand why everyone’s complaining about how hard things are, because nothing’s hard for you, because you’re Mr. Grit, then you’re going to have a hard time being kind. Even love — being too loving might make you the kind of person who can get played.” There was a ripple of knowing laughter from the students. “So, yes, character is something you have to be careful about. Character strengths can become character weaknesses.”

Though the seven character strengths aren’t included in every lesson at KIPP, they do make it into most conversations about discipline. One day last winter, I was speaking with Sayuri Stabrowski, a 30-year-old seventh-and-eighth-grade reading teacher at KIPP Infinity, and she mentioned that she caught a girl chewing gum in her class earlier that day. “She denied it,” Stabrowski told me. “She said, ‘No, I’m not, I’m chewing my tongue.’ ” Stabrowski rolled her eyes as she told me the story. “I said, ‘O.K. fine.’ Then later in the class, I saw her chewing again, and I said: ‘You’re chewing gum! I see you.’ She said, ‘No, I’m not, see?’ and she moved the gum over in her mouth in this really obvious way, and we all saw what she was doing. Now, a couple of years ago, I probably would have blown my top and screamed. But this time, I was able to say: ‘Gosh, not only were you chewing gum, which is kind of minor, but you lied to me twice. That’s a real disappointment. What does that say about your character?’ And she was just devastated.”

Stabrowski was worried that the girl, who often struggled with her behavior, might have a mini-meltdown — a “baby attack,” in KIPP jargon — in the middle of the class, but in fact, the girl spit out her gum and sat through the rest of the class and then afterward came up to her teacher with tears in her eyes. “We had a long conversation,” Stabrowski told me. “She said: ‘I’m trying so hard to just grow up. But nothing ever changes!’ And I said: ‘Do you know what does change? You didn’t have a baby attack in front of the other kids, and two weeks ago, you would have.’ ”

To Tom Brunzell, who as the dean of students at KIPP Infinity oversaw the implementation of the character report card, what is going on in character conversations like that one isn’t academic instruction at all, or even discipline; it’s therapy. Specifically, it’s a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy, the very practical, nuts-and-bolts psychological technique that provides the theoretical underpinning for the whole positive psychology field. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or C.B.T., involves using the conscious mind to understand and overcome unconscious fears and self-destructive habits, using techniques like “self-talk” — putting an immediate crisis in perspective by reminding yourself of the larger context. “The kids who succeed at KIPP are the ones who can C.B.T. themselves in the moment,” Brunzell told me. Part of the point of the character initiative, as he saw it, was to give their students the tools to do that. “All kids this age are having mini-implosions every day,” he said. “I mean, it’s middle school, the worst years of their lives. But the kids who make it are the ones who can tell themselves: ‘I can rise above this little situation. I’m O.K. Tomorrow is a new day.’ ”

For Randolph, the experience that Brunzell was describing — the struggle to pull yourself through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them — is exactly what is missing for so many students at academically excellent schools like Riverdale. And perhaps surprisingly, it may turn out to be an area where the students at KIPP have a real advantage over Riverdale kids. On the professional development day in February when I visited Riverdale, Randolph had arranged a screening for his entire faculty of “Race to Nowhere,” a movie about the stresses facing mostly privileged American high-school students that has become an underground hit in many wealthy suburbs, where one-time showings at schools, churches and community centers bring out hundreds of concerned parents. The movie paints a grim portrait of contemporary adolescence, rising in an emotional crescendo to the story of an overachieving teenage girl who committed suicide, apparently because of the ever-increasing pressure to succeed that she felt both at school and at home. At Riverdale, the film seemed to have a powerful effect on many of the staff; one teacher who came up to Randolph afterward had tears in her eyes.

“Race to Nowhere” has helped to coalesce a growing movement of psychologists and educators who argue that the systems and methods now in place to raise and educate well-off kids in the United States are in fact devastating them. One central figure in the movie is Madeline Levine, a psychologist in Marin County who is the author of a best-selling book, “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.” In her book, Levine cites studies and surveys to back up her contention that children of affluent parents now exhibit “unexpectedly high rates of emotional problems beginning in junior high school.” This is no accident of demographics, Levine says, but instead is a direct result of the child-raising practices that prevail in well-off American homes; wealthy parents today, she argues, are more likely to be emotionally distant from their children, and at the same time to insist on high levels of achievement, a potentially toxic blend of influences that can create “intense feelings of shame and hopelessness” in affluent children.

Cohen and Fierst told me that they also see many Riverdale parents who, while pushing their children to excel, also inadvertently shield them from exactly the kind of experience that can lead to character growth. As Fierst put it: “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents. We try to talk to parents about having to sort of make it O.K. for there to be challenge, because that’s where learning happens.”

Cohen said that in the middle school, “if a kid is a C student, and their parents think that they’re all-A’s, we do get a lot of pushback: ‘What are you talking about? This is a great paper!’ We have parents calling in and saying, for their kids, ‘Can’t you just give them two more days on this paper?’ Overindulging kids, with the intention of giving them everything and being loving, but at the expense of their character — that’s huge in our population. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have at Riverdale.”

This is a problem, of course, for all parents, not just affluent ones. It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can. As a parent, you struggle with these thorny questions every day, and if you make the right call even half the time, you’re lucky. But it’s one thing to acknowledge this dilemma in the privacy of your own home; it’s quite another to have it addressed in public, at a school where you send your kids at great expense.

And it’s that problem that Randolph is up against as he tries to push forward this new kind of conversation about character at Riverdale. When you work at a public school, whether it’s a charter or a traditional public school, you’re paid by the state, responsible, on some level, to your fellow citizens for the job you do preparing your students to join the adult world. When you work at a private school like Riverdale, though, even one with a long waiting list, you are always conscious that you’re working for the parents who pay the tuition fees. Which makes a campaign like the one that Randolph is trying to embark on all the more complicated. If your premise is that your students are lacking in deep traits like grit and gratitude and self-control, you’re implicitly criticizing the parenting they’ve received — which means you’re implicitly criticizing your employers.

When I asked Randolph to explain just what he thought Riverdale students were missing out on, he told me the story of his own scholastic career. He did well in boarding school and was admitted to Harvard, but when he got to college, he felt lost, out of step with the power-tie careerism of the Reagan ’80s. After two years at Harvard, Randolph left for a year to work in a low-paying manual job, as a carpenter’s helper, trying to find himself. After college, he moved for a couple of years to Italy, where he worked odd jobs and studied opera. It was an uncertain and unsettled time in his life, filled with plenty of failed experiments and setbacks and struggles. Looking back on his life, though, Randolph says that the character strengths that enabled him to achieve the success that he has were not built in his years at Harvard or at the boarding schools he attended; they came out of those years of trial and error, of taking chances and living without a safety net. And it is precisely those kinds of experiences that he worries that his students aren’t having.

“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

Most Riverdale students can see before them a clear path to a certain type of success. They’ll go to college, they’ll graduate, they’ll get well-paying jobs — and if they fall along the way, their families will almost certainly catch them, often well into their 20s or even 30s, if necessary. But despite their many advantages, Randolph isn’t yet convinced that the education they currently receive at Riverdale, or the support they receive at home, will provide them with the skills to negotiate the path toward the deeper success that Seligman and Peterson hold up as the ultimate product of good character: a happy, meaningful, productive life. Randolph wants his students to succeed, of course — it’s just that he believes that in order to do so, they first need to learn how to fail.

Paul Tough (, a contributing writer, is the author of "Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America." His book "The Success Equation" will be published next year.

Editor: Vera Titunik (