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That Sin, Again?

Have you ever confessed a sin and then, no matter how earnestly you intended to amend your life, had the desire to commit that sin again? Why aren’t we simply fixed after Confession? Jesus instituted the sacrament of Confession that our sins may be forgiven and that we may return to friendship with him. He renews our souls, again filling them through the Holy Spirit with the many spiritual gifts first given to us at Baptism. Yet a certain inclination to sin—not the sin itself—remains. The Tradition calls this inclination the fomes peccati, the tinder for sin, or, we might say, the dregs (CCC 1264). These dregs of sin stick around in our minds through the memories of evil committed, and they also remain in our desires through the habitual bad decisions and actions that shape us. As the desires surface, they hurt quite a bit, but as long as they…

Heralds of the Gospel

Pope Francis can turn a phrase. Speaking recently to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, he said, “Move deacons away from the altar…. They are guardians of service, not first-class altar boys or second-class priests.” With characteristic bluntness, Francis put his finger on the still-unresolved identity and mission of deacons in Roman Catholicism.

In one sense, the pope’s words run counter to Vatican II’s teaching that those men who already carry out diaconal-type ministries—catechesis, pastoral leadership, charitable service—should be ordained, so that “they would be more closely bound to the altar and their ministry made more fruitful through the sacramental grace of the diaconate” (Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, 16).

In another sense, Francis’s words represent a widely held view that the diaconate is about service, especially the humble service exemplified in foot-washing (although only bishops and priests wash feet on Holy Thursday). Today, in an effort to see deacons as something other than “first-class altar boys or second-class priests,” and also to avoid what some see as a too “churchy” or introverted view of ordained ministry, the diaconate often gets defined primarily as a ministry of service, especially of charity and justice—sometimes with subtle and not-so-subtle warnings against focusing too much on the ministries of word and sacrament.

The Greek diakonos is something quite different from a humble servant who washes feet or buses tables.

However, the Australian Catholic exegete (and inactive priest) John N. Collins has argued, in numerous books and articles, that the Greek diakonos, as it is used in both classical and early Christian writings, is something quite different from a humble servant who washes feet or buses tables. It refers to an ambassador or an intermediary who is commissioned by a superior authority to proclaim a message or perform a deed. The deacon’s service is thus directed primarily toward his bishop, not to the needy. At his ordination, a deacon receives the Book of the Gospel from his bishop—“the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become.” This is a sign of his office. The nature of this office is also reflected in art that depicts angels vested in dalmatics (the outer vestment proper to the deacon, just as the chasuble is proper to the priest): an angel is a messenger sent by God. And, certainly, St. Paul’s reflections on the origin and nature of his apostolic ministry make clear this divine commissioning; even as he pours out his life ministering to his people, he is above all a “slave of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1).

Collins argues that the “humble service” interpretation of the diaconate grew out of nineteenth-century German Lutheran charitable activities and later passed mistakenly into German Protestant and then Catholic biblical scholarship, where it influenced Vatican II and Catholic theologians (e.g., Yves Congar and Thomas O’Meara). It has since become the dominant interpretation of diakonia and “ministry” in both Catholic and Protestant circles: “diakonia = ministry = (humble) service.”

Vatican II’s Lumen gentium contributed to this overly narrow interpretation by, in effect, equating ministry with humble service and by saying that deacons “receive the imposition of hands ‘not for priesthood, but for the ministry [or ‘service’]’” (Lumen gentium, 29), while leaving out the last part of that internal quote: “of the bishop.”

This interpretation contributes to a deformation of diaconal identity and a breakdown of the necessary interdependence of his ministries of liturgy, word, and charity-service. The deacon’s rightful and necessary place is at the altar, in the pulpit, and in the street. Much English-language writing on the diaconate, though, remains wedded to the “humble service” view. (The work of Deacon James Keating of the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha is a notable exception. So is the work of Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, and Boston College theologian Richard Gaillardetz.)

It is important, then, that we recover a sense of the deacon as a herald—which is why he is the ordinary minister of the Gospel at Mass—who serves the bishop and is sent by him to proclaim the word in various ways and places. Not coincidentally, the early second-century Ignatius of Antioch says that the bishop is the image or icon of the Father, and that the deacon represents Jesus Christ, the Son who is sent by his Father to do the Father’s will. To put it provocatively, the deacon is not an ordained social worker.

Likewise, the church’s own diakonia must not be reduced to humble service, but is fundamentally evangelical and apostolic. What Collins puckishly calls the modern “Latter-Day Servant Church” grew out of a laudable desire for a more humble, reforming, engaged, and egalitarian church. Avery Dulles’s Models of the Church argues, though, that the “Church as Servant” model has little direct scriptural foundation and “goes astray” when it opposes itself to a more kerygmatic model.

The deacon’s rightful and necessary place is at the altar, in the pulpit, and in the street.

My point is not that the church—and its deacons—should not serve humbly, but that its first (though not only) service to the world is to proclaim the Gospel to all creatures. Both Vatican II and the Council of Trent, for instance, affirm that evangelization is the preeminent task of the bishop.

And although both the “humble service” proponents and Collins himself tend to underemphasize or overlook it, the diaconate is also fundamentally a liturgical ministry. Even the revised postconciliar ordination rites, which greatly reduce those prayers’ cultic language and imagery, still liken deacons to the ancient Levites, who served the priests in the Jerusalem Temple. The deacon similarly serves his bishop at the altar. One sees a remnant of this understanding in the two deacons who flank the bishop—even the Bishop of Rome—at more solemn Masses. The diaconate, in its fullness, reveals that the church’s outreach to the poor and marginalized is rooted and catalyzed most deeply in the liturgy, where the Word is proclaimed and the Sacrifice offered.

Precisely in this sense, when the deacon is “joined more closely to the altar,” his (and the church’s) ministries of evangelization and service come alive. After all, it is the deacon who gets the last word at Mass, dismissing the congregation to go forth to “announce the Gospel of the Lord” and to “glorify the Lord by your life.”

Why Did Jesus So Often Feel a Need for Secrecy?

A leper came to him and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched the leper, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once. Then he said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people…

Why the Emeritus Papacy Must Be Reformed

One of the many ironies of the recent debacle over the role of the pope emeritus is that Benedict resigned precisely to avoid such indignities. Having lived through the chaos of St John Paul II’s final, infirm years—the runaway Curia, the corruption, the jostling—Benedict planned a retirement that was limelight-free, contemplative, and supportive of his successor. Yet it hasn’t turned out that way. Despite his best intentions, the emeritus papacy has proved a disorderly institution, one vulnerable to manipulation by critics of Benedict’s successor. The pope emeritus has been dragged yet again into an unseemly power play against Francis—this time by Cardinal Robert Sarah, seventy-four, the Vatican’s liturgy hardliner. The result has again been to besmirch Benedict, and to raise questions about his legacy and judgment.

Many wryly noted that on the same day Anthony Hopkins was nominated as best supporting actor for playing Joseph Ratzinger in the Netflix drama The Two Popes, the real, ninety-two-year-old Benedict was being drawn, in all his frailty, into a bid to stop Francis from agreeing to the Amazon synod’s call for ordaining married deacons. Sarah’s book, to be published soon in France and next month in the United States, was billed—dishonestly, it turned out—as having been co-authored by the pope emeritus. The cover even had his photo, and he was listed as the first author under his papal name, Benedict XVI. (Even when he was pope, he made sure to sign his Jesus trilogy “Benedict XVI-Joseph Ratzinger” to make clear these were his musings qua theologian.) 

Benedict had agreed to none of this, contributing just a few pages of theology, trusting it would be helpful to Sarah’s endeavor. Sarah claimed Benedict had been consulted at every stage, while Benedict’s minder, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, insisted he had neither approved the manuscript nor agreed to be co-author. Sarah was eventually forced to back down. After issuing an angry statement promising to forgive those who had “calumnied” him, he agreed to Ganswein’s request to ask the French publisher to remove Benedict as coauthor. (The book’s U.S. publisher, Ignatius Press, has so far refused, saying that, as far as they are concerned, the book was co-authored.)

Some dust has settled, but it’s hard to know what really happened. Was Gänswein—who controls Benedict’s interactions with the outside world, and once argued bizarrely that there was now a twin papacy—genuinely appalled at what Sarah had done, or did he act only after being rebuked from the Vatican? Who (Gänswein or Sarah) was lying, or was there a misunderstanding that explains the discrepancy? Given Benedict’s frailty—he sleeps much of the day, has difficulty writing, and finds it hard to talk—had he been taken advantage of? If so, by whom—and why? 

But the more important question was over the propriety of Benedict intervening at all.

But the more important question was over the propriety of Benedict intervening at all. He had promised Francis his “unconditional obedience and reverence,” and on the whole, these past six years, he has been loyal and supportive, while continuing to give theological reflections, as is his right. Naturally, Sarah’s supporters have stressed this right, claiming that both men are merely restating church teaching and echoing Francis’s own statements in defense of mandatory celibacy. Yet, to state the obvious, Benedict is not simply a theologian, and Sarah is not merely expressing a view. A quick glance at the book’s content makes clear the problem.

From the Depths of Our Hearts (Des Profondeurs de nos coeurs in French) has an explicitly campaigning purpose: to reject any possibility that in his forthcoming response to the synod Francis could agree to allow an exception to the celibacy rule in the Amazon or elsewhere. In excerpts carried by the French newspaper Le Figaro, Sarah is scathing about any kind of married clergy, describing it as a “half measure,” a “second-class” priesthood, one that would constitute “a breach, a wound in the coherence of the priesthood.” “The peoples of Amazonia have the right to a full experience of Christ the Bridegroom,” he argues, presumably because Amazonian deacons ordained as priests can only offer a stunted experience of Christ the Bridegroom. Then he calls on Francis—to whom he claims “filial obedience”—not to deprive people of “the fullness of the priesthood” and “the true meaning of the Eucharist.”

Sarah wants to close off the pope’s Amazon synod discernment by claiming that there is nothing to discern: a celibate priesthood is, in effect, divine law. The cardinal seeks to buttress this with the extravagant but unexplained notion of “an ontological-sacramental link between the priesthood and celibacy,” contradicting the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (Presbyterorum ordinis, 16) that celibacy “is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, as in apparent from the practice of the early Church and the from the traditions of the Eastern Churches.” Indeed, his theologically innovative contention places in doubt not just the priesthood of the early popes but that of thousands of Catholic clergy today. Sarah goes on to claim, astonishingly, that any weakening (tout affaiblissement) of the celibacy rule would constitute an erosion of the teaching of the three previous popes, even though Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict all allowed exceptions. “I humbly appeal to Pope Francis to protect us definitively from any such eventuality by vetoing any weakening of the law of priestly celibacy, even if limited to a particular region,” Sarah urges, in the by now familiarly obsequious style of humbug made famous by the dubia cardinals.

What on earth is Benedict doing in theological company like this? The pope emeritus’s own contributions—which he had given to Sarah to use as he saw fit in the book—are a far cry from the cardinal’s: not just moderate, but rooted in traditional Catholic theology. He makes a strong case for celibacy as the best vehicle of the radical self-giving (along with material poverty) that priesthood entails, contending that Christian revelation has so transformed human understanding of the totality of God’s presence that both priesthood and marriage are whole-life vocations. But he stops short of Sarah’s wild claims, arguing only that it “would appear to be” difficult to combine both vocations at the same time, and that the ability to renounce marriage has become “a criterion for priestly ministry” (with that indefinite article, Benedict brakes well short of Sarah’s ontological claim). Benedict’s arguments are passionate, in short, yet traditional: his case is for priestly celibacy as a matter not of ontology but of convenience. He supports clerical celibacy because he believes it makes the priesthood easier to live out, not because the rule itself is mandated by God.

Folding Benedict’s gentle reflections into Sarah’s rant against married priests necessarily hitches the carriage of the elderly emeritus to the cardinal’s runaway train.

Yet folding Benedict’s gentle reflections into Sarah’s rant against married priests necessarily hitches the carriage of the elderly emeritus to the cardinal’s runaway train. If celibacy is coterminous with priesthood, where does that leave Benedict’s decision in 2009 to allow former Anglicans to petition “for the admission of married men to the order of presbyter on a case by case basis”? Does Benedict now regard those clergy, in full communion with Rome, as defective, “second-class” priests? And what of the many Eastern rites of the Catholic Church—many formerly Orthodox churches—with a long tradition of a married priesthood? Sarah claims elsewhere in the book that, in light of the “ontological link” between celibacy and priesthood, Eastern-rite clergy are called to abandon marriage over time, and the concession to former “Protestant” priests should never be repeated. Are these also, by implication, Benedict’s views?

Francis is also passionately in favor of mandatory celibacy, pledging that he will never be the pope to end it. But like his predecessors he is willing to contemplate exceptions for compelling pastoral reasons, when the salus animarum—the good of souls—is at stake in remote mission places like the Amazon. But in his book Sarah claims there can be no “exceptions” to priestly celibacy, and even to use the word constitutes an “abuse of language or a lie.” Yet in 2009 Benedict cited St Paul VI’s 1967 Sacerdotalis caelibatus to support allowing former Anglican married clergy. Pope Paul had written that “a study may be allowed of the particular circumstances of married sacred ministers of Churches,” leading to “the admitting to priestly functions those who desire to adhere to the fullness of this communion.” The question now had to be asked: Did Benedict now agree with Sarah that these “exceptions” outlined by Paul VI were, in fact, a “lie”?

Hardly surprising, then, that in the course of Tuesday’s frantic rowing back Benedict’s office demanded the removal not just of any suggestion of his co-authorship but also his name from Sarah’s introduction and conclusion. But the damage has been done: Sarah has turned the ex-pope into a counter-magisterium, a rallying point for opposition to Francis. Now, if Francis were to decide against approving the synod’s call for an exception to celibacy for Amazonia, opponents will claim that “Benedict had stopped him.” They will hail a victory for “fidelity to tradition,” appearing to short-circuit a synodal process that is supposed to defer, ultimately, to the pope’s own discernment.

This and other previous fiascos—such as last year’s eccentric paper on sex abuse, which was promoted by Benedict’s court through the pro-Viganò media in the United States—has led many Catholics to call for the pope emeritus to do as he first promised and stay silent. It has also revived calls for the reform of the emeritus papacy, which canonists and theologians (including Massimo Faggioli of this parish) have long urged. In sum: he should be the bishop emeritus of Rome—as Francis correctly referred to his predecessor on the night of his election—not the “pope emeritus.” He should wear simple clericals, or a cardinal’s abito piano, not a white cassock. And there should be no office of the “prefect of the pontifical household” or any kind of parallel court. That way, if he does speak, he does so with the freedom of a private theologian. 

The way Benedict’s entourage has at times used him and his writings to undermine Francis is a scandal and a disgrace.

The way Benedict’s entourage has at times used him and his writings to undermine Francis is a scandal and a disgrace. They have fed scoops and exclusives to the opposition media while the Vatican and its press office are kept in the dark. They have consistently disobeyed the Vatican’s 2004 directory on bishops, which insists that emeriti should avoid “every attitude and relationship that could even hint at some kind of parallel authority to that of the diocesan Bishop, with damaging consequences for the pastoral life and unity of the diocesan community.” Only by deference to the diocesan bishop’s authority, adds Apostolorum successores, “all will understand clearly that the diocesan Bishop alone is the head of the diocese, responsible for its governance.” 

None of this will bother Francis much. He is deeply fond of Benedict, and shocked to see him, now that he is frail, preyed on in this way. For now he says nothing. Sarah’s schemes, like those of others before him, have a habit of imploding by themselves. But with each unseemly fiasco, Benedict’s star is unfairly tarnished. The lessons are being learned. The parallel court and the counter-magisterium will end with Benedict’s funeral. The incumbent pope must have the freedom to be pope, for the sake of the Petrine ministry itself. The people of God need to obey one pope at a time, because of the grace that attaches to the office, just as the emeritus must be free from intra-ecclesial squabbles and power plays that fuel division and confusion. Of course, all this can be designed and modeled by the next pope who stands down. If that turns out to be Francis, the makeover of the emeritus papacy will surely be his final great reform—one designed not to weaken the Petrine ministry but to defend it for the sake of the freedom of the people of God.

Your Story and Mine: Why Everyone Should Read Classic Literature

A few days ago I finished my annual participation in a week-long series of lectures, Becoming a Doctor, to students at the University of Minnesota Medical School. The intent of the week is to draw third and fourth year students together from various rotations at disparate locations and allow them to reconnect with one another while reflecting on the past and planning for the future. It is an earnest effort to reclaim the sense of vocation for hyper-efficient, overtired students who teeter on the edge of burnout. “Why Literature Matters to the Practice of Medicine” is my humble contribution to the week’s conversation. Let me start by saying that it is countercultural to suggest that the modern student should earnestly consider reading Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, and Dante (among many others). First, they are overwhelmed by work, barely finding time to read their assignments on the…

Good-Faith Arguments

In June, the Austrian Parliament voted to close KAICIID, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, in protest against Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record. KAICIID was inaugurated by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2012 as an intergovernmental organization with four founding states—Saudi Arabia, Spain, Austria, and the Holy See—and its constitution mandates that its board of directors be composed of members from the world’s major religions. Newly appointed Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, the incoming president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, currently sits on the board representing the Catholic Church. Most of the funding and support for the organization, however, comes from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

I am a political scientist, and I’ve spent the past five years researching the politics of interreligious dialogue in the Middle East. I recognize the paradox of Saudi Arabia presenting itself as a global champion of interreligious dialogue. Such contradictions were also apparent in Pope Francis’s trip to Abu Dhabi in February 2019, when he drafted and signed the Document on Human Fraternity in partnership with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb under the sponsorship of the United Arab Emirates. A number of scholars have raised serious concerns about the ways in which states in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have engaged in interreligious-dialogue initiatives as a useful distraction or, worse, as a way to extend authoritarian policies at home and abroad. The vote in Austria followed months of protests, often staged in front of the KAICIID building, against Saudi Arabia’s imprisonment and flogging of the young liberal blogger Raif Badawi. The murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and the news of a possible execution sentence for the teenage Saudi dissident Murtaja Qureiris increased the urgency of the vote. Meanwhile, the fall of the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who had defended KAICIID’s presence in Vienna, left the organization vulnerable. In a sign that reflects European constellations on Islam, the vote won the support of Austria’s social democrats and its far-right Freedom Party. The bill—sponsored by Peter Pilz, formerly of Austria’s Green Party—seemed to confirm the struggle on both the left and the right in Europe to articulate a political model capable of accomodating the public presence of Islam there. In the absence of such a model, parties from both ends of the spectrum have employed the language of religious freedom to defend, alternatively, a secular liberal or Christian Europe from Islam. 

The Austrian law is expelling a growing institution that is substantively advancing the possibility of interreligious-dialogue initiatives to contribute to global peace efforts.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, is certainly an awkward advocate for interreligious dialogue. As various policymakers have pointed out, it would be difficult for Saudi Arabia to host an interreligious center within its own borders—churches and other non-Islamic religious institutions are banned in the kingdom, and it is formally illegal for non-Muslims to worship in public. This is one reason why high-ranking Vatican diplomats had refrained from visiting Saudi Arabia for decades, and why Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran’s diplomatic visit to Riyadh in 2018 represented such a breakthrough in relations between Saudi Arabia and the Holy See.

And yet, in trying to pressure Saudi Arabia on its human-rights record and avoid complicity in its policies, the Austrian law is expelling a growing institution that is substantively advancing the possibility of interreligious-dialogue initiatives to contribute to global peace efforts. KAICIID does this in two ways: by connecting multireligious collaboration to concrete policymaking efforts, and by helping legitimize new ideas about religious pluralism and citizenship in the region.

On the first point, KAICIID has developed a number of programs that encourage collaboration between interreligious dialogue and humanitarian development projects. KAICIID’s team inaugurated a major international fellowship program in 2015 that has offered professional training to over two hundred young leaders of multiple religious traditions from all over the world. I recently spent time with a Yazidi scholar and advocate from Iraq who participated in the program, and he attributed the formation he received at KAICIID with helping him advance his own work for peace and reconciliation in northern Iraq. KAICIID has also helped organize national interreligious platforms for religious leaders, offering them support and training. For example, the interreligious platform that KAICIID sponsors in the Central African Republic (CAR) has played an important role in mediating tensions between Muslim and Christian communities there. KAICIID has also launched an ambitious interreligious platform for the Arab world that brings an array of religious leaders in the region together for regular working meetings. The regions where KAICIID is most active, including Central Africa, the Middle East, and Myanmar, are places where improving interreligious relations and coordination can change a country’s chances for peace. Not surprisingly, the two leaders of the platform in CAR, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga and Imam Omar Kobine Layama, were among the first leaders to publicly come to KAICIID’s defense after the vote in the Austrian Parliament, along with many of the organization’s recent fellows and religious partners.

In constructing these projects, KAICIID has proved its mettle as a serious and mostly independent organization. As a multireligious, intergovernmental organization, KAICIID has taken on a useful role as an institutional container that bridges new forms of partnership between international organizations and religious communities around a range of humanitarian and developmental goals. It has worked with an array of faith-based organizations, like Religions for Peace, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and the World Council of Churches, especially in international policymaking arenas like the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the European Union. This institutional bridging has helped produce new policy projects, like the 2017 UN Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence That Could Lead to Atrocity Crimes as well as regular G20 interfaith meetings.

For all of its advances, this process of reform and renewal remains a fragile one; it ought to be supported, not snuffed out.

With such initiatives, KAICIID represents the arrival of new forms of collaboration between religious leaders and states, both globally and regionally, that have emerged in a post-9/11, post–Arab Spring, post-ISIS world. These new models are recasting the role that religious communities, ideas, and actors might play in the global public sphere. Particularly in the context of the Middle East, KAICIID’s work has helped support new and creative thinking about religious pluralism and citizenship from within the matrix of Islamic jurisprudence, including by actors like Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, who orchestrated the landmark 2016 Marrakesh Declaration and who also worked with KAICIID on the 2017 UN Action Plan. The language and practice of interreligious dialogue, which sets religious pluralism and religious dynamism in a positive relationship, has proved attractive to religious leaders and states who have sought a model of political development distinct from either religious authoritarianism or secular liberalism. Across a number of recent declarations and projects originating in the Middle East, KAICIID, bin Bayyah, and other actors representing official and influential Islam have adopted the language of “common” or “inclusive” citizenship to express this religiously rooted model of political development.  

This model of inclusive citizenship echoes central ideas in recent Catholic political thought, especially the concept of integral human development, which has been a centerpiece of Pope Francis’s papacy. These parallels can be clearly traced in the Document of Human Fraternity that Francis signed with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb of al-Azhar University, in which both committed to a strong vision of religious renewal in response to the twin ills of religious extremism and secular materialism.

Although important public figures in Saudi Arabia like Muhammad al-Issa, the Secretary General of the Muslim World League, have increasingly supported this vision of inclusive citizenship (and taken major symbolic steps to reformulate the public relationship between Saudi Arabia and both Christian and Jewish communities), the religious-reform process within Saudi Arabia remains complex and contradictory. Nevertheless, with official Saudi support and in collaboration with the Vatican and other religious organizations, KAICIID is actively participating in a major renegotiation of religion and state in the region, one in which ideas of religious freedom, citizenship, and pluralism might find deeper social and religious grounding.

But for all of its advances, this process of reform and renewal remains a fragile one; it ought to be supported, not snuffed out. Booting KAICIID from Vienna might win short-run concessions (the execution order on Qureiris has been overturned), but it does so at a heavy cost. The move will likely drain support for interreligious dialogue in the Middle East, and fuel the perception that “religious freedom” in Europe is really a code word for preserving exclusivist versions of either secularism or Christianity. In other words, by attempting to unveil the apparent contradictions of Saudi Arabia’s interreligious dialogue efforts, the Austrian law also reveals the apparent contradictions of European policies on religious freedom. Whether or not the perception is accurate, to many in the Middle East, religious freedom in Europe invariably appears to protect the religious practices of secular and Christian individuals while punishing those of Muslims, as recent European legislation on burkas, burkinis, and circumcision would suggest. If Europe is interested in supporting a model of religious pluralism that meaningfully includes Islam, then interreligious-dialogue initiatives like KAICIID have much to offer. Surely the Austrians can find other ways to protest Saudi Arabia’s human-rights policies.

“This Is the Way”: The Mandalorian’s Growth in Charity

In the late first century AD, the historian Tacitus contrasted the freedom of the uncivilized Britons with the corruption of Rome, saying of his own people, “They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.” Tacitus’ words are often evoked to describe the sins of superpowers, and in recent cinematic history, they are aptly applied to the political conglomeration ruled by Palpatine and Darth Vader in the three original Star Wars movies. The Empire’s orderliness is built on black magic, and when it falls apart at the end of Return of the Jedi, we rejoice. But we might also say that the recent Star Wars films themselves represent an orderly but spiritually lacking cinematic empire whose time has come for a quiet revolution. Disney+’s The Mandalorian picks up shortly after the destruction of the second Death Star,…

Vatican Diplomacy & the Iraq War

On Ash Wednesday 2003, a high-level envoy from the Vatican visited the White House to hand-deliver a letter from Pope John Paul II to President George W. Bush. The president set the letter aside and was soon engaged in a pointed and sometimes heated debate with the emissary, Cardinal Pio Laghi, over his administration’s plan to go to war with Iraq.

The following month, I made the first of several attempts over the years to get a copy of that letter through the Freedom of Information Act. Last month, the archivist at the George W. Bush Presidential Library contacted me with the news that my “Mandatory Declassification Review” had been granted.

I wish that I could tell you that the declassified letter contains some startling new information, but the pope’s opposition to Bush’s war in Iraq is well known. Since President Donald Trump has brought U.S. relations with Iran and Iraq to the brink of catastrophe with his order to slay Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani on January 3 in Baghdad, it is a good time to recall John Paul II’s deeply held objections to the Iraq war and the tepid reaction from many American Catholics. 

The pope did not detail his case against the war in his letter. Instead, he urged Bush to heed what Laghi was going to tell him. John Paul notes in the letter that in dispatching Laghi, former papal nuncio to the United States, he was sending someone “whom I am sure you know.” Laghi was a family friend of the Bushes; he’d been a tennis partner of former President George H. W. Bush. But this was no social call.

“I ask you to receive him as my personal Envoy and to listen to the message that he bears on my behalf,” the pope wrote. “It represents what lies in the depth of my heart for the good of all people.”

While substantial segments of the news media and members of Congress from both parties swallowed the claims Bush made about the danger Iraq posed, the pope and his envoy did not. In a detailed account he gave in a speech seven months later, Laghi described the encounter.

When Bush dominated the conversation, Laghi told him: “I did not come here only to listen, but also to ask you to listen.” When Bush claimed that al-Qaeda was training soldiers in Iraq, Laghi retorted, “Are you sure? Where is the evidence?”

In Brooklyn, the diocesan newspaper ran so many columns disputing John Paul’s view of the war that I wrote one defending the pope.

These would be good questions for Trump, too, as he makes misleading claims about the conflict with Iran. But it’s hard to imagine Trump having a lengthy, detailed conversation like the one Laghi and Bush had.

“We spoke for a long time about the consequences of a war,” Laghi said. “I asked: ‘Do you realize what you’ll unleash inside Iraq by occupying it?’ The disorder, the conflicts between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds—everything that has in fact happened.”

Bush responded that the result would be democracy. The president tried to end the meeting on common ground, speaking about his opposition to abortion rights and cloning. “The cardinal replied that those issues were not the purpose of his mission,” Catholic News Service reported.

The letter makes clear that St. John Paul II fully backed what Laghi said—the cardinal told reporters after his meeting with the president that the war would be both “unjust” and “illegal” because it lacked United Nations sanction. And the letter, along with the high-level, personal diplomacy involved, shows how deeply convinced the pope was that this war in particular was a disaster in the making, one that would further poison Christian-Muslim relations, a subject so important to him. He was not going to be bowled over by what turned out to be false claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Even though the pope used all of his influence to try to stop the war, the reaction among American Catholics was noticeably cool. With the start of the war three weeks after Laghi met with Bush, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, then the vicar for U.S. military services, issued a letter to Catholic chaplains stating: “Given the complexity of factors involved, many of which understandably remain confidential, it is altogether appropriate for members of our armed forces to presume the integrity of our leadership and its judgments and therefore to carry out their military duties in good conscience.”

The U.S. Catholic bishops issued a letter urging Bush to “step back from the brink of war,” but it received little attention—possibly because their moral credibility was shot with the clergy sex-abuse scandal, but also because most bishops failed to speak up about the war in their dioceses. In the Diocese of Brooklyn, where I live, the diocesan newspaper ran so many columns disputing John Paul’s view of the war that I wrote one defending the pope. At the time it seemed to be a strange thing to do—to have to defend the pope from a diocesan newspaper’s coverage.

Others would try to reinterpret the plain meaning of what the pope and Vatican officials were saying, or argue that as a religious leader, John Paul lacked the competence to apply just-war principles in a specific case. “The questions raised to religious spokesmen are inescapable: On the basis of what expert knowledge do you advocate policy x against policy y?” the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus wrote. “By what authority or by whose authority do you speak?”

Pope Francis will face such questions too, as he tries to calm tensions that once again threaten to worsen relations between Muslims and Christians—which he, like John Paul, has strived to mend. He began with a statement after the Angelus prayer on January 5, warning, like a string of his predecessors, that “War brings only death and destruction.” He added: “I call upon all parties to fan the flame of dialogue and self-control, and to banish the shadow of enmity.”

“Self-control”: an interesting choice of words to apply to world leaders. All the more reason to join in repeating words St. John Paul II wrote to Bush: “I implore God to inspire you and all those charged with the highest civil authority to find the way to lasting peace, the noblest of human endeavors.”

Here’s What’s Coming in 2020 in the Word on Fire Institute!

2019 was a year of growth, blessings, and persistent spiritual renewal for the Word on Fire Institute. We have grown to over 9,500 members from around the world, representing 27 countries, and: Launched the brand-new Word on Fire Institute quarterly journal entitled Evangelization & Culture. Launched two podcasts, The John Allen Show and The Evangelization & Culture Show. Hosted two live Bishop Barron Presents events with Leah Libresco Sargeant and Dr. Arthur Brooks. Opened the official WOFI offices in Dallas, Texas. Built exciting new relationships with other organizations around the country, which will come to bear great fruit for the good of the Great Commission. This growth is a sign of God’s blessings, and we cannot thank each and every one of our members and donors enough. Now, as we look forward to the new year, I thought I would share the exciting plans we have…

Ways of Heaven

Twentieth-century history has tended to overlook the life of Austrian Catholic martyr Franz Jägerstätter (1907–1943). His refusal to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler, and his subsequent execution, never attained the notoriety of, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conspiracy to assassinate the Führer. Despite his beatification by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, Jägerstätter has nevertheless remained a niche figure—popular among pacifists, peace activists, and conscientious objectors, but not someone known broadly among Catholics. With the release of Terrence Malick’s Jägerstätter biopic, his biography has finally come into broader public view. 

In A Hidden Life, which premiered last spring at Cannes, Malick dispenses with his  typical non-linear plotlines and visual flourishes. He has instead made a more straightforward biopic, one whose episodic structure closely tracks the historical contours of Jägerstätter’s life. That said, it’s still vintage Malick. There are whispered voice-overs, angled camerawork, tight closeups, and gorgeous shots of the natural world. It’s also a theologically robust film, one that imbues the slow pace of Jägerstätter’s rural Austrian village, St. Radegund, with the sacred imagery of the gospels.

Malick’s portrait of Jägerstätter relies on two primary sources. The first is Gordon Zahn’s 1964 biography, In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter. The young Jägerstätter, Zahn tells us, was a notorious flirt with a flair for drama (he was often seen riding a motorcycle, the first to be brought to his small mountain village). But later Jägerstätter’s faith matured, partly inspired by the piety of his wife Franziska, and soon his devout Catholicism came to inform his increasingly critical view of National Socialism. After refusing to serve in the Wehrmacht—against the protestations of his village, the Catholic Church, and even his own lawyers—Jägerstätter was arrested and imprisoned at Linz. He was swiftly charged with “insubordination of the war effort,” brought to trial, and convicted. Jägerstätter was then sentenced to death and executed by guillotine on August 9, 1943. 

Minimal use of dialogue and voiceover seems like a missed opportunity, given the eloquence of Jägerstätter’s writing.

But more than Jägerstätter’s martyrdom (the moment of his execution is never shown), Malick is interested in his small acts of holiness—almost all of them adapted from Jägerstätter’s own Letters and Writings from Prison, a posthumous collection edited by Erna Putz. A Hidden Life thus features scenes of Franz (played by August Diehl) sweeping the floors of his village church, or giving his rations to other hungry prisoners at Linz. Malick further underscores the film’s documentary authenticity by shooting inside Jägerstätter’s actual home in the Austrian Alps, where we witness loving and playful moments between Jägerstätter and his wife (played by Valerie Pachner). The haunting shots of Franziska sitting alone in the couple’s bedroom were filmed in the  room from which the real Jägerstätter was taken.

Many of Malick’s films have biblical undertones (recall Tree of Life or Days of Heaven), but A Hidden Life moves into more pointedly evangelical territory, joining films like The Mission, Romero, Of Gods and Men, and Silence in comparing the life of its protagonist to the life of Christ in the gospels. Early in the film we see the Jägerstätters in a field gathering wheat, separating the chaff and throwing it into a burning pile—thus recalling the words of John the Baptist in Matthew 3:12 (“His winnowing fork is in his hand…”). These allusions to divine judgment yield to scenes late in the film highlighting Jägerstätter’s Christ-like compassion. One shows Jägerstätter in prison, gazing at two other convicts as they await their turn at the guillotine. Though he doesn’t speak it aloud, Jägerstätter’s face communicates Jesus’ pronouncement from the cross in Luke 23:43: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

A Hidden Life isn’t without its faults. As much as Malick’s wide angles and close-ups can mimic human memory and perception, they’re also just as often disorienting. Minimal use of dialogue and voiceover seems like a missed opportunity, given the eloquence of Jägerstätter’s writing. Malick also repeats his habit of overly sentimentalizing his female characters: here again they’re muses for the male imagination rather than protagonists in their own right. The film makes some attempt to convey the sorrows of the historical Franziska Jägerstätter, but Malick reduces her robust spiritual life—so central to her husband’s conversion and martyrdom—to near non-existence.

A similar critique can be made about Malick’s understanding of Jägerstätter’s own spirituality, which was in fact more traditional—and more sacramental—than A Hidden Life implies. Jägerstätter attended daily Mass and regular prayer services at his parish in St. Radegund. His letters tell us that he prayed the rosary constantly while incarcerated, also drawing strength from the Eucharist as the date of his execution approached. But the film presents Jägerstätter within the confines of a predominantly intellectual theology. For Malick, it seems, God is mediated primarily through nature, Scripture, and introspection. These were certainly important elements in Jägerstätter’s religiosity, but the daily texture of his faith was much more embodied, grounded in the materiality of the sacraments and Catholic ritual. Their omission from A Hidden Life is surprising, and in a way, misleading.

A Hidden Life takes its title from the closing lines of Middlemarch, but Malick might also have considered the words of his own subject. “It is undeniable that times change, and therefore the way to heaven does not remain the same,” Jägerstätter once wrote. Martyrdom doesn’t seem to be on Malick’s mind as much as the importance of acting according to one’s conscience. Still, a deeper glimpse into Jägerstätter’s sacramentality could have helped us understand the source of the conviction that, in those dark days, made him choose the path he did.