This is Your Brain on Religion

Researchers from the National Institute on Aging and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, analyzed data collected from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies to evaluate the flow of brain activity when religious and non-religious individuals discussed their religious beliefs.

Dimitrios Kapogiannis, M.D., and colleagues determined causal pathways link brain networks related to “supernatural agents,” fear regulation, imagery and affect, all of which may be involved in cognitive processing of religious beliefs.

“When the brain contemplates a religious belief,” said Kapogiannis, “it is activating three distinct networks that are trying to answer three distinct questions:

1) is there a supernatural agent involved (such as God) and, if so, what are his or her intentions; 2) is the supernatural agent to be feared; and 3) how does this belief relate to prior life experiences and to doctrines?”

“Are there brain networks uniquely devoted to religious belief? Prior research has indicated the answer is a resolute no,” said study co-author Jordan Grafman, Ph.D.

“But this study demonstrates that important brain networks devoted to various kinds of reasoning about others, emotional processing, knowledge representation, and memory are called into action when thinking about religious beliefs.

The use of these basic networks for religious practice indicates how basic networks evolved to mediate much more complex beliefs like those contained in religious practice.”

For those of you interested in learning more about religion and the brain, check out this interesting post on the field of neurotheology.

Hey Moms and Dads! Check Out this Awesome Online Study of “Parenting with Grace”

Catholic Mom Blogger, Sarah, of CloverLane blog is doing a great job walking her readers through the high points of Parenting with Grace:  A Catholic Parent Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids  Better still,  she’s bringing her own wisdom and experience to the table as a mom of 6.  Additionally there are some great insights and comments in the responses to her posts.  I hope you’ll go check it out and participate in the conversation.

Here are her introductory comments.

I recently found this book (I don’t remember how), waited forever for it to come into our library, and then loved it so much I went out and bought my own copy.  I have read it, and re-read it, and have highlighted, turned down corners and created some notes for myself that I want to remember.  The book is called Parenting With Grace-The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising Almost Perfect Kids by Greg and Lisa Popcak.  

The first time I read it, I told Jeff that the book, in essence, combined every favorite book I’ve read on parenting (from infant to teen), baby care, child development, education and Catholicism.  (It has a foreword written by Dr. Bill and Martha Sears.) It is deep and thoughtful, but useful and practical.  I have no idea how many readers of my blog are Catholic, and although this book is deeply rooted in our faith, I think that many parents of different faiths would find it as inspirational as I have.

I thought I would share my general notes from each chapter as I write them (and as time allows) because I think this book contains powerful messages about parenting-different from what we parents often hear today. I highly recommend this book, and I am a little worried I won’t do it justice-I have so much highlighted!, but I want to stick this information into my brain.

Everything in quotations can be directly attributed to the authors, unless otherwise noted.  These are my own very brief personal notes/interpretation/things I want to remember.

Go read the rest at Clover Lane!

Study Says, “Christians Hate People Different from Them.” Except it Doesn’t

A recent study claims, “Religiosity Means Love of Neighbor–If Values Line Up.”  You’ll probably be seeing more of this study since it seems like another opportunity for the secular world to prove that “those Christians” aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.   The problem is, the study doesn’t actually say what the headlines say it does.

What the study does show is that when researchers control for what they term “right wing authoritarianism”  (basically a term that means a judgmental, us-versus-them tribalism) religious people are actually more loving and generous to others than the general population.  The study is actually fairly faith-friendly, demonstrating what psychologists of religion have known since Gordon Allport differentiated “intrinsic religiousness” (i.e.,  people who go to church because they desire true conversion of heart) from “extrinsic religiousness” (i.e., people who go to church out of obligation, desire for status, or other external benefits of church-membership).  In essence, all the study really shows is that when people  go to Church out of a desire to learn how to love God and neighbor as opposed to going to church as a way of making themselves feel more special than other people, the former actually do treat their neighbors better than the average bear.   No duh.

The only thing besides the headline I’d take issue with in this study is the use of the term, “right wing authoritarianism.”  Wow.  What a biased and loaded phrase that is.  I’ve seen research like this before, but the use of such biased terms always strikes me as profoundly unethical and unprofessional.  I was always taught that pejorative language like “right wing” was to be avoided in professional research at all costs.   I’m not really faulting the authors of the study.  I understand it is a term that exists in the literature.  I just think it shouldn’t, especially in light of research that shows that it is actually left-wingers, more than right wingers, who are on average both less tolerant of differences of opinion and who are more likely to be ignorant regarding the beliefs of those who think differently than them.

Perhaps I need to dig a bit more, but I’m not aware of a liberal equivalent of “right wing authoritarianism” in the literature despite the fact that previous research really does show such a thing exists.  (Not to mention Pope Benedict’s observations regarding the “dictatorship of relativism.

At any rate, this is just one more example of how the press is going to want to use research to bash people-of-faith.  But this time, when you see this study hit the mainstream press in a few weeks, you’ll know the truth.

Couple Conflict: Surprising Role Parenting Plays in Couple’s Ability to Rebound from Arguments

One more reason parents need to be mindful of attachment parenting practices.  It turns out, the strength of parents’ attachment to their kids predicts kids’ ability to handle conflict in their future marriages. In a recent study examining couples’ conflict management styles

…researchers also had data on the target participants’ childhood attachment style and looked at how it impacted their conflict recovery. Unsurprisingly, individuals who were rated as securely attached recovered from conflict better – they knew that in the “cool down” task, it was time to put aside negative feelings and transition to positive aspects. Interestingly, it was the partners of such individuals that seemed to benefit: having a partner skilled at conflict recovery resulted in feeling more positive emotions in the relationship and greater relationship satisfaction.

The Les Mis Mass–My Parody of a Parody

Deacon Greg Kandra kindly alerted us to the Les Mis Mass that’s actually happening in the UK.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to review the libretto, but I’ve been participating in a discussion on FB about it and I decided to preserve, for all posterity, the lyrics that I, personally,  think SHOULD be included.  Submitted for your approval, a few of my original, suggested, additions.


Can you hear the parish sing? Singing the songs of angry men.
This is what happens when a parish strains for relevance and then…
When the beating of your heart/ Echoes the beating of the drums.
There is a fight that’s going to start when Communion comes!


PASTOR IN THE HOUSE–  (I grant that this one is a bit course, but so was the original, and in for a penny…)
Pastor in the House / Cassock swishing By
Dips in the collection plate as it. goes. by.
Everybody’s pal / Master at the Mic
(Never met an altar boy he didn’t like!)
If it were not for Pope Francis
He’d make Monsignor in a year
But now that dream’s in pieces
“JESUS! Wish my purple sash was here!”


And my personal favorite, written in response to a direct challenge from Googling God author, Mike Hayes.


I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When nuns were hip
And priests used puppets
I dreamed reforms would never die
I dreamed the Pope would be a Muppet

Then I was young and unafraid
The Sacred, once revered, was wasted
No Marty Haugen went unplayed!
And homilies were cut and pasted!

But new rubrics come at night
CDF–as soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
And they turn your dream to shame!

Aggiornamento–quite a ride!
ICEL was such a wonder
Took “one in being” in our stride
But then “consubstantial” came

And still I dream he’ll come to me
The Pope that will ordain both genders
Who gives “the Pill” to all for free!
And makes all liturgy a bender!

I had a dream my Church would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed
The dream…V-III



“Just Married” and Loving It! (Plus, Other Great Resources No Couple Should Be Without!)

Dear Dr. Popcak,

 I just wanted to tell you (and your wife) THANK YOU for writing “Just Married.”

 My married friends and I are always complaining to each other about the absolute dearth of material for faithful Catholics wanting to date, prepare for marriage, and live marriage in an authentically Catholic way. Basically, we hear two messages:

 1. Marriage is hard. Marriages fall apart because people think it’s all going to be rosy, then when reality hits, the spouses don’t know what to do. Marriage is, above all else, a cross. It is really hard. You have to give up everything. Think St. Francis of Assisi, whose rolling around in snowy thorn bushes gives us a great illustration of what marriage is like. (This leaves us frustrated and confused. Our parents seem happy enough, “despite” having 5-7  kids and homeschooling… are they sinning and being too worldly? If marriage really is supposed to be miserable, do I really want to do this?)

 2. Shockingly, the Catholic Church is pro-sex! You heard that right. Blah blah blah remedial stuff about chastity that has been drilled into us since seventh grade. (Yes, it’s important that this message gets out, and a lot of people still need to hear it, but we’ve already sat through enough Jason Evert in high school and we’re committed to abstinence before, fidelity during, and lifelong commitment. Is there anything else to say?)

 So then we get married and stumble around in the dark because we know we’re supposed to make sacrifices for each other but no one’s ever taught us how to actively maintain a relationship, or how to work through disagreements in productive ways. No one’s ever told us that marriage is meaningful and worthwhile. And happy! Enjoyable, even! I got married before most of my friends, so I’ve spent many a rehearsal dinner conversation shrugging and saying “sure, marriage is hard, but so was college. And I know you think, overall, very highly of that experience and are grateful for what you learned and how you grew there. Marriage isn’t anything to freak out about.”

“Just Married” has been VERY HELPFUL for us in our marriage (so far, we’re only into chapter 3), and now we’re giving it to all our friends as wedding gifts.

 Maybe you can write a marriage prep book/program for faithful Catholics.   Then pastors and others running marriage prep can decide which program is best for each couple.


Gosh Mary,   Thanks for your kind message. Lisa and I are so glad you are finding Just Married to be so helpful.  You will be pleased to know that we actually have two programs that would fit the request you made.

First, Ascension Press just published the marriage preparation program I developed with Tom McCabe.  It is called Living a Joy-Filled Marriage and it is the living skills complement to Christopher West’s God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage.  It can stand alone or be used as a complement to Christopher West’s program.

Second, you might be interested in the marriage enrichment program Lisa and I published through Crossroads called, A Marriage Made for Heaven.  It is a series of 12 once-a-month meetings covering different topics that every couple should master to have a great Catholic marriage.  Each session starts with a video presentation by Lisa and I and includes exercises, discussion questions, case studies, and take home experiences for couples.  The program was designed to work with both small and large groups.  It requires no training to run.  If you can read and push “play” you can become a marriage minister in your parish or with a small group of friends.

Again, thank you for your thoughtful note.  We’re so glad that you liked the book.  We hope that some of the other resources we mentioned above might help you go even deeper in your marriage.

Please be assured of our prayers.

God Bless,  Dr.P.

Reforming the Annulment Process–A Continuing Conversation. (Or Why “Alienation of Affection” is a stupid reason to require divorce before annulment).

I appreciated the many thoughtful responses to my brainstorming on ways to improve the annulment process.  Regarding my first suggestion; stopping the practice of requiring the couple to seek a civil divorce before filing for a declaration of nullity, a few people suggested that this needed to be in place because of the fear that the church might be sued for alienation of affection.

I actually addressed this issue, briefly,  in the original post as I’ve heard this argument before.  I’d like to address it in a little more detail now.

I will say that, in all humility, I am neither a canonist nor a civil lawyer, so I appreciate that I am not writing in any authoritative manner, but having been around this issue, and discussed it with bishops, canonists, and attorneys at one point or another, I have some insights that I think might contribute to the conversation.

1.  While it is true that some states do still have alienation of affection laws on the books, they are rarely enforced these days.  That said, it can still happen (so adulterers beware).

2.  That said, the alienation of affection that can occur from one’s spouse taking a lover strikes me as a very different matter than a spouse refusing to sleep with one’s mate because a marriage has been found invalid by a tribunal.  Specifically, in this case, the Church is acting like a counselor who says, “Your marriage isn’t healthy.”  That doesn’t cause two people to stop sleeping together.  It may, but it may not.  If the Church were to say that a marriage was invalid, that would not automatically cause the couple to stop sleeping together.  As far as I know, a therapist has never been sued for alienation of affection.  Why would the Church if, in its consultative capacity, it told a couple that their marriage was invalid.  That’s simply a finding of fact, not a command.

3.  You might say, “Well, if the Church finds the marriage invalid, then sleeping together would be a sin and that’s where the alienation of affection occurs.”  That strikes me as silly.  All the Church would have to do to defend itself is show the pre-marital sex rates  (or abortion rates, or adultery rates, or divorce rates, or contraception rates, etc, etc, ) for practicing Catholics.  The simple fact is that the Church making a statement about something compels… absolutely no one to do anything they don’t already want to do.

4.  Finally, the constitutional issues at play in trying to sue the Church for alienation of affection are mind boggling.  I really have a hard time, even in this current Church-hostile culture, imagining that such a suit would pass muster.

At the end of the day, using alienation of affection as an excuse for the Church to not do its job of guiding the faithful through their marital difficulties seems unconscionably cowardly to me.  Seeking legal counsel is one thing. “Pastoring by Lawyer” is, as the scandal has taught us,  quite another.


Reforming the Annulment Process–Brainstorming Solutions.

Deacon Greg Kandra links an article that encourages overhauling the annulment process.   I think most people would agree that the annulment process is in need of serious improvement.  In fact, one of the factors influencing Pope Francis’ call for an Extraordinary Synod on the Family next November was his concern about the way the Church handles divorce and annulment.  Many of the questions in the survey the Vatican sent to the world’s bishops had to do with seeking input on how to improve the handling of annulments.


But while most people agree that the current way of doing things isn’t working, there is little agreement on what to do about it.  Unfortunately, many people are proposing ideas that have already been determined by the Church as unworkable.  For instance, in the article linked by Deacon Greg, the author, Fr. Peter Daly, suggests two ideas that the Vatican has already overruled.  The first is letting the local pastor handle the annulment.   He argues…

If I were pope, I would leave the decision about annulments and reception of the sacraments entirely up to the parish priest. It should be resolved in the internal forum of the confessional. The emphasis should be on mercy, not law. End of story. Move on.

The Problem with the Internal Forum

The problem is that this option, the so-called “pastoral provision” was already outlawed by the Vatican.  The original idea behind the pastoral provision was to allow people to confess the second marriage and allow the pastor to absolve the penitent of the sin of adultery in the second marriage.  But that really doesn’t make any sense at all.  To receive absolution for something, one has to resolve to try to not do it again.  How do I  confess a second marriage and receive absolution for it if I fully intend to continue sleeping with my second partner when I go home?  It appears to me that the internal forum option not only destroys the integrity of the annulment process, but the integrity of confession as well.  There are additional problems with using an internal forum solution–whether confession or some other process overseen by the pastor–to resolve marriage issues.  For example; marriage isn’t a private institution.  Its a social one.  You can’t deal with a public issue in a secret, private forum without causing more problems.   Another reason I think the internal forum option would cause annulment to lose any integrity at all is that pastors would be under tremendous pressure to grant every petition that came across their desk.  There needs to be some kind of oversight to protect both the pastor from undue pressure and the integrity of the sacrament.

The Problem with the  “Eastern Option”

The second option Fr. Daly proposes is following the Orthodox tradition of simply giving people a pass on the first divorce.  Orthodox Christians essentially get one “get out of marriage free card.”  2nd or 3rd marri

ages require permission from the bishop, but first divorces are merely accepted.  I have read the Orthodox justifications for this position, but honestly, they strike me as lacking coherence.  Regardless, the Vatican has also ruled, several times now, that this option is not consistent with the Catholic understanding of marriage.  For the indissolubility of marriage to mean anything, it needs to be indissoluble.  There can be certain conditions where the person does not intend to enter into marriage as the Church defines it or is incapable of entering into marriage as the Church defines it, but those are exceptions.  They can’t be the rule.  Making them the rule undermines the integrity of the entire Catholic theology of marriage.  Clearly this is non-starter.


That people keep returning to these two failed options strikes me as a stunning lack of creativity.  So what can we do?  I don’t have any comprehensive answers to the question, but in my response to the Vatican survey, I did make some suggestions.

Possible Improvements

1.  Stop Requiring Divorce First.

Currently, people who seek annulments are required to have a civil divorce first.  This is not a matter of canon law, btw. It’s just a policy.   I have asked several canonists why this stipulation exists.  They have told me that, in the first place, it is a way to certify that there is no chance of reconciliation.  Of course this is silly.  I have helped plenty of couples reconcile after civil divorce.  It’s more common than you might think.  Second, I have been told that requiring divorce first prevents the Church from being sued for “alienation of affection or loss of consort”  (i.e, one spouse filing a legal suit alleging that the Church forced the other spouse to stop having sex with him or her).  Really?  Does anyone sue for that?   What court would touch loss of consort for religious reasons with a 10 foot pole?  There are so many constitutional issues wrapped up in that  I can hardly think it would be worth it.

In my opinion, requiring married couples to divorce before seeking an annulment sends the message that the civil authority is the one that counts, not the Church.  That’s a terrible message to send.  Second, it puts Catholics in a terrible bind.  The Church forces the couple to get a divorce before it will rule on the validity of the marriage.  What if the church then finds the marriage valid despite the divorce?  How cruel is that?  This policy puts the Church in the position of finding a reason, any reason, to grant the declaration of nullity so the couple can be spared living in limbo, and it puts other couples who honestly don’t have legitimate grounds for an annulment in the position of being civilly estranged but morally bound to their spouse.  How does this not make the Church complicit in leading people into temptation of contracting an invalid second marriage?

Instead, I propose that the Church require couples to seek a declaration of nullity before seeking a civil divorce–except in cases of physical abuse.  That would allow the Church to adopt a pastoral position.  The Church could counsel the couple on the reasons that it appears that the marriage is valid and make recommendations for healing it.  Or it could state that yes, this is a marriage that is definitely invalid and the couple could proceed to divorce. It would make the annulment process a process of discernment which could be more pastoral than juridical but still have integrity and weight.

2.  Allow Lack of Informed Consent/Formation as a Criteria for Annulment.

Pope Benedict actually floated this idea himself.  The Church currently states that one needs to have free will and be able to give full consent to contract a valid marriage.  The problem is, you can’t freely give full consent if you don’t fully understand what you are choosing or believe in the Catholic vision of marriage. How many people get married in the Church with the express intent to live the Church’s vision of marriage and family life and to be their spouse’s best hope–second only to the saving work of Jesus Christ–of getting each other to heaven?  That, in a nutshell, is what the Church is asking couples who get married in the Church to do.  How many couples either understand that or have been formed to the degree that they are capable of living that out?

If the Church doesn’t do a good job of forming the couples it marries in the first place, it is unjust to hold those couples responsible for the Church’s (or the couple’s parents’) failure.  This option would both challenge the Church (and Catholic parents) to do a better job forming couples on the front end, but it would also recognize the fact that ignorance or incapability are legitimate impediments to free will and full consent.


No doubt there are many other ideas that could work, but I think these two options would do a great deal to make annulments more pastoral and logical while still respecting the integrity of the sacrament and the Catholic theology of marriage.
What do you think?  How could the Church do a better job to make the annulment process more pastoral while still respecting out theology of marriage?  Post your ideas as a comment.  I look forward to your feedback.

For help living the Catholic vision of marriage, check out For Better…FOREVER!  A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage,   Just Married:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First 5 Years of Marriage, and Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-blowing, Infallible Loving.

Damn Lies: When Anti-Religious Bigots Use Math to Hate

Mark Twain once famously said, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

You’ve probably heard some of those lies used by non-believing friends and relations to discredit Christians.  For instance, have you heard that Christians divorce at the same rate as others?  How about the one about Christians being bad tippers?  How about the one that says that the majority of young people are abandoning churches in droves?

It turns out that none of those statements are actually true despite the fact that the people who make these claims often begin their sentences with, “Did you know that studies say…”

Bob Smietana has an excellent piece that debunks these and other lies that are used to discredit believers.  Go and read so you’re prepared for that next water cooler conversation or argument with your brother-in-law.

Because No One Does Tolerance Like the Germans — (German Judge Torments Homeschooling Family)

This is terrifying….

Many readers may recall that in August, German authorities used the equivalent of a SWAT team to remove children from their homeschooling parents.  20 jack booted thugs (literally) burst into the Wunderlich’s home and took their children, even though the judge in the case admits that the children were well-adjusted and well cared for.  The problem is that in Germany, homeschooling is unconscionable and anti-social (because Germans are so pro-social) and so, despite all evidence to the contrary, the mere fact of homeschooling is enough to have your home violated and your children kidnapped by the state.  The children were returned to the family after three weeks when they agreed to enroll their children in public school over their religious objections.

The family then made plans to leave the country so that they could resume homeschooling.

Sadly the case just got worse.  This week, the judge ruled that family could not leave the country.  Further he told them that if they did leave, then he would pursue extradition and prosecution of the parents in criminal court.

You can read more here.