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Parking Lot Revelations

As a graduate student at Loyola Marymount University, I took a course with theologian Brett Hoover called Theology of the Parish. He once joked that there’s also a theology of the parking lot. It was an image that stayed with me. I’ve come to think of the “parking lot” as any place we gather after parish events to share with friends and colleagues what we really thought about what we’d just seen and heard, to confide our concerns, and to plan and form partnerships in ministry. In my experience, these unofficial meetings have been where the most genuine, prophetic, and revelatory conversations take place. And I’ve often wondered whether women in Church leadership are more inclined to participate in these unofficial meetings than in official ones.     

Oprah Winfrey’s interview last week with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle drew more than 17 million viewers, myself included. One of Winfrey’s questions to Markle resonated with me. Referring to the institution of the British monarchy, Winfrey asked: “Were you silent or were you silenced?” In my “parking lot” meetings about ecclesial work, I often hear women express some version of “I wanted to say something, but I wasn’t sure if I should.” Women who hold positions of leadership in the Church sometimes do so at the expense of their voice. It’s not an explicit experience of silencing. Instead, women leaders are subjected to microaggressions that communicate or remind them not only of their place in Church structures but also of the impermanence of the particular positions they hold.

During a month in which we celebrate women’s history, the institutional Church celebrates that women sit at various ecclesial tables. However, women with places at the table have to choose wisely about which comments they make, what topics they raise—what battles they fight. Women remind each other in the “parking lot” that there’s a difference between being silent and being silenced. It’s not cowardice that keeps them from speaking in official settings; many times, it’s self-preservation. We use various forms of the “parking lot” as safe spaces to say the things we can’t say otherwise, to be affirmed, and to plan a way forward together. These spaces are stripped of the dangers found in official gathering spaces. In these meetings women support one another; they reclaim the voice they felt was momentarily taken from them; and they are reminded of the greater purpose they serve and of their worth in the eyes of their creator.

The “night” in this encounter feels more like a place free of the dangers and of the trappings associated with Nicodemus’s peers.

Nicodemus, in the Gospel reading for this fourth Sunday of Lent, has always held a special place in my heart. Of course, he did not experience the pain of the patriarchy, but there are some aspects of his experience that speak to the experience of women Church leaders. Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews, a Pharisee who held a place of leadership in the Sanhedrin, a teacher of the faith, and possibly an elder. Yet he goes to meet Jesus at night. Many interpret this choice as an indication of a desire for secrecy and a fear of being associated with Jesus. However, Nicodemus greets Jesus by saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him” (John 3:2). There are various instances in which leaders of the Jews engage Jesus. Nicodemus is not doing anything out of the ordinary by speaking to him, for he recognizes Jesus to be another teacher of the faith. The “night” in this encounter feels more like a place free of the dangers and trappings associated with Nicodemus’s peers, free of the confrontational nature of the encounters Jesus has in the daytime. It’s a calmer space that allows for an authentic dialogue between two teachers, who can engage in a more genuine conversation culminating with Jesus’s eschatological revelation found in today’s Gospel.

Women’s “parking lot” conversations are not intended to be secretive. They simply occur in places free of the trappings and constraints of institutional spaces, allowing women to realign themselves with God by being affirmed by the movement of the Spirit within them. I’m often reinvigorated by the prophetic nature of these “parking lot” conversations. I can appreciate that Oprah Winfrey and Meaghan Markle chose a private backyard in California to enter into conversation away from a monarchical environment that had become increasingly confrontational for the Sussexes. Jesus in his discourse says, “But whoever lives the truth comes to the light” (John 3:21). His revelation to Nicodemus is a light in the night. It is, after all, easier to pinpoint the source of light in the night. For women Church leaders, that light continues to shine brightest in the parking lots.

Sins of Omission

LifeSiteNews calls itself the number-one pro-life news website, a place where journalistic accuracy is “given high priority.” It aims “to dispel confusion and ignorance, enable constructive dialogue and help informed decisions to be made and appropriate actions to be taken for the good of all,” according to the “LifeSiteNews Principles.”

But when it comes to reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, LifeSiteNews is a superspreader of confusion, not an antidote. In tightly written prose, it mimics journalism by reporting on scientific data and studies, but so selectively as to be highly misleading. The takeaways from this skewed coverage include: don’t wear face masks; don’t get a COVID-19 vaccine; view the pandemic as a tool of the elite to achieve global political domination.

This is standard fare in far-right and anti-vaccine circles, but LifeSiteNews (which publishes a “Catholic Edition”) and similarly minded Catholic media appeal to their followers with the powerful additive of a common religious faith. Looking through some popular Catholic websites, I found that Catholic Family News will tell you the pandemic ended months ago. Another benignly named site, Catholic Parents Online, showcases a priest preaching that COVID-19 “is a man-made virus” and falsely claiming that it didn’t cause a large majority of the deaths authorities attribute to it. (It’s been viewed nearly 600,000 times on YouTube.) Church Militant bluntly urged churchgoers to rebel against wearing masks during services. In segments I listened to, other popular outlets such as the Catholic Answers forum at Catholic.com and Relevant Radio presented lopsided views of the scientific evidence that would lead their listeners away from the small sacrifice of wearing a protective face mask.

The inclination is to look away, but that would ignore the damage done. These sites alone garnered more than 6 million visits in January, according to data compiled by SimilarWeb analytics. A lot of bad information is being passed out by organizations that claim to speak in the name of Catholic orthodoxy.

To Dr. Paul Carson, a professor of infectious diseases at North Dakota State University who is active in Catholic medical organizations and a regular guest on the EWTN radio show Doctor, Doctor (which gave sound advice in the segments I listened to), it makes no sense. “This has been one of the most troubling things to me,” he said in a telephone interview. “My Catholic brothers and sisters who are normally adamantly pro-life cannot see this sort of denial and lack of sense of solidarity with other parts of the population, like the elderly.”

Carson, an advisor to North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum on COVID-19, said he hears Catholic friends minimize the danger of the virus by saying of its victims, “Well, they’re old and sick.” In response, he quotes St. John Paul II’s call for a sense of solidarity that “demands a readiness to accept sacrifices necessary for the good of the whole world community.”

“That’s what Catholics are about, sacrificing for each other,” he told me. “This is in our wheelhouse. This is what Catholics do.”

What they have done, Francis says, is take the idea of personal freedom “and turn it into an ideology, creating a prism through which they judge everything.”

Pope Francis writes much the same in his book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, based on his conversations with journalist Austen Ivereigh. “Some of the protests during the coronavirus crisis have brought to the fore an angry spirit of victimhood, but this time among people who are victims only in their imagination: those who claim, for example, that being forced to wear a mask is an unwarranted imposition by the state,” Francis writes. What they have done, he adds, is take the idea of personal freedom “and turn it into an ideology, creating a prism through which they judge everything.” Within the Church, the pope says, some priests and laypeople “turned into a cultural battle what was in truth an effort to ensure the protection of life.”

Pope Francis is anathema at LifeSiteNews, which elevates the renegade Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò to nearly papal status. Through a series of letters that LifeSiteNews and other far-right Catholic media treat as major papal encyclicals, Viganò has pushed, in all its paranoia, the ideology that Francis has called out.

“Public health must not, and cannot, become an alibi for infringing on the rights of millions of people around the world, let alone for depriving the civil authority of its duty to act wisely for the common good,” says one Viganò letter, co-signed by LifeSiteNews editor-in-chief John-Henry Westen and several other members of the Catholic media. “This is particularly true as growing doubts emerge from several quarters about the actual contagiousness, danger and resistance of the virus.”

By the time Viganò released this missive in early May, there could be no doubt about the “contagiousness” and “danger” of the virus: 76,000 people had died of COVID-19 in the United States and 30,000 had died in Italy, home to many of the co-signers Viganò rounded up. Of course, those deaths have multiplied many times since then. The letter, published under the URL veritasliberabitvos.info (“the truth will set you free”) went offline after November 20, as the death count soared.

As the website made clear, Viganò adds his version of the Catholic faith tradition to the already inflammatory mix of false claims advanced by extremists who view COVID-19 as a prelude to a “world government beyond all control.” He places the fight under the triumphant banner of the Risen Christ, pictured on the homepage of the website.

 

That’s the outlook at LifeSiteNews, extending even to the question of when and where the public should be required to wear face masks. Its website features an anti-mask petition that has more than 110,000 signatures. “Healthy adults and children should not be forced—by the state—to wear masks when the risk of infection is low and the benefit of wearing a mask is highly questionable,” it declares, linking to a two-part series that LifeSiteNews managing director Steve Jalsevac published in late July as evidence.

The articles are accurate in showing that the number of weekly deaths from COVID-19 had dropped to low levels by July. But they were deadly wrong in citing—unchallenged—claims that there was no longer a reason to fear the virus, contrary to the dire warnings of public-health authorities. When Jalsevac’s series ran at the end of July, the number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States had just passed 150,000—a tally that would triple within a little more than six months, much as public health authorities warned. It was typical of the coverage LifeSiteNews does: it feigns journalistic accuracy, but misleads through omission.

Its coverage feigns journalistic accuracy, but LifeSiteNews misleads through omission.

“People will go out and cherry pick and find these things that aren’t supported in any way by the broader public health and medical community,” Carson told me.

LifeSiteNews is expert at this, time and again citing studies or raw data without the context journalists are supposed to seek out, especially in reporting on a life-and-death matter of public health. (LifeSiteNews didn’t respond to requests for comment.) I can see how a lot of people would be taken in.

For example, LifeSiteNews offers a “LifeFacts” page on “Unmasking Masks.” Under the headline “Spread the Truth,” it selectively cites peer-reviewed studies. They’re valid studies, but they shouldn’t stand alone. One listing refers readers to a 2005 study called “Disposable Surgical Face Masks: a Systematic Review,” which was updated most recently in 2016. It examines whether masks are effective in preventing clean surgical wounds from becoming infected during surgery. Marie Vincent, one of the researchers, told me by email that, published years before the pandemic, the study had nothing to do with COVID-19. “It does not at all suggest that it is unnecessary for the public to wear face masks to prevent transmission of coronavirus,” she wrote.

Then there is a Danish study that found mask-wearing reduced COVID-19 infections somewhat—but not significantly—in people recommended to wear masks outside their home. It’s on LifeSiteNews’s list of mask “LifeFacts,” and the subject of a long article that devolves into conspiracy theories. What the article could have used, however, was not a riff on Prince Charles and the purported global conspiracy behind the coronavirus crisis, but a phone call to the lead author of the study, who told the Washington Post that beyond self-protection, it was necessary to wear a mask to avoid transmitting the virus to others:

“We think you should wear a face mask at least to protect yourself, but you should also use it to protect others,” lead author Henning Bundgaard told The Washington Post. “We consider that the conclusion is we should wear face masks.”

Bundgaard said even the small risk reduction that masks offer “is very important, considering it is a life-threatening disease.”

Jalsevac’s article cites a May 2020 policy review for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of previous randomized control studies that found face masks had “no significant effect” on transmission of influenza. So why did the CDC (which posts the study on its website), and later the World Health Organization, recommend that asymptomatic people wear masks during the pandemic?

Benjamin Cowling, one of the study’s authors and a professor at Hong Kong University, told me by email that “there is plenty of evidence of other types (for example laboratory studies) that masks should work.” You can find these on the CDC website as well. Dozens of observational studies scrutinize the mechanics of how the masks function and how the coronavirus is spread. That’s why the CDC wants people to wear masks—based on the evidence. And, as Cowling indicated, it’s why the same scientists who did the May 2020 study also recommended to the WHO that asymptomatic people wear face masks, a position the WHO adopted in July.

It is true that the scientific evidence regarding masks is complex and that, early on, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other public-health authorities opposed having the general public wear them (because there weren’t enough masks for medical personnel, and it wasn’t clear yet that asymptomatic people could transmit the virus, Fauci has said). For journalists, it calls for careful reporting that puts individual studies into context, and certainly not a default to theories about global political plots.

 

One might expect that media describing themselves as pro-life would resolve any doubts in favor of preserving human life. But the coverage I observed on LifeSiteNews and other far-right Catholic news websites is so slanted that anyone relying on it would be terribly misled on what the science shows.

It’s such contorted logic: the “spiritual” people are the ones willing to risk spreading a deadly disease to avoid personal inconvenience.

They’ve struggled to come up with a moral basis for their battle against the public-health authorities. One strain of thought in far-right Catholic media is that unlike godless, materialistic liberals, “for conservatives, there are values worth more than life itself,” as a LifeSiteNews commentary on the mask controversy put it. “More important, there is life after death. There is no frantic effort to avoid all risks of death but rather the reasonable weighing of threats, taking measures that do not blot out the permanent things that are so necessary for life.” It’s such contorted logic: the “spiritual” people are the ones willing to risk spreading a deadly disease to avoid personal inconvenience.

Of course, from early on, the controversy around masking and other anti-coronavirus health measures has been heavily politicized. A large swath of conservative Catholic media buys into the claim that the pandemic was used to embarrass President Donald Trump as he campaigned for reelection. That COVID-19 could do so is Trump’s own doing: the pandemic offered him the opportunity to show the leadership he’d failed to exhibit in the first three years in office, to be virtually a wartime president. Instead, he continued his erratic style of leadership, to disastrous effect.

The Trump-as-victim narrative is explicit in “Mask Mania: Emblem of Loyalty to the Party of COVID,” which the traditionalist Catholic Family News published in September. Written by Christopher Ferrara, president of the American Catholic Lawyers Association, it began with a colossal error:

By every objective measure, the COVID-19 pandemic is over. In fact, it has been over since late May, although the lying media and their Blue State governor accomplices have been laboring mightily to convince the gullible masses that the `pandemic’ is worse than ever, conducting what is easily the biggest Psyop in the history of disinformation.

What the data on the CDC website actually show is that the deaths came nowhere near to ending in May. They dropped from 38,155 that month to 17,092 in June, but then shot up to 30,961 in July and 29,693 in August. December’s monthly total of 92,325 deaths was more than triple that.

Nevertheless, Ferrara explained, the pandemic was over because “once peak deaths are reached, an epidemic rapidly wanes toward zero. Every time.” He concluded, “Politics, and politics alone, is behind the mask mania that has suddenly gripped the nation.” (Ferrara didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

With the death toll approaching half-a-million in mid-February, Church Militant commentary went so far as to call for churchgoers to refuse to wear masks during services. “Too many people—Catholics especially—are just accepting at face value the words of child-killers and those who helped get them into power. You have a duty to stand up to this wherever you can, especially in Church. Just simply refuse to wear a mask in the House of God.”    

I asked Gloria Purvis, a Catholic pro-life speaker and writer who formerly hosted EWTN’s Morning Glory radio show, why some Catholic pro-life activists are doing this.

“What has happened—I see this sort of infection, as I call it, pervading a lot of commentary—is people allow politics to influence their faith,” she told me. “So too often COVID was placed in a position of either you’re with this side or against this side...instead of a perspective of love your neighbor.” 

She said it makes no sense that someone who is supposed to be pro-life would shrink from the minor inconvenience of wearing a mask to protect others; in a small way, wearing a mask is doing a corporal work of mercy.

Purvis, who works with women experiencing crisis pregnancies, said they often choose to give birth despite great financial difficulty they face. “In comparison, to wear a mask?” she said. “I mean, that’s so small.”

Becoming the Church We Say We Are

Olga Marina Segura, a freelance writer and the opinion editor at National Catholic Reporter, is the author of Birth of a Movement: Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church, released last month from Orbis Books. A former associate editor at America Media, Segura is a co-founder and former co-host of the podcast Jesuitical. She was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and now lives in the Bronx. Commonweal contributing writer John Gehring spoke with Segura about her book and why the Catholic Church still has a long way to go in confronting white supremacy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

John Gehring: Why did you want to write this book and who do you hope reads it?

Olga Marina Segura: I went into the writing process with a very specific idea of contextualizing the Black Lives Matter movement for the Church and to gently accompany white Catholics. And then the pandemic happened. People were getting sick around me. People were protesting police brutality. I wasn’t going to make the book easy or comfortable. Black and Brown people are suffering; we are suffering physical violence and spiritual violence every day. The pandemic radicalized me politically and spiritually.

JG: It’s clear reading your book that the Black Lives Matter movement, especially the women who co-founded it, had a deep personal impact on you. Why do you think this movement has been so effective in inspiring and mobilizing people?

OMS: I think it’s social media. This movement was born on Facebook and it used social media tools to teach people how to organize. It embraced social media when people were still trying to figure that out, and at a time when Millennials were coming of age. These women knew how to use these tools and resources, but they had also been organizing for more than fifteen years. They brought their own advocacy experience to the work. Because of the social media tools they used, I felt as if I could be a part of this conversation about the prison-industrial complex and police brutality. They really figured out how to talk to young people.

Church leaders can learn from that and really jump into this work. A lot of bishops want to have an auditing process first, to meet and vote. But when people are being killed by police violence, inequality, and the pandemic, there is no time for incrementalism. You have to meet people where they are.

JG: You urge leaders at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to meet with the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Why would that be important?

OMS: We know that symbols matter in our Church. Pope Francis was just in Iraq asking for forgiveness, and that was extremely powerful. Imagine our faith leaders sitting down with the founders of Black Lives Matter and saying, “We have messed up. Can you teach us?” That would say to me, a Black immigrant Catholic, that you finally care, you are finally listening, finally doing the accompaniment you like to talk about so much. The bishops are a body of mostly white men and to have them in dialogue with the Black women who started this movement would be extremely powerful.

JG: Are there priests or Catholic sisters that you know who are working with or talking with Black Lives Matter activists?

OMS: At the local level there are a lot of sisters and priests doing that work. We saw in 2020 how many faith leaders aligned themselves with the movement. But the bishops need to get involved. We also know how Catholic money and power work. Our bishops can talk to those people who have influence and who need to be swayed. We need to see that trickle down from the top. There are people who would not listen to me, but would listen to Cardinal Dolan and others who have power and influence.

JG: What would you say to bishops and priests who have publicly criticized Black Lives Matter because of the movement’s positions on abortion and sexuality that are not aligned with Catholic teaching?

We need to be a Church that rejects the very public displays of whiteness that our Church associates with being Catholic.

OMS: What is hard for me to reconcile with these critics is these are people who have never talked about police brutality or mass incarceration. You can’t just ignore all of the issues the movement is talking about and only criticize. There are people who think Black Lives Matter activists want to destroy the family. One priest even called them “maggots and parasites” last year. They don’t want to sit down and understand the history of the movement. They don’t want to learn from these activists.

JG: You write that the goal of your book is “to help Catholics, and all Christians, work toward a Christ-centered, Black liberation.” Can you explain what you mean by that and what would that look like if we achieved it?

OMS: For me, it means becoming a Church that cares about equality for Black and Brown people and all marginalized communities. We know our country has not prioritized marginalized people. We need to be a Church that rejects the very public displays of whiteness that our Church associates with being Catholic, and that centers Catholics of color in order to become the universal Church we think we are. And that means bishops publicly apologizing for the Church’s white supremacy, talking about abolition of police, and meeting with organizers. This is what liberation work means to me.

JG: As you document in the book, the Church has a very long history of entanglement with racism and white supremacy. Until recently, not many people have been talking about this. Why do you think there has been so much silence for so long?

OMS: The reason is that people hold power because of that silence, and our Church has internalized white supremacy. People don’t want to relinquish power. To do actual reckoning you have to ask yourself, “How have I been complicit?” People don’t want to do that. Liberal Catholics also have to ask how they have been complicit. You can’t just say “Black Lives Matter.” We really don’t know how to do this reckoning work. Bishops should be showing us how to grapple with the sin of racism.

JG: You praise Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso for speaking out strongly against white supremacy and kneeling in protest with a Black Lives Matter sign. But you’re critical of most statements the bishops have released, including the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter on racism, Open Wide Our Hearts. What do you think the bishops should be saying that they are not saying?

OMS: The statements should not be so long or written in language that doesn’t resonate with people. I also want to see every white bishop talk about white privilege. I want to see them grapple with the same topics I was grappling with in the book and talk about racial capitalism and how our health-care institutions grew out of exploitation of Black bodies. People are afraid to do this public work because it’s hard and they are afraid to mess up. It’s okay to mess up.

JG: The Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t seem to have as many connections with churches or other houses of worship in the way that civil-rights leaders of the past were shaped by and deeply connected to the Black church as an epicenter of resistance. Is that simply a generational reality or are other things going on?

OMS: This is a movement that was born online and uses social media to share its message. So I think it’s generational. It’s also a decentralized movement that doesn’t have one very established leader or headquarters. But there is spirituality and there are religious folks in the movement, especially after Ferguson. There was heavy church participation there, but it’s so decentralized it means people are not necessarily telling these stories. I think religious media needs to take this movement more seriously. When I spoke with Alicia Garza [a co-founder of Black Lives Matter], she welcomed faith leaders getting involved. I can tell you this movement has made me a better Catholic.

JG: What advice do you have for white Catholics who want to be allies of Black Lives Matter and be anti-racists?

OMS: The number one question that every white Catholic has to ask themselves is, “How have I been complicit in white supremacy, and how can I be better?” You need to ask: “How can I center marginalized people? Can I give other people the opportunity to do this work instead of me? As an editor, am I only giving bylines to white people?” People need to ask themselves how they can shift power. This is difficult because it requires sacrifice, but that is what solidarity is. A lot of people will need to realize they need to step aside. It’s not supposed to be easy.

JG: What are some things in the Church that give you hope when it comes to confronting our history and taking steps to end white supremacy?

OMS: The thing that really gives me hope is Black and Brown Catholic women. Amid all this suffering in the past year and as I was trying to write a book, I found a community of Black and Brown Catholic women who remind me why I stay in this Church and what this Church should be. Black women are teaching me Christ-centered liberation.

The Paradoxes of Deterrence

A little more than halfway through their 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace, the U.S. bishops acknowledge voices calling on them “to raise a prophetic challenge to the community of faith—a challenge which goes beyond nuclear deterrence.” Those prophetic voices rejected the position, embraced at that time by most U.S. bishops and Pope John Paul II, that nuclear deterrence was an acceptable “interim ethic” so long as the ultimate goal was disarmament. One of these voices, Thomas Merton, claimed that “there is simply no ‘good end’ that renders risk [of nuclear war] permissible,” and questioned whether rationalizations for “wielding the threat of nuclear destruction” do not constitute cooperation in evil.

In recent years, leading voices in the Roman Catholic Church, not least Pope Francis himself, have begun to sound more like Merton than like the majority of the U.S. bishops in the 1980s. Prophetic indictment not only of the use but also of the very possession of nuclear weapons is no longer limited to the likes of Merton, the Berrigan brothers, and activist groups like Plowshares. Thus, in a 2017 address, Pope Francis commended the “prophetic voice” of the hibakusha, the survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and condemned the “very possession” of nuclear weapons. In his visit to Hiroshima in late November 2019, Francis extemporaneously reiterated that condemnation. Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego has claimed that the possession of nuclear weapons “is now condemned, regardless of the intention.” And the Jesuit just-war theorist and former America editor Drew Christiansen has argued in La Civiltà Cattolica that “we should cease to imagine nuclear weapons as tools for us to manage, but rather as a curse we must banish”—language that The Challenge of Peace reserved for the arms race, not nuclear weapons themselves.

Pope Francis’s November 2019 visit to Japan, which included stops in both Nagasaki and Hiroshima, brought attention to the Vatican’s renewed diplomacy on nuclear weapons. But one could argue that more attention now needs to be given to the question of how people who fervently wish for a world without nuclear weapons should go about working for it. As the moral theologian and Commonweal contributor Cathleen Kaveny explains in her book Prophecy without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square, prophets demand unambiguous compliance with unconditional moral imperatives. By contrast, what she calls deliberators allow that moral rules need to take into account complex circumstances, human weakness, ignorance, and sin. (See also her Commonweal column, “Bridge Burners,” December 2019.)

Would-be prophets who cannot draw on commonly recognized moral commitments are not likely to get a hearing.

In her book, Kaveny gives three examples of pressing moral issues that, in her judgment, are not ripe for the rhetoric of prophetic indictment: animal rights, gun control, and climate change. Her reasons for this judgment differ for each of the issues, but a key question is whether would-be prophets can draw on at least some of the fundamental commitments of our present political community, or whether they draw only on the commitments of a utopian community they imagine and hope for. Would-be prophets who cannot draw on commonly recognized moral commitments are not likely to get a hearing. Instead, they’re likely to alienate people and thereby set back their cause.

How do things stand, then, with the pressing moral issue of nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century? Is it ripe for prophetic indictment, or does that rhetorical style risk backfiring?

 

The would-be prophet can surely draw on widely shared moral commitments to denounce any use of nuclear weapons that directly targets civilian populations, as well as any use that “unintentionally” but foreseeably kills and maims massive numbers of civilians. The would-be prophet can also draw on common moral commitments in denouncing any system, strategy, or policy that would either increase the likelihood of nuclear warfare among the current nuclear powers, or stimulate nuclear proliferation, thereby imperiling peace in unstable regions like northeast Asia and making it more likely that terrorist organizations would acquire a nuclear device. In this regard, the signs of the times have been ominous over the past few years. If, as Pope John Paul II claimed, the “condemnation of evils and injustices...is an aspect of the Church’s prophetic role,” prophets have a lot of material to work with—from North Korea’s expansion of its ballistic-missiles program, to Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (I.N.F.) Treaty, to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and abrogation of the I.N.F. Treaty in response to Russia’s violations. The recent agreement between the Biden administration and Vladimir Putin’s Russia to extend the New START Agreement, which limits the countries’ nuclear arsenals, is a rare piece of good news.

The would-be prophet appears to be on shakier ground in denouncing nuclear deterrence as such. In The Challenge of Peace, the U.S. bishops had asked, “May a nation threaten what it may never do?” The argument that the answer to this question must always be “no” typically turns on the claim that it’s morally impermissible to do evil that good may come of it. According to this argument, it is evil for a nation to intend the massacre of civilians either for its own preservation or in retaliation. Yet that has been U.S. policy since the Cold War. It’s not only Catholic ethicists who find this policy evil. In his 2017 book, The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, laments that “what is missing...in the typical discussion and analysis of historical or current nuclear policies is the recognition that what is being discussed is dizzyingly insane and immoral.” An anti-consequentialist thinker like Elizabeth Anscombe (profiled by John Schwenkler in the May 2019 edition of Commonweal) might take the argument a step further: because the use of nuclear weapons would be evil, and because there’s no point in stockpiling weapons that a nation must never use, nations with nuclear weapons should simply get rid of them, without calculating the possible consequences.

There are several objections to this line of argument. First, one might reasonably doubt whether it is really appropriate to describe the choice to use nuclear deterrence so as to avoid being annihilated or subjugated by a foreign power as a choice to do evil that good may come of it. One might argue that it should instead be described as a choice between two evils—which is how the French bishops, for example, saw it in their 1993 document Gagner la paix. In this analysis, nuclear deterrence might be defensible as less evil than annihilation or subjugation. That brings us to a second objection: Is it really as bad to threaten the use of nuclear weapons—while hoping it won’t be necessary—as it is to actually use them? Surely not. In that case, why would a lesser evil (nuclear deterrence) not be permitted if it has the consequence of preventing a greater evil (annihilation or subjugation)? Finally, if we are considering how to counter a threat of aggression, the first question to ask is not what we would be permitted to do after the act of aggression we hope to prevent, but what we are permitted to do in the course of trying to prevent it.

Just saying “no” will not do; a prophet must also engage in the debate about what can be done now, starting from where we are.

The point of articulating these objections is not to defend current U.S. policy, or that of any of the current nuclear powers. Ellsberg is right: “What is being discussed is dizzyingly insane and immoral.” And Anscombe is right, I believe, to reject consequentialism as a moral theory. Instead, the point is to indicate that the morality of nuclear deterrence is deeply contested. Deep-rooted commitments can be invoked to defend it, such as the conviction that it is a fundamental duty of political leaders to protect citizens from harm. The upshot is that nuclear deterrence as such does not appear ripe for prophetic indictment.

 

If that is correct, then deliberative discussion about how to reduce the present dangers of nuclear catastrophe is the order of the day. Ellsberg may present a helpful model here to Catholic leaders. His rhetoric against the “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is prophetic, but he also allows the legitimacy of maintaining, for now, a minimal nuclear deterrent. His example demonstrates that even prophets should not restrict themselves to prophetic denunciation. Just saying “no” will not do; they must also engage in the debate about what can be done now, starting from where we are.

It’s worth noting that deterrence is hardly a stable equilibrium, especially in our multipolar world where the actions of third parties—say, North Korea or China, or an American president on mind-altering steroids—can introduce new, destabilizing calculations. Nearly fifty years ago, the moral theologian Paul Ramsey presented a thought experiment involving the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. In the heat of the moment, when the eldest Hatfield has his gun trained on the youngest McCoy, and the eldest McCoy has his gun trained on the youngest Hatfield, the focus is on the vulnerable children. After a while, however, attention is likely to turn to the weapons themselves, on the grounds that protecting the weapons is protecting the children. Yet, if one side, say the McCoys, protects its weapons so well that the weapons become indestructible, then that side endangers its children anew, because the equilibrium the McCoys had with the Hatfields is now destabilized: the Hatfields’ weapons are vulnerable in a way that the McCoys’ no longer are, which gives the Hatfields a reason to use their weapons before they can be destroyed. Thus, technological breakthroughs improving the speed of delivery systems and the destructive power of the weapons also threaten to destabilize the “ceasefire” between the families. In the end, what had appeared to be a stable, if mad, plan of peace is exposed as a high-risk game of chicken. For all that, until the families can reach a peace based on trust and mutual disarmament, deterrence is their only choice. Whether the policy of deterrence makes trust harder to establish is a good question, but it’s not one that can be answered in the abstract, without attention to how diplomacy actually works.

Once again, the point of articulating objections to prophetic discourse about nuclear deterrence is not to defend current U.S. policy, or the policies of any other nuclear power. Instead, such objections should be understood as an invitation to reflect on the rhetorical style most likely to advance the cause of nuclear disarmament. Jesus instructed his disciples, whom he sent out like sheep among wolves, to be both wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). If sheep can also be serpents and doves, perhaps the Church’s leaders can find a way to combine the courage of the prophet with the prudence and humility of the deliberator. Nothing less is likely to succeed in moving us a step closer to multilateral nuclear disarmament. 

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A Welcome Interruption

Every new book on the Francis pontificate has the advantage of being more up-to-date than its predecessors, and John Cornwell manages to squeeze in the Amazon synod and even “Francis in the Time of Coronavirus.” Yet for all its breadth and range, and the qualities that a veteran Church reporter brings to such a project, Church, Interrupted does not seek to be a systematic chronology of the Francis years. It is too perceptive, personal, quirky, and emotionally involved, which turns out to be its strength.

In asides at the start and close of the book and scattered throughout the text, the British writer and Cambridge academic shares the story of his intense but painful relationship with the Catholicism of his childhood, and the frosting of his ecclesial faith in later life. Cornwell was appalled by the abuse scandals and oppressive ecclesiastical culture—as he saw it—of the John Paul II years. After finding little to hope for from Benedict XVI’s pontificate, he was astonished by “a moment of grace” in Francis’s election in March 2013. Cornwell saw in this new pope the “possibility of new beginnings...for the entire Church, practicing, lapsing and lapsed.” Hence this book, an exploration of this irruption of grace, what Cornwell describes as a welcome “interruption” of the course the Church had seemed set to follow.

The premise, of course, is discontinuity: Cornwell’s love of Francis and antipathy toward John Paul II and Benedict XVI is explained, in part, by the writer’s life story. Having moved from a pious working-class Irish childhood in London’s East End into that most preconciliar of institutions, the minor seminary, Cornwell abandoned priestly training for agnostic freedom and life as a journalist at a national newspaper. After marrying a Catholic, his faith was rekindled, but “there was no return to the Church of certitudes, ultimate truths and righteousness.” Catholicism became an object of his reporting. His first Catholic book was the result of a Vatican official inviting him to investigate the true story of how John Paul I met his end after just a few weeks in 1978. A Thief in the Night, which was published in 1989, debunked the lurid conspiracy theories surrounding Albino Luciani’s untimely passing, yet still read like a whodunnit. It was a bestselling page-turner, and delighted Cornwell’s Vatican handlers.

With doors opened in Rome, Cornwell could have built a career out of books defending the Church. But his next Vatican-endorsed project, to refute claims that Pius XII was a Nazi sympathizer, led him in the opposite direction. Given privileged access to newly opened files on Eugenio Pacelli’s beatification and diplomatic career, Cornwell says he stumbled upon “a circumstance that seemed to me even worse in its consequences, fully justifying the book’s title, Hitler’s Pope.”

It was publishing gold: a gripping account of the pope’s failure to speak out against the Nazis based on primary Vatican material hardly anyone else had then seen. Hitler’s Pope roiled the Vatican—“I appeared to have fulfilled the role of ‘devil’s advocate,’ which John Paul II abolished to expedite hordes of new saints,” Cornwell recalls wryly—and triggered an avalanche of academic theses on Catholic “collaboration” with fascism and anti-Semitism. Some would say the response created a counter-mythology even more obfuscating than the official version. But Cornwell defends his record, claiming that these “rigorously academic” articles and books were an improvement on the hagiographies.

Where once he skewered the Polish pope, now he wields the skewer to defend the Argentine pope from his merciless critics.

Breaking Faith (2001) and The Pontiff in Winter (2004) were devastating in their indictments of the corruption and failures of the John Paul II years. They make a powerful case for the prosecution, which revelations since 2005 have largely vindicated, but there was an edge to Cornwell’s j’accuse, a barely disguised anger and contempt, which could partly be explained by more recent books, above all Seminary Boy (2006) and The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession (2014). In these books Cornwell lays bare his suffering from the toxic cocktail of sex, sin, and abuse in the Church culture he experienced as a young man. Hence the revealing aside at the close of Church, Interrupted. The John Paul II papacy, he says, had “encouraged an oppression aimed at reinstating the sin-cycle of former years.”

In Breaking Faith Cornwell dreams of a pope who ceases to berate and condemn the sinfulness and wrongness of the world, yearning for a pastor who would instead “mend the breaking faith of our Church” and see in “the sinners, the marginalized, the dissidents, the discouraged” people in need of love and inclusion. Francis has fulfilled that hope. Church, Interrupted is the mirror opposite of The Pontiff in Winter. The savage indictments have given way to a touching admiration and affection. Where once he skewered the Polish pope, now he wields the skewer to defend the Argentine pope from his merciless critics.

Some of his sharpest lines are reserved for the anti-Francis lobby, whose convoluted, self-contradictory criticisms reveal their bad faith. “Francis could not win, could not be allowed to win, whatever he did or said, or did not do or say,” Cornwell writes, in what could be a perfect description of Jesus and the Pharisees. Noting that many of Francis’s critics are converts in search of a more militant affirmation of particular moral concerns, Cornwell observes the curious feature of conservative attacks, “that [Francis’s] extension of moral concerns to embrace neglected issues meant a repudiation of others, even though there were deep parallel connections.” Thus the pope’s condemnation of capital punishment and nuclear weapons, for example, are used as evidence to claim (absurdly) that he is soft on abortion, which reminds Cornwell of the joke about the mother who buys her son two ties for his birthday. When he next sees her, he is wearing one. She says: “So you didn’t like the other one?”

 

Church, Interrupted is made up of twenty-four brief chapters, each around the length of a Commonweal article, which take “soundings across [Francis’s] key initiatives and reactions to events.” It is a jerky format that plays to Cornwell’s gifts of concision and forensic focus. Each short essay supplies enough background information for the reader to grasp the significance of Francis’s “interruption,” then homes in on key stories and anecdotes to illustrate the departure. It makes the book highly readable and accessible and, for an outsider curious about the Francis Effect, a fine introduction to the heart of what makes this pontificate so extraordinary.

Perhaps the best chapter is on gossip, which Francis constantly returns to as an evil to be extirpated from the Vatican—and with good reason. The atmosphere in Rome is “like a permanent Sunday afternoon,” where “the physical structure creates a sense of hothouse separation, an enclosed palace filled mostly with celibates adrift from the real world.” Cornwell is delighted that Francis is the first pope “to lambaste the malicious tongue-wagging of the Roman prelates,” whose cynicism and failure in charity corrode the Church’s mission.

Also sophisticated is the chapter on China, about which Francis has said almost nothing publicly, but which has been a major focus of his diplomacy. The secret accord with Beijing over the nomination of bishops has been heavily criticized from all sides—not least by the emeritus archbishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and the island’s former British governor, Lord Christopher Patten—but Cornwell sees it as a necessary gamble, a bold attempt to end a situation in which the Chinese government has been dividing and ruling the Church.

Yet sometimes the format of the book constrains Cornwell to an efficient summary without much insight: on Laudato si’, for example, we get little beyond a précis of the encyclical. On women in the Church, Cornwell makes a good case for seeing Francis as an innovator introducing “striking changes” but, in explaining why the pope has not gone further toward ordaining women, falls back on the cliché that he is a man of his time and place. (If Cornwell thinks Francis has been timorous or retrograde he should say so, rather than patronizing supposed Argentine “machismo.”) Sometimes the research is light: when Francis said that women were the “strawberries on the cake” of theology, it was to complain that there were so few in the International Theological Commission that they risked looking like a token presence.

 

The point of holding polarities in tension is to seek their resolution on a higher plane.

These are peccadilloes of omission, but in one important case Cornwell misrepresents a major tenet of Francis’s thinking. One of the key narratives of the book is what Cornwell describes as “a consistent feature of [Francis’s] papacy: a capacity to hold opposites in tension, his many paradoxes giving rise to disruption.” The theme appears in many of the chapters: thus, on China, “his agreement with the government over the nomination of bishops is another example of his capacity to hold opposites in tension and move forward by interruption.” But the idea is never properly explained, and seems to obscure more than it reveals.

Of course, it is true that Francis, like all good leaders but to an exceptional degree, is able to navigate tensions and conflicts. And it is also true that Francis has developed Romano Guardini’s theory of dynamic polarities into a method of governance and discernment. As Massimo Borghesi showed in The Mind of Pope Francis, and as the pope well explains in our book Let Us Dream, the idea of holding polarities in tension lies behind the emphasis on synodality that has so marked this pontificate.

But it is not only a matter of containing opposites in tension, still less a bid to interrupt or disrupt by doing so. The point of holding polarities in tension is to seek their resolution on a higher plane—by allowing the Holy Spirit to create a new way of seeing that reconciles the opposition by transcending it. In Querida Amazonia, and explicitly in Let Us Dream, Francis uses the metaphor of “overflow” to describe this action of the Holy Spirit, which in the context of the synods indicates the path to follow.

Not grasping this point leads Cornwell to mischaracterize Amoris laetitia as “written so as to lead to potentially opposite conclusions simultaneously,” a classic instance, he says, of “Francis, once again, holding two opposites in tension without resolution.” Yet whatever people may think of it, as far as Francis was concerned Amoris reflected the resolution of the 2015 synod: that the issue of communion for divorced couples is resolved in a different way of applying the law, one that is attentive to the operation of grace in the concrete lives of individuals. It is no longer, then, a matter of what Church law should or should not allow or disallow, but a matter for discernment by the couples and their pastors in the light of their unique histories—as Cornwell himself goes on to explain rather well.

This matters because it is all too easy to feed one of the anti-Francis fantasies, that the pope is strategically “ambiguous,” operating a devious plan to turn everything upside down while appearing to do the opposite. (Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church, for instance, turns on this myth). This is to misread what Jesuits call “apostolic discernment in common.” One can hold differences in tension in search of illumination or guidance, as part of a process of discernment, as has happened in the synods over certain vexed questions. But it is a time-limited exercise. Either there will be resolution through “overflow,” as in the family synod, or the differences will harden and polarize, as happened at the Amazon synod with respect to the question of ordaining married men. In the latter case, where Francis saw no “overflow,” there could be no resolution or advance, at least in the short term.

If it is not Francis’s polarities-in-tension that has “interrupted” what Cornwell had come to see as the Church’s normal flow, what has? Where is the break? For as Cornwell says, it is not as if Francis has weakened, or diverged from, the Church’s magisterium. The answer must lie in the pope’s performance of the Gospel. But which part? For Cornwell it appears as what he calls the pope’s “audacious prudence,” his “consistent Christian counsel of prudence and clemency that recognizes human frailty: the way we are.” It was the tender mercy of God—loving us in spite of us—that Cornwell ached to see in the successor of St Peter; and seeing it, he can hope again.

Church, Interrupted
Havoc & Hope: The Tender Revolt of Pope Francis

John Cornwell
Chronicle Prism
$27.95 | 304 pp.

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