Browsing News Entries

Catholic identity carefully guarded at CRS, bishop says

Baltimore, Md., Nov 14, 2019 / 04:20 pm (CNA).- Adhering to Church teaching is a priority for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and policies are in place to ensure it is not complicit in immoral activities as it partners with groups that do not hold Catholic beliefs, said the bishop who heads the agency’s board.

“Our efforts overseas are seen as among the finest examples of a morally-based Catholic agency,” said Bishop Gregory Mansour, chairman of the board of directors for Catholic Relief Services.

“Nonetheless, we are seen as a bit strange by some international agencies that serve the poor, because we believe that serving the poor is just that – not eliminating the poor by abortion or contraception, but by truly serving them in all their human dignity.”

The bishop stressed that CRS prioritizes Catholic teaching, to the point that the agency stands out internationally for its insistence on carefully crafting grant language to ensure that it is not participating in immoral programming. The agency will not get involved in grants that require it to compromise on Catholic doctrine, he said.

CRS was founded in 1943 and is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States.

Mansour, who heads the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn, offered an update on the work of CRS to the U.S. bishops at their fall general assembly in Baltimore this week.

As part of that presentation, the bishop stressed the importance of Catholic identity in CRS’ work.

“We’re Catholic to the core, training our 6,700 employees throughout the world – whether they’re Catholic or not – on all the tenets of Catholic social teaching,” he said. He pointed to the agency’s zero tolerance policy and whistleblower program.

“The grants we apply for at CRS to serve - whether from large donors, from the U.S. government, the Global Fund – are vetted to be sure that we do not agree to do anything against Catholic teaching as we serve the poorest of the poor, and we have that same fidelity to all of those people who give either in a second collection for CRS or Operation Rice Bowl,” he added.

Following the presentation, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, thanked Mansour, as well as CRS President and CEO Sean Callahan, for safeguarding the integrity of the agency and listening respectfully to those who have had concerns.

“Thank you for all that you’ve done to protect the Catholicity of all that we’re doing, and I just applaud your great work,” he said.

Mansour replied that both the CRS staff and board of directors are “very conscious” of Catholic identity.

“And so we’ve been listening to anybody who has any criticism, trying to see if there’s some validity to it, and if there is, we deal with it. If there’s not, we tell them, ‘Please. We’ve vetted this, we’ve looked at it. And we’re at peace with it’,” he said.

At various times in the past, CRS has faced criticism from Catholic groups and individuals who are concerned that the agency is cooperating in immoral activities, including the distribution of contraceptives and abortifacients.
In 2013, Catholic Relief Services was accused of being involved in a contraception and abortifacient distribution program in Madagascar.

However, the agency suggested that the allegations mistook the actions of CRS staffers with those of non-staff community health workers, who are locally chosen on the ground of the countries where they work. CRS was training Madagascar community health workers in areas such as children’s health, nutrition, and malaria prevention, and these health workers may also have been involved in contraceptive distribution programs, but they were not affiliated with CRS in doing so, the organization said.

In 2016, the agency was accused of being complicit in a contraceptive distribution program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. CRS responded that while the language in the grant report was unclear, the agency had actually been working to promote Natural Family Planning in accordance with Catholic teaching. It said the report was written by an outside group that may not have understood the difference between Natural Family Planning and artificial contraception.

Catholic Relief Services has repeatedly said that it follows Catholic teaching and does not provide or facilitate access to contraception.

When CRS partners with groups that disagree with Catholic doctrine, the extent of their work together is limited to efforts that align with Church teaching, such as work to prevent malaria, promote childhood nutrition, or offer clean drinking water, the agency says. Both bishops and moral theologians review programming to ensure that it complies with Church teaching.

At a press conference following the presentation, CNA asked Mansour if he could elaborate on efforts to ensure the Catholic identity of programs in which CRS participates.

“To be honest, we are the only group that won’t do contraception, that won’t do referrals for abortions. And we make that quite clear when we write grants,” Mansour replied.

However, he said, international grant funding is often given to joint projects with multiple partners. When CRS works with partners – including other Christian groups – that do not abide by Church teaching, the agency tries to avoid scandal and make it clear that they are only participating in work that is morally acceptable.

“And all of those the grants are vetted by moral theologians and bishops on the board, as well as laity who have a strong sense of Catholic identity,” he added.

In addition, Mansour said, “when we get a complaint, we investigate it on the ground. We go to the place and we investigate with everybody. We do our best to do that.”

The agency works with more than 1,000 different partners globally, so these investigations can be a lot of work, the bishop acknowledged.

However, he added, “I’m not afraid of doing it. I myself as chair, any time anybody had a criticism, I dealt with it personally.”

CRS has a team in place to look at concerns raised, he said. “So I think if there are still complaints out there, our ears are open to listening.”

Congressional committee examines state pro-life measures

Washington D.C., Nov 14, 2019 / 12:10 pm (CNA).- A House of Representatives committee will hold a hearing on Thursday to investigate restrictions on abortion clinics passed in pro-life states. 

The hearing, titled “Examining State Efforts to Undermine Access to Reproductive Health Care” will feature testimony from abortion advocates and the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. 

The hearing is being convened by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by the majority-member Democrats. 

Allie Stuckey, a new mother who hosts a podcast discussing politics and culture from a conservative, Christian perspective, is scheduled to be the minority witness.

The hearing will focus on recent laws passed in Missouri, which may become the first U.S. state without an abortion clinic. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), who chairs the House Oversight Committee, told NPR in a statement that Missouri has served as a “case study” in state resistance to abortion under the Trump administration. 

“State governments have been emboldened in their efforts to restrict access to abortion by the Trump Administration’s systemic attacks on reproductive health care, including by dismantling the Title X federal family planning program and expanding providers’ ability to discriminate by denying care,” the Committee on Oversight and Reform said in a background explainer before the hearing.

The Trump administration announced a new policy that does not allow Title X fund recipients to perform abortions or refer people for abortions. Planned Parenthood, the nations’ largest abortion provider, lost millions in funding due to its refusal to stop providing abortions. Title X funds are designated for family-planning purposes. 

Additionally, the administration has moved to protect conscience rights of doctors and other medical professionals who consider abortion to be against their religious beliefs. 

The hearing also concerns the “draconian steps” taken by some states to limit the availability of abortion. Due to these new state laws, six states have only one abortion clinic. 

Missouri’s last remaining abortion clinic was denied a state license earlier this year and was scheduled to close. It remains open only because of a court order.

Planned Parenthood sued the state of Missouri May 28 after the state’s health department declined to renew the clinic’s license. Representatives of the clinic have argued that there is no valid reason for state rules that mandate two pelvic exams before the administration of abortion-inducing drugs. It has also rejected state demands that officials interview its medical trainees on staff.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services rejected a license renewal request June 21 from the clinic, citing an “unprecedented lack of cooperation, failure to meet basic standards of patient care, and refusal to comply with state law and regulations.”

'We need to become an evangelizing Church,' says new USCCB VP

Baltimore, Md., Nov 14, 2019 / 11:05 am (CNA).- The new vice president of the U.S. bishops’ conference says that he wants to help bring a spirit of evangelism to the conference as organized religion continues to decline in the U.S.

“We need to become an evangelizing Church where the faith is passed from person to person more directly,” Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, told CNA on Tuesday on the sidelines of the bishops’ annual fall meeting in Baltimore, Maryland.

Archbishop Vigneron was elected vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on Tuesday after a third-ballot run-off. Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles was elected the new president of the conference.

Vigneron has served as archbishop in Detroit since January of 2009, when he was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI. Prior to that, he was first coadjutor and then bishop of Oakland, California since 2003, and was previously rector-president of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit from 1994 until 2003.

The archbishop told CNA that there must be an “urgency” of evangelization in the U.S. at a time when the percentage of Americans identifying as Christian continues to decline.

A report by Pew Research last month revealed that the percentage of Americans identifying as Christian fell by double digits since 2009, and that Catholics no longer make up a majority among Hispanics in the U.S.

Evangelization is the answer to this, Vigneron said, pointing to a 2016 archdiocesan synod he convened with lay faithful, priests, and religious in Detroit. The synod led to his pastoral letter, issued the following year, “Unleash the Gospel.” In that letter, Vigneron established ten “guideposts” for evangelization and warned against certain “capital vices” in the local church.

“It galvanized the diocese from bottom to top,” Vigneron said of the synod, telling CNA that evangelization cannot just be one among many priorities for the Church, but that it is “the form that’s supposed to inform everything.”

“It was of inestimable worth for us to have a synod,” Vigneron said, pointing to a time of  “epic change” in Church in the U.S., with a shift away from institutions that were once powerhouses of evangelization—schools and charities—but are no longer.

Evangelization, he said, “involves everybody learning some way, or thinking about, how today am I going to meet people that I can bring to Christ? And everybody can do that.”

Following his election as USCCB vice president, Vigneron also spoke with CNA about the church’s response to the clergy sex abuse crisis, including an update given to the bishops on the Vatican’s much-anticipated report on Theodore McCarrick. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston told the conference on Tuesday that the report had been prepared and was awaiting papal approval before publication either before Christmas or early in the New Year.

Vigneron told CNA he was early awaiting the report’s release, and that it was a necessary step in healing the breach of trust between bishops and the faithful in the United States.

“I think it will be good for us to understand how this evil behavior was allowed to continue in the life of someone who—in whom so much pastoral trust was placed so that we can start on a path so that we don’t do it again,” he said.

As part of the related abuse scandals to hit the Church in the last 18 months, many dioceses are facing investigations by states’ attorneys general into clergy sex abuse. The Pennsylvania grand jury report, released in 2018, revealed more than a thousand allegations of abuse over the span of several decades, and more than a dozen other states - including Vigneron’s own state of Michigan - have open investigations.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel launched his investigation into clergy sex abuse in all seven Catholic dioceses in the state last year. In May, Nessel’s office announced charges of 21 counts of criminal sexual conduct against five priests in the ongoing investigation.

Vigneron told CNA that he was committed to working with civil authorities to address historic injustices, but that he and other bishops did not know when the investigation might conclude.

“I don’t know where the work of the Attorney General in our seven dioceses stands right now,” Vigneron told CNA but said he and the Archdiocese of Detroit were being “very cooperative” with state officials.

Vigneron told CNA that although the McCarrick scandal had been painful for the Church in the United States, many past victims of abuse had now come forward, and that is an important part of serving justice and healing in the Church.

“I can account for some of this matter by saying that the investigations that became very prominent led some people to come forward and speak up, and—when in the past they didn’t do that,” he said.

In past decades, abuse victims were asked by some dioceses to sign confidentiality agreements as part of settlements with Church authorities, something now specifically prohibited by Pope Francis. Vigneron said that it was important that no victim felt intimidated into silence.

“I think the time for confidential agreements is gone,” he said.

Vigneron’s three-year term as USCCB vice president formally began on Wednesday, at the conclusion of the conference’s Fall Assembly in Baltimore.

Unpacking One of Newman’s Gems

As you know, on October 13, Pope Francis canonized John Henry Newman a saint of the Church. Like so many others, I have long admired the depth and breadth of Newman’s thought and insight. Yet my first introduction to Newman was not one of his lengthy books or classic works. It was a short but inspiring meditation he wrote on “The Mission of My Life” that I came across by chance at a time when I was discerning my vocation. Here I try to unpack a genuine spiritual classic that deserves to be widely shared to all who are trying to discern their calling or perhaps have forgotten “The Mission of My Life.” “God has created me to do Him some definite service.” God created you and I intentionally and has blessed us with a unique set of gifts and talents that he wants us to use for some service…

Catholic group to start holistic addiction recovery home in Kentucky 

Lexington, Ky., Nov 14, 2019 / 03:12 am (CNA).- A Kentucky diocese is leasing a tenantless building to a Catholic charity to create a holistic recovery program for people in the area struggling with drug addictions.

“It's an exciting possibility,” said Jenny Ramsay, co-founder and director of Catholic Action Center (CAC), the homeless service agency in Lexington which will be helping run the new program.

“Our [clients] need it so desperately … This place is welcoming, and it includes the holistic approach with environmental sustainab[ility],” she told CNA.

The Diocese of Lexington announced Friday that the Catholic Action Center is beginning a three-year lease on the Cliffview Retreat and Conference Center in Lancaster. The facility will be known as Divine Providence Way at Cliffview, and CAC will have an opportunity to purchase the property at the end of the lease.

The Catholic Action Center will be in charge of developing a holistic environment for the addiction recovery center. This will include recreational therapy, such as music and art. The medical side of the recovery efforts will be run by Mountain Comprehensive Care, a mental health and addiction center based in eastern Kentucky that has partnered with CAC for the past two years.

The program will also offer job training through Bluegrass Community and Technical College, which will take place at a specific satellite campus for the beneficiaries. There, the clients will have access to educational opportunities including culinary art, sustainable living, building and maintenance, and information technology.

Ramsay said the building and maintenance program will focus on skills like carpentry and solar panel installation. She said the IT program will teach some basic coding and other entry-level IT skills.

The program will be environmentally sustainable, Ramsay said, relying on green energy from solar panels and incorporating beehives, chicken coops, and greenhouses.

“We are creating the environment at Cliffview, which will include sustainable agriculture. Holistic care of the people includes the fact that their environment needs to be something that renews them,” she said.

“We're human beings and we all have different brokenness, but we all relate and can be healed through [a holistic approach] … We're not going to say that one size fits all, but when we engage with the earth and engage the mind, body, and spirit, then changes happen,” she added.

The idea for Divine Providence Way was developed after staff members at the Catholic Action Center witnessed a need for greater addiction care among the homeless population.

The initiative comes amid an ongoing opioid crisis in the United States. Kentucky has been among the states hit hardest by the epidemic. From 2012-2017, more than 6,700 overdose deaths were reported in the state, according to data from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. In 2017,  Kentucky had a drug overdose rate of 37.2 deaths per 100,000 people, the fifth-highest in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We see the individuals, we see the overdoses, we see the challenges,” said Ramsay, when asked about the opioid crisis.

Founded in 2000, the Catholic Action Center is an initiative inspired by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. According to its website, the organization has served more than 5.5 million meals and distributed over 2.5 million items of clothing. The agency has also covered 90 funerals for clients who had no families.

Ramsay stressed that it is a Christian’s duty to care for all people, even those struggling from addiction and currently abusing drugs. She said it is an example set by Christ.

“As Catholic Christians, we're called to address [this] and those in need,” she told CNA. “Knowing that we may have the opportunity to help others in a unique situation, we couldn't turn our back on [them].”

“Jesus said feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty. He didn't say feed the hungry who are sober,” she added.

What people with intellectual disabilities can teach us about friendship

South Bend, Ind., Nov 14, 2019 / 12:38 am (CNA).- When French Catholic Jean Vanier brought two men with intellectual disabilities to live with him in his home, he did so more out of a sense of religious duty than anything else.

But as time went on, he began to realize that what the men needed was not help, but friendship. In the founding of his L’Arche (The Ark) homes for people with intellectual disabilities, friendship became the pillar of what those communities were and are all about.

“In short, Vanier had discovered they shared a common world,” Professor Stanely Hauerwas said in his keynote address on Nov. 8 at the University of Notre Dame’s annual conference sponsored by the De Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture.

Hauerwas, a theologian and the Gilbert T. Rowe professor emeritus with joint appointments at Duke divinity school and Duke law school, was a personal friend of Vanier, who died at the age of 90 earlier this year.

“I don't know where we would be without such witnesses today. It's remarkable,” Hauerwas said of his friend.

In L’Arche homes, core members are permanent residents who have intellectual and other disabilities, while assistants are adults and trained caregivers who live in L’Arche communities with the core members, typically for a one-year commitment at a time.

As the L’Arche website states, being an assistant is primarily about being a friend.

“In the communities of L'Arche, we live and journey together, men and women with disabilities and those who feel called to share their lives with them,” Hauerwas said.

“We are all learning the pain and joy of community life where the weakest members open hearts to compassion and lead us into deeper union with Jesus. We are learning to befriend them, and through and with them to befriend Jesus.”

Friendship with people with disabilities is often hindered by fear and false perceptions on the part of non-disabled people, Hauerwas noted.

“We are fragile creatures whose vulnerabilities produce fears that make our being befriended by the disabled frightening,” Hauerwas said.

This is in large part because people with disabilities have the gift of honesty, Hauerwas said - they are unimpressed by accolades and accomplishments, and are only interested in you as yourself.

“Such fears do not go away, even if we have been befriended by the disabled. That is why, as I will suggest, that friendship must be communal because only a community who is made of those aware of their limits can create the peaceful space for all to flourish, disabled and abled alike.”

The false assumption that people with disabilities are suffering can hinder friendship with these people, Hauerwas noted.

“As (Brian Brock, an author on disability) points out, ironically, those who are severely intellectually disabled do not struggle with their disability because they're wondrously free from pondering what others suppose them to lack,” Hauerwas said.

“Brock is challenging the presumption that those who are labeled intellectually disabled suffer from being intellectually disabled. They suffer from the attitudes and behaviors of those who imagine how they would feel if they were intellectually disabled. In short, we project on the disabled how we think we would regard our lives if we were them,” he said.

“But because people who are mentally disabled are not people other than who they are, they accordingly can and do enjoy who they are,” he added.

Brock, whose own son Adam has Down syndrome and is autistic, notes in his writings that knowing Adam has led him to a deeper theological understanding of what it means to accept the gift of people with intellectual disabilities.

“(Brock) understands the Christian Gospel to offer a way of life that enables our ability to live as vulnerable beings who have made peace with our limits and are able to delight in the unexpected,” Hauerwas said.

“Such a way of life can be joyous and free because we seek no longer to be gods, but to be content, to be creatures whose flourishing does not mean we will not suffer, but as the stories of scriptures often make clear, it is through suffering and vulnerability that we discover our place in God's story.”

Throughout his life, Vanier testified to the real friendships he had with his friends with disabilities. Some people still doubt whether such friendships were possible, because they believe that friendship necessitates an equality in agency, Hauerwas noted. He then provided several examples of stories of friendship between assistants and core members, or the family members of the disabled, to show how such friendships are possible.

“Vanier's friendships with the core members with whom he lived stands as a stark reminder that friendship between people who are intellectually disabled, and those that are not, is an actual reality,” Hauerwas said.

Hauerwas drew several examples from Patrick McInerney, an English anthropologist who lived for 15 months in a L'Arche home and wrote of his experiences in a paper entitled: “Receiving the gift of cognitive disabilities: recognizing agency in the limits of the rational subject.”

McInerney, not unlike Vanier at the beginning of his work, started at L’Arche presuming that the core members did not have agency like non-disabled people.

“He encountered Rachel who was making random hand gestures. Sarah who was rolling herself around and around in her wheelchair. And Martha, who spoke constantly but did not seem to make sense. McInerney assumed such women were incapable of active engagement with the world,” Hauerwas said.

But he eventually came to see these women in a different light, and realized that their agency comes from their own acknowledgment of their vulnerabilities and dependency on others.

In one example, Maria, a long-term assistant, told McInerney about an experience with core member Sarah, who could not communicate verbally. Maria was given the task of bathing Sarah, but was having difficulties.

“Maria confesses she did not know what she was doing. But she assumed that neither did Sarah know what she was doing. Finally, however, after some time, Maria figured how to help Sarah bathe herself. She (later said) to Sarah: ‘And you just sat there very patiently and quietly letting me make error after error. When I finally worked out what the right thing to do was, you looked at me dead in the eye and then you laughed at me,’” Hauerwas said.

“Through these exchanges, the core members’ gifts of the heart are discovered,” he added.

In another story of friendship and encounter, Hauerwas recalled Hilary, an assistant who watched a core member smiling and swaying and enjoying herself in front of a full-length mirror. Hilary said she realized that Sarah was not able to care whether other people might consider this behavior self-obsessed, and so she was free to love and enjoy herself.

“Sarah really loves herself and she helps me to start loving myself,” Hilary told McInerney.

The lessons learned from accepting one’s life as a gift, and accepting others’ lives - including those with disabilities - as a gift, leads to a system of ethics that stands in stark contrast to ethicists like Peter Singer, who believes that people with disabilities are of limited moral value to society, Hauerwas noted.

The lives of people with intellectual disabilities “have more in common with unruly saints of the Church, according to McInerney, than the rational agents such as Peter singer assumes. Those who have learned to be their friends, friends with people like Sarah, value the way they transgress assumed norms of behavior and express the value of a liminal community.”

“I think that my own view is that if in a hundred years Christians are identified as those people who do not kill their children or their elderly, we'll have done a pretty good job, but that's the challenge,” Hauerwas said.

In one final example of friendship, Hauerwas recalled the friendship between a core member Eric and Vanier. Eric was blind, deaf and could not speak, but Vanier knew he could still communicate through touch.

“That is what they did day after day. They held and washed his body with respect and love. Slowly but surely they were able to communicate with him and he communicated with them,” he said.

Vanier reflected on this friendship “by suggesting what Jesus commands us to do is to be befriended by the weak those in need, the lonely.”

“For when the poor, the weak and the lonely claim us as friends, they prevent us from falling into the trap of power, especially the power to do good,” Hauerwas said. “To be befriended by the poor and the disabled saves us from the presumption we must save the savior and the church.”

Kyrie Eleison

My wife, Patti, has been a music director in parish contexts for over thirty years. She is an accomplished vocal performer, an exacting choral conductor, and a gifted composer. She treats her work as a sacred task in service to the majesty and dignity of the divine liturgy, and experiences her work as an act of prayer and as a call to prayer. Anyone who has ever watched her conduct knows it is pure choreography. David twirling about the Ark of the Covenant with unhampered joy—with abandon!—is the best analogy I can think of. Her ebullience and intensity electrify every space she enters. And as any artist knows, the grace of bringing beauty into the world plants the cross of Christ, the origin and standard of all beauty, deep into the core of her being. How grateful we should always be to artists. Patti has brought into our family over…

Dry Bones

Will Arbery’s new play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, now on stage at Playwrights Horizons in New York, is itself quietly heroic, managing to do several hard things well. It not only succeeds in making the arguments of conservative Catholics intelligible and compelling to a mostly liberal, mostly secular New York audience; it also manages to demonstrate that the differences among conservative Catholics can be as interesting as the differences between them and everyone else. On a purely technical level, the play proves that it’s still possible for political rhetoric to take the stage without sounding like an imitation of Aaron Sorkin. Though rhetoric is often treated as if it were beneath the dignity of good theater, it is no less natural than any other mode of speech. Rhetoric is just the idiom of persuasion, so only bad rhetoric deserves the playwright’s scorn. In Arbery’s play, the stakes of persuasion are, or appear to be, existential, and that by itself is a feat worth acknowledging.

But the hardest and most important thing Heroes of the Fourth Turning does is to put two contradictory realities on the same stage at the same time: the reality that Catholic Christianity is all about communion and redemptive suffering, along with the reality that much actual suffering, and especially physical pain, is incommunicable. Sure, we can talk about it, but we can’t really share it. Pain, more than anything else, seems resistant to communion. Even when we can express it—and we often can’t—it still isolates us. Just as each of us must die alone, each must suffer alone, no matter how many friends we have to comfort us as we do. Does our religion just obscure this second reality, or does it somehow answer it? Is it cure, palliative, or just placebo? That’s one of the many questions this play asks and pointedly declines to answer.

The four friends of Heroes of the Fourth Turning have been brought back together in rural Wyoming for the installation of a new president at a small Catholic college. Three of them—Justin, Teresa, and Kevin—are recent graduates of the college and former students of Gina, the new president. The other, Emily, is Gina’s daughter, who went elsewhere for college and career but has had to return home because of an unspecified illness that keeps her in bed most days. It is late at night (the night of August 19, 2017); a party has just ended at Justin’s house; and the four friends have gathered in his backyard.

Now in his late thirties, Justin (Jeb Kreager) is older than the others. He attended the college after several years of military service and a failed marriage. His approach to Catholic counterculturalism is reculer pour mieux sauter: the Benedict Option as tactical retreat. Despite the election of Donald Trump, Justin is sure that all the real power belongs to the secular liberals who are destroying the things he holds dear—the family, the faith, a capacity for sacrifice. The prudent course in such circumstances is to keep one’s head down and wait for our decadent culture to destroy itself. As he explains, “the only way to survive is to block them out, to focus on the Lord. Try to outlive them. Bake bread, make wine, work the earth, shelter wanderers, and survive.” Remote Wyoming is as good a place as any to do these things; big cities are all off-limits, “hubs of LGBT activity” and other disorders. Justin now teaches horsemanship at the college and lives alone. At the beginning of the play we see him pick up a rifle and shoot a deer that wanders by his yard, then carry its carcass back to his porch and begin to dress it. As the play proceeds, he keeps returning to a blood stain on the porch that no one else seems to notice. Compared to his three friends, he is a model of composure, if not serenity, but there’s an unmistakable glint of anxiety in everything he says.

Kevin (John Zdrojeski) is in many ways Justin’s opposite: immature and emotionally needy, sex-starved and writhing with self-contempt. He is guzzling whisky throughout the play, so one is never quite sure how much of his extravagant self-abasement reflects a real spiritual crisis and how much is just the booze. Kevin works for a Catholic textbook publisher and seems to be addicted to online pornography—he says all he does is “come and cry.” He thinks maybe he should become a priest, but he also thinks that maybe all his problems would be solved by having a girlfriend. His appetites seem to be not just incompatible with his religion but incommensurate with it, as if the two things existed on entirely different levels of his psyche, each with its own exorbitant demands. Kevin plays the puppy for pity and for laughs, but we know why Justin thinks he “smell[s] like the devil.”

[Like what you're reading? Support our work today!]

Then there’s Teresa (Zoë Winters), who talks like the devil and has all the best lines. She lives in Brooklyn and writes blog posts for a Breitbartish website (her hero is Steve Bannon). Her rapid-fire monologues are impressive and alarming, brimming with historical references and spiked with ideological zeal. Teresa is preparing herself for civil war, and clearly relishes the prospect. She and her cobelligerents will be “heroes of the fourth turning,” a final period of crisis in a historical cycle that repeats itself every eighty years. The liberals, having overplayed their hand, will be vanquished by a new generation of conservatives with no scruples about civility. Civility is for chumps, or “soy boys” like Kevin. Robert Frost once defined a liberal as someone afraid to take his own side in an argument. Teresa defines conservatives, real conservatives, as people not only unafraid to take their own side but ready and eager to annihilate the enemy. She is a piece of work, no doubt about it, but is she a real person? No one—not her friends, not the playwright—seems to know.

Finally, there’s Emily (Julia McDermott), sanctified by suffering. Or so everyone else would like to assume. Like her hero Flannery O’Connor, Emily knows that long nights of the soul can have a lot to do with the body; and her illness gives her an authority to which the others instinctively defer, even when they disagree with her. Her conservative Catholicism, if that’s what it is, is not like Teresa’s or Justin’s. Theirs is solid and proudly impenetrable, hers fragile and porous to the experiences of the undevout. Emily has worked for a prolife organization that helps pregnant women in distress, but she also has a friend who works at a Planned Parenthood clinic, and she insists that her friend is, despite her moral error, a good person who believes she’s helping women—not, as Teresa would have it, the moral equivalent of a Nazi guard at a concentration camp. It is not only Emily’s illness but also her gentleness that wrong-foots Teresa. She can accuse Kevin of being a soy boy, but she can only accuse Emily of being too kind for her own good.


Because these are alpha Catholics, the word “grace” gets used often enough, but there’s remarkably little sign of the stuff in all the showing off and putting down and digging in our heroes do.

Late in the play Gina (Michele Pawk) arrives to take Emily home, but not before receiving tribute from her former students. They ask her to read part of the speech she gave at her installation as the college’s new president, and she is happy to oblige. To judge from the fragment we hear, it isn’t much of a speech: tediously figurative, ideologically complacent, a bit pompous. In fact, this passage of ceremonial rhetoric turns out to be the weakest and dullest rhetoric in the whole play, and one assumes this was intentional. A podium may now be the last place to look for real eloquence.

Soon Kevin, falling-down drunk, is asking Gina questions she isn’t prepared to answer—questions about the value of the worldview he drank in at her college—and then Teresa is challenging Gina for dismissing Trump and his advisers as charlatans. This intergenerational argument between a Millennial firebrand who thinks our current president is chemotherapy for a sick country and a mellowed-out Goldwater Girl who went to confession immediately after voting for Trump is more than the narcissism of small differences. As Teresa at least understands, there is a real question here about whether prolife politics can ever be detached from the politics of race—not about whether the ethical argument against abortion entails racism (the answer to that is obviously no) but about whether the prolife cause, as a political movement, can get anywhere except as part of a larger fight for “Western Civilization” and whether that concept can be understood in nonracial terms. Teresa thinks it can’t. Her conservatism is about white people sticking up for themselves before it’s too late, answering the tribalism of identity politics with their own tribalism. As she puts it:

You call us racist, we’ll call you racist. You call us white, we’ll call you black. You call us Nazis, we’ll call you abortionists and eugenicists. You call us ignorant Christians, we’ll call you spineless hedonistic soulless bloviating bloodbags. But you stop doing that, and give this thing space and time to work itself out, we’ll stop too.

Gina finds this repellent, and appears genuinely surprised to hear one of her protégés talking this way. She is certainly right to be repelled, but does she really have a right to be surprised? According to Teresa, her own politics are just the logical extension of Gina’s; Gina just doesn’t have the guts to accept responsibility for it. If you’ve hosted a campaign event for Pat Buchanan in your home, as Gina once did, then you can’t clutch your pearls at the mention of Steve Bannon.

At the end of the play, everyone has left the yard except for Justin and Emily. It’s clear from the start of the play that there’s some kind of bond between these two, a friendship at least, maybe something more. Justin is obviously eager to help Emily however he can, and she seems to prefer his help to everyone else’s. The tenderness between them is one of the few hints of something conspicuously missing from most of the dialogue in this play: grace. Because these are alpha Catholics, the word “grace” gets used often enough, but there’s remarkably little sign of the stuff in all the showing off and putting down and digging in our heroes do. They’re supposed to be outside in open country—they keep mentioning the sky, the stars, an impending eclipse—but this pious conclave feels oddly claustrophobic. At moments when the dialogue is pitching into another round of malice or despair, Justin’s backyard seems like a chamber in hell, right down to an unearthly shrieking that keeps erupting from somewhere just offstage. Justin says the sound is from his broken generator. One of the few flaws in this play is that the audience is expected to believe this explanation—or at least to accept that the people on stage believe it. Spoiler alert: it’s not the generator. In its last moments, Heroes of the Fourth Turning veers into Twilight Zone territory, where it doesn’t belong. Whatever is gained in symbolism or metaphysical depth is lost in plausibility. A play this theologically serious and psychologically devastating doesn’t need a badly rigged diabolus ex machina to drive its point home. But you can’t ruin two hours of brilliant naturalism with two minutes of supernatural guff.

Despite this false step near the end, Arbery’s very last step lands right where it should, here in the ordinary world where the greatest terrors are all too natural. Saint Emily, meek and mild, has something to tell Justin about suffering that leaves him flat on his back. Her pain, she explains, is not what he thinks it is, and it does not do what he thinks it does. It destroys before it redeems—if it even does redeem. It is not, as he imagines, spiritually beautiful; it is hideously ugly. He does not, and cannot, know it, and his compassion is really a form of self-deception, worthless to her and damaging to him.

In one sense, Emily’s fury seems to come out of nowhere. It’s so out of keeping with her manner in the rest of the play, and what does it have to do with Trump or the Benedict Option? Nothing and everything. The exquisitely articulated ideological constructs in the rest of the play all pretend to be in the service of a religion whose God was tortured to death. Even the most secular New York theatergoers know this about Christianity, but if they didn’t, they would never learn it from all the brilliant dialogue of the Catholic intellectuals in this play. It goes unsaid not because it goes without saying, but because Catholicism here has wandered about as far as it can from the Gospel without becoming totally unrecognizable. What remains are its bones, which might or might not be good enough to prop up Western Civilization—Teresa’s real religion—but are of no comfort whatever to Emily. Her agony calls her religion’s bluff. It kills all ideology and sentimentalism on contact. What, if anything, does that leave?

Very early in the play, Kevin asks Teresa why Catholics have to love the Virgin Mary, because, frankly, he finds it impossible to love her, no matter how hard he tries. In response, Teresa launches into a lecture about the “scandal of particularity.” This, she says, is what liberals, with their universalism, can’t tolerate about Christianity—that it’s about God intervening in particular places at particular times, in one way rather than another, choosing a particular people, then choosing one woman to be the mother of the one Son of God. This is all very edifying as far as it goes. But it does not reach Emily, and that is where the real scandal of particularity is in this play: in the particular suffering that none of Emily’s friends seems to know what to do with. Here, even their best, most sympathetic rhetoric is a rattling of dry bones.

Transubstantiation: An Interview with Dr. Brett Salkeld

Today, Matt Nelson sits down with Dr. Brett Salkeld, in-house theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina in Canada. Dr. Salkeld is an expert in the doctrine of transubstantiation and, in today’s interview, he discusses the history and significance of the central Christian teaching in light of the recent Pew Research study that suggested the majority of Catholics today do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. It is rare to find someone with a PhD who is not working in academia. Tell us what you do for a living. I am the Archdiocesan Theologian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina (in Saskatchewan, Canada). I got the job—back in my home diocese—because the previous Archbishop wanted to start a diaconate formation program, but we’re a long way from the nearest seminary or theology faculty. So diaconate formation is the biggest part of my work, but once you…

Ask the Dust

Masada is one of the most important archaeological sites in Israel, and an awesome physical structure. A massive fortress hewn into the high hills of the Judean desert, its steep cliffs rise 1,300 feet above the Dead Sea. The only access is via cable car or the narrow, twisting “Snake Path” on the eastern slope. One of King Herod’s most impressive building projects (ca. 30 BCE), it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting more tourists each year than almost any other site in Israel. Excavating Masada remains a rite of passage for Israeli archaeology students.

But Masada is not just a significant site for the history of Second Temple Judaism. Its story also exerts a powerful hold on both the modern state of Israel and the contemporary Jewish-Israeli imagination. The key historical question surrounding Masada—the unanswerable question—is the so-called “Masada myth,” the story of the mass suicide of 967 Jewish men, women, and children who chose to die at the site rather than submit to enslavement or murder at the hands of the Roman army (ca. 73 BCE). There’s only one extant written account, Flavius Josephus’s The Jewish War (composed during the 70s–80s CE), the historical reliability of which is highly debated today. Still, the myth became an important symbol for the modern State of Israel, which adopted the slogan “Masada shall not fall again” at its founding in 1948.

In light of the painful and complex relationship between Israel and Palestine today, the slogan (and the site) has become even more fraught. And not just for Israeli Jews, but for Jews throughout the world. Zionism—the idea of return to Israel so key to the current state, with roots in the Hebrew Bible—only adds to the growing unease with the site’s history, compounding the potency of the historical question. What really happened out there in the desert so long ago?

Jodi Magness, a scholar of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina and one of the most important archeologists currently excavating in Israel, seeks to reevaluate this question in Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth. Early in her career, Magness studied with Yigael Yadin at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Yadin had excavated Masada in the 1960s, and is remembered as one of Israel’s most famous archaeologists. Based on his discoveries and subsequent interpretation of the archaeological data, Yadin perpetuated and popularized the myth of the mass suicide in his popular 1966 account Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealot’s Last Stand. Now, Magness’s goal is to use more recent archaeological developments alongside Josephus’s account in order to reevaluate what really happened at Masada, all within the broader context of Second Temple Judaism.

Leaning heavily on Josephus and comparing his account to the archaeological data, Magness’s ultimate answer (it comes only in the book’s final pages) is anticlimactic: we can’t know. Such a conclusion isn’t exactly new—archaeologists have come a long way from early proof-texts of written sources, and few scholars today would sign on unequivocally with the Masada myth.

Magness begins by providing a full contextual backdrop. The book’s nine chapters offer an accessible historical overview of early Judaism in Israel-Palestine. The first three chapters center on Masada: Magness surveys the final siege, giving background to Josephus’s account; outlines the early history of Western explorers of Masada; and maps Masada’s geographical setting. She then expands the historical context, first cataloguing the building projects of Herod the Great, then tracing the history of Judea prior to Herod through the Jewish revolt against Rome. She concludes with the Jewish rebels’ occupation of Masada. The book is an accessible read, and includes two sets of high-quality illustrations and maps. More than half of these focus on Masada—in addition to the maps, there are shots of discoveries like mosaic floors, pots, arrowheads, even a braid of human hair.

Only after this thorough historical examination does Magness finally offer her interpretation of what happened at Masada:

I am often asked if I believe there was a mass suicide [there], to which I respond that this is not a question archaeology is equipped to answer. The archaeological remains can be interpreted differently as supporting or disproving Josephus’s account. Whether or not the mass suicide story is true depends on how one evaluates Josephus’s reliability as an historian—a matter I prefer to leave to Josephus specialists to resolve.

She thus ends the book, ironically handing Josephus back to the textual specialists after relying on him for her reconstructions of the history of early Judaism. It’s a maddeningly neutral answer to the book’s key question.

Magness’s book has been almost universally well received, but there’s reason to question her circumspection, strangely at odds with her otherwise fiery personality. I met Magness myself at Providence College back in 2017. Fresh off the plane from Tel Aviv (she’d left her dig at Huqoq in the Galilee to give a quick paper and head back), she struck me as fierce. Her build petite and wiry, her remarks biting and uninhibited, Magness electrified the room with her brilliance. (She remains an inspiration for me.)

That’s partly why I left this book disappointed and conflicted. It ought to have occasioned serious grappling with the thorny issue of the limits of data (both archaeological and textual) for the reconstruction of ancient history, as well as the unavoidable subjectivity that colors scholars’ interpretations. It also begged for Magness’s final interpretation of the evidence, however qualified. Lacking Magness’s typical energy, her dry account reads tiredly, like a skeleton without blood, sinews, or spirit.  

[Like what you're reading? Support our work today!]

History often repeats itself, and those of us who study the past have a duty to bring what we study to life.

Apart from the tone, there’s a more serious issue with the book. Any textual scholar would find Magness’s reliance on Josephus problematic, despite her caveats. Of course, she’s an archaeologist attempting to reinterpret archaeological evidence; but a surprisingly large amount of Magness’s historical reconstructions evince a facile acceptance of Josephus as “history,” rather than a messy combination of ancient historiography, literature, and political and religious ideologies. Here Magness falls prey to a frequent risk in our interdisciplinary fields: those of us who work with ancient texts often use archaeology superficially; conversely, even the best archaeologists often commit the same error with ancient texts. There are limits to our training.

Critiques aside, there is much to commend in this book, especially for readers seeking more information about early Judaism, a better sense of early Jewish-Christian dynamics, or insights into the inherent tension between the paucity of ancient sources and our interpretations of them. The end of the first chapter, for example, contains an insightful discussion of how Christians and Jews differ in their reading of Josephus. (The tendency in Christianity, often marred by supersessionism, has been to elevate him, while Jews have rightly been more suspicious). And portions of chapters two and three provide beautiful physical descriptions of Masada and its surrounding geography; the historical account of the line of rule in Judea leading to Herod is likewise solid.

When it comes to pure archaeological bravura, in the end nothing tops Magness’s analytical rigor. When she does train her gaze on the archaeological data, her insights are laser-sharp. One of the more memorable discussions pertains to the key evidence for interpreting Masada as a site of mass suicide. Yadin’s discovery of three skeletons piled together in the ruins of the complex (a young man, a young woman, and a child) left him with no doubt that mass suicide had occurred. Yet, as Magness argues, we might just as easily interpret this collection of bodies as the result of a hyena dragging a jumble of bones into a corner.

The most memorable (and poignant) section of the book arrives at the end, where Magness describes Yadin and her early fascination with him as a young student. It’s a powerful reminder that one cannot decouple the archaeologist from the sites she excavates, or the scholar from her work. Though certainly called to be objective, ultimately we archaeologists and textual scholars are all subjective interpreters of ancient evidence, bringing our desires and prejudices to our work.

History often repeats itself, and those of us who study the past have a duty to bring what we study to life, allowing our expertise to shed light on contemporary questions and conflicts. Archaeological sites, especially in Israel, contain layers of human experience—birth, death, war, occupation, daily customs—that bear directly on political, social, and religious debates today. Masada is but one example. What would Magness say about how the memories of this site (and the fraught slogan “Masada shall not fall again”) function in modern Israel? Detachment has its limits. Throughout the book, it was her human viewpoint, not just her archaeological expertise, that I yearned for.

From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth

Jodi Magness
Princeton University Press, $29.95, 312 pp.