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Saints John Fisher and Thomas More: Men for All Seasons

Today’s joint feast of Saints John Fisher (1469-1535) and Thomas More (1478-1535) serves as an inspiration to both clergy and laity in the Church and modern world. As a priest and bishop, John Fisher was martyred on June 22, 1535, for his opposition to the marriage of King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn and his refusal to acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the Church of England. Two weeks later, on July 6, Thomas More, a husband and father, was martyred in the tower of London for the same reasons. Both were canonized saints on May 19, 1935, by Pope Pius XI. For all the baptized, both citizens and politicians, the stories of John Fisher and Thomas More are yet another reminder that faith cannot remain a private concern but must also animate our public lives of integrity. Saints John Fisher and Thomas More teach us that this can only…

COVID-19 & the Clerical Church

If there’s something positive to have emerged from these many months of pandemic, it’s the constructive thinking going on about what it might mean for the Catholic Church. There’s a kind of collective and individual self-examination underway, perhaps exemplified best by Czech theologian Tomáš Halík, who is a psychotherapist by training. As he put it in one of the most perceptive articles published recently on the topic: “Our time of civilizational change calls for a new theology of contemporary history and a new understanding of the church.”

Worldwide, the pandemic has revealed examples and witnesses of holiness, of living the Gospel, often in straightforward but “anonymously Christian” ways. The virus has masked us and at the same time it has unmasked hypocrisies that are deeply ingrained in contemporary forms of militant Catholicism, such as the absolutist pro-life and religious liberty stances and rhetoric that ignore the fact that protecting the health and life of others outweighs your own proclaimed indifference to the risks to your health and life.

The crisis has also dispelled the illusion that the Church can be a space exempt from what happens outside of it. We can see this in the profound disorientation the institutional Church seemed to experience in contending with measures made necessary by widespread infection. Forced to operate within the restricted spaces defined by health-protection guidelines, it seemed unable to respond with anything more than what read like pre-written answers to pre-written questions. This has been most apparent in the “Eucharistic obsession,” which has sometimes taken on the characteristics of a fetishistic abstinence more than of a spiritual need. Even worse, some of the disputes between the Catholic Church and political authorities felt like twenty-first-century versions of eleventh- and twelfth-century clashes with empire in defense of a medieval idea of “liberty of the Church,” not as debates inspired by the contemporary Catholic understanding of religious liberty.

The past few months have seen the arrogance of power, the recurrence of internecine conflicts, and the persistence of particular ecclesial interests.

But in these last few months we’ve also witnessed, once again, the arrogance of power, the recurrence of internecine conflicts, and the persistence of particular ecclesial interests. The difficulty of these times has likely ended any dream of palingenesis, any expectation that we can imagine a new institutional Church. Ecclesial reform? The fact is that the pandemic has exacerbated the typically Catholic ecclesial distancing between clergy and laity, and helped the institutional Church reinforce its centrality. All its energies have been spent in keeping the existing system going, especially in terms of liturgy and Church governance. Even granting some exceptions, the clergy remain in charge of liturgy, and from the pope on down they have shown limited creativity in inserting something into the symbolic discourse. For example, it would have been a sign if, at least on one weekday, the pope had celebrated in Santa Marta not Mass, but a liturgy of the Word. The Eucharistic fast would then have united the whole body of Christ. But it’s not just clerical control of the liturgy. The Catholic laity have been dispersed and almost voiceless, except in their invisible domestic liturgies and private spiritual expressions. As for the professional theological commentariat, it had to reckon once again with the problem of appearing superfluous and needing to justify its existence against the urgent needs of the community of the believers.

The fact is that crises like the pandemic may reveal institutional weaknesses, but they can also amplify institutional advantages at both the local and the universal levels. That is the situation we’re seeing now with the institutional Church. My impression is that the balance has changed. A barely visible laity has become practically invisible, while the vulnerabilities of the professional community of theologians—who are dependent on an increasingly unstable system of private Catholic colleges—have been shown. Meanwhile, a clerical system with strong political links is now even more capable of asserting its power: the voice of the Catholic Church in the mass media is largely and by default still the voice of the clergy. 

Even if “the life” of the Church as an institution has been suspended by the pandemic, the institution itself remains a pervasive presence. Ask those who’d planned weddings or First Communions, or who found themselves having to organize a funeral for a family member. I suspect that some of the dreams of ecclesial and liturgical rebirth were an echo of a late-Enlightenment aspiration to intellectual and spiritual adulthood, in the sense of establishing independence from external structures. But those who during the pandemic had to care for the spiritual needs of the elderly and the sick, or for small children missing the children’s liturgy of the Word with their schoolmates, are probably a little less confident about their ability to do just fine without the institutional Church. It was probably wishful thinking to view this crisis as an opportunity to reimagine the liturgy in a progressive way, or to do away with clericalism in favor of community-centered reform. Maybe the moment has revealed cracks in political conservatism, but the same cannot be said about the clerical component of the Catholic Church, at least in this part of the world.

Of course, the pandemic also casts a light on what the pontificate of Francis means, beyond the small quarrels about this or that particular aspect of his teaching and policies: the transition to a spiritual and theological hermeneutic of incarnate reality as it is and as there is. Given the necessity and urgency of this transition, the institutional problem of the Catholic Church only gets more serious. We still rightfully expect the bishops to react against what we find a scandal to the Gospel. This is why so many have found the recent accommodating words from Catholic prelates to Donald Trump particularly revolting. Even if Catholics have largely stopped waiting for direction from the bishops on certain issues, we still want to be represented by the institutional Church before the highest political office in the land, especially in an election year.

There is no question that the Church must begin again from the kerygma and go forth in the heart of our world. But there is an emptiness at the institutional level (and the ecclesial, and the political) that cannot be filled by the anti-institutional or post-institutional. The pandemic, forcing four months (and counting) of social and ecclesial dispersion, is likely to generate an updated theory of the relationship between “believing and belonging.” It’s shown that for all the fragility of the institutional system, its persistence is undiminished. This is in some ways a constitutional moment, for both our Church and the world. Our experience with the ecclesial system over the last few months has shown us the difference between dreams and reality.

Christ’s Fire and the Revolution of the Heart

On June 5th, the Holy Father Pope Francis posted a message on Twitter saying, “The Heart of Christ is so great it wants to welcome us all into the revolution of tenderness.” Revolution—a word that hits rather close to home these days. This seems to be an era of human history in which facades of a successful society are being torn down. False security in our health and our economy has been exposed while ugly and unjust systems of our society are being unmasked. The news feels more like a dystopian nightmare than it ever has. In light of this, we might wonder, what kind of revolution is God calling us to? What is his revolution of tenderness?  The image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is so ubiquitous that it was familiar to me long before I became Catholic. But when I saw…

5 Practical Suggestions for Aspiring Christian Writers

As Christians, we need stories and poetry that nurture our faith and nourish our imaginations—literature that explores the rich nuances and complexities of human life, including its frailties and flaws; tales that give us images of the good, the true, and the beautiful; stories that invite the doubtful or curious to consider the truths of the faith. The literary treasure-house of our tradition is very well stocked, and we should avail ourselves of its riches, but we always need additions to the treasury, new perspectives, stories and poems that respond to the particular needs of our own culture and times. We need writers! Indeed, creativity is part of the imprint of the image of God in the human being. As J.R.R. Tolkien put it, “We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of…

5 Reasons the “Great Books” Are Essential Reading for Evangelists

To borrow from J.R.R. Tolkien, in the work of evangelization, there are numerous “paths to tread.” Some individuals we hope to share the Gospel with might require a scientific explanation of certain phenomena before assenting to something in the Scriptures. Others might wish to discuss politics and the common good before a discussion of Christian social ethics can even begin. Still others might have serious training in philosophy or theology and seek out fisticuffs in the arena of epistemology. To be a good evangelist requires a mental agility that is not limited to one or the other of the intellectual sciences. You can see that nimbleness at play if you watch Bishop Barron in his interviews with several non-Catholic or non-Christian figures. The ability to grasp and discuss characters as wide-ranging as Freud, Newton, Plato, Kant, Adam Smith, Chaucer, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, or Dante requires years of training and studying. However,…

Anger & Forgiveness

On September 6, 2018, off-duty officer Amber Guyger entered Botham Jean’s home by mistake and shot him twice, killing him. On October 1, 2019, Guyger was convicted by a Texas jury of murder. The next day, during Guyger’s sentencing, Botham’s brother Brandt gave a moving testimony in which he forgave Guyger for the killing, gave her a long hug, and called her to Christ. Almost immediately, the clip of his act went viral. Botham’s parents also gave testimonies, emphasizing the injustice of the system of which Guyger was a part and the need for radical change; their testimony, unlike their son Brandt’s, went largely unnoticed at the time, one more small heave in a groundswell that is only now, once again, cresting.

It should be obvious to any practicing Christian that these two messages have to go together. Forgiveness would not be forgiveness if it did not assume that the one forgiven is in the wrong and must amend her life. But the fascination Brandt Jean’s testimony held for so many onlookers lies in the idea that one must choose between an anger that clings to the past (and so cannot grow into God’s love) and a forgiveness and peace that refuses to be defined by the wrongdoing of others. In other words, one must choose between how the Psalms talk about evildoers—let sinners be consumed from the earth and let the wicked be no more—and how Christ talks about them. We have, as it happens, a word for the idea that these two ways of talking are mutually incompatible, and that word is “Marcionism”—the old heresy that the God of the New Testament was at odds with the God of the Old.

The actual Christ, the historical and not the Hallmark Christ, has no discomfort with the Psalms’ words about the wicked; in fact, he often quotes them. It is almost a commonplace to note that the greatest Good Friday Psalm, Psalm 22, continues beyond what Christ quotes to praise God’s deliverance and so points toward resurrection. It is less often noted that the next-greatest Good Friday Psalm, Psalm 69, calls down punishment upon punishment upon one’s persecutors, with no acquittal. But didn’t Christ forgive his persecutors, above all on the cross? Of course; that is the point. Forgiveness is entirely compatible with anger. Sometimes it even demands it. God’s offer of forgiveness precedes the conversion of the evildoer, and the anger lasts until she converts. That leaves some time—sometimes a very long time—where anger and forgiveness run together, where the offer of forgiveness comes at the business end of a “woe unto you” and even of a whip. Did Christ not offer forgiveness in his very acts of anger? Was he somehow lacking in forgiveness, a less perfect Son of God, because he sometimes offered it more with a scourge than with a simper?

God’s offer of forgiveness precedes the conversion of the evildoer, and the anger lasts until she converts.

“Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord—but this anger is not reserved to him alone. For the Psalms are the prayerbook of the Church, the pattern and the pedagogy of our own prayer. Its words are resituated with the coming of Christ, but they are not abrogated. This is what an unforgiving anger and a facile mercy both forget: that our offer of forgiveness, like God’s, comes before the wrongdoer’s repentance, and that its purpose is not to pacify but to reconcile. This is the love of enemies that is truer for wanting even more what is good for our persecutors: the more complete dismantling of their self-conceptions, the more radical reconstruction of their true selves.

None of this is to say that Brandt Jean should have been more angry in his testimony; Christ is not always and everywhere consumed by zeal. But it is to take his forgiveness not just within the context of his parents’ call for justice but within a much longer context of anger and indignation. It is not to suggest that he define himself by his relation to those who persecute him, but it is to note that he has defined himself by his relationship with Christ, and that this carries with it a certain relation to his persecutors. It is not to recommend some all-consuming anger, but it is a reminder that, if this week or five years from now he thinks of his brother and anger rises in his heart about the murder, there are prayers for that anger—Christian prayers, prayers that do not deny it or treat it as a sin but direct it back toward God.

Those who idealize Brandt’s brand of forgiveness without the larger story of which it is a part—in his life, in his community’s life, but also in the life of Christ and Christ’s community that are our common pattern—are guilty of a kind of Marcionism that denies a righteous anger at sins of the past in favor of forgiveness, as if we had to choose between the two. Such a suppression of the Old Testament, like Marcion’s own, would require a radical revision of the New Testament. In the end, those claiming that black Christians should forgive their persecutors, because that’s what Christianity requires, must also acknowledge that Christianity allows black Christians to face their persecutors with the imprecatory Psalms. These Psalms, like all prayers, find their place on the cross: a reminder to those who tell us to give up our lives for our enemies that, in doing so, we can still rebuke them; and a reminder for those who would rebuke their enemies that we can, at the same time, die for them.

A Different Kind of Catholic

When the Jericho Road Community Health Center asked Martin Gugino to explain why he was a donor, he responded with a passage from the New Testament. “Jesus said to clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty,” he wrote in the Buffalo nonprofit’s newsletter last fall, praising its Vive Shelter for aiding asylum seekers, including a large group of Congolese immigrants.

Now Gugino is under the glare of a much bigger spotlight, known internationally as the seventy-five-year-old protester whom Buffalo police officers pushed to the ground, causing him to bang the back of his head so hard on the pavement that blood flowed immediately from his right ear. He is the subject of one of President Donald Trump’s most asinine tweets—speculation that Gugino faked his injury as an Antifa tactic—and the victim of Trump-inspired conspiracy theorists who wildly distort who he is.

People who actually know Gugino say his Catholic faith is the root of his political activism, and that he’s a gentle man who advocates nonviolence. “He’s a devout Catholic, and really I think part of the reason that the two of us have developed a friendship is because that’s where my own social activism comes from and I recognize it in him,” said Mark Colville, who founded the Amistad Catholic Worker House in New Haven with his wife, Luz. Colville is awaiting sentencing as one of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, the seven peace activists convicted of federal charges for breaking into a nuclear arsenal at the Kings Bay submarine base in Georgia as part of a protest on April 4, 2018.

Colville, who spent more than a year and a half in jail after his arrest, said Gugino contacted him constantly during his confinement. Postcards were the only permissible mail, and Gugino sent him twenty-five a week, “sometimes more,” he said. “He was with me all through the whole pre-trial and trial process.”

Colville said he asked Gugino to serve as a character witness for his sentencing. To prepare, Gugino began making videos, posting them to YouTube so Colville could review them. (They have since been removed from YouTube.) Many of his friends said Gugino has read deeply in both theology and constitutional law, and he used that knowledge to argue that Catholic social teaching justified the Plowshares defendants’ civil disobedience. Gugino also cited the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s quotation that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Colville said Gugino added his own twist: the arc “doesn’t bend by itself,” but “we have to bend it.”

Colville said Gugino went with him on long drives to Washington D.C., where they took part in one to two weeks of fasting and protest with Witness Against Torture, which advocates for the shutdown of the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. The group’s origins are in the Catholic Worker movement and, as the Catholic Worker newspaper said in 2006, WAT holds that the jail “degrades the humanity not only of the victims but also of its perpetrators,” adding an appeal “to the soldiers at Guantánamo, our brothers and sisters, to end the torture.”

Jeremy Varon, a history professor at The New School in New York and a “sort of token, secular Jew in this group,” said most members “are coming from a deep place of religious faith. They feel called upon by God to do the work of social justice…. They point out that Jesus himself was the victim of torture. That kind of perspective makes for extraordinary commitment.” Gugino is “right in the heart of that community,” Varon added. It’s not a commitment for the sunshine protester.

The group’s major annual gathering takes place at the most frigid time of year, around January 11, since that is the date in 2002 when detainees first began to arrive at the naval base. The members fast on a liquid-only diet to be in solidarity with Guantánamo detainees, many of whom have gone on hunger strikes as a protest.

Tom Casey, a friend of Gugino from Buffalo who is active in Pax Christi, said Gugino was always among those who rose an hour early (after sleeping on the floor) to take part in a prayer circle “for those of us who wanted to get up.” These ecumenical prayer circles include Bible readings.

For protests, Gugino and other Witness Against Torture members don orange jumpsuits like those Guantánamo detainees wear, and sometimes black hoods. They generally protest outside the White House, chaining themselves to the fence. As Gugino notes on his blog, he has “Four arrests, no convictions.” The news website PolitiFact determined that Gugino’s arrest record was wildly exaggerated in false reports circulated on social media—an attempt to portray him as a violent anarchist who organizes riots “for a living.”

It is true that the Catholic Worker’s founders, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, were not fans of government power. But their understanding of anarchism is not the common one of bomb-throwing radicals. In his biography of Day, former Commonweal managing editor Patrick Jordan cites a 1957 letter in which she explained: “those dreadful words, pacifism and anarchism—when you get right down to it—mean that we try always to love rather than coerce, ‘to be what we want the other fellow to be,’ to be the least, to have no authority over others, to begin…with ourselves.” These “isms” didn’t exist during the lifetime of Saint Francis of Assisi, but this is an apt description of his message as well.

Gugino represents a face of Catholicism that Trump would not know from the Catholics around him, such as Attorney General William Barr or White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. Archbishop Carlo Viganò is Trump’s kind of Catholic: the former papal nuncio to the United States wrote to tell Trump that anti-racism street demonstrations are a tool of the supposed “deep state” effort to defeat him in the presidential election and “to build a world without freedom.”

Vickie Ross, director of the Western New York Peace Center and “very interfaith,” said she came to understand the Catholic Worker movement’s connection to the crucifixion of Jesus, and sees it in Gugino’s outlook. “His commitment to doing the right thing, and his willingness to sacrifice to do that, his service, all of those things are very much in the Catholic tradition,” she said.

What’s more important than living your values?

Gugino has been active on the group’s Latin American Solidarity Committee. “He has strong ideas…often complicated ideas that he was working on, but he didn’t insist on them to other people,” said Terrence Bisson, a member of the committee and a mathematics professor at Canisius College. “He wanted to serve in whatever projects were being worked on.” Bisson said that if money were raised, Gugino wanted to give it away immediately. “If Saint Francis was in a group with you, that’s what he would be saying,” he added. “In my opinion he was the kind of person that was drawing on religion all the time.”

Massachusetts peace activist Christopher Spicer Hankle said Gugino relishes being part of a community that helped him to form his conscience. “I think that was life-giving enough to him, he said. “He was getting out of it a satisfaction…. He’s getting a soul satisfaction.”

Gugino, whose lawyer said he suffered a fractured skull and brain damage from the impact of his fall, is not in a position to give interviews. “He would not want the focus on him,” said Matt Daloisio of Witness Against Torture. “He would rather the focus be on the issues he so dearly cares about.” That’s a common reaction from true political activists, and it appears to be Gugino’s as well. His attorney, Kelly Zarcone, relayed a quote from him: “I think it’s very unnecessary to focus on me. There are plenty of other things to think about besides me.”

Even as he faces serious health concerns, Gugino will also be confronted by continued and hostile scrutiny as the criminal case of the two officers accused of assaulting him moves forward. As a much-viewed WBFO video shows, Gugino walked alone up to a line of officers advancing to clear a plaza of any protesters who remained from a City Hall rally after an 8 p.m. curfew on June 4. Gugino was carrying a helmet, similar to the ones police wore, in his left hand. He had a cellphone in his right hand and gestured with it, within a few inches of an officer’s equipment belt and his holstered service revolver.

From the perspective of police: in that moment, the officers could not have known that Gugino walked a spiritual path as an activist, or that he was a cancer patient. They could, however, have considered his age—and they were charged under a special provision in New York State law for felony assaults on those over sixty-five years old by people at least ten years younger. For such assaults, prosecutors need to prove an intent to cause physical injury, rather than an intent to cause serious physical injury. The law will grind it out finely, starting with a decision by a grand jury on whether to indict the officers, thirty-nine-year-old Aaron Torgalski and thirty-two-year-old Robert McCabe.

One of many chilling aspects of the encounter is not that the officers applied overwhelming force to Gugino, but how quickly they resorted to shoving him as they sought to move ahead without interruption to clear a square that was pretty much empty. When a CBS News reporter asked Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown if the officers were acting on their training, he responded: “One of the things they’re trained to do is to use common sense.” If they believed Gugino was breaking the law—and Gugino is well-schooled on constitutional law involving the right to protest—they could have arrested him without resorting to force. They would not have spilled blood.

As Varon said, Gugino is one of “these kinds of silver-haired warriors” found on the protest scene who are happy to be arrested for their beliefs. “Yes, because they’ve lived these long lives and they realize, yes, I have time. And what’s more important than living your values?”  

Jon Steingard, Atheism, and the Scandal of Evil

Jon Steingard no longer believes in God. The frontman of the Christian rock band Hawk Nelson recently announced on Instagram that he has become an atheist. “After growing up in a Christian home, being a pastor’s kid, playing and singing in a Christian band,” he writes in his public confession, “I am now finding that I no longer believe in God.” Admirably without snark Steingard references a “growing” list of concerns and criticisms of Christianity. Some of his reasons are subjective. But among the intellectual reasons he gives for his atheism, the most substantial is perhaps the most predictable: the problem of evil. The objection may be eminently evergreen, but it is for many—both at the popular and scholarly levels—the most serious of objections. It always has been. Thus, in this article I’d like to critically examine this chief motivating factor behind Steingard’s disbelief in God. As such, I’d…

Extraordinary, Incomplete Science

Take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural. —G.K. Chesterton Einstein and Shakespeare sitting having a beer Einstein trying to figure out the number that adds up to bliss Shakespeare says, “Man, it all starts with a kiss” Einstein is scratching numbers on his napkin Shakespeare says, “Man, it’s just one and one make three Ah, that’s why it’s poetry” —Bruce Springsteen, “Frankie Fell in Love” I was just guessing at numbers and figures Pulling your puzzles apart Questions of science, science and progress Do not speak as loud as my heart —Coldplay, “The Scientist” Science is extraordinary. Born of our innate curiosity, we are forever wide-eyed children nestled in our mother’s lap questioning—nay, imploring, “Tell me how!…

The Link Between Catholic Liturgy and Social Justice

Without the liturgy, the social fabric degenerates. So thought the popes of the early twentieth century, and so thought Fr. Virgil Michel, an American Benedictine monk at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota who died in 1938. He was the bridge by which the liturgical movement came to this country, and he understood the importance of the liturgy in uniting and healing a wounded and divided nation such as ours. During this time of social unrest and separation from the sacraments, Fr. Michel’s writings can help us see how the life of the world comes through the liturgy. God’s ways and times are not our own, and I think Fr. Michel would find it perhaps fitting that at a time when many in the country are so divided, we are preparing (in celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi) to process through the city streets presenting…