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
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
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?
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?
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.
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.)
Resolved: most Catholics can’t answer this question. Worse, many of our problems come from people who think they can.
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.
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)
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.
The American Movement Conservative opposition to the ACA and other current and previous social-democratic initiatives has a racial dimension.
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!
Among the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are two: bury the dead, and pray for the living and the dead. At his blog, Deacon Greg Kandra tells a said story that relates to these:
I just had a disturbing conversation with a co-worker whose sister passed away a few days ago, and when the family tried to arrange her funeral, they were refused by a local parish because the sister wasn’t registered there. The sister had been sick with cancer for several years and had not been attending mass at any parish where she lived , so the family was trying to arrange the funeral at the parish they attended where they grew up. It was the pastor at [this parish]who refused them the funeral. I believe the family may have asked at another nearby parish, and were also refused there.
It was my understanding that someone who is a baptized Catholic cannot be denied a Catholic funeral. Is that right? If an individual parish refuses to allow a funeral there, what are the options? Can a pastor even deny someone a funeral because they’re not a registered parishioner? I understand why registration is a requirement for the administration of some sacraments, but I can’t comprehend refusing to allow a funeral for someone.
The deacon does an admirable job of summarizing canon law relating to funerals: the short answer is that in ordinary circumstances, a priest should not refuse to perform a funeral for someone who is Catholic but not a parishioner.
For me, this story brought back a memory of something that happened about forty years ago that made a lasting impression on me. When I was a kid, various traveling circuses and carnivals used to come to town. One Sunday morning we went to our usual mass, and the pastor skipped his prepared homily to tell us about something that had happened at an earlier mass. Two performers who were in town with the circus had recently had a baby, and they wanted the baby baptized. Apparently, they opened the phone book looking for Catholic Churches—we attended Annunciation parish, the first on the list, so they called us. They explained the circumstances to our pastor: they were leaving Sunday afternoon, could he help them? I don’t know how long he thought about it or if he consulted anyone else, but his final answer was a firm yes. He had them come to an early Sunday mass and baptized their baby during it, with everyone in the congregation to witness it. I can no longer remember whether this was customary in our parish—some churches had baptisms at mass but others had them immediately after mass, usually on a designated Sunday. But I still bet it came as a surprise to all the folks at this early mass.
Our pastor then made a point to preach about what happened at the subsequent masses. I do not remember any other sermon he preached—in fact, I don’t even remember what he looked like. But I remember the message from that day: they were not parishioners, there had been no formal baptismal preparation, but they were our brothers and sisters in Christ and it was our duty and our privilege to welcome them into our parish to hold the baptism there. And my hunch is that if the call had instead been about a sudden death, he would have said a funeral mass as well.
I was catching up on some old email and I found this story from Cardinal O’Malley as relayed by Michael Sean Winters:
O’Malley …related a story about the Capuchin provincial asking for a truly difficult assignment for the friars. They were given the missionary territory of Papua New Guinea. O’Malley relates:
Many years later, a young friar I ordained who was working in Papua New Guinea came to see me on his home visit. He had glorious pictures of smiling natives, with bones in their noses, feathers in their hair and little else in the way of clothing. He announced proudly, “This is my parish council.” I was particularly intrigued because one of my own pastors had just told me that his parishioners were not ready for a parish council.
There is a deeper message here, but I must admit, as soon as I read this, I threw my head back and laughed. Enjoy!
I think it would be fair to say that two vexatious questions for the Catholic Church today (or at least the Catholic Church in the West) are contraception and divorce and remarriage. They are not the most important issues facing the Church: both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are correct that the central problem for the Church today is evangelization. But on these two questions a number of forces have come together: the tension between pastoral practice and Church teaching, the relationship between the Church and the modern, secular world, the simmering conflict over the voice of the laity in the Church and its relation to the sensus fidelium. And lurking in the background, is the collapse of the Church’s moral authority on sexual matters because of the child abuse scandals of the last 30 years.
We have written numerous times about these two questions in the past: for a small (and essentially random) sampling, see here, here, here, and here. I want to revisit them because I encountered two different articles on these questions that illustrate to me why they are such thorny questions. The first is an article by Fr. Peter Daly, a parish priest in the archdiocese of Washington DC who writes a column for the National Catholic Reporter. His perspective is very much shaped by his pastoral duties; he is “in the trenches”, as it were, in a large suburban parish. The second is an excerpt from an interview with Cardinal Ludwig Mueller, prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith—the Pope’s theological watchdog. The cardinal is, unsurprisingly, very concerned about the doctrinal issues involved. The interview was posted and framed by Sandro Magister, an Italian vaticanista I read regularly. The context is very important for understanding both articles. The liberal stance of NCR, one which is open to questioning Church teaching on a number of matters, is well known. Sandro Magister was a strong supporter of Pope Benedict, and has been positioning himself for the past 15 months as a respectful critic of Pope Francis. In particular, he has set himself up as a strong defender of Church teaching on marriage, and has given a platform to the critics of Cardinal Kaspar and his supporters who have suggested a change in Church practice with regards to divorce and remarriage.
Both of these articles reminded me of a blog post I wrote a few years ago. In this short post I wanted to start a conversation about the tension between “pastoral” and “doctrinal” approaches to problems in the Church. I think two important points came out of this discussion. First, a number of commentators pointed out that an “either/or” dichotomy was not the best way to frame the discussion: many people thought that “both/and” was a better way to see the tension. Second, my colleague Julia made the important point that while doctrine is often discussed abstractly (and she defended doing so), doctrine comes out of the lived pastoral experience of the Church. I think Fr. Daly is trying to achieve a “both/and” balance; Cardinal Mueller, on the other hand, comes across as tone deaf to the kinds of pastoral concerns Fr. Daly articulates. (Fr. Daly has also written about divorce and annulments: see this post.)
Fr. Daly is a priest who wants to teach what the Church teaches, but who finds his efforts unsuccessful and who, in his heart of hearts, is troubled by what he is teaching. He begins his article by affirming his commitment to the teaching of the Church:
What does our parish do about contraception? We teach as the church teaches….
Once a year or so, I try to preach on the topic. It is not easy. There are almost no Scripture readings that lend themselves to homilies against contraception. When I do preach on it, I try to keep the emphasis on the positive aspects of NFP than the negative of birth control as a sin.
Whenever people come in for marriage preparation, I give them a CD by Janet E. Smith titled, “Contraception, Why Not?” I also give them some brochures from Our Sunday Visitor and brochures from our family life office on NFP. I also encourage each couple to take a class in NFP. It is hard to “require” an NFP class because many couples live in different parts of the country, and often, they are in religiously mixed marriages. We also cover the church’s teaching in RCIA, adult education classes, and in the confirmation classes for youth.
But then he frankly acknowledges that his words seem to fall on deaf ears:
Our teaching isn’t having much of an effect on our people. I once asked a doctor in my parish, a very devout Catholic, what percentage of his Catholic patients were practicing some form of artificial birth control. “Do you think it is as high as 80 percent?” I asked. He thought for a moment and replied, “No, more like 90 percent.”
As Bishop Robert Lynch from St. Petersburg, Fla., said back in February, on the matter of artificial contraception, “That train left the station long ago. Catholics have made up their minds and the sensus fidelium [the sense of the faithful] suggests the rejection of church teaching on this subject.”
And he freely shares his own doubts and concerns that Church teaching does not satisfactorily address the lived experiences and needs of his parishioners:
As a pastor, I have to say that the teaching of the magisterium on contraception does not seem to take into account the reality of most people’s lives. While we pay lip service to the difficulties married couples encounter in living the church’s teaching, we don’t provide much of an answer. What are people supposed to do in difficult situations like the ones I have encountered in ministry?
What do I say to a mother of six children in her late 30s, who came to me once? She had chronic high blood pressure and diabetes. Her doctor told her that another pregnancy would be life threatening….Neither abstinence nor NFP seemed to be an answer. She clearly had a responsibility to her six children and her husband, as well as to an openness to life….What do we say to women in abusive marriages? Leave your husband? Abstain from sex with him and risk his increased anger?….We don’t seem to have a good answer for the complex ethical struggles that beset our people. Our teaching, at times, seems inadequate. Even worse: At times, it seems insensitive. But we just continue on as before.
In his interview, Cardinal Mueller stakes out a definitive position and does not admit to any significant doubts or pastoral concerns. The interview is long and dense, but here are a few key passages. (I urge everyone to read the whole thing.) It begins with a categorical statement of Church teaching:
Q: The problem of the divorced and remarried has recently been brought to public attention again. On the basis of a certain interpretation of Scripture, of the patristic tradition, and of the texts of the magisterium, solutions have been suggested that propose innovations. Is a change of doctrine on the way?
A: Not even an ecumenical council can change the doctrine of the Church, because its founder, Jesus Christ, has entrusted the faithful custody of his teachings and his doctrine to the apostles and their successors. We have a well-developed and structured doctrine on marriage, based on the word of Jesus, which must be offered in its integrity. The absolute indissolubility of a valid marriage is not a mere doctrine, but rather a divine dogma that has been defined by the Church. In the face of the de facto rupture of a valid marriage, another civil “marriage” is not admissible. If it were, we would be facing a contradiction, because if the previous union, the “first” marriage – or rather, simply the marriage – is really a marriage, another subsequent union is not “marriage.”
Later, he expands on this, addressing suggestions (pace Cardinal Kaspar) that a revision is needed in the understanding of marriage:
Q: There is talk of the possibility of allowing spouses to “start life over again.” It has also been said that love between Christian spouses can “die.” Can a Christian really use this formula? Is it possible for the love between two persons united by the sacrament of marriage to die?
A: These theories are radically mistaken. One cannot declare a marriage to be extinct on the pretext that the love between the spouses is “dead.” The indissolubility of marriage does not depend on human sentiments, whether permanent or transitory. This property of marriage is intended by God himself. The Lord is involved in marriage between man and woman, which is why the bond exists and has its origin in God. This is the difference.
With regards to balancing the pastoral and the doctrinal, he says:
Q: At this point there emerges the great challenge of the relationship between doctrine and life. It has been said that, without touching doctrine, it is now necessary to adapt this to the “pastoral reality.” This adaptation would suppose that doctrine and pastoral practice could follow different paths.
A: The split between life and doctrine is characteristic of Gnostic dualism. As is separating justice and mercy, God and Christ, Christ the Teacher and Christ the Shepherd, or separating Christ from the Church. There is only one Christ. Christ is the guarantee of the unity between the Word of God, doctrine, and the testimony of life. Every Christian knows that it is only through sound doctrine that we can attain eternal life.
The theories you have pointed out seek to make Catholic doctrine a sort of museum of Christian theories: a sort of reserve that would be of interest only to a few specialists. Life, for its part, would have nothing to do with Jesus Christ as he is and as the Church shows him to be. Strict Christianity would be turned into a new civil religion, politically correct and reduced to a few values tolerated by the rest of society. This would achieve the unconfessed objective of some: to get the Word of God out of the way for the sake of ideological control over all of society.
I must confess that I find Cardinal Mueller’s argument off-putting: in its abstraction it seems to dismiss the complexities, the anguish of ordinary Catholics dealing with failed marriages. Their desire to participate in the Eucharist, which Vatican II called the “source and summit” of our faith, is dismissed as a mistaken application of Enlightenment ideas of individual “rights”. (I am not saying that this is not a factor, but I think it is not the only thing driving this.) He is equally dismissive of any but the most cautious theological attempts to address this pastoral problem. His one exception is a question raised by Pope Benedict:
Benedict XVI made insistent appeals to reflect on the great challenge represented by nobelieving baptized persons. As a result, the congregation for the doctrine of the faith took note of the pope’s concern and put a good number of theologians and other collaborators to work in order to resolve the problem of the relationship between explicit and implicit faith.
What happens when even implicit faith is absent from a marriage? When this is lacking, of course, even if the marriage has been celebrated “libere et recte,” it could be invalid. This leads us to maintain that, in addition to the classical criteria for declaring the invalidity of marriage, there must be further reflection on the case in which the spouses exclude the sacramental nature of marriage.
With regard to the solutions adopted by the Orthodox, a practice which under narrow circumstances allows divorce and remarriage for the good of the faithful, Cardinal Mueller dismisses them without engaging them:
Of course, in the Christian East a certain confusion took place between the civil legislation of the emperor and the laws of the Church, which produced a different practice that in certain cases amounted to the admission of divorce.
As I have indicated before, I am partial to the Orthodox approach, though I think there would be real problems in attempting to implement it in the Western Church in this day and age. But I think that any serious reflection on Church teaching must address the Orthodox arguments in detail.
But despite my reaction to Cardinal Mueller’s approach, I think many of his points are valid ones. Marriage is a sacrament and it is predicated on a life long commitment. There are times when what we perceive to be merciful is in fact merely compromise with a non-Christian culture that reduces marriage to a contract to be dissolved when no longer convenient.
I do not know the answer to any of these questions. I suspect that if there is one, it will come from (initially) avoiding them and instead focusing on the deeper question of marriage itself. What is the deeper reality of sacramental marriage, and how is it to be lived in the modern world? This in turn will require a renewed discussion of men and women, their differences, similarities and complementarities. As Pope Francis said, we may need a renewed theology of women in order to proceed. If we can collectively (re)discover what these things mean, and as a Church both begin to live them more fully and share them with a world that yearns for them even as it rejects them, then perhaps these vexatious questions will answer themselves, with doctrine flowing naturally out of our life in Christ.
The word floated up in my mind as I read of the systematic destruction of the ancient religious and cultural heritage of the city of Mosul by Iraq’s “Islamic State” militants who, having driven out the city’s centuries-old Christian population, have been turning even to iconic and treasured Muslim sites.
The same word came to mind again when I saw the words of Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and Chaldean bishop Sarhad Yawsip Hermiz Jammo at a recent Chaldean Catholic liturgy in San Diego, especially as Bishop Jammo compared his people to Abraham as “they would prepare to leave for the land God will show to them”. The analogy reflects a tragic coming to terms with the deep loss that Sandri lamented in a mournful yet hopeful homily in which he also denounced all religious violence. He recalled Psalm 137 even as the same rivers that once belonged to ancient Babylon receive again the tears of God’s children.
I hardly know what to call such news; any word I could choose (crisis, tragedy, situation, events…) feels either trite or diluted. But however I might name it, it’s been growing heavy on my mind of late, both because I am deeply troubled by all violence and, more personally, out of worry for my friend and his community (whom I wrote about last year here and here). At one point recently, I suddenly recalled almost out of nowhere something I’d heard a college professor of mine say back when the drums were being beaten for the invasion of Iraq now over a decade ago. Recalling Jesus’ parable of the unclean spirit leaving and returning with seven more (Matthew 12:43-45), he asked what other “spirits” might rise up to take the place of Saddam Hussein.
I’m afraid his question has now been answered.
And then I finally learned the meaning of this:
This image of Arabic script I’ve seen spreading across social media turns out to be the equivalent of “N”, standing for “Nazarene”, which the Islamic State used to mark Christian homes in Mosul. And now the image haunts me.
Unlike the residents of Mosul, for me this image comes with very little personal cost. Yet it has rapidly grown into a sign of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in peril. As for causes of their present peril I have many more questions than answers, and I don’t want to add any clamor of looking for someone to blame, but rather, with Cardinal Sandri, to “offer for the Oriental Christians the silence of our prayer, that is not similar to that of the indifference, because it takes vigor from the silence of Christ on the cross that was full of eternal love.”
With them, let us lament. With them, let us hope. With them, let us bear witness to Jesus the Nazarene, the Prince of Peace.
Russell Shaw has an article at the Catholic World Report on Vatican II with the title Did We Really Need Vatican II? I think the question is a good one, and I wish I had time to ruminate on it at length. Unfortunately, I am on a research trip, and all I have time for at the moment is to post it and lament how lame and stereotyped his answer is. Contrary to many conservative Catholics, his answer is yes—for the opposite opinion, just read the comments on his article. His reason, however, is the evils of modernism and he summons four bogeymen to make his case:
The Church faced a grave problem then—indeed, it still does—and an ecumenical council was required to address it. What problem? No less than the crisis of modernity itself, especially the comprehensive undermining of humankind’s self-understanding and its disastrous consequences for faith, underway in the West for at least a century or more before the council.
This process had many sources, but three especially stand out: Darwinism—popularized evolutionary theory reducing the human person to no more than a higher animal; Marxism, whose deterministic account of history eliminated free choice; and Freudianism, no less deterministic, which explained human behavior as the acting out of sublimated impulses from libidinous realms of the psyche.
Capping it off was Friedrich Nietzsche, who boldly announced the death of God—the bourgeois deity of 19th century Christianity, that is—and predicted that a new morality of power vested in a superman (ubermensch) would soon emerge. Hitler apparently took that to heart.
Ordinary people were understandably slow in absorbing all this, but it was gospel for the Western cultural elites of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In due course it filtered down to the masses—a process speeded by the horrors of two world wars. Here, then, was the crisis of modernity that Vatican II needed to confront.
I have read three of the four (for some reason I have never gotten around to reading Nietzsche) and have found a great deal of value in Marx and Freud, even when I disagreed with them. And Darwin laid the foundation for the modern theory of biology with a theory as encompassing as General Relativity was to modern physics. So I simply reject out of hand any simplistic reading of history that lays all the manifold problems of the world at their collective feet.
But moving on from this, I want to start a discussion on the original question: did the Church need an ecumenical council in the early 1960’s? If so, why? If not, what was the problem? I will tip my hand and say I think the Council was timely and important, but that is in many ways a visceral reaction: I know this is the case, but am having a hard time articulating why. So I am very anxious to read your thoughts.
I’m not usually a big fan of Nicholas Kristof, but he has written a perceptive New York Times column on the symmetry of the rhetoric on either side of the Israel-Palestine conflict and its latest flare-up. Perceptive, that is, in a way akin to pointing out the emperor’s nakedness: stating the obvious, which is less obvious than it should be.
Here are his counterpoints to three of the “oddly parallel” clichés of the cycle of violence being thrown around yet again.
This is a struggle between good and evil, right and wrong. We can’t relax, can’t compromise, and we had no choice but to act.
On the contrary, this is a war in which both peoples have a considerable amount of right on their sides. The failure to acknowledge the humanity and legitimate interests of people on the other side has led to cross-demonization. That results in a series of military escalations that leave both peoples worse off.
Israelis are absolutely correct that they have a right not to be hit with rockets by Hamas, not to be kidnapped, not to be subjected to terrorist bombings. And Palestinians are absolutely right that they have a right to a state, a right to run businesses and import goods, a right to live in freedom rather than relegated to second-class citizenship in their own land.
Both sides have plenty of good people who just want the best for their children and their communities, and also plenty of myopic zealots who preach hatred. A starting point is to put away the good vs. evil narrative and recognize this as the aching story of two peoples — each with legitimate grievances — colliding with each other.
Without disagreeing with Kristof’s fundamental point here, I would nuance it to say that it is about good and evil, just not in the way we’re tempted to think. That is, it is not a struggle between good and evil people, but between good and evil in people – in thoughts and words, doings and failings. As Solzhenitsyn once said, “The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
The other side understands only force. What else can we do but fight back when we are attacked?
Israeli leaders, starting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, think that the way to protect their citizens is to invade Gaza and blow up tunnels — and, if Gazan civilians and children die, that’s sad but inevitable. And some Gazans think that they’re already in an open-air prison, suffocating under the Israeli embargo, and the only way to achieve change is fire rockets — and if some Israeli children die, that’s too bad, but 100 times as many Palestinian children are dying already.
In fact, we’ve seen this movie before: Israel responded to aggression by invading Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, and Gaza in 2008; each time, hawks cheered. Yet each invasion in retrospect accomplished at best temporary military gains while killing large numbers of innocents; they didn’t solve any problems.
Likewise, Palestinian militancy has accomplished nothing but increasing the misery of the Palestinian people. If Palestinians instead turned more to huge Gandhi-style nonviolence resistance campaigns, the resulting videos would reverberate around the world and Palestine would achieve statehood and freedom.
Some Palestinians understand this and are trying this strategy, but too many define nonviolence to include rock-throwing. No, that doesn’t cut it.
Yes, nonviolence works. We’ve seen it work in the struggle for Indian independence under Gandhi, the U.S. civil rights movement under King, the downfall of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic precipitated largely by student activists, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, the silent protests begun by Turkey’s “duran adam“. It remains to be seen how it might work in today’s Middle East, but what it undoubtedly won’t look like is the assumption behind the final point Kristof responds to.
What would you do if your family were in Gaza/Israel, at risk of being killed. You wouldn’t just sit back and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ would you?
If any of us were in southern Israel, frightened sick by rockets being fired by Hamas, we, too, might cheer an invasion of Gaza. And if any of us were in Gaza, strangled by the embargo and losing relatives to Israeli airstrikes, we, too, might cheer the launch of rockets on Tel Aviv. That’s human nature.
That’s why we need to de-escalate, starting with a cease-fire that includes an end to Hamas rocket attacks and a withdrawal from Gaza by Israel. For Israel, this is a chance to use diplomacy to achieve what gunpowder won’t: the marginalization of Hamas. Israel might suggest an internationally supervised election in Gaza with the promise that the return of control to the Palestinian Authority would mean an end to the economic embargo.
Here we have a conflict between right and right that has been hijacked by hard-liners on each side who feed each other. It’s not that they are the same, and what I see isn’t equivalence. Yet there is, in some ways, a painful symmetry — and one element is that each side vigorously denies that there is any symmetry at all.
The false dichotomy between violence and passivity leads to the stereotype of nonviolence as hippy-trippy indifferentism, but true and strategic nonviolence is not hand-holding and ‘Kumbaya’. History has already provided plenty of much more powerful images to replace it with, so when we hear “nonviolence”, let’s think instead of black youth sitting at a diner politely asking to be served, bearing insult and abuse with dignity; a line of Indian ascetics seeing their companions beaten and still moving forward row by row, refusing to either back down or strike back; a lone man and then a crowd standing silent and still in Istanbul’s Taksim Square; Archbishop Romero’s blood mingling with the blood of Christ on the altar. It’s not for me to say what a nonviolent strategy could look like for Israelis and Palestinians, but the fundamental principle remains universally true: it will call for great creativity and great courage, and it will begin when one refuses to hand the other excuses to retaliate.
It is admittedly easy to judge the short-sightedness of a self-feeding conflict in which one does not have a personal stake. Yet the lines Kristof responds to are echoes, not only of both sides of the conflict at hand, but of the rationale for the perpetuation of countless other violent conflicts. The logic of violence is painfully unoriginal, and as long as the cycle continues, no two enemies can avoid sounding much, much more alike than they will ever admit.
In terms of their general experience, African Americans exist in an economic and social down-draft; white Americans exist in an economic and social updraft.
If I have been largely silent on the subject of contraception, it has been for two main reasons.
Firstly, while I am comfortable with Catholic teaching on the matter, I tend to see it as a secondary issue. Or to say it another way, I am personally uncomfortable with artificial birth control – much as I am with artificiality in general, or with the drive to control every aspect of our lives, including life itself – and I see its connections to some disturbing social trends (which will be explained more below); and yet it does not disturb me at the same level as, say, abortion, or any other direct violence.
The other reason is that it is simply difficult to find something substantial to say when so few statements on the subject, whether for or against, manage to get past the level of superficial and excessively confrontational “culture wars” that only serve to galvanize the convinced and unconvinced alike in their respective positions.
Because of this, I’ve sometimes thought of myself as a secret believer in Catholic teaching about artificial birth control. Call it cowardice if you will, and perhaps you will not be entirely wrong. But a variety of women at Catholic Sistas have provided reasons worth sharing, which go well beyond culture-war rhetoric and are not accompanied by a crusader’s battle cry. They explicitly state that they are providing their own reasons for not using birth control rather than trying “to force others to follow what we believe.” And the reasons they give are disarmingly substantial.
The full list is linked above, but I’d like to highlight a few interrelated themes running through it that I find particularly compelling.
First, there is the objection to treating pregnancy and/or fertility as a disease (which, though they don’t mention this, is an attitude that also relates to gender-based disparities in health insurance premiums: since we are capable of becoming pregnant, being female is a “pre-existing condition”).
- “Because my fertility shouldn’t be treated like a disease and medicated away.”
- “Because I am not sick or broken.”
- “Because fertility is not a pathology.”
- “Because being fertile isn’t a condition that needs to be medicated.”
- “Because it is the first ‘medicine’ of its kind to be prescribed to be taken to address a normally functioning process of the human body.”
Then there are concerns about what is natural, organic, and healthy. A couple of years ago I wrote about a friend of mine who connected her aversion to birth control and preference for organic food quite unselfconsciously, and the article Catholic Sistas links to from the health-conscious website MindBodyGreen speaks to the same concerns from an entirely secular perspective and is worth a read in its own right.
- “Because I spend too much time and money on organic, non-GMO and hormone free foods to fill my body with hormonal birth control.”
- “Because I don’t want any foreign objects placed inside my body to prevent it from working.”
- “Because regularly shooting my body up with extra hormones would make it a lot harder to be a reasonable, thoughtful, and logical human being.”
- “Because I really don’t think it’s healthy for my body to think it is perpetually pregnant.”
- “Because we like our sex environmentally friendly.”
- “Because I care too much about my body and the environment to pollute either one with carcinogens.”
And then there is the in-depth, long-view approach to health care, seeking to avoid the impulse toward band-aids and quick-fixes that goes along with our society’s tendency to overmedicate, in some cases creating a “cure” that is worse than the “disease”.
- “Because I deserve actual health care and healing, not just a band aid.”
- “Because I like to fix things, not mask the symptoms.”
- “Because there are natural ways of dealing with hormone imbalances that don’t mask the symptoms, but get straight to the cause.”
- “Because I don’t want a short-term solution that will cause long-term problems.”
A few of the reasons given also touch on the commodification of children (related to the broader reduction of human beings in general to an economic or consumeristic value standard).
- “Because I cannot imagine one of my children not existing.”
- “Because siblings are a gift.”
- “Because I don’t want my children to ever think I didn’t want them.”
And a few of them have a feminist overtone, critiquing the sexual objectification of women or the idea that women must pass as men to be equals with men.
- “Because I don’t need to turn off my womanhood in order to be a feminist.”
- “Because it perpetuates the objectification of women as worthless sexual objects, constantly at the disposal of men in our commodity driven culture.”
- “Because I don’t need to turn off my womanhood in order to be a strong, progressive, modern woman.”
True, there are a few reasons given that are not as well stated as these: “Because it is against my religion” really doesn’t say anything about the why, and one statement pointing out the incoherence of ingesting all those chemicals while complaining about “large pharmaceutical corporations and hormones in your meat” could be read as a cheer for the same inconsistency the other way. But these are exceptions in a substantial and thought-provoking list. Dare I hope that this could be the sort of thing to begin a conversation that may get us past reductionism and stereotypes on either side?
In the recent opening session of the “Mexico/Holy See Colloquium on Migration and Development”, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, read a message from Pope Francis as well as addressing the colloquium himself. Both spoke of the need for a cultural conversion, and both specifically mentioned the United States and the particular vulnerability of the waves of children crossing its border. Their messages are both prophetic and nuanced, not dismissing rule of law but balancing the need for just and life-affirming public policies as well as deeper conversion, reminding us with a moral authority no policy-maker can claim that the fundamental issue from a Christian perspective is one of human dignity.
From the Holy Father’s message:
Globalisation is a phenomenon that challenges us, especially in one of its principal manifestations which is emigration. It is one of the ‘signs’ of this time that we live in and that brings us back to the words of Jesus, ‘Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’. Despite the large influx of migrants present in all continents and in almost all countries, migration is still seen as an emergency, or as a circumstantial and sporadic fact, while instead it has now become a hallmark of our society and a challenge.
It is a phenomenon that carries with it great promise and many challenges. Many people forced to emigrate suffer, and often, die tragically; many of their rights are violated, they are obliged to separate from their families and, unfortunately, continue to be the subject of racist and xenophobic attitudes.
Faced with this situation, I repeat what I have affirmed in this year’s Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees: ‘A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalisation – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.’
And similar themes from Cardinal Parolin:
In a radical way, Christianity has stated from the very beginning that we are all free, we are all equal, we are all brothers. As a result, the dignity of the person derives not from their economic situation, political affiliation, level of education, immigration status or religious belief. Every human being, for the very fact of being a person, possesses a dignity that deserves to be treated with the utmost respect….
It is clear that the phenomenon of migration cannot be resolved solely by legislative measures or by adopting public policies, good though they may be, and far less so solely through the deployment of the forces of security and order. The solution to the problem of migration requires a profound cultural and social conversion that enables a closed culture to transform into a ‘culture of welcome and encounter’.
In this context, the Church has always been, and will continue to be, a loyal collaborator. … By definition, being Catholic means being universal and transnational. Its message is not confined to the private lives of the faithful, but instead seeks conversion, expanding and reaching towards paths of culture and social justice, since it is not possible to define oneself as Christian and then turn one’s back on justice and fraternity, also with non-believers.
In a social atmosphere where nearly every human problem becomes politically charged and obscured by the constant temptation to divide and dichotomize full solutions, we need this reminder, spoken from the particularly catholic perspective of our “universal and transnational” Church, of the reverence for all human life and dignity – especially where vulnerable – that is at the heart of our faith.
May we be converted to such reverence, to become leaven for a broader social conversion.