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