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“The Social Dilemma” and the Gift of Our Baptism

In a recent episode of The Word on Fire Show (episode 263), Brandon Vogt and Bishop Barron had a conversation about a new Netflix documentary called The Social Dilemma. The film is about the darker side of social media, as explained by Silicon Valley innovators behind the new technology and former employees of ‘Big Tech’ companies. These are people who have either left the industry for good or added their weight behind the push for ethics to create a more humane technology. In one scene from the movie, a young girl is on some social-media platform where she has uploaded a picture of herself. Soon after posting it, a number of ‘likes’ come flowing in. The reaction on her face shows her gratification for the instant approval. But, then, a negative comment arrives about her appearance. Her reaction this time is one of deep concern. She has a sudden…

The One Missing Fact

EWTN’s website declares that “Our mission is simple. We aim to bring you reliable, accurate, trustworthy news, from a perspective of faith. We prize integrity, fairness, and a commitment to the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

But in reporting one of the biggest stories to hit the Catholic Church in recent years, EWTN, which says it is the largest religion-news organization in the world, was neither reliable, nor accurate, nor trustworthy. Its coverage of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s bold call for Pope Francis to resign his office willfully ignored the gaps and contradictions in his claims (except to explain them away), promoted his credibility, and slanted the narrative against the pope.

This can be seen even more clearly now that the Vatican has released its report on the Holy See’s role in advancing the career of Theodore McCarrick to his pinnacle as cardinal-archbishop of Washington and elder statesman of the American Church—all the while concealing multiple allegations that he sexually harassed and abused seminarians and young priests. But from the start, EWTN shaped the story to fit its increasingly Fox News-ified agenda.

From the start, EWTN shaped the story to fit its increasingly Fox News-ified agenda.

EWTN Global Catholic Network, based in Alabama, is a powerhouse. The nonprofit organization boasts cable subscribers in 310 million households in one hundred and forty-five countries, more than five hundred radio affiliates, the National Catholic Register newspaper, a book-publishing unit, and the Catholic News Agency. Its website received 4.9 million visits in November, according to SimilarWeb analytics. Publicly filed tax returns show that its main entity, Eternal Word Television Network, raised $305 million in donations from 2014 through 2018.

Viganò released his “testimony” against Francis and other prelates through the Register, as well as on the farther-right website LifeSiteNews, on August 25, 2018. It was, for any journalist, a titillating document, with a high-ranking insider accusing not only Pope Francis but also numerous bishops of covering up the allegations against McCarrick. But it also contained many warning signs that required journalistic caution in reporting on it.

The biggest was that while Viganò called for the pope to take the unprecedented step of resigning for malfeasance—for supposedly reversing sanctions that Pope Benedict XVI had imposed on McCarrick—the archbishop didn’t really know what Benedict had done, or when he did it. On one hand, Viganò said he told Pope Francis about Benedict’s sanctions on McCarrick. On the other, it wasn’t clear from his own account how much he knew. Despite that haziness, Viganò asserted that it was “certain” Pope Benedict had imposed “canonical sanctions” barring McCarrick from celebrating Mass in public, giving lectures or traveling, taking part in public meetings, and requiring him to leave the seminary where he was living.

This raised another obvious problem with Viganò’s claim: it was easily verified that during the sixteen months he was the papal nuncio to the United States and Benedict was pope, McCarrick remained in the public spotlight (sometimes in events with Benedict or Viganò), traveled the globe, and appeared on national television. But in Viganò’s telling, “From the time of Pope Francis’s election, McCarrick, now free from all constraints, had felt free to travel continuously, to give lectures and interviews.” The question was: What constraints?

This is not to deny the document’s value as a tool for reporters to unpack the two-decade story of how McCarrick advanced to such heights in the Church. But the EWTN operation lacked the journalistic distance to filter out Viganò’s bias, and thus to find the larger story that was implicit in his testimony—how the McCarrick matter was mishandled through three papacies. They’re not the first journalists to limit themselves to a major source who gave them a string of exclusives, but they should at least realize what they’ve done in retrospect. Judging from the coverage of the McCarrick report, released this November, the key journalists there don’t.

 

The network’s most visible figure, newscaster and Fox News commentator Raymond Arroyo, led the way in arguing for Viganò’s credibility and keeping the focus where the archbishop wanted it: on Francis and those American bishops who supported him. In breaking the Viganò story on August 25, National Catholic Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin wrote:

“What is certain,” Viganò writes in his testimony, “is that Pope Benedict imposed the above canonical sanctions on McCarrick and that they were communicated to him by the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Pietro Sambi.” 

 

The Register has independently confirmed that the allegations against McCarrick were certainly known to Benedict, and the Pope Emeritus remembers instructing Cardinal Bertone to impose measures but cannot recall their exact nature. 

At first read, it looks like enterprising journalism for Pentin to be able to confirm that important fact while reporting a breaking story. But it reminds me of a quip I once heard from the late Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Murray Kempton: “An investigative reporter is someone who leaves out one key fact.” I took him to mean the missing fact that would lead readers to the gray areas of a story, the ambiguities that soften outrage, Kempton’s specialty.

Six days later, Pentin used a blog post to report, in the fifteenth paragraph of a twenty-three-paragraph article, what the key fact was. From “a reliable source close to Benedict” he had gleaned this:

As mentioned in the Register’s initial report on the testimony on Aug. 25, the Pope Emeritus was “unable to remember very well” how the matter was handled, according to the source. As far as Benedict could recall, the source said the instruction was essentially that McCarrick should keep a “low profile.” There was “no formal decree, just a private request.”

Request. That’s a world of difference from the “canonical sanctions” that, according to Viganò, Pope Francis had removed in an act of “sinful conduct,” in which he “associated himself in doing evil with someone he knew to be deeply corrupt,” and was “abdicating the mandate which Christ gave to Peter.”

This revision came about after a Catholic newspaper in Germany, Die Tagespost, published an August 28 article in which a Holy See insider, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, said it was “fake news” to claim that Benedict had confirmed Viganò’s allegations. This presented a challenge for EWTN: Gänswein, who worked closely with the two popes, was one of the good guys in EWTN’s version of Vatican politics, someone who granted its reporters rare access to the highest levels of the Church.

According to Die Tagespost, Gänswein was referring to a New York Times report on August 27 that quoted EWTN board member Timothy Busch, a wealthy conservative Catholic lawyer and donor, as saying that he believed Viganò’s claims to be credible. Referring to the National Catholic Register, the Times said that “leaders of the publication had personally assured him that the former pope, Benedict XVI, had confirmed Archbishop Viganò’s account.”  

The EWTN operation lacked the journalistic distance to filter out Viganò’s bias, and thus to find the larger story that was implicit in his testimony.

I won’t weigh readers down with the semantic debate that followed with Busch’s denial and a flurry of related attacks and counterattacks on social media. The editors were on the spot. As is often the case when that happens, the reporter was left to explain. 

Pentin did so in an interview with Arroyo. “This is certainly a very very good source who told me that, and it seems very clear that Pope Benedict did enforce sanctions, he did impose sanctions,” he said. But, Arroyo told Pentin with a stagy alarm, Gänswein’s comments “seemed to undercut your reporting.” With the table set, Pentin responded that wasn’t the case. “What he didn’t deny is that there were sanctions imposed on Cardinal McCarrick.... So we stand by our report on that.” 

What was missing was added the next day to the fifteenth paragraph of Pentin’s blog post: his “very very good source” had told him in July that Benedict’s sanctions amounted to “a private request” to keep a “low profile.” In fairness to all parties involved, that should have been in the original story on August 25. But that would have undercut Viganò’s credibility. Arroyo continued on his path when he appeared on The Ingraham Angle on Fox News. Viganò was “very well respected, [a] man of integrity, a sharpshooter.” He declared that “bishops around the United States and the world, Tyler, Texas, Arizona and the entire Conference of Catholic bishops say these are credible charges that need full investigation.”

That was an exaggeration: the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops hadn’t said the charges were credible. Rather, the president of the conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, had issued a statement saying that “the questions raised deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence. Without those answers, innocent men may be tainted by false accusation and the guilty may be left to repeat sins of the past.” 

The missing “one key fact” became clearer when Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, released an open letter on October 7, 2018, explaining what he’d learned through a document search. McCarrick “had been strongly advised not to travel and not to appear in public, so as not to provoke additional rumors in his regard,” he wrote. But, he added, “It is false to present the measures taken in his regard as ‘sanctions’ decreed by Pope Benedict XVI and revoked by Pope Francis.” There were no documents requiring “an obligatory mandate of silence and to retire to a private life, carrying canonical penalties. The reason being that at that time, unlike today, there was not sufficient proof of his alleged guilt.” This cast the matter into the gray area EWTN commentators had been avoiding: Benedict, lacking evidence to formally sanction McCarrick, “strongly advised” that McCarrick stay out of the public eye to avoid drawing public (read: news-media) attention to himself.

On his The World Over telecast on October 11, Arroyo and his “papal posse,” Robert Royal and Rev. Gerald Murray, did their best to dismiss Ouellet’s findings. It didn’t matter if Benedict’s decision was formal or not, Arroyo and Murray maintained. “The pope does not make decisions based on rumors,” Murray said, adding that the pope has a right to tell Church leaders what to do, in writing or not. “Any evidence that is brought forward is going to confirm what Viganò said,” the New York priest said, adding that the steps Ouellet described “are all sanctions placed on someone who has committed an ecclesiastical crime.”

 

The McCarrick report that the Vatican released on November 10 has shortcomings, but its chief virtue is its extensive disclosure of documents in normally secret Church files. The records show that in December 2006, the papal nuncio to the United States at the time, Pietro Sambi, told McCarrick that “he needs to decide to lead a private and prayerful life, so as not to be spoken of,” even if “no one believes in the truth of the accusations.”

McCarrick managed to thrive in the gray area that the Curia created for him. There was no announcement to him that the pope had decided this (the report says Benedict was informed of the steps that were taken). At least some of the time, McCarrick informed the Vatican Secretariat of State about his public activities in various parts of the globe. He even concelebrated Mass with Benedict at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in April 2008. 

After the psychotherapist Richard Sipe published an online statement about “The McCarrick Syndrome” in 2008—and Viganò highlighted it in the second of his two detailed memos to Vatican superiors about McCarrick—there was a renewed, but still weak, effort to rein in the cardinal.

The tone of the next letter to McCarrick was more insistent, but still gave him room to maneuver. Cardinal Giovanni Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, wrote: “I appeal to your ecclesial spirit and I am obliged to ask you not to accept invitations for any public events.” According to the report, Gänswein said Benedict recalled approving of the approach taken in Cardinal Re’s letter. If Viganò was right about anything, it was in his call for a real investigation to be done, a canonical proceeding. He never knew if that was done, but told the world that it was. It wasn’t.

The McCarrick report didn’t only expose the bias, the gaps, and the suppositions in Viganò’s allegations; it implicitly exposed the same in EWTN’s reporting. Given its size and influence, and its claim on truth, the network has a duty to examine how it reported this story—much as mainstream secular news organizations sometimes do after mishandling a major story. Often enough, the problem is getting too close to sources and failing to verify their claims. Think of the New York Times and the Iraq war, or 2016 election coverage that failed to understand the strength of Donald Trump’s campaign.

But the release of the McCarrick report prompted a victory lap of sorts at EWTN. In keeping with his practice to tell one side of this story—Viganò’s—Arroyo’s November 12, 2020 episode of The World Over featured what was presented as a telephone interview with Viganò, with the usual piling on from the “papal posse.” Even more revealing was a podcast called the CNA Editor’s Desk, featuring Catholic News Agency’s editor, J. D. Flynn, and Ed Condon, the Washington bureau chief. Condon took the opportunity to trash other journalists who had covered the story. The report had noted that reporters from the Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey, the New York Times, and the Washington Post had tried to report stories on allegations circulating about McCarrick’s advances on seminarians—indeed, the Vatican restrictions on McCarrick had been aimed at preventing those stories—but weren’t able to verify them. 

David Gibson, at the time a reporter for the Star-Ledger, was quoted in the report as saying that in 2002 he had gotten a list of seven former seminarians at Seton Hall University who, he was told, McCarrick allegedly abused at a beach house on the Jersey shore. But none of them would speak beyond a curt denial. (Gibson is a contributor to Commonweal and a friend of this writer.) It was the same story for a Washington Post reporter.

Condon bragged of how he got that story—but “one key fact” was missing from his boast: there is a huge difference between getting McCarrick’s victims to talk in 2002, when he was at the peak of his power, and in August 2018, after he was discredited by a “substantiated” child-abuse allegation and had renounced his position in the College of Cardinals. By then, it was safer to talk.

Condon, a canon lawyer, noted that he didn’t have journalistic training when he was hired at Catholic News Agency at the end of July 2018. “I heard these rumors and I published three stories about McCarrick and his conduct with seminarians...and I did it in the first three weeks I worked at CNA,” he said. “It was that easy. I don’t think I’m some kind of journalistic savant. I think the rest of them were lazy and incurious and culpable in this.” He went on: “The difference between us and other Catholic journalists, J. D.—and this is the closest I will come to taking a victory lap in this podcast—”

“We’re getting dangerously close to being unseemly here,” Flynn cut in.

“I don’t care,” Condon continued, and without skipping a beat, dug himself in deeper. 

Flynn tried again: “I do not like to spike the football.”

Condon was undeterred: “I’m mad, J. D.” 

Issue: 

Balthazar’s Gift Is a Sophisticated, Complex Proclamation

In this week after the Epiphany, it occurs to me that a depiction of the Adoration of the Kings, done by the Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel (Breugel the Elder), deserves further scrutiny, most especially of Balthazar’s complex gift. What are we to make of the green nautilus conch, bearing myrrh and presented within a small barque? Bruegel was not the only artist to use the nautilus in this way. Maerten de Vos and Johann Sadeler, working at around the same time, also show Balthazar presenting a conch-shell variation to the Christ. In the sixteenth century, much had been written about its golden-mean geometry and logarithmic mathematics, so the number of artists using nautilus cups for Balthazar’s gift of Myrrh—the embalmer’s spice—is not surprising. We can see representations of the nautilus in Willem Kalf’s Still Life with Porcelain and a Nautilus Cup and—more relevantly—in his Still Life with Chinese Bowl and…

Illiterate and Graced, St. André Bessette: “I Am Sending You a Saint”

Does God only give grace to smart people? Is holiness directly proportional to intelligence or ability? Obviously the answer is no, but it sure seems like the great saints are all also holy geniuses. St. Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, St. Augustine, St. Catherine of Siena; the older saints seem to be academic all-stars. The Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, with her “Little Way,” might seem a simple mind, but anyone who has read her writing knows the profound wisdom found within—she is a Doctor of the Church after all. St. Martin de Porres? Even he was known for his ability to solve thorny theological questions brought to him by his Dominican brothers and inquiring bishops. Could it be that God indeed loves the poor in spirit, but really favors the rich in intellect?  As usual, St. Thomas Aquinas offers some help in answering our question.

‘Our Eucharist Is a Feast’

One of the final recommendations from the October 2019 Synod on the Amazon was that a liturgical rite be developed for use by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. This collaborative effort would be a work of liturgical inculturation, representing an integration of Catholic faith with the culture of the Amazonian peoples—a Catholic liturgical expression “valuing the original worldview, traditions, symbols and rites that include transcendent, community and ecological dimensions.” In his post-synodal exhortation, Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis embraced inculturation too: “What is needed is courageous openness to the novelty of the Spirit, who is always able to create something new with the inexhaustible riches of Jesus Christ.” 

Just a few weeks after the synod, Francis presided at a celebration of the Zairean liturgy at St. Peter’s Basilica for the Congolese community in Rome. The Zairean rite is the only fully inculturated liturgy to emerge since the Second Vatican Council, so the symbolic value of the event was high. A book about this experience was recently published with a preface written by Francis praising the liturgy and affirming it as a model of inculturation for the Amazon and elsewhere. He also produced a video message promoting it. Francis, it would appear, is becoming a serious advocate for liturgical inculturation.

What is liturgical inculturation? It is the insertion of liturgy into a given culture in such a way that the liturgy absorbs the culture (and is thus able to speak from within the culture) and the culture absorbs the liturgy (and thus the Christian faith upon which it rests becomes more deeply integrated into the social fabric and worldview of that society). The fathers at Vatican II, when writing the liturgy constitution, incorporated four critical paragraphs on liturgical inculturation (37–40). These gave permission for cultural adaptation of the liturgy in both a simple and a profound manner. It was, and still is, a big deal.

The Zairean rite is the only fully inculturated liturgy to emerge since the Second Vatican Council.

For one thing, it was a decision that ruled out a kind of cultural imperialism that identified Catholic liturgy exclusively with its European expressions. For another, it has sparked a lot of critical reflection on the role of culture in how people worship generally. As my mentor in liturgical studies, Aidan Kavanagh, used to say, “the liturgy did not fall from heaven in a Glad bag.” Liturgy has always drawn on local cultures—not only art, music, vesture, and architecture, but also prayer forms, gestures, and liturgical actions. During the Tridentine era, however, there was a great deal of pressure to centralize control and enforce liturgical uniformity. This was the situation that Vatican II set out to correct. 

The Church continues to expand in regions of the world that are home to widely diverse cultures. Why not allow liturgical variations that will speak to the hearts of people living in the Congo Basin? Or the Torres Straits Islands? Or the Amazon rainforest? Advocates of inculturation see it as an opportunity for evangelization. Unfortunately, one has only to recall the hysterical reaction to the presence of statuettes of a pregnant woman at the Amazon Synod to see that ignorance and negative assumptions about indigenous people can fuel opposition to inculturation. We cheerfully put an Advent wreath in a church (a custom derived from pre-Christian Scandinavia), but a piece of Amazonian folk art is presumed to be the product of idolatry. 

At the official level, the greatest openness to inculturation occurred immediately after the council, during the pontificate of Paul VI. During the John Paul II and Benedict years, however, the atmosphere turned hostile. It’s not as though no one tried. A rite was proposed for India. It was never approved. A rite for the Philippines was completed, but likewise sat on a desk in the Curia. The only liturgy that got through the net was the Congolese Rite. This is why the “Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire” is so important. It’s the sole example of what the council actually hoped for, and what Francis now seeks to revive.

The name of their liturgical ordo was imposed on them (they wanted to leave “Roman” out of the title). Nevertheless, even as it remains totally recognizable as the Mass, quite a number of its distinguishing features are rooted in African soil. To name but a few examples: the liturgy includes an invocation of the ancestors. An “announcer”—a particular ministry not known in other iterations of the Roman Rite—invites the participation of the assembly. Servers may carry spears as an honor guard. There is an elaborate offertory procession. The altar is venerated in four directions. Most impressive, there is dancing throughout the Mass. Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, the cardinal archbishop of Kinshasa and a member of Francis’s cardinal advisory council, participated in the Amazon synod as a representative of Africa. He spoke at a press conference, noting parallels between the Amazon and the Congo Basin, and he praised the Zairean rite, saying, “our Eucharist is a feast.” Will the Amazonian people likewise have their feast, drawing on the riches of their culture in the celebration of Eucharist? If Francis has anything to say about it, the answer is evidently “yes.” 

Issue: 

“Love in the Ruins”: Walker Percy’s End of the World as We Know It

It is funny how one can look back at a most mundane moment and realize just how outrageously pivotal it actually was. For example, during my freshman year in college, I had a work-study job in my school’s library. With my affection for books, it seemed as though I had hit the jackpot with the best possible job. I didn’t anticipate the long stretches of boredom when we were overstaffed, combined with slow business at the circulation desk. But the librarian had a solution: reading the shelves. Idle workers were dispatched to various rooms of the library to read the shelves—that is, to look at the LC numbers and make sure the books were in order. The best of all areas to be assigned was the basement, where the fiction stacks were housed. It was a playground of temptations. Read a few call numbers, straighten a few books, and succumb…

Public Health v. Culture War

It’s fitting that Amy Coney Barrett, whose nomination to the Supreme Court was celebrated with a superspreader event at the White House, would begin her tenure by targeting measures meant to combat the pandemic. In Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, the Supreme Court ruled that restrictions on religious gatherings imposed by New York’s governor violated the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment. Barrett’s influence was unmistakable. The late November decision departed from two similar cases in recent months that involved churches in California and Nevada. Their outcomes depended on Chief Justice John Roberts joining the four members of the court’s liberal wing—which then included Ruth Bader Ginsburg—to uphold public-health rules.

Now that Barrett has replaced Ginsburg, the Supreme Court’s conservatives have been further empowered. In an unsigned majority opinion, five of them took aim at an executive order signed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that puts a strict cap on attendance at religious services in certain color-coded geographical zones, classified by severity of their COVID-19 levels: in “orange zones” twenty-five people can attend; in “red zones” only ten. Because there were no such limits on either “essential” businesses in red zones or non-essential businesses in orange zones, the conservative majority concluded that houses of worship had been singled out for especially harsh treatment. Justice Neil Gorsuch was particularly irked that liquor stores and bike shops weren’t covered by the restrictions. “Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?” he wrote in his concurrence.

The reason for such disparities should be obvious: attending Mass isn’t anything like picking up a bottle of wine.

It’s a silly point, one that has less to do with public health or the law than with culture-war grievances. The reason for such disparities should be obvious: attending Mass isn’t anything like picking up a bottle of wine. Justice Sonia Sotomayor ably dispensed with Gorsuch’s reasoning in her dissent, noting that he “does not even try to square his examples with the conditions medical experts tell us facilitate the spread of COVID–19: large groups of people gathering, speaking, and singing in close proximity indoors for extended periods of time.” One might add that, when compared with similar secular events, religious services actually receive preferential treatment in New York—concerts, spectator sports, and movie theaters, for example, are given no reprieve at all.

This is not to say that Cuomo’s executive order is beyond criticism. It seems reasonable to suggest that attendance limits could be determined by a venue’s capacity—that a vast cathedral should be treated differently than a cramped parish church. But measures implemented in an emergency, subject to adjustment and revision, may be imperfect without being unconstitutional. For all the conservative justices’ talk of judicial restraint, this was a striking example of legislating from the bench and usurping the discretion of elected officials.

The day after the decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo was announced, Pope Francis published a moving reflection in the New York Times on how he hoped the pandemic would touch our hearts. He expressed his disappointment at those who protest reasonable public-health restrictions, forsaking consideration of the common good. “It is all too easy for some to take an idea—in this case, for example, personal freedom—and turn it into an ideology,” he wrote, “creating a prism through which they judge everything.” He might as well have been talking about the  Supreme Court conservative majority. For them, “religious liberty” means exemption from having to deal with people or policies they dislike. That they cloak their defiance in the language of the Constitution should fool no one.

Issue: 

The New Age: On the Fear of Religion

The renowned physicist Stephen Hawking once claimed that the idea of an afterlife is “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” In response, Oxford mathematician John Lennox suggested that perhaps the inverse is true, that atheism is just “a fairy story for those afraid of the Light.” Naturally, Dr. Lennox’s witty quip has produced a hearty ensemble of chuckles from approving theist hearers. But in his reply to Hawking, the Oxford professor touched on a much deeper and more serious cultural phenomenon than perhaps is initially grasped—namely, the “fear of religion.” “Men despise religion,” wrote the great seventeenth-century polymath Blaise Pascal in his Pensées. “They hate it and are afraid it is true.” At first, we might be tempted to wonder whether he exaggerates. Is it really true to say that men despise, even fear, religion? The propagators of the New Atheism (to name one specific subset of irreligious…

The Bundist Rabbi

Michael Feinberg never felt more like a Bundist rabbi than when he was marching down the streets of Manhattan toward City Hall, shoulder-to-shoulder with Evangelical Christian ministers, Muslim imams, and Catholic priests. It was 2011 and the clergy had come together to support a landmark New York City living-wage campaign. All told, over one hundred and fifty faith leaders spoke at mass meetings, took part in silent prayer vigils, signed petitions, or buttonholed city officials. Some accompanied fast-food workers as they staged one-day strikes. Feinberg, the longtime director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, helped bring them together.

It was no easy task. Many of them held fundamentally different views on many issues, including LGBTQ rights and abortion. They weren’t used to working with each other. But in the fight for fair wages for food-service workers, janitors, laborers, and retail clerks, the faith community held firm. 

It turned out that every Roman collar, robe, kippah, habit, and stole was needed. The living-wage proposal was bitterly opposed by an array of high-powered New Yorkers, including then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the editors of the influential New York Post, and much of the business community. But the moral voice of the religious leaders helped build strong majority support among voters, leading to the passage of the 2012 Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, one of the strongest living-wage bills in the United States. “That was the single most important faith-led campaign I’ve been a part of,” Feinberg says. “There was a union providing resources and direction, and without that we would not have been successful. But the campaign was led by faith leaders, and that is what gave it its power.” Having felt the weight of their power, the coalition of faith leaders has kept a grip on it. They continue to meet regularly and have come together to support local campaigns on affordable housing, policing, and economic and racial justice. 

This organized pursuit of justice is both Michael Feinberg’s work and his passion. And it is why he calls himself a Bundist rabbi. The Jewish Labor Bund of Russia and Poland was a socialist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Bund was a response to the rapid rise of industrial capitalism that abruptly threw tens of thousands of Jews out of their roles as artisans and small shopkeepers and into low-wage, tenuous factory work. The Bund fought for economic rights for all workers while also defending the cultural and civil rights of the Jewish community targeted by anti-Semitism. Founded in 1897, the Bund quickly grew to include forty thousand members. By 1906, it had become the largest socialist organization in the Russian empire, which then included Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and much of modern-day Poland.

The Jewish Labor Bund fought for economic rights for all workers while also defending the cultural and civil rights of the Jewish community targeted by anti-Semitism.

The Bund played a leading role in the 1905 Russian Revolution, organizing multiple strikes and demonstrations. Its demands included a democratic political system, civil rights for Jews, and improvements to the dismal conditions of their workplaces and tenement housing. But the Russian Bund’s support for democracy clashed with Vladimir Lenin’s agenda, and it was dissolved by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution. For a few more decades, the Polish Bund remained an active force defending Jewish culture and education, until losing most of its members in the Holocaust.

Some Bund members were able to emigrate, including to England, where a young Michael Feinberg met a group of then-elderly Bundists during Jewish socialist group meetings in the 1970s. Although the Bund was mostly secular, Feinberg says it is the lineage he identifies most with. “The material conditions for it don’t exist anymore—we don’t have a mass Jewish proletariat—but the Bund’s ideas are just as relevant,” he says. “We can learn from what they did right and apply it to our organizing now.” 

During Sunday school sessions in his Reform synagogue in the New Jersey suburbs, Feinberg never heard about the Bund. But he did have a role model for Jewish activism sitting at his dinner table. Feinberg’s father, Bill, was a lawyer who devoted countless hours of pro bono work to the early environmental-protection movement, including the fight to preserve Jersey beachfront from capture by private interests. “He believed in the commons, and in public institutions and strong taxation,” Feinberg says. “It all pointed in a socialist direction, but he was a liberal Democrat and the label socialist didn’t resonate with him. But the values did, and those are what I try to live up to.”

As a freshman at Cornell in the mid-1970s, Feinberg was already active in the campus anti-apartheid and anti-racism campaigns when Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) founder Michael Harrington arrived to speak. Harrington, a former Catholic Worker and the author of the landmark poverty exposé The Other America, had broken with the Socialist Party to create the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, the predecessor of today’s DSA. The DSOC’s goal was to work within the Democratic Party to push progressive policies. Harrington himself had moved away from the Catholicism of his youth, but the DSOC included several devoutly religious members. From the beginning, it had rejected Marxist atheistic and authoritarian tenets even as it embraced Marx’s critiques of capitalism. 

That evening in Ithaca, Harrington pulled together the lessons of Bill Feinberg’s example, the communitarian foundations of Judaism, and the exhilarating movement culture Feinberg was newly embracing. “I immediately resonated with Harrington’s formula for the ‘left wing of the possible,’” he says. “Cultish groups that are waiting for a 1917-style revolution tomorrow never held any appeal for me. For me, the goal is to move closer and closer to socialism, but the daily work has to include improving people’s lives.”

After college, Feinberg joined the Brandywine Peace Community in Pennsylvania, a group committed to nonviolent activism. He took part in a multi-faith sanctuary movement for refugees from U.S.-funded wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Many of his allies in this activism were Christians, including the legendary Catholic priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan. These were the days when the Berrigans and a half dozen others were busily forming the legendary Plowshares Eight, a name derived from Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.” On September 9, 1980, the Eight broke into a General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, pounded with hammers on the nose cones of two Mark 12A warheads, and poured their own blood on documents. As they waited to be arrested, they offered prayers for peace. Feinberg was part of the Plowshares Eight support group. “If Dan Berrigan had not been the priest that he was, I would not have become the rabbi that I am,” he says.

During these years, Feinberg was also deeply influenced by the feminist rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, who in 1981 became the first woman ordained as a rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement. He met the activist and devout Catholic César Chávez. He learned from rabbis like Arthur Waskow, who demonstrated against wars and in favor of environmental causes, and Everett Gendler, whose scholarship connected Judaism and nonviolence. “I’ve been blessed to meet the right people at the right moments in my life,” he says. “Berrigan used the term, ‘walking-around saints.’ We don’t have saints in Judaism, but these were people who were all about creating a better world for others.” 

As Feinberg saw it, his studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania were preparation for him to follow in their footsteps. “It was never my intention to be a ‘pulpit rabbi,’” he says. “I wanted to be an organizer for social-justice movements. I knew being a rabbi was a way to do that within the Jewish community and in multi-faith groups.” 

As he studied the Jewish tradition, Feinberg found plenty of justification for his chosen path. “I wouldn’t say Hebrew Scripture is a socialist blueprint. It was written three thousand years ago in an ancient Near Eastern agricultural society, so you can’t just transfer that over to our present conditions,” he says. “But the principles are key: the communalism, the concern for the most marginalized and most vulnerable in society—the widow, the orphan, the stranger—the need to cancel debt. The insistence on dignity for all people who are created in the divine image. That ethical framework is the core of Judaism, and I think all of those are deeply socialist principles.”  

 

In the same neighborhoods where Feinberg does his work today, his belief in the shared foundations of Judaism and socialism was once the strong consensus. Millions of Eastern European Jews migrated to the United States in the late nineteenth century, and their top destination was New York and its fast-growing garment industry. By 1914, 1.4 million Jews lived in New York City, most of them families struggling with low wages, brutal working conditions, and crowded, unsanitary slum housing. As early as the 1880s, many New York Jews were coming together in socialist meetings and creating socialist institutions like the Arbeiter Ring (the Workmen’s Circle) and newspapers like the Forverts—the Jewish Daily Forward.

Abraham Cahan, an immigrant from Lithuania who would eventually become the editor of the Forward, is credited with being the first socialist labor organizer to recognize the importance of speaking and writing in Yiddish. It was already the language of the native New York Jewish working class, and it would serve as both the touchstone of Jewish solidarity and the medium for the politicized Eastern European arrivals to connect with American Jews struggling to survive. After the turn of the century, many of the immigrants were members of the Russian Bund, and they added their passion and experience to the growing socialist movement. Most of the Yiddish socialist leaders were secular, but many of the rank and file were more observant.

In the same neighborhoods where Feinberg does his work today, his belief in the shared foundations of Judaism and socialism was once the strong consensus.

By the 1910s, the socialist-led United Hebrew Trades and International Ladies Garment Workers unions had more than three hundred thousand members between them, and they leveraged their power to launch dramatic strikes and create cooperative housing projects and other social programs. Almost sixty thousand people belonged to the Workmen’s Circle, and the Forward’s circulation of two hundred thousand made it the most read foreign-language newspaper in the United States. The Socialist Party won elections for the city board of aldermen, the state assembly, and in 1914 sent labor lawyer Meyer London to Congress. “Socialists were the ones who defined the mainstream,” writes Tony Michels in A Fire in their Hearts: Yiddish Socialism in New York.

During the 1920s, the numbers of U.S. Jewish socialists began to decline. European immigration to the United States slowed, and World War I and the Bolshevik revolution both triggered considerable backlash against socialism. Some of the more radical U.S. socialists were attracted to the Communist Party, while many moderates found common cause with New Deal–era Democrats. In 1936, the Forward endorsed Franklin Roosevelt for president, breaking a three-decade string of loyalty to the Socialist Party.

But Jewish institutions with socialist roots still exist, including the Forward and the Workman’s (now Worker’s) Circle, and they retain their commitment to social and economic justice. Many historians credit the Yiddish socialist era with influencing the overall liberal political beliefs of American Jews. “Socialism was not a one-generation phenomenon,” Michels concludes. “It was a formative experience in the history of the world’s largest Jewish community.”

Feinberg’s daily work advocating for living wages and racial justice has included a key role in the multi-decade push for justice for migrant farmworkers in New York state, which culminated in the 2019 passage of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. That legislation remedied a historic injustice by finally including farmworkers within the protection of New York’s labor laws. Like his other work, this cause fit comfortably within the spectrum of a liberal Jewish Democrat agenda. Feinberg knows he could easily adopt that label, and he realizes it may make his faith-labor coalition work easier.

But he sees it as important that he present himself publicly as a socialist. He is determined to include in his advocacy the prophetic work of building the U.S. socialist movement. “Michael Harrington (quoting Irving Howe and Lewis Coser) said, ‘Socialism is the name of our desire,’ and I think it is important to hold that desire up,” he says. “We have a vision for what a transformed society would look like, and not all progressives or faith groups do.” 

There is no strong socialist political party in the United States, which leads Feinberg to conclude that the only way to realize the vision is by working to transform existing institutions. Which, he worries, poses a particular challenge for Americans. “Most everywhere else in the world, they have social movements. In the U.S., we have 501(c)(3) organizations that have professional staff and boards and have to worry about what funders think, and that is a hard way to build political power.” So Feinberg has remained a member of the DSA for a quarter-century of organizational peaks and valleys, and devotes himself to nurturing the better angels of the U.S. labor movement. “I don’t need to plant my own flag,” he says. “I’m happy to be a foot soldier.”

That soldierly commitment begins with being a loyal member of an institutionalized religion. As a young man, Feinberg studied the role of faith communities in the civil-rights and labor movements, and he witnessed firsthand the power of faith-motivated activism in the anti-apartheid and peace campaigns. He concluded then that being a rabbi would provide a place for effective advocacy. And he hasn’t changed his mind. “A big percentage of Americans consider themselves to be affiliated with a religious faith, so religious language resonates with them,” he says. “Faith can be transformative—I’ve seen it happen.” Both faith and socialism can also provide much-needed community, he says, along with the prophetic vision of a better world.

Of course, both socialism and religion struggle with image problems. Feinberg believes that religious socialists can help. For those suspicious of socialism, particularly in the United States, faith-grounded socialists underscore the humanity of the system, and offer a democratic refutation of the godless, violent images associated with some forms of doctrinaire Marxism. For Americans wary of the reactionary tenor that characterizes much of religion’s political influence in the United States, religious socialists offer affirmation of the loving, nurturing message of all major faith communities. 

A majority of Americans ages eighteen to twenty-four prefer socialism over capitalism.

Feinberg’s labor and socialism work is multifaith to its core. But he admits most of the groups he is involved with are heavily Christian. And he still finds himself in settings where the public prayers are ones that he and other Jews cannot join. Yet he works with Sikh and Hindu communities in supporting New York taxi drivers. Pentecostal preachers were leaders of the living-wage campaign that affected their congregants. The blog and podcast of the Religion and Socialism Working Group of the DSA, of which Feinberg is an active member, feature a mosaic of Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian voices. (I am also a member.) “When we are open to working with all people, we can create models that maybe did not exist in the past,” he says.

Those new models, he insists, must provide a welcoming home for the many young Americans who are open to socialist policies to an extent not seen in more than a century. A majority of Americans ages eighteen to twenty-four prefer socialism over capitalism, and their support helped Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign win more votes than any socialist candidate in the nation’s history. The DSA’s membership has swelled from five thousand members in 2015 to nearly seventy thousand now.

At the same time, most of these young people are not flocking to traditional religious congregations. Even among the young who do accept the tenets of a religious faith, many describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” or are creating their own religious communities that may not be clergy-led. Feinberg is fine with all of it. “They are blazing a path that we are going to need to learn from, and we religious socialists need to be in partnership with them,” he says.

But Feinberg won’t settle for easy optimism. The lessons from the Bund, the U.S. Yiddish socialists, and from nearly half a century of activism include a mixture of progress and failure. Feinberg has watched the United States slide into increased inequality over the past thirty years, and he is not sure whether the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to positive reforms or a step backward. “But we have to keep meeting people where they are: Can you afford health care? What about your rent? Do you need to work three jobs to cover your expenses? I have a faith I feel in my bones, almost as deeply as a religious faith, of the possibility of a socialist society that really cares about all its members, and is constructed around collective welfare and not greed or profit or private ownership. I don’t know if I will live to see that goal achieved. But I never lose track of it. That is what keeps me bumping along.” 

 

Issue: 

A Blessed New Year from Word on Fire

The great question [is] . . . What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought? The answer is very simple: God. . . . He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and the lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and…