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Date: Thursday, 09 Oct 2014 13:46

Fr. William Grimm, a Maryknoll priest in Japan, framed an essay about Pope Francis with a riddle that set me laughing and that I have to share:

Q:  What are the three things God does not know?

A:  1) How wealthy are the Franciscans?

2) How many communities of religious sisters are there in the world?

3) What will the Jesuits do next?

In the spirit of the joke, please feel free to suggest alternative things that “God does not know”.


Author: "David Cruz-Uribe, SFO" Tags: "absurdity, David Cruz-Uribe, Humor, Fr. ..."
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Date: Sunday, 05 Oct 2014 13:40

I am really not sure what to say, but I had to share this.  Almost 30 years ago, the comic strip Doonesbury featured a two week series about a single woman, Marcia, who decided that she was tired of looking for Mr. Right, and was going to celebrate her new freedom by holding a singularity ceremony, complete with flowers, a minister, invitations and “bridal” registry:


Doonesbury-singularity(The whole series can be viewed at GoComics.com.)  The strip was an acerbic commentary on dating and social expectations in the 1980’s; it was funny and sad and so over the top I assumed it was satire.  Until today.

Yesterday, the Guardian ran an essay entitled I Married Myself. In earnest prose the photographer Grace Gelder describes her engagement:

Not that I could say with any certainty how exactly I’d found myself in the rather surreal scenario of proposing to myself on a park bench on Parliament Hill last November….I’d been on a journey of personal development using meditation, dance and performance to increase my self-awareness.  Included in this was a Shakti Tantra programme focused on sexuality and how this was bound up with making agreements with yourself and other people.  Sitting on that park bench, it dawned on me that a self-marriage ceremony witnessed by other people would potentially be this massively powerful means of making those agreements stick.

She goes on to describe planning the ceremony, buying a dress and picking out a ring.  It culminates in a ceremony sealed with a kiss:

It felt like a really big deal saying my vows, which were mostly about me promising to take more risks in matters of the heart. I remember really paying attention to the words as they left my mouth and it felt like they were hanging in the air. Equally, the ring, a less spontaneous purchase than the dress, brought home to me this idea of commitment, sealing the deal if you like.  The day was obviously centred on me, the final event being a mirror for me to kiss, but it also felt like I was sharing something very special with my friends, giving everyone an opportunity to reflect on their own ideas of love and commitment.

Someone, please!, help me understand this.  It would be very easy to turn on the snark and mock this woman for her self-absorption and lack of understanding of the meaning of marriage.   And maybe that is all that is going on.  But something is telling me that there is more going on here and that on the eve of the Synod on the Family, it is important to try to empathize with this woman, and more importantly, try to understand the cultural forces which shaped this decision.   This is the culture to which we must bear witness, but before we can do that we have to meet them where they are—wherever that is.

Author: "David Cruz-Uribe, SFO" Tags: "absurdity, David Cruz-Uribe, Family, Mar..."
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Date: Friday, 03 Oct 2014 14:51

Last year I asked the rhetorical question:  “Is there a new sheriff in town?” in response to the news that Pope Francis had suspended Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the Bishop of Limburg, Germany, because of questions about his finances and ostentatious lifestyle.  The bishop later resigned his see.   My answer was yes.  At the time I speculated that Francis would act slowly and with charity, but would move decisively if he felt the circumstances merited action.   Recent events seem to confirm this.

On Monday, September 29, the Vatican announced that the Pope had removed Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, Bishop of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.  The reasons for the removal are unclear.    Bishop Livieres had made a number of controversial decisions, including withdrawing from the national seminary in Asuncion and establishing his own.  His relations with his fellow bishops are strained, and he has gone so far as to publicly call the metropolitan archbishop, Bishop Pastor Cuquejo of Asuncion, a homosexual.  (See here or here and search the word “homosexual.”)  In a very questionable act of judgement, he incardinated a priest,  Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity, in his diocese over the objections of his bishop in the US, where Fr. Urrutigoity had been accused of financial mismanagement and sexual misconduct.  (The case of Fr. Urrutigoity is complicated and spans two continents and involves the SSPX as well as the Diocese of Scranton.  A long albeit somewhat rambling description can be found here.)  Bishop Livieres first made Fr. Urrutigoity the director of his new seminary and then appointed him vicar general of the diocese.  However, a statement from the Vatican has confused matters, with Fr. Lombardi saying that Fr. Urrutigoity was “discussed” but this was not “the principal problem”.  For an analysis of this statement by Grant Gallicho, a blogger at Commonweal who wrote the above articles about Fr. Urrutigoity, see here.

The reaction in the blogosphere has been interesting.  The coverage from Commonweal is cited above.  John Allen at Crux makes a few thoughtful comments relating this case to the larger issue of the Pope’s relationship with Opus Dei—Bishop Livieres is a member of Opus Dei.  Sandro Magister weighs in heavily on the side of Bishop Livieres, publishing an English translation of an extensive apologia that the bishop had posted on his diocesan website.   Sandro Magister plays upon the fact that the Vatican has not been forthcoming in its reasons for dismissing Bishop Livieres, and frames this article as the first step in his defense.  The National Catholic Register discusses the unease which this dismissal has generated; further evidence of this can be found in many of the comments to the article, some of which see a liberal conspiracy against orthodox Catholics at play.  Fr. Z annotates a press report from CWN but is remarkably temperate.  He is worried that there is no obvious canonical grounds for the dismissal, but forcefully makes the point that appointing Fr. Urrutigoity was a big mistake.   He also notes that when discussing the relations between the bishops in Paraguay that different rules apply to analyzing their rhetoric:  what would be considered heated and intemperate in North America is par for the course in Argentina/Paraguay/etc.  However, he overlooks the fact that the Pope is Argentinian and so able to assess this from within the cultural context, and he overlooks the fact that calling the archbishop a homosexual is probably viewed as intemperate everywhere.   A number of detailed links about the Diocese (all in Spanish) were posted at Accion Liturgica.  The story has been tracked, though with evident bias, since this summer at a blog entitled The Eponymous Flower.  There the bishop is lauded for his defense of traditional liturgy and Catholic orthodoxy against all forms of modernism and liberation theology.  (This also figures into the Bishop’s apologia given above.)  Rorate Caeli generally defends the decision of the Pope, tying it directly to the Bishop’s support for Fr. Urrutigoity, which they regard as indefensible.   They are concerned about unequal treatment between liberal and conservative bishops, but argue that if traditionalists are to persevere, they must be beyond reproach.

A big and at the moment unanswerable question is what this news portends for Bishop Finn of Kansas City.  Last week the National Catholic Reporter broke the news that the Pope had ordered an apostolic visitation of Bishop Finn by Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Canada.   Bishop Finn has been subject to sustained criticism and calls for his resignation as a result of his handling of a sexual abuse case in his diocese.  He has the dubious distinction of being the only  American Bishop convicted for his role in covering up a case of child abuse by one of his priests.     Bishop Finn has his defenders:  see for instance, this post at Catholic Culture.   But even they are wondering what this visitation means.   Coming on the heels of the summary dismissal of Bishop Livieres, this news strongly suggests that the Pope has serious reservations about Bishop Finn’s leadership (apparently this was the key question asked by Archbishop Prendergast)  and suggests that the Pope is prepared to act decisively once he digests the report.

There is one major difference between these two cases that seems to have been overlooked by most commentators.  The Pope was sufficiently concerned about Bishop Livieres to act publicly:  the news of the visitation to his Diocese was made public back in July.   On the other hand, the investigation of Bishop Finn was intended to be confidential; it only became public because some of the parties questioned by Archbishop Prendergast leaked this information to the NCR.   I infer from this that Pope Francis had serious concerns, but felt that they were less grave and should be investigated privately.   It would be worth discussing the propriety of making the news of this visitation public—I am of mixed mind though I think in the end I support the decision of NCR to do so.  However, I am very much aware that this is colored by my generally low opinion of Bishop Finn and if this comes up in the commboxes, please interrogate your  own position before questioning the positions of others.

The Pope has clearly shown himself willing to act decisively in the case of bishops he believes are failing in their responsibilities.  In the case of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst it was clear that the Pope felt he had failed in his pastoral responsibilities.  In the case of Bishop Livieres, the reasons are less clear and I hope that the Vatican makes a more definite statement as to why he was removed.  It is good for the Church as a whole, I think, if bishops know that if they screw up, there will be consequences, up to and including dismissal.  However, they need to understand clearly where the lines are drawn.  Fear, uncertainty and perceived capriciousness would do nothing to promote the kinds of leadership and collegiality that Pope Francis seems to want from his brother bishops.

Author: "David Cruz-Uribe, SFO" Tags: "Bishops, David Cruz-Uribe, Pope Francis,..."
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Date: Friday, 26 Sep 2014 00:13

It’s pretty well known to my friends and former classmates, as well as regular readers here, that I am a constant critic of false dichotomies.  Any rejection of the prevailing political ones, in particular, tends to earn the name “moderate” as the next go-to label.  The problem is, there is little if anything moderate about my sense of political homelessness.  Something in me chafes every time I see this word used to describe someone who is not an “extremist”.  Neither of these is something I’m willing to be, and so that distinction becomes just another false choice that leaves me stuck in some ironic neither/nor.

The latest wave of this dubious honor, as many will have surely seen, comes in the buzz about the appointment of Blase Cupich as Archbishop of Chicago.  Ironically, as I typed his name, the auto-correct function tried to change it to Blasé – which, as Charles Camosy points out at Catholic Moral Theology, is exactly the problematic connotation: “…a warm and fuzzy just right.  Sort of ‘in the middle.’ Doesn’t take clear stand on issues…perhaps to the point of something like moral relativism. Also, boring. Even weak.”  Does not fitting the expected “conservative” or “liberal” molds make one a moderate in this sense?  Does calling for civility over partisanship?  Camosy argues just the opposite:

But what, after all, could be more boring or more weak than yet another capitulation to the kind of personal attacks which rule our public discourse?  It takes radical strength to resist the powerful market-driven forces which reward incivility. But are Cupich’s calls for civility a kind of ho-hum relativism? Hardly. Instead, he argues that “condemnations have limited impact.” He sees civility as the best opportunity for the Church’s argument–which is an argument on behalf of those on the margins–to be heard, respected and effective.

The relentless critic in me hastens to add that this doesn’t mean there aren’t things that must be denounced.  If civility, not to mention Christian charity, merely meant moderation, this might preclude the prophetic.  And I admit I do struggle to balance these things.  Out of my belief that anything truly prophetic is equally precluded by knee-jerk partisanship, I have often been willing to call myself a centrist, despite the pitfall of remaining at least metaphorically on a one-dimensional spectrum – or better yet, “radically centrist”, to avoid the impression of aiming to merely split the difference on everything or avoid taking strong positions.

I take such pains to avoid that impression precisely because I am, for a crucial example, radically immoderate in respect for life, with all that that entails: from conception to natural death, the universal right to a life with dignity, along with the universal duty to respect the life and dignity of others and to seek their good.  All this is foundational to Catholic social teaching.

For this reason, what I find more disturbing than calling people moderate for not being partisan is calling them moderate for not being violent.  One of my colleagues mentioned a comment made by Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Nigeria at a recent interreligious gathering about his Muslim friends’ objections to the term “moderate Muslim”, and rightly so, he added, for who of us would want to be called a “moderate Christian”?  If being moderate in one’s faith were truly the only alternative to being fundamentalist, I suppose I’d be an atheist.  I’ve even heard the term used in reference to ethnicity, such as “moderate Hutu” in reference to the Rwandan genocide, almost as if even one’s genetic makeup could be moderated away by non-participation in violence.  Of course, the real and much darker implication is that the group in question is necessarily violent by default and only capable of nonviolence by a kind of self-dilution.  Perhaps our fallen human nature tempts us all to default toward violence, but that’s all the more reason the kind of radical courage that nonviolent action often requires would hardly seem to call for moderate commitments.

To return to Bishop Cupich and his own take on his reputation, his comments to the Chicago press as recently quoted in America downplayed the ecclesio-political hype surrounding his appointment and, with that caveat, accepted a more nuanced definition of the “moderate” label:

I think the Holy Father is a pastoral man; I think that his priority is not to send a message, but a bishop and that’s what he’s sending here—someone to serve the needs of people. I wouldn’t want to in any way overly politicize this or put this in a different context. I think he cares a lot about people and he took his time and he wanted to provide a pastor, so I think he sent a pastor, not a message….

Labels are hard for anybody to live up to one way or another. I just try to be myself and I try to learn from great people. You have had great people here in this archdiocese pastor you and I am following a great man. I am going to try to learn from you.

It’s not my agenda, it’s not what I feel. I am going to try to be attentive to what the Lord wants. Maybe if there’s moderation in that than I am a moderate.

If these comments leave open the possibility that Cupich is what Camosy calls a “Goldilocks moderate”, Camosy’s Chicago-based colleague David Cloutier explodes easy categorization of his incoming archbishop by highlighting a brilliant and robustly pastoral lecture he gave last year in Australia with the revealing title “Untying Some Knots: Talking about Faith to a Skeptical World in a Secular Age”.  Obviously I do not mean by the word “pastoral” here the sense it sometimes takes on as a sort of ecclesial shorthand for “moderate” or even “liberal”, but reflecting a dedicated zeal for compassionate evangelization that bears a true and convincing witness to the gospel.  Like Cloutier, I won’t attempt to unpack the whole thing, but I will quote his brief dissection of one nugget of wisdom, just to demonstrate how this bishop has won me over.

“The cultural warrior approach may seem to some to be our only option, given the aggressive response to believers and religion, but in the end it brings little results other than giving us a temporary feeling of self-satisfaction. But even more so, it is not the way of the Gospel.

What we need is an approach that is arresting, forcing people to take a second look at the Gospel of Jesus Christ by the way we speak and act.”

Bishop Cupich here is overcoming a dichotomy between a kind of timid, “humble” Church versus an aggressive, in-your-face Church. These are the wrong options. Rather, we need an “arresting” approach that “forces” people to “take a second look.” The question is not whether the church should be more distinctive or less distinctive, more countercultural or less countercultural – the question should always be HOW is the Church to be distinctive.

Untier of knots, overcomer of dichotomies – now those are some labels I can get behind!

Author: "Julia Smucker" Tags: "Bishops, Catholic Social Teaching, Chari..."
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Date: Thursday, 25 Sep 2014 19:02

There is a meme that floats about that the “problem” with Islam is that it has never had the experience of a Reformation such as Christianity went through in the 16th century.  I confess to having indulged in this myself.  I just ran into a very nice analysis of this idea by Josh Marshall, the editor at Talking Points Memo, a liberal news site.  Marshall was trained as a historian and this shows in his essay.  He begins with:

The subtext was that the Reformation was that period in European history when people decided to start focusing on the individual and disentangling religion from the powers of the state. Put more forcefully, this was when people decided that they shouldn’t kill each other over religion or govern states according to ideas about what God had in mind for the End Times.

The irony of course is that if anything the Reformation was almost precisely the opposite of what I’ve just described. If we insist that the Muslim world has to follow this model, what’s happening right now actually looks fairly similar.

Check out the rest of his essay here.  With Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic State violence bearing down on us again, such thoughtful pieces, whether you agree or not, are a useful anodyne to much of what passes for commentary on Islam.

Author: "David Cruz-Uribe, SFO" Tags: "David Cruz-Uribe, Islam, Josh Marshall, ..."
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Date: Thursday, 25 Sep 2014 17:27

Almost one year ago today, I wrote a post praising Bishop Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, for criticizing Pope Francis.  I did not agree with a word he said, but I thought it was important to have him say it (but also to hold him to the same standard of collegiality and openness).

Today, I find myself in the position of again praising Bishop Tobin, not only for having the courage to say what he said but also because I find myself in agreement with him.   Looking forward to the upcoming Synod on the Family, he reflects as a pastor on the problems involving divorced and remarried Catholics, and writes:

I often think about, and truly agonize over, the many divorced Catholics who have “dropped-out” of the Church completely, as well as those who attend Mass faithfully every Sunday, sometimes for years, without receiving the consolation and joy of the Holy Eucharist. And I know that I would much rather give Holy Communion to these long-suffering souls than to pseudo-Catholic politicians who parade up the aisle every Sunday for Holy Communion and then return to their legislative chambers to defy the teachings of the Church by championing same-sex marriage and abortion.

Ignoring for the nonce his swipe at pro-abortion politicians (which has been his trademark issue for a number of years and so to be expected), I see here the pastoral side of Bishop Tobin expressed in a way that redounds to his credit.   One of the things that has bothered me about the various prelates who have been defending current practice has been the intellectual distance of their discussion—I get no sense, even when they are proposing their modest solutions, that they appreciate the depths of pain and trouble in the lives of ordinary Catholics that lie behind their abstract arguments.    See, for instance, my discussion of Cardinal Mueller’s position.  Cardinal Burke and others have also laid out similar positions.  (Sandro Magister has been reporting on this in detail: see here and here for recent posts.)

Bishop Tobin goes on to propose, if not a solution, then a different way of thinking about the problem:

In my personal reflection on this dilemma, I turn to the incident in the Gospels in which Jesus and His followers were walking through a field of grain on the Sabbath and because they were hungry, began to pick and eat the grain, a clear violation of an important Mosaic Law. The offense was roundly condemned by the religious experts, the Pharisees. But in response, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:23-28)

In other words, while not denying the validity of the law, our Lord clearly placed it in a “pastoral context,” exempting its enforcement due to the human needs of the moment.

Could we not take a similar approach to marriage law today? Could we not say, by way of analogy, that “matrimony is made for man, not man for matrimony?” Although the teaching of Christ and His Church about the permanence of marriage is clear and undeniable, the lived reality is that many individuals, for a variety of reasons perhaps – personal, catechetical or cultural – are ill-equipped to fulfill the lofty demands of the law.

This proposal echoes in many ways the Orthodox solution, which is to allow, for the good of souls, divorce and remarriage in certain circumstances, and with the second Church wedding marked by a more penitential nature.  (See the discussion here.)  I find the Orthodox approach attractive for a number of reasons, but I also admit that both theologically and canonically their theory and practice of oikonomia is foreign to western Catholic tradition, and there would be significant problems if we attempted to graft it onto our current legal and doctrinal structures.  (Jesus’ dictum about using new cloth to patch old clothes comes to mind.)

However, in thinking about this problem, I was struck by one situation that may or may not be completely parallel.  The long standing discipline of the West is that priests are celibate, but even in the East the ancient tradition is that a priest may not marry after being ordained.  Even advocates of a married clergy in the West appear to support this tradition.  However, if a priest is laicized, he may then validly enter into a sacramental marriage.   Now laicization is not the same thing as an annulment:  the priest is still considered a priest and bears the indelible mark of the sacrament on his soul.  Nevertheless, he is able to marry.  Therefore, it seems to me that if the Church allows, for good pastoral reasons, a priest who has been dispensed from his vows to marry, then it could also, for pastoral reasons (indeed, for the salvation of souls, as Bishop Tobin alludes to), dispense Catholics who are married, civilly divorced, but whose marriages are still considered valid, from their vows to allow them to marry again, or at least to receive communion.

It can be argued that this comparison is only superficial, and that since priests are allowed to marry and only forbidden from marrying after ordination as a matter of practice and not a matter of doctrine, the marriage of a laicized priest is not a problem.  On the other hand, the prohibition against divorce and remarriage is doctrinal and thus not amenable to similar exceptions.  This is the line of reasoning adopted in a Q&A over at EWTN.    I would want to see this distinction more carefully explored, and then balanced against the exercise of the Pauline and Petrine privileges, whereby the Pope can dissolve natural marriages for the good of souls.  John Noonan wrote about this in his book The Church that Can and Cannot Change.  His book has been criticized and while I find his arguments persuasive (particularly on the subjects of slavery and usury) I felt his chapter on marriage more tentative and less compelling.  But, as I was preparing this post I stumbled upon a very critical review in which the author, in challenging Noonan’s views, writes

[Noonan] narrowly construes the Pauline privilege without recognizing that the principle implicit in the granting of that privilege is the idea that the natural-law principle of the indissolubility of valid marriage may be “superseded” by the higher principle of the establishment or preservation of the faith in the heart of a man or a woman.

This seems to me precisely the idea that is driving the discussion of communion for the divorced and remarried:  a concern for the faith of those affected by this ban.   This also seems to lie at the heart of Orthodox practice.

In any event, this is very much a tentative comparison, but I find it suggestive.  Others who understand these things better will have to sort out the niceties, and I am hoping that some more knowledgeable folks will chime in in the commboxes with a more careful analysis of my idea.   It may be a bad one, but I would like to see the reasons why more carefully worked out.

Let me close by quoting the conclusion of Bishop Tobin’s essay, a plea with which I most heartily concur:

Nevertheless, my forty-one years as a priest and nearly twenty-two as a bishop have convinced me that the status quo is unacceptable. For the spiritual well-being of the divorced and remarried members of our Catholic Family, for the salvation of their souls, we’ve got to do something!


Author: "David Cruz-Uribe, SFO" Tags: "Church Doctrine, Communion, David Cruz-U..."
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Date: Sunday, 21 Sep 2014 22:40

Last month, I was sent an article from The Jesuit Post that has changed the way I read the news.  In it, Jason Downer, SJ suggests seeking ways to respond to violence creatively and prayerfully, resisting the temptation to tune out tragedy as a sort of coping mechanism, or as he puts it, turning towards rather than away.  He adds, “It can be something as simple as when reading articles about the violence, to go over them slowly, prayerfully.  If a name is mentioned, either victim or perpetrator, pray for that person by name.”

I thought about this as I came across the particularly harrowing story of a Yazidi teenager who survived a mass execution.  Indeed, I could only think of one way to respond.  Inspired by the Divine Mercy chaplet, which I’ve lately been praying on my daily walk to work, and by the prayer I’ve taken up – “turn the hearts of those who do evil” – I wept as I prayed:

Have mercy on Khidir, and on the whole world…

I prayed this way for his neighbors and family members, named and unnamed, as their stories surfaced.

And on his would-be murderer whose eyes appeared to be smiling, have mercy and turn his heart.

We’ve heard an echo of this plea from the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading:

Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
and the wicked his thoughts;
let him turn to the LORD for mercy…

A plea for repentance, for turning to a divine mercy so far above the human impulse toward endless spirals of revenge.

After praying through that grim story – evil news if anything is – I happened to read a couple of reflections by my friend Abbey, who embodies the lay apostolate and writes about it beautifully on her poignantly-named blog Surviving Our Blessings.  Her reflection at Blessed is She on last Friday’s lectionary readings, especially St. Paul’s hard-hitting reminder of the importance of the resurrection, was exactly what I needed.  She writes, like Jason Downer, of the temptation to shut out the darkness, to turn away in helplessness.  But then there is the reorientation of the resurrection:

By calling ourselves Christians, we accept the resurrection not just as truth but as our identityChrist risen is not just what we believe – it is who we are. We proclaim it not just with our words, but with our whole lives. Resurrection defines us and claims us for the Light. With the light of the resurrection at our core, we can see suffering and death as temporary, because we know that Christ has claimed victory over them.

What does this mean for us?

It means we should carry the light inside us out into the world.

It means we cannot afford to be overcome by evil.

It means we must not sit down and let suffering have the last word.

Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, ESV). When we proclaim the risen Christ, we are charged with the vocation of hope. Let us find ways to remind ourselves and those around us that darkness doesn’t win.s1031970192_30221189_269

This is why we need to keep returning to word and sacrament and prayer, to be reoriented again and again to that new reality that forms our ancient identity – in Abbey’s words, to “the outrageous claim we all make every week when we say that Jesus rose from the dead.”

Once again it is hymnody that speaks this to me so powerfully.

This is my Father’s world.
Oh let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.

Paradoxically, the times I can sing and hear lines like these with deepest conviction are when the wrong seems so, so strong.  That’s when I feel most forcefully that this outrageous claim of ours just has to be true.

Author: "Julia Smucker" Tags: "Evil, Hope, mercy, News, persecution, Pr..."
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Date: Sunday, 14 Sep 2014 21:58

One of the great gifts of the Catholic tradition is that our communion in the Body of Christ is not cut off by death: in short, the communion of saints, of which the official canon is most likely the tip of the iceberg.  We can seek spiritual companions from among this great cloud of witnesses for all kinds of reasons, and there are a few I’ve been calling on frequently amid so much troubling news.  Especially as I keep hearing of crowds of people, God’s beloved all, fleeing danger in Central America and the Middle East, crossing literal deserts on their own present-day via crucis, a pair of exemplars that keep impressing themselves on my mind are Oscar Romero, killed in El Salvador in 1980, and Christian de Chergé, killed in Algeria in 1996 – two shepherds who bore witness unto death to the Good Shepherd.  And on today’s feast of the exaltation, or triumph, of the cross, their witness illuminates the meaning of such a victory.

Both men are widely and deservedly acclaimed as martyrs, though admittedly the definition of a martyr is not without controversy.  John Allen makes a strong case in the introduction to his book The Global War on Christians (by the way, if you read any book on Christian persecution, make it that one) that “it’s not enough to consider what was in the mind of the person pulling the trigger – we also have to ponder what was in the heart of the believer getting shot.”  A case can also be made for the classic criterion of odium fidei in the hatred provoked by the faith these two pastors preached in word and deed, whether or not that was an explicitly professed motive on the part of their killers.

Both of them foresaw their own deaths, not in a crystal-ball kind of way but as a very real risk of continuing the ministry they were called to.  And both united their deaths to that of Christ by preemptively forgiving their killers, de Chergé doing so with a direct allusion to the dying words of Christ, and Romero ultimately being killed at the very altar of Christ’s sacrifice.  Reading the words by which they foreshadowed their own final moments, in the knowledge of the fruit they bore, leaves no doubt in my own mind that these are the words of saints.

But, as LeVar Burton would say, you don’t have to take my word for it.  Here first is a famous excerpt from the interview Romero gave two weeks before his death:

I have frequently been threatened with death. I ought to say that as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador. I am not boasting, I say it with the greatest humility.  I am bound, as a pastor, by a divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that is all Salvadoreans, even those who are going to kill me. If they manage to carry out their threats, from this moment I offer my blood for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador.  Martyrdom is a grace of God that I do not believe I deserve.  But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality. Let my death, if it is accepted by god, be for my people’s freedom and a witness of hope.  You may say, if they succeed in killing me, that I pardon and bless those who do it. Would, indeed, they might be convinced not to waste their time. A bishop will die, but God’s Church, which is the people, will never perish.

I first encountered a portion of these powerful words in this video, made as part of a project setting the words of martyrs to music, which brings out their potency all the more.


What Christian de Chergé left us with is this “last testament” which he wrote when he began to suspect that he might be killed.

If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.

My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called “the grace of martyrdom,” to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I know the scorn with which Algerians as a whole can be regarded. I know also the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of Islamism encourages. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different; they are a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received in Algeria, in the respect of believing Muslims—finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church.

My death, clearly, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these people must realize that my most avid curiosity will then be satisfied. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, delighting in the differences.

For this life given up, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything. In this “thank you,” which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my brothers and sisters and their families—the hundred-fold granted as was promised!

And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not [know] what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this “thank you”—and this <adieu> [lit. "to God"]—to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours.

And may we find each other, happy “good thieves,” in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen.

St. Paul wrote to the Romans (6:5) that “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  This may not mean a literal martyr’s death for most of us, but in lives like these given in deaths like these, the triumph of the cross of Christ is made starkly visible.  The cross does triumph, and its triumph is in the very moment of its apparent defeat – which is exactly what the crucifixion was in the first place.  It is with this cross, this exaltation-in-humility, that we sign ourselves every time we pray.

So I give the final word, a poetic denouement if you will, to a verse by hymn writer Shirley Erena Murray, so fitting for today’s paradoxical feast:

Hope we must carry, shining and certain,
Through all our turmoil, terror and loss,
Bonding us gladly one to the other,
‘Til our world changes, facing the cross.

Oscar Romero, Servant of God, pray for us.

Christian de Chergé and companions, pray for us.


Author: "Julia Smucker" Tags: "Cross, Forgiveness, Holidays, Jesus Chri..."
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Date: Sunday, 14 Sep 2014 20:27

Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a feast that stands near the head of the Franciscan calendar.  According to his biographers it was on or  shortly after this feast in 1224 that St. Francis received the gift of the stigmata while praying on Mount La Verna, about 60 miles north of Assisi.  I hope to write something about this feast, but for today let me leave you with this quote from Thomas of Celano and this image by El Greco.  A most blessed and happy feast day to everyone!


Two years before Francis gave his soul back to heaven, while he was staying in a hermitage called “Alverna” after the place where it was located, he saw in a vision from God a man with six wings like a seraph, standing above him with hands extended and feet together, affixed to a cross. Two wings were raised over his head, two were extended in flight, and two hid his entire body.

When the blessed servant of God saw these things he was filled with wonder, but he did not know what the vision meant. He rejoiced greatly in the benign and gracious expression with which he saw himself regarded by the seraph, whose beauty was indescribable; yet he was alarmed by the fact that the seraph was affixed to the cross and was suffering terribly. Thus Francis rose, one might say, sad and happy, joy and grief alternating in him. He wondered anxiously what this vision could mean, and his soul was uneasy as it searched for understanding. And as his understanding sought in vain for an explanation and his heart was filled with perplexity at the great novelty of this vision, the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, just as he had seen them slightly earlier in the crucified man above him.

His hands and feet seemed to be pierced by nails, with the heads of the nails appearing in the palms of his hands and on the upper sides of his feet, the points appearing on the other side. The marks were round on the palm of each hand but elongated on the other side, and small pieces of flesh jutting out from the rest took on the appearance of the nail-ends, bent and driven back. In the same way the marks of nails were impressed on his feet and projected beyond the rest of the flesh. Moreover, his right side had a large wound as if it had been pierced with a spear, and it often bled so that his tunic and trousers were soaked with his sacred blood.  (From a translation by David Burr.)

Author: "David Cruz-Uribe, SFO" Tags: "Cross, David Cruz-Uribe, El Greco, Exalt..."
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Date: Tuesday, 09 Sep 2014 00:12

I am troubled by all violence.

I said this once to an Iraqi priest I had come to know and admire, and it provoked a look – almost with a start – of something resonating to the core.  I mention this not to suggest in any way that I can presume to speak for him or anyone living through the Iraqi Church’s present trial, but because, to the contrary, it encapsulates my own inability to speak to a situation like that much at all – and why I feel the need to say something anyway, even if it’s only to acknowledge how little I can say.

The actions of the Islamic State, and the ideology that drives them, horrify and confound me.  I am at an utter loss as to how anyone can spread so much death and destruction so systematically and genuinely believe that they are doing the will of God, or how anyone could even want to serve a God who would be pleased by all this.

It wrenches me to think of anyone equating rabid violence with the service of God.  And wrenching too is the equation of added violence with mercy.  This latter idea came to me by way of a former co-blogger who I believe is one of the most genuinely nonviolent people I have encountered anywhere – certainly in the infamous blogosphere – and more so than me, I suspect, in practice.  So I believe him when he says he came to that conclusion reluctantly.  And my own vastly clearer convictions about what the answer isn’t than any idea of what it is, short of some miraculous metanoia, leave me paralyzed.

Because of this paralysis I have largely refrained from adding commentary of my own, but I have felt a kind of sickened cynicism on seeing reports of humanitarian food drops alongside military airstrikes: I can only see this as feeding the dispossessed with one hand, and the militant zealotry of their persecutors with the other.  Justification aside, it’s been seen all too repeatedly how killing terrorists is like fighting a hydra, that many-headed monster of Greek mythology: cut off one head, and two grow back in its place.  This is not to deny America’s continued responsibility for the mess it had a hand in causing, but the problem is that the state, and especially its military, seems to know only one way of “fixing” things – the same “solution” that contributed so mightily to the problem in the first place.  I could not believe that the original mistake could be fixed with more of the same, even if I wanted to.  Or even if – God help me – some tiny part of me does want to.

Because compounding my ineradicably deep convictions that leave me so troubled by violence, in this case, is a personal and specific fear that makes it suddenly all too easy to identify with the perennial temptation to simply wish certain people away.  It’s a fear concrete enough to test even my resolve not to “trust in princes,” in the words of Psalm 146 which have consoled me in other turbulent times – or to trust in a government that only knows one response to conflict.

On one level, it still seems better to trust convictions over fear, especially if, as I have increasingly thought, most of the harm we humans inflict on each other and ourselves – theologically speaking, most sin – is ultimately rooted in fear.  And yet, the minute I make any pretense of expertise based on one personal connection, I embarrass myself.  Having that one connection in fact only makes me feel my own ignorance more acutely.  Knowing one person directly affected doesn’t make me an expert on anything; it only makes me even sicker over the violence than usual, and more unsure of my ability to say (let alone do) anything at all.

And yet again: I can’t help believing, despite my fear (which is only the faintest shadow of that which Iraqi Christians are facing whether in their country or abroad), that the greatest weapon of Christians anywhere is the ability to say in the face of persecution, in the words of Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, “What have [we] done … to be treated with such hatred and abuse? You rely on the language of arms, terrorism, violence and influence, but we rely on the language of dialogue, understanding and respect for others.”

At the same time, I also have to deal with the startling words of someone at the heart of the ongoing tragedy, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, who wrote in a recent letter to Pope Francis and the patriarchs and bishops, “In fact speeches are good for nothing, so too declarations that rehash condemnations and indignation; the same can be said for protest marches.”  Being helpless to do much else, I have to admit this sentence stings.  I hasten to add that Patriarch Sako’s letter is not the literal call to arms that some have selectively made it out to be, as he goes on to say of the major world powers, “They are called to free themselves from their narrow interests and to unite themselves in a political and pacifistic solution that puts an end to this conflict. These powers must vigorously exercise pressure on those who support financially and train militarily these factions and so cut short these sources of violence and radicalisation.”  But that still leaves me with the question: what about the rest of us, who have little left but words?

While the latter statement may relieve a bit of the earlier barb, I am wary of finding too much personal vindication in it, lest I too miss the point.  I may still need to consider that Patriarch Sako is admonishing me in my ignorance, and I may not even have any right to ask him not to deprive me of the one thing I can do.  Yet I have to voice my lament, I have to speak through my paralysis, even if it is no use.  Dare I even hope that he’s wrong on that point?  Right or wrong, I know a voice like his deserves to be heard more than mine does.  Still, at the very least, useful or not, it is a human need to cry out at human suffering, even – or especially – when we don’t know what else to do or say.

Sako concluded his letter with the prayer, “That God may grant us the grace and possibility to overcome this trial, that He removes from all hearts all hatred and violence.”  His prayer reminds me of a line that had come to me one recent morning, which I suddenly seemed to remember hearing somewhere: “Turn the hearts of those who do evil.”  Just that.  The source of this has so far eluded me, although I feel sure I’ve heard it somewhere before.  Wherever it comes from, it has become my prayer.  Can it do any good?  I wish I knew for sure.  But I can only keep coming back to it in the frequent moments when it is all I can say.

Turn the hearts of those who do evil.  Kyrie eleison.

Re-posted from Christian Democracy.

Note: given the nature of this piece as an “exercise in paralysis” and an admission of my own, the aim here is not to provoke an argument.  While thoughtful and honest dialogue is welcome as always, comments will be moderated for civility somewhat more closely than usual. -JS

Author: "Julia Smucker" Tags: "Eastern Churches, Evil, Iraq War, Middle..."
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Date: Sunday, 07 Sep 2014 15:56

Writing over at NCR Online, Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ discusses the recent vacancy at the Congregation for Divine Worship and offers his thoughts on the issues that the new prefect (as yet unnamed) should set before the congregation.   After lamenting that Pope Francis does not appear to be a proponent of liturgical reform (though he notes approvingly that the Pope is no fan of the Extraordinary Form of the mass), he argues that

The greatest challenge facing the new prefect is to develop a new way of managing liturgical change in the church….The Vatican response was to stop all change, crack down on experimentation, and force reluctant bishops to provide the Tridentine Mass to anyone who wanted it long after the vernacular language had firmly taken hold….A more intelligent and pastoral approach to liturgical change would include three things: centers for liturgical research and development, market testing, and enculturation.

All of these ideas focus on the idea that liturgies should develop and evolve at a more local level:  that bishops’ conferences and indeed individual bishops should devote resources to studying the liturgy and proposing ways for it to evolve.   His ideas about market testing are off-putting in their formulation (I cringe to think of the mass as a “product”) but he is correct that liturgy should not simply be created and imposed from on high.  Liturgy needs to develop organically, and this means that new ideas and new formulations need to be shared with the laity to see how they respond.  I am not a scholar of liturgical development, but my sense from what I have read is that this is how liturgies developed prior to Trent:  bishops and religious orders had ideas and tried them.  If they met with a positive response they were kept (and sometimes spread, as Gregorian chant was exported from the Frankish Churches to Rome); other ideas withered away or were actively opposed and were dropped.  Something of this pattern can be seen in the post-Trent period with the development, spread and decline of various devotions.

Fr. Reese then goes on to lay out a smorgasbord of ideas for the new Prefect to explore using this model:  revisit the English translation of the Roman Missal (including the idea of reviving the original 1998 ICEL translation), revisit moving the sign of peace to elsewhere in the mass (something he has written on extensively), explore adding new Eucharistic prayers and prefaces, the latter of which would be tied closely to the readings in the lectionary for the mass.   I must confess that none of these really seem that pressing.  For better or worse we now have the new Roman Missal, and (despite my multiple concerns—see here, here, here and here) I do not think anything is to be gained from revisiting this question.  Continuing to discuss moving the sign of peace seems jejune.  I am intrigued by the idea of having prefaces that match the lectionary—I have always liked a lot of the prefaces for particular feasts—but again it is not clear that this is a central issue facing us.

Truthfully, I don’t think I would have bothered to blog about this short article, except that Fr. Reese’s penultimate paragraph and a perceptive comment in the commboxes really struck me.   Fr. Reese wrote

Despite my hope that the new prefect would take up such an agenda, we need to recognize that even if we had perfect liturgical texts and ceremonies in the Sacramentary, liturgy lives or dies at the local parish. What the people want is good music, good preaching, and a sense of belonging, which cannot be prepackaged in Rome. Parishes that are welcoming and have good music and good preaching see their pews filled. We cannot blame Rome for everything that is wrong in the liturgy.

This really resonated with me, especially his comment about “a sense of belonging.”   In the earlier part of my life, due to education and career, my wife and I moved a fair bit.  We were blessed twice by finding parishes where we quickly felt we belonged, and part of our struggle in Connecticut was that it took a long time gain this sense of really being part of the community, as opposed to a long term visitor.  Much of our sense of community came from the liturgy, whether it was from the spirit that arose in the close confines of mass said in the school cafeteria (because the Church building was destroyed by an earthquake) or from the sense of joining when our pastor at a parish in Indiana allowed us to have our second son baptized at mass—not his regular practice but one which made my whole family part of the parish.

As I have indicated in other posts (cf. my thoughts on vocations) I strongly believe that our faith needs to be lived out in all its dimensions at the local, parish level.  It would seem to me that if we are going to have a true, ongoing liturgical reform, we need to discuss what is needed to revive liturgies at the parish level.  Part of the problem with liturgies is a function of the vocations crisis—decreasing numbers of aging, over-worked priests is not going to create quality liturgy—and so must be addressed elsewhere.   And fixing the problem is not simply a matter of rooting out abusive practices from the odd corners in which they exist.  (I am hereby adding a corollary to Godwin’s Law:  in any discussion of Catholic liturgy, the first person to mention clown masses automatically loses the argument.)   Rather, we need to ask ourselves:  does our liturgy build up community:  both in and among those present, but also with the broader Church and as a springboard to bring the Gospel to the whole world (and not just to the narrow bits that are “just like us.”)

One perceptive comment in the commboxes to Fr. Reese’s article really struck me, because I think the writer put his finger directly these concerns:  Shaun G. Lynch wrote

We need to disconnect from pointless arguments about modern versus traditional form masses and address the bigger problem. It doesn’t matter which kind of mass we’re talking about. There are still more self-identified Catholics outside our churches than inside. The research that I’ve seen cited indicates that the single biggest problem is that too many feel no connection to the proceedings or to the other people in attendance. It’s the connection that matters, not the words per se.

When people who don’t attend mass say “I’m bored” it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to be entertained. It indicates that they can’t identify anything meaningful in the experience. Blaming them for that attitude is entirely useless and counterproductive; there’s no fault to be assigned, simply a challenge to be undertaken.

Some tweaking of the liturgy would certainly be helpful, but that alone is only a way to treat a symptom, not the underlying problem.  I suspect that what we really need are ways to teach the faithful how to go to mass! i.e. how to prepare, what to listen for, what to do to deepen the experience, etc.

I found his analysis of “I’m bored” startling in its insight.  I have heard this expression before, and I have always cringed when it is simply dismissed as a demand to be entertained.   Or, as Cardinal Dolan so unhelpfully put it recently, “You may find the Mass boring, but, that’s more your problem than the fault of the Mass.”  But until I read Mr. Lynch’s this comment , I could never quite put my finger on what was really being said.

This, perhaps, is the fundamental problem facing us:  far too many people self-identify as Catholics, but attend mass infrequently or not at all.  Rather than attempt to apportion blame, maybe we need to ask why the mass holds no meaning for them, or at least has so little meaning that the “Easter/Christmas/Baptism” circuit suffices to maintain their link to the Catholic Church.  How can we bring the gospel to the whole world if we cannot bring our own (and they are ours, however imperfectly) into the pews on Sunday morning?

I don’t have any answers.  Mr. Lynch suggests better education, but this seems to be a chicken and egg kind of problem:  how do you educate the people who are not at mass in the first place?  I would suggest increased professionalism, particularly among laity involved in the liturgy as lectors, EMHCs and altar servers.   But even this seems to miss the mark.

So let me close this post with a question:  what can we do to help our brethren (and really, ourselves) find deeper meaning in the liturgy?

Author: "David Cruz-Uribe, SFO" Tags: "David Cruz-Uribe, Liturgy, America Magaz..."
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Date: Thursday, 04 Sep 2014 00:23

It seems to crop up in the news with regularity:  “Teacher fired from St. X Catholic school because….”  It could be because the teacher is openly gay, or has entered into a gay marriage, or had in vitro fertilization, or is an unmarried mother, or (in a particularly depressing case) was the victim of domestic violence.   There is an inevitable backlash in the media, and very often students and their parents rally in support of the fired teacher.  Irrespective of anything else, the Church comes off looking quite bad.

We have discussed this a few times in posts: see, for instance,  here and here. Reviewing the commentary it is clear that there are some serious conflicting views at stake here and that there is a need to elucidate the moral principles involved.  A couple of months ago, there was an article in America Magazine that attempted to do exactly that:  The Ethics of Exit by Daniel J. Daly, an associate professor and chair of the theology department at Saint Anselm College, New Hampshire.   I recommend reading the whole article, but I want to quote a few of his key points here.

First, like a good ethicist, he carefully frames the question to be considered:

Two points should be made at the outset. First, ethics is done well when it asks and answers the right questions. We begin, therefore, by setting aside a question that is often asked but that is irrelevant to this article: “Is the church’s official teaching correct regarding the morally illicit nature of gay marriage?” That is an important question that should be discussed and debated in Catholic households, parishes, colleges and universities. But it is a not a question to be asked by Catholic school administrators in their role as administrators…. Second, we need to expose an error in logic. It does not necessarily follow that because a teacher has violated church teaching, and his or her contract, that he or she should be terminated. Many teachers violate their contracts without being fired. The question is not simply: Did the teacher violate the contract? Instead it should be: Does the violation of the contract disqualify the teacher from educating students in a Catholic context?

Second, he focuses attention on the rights of the student and the duty of the school towards the students:

In Catholic schools, the moral priority rests with the good of the students. Schools exist for the students, not the faculty. The unique mission of Catholic schools is to educate and form the whole student—academically, spiritually and morally….Thus, while justice must be rendered to the faculty and staff, justice is primarily conditioned on what is best for students. The rights of faculty and staff are limited by the rights of students to receive a high quality Catholic education.

Third, he directly addresses the idea that underlies many (if not most terminations):  scandal:

[A]dministrators must discriminate between those imperfect people who can serve as witnesses for young people and those who should not. The dividing line may be found in the concept of scandal. Genuine scandal involves leading others to believe that immoral actions and ways of life are actually morally licit. Scandal is important because it has the potential to malform the conscience and character of young people. But not every immoral action or mistaken belief is scandalous. Unfortunately, it is notoriously difficult to discern what might “give scandal.” Does an unmarried pregnant teacher undermine the church’s teaching on premarital sex in the eyes of students, or does she provide a quiet witness to the value of bringing all children, even those conceived in less-than-ideal situations, into the world?

I do not (unfortunately) have the time to give his argument careful attention.  However, there are a few additional points I want to throw out:

First, the firing of teachers seems to be intimately connected with deep anxieties related to being Catholic in the modern world.  In other words, we fire teachers not simply because they violate Catholic teaching, but they do so in a way that is connected to the particular fears that are affecting us at the moment.

Second, the firing of teachers seems to be gendered:  many more women than men appear to be fired for this reason.  In my own experience I recently ran into a case where a male teacher was not fired for conduct in flagrant violation of Church teaching—he was allowed to teach until the end of his (multi-year) contract and then let go.  (I noting this I am mindful that the plural of anecdote is not data.)

Third, compassion and mercy always seem to take a backseat to justice in these matters.    In my earlier posts I framed the discussion as a matter of mercy and I was quite surprised by the pushback this generated.

The first and second points are perhaps debatable:  our perception of these matters is shaped by the secular media which finds that it gets more mileage from a story about the Church if it involves sex or gender issues.  And mercy and justice are difficult to balance and I do not claim to know where the golden mean lies.

So my  two questions for discussion are this:  what principles should guide the firing of teachers in Catholic schools? Does Professor Daly create a good foundation, or are there facets he has not considered?  Second, principles can exist in the abstract, so I think implementation is the key:  decisions must take into account the complex and sometimes hostile world we live in.   So how would these principles play out in the real world?  In particular, to what degree should our prudent response be shaped by the way our decisions are perceived by the larger world, or even by ordinary Catholics?

Author: "David Cruz-Uribe, SFO" Tags: "Charity, Children, Church Doctrine, Davi..."
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Date: Saturday, 30 Aug 2014 16:06

During his recent visit to South Korea, Pope Francis touched upon many familiar themes in his talks and homilies.  One in particular that he returned to was his desire that the Catholic Church be “a poor church for the poor,”  a vision he first expressed in the days immediately following his election.   It should not be surprising that he had strong words on this subject for the Korean bishops, and that what he had to say made them feel uncomfortable.  So uncomfortable, in fact, that when they posted a transcript of his address, they omitted part of his address.  As reported by NCR, they left out the following:

I have said that the poor are at the heart of the Gospel; they are present there from beginning to end. In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus made this clear at the outset of his ministry. And when in Matthew 25 he speaks of the latter days, and reveals the criterion by which we will all be judged, there too we find the poor. There is a danger, a temptation which arises in times of prosperity: it is the danger that the Christian community becomes just another “part of society”, losing its mystical dimension, losing its ability to celebrate the Mystery and instead becoming a spiritual organization, Christian and with Christian values, but lacking the leaven of prophecy. When this happens, the poor no longer have their proper role in the Church. This is a temptation from which particular Churches, Christian communities, have suffered greatly over the centuries; in some cases they become so middle class that the poor even feel ashamed to be a part of them. It is the temptation of spiritual “prosperity”, pastoral prosperity. No longer is it a poor Church for the poor but rather a rich Church for the rich, or a middle class Church for the well-to-do. Nor is this anything new: the temptation was there from the beginning. Paul had to rebuke the Corinthians in his First Letter (11:17), while the Apostle James was even more severe and explicit (2:1-7): he had to rebuke these affluent communities, affluent Churches for affluent people. They were not excluding the poor, but the way they were living made the poor reluctant to enter, they did not feel at home. This is the temptation of prosperity.

I am not admonishing you because I know that you are doing good work. As a brother, however, who has the duty to confirm his brethren in the faith, I am telling you: be careful, because yours is a Church, which is prospering, a great missionary Church, a great Church. The devil must not be allowed to sow these weeds, this temptation to remove the poor from very prophetic structure of the Church and to make you become an affluent Church for the affluent, a Church of the well-to do – perhaps not to the point of developing a “theology of prosperity” – but a Church of mediocrity.

I post this long quote not to call attention to the discomfiture of the Korean bishops, but rather to turn the attention back upon us in the American church.  What have we done, and what are we doing to become “a poor church for the poor”?   Have we succumbed to the temptation to become a “spiritual organization”, a “middle class Church for the well-to-do”?

Since the election of Pope Francis there has a been a fair amount of press attention on this question.  The Bishop of Limburg, Germany, was removed from office, apparently for his opulent life-style.  (The German press dubbed him the “bishop of bling”.)   In the United States, the archbishops of Newark and Atlanta have been roundly criticized for what was perceived to be overly lavish spending on their mansions.   Cardinal Dolan, whose lifestyle is nowhere near as lavish, has been gently challenged by the New York Times.

The example bishops set is important, and can have a far reaching impact.  For a fictional example, consider the saintly Bishop Myriel who saved Jean Valjean at the beginning of Les Miserables.  For a real world example, consider Oscar Romero of El Salvador.  However, I think too much focus on individual bishops, good or bad, can detract from the more pressing question:  what is each one of us doing to help make us a “poor church for the poor”?   At the end of the day the Church will live or die at the level of individuals and parishes.  While we can and should look to our bishops for guidance and leadership, we are responsible for following them, for bringing their vision (or really, the vision of the Gospels) to life on a daily basis.   Or, as I posted a couple days ago, what each one of us “writes” on a daily basis is the form that the gospel message will take today.

What signs should we be looking for that our parish has become a “spiritual organization” that has lost the “leaven of prophecy”?  It is easy to look in on a parish from the outside and be critical—especially  if said parish differs from our own preferences and prejudices in terms of liturgy or theology.  But it is much more difficult to look critically at our own communities and find fault.  (As Jesus put it:  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Mt 7:3.)  Looking back over the parishes I have belonged to, I find things to praise, though in my mind not enough.  But, as my wife argued, we have throughout our marriage belonged to parishes that have a large number of working class and lower middle class parishes, and are thus less prone to the failings that the Pope is warning against.  Perhaps:  I am not sure.

Two specific examples do come to mind:  one bad and one good.   We once belonged to a parish that supported a family in India; every month there was a second collection for their support.  By the time we joined the parish this had been going on for several years and had become routine.    There was no information about them readily available;  we certainly never prayed for them in our mass intentions or otherwise engaged with them, even remotely, as human persons or brothers in Christ.  We were doing good, but their poverty and precarity had no real meaning for us.  Like the semi-apocryphal “pagan babies” of old, this family seemed only to exist as an object for our charity.

At our current parish the pastor, after the homily on the gospel about Lazurus and the rich man, put out a five gallon water bottle in the back of our church.  It was labeled Pro Lazaro qui quondam povere: for Lazurus, who once was poor.  He said that all the money would go to the poor, and encouraged people to thrown in their spare change.  Quickly, however, dollar bills started showing up, followed by fives and twenties.  He emptied the jug the week after Easter, and the final collection was over $1,000.  The pastor solicited suggestions for how to use the money, but a couple weeks later announced that he had made an “executive decision”:  there were two families in the parish who had fallen on hard times, and he had split the money between them.   The jug has been returned to the back of church, and the change and dollar bills are again beginning to accumulate.   The recipients have remained anonymous, but we have the knowledge that they are among us, our brothers and sisters.

So let me conclude with a question for each of you:  what are you and your parish doing, good and bad?  Are you part of a “middle class church for the well-to-do” or do you still recognize “the mystery” of the poor among you?


Author: "David Cruz-Uribe, SFO" Tags: "Charity, David Cruz-Uribe, Pope Francis,..."
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Date: Thursday, 28 Aug 2014 12:57

Another quote from the folks at Daily Gospel OnlineJean-Pierre de Caussade, a 17th century Jesuit, wrote

So the rest of the story, which consists of the whole mystical life of Jesus in the souls of saints, remains a matter of our faith… The Holy Spirit no longer writes gospels, except in our hearts; saintly souls are the pages, suffering and action the ink. The Holy Spirit is writing a living gospel with the pen of action, which we will only be able to read on the day of glory when, fresh from the presses of life, it will be published.

In cooperation with the Holy Spirit today, what am I going to write?  What are you going to write?  I pray that each of us takes the pen of our lives firmly in hand adds a worthy page to the gospels.

Author: "David Cruz-Uribe, SFO" Tags: "David Cruz-Uribe, Holy Spirit, Daily Gos..."
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Date: Wednesday, 27 Aug 2014 20:54

This is just a note to let you know that some changes have been made to the site. The page linked at the top entitled “Links” has been reorganized and renamed “Worthy Links” It has links to papal documents on social justice, the documents of Vatican II, and other teaching documents (such as the Catechism). It also has links to various church related organizations and social justice campaigns.

Our blogroll has been updated and moved to the sidebar. Should you find a dead link, please send us email.

In the near future, I hope to update our list of Current Contributors to find easy links to some of our past contributors whose posts are still available in the archives.

Please feel free to contact me with questions and comments.

Update (five hours later): I finally figured out, at least partly, how WordPress keeps track of authors, and I was able to create a list of former contributors. However, while I can add people to this list easily, first I have to find them. I have gone by memory, both of contributors during my time here and the names of folks I have run across reading older posts. If you notice that I have missed someone, please let me know. (However, I know that at least one former contributor deleted all of his posts when he left Vox Nova.)

Author: "David Cruz-Uribe, SFO" Tags: "Uncategorized"
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Date: Sunday, 24 Aug 2014 14:12

Resolved:  most Catholics can’t answer this question.  Worse, many of our problems come from people who think they can.

Today’s gospel:

Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.  And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Mt 16:1-20)

This is one of my favorite gospel passages, capturing the tension and expectations of the Jewish community at the time, the hesitation and uncertainty of the disciples, and Peter’s impetuous faith.  My desk top image is Escher’s surrealist sketch of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, centered on the Latin phrase inscribed there:  Dabo Claves Regni Caelorum.  But I have to admit that I have a hard time answering Jesus’ question.  I can repeat the creed—indeed, I have studied it fairly carefully, including the great Christological controversies that helped shape it.   But middle age has given me the epistemological humility to admit that the more I know, the less I understand.

As for the rest of the folks in the pews:  I am pretty sure that most of them couldn’t formulate a coherent answer that went beyond a few memorized phrases:  “Son of God”, “Savior of the World”, “Second Person of the Trinity.”  All true, but as answers they beg the question:  what do they mean?  I say this not to scorn them:  even if they cannot answer the question, their lives are nevertheless shaped by faith in the One whose question they cannot answer.   But as we have discussed before (e.g., here), religious education today is sorely lacking.

More worrisome to me are the people who (I believe) think they know the answer to this question.   Much of the polemic and division which rends the Church (at least here in the United States) is driven by the moral certitude of the partisans, who are convinced they know the correct answer:  often times (and on both sides) convinced they know better than the Church itself.  At the heart of this certitude is the mistaken belief that they know the correct answer to Jesus’ question, and this puts them in the position to speak more authoritatively in His name.

Now some of you may be thinking that the pot is calling the kettle black, as I have taken sides (strongly at times!) in these various divisions.  Mea culpa.  I can only hope that I have never had the temerity to think I was speaking with the certainty that I know Him well enough to speak for Him.    Or you may think that I am being inconsistent:  on the one hand lamenting the fact that people cannot answer the question, but on the other complaining about people who can.   But I think that these things are two sides of the same problem.

So what do you think? 

A hat tip to our new deacon, James McCormack, Jr.,  whose insightful sermon today got me thinking about this question.  Please pray for him as he starts to serve our parish. 

Update (2 hours after posting):  It seems I blogged on this question before, from a different direction.

Author: "David Cruz-Uribe, SFO" Tags: "Christology, David Cruz-Uribe, Escher, J..."
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Date: Wednesday, 20 Aug 2014 12:20

A lovely quote from Pope Benedict, from the folks at the Daily Gospel online.   They chose it to accompany the reading for the 7th Sunday of Easter, John 17:1-11a.    I have highlighted a couple sentences that really struck me because I had been recently reading about St. Bernadine of Siena and thinking about devotion to the Holy Name.

What, then, does “the name of God” mean?… The Revelation of John speaks of the adversary of God, the “beast”. This beast, the power opposed to God, has no name, but a number. The seer tells us: “Its number is six hundred and sixty-six” (Rv 13,18). It is a number, and it makes men numbers. We who lived through the world of the concentration camps know what that means. The terror of that world is rooted in the fact that it obliterates men’s faces… But God has a name, and God calls us by our name. He is a Person, and he seeks the person. He has a face, and he seeks our face. He has a heart, and he seeks our heart. For him, we are not some function in a “world machinery”. On the contrary, it is precisely those who have no function that are his own. A name allows me to be addressed. A name denotes community.

This is why Christ is the true Moses, the fulfillment of the revelation of God’s name. He does not bring some new word as God’s name; he does more than this, since he himself is the face of God. He himself is the name of God. In him, we can address God as “you”, as person, as heart. His own name, Jesus, brings the mysterious name at the burning bush to its fulfillment (Ex 3,14); now we can see that God had not said all that he had to say but had interrupted his discourse for a time. This is because the name “Jesus” in its Hebrew form includes the word “Yahweh” and adds a further element to it: God “saves”. “I am who I am”-thanks to Jesus, this now means: “I am the one who saves you.” His Being is salvation.

Der Gott Jesu Christi (trans. The God of Jesus Christ, Ignatius press 2008, p. 23)

Author: "David Cruz-Uribe, SFO" Tags: "David Cruz-Uribe, 7th Sunday of Easter, ..."
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Date: Saturday, 16 Aug 2014 23:00

It would seem something like Godwin’s law applies to the vexed question of whether or not atheism is a religion: “The longer an internet conversation about the subject goes, the probability of a “new atheist” claiming that “atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position” approaches 1.” Actually, the “longer” part is more or less irrelevant. It is very often the first thing said on the matter.

Indeed, one of the most salient features of the “new atheism” (I am going to consistently use this term in order not to paint all atheists with the same brush, but you know the person on your social media feeds that I’m talking about) is its constant resort to clichéd phrases: “We’re all atheists about 99% of the gods, atheists just go one step further;” “Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings;” “ . . . flying spaghetti monster . . . ;” etc. Indeed, one could articulate a general law that “the probability of a new atheist using slogan x in response to issue y approaches 1 as soon as the issue is broached.” There are certainly several reasons for this. Here are just two.

First, the “new atheism” is, to a significant degree, a product of the internet, where catch phrases and slogans are the norms of communication for almost everyone. There is probably is a bit of a chicken-egg dynamic here as with the broader cultural and political battles of our time. As we become more divided we rely more and more on sloganeering, but we are also in possession of (or perhaps dominated by) a medium simply made for sloganeering.

Second, many of the devotees of the new atheism were convinced of or confirmed in their atheism by such sloganeering, and so they repeat it, having little or no awareness that more nuanced conversations about such matters are even possible. This is, admittedly, at least partly the fault of the shallow or even fundamentalist nature of much of the Christian formation received by those “new atheists” who were raised Christians. New atheists don’t have a monopoly on lack of nuance.

But these slogans, as effective as they may be against unarmed opponents, fail in a variety of ways. They don’t define their terms (or worse, they rely on the hope that no one listening is thinking about defining terms), they make massive generalizations, and they present analogies that rarely stand up to scrutiny.

Indeed, the question of whether atheism is a religion or not, depends immensely on the definition of the terms “atheism” and “religion.” Jimmy Akin attacks the problem from this angle and concludes that, depending on what one means by the term “religion” atheism may or may not be a religion. This is, of course, perfectly defensible. But it leaves a lot more work to be done. As Akin himself intimates, the real question is whether atheism and religion have certain features in common.

Stephen Bullivant offers a further clarification that highlights that the question under consideration is actually based on a category mistake, though not the category mistake implied by the standard “new atheist” retort. While the claim that “atheism is to religion what abstinence is to sex positions” suggests that atheism is simply the absence of religion, the metaphor at work falls apart because it actually equates theism, that is, belief in God, with religion. But one can believe in God and not be religious, or one can be quite religious and reject belief in God.

As Bullivant highlights, neither theism nor atheism can be a religion. Both are simply beliefs about the existence of God that may or may not be related to a larger structure of worldview and practice that we typically call “religion.” Bullivant even highlights deliberate attempts to create atheistic religious systems to make the point that, “Even though atheism itself is not, and cannot be, a religion, it does not follow that ‘atheism’ and ‘religion’ are necessarily mutually exclusive categories.”

Both Akin and Bullivant highlight the difficulties of defining “religion.” And it is a notoriously difficult thing to define. I want to go one step further. I want to suggest that “religion,” at least as it is being used in these debates, is a dubious concept altogether.

Of course one can make any number of working definitions of religion and then straightforwardly answer whether or not atheism is a religion according to that definition, but doing so doesn’t actually advance the conversation at all (except perhaps to clear up confusion between two parties whose use of terminology had been at odds). If a religion is having a position on the existence of God and an afterlife, atheism is a religion. If a religion is believing in God and an afterlife, it is not, though neither are other things usually called “religion.” If one is a strict Aristotelian, one would say that atheism is not a religion, that is, a subvirtue of justice wherein humanity renders to God what God is due. We could go on.

But the real issue remains unaddressed as long as we ignore why the question is being asked in the first place and why different groups are beholden to different answers. Why is it that many religious believers want to insist that atheism is a religion? And why do atheists wish to deny the same? And what is the functioning definition of “religion” in the background of these desires?

It is these questions that I will take up in Part 2.

Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. He is a father of four (so far) and husband of one.

Author: "brettsalkeld" Tags: "Uncategorized"
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Resolved:   New window
Date: Monday, 11 Aug 2014 18:10

The American Movement Conservative opposition to the ACA and other current and previous social-democratic initiatives has a racial dimension.


Author: "Matt Talbot" Tags: "Uncategorized"
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Date: Thursday, 07 Aug 2014 16:22

I was reading a post by Sam Rocha over at Patheos, which talked a bit about Vox Nova. Sam was once a contributor, and an excellent one at that. In this new piece, he notes that the thorny of right-wing cafeteria Catholicism has developed a new twist – the very people who once held themselves as paragons of fidelity and orthodoxy suddenly feel free to lash out against Pope Francis and his teachings.

In his post, Sam talks a little bit about the history of Vox Nova in this context. Vox Nova came into being in the Spring of 2007, founded by a small-but-dedicated group of Catholics who sought to create a “new voice”, to change the dialogue and challenge the increasing-dominant equation of (true) theological orthodoxy with (false) political orthodoxy.  As Sam put it, we were “sick and tired of Weigel, Novak, and other culture warriors dominating the Catholic conversation in the public square.. We were trying to force American conservatism to admit its political (neo)liberalism”.

In that sense, I think that it is fair to say that Vox Nova was ahead of its time. We channeled Pope Francis long before Pope Francis. The pope, through his words and actions, is undermining the right-liberal edifice of straw that we sought to constantly challenge. These people are forced to make a choice: between the harmonious and consistent body of authentic Catholic teaching, or the Frankenstein’s monster they have clumsily constructed for themselves – orthodox but exaggerated positions on life, marriage, and sexuality; combined with an ugly hodge-podge of heterodox free market zealotry, crass materialism, and America-first nationalism.

Yet here’s the irony: Pope Francis didn’t change “the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter” of Catholic social teaching. The pope at the time of Vox Nova’s founding, Benedict XVI, said exactly the same things about the economy. Yet he was safely ignored on these issues. The likes of George Weigel peddled a false gospel – that John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus abrogated much of the previous corpus of Catholic social teaching and instead baptized the current state of advanced capitalism. In a sense, Weigel was advancing a hermeneutic of rupture, not of continuity – which in itself highlights the enormous internal contradictions in his position. These contradictions were ripped wide open by Pope Francis, for two reasons. First, he speaks in much plainer language than Pope Benedict. While I believe Caritas in Veritate is one of strongest documents in the entire corpus of Catholic social teaching, its punch is all too easily absorbed by its dense theological language. Second, Francis is re-emphasizing the seamless garment, how all strands of Catholic moral teaching have the same anthropological root – and that root is in the person of Christ, not the liberal Enlightenment. For Francis, what ties it all together is the “throwaway culture”. For Francis, we should not be over-emphasizing teachings on abortion and marriage to the detriment of teachings on economic justice and environmental stewardship.

With the risk of sounding smug, I think it’s fair to say that Vox Nova made these kinds of arguments back when the American Catholic blogosphere was overwhelmingly dominated by the right-liberal Weigelian consensus. We argued constantly that the cafeteria on the right is no better than the cafeteria on the left, and that the idea of prudential judgment was not some sort of “get out of jail free” card. We argued that too many American Catholics sought to drive a hard wedge between teachings of life, marriage, and sexuality on one hand; and economic teachings of justice on the other. We tried hard to point to some of the glaring inconsistencies: they vigorously opposed the self-ownership behind the libertarian tendencies on the left while endorsing the self-ownership behind the libertarian tendencies on the right; they prioritized the good over the right in some spheres and the right over the good in others; their starting point was the negative freedom of Locke rather than the positive freedom of Christianity; they connected rights to duties in certain areas and disconnected them in others; they insisted on the importance of faith in the public square but at the same time prioritized private virtue and the reduction of religion to private ethics; and they downplayed the universal salvific message of Christ to accommodate some forms of American exceptionalism, an act of willing accommodation to the American Calvinist legacy.

For all of this, Vox Nova was not popular. In fact, it was viciously attacked by some – in part for sounding like Pope Francis! Part of it is straightforward – when you constantly call out peoples’ inconsistencies, you don’t make too many friends! But there is a deeper reason for the discomfort, I believe. What Vox Nova did was undermine a key narrative of our friends on the liberal Catholic right: the argument that, as Brett Salkeld put it, there are two types of Catholics – “orthodox” (good) and “liberal” (bad). For the liberal Catholic right, theological orthodoxy was twinned with political orthodoxy to the Republican party. A leading exponent of this position was Thomas Peters. Catholics who claimed to be orthodox across the entire spectrum made people like Peters highly uncomfortable. As Peters himself once said, somewhat defensively: “for any liberal Catholic who claims orthodox Catholics are being ‘cafeteria Catholics’ on questions of economics, they should pledge publicly that they fully, 100% support the Church’s teaching on life, marriage and contraception right now. Then we’ll talk. If not, we simply don’t share the same basic commitments to being fully Catholic.” To which Brett responded: “Does Thomas Peters know that I exist?”. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that for people like Peters, “being fully Catholic” has a rather crimped and blinkered meaning.

Let’s be honest, though – I’m not proud of everything we did at Vox Nova. We were too often haughty and arrogant, myself included. We got far too personal at times, resorting to un-Christian insults and petty putdowns. I myself opted too readily for clever rhetorical quips over genuine opportunities for charitable encounter and engagement. If we prefigured some of Pope Francis’ teachings and emphasis, we were light years away from him in tone. He would not have approved. And in an effort to distance ourselves from the pathologies of Catholic Republicans and force some sense of balance and proportion, some of us  – especially me  – were too eager to jump on the partisan bandwagon on the other side. For while I still believe that the current Democrats offer a more compelling vision of the common good than current Republicans, I also realize that the Democrats are sinking deeper and deeper into the putrid mire of left libertarianism – caring more about abortion, same-sex marriage, and marijuana legalization than the traditional Catholic concerns for the poor and the wage earner.

So in a real sense, Vox Nova failed. The original vision failed. Part of its legacy is a legacy of acrimony – with other Catholic bloggers and commentators, and among the contributors ourselves. I am probably the last of the original contributors standing.

But here’s the good news: today, Vox Nova is no longer a lone voice. The positions we espoused are becoming increasingly mainstream, and is being given a huge boost by Pope Francis. We have some great new blogs, such as Millennial and Catholic Moral Theology, bringing a new generation of top-notch Catholic voices to the debate, with the perfect balance of erudition, consistency, and charity. Consistent Catholics like Michael Sean Winters have earned huge respect and a huge reach. So what’s the future for Vox Nova in all of this? To be honest, I’m not really sure. But I will say one thing: as long as people like George Weigel continue making indefensible and inconsistent arguments, somebody needs to keep countering them!

Author: "Morning's Minion" Tags: "Catholic Social Teaching, George Weigel,..."
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