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A Hermeneutic of Suspicion

The Amazon Synod was remarkable for so many good things. Pope Francis showed genuine respect to the indigenous people of the Amazon, the bishops addressed the pastoral needs of the region with breakthrough recommendations to ordain married men and formally recognize the ministry of women, and participants raised up ecological degradation and predatory practices toward both the earth and the poor as urgent challenges of our time. It’s a shame that what many will remember from this synod instead is a two-foot-high wooden statue of a pregnant woman, which became the focus of ire, misunderstanding, fear, public controversy, and ultimately vandalism.

The small statue I am speaking of is, of course, the folk-art depiction of a pregnant woman that was placed on display, first at a tree-planting ceremony organized by Franciscans and later in a Roman church. At the tree planting a number of items representing life in the Amazon were arranged in a central position on the lawn of the Vatican gardens, with the assembly gathered around them in a circle: a canoe; a cloth covered with images of a river and plants; representations of birds and fish; a net; and several human figures, including martyrs to the faith and two pregnant native women, kneeling, in an introspective pose, with a child visible in the womb of each one. During the ceremony, an Amazonian woman picked up one of these folk-art pieces and presented it to Pope Francis, who blessed it. She called it “Our Lady of the Amazon” as she presented it to him (a video of the event shows this clearly, although not all of her words are audible). Some speculated that the two pregnant women together represented the Visitation, although this was never stated.

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No one in the delegation who set up the display, nor those in the organizing committee of the synod who had experience in the region, seemed at all ruffled by the presence of the images of the pregnant women. Pope Francis, who has a great respect for popular piety, was the least disturbed of all. He received the woman kindly, and gave his blessing to the image. When asked about the provenance of the figure, Fr. Fernando Lopez, SJ, an itinerant preacher who travels to the remote regions of the Amazon with a missionary group, said they had been using this image for years. They bought it in an artisan’s market in Brazil.

He explained that it represents life—an explanation similar to those offered by Paolo Ruffini of the Vatican Dicastery of Communications, and by Bishop David Guinea, a missionary bishop in Peru, who pointed out that he had seen this image on other occasions. “We all have different interpretations: the Virgin Mary, Mother Earth…women, fertility, life; Amazonia is meant to be full of life,” he said. The bishop’s answer, although hardly satisfying to those who wished to pin down the meaning to one thing, offered a good example of how multivalent symbols work. The cross, to take a classic example, embraces both suffering and glory, redemption and solidarity—it is never just one thing. Fr. Lopez was also comfortable making reference to the allusive qualities of the image of the pregnant woman: “We were all born from a mother, and we all have a mother who was pregnant and delivered us to life…. It’s a mystery, life itself, that signifies in a way that God is also mother, he’s engendered us and cares for life.” All of these interpretations are, strictly speaking, Christian.

Afterwards the display was transferred to the Carmelite church of St. Mary Transpontina, down the street from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. These figures and objects were intended to rest there as a sign of the living realities and theological perspectives that are part of the Amazonian region, realities that the synod wished to engage through their work and deliberations. The idea—familiar to anyone who has ever prepared a prayer corner or a focus table for a religious gathering—was that these tangible objects would bring to mind the spiritual realities we naturally associate with them, such as the sacredness of life, the beauty and fragility of the rainforest, the blessing of work, the necessity of witness, and so on, and so inspire people to pray for the synod. At least, that was what was supposed to happen.

What actually happened was a good deal less edifying. A flurry of outrage, prompted by the false idea that the statues and the ceremony itself were idolatrous, broke out in the right-wing press and across social media. Every explanation offered for the presence and meaning of the statuettes was subjected to a hermeneutic of suspicion, and the more reasonable interpretations were discarded in favor of the most damning ones. Self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy, whipped into a frenzy of zealotry by the speculation that the figure actually represented Pachamama, an Andean female deity, stole the artworks from the church and threw them into the Tiber.

There are plenty of images of Pachamama, and some show her pregnant, but not one of them looks like the statuette from the Vatican ceremony.

Although the actual act of vandalism may have been spontaneous, the breakdown of understanding and civility that preceded it was the fruit of organized efforts to sabotage the synod. Indeed, charges of idolatry were being made before the synod began or anyone had seen the statue. Concerns about the “dangers” of inculturation, and dark warnings about the supposedly pagan nature of ecological themes in Pope Francis’s teachings, were already in the air.

To give a couple of examples: In June, the retired German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller published a public condemnation of the synod through journalist Sandro Magister’s blog. This broadside against the synod was released simultaneously in five different languages. Brandmüller deemed the working document “heretical” for its references to “Mother Earth,” which he decried as expressions of a “pantheistic idolatry of nature.” He was soon seconded by American Cardinal Raymond Burke, with whom he had coauthored the famous “dubia” in 2016, challenging Francis on the orthodoxy of his exhortation Amoris laetitia.

Journalist Christopher White, writing in Crux in September, also profiled a group called the “Pan-Amazon Synod Watch.” This “hub of resistance” was sponsored by the Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira Institute (IPCO) and the Societies for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), a traditionalist right-wing Brazilian organization devoted to capitalism. Oliveira, who died in 1995, was himself a traditionalist and strongly opposed to Vatican II. He was also particularly disdainful of indigenous peoples, whom he considered crypto-pagans. Their communitarian impulses, in Oliveria’s view, constitute a threat to civilization, which is bound up with private property. The TFP hosted a conference in Rome at the time of the synod, where they showcased their critique of everything they associated with it, from climate science to liberation theology. Cardinal Burke attended, and Cardinal Brandmüller closed the conference.

LifeSiteNews also attended this conference and interviewed a tribal leader who spoke at it, Jonas Marcolino Macuxi. Macuxi is an Evangelical Protestant. According to the article, he said the ritual on the Vatican lawn looked “decidedly ‘pagan.’” But Pedro Gabriel, a Portuguese doctor who has written extensively and carefully about the controversy at the website “Where Peter Is,” noted that if you actually listen to the video, you can see that Macuxi never used the word pagan. He says that the use of smoke for purification is primitive, and “we don’t do that.” But one is left to wonder if he might have said the same thing about liturgical uses of incense or about praying before statues of the saints—Catholic practices that many Evangelicals regard as improper. This is but one example of how an eagerness to tar the synod and Pope Francis with charges of syncretism and heresy ran ahead of the facts.

As the synod wore on, critics of the pope continued to fan the flames of anxiety and alarm—some even going so far as to compare the presence of the female figures to “the abomination of desolation” spoken of in Scripture, or to call their introduction into a church “a grave sin, a crime against the divine law” (this last from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, who ought to know better). Some who viewed the video of the tree-planting ceremony spied what they thought was a phallic symbol in the display, and their panic deepened. They later were forced to admit that what they saw was merely the upraised arm of another statuette, lying on the ground, representing one of the martyrs of the Amazon. Scandal and outrage were easily aroused by, well, reading into things stuff that wasn’t there.

It is worth noting that there was nothing particularly Pachamama-like about the statues that were thrown into the Tiber, except that they were women. (Pope Francis called them “statues of the pachamama” when he announced that the police had recovered them from the river, but his use of this name was only because the Italian media had used it, according to Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni.) You can look online for images of Pachamama and there are dozens. The Andean goddess’s name has been emblazoned on all kinds of things, including tours, ecological institutes, music groups, artworks, face creams, and more. There are plenty of images of Pachamama, and some show her pregnant, but not one of them looks like the statuette from the Vatican ceremony, whose outstanding qualities are (a) her humility, and (b) the child within her womb, who is visible and depicted with care as an individual. More typically, Pachamama is shown with an effusion of fruit and flowers around her, proud of her fertility, which is abundant; the child in her womb is not so important because, after all, she is a nature goddess and the fecundity of nature is wider than that.

It therefore seems clear to me that whether or not one could dig up a layer of indigenous nature-religion underlying the images that were brought into the Vatican and later vandalized, the image as it stands possesses genuine Christian qualities—specifically humility, dignity, and respect for both women and unborn children. These qualities may have drawn Christian believers to it in the first place, when they saw and purchased it in a market in Brazil. It is good that the Pope received it respectfully and blessed it. It belongs within the church, as a gift of the Amazonian people to the rich and varied patrimony of Catholicism.

Pope Saint Paul VI, in his landmark exhortation on evangelization in 1975, wrote that “The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself” (no. 15). He also wrote, with great respect, that non-Christian and pre-Christian religions “are all impregnated with innumerable ‘seeds of the Word’ and can constitute a true ‘preparation for the Gospel’” (no. 53). There it is again—the symbol of pregnancy—this time used to describe the church in its work of evangelization. Perhaps rather than the image of the pregnant woman suggesting nature-worship, it ought to suggest to us that the Amazonian people are bringing to fruition the “seeds of the Word” that they have received. Perhaps if we could accept it in the right spirit, we might even be a little more evangelized ourselves.

Portrait of a Saintly Bishop

St. Charles Borromeo is an eminent example of the blessed man spoken of in the readings for today’s Mass who, at the Lord’s command, renounced his own life and possessions to carry the cross of Christ. St. Charles strove to imitate Christ and so brought others to him. He accomplished this in particular through his tireless concern for the doctrinal, liturgical, and spiritual formation of both priests and laity, as well as by his constant care for the spiritual and material needs of all people. It is these qualities which make him the very portrait of a saintly pastor, a model after whom every bishop would want to follow. St. Charles was born near Milan, Italy in 1538 to the Count Gilberto Borromeo and the Countess Margherita de’ Medici. At age twenty-two, Charles (who was not yet even in holy orders) was made a cardinal by his uncle, Pope Pius…

A Peace Church

In 1963, Pope John XXII wrote in Pacem in terris, “In our time, which prides itself in its atomic weapons, it is contrary to reason to hold that war is any longer an appropriate means to restoring violated rights.” Twenty years later, in 1983, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. In it the bishops held that the possession and maintenance of nuclear weapons was morally acceptable only on a temporary and conditional basis, the condition being that time be bought to achieve negotiated general multilateral disarmament. Last November, thirty-six years later, having informed the United Nations through the Holy See’s representatives that time had run out—that the condition had not been achieved—Pope Francis made it clear that there is no longer any legal or moral justification for the construction, possession, or maintenance of nuclear weapons.

It is hoped that within a few months a small delegation from the peace movement in the United States will travel to Rome to discuss the issue with Cardinal Turkson and the staff of the Vatican Justice and Peace Commission, and, with any luck, Pope Francis himself. Does it not seem appropriate that the church go on record in defense of anyone, civilian or military, who refuses in good conscience to participate in the deployment or maintenance of nuclear weapons, and that a form of conscientious objection be instituted in law to protect any such individual from negative sanctions? Of course, it is hardly likely that the United States or any of the other nuclear powers would institute such legislation. Maybe Andorra and Costa Rica! But it would be a significant moment if the church took that stand.

The church now supports its conscientious objectors. That was not always the case.

I doubt there is a Catholic parish in this country where all regular Mass attenders do not know the church’s stand on abortion. The Catholic governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, objected to Cardinal Dolan’s January 2019 letter denouncing the so-called Reproductive Rights legislation, which allows not only for late-term abortion but also for withholding medical attention from infants in certain circumstances. We are proud of Cardinal Dolan’s clarity and forcefulness of expression. Would that pastors, preachers, and regular Mass-goers knew the position the church has taken on war and peace issues, especially weapons of mass destruction. Is not failure to address these issues—and failure to help Catholics form a conscience on these issues—a failure in the performance of pastoral duty? What holds bishops and priests back? Is it fear? Concern for the collection plate? Such a concern would not be irrational, but they must not yield to it. Conscience formation on issues about which the church is at odds with conventional wisdom can be done without sending people running for the doors, as long as it is done with patience, prudence, and a proper regard for people’s sensitivities.

At the height of the Vietnam War, I was invited to preach at all of the weekend Masses at the church that serves the Catholics of Los Alamos, New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb and a major center of the nuclear-arms industry. I advised the parishioners, many of whom were no doubt involved in the weapons industry and Los Alamos National Laboratory, that such involvement should be examined in conscience. No one walked out. The pastor invited me back. People need to be helped to understand these issues, but they don’t need to be bullied.

The Catholic Church has at long last become a peace church—not a pacifist church, but a peace church. That is to say, the church now supports its conscientious objectors. That was not always the case. Ben Salmon, a World War I Catholic conscientious objector, could get no priest to minister to him in prison. His cause for beatification is now being prepared for the Vatican. The great majority of Catholics do not claim conscientious objection to war or military service. Neither does a majority of Quakers. But Quakers honor their peace witness, and so will we. During the Vietnam War, Roman Catholics were overrepresented among draft resisters. The first demonstrations against U.S. participation in the Vietnam civil war were held in July 1964 by the Catholic Worker movement in New York City. We started with two people and ended with 250, and coast-to-coast television coverage. The first act of corporate resistance to the Vietnam-era draft was held in New York City at Union Square on November 6, 1965, again sponsored by the Catholic Worker along with the Committee for Nonviolent Action. It’s time for the church to take the lead on this issue, to make good on the commitment to peace and disarmament that Pope John XXIII undertook more than fifty years ago.


Letters | Divorce and remarriage in the early church

I read David Bentley Hart’s most recent contribution to Commonweal (“Divorce, Annulment & Communion,” September) with a mixture of astonishment and dismay. Dismay because Hart, a writer with a real gift for derision, has in this article turned his sneer on the historic mainstream of Christian thought and practice. Astonishment because he has mischaracterized that history in a way unbefitting of a professional scholar.

In a word, Hart has told half the story. For instance, he can say that St. Paul “certainly didn’t see [the married state] as encompassing some special sphere of sanctity” only by excluding from consideration the theology of the family in the Haustafeln (House-Tables) of Ephesians and Colossians. (To be fair, Hart explains in his translation of the New Testament that he does not consider these epistles to be authentic productions of Paul.) Less defensible is Hart’s misreading of St. John Chrysostom. Hart cites one of Chrysostom’s homilies on Genesis and marvels at “how unacquainted even a late-fourth-century theologian of the highest eminence was with any concept of ‘holy’ matrimony.” Can he really be unaware of Chrysostom’s extensive treatment of marriage and the family in his New Testament exegesis? That treatment was lately made the subject of an entry in St. Vladimir’s Popular Patristics series, fittingly titled St. John Chrysostom: On Marriage and Family Life (2015)? Can the Chrysostom Hart describes really be the same one who said, “Marriage is a type of the presence of Christ” (Hom. Col.[1]  4:12–13)?

Hart’s précis of the tradition is similarly one-sided. He gestures at a few patristic and conciliar data only to conclude that “neither East nor West, in the early centuries, promoted or practiced anything remotely as strict as modern Roman Catholic teaching prescribes.” This is a gross oversimplification of a very complicated subject. It is true that the texts he mentions have been taken by some as tolerating or even approving of remarriage after divorce. But every single one of the texts he cites has been read by others as actually supporting modern Roman Catholic teaching. For instance, the eminent patrologist Henri Crouzel, SJ, in L'Église primitive face au divorce : du premier au cinquième siècle (1971) reveals the serious text-critical problems besetting Hart’s citations from St. Epiphanius and the Synod of Arles (314). Your readers would never suspect these problems from Hart’s article. In the end, Crouzel concludes that the only unambiguous approval of remarriage after divorce in the church’s early centuries comes from Ambrosiaster. Many have differed with Crouzel on these points, but Hart has done a disservice to your readers in disregarding the debate.

What’s more, he has totally excluded from view all texts running counter to his thesis. To mention just a few: the Synod of Elvira (c. 300), Canon 9: “If a believing woman has left her believing, adulterous husband and [wishes to] marry another, let her be forbidden to marry; if she does marry, she may not receive communion unless [the husband] she abandoned has previously departed this world” (the canon goes on to allow the woman the viaticum on her deathbed). Another example: Pope St. Innocent I (401–417) writes, “Whoever marries another man while her husband is still alive must be held to be an adulteress and must be granted no leave to do penance unless one of the men shall have died” (Ep. 2.13.15, PL 20.479)[2] . Innocent again: “Concerning those who, by means of a deed of separation, have contracted another marriage: it is manifest that they are adulterers on both sides” (Ep. 6.6.12, PL 20.500). These rulings of Pope Innocent are far from obscure; in both instances I’ve drawn the translation from the old Catholic Encyclopedia entry on “Divorce (in Moral Theology).” These sources alone suffice to explode Hart’s sweeping claim that “the remarried as a class [were] not excluded from communion for life.”

What will be the upshot of Hart’s article? Those readers on their second or third marriages will find nothing there to trouble their consciences. Readers who already approve of remarriage will no doubt find it gratifying to discover that a scholar like Hart agrees with them. Undecided readers may well be deceived by Hart’s historical prestidigitations into believing that the testimony of Scripture and Tradition is a settled matter in favor of remarriage. Will the average reader have the wherewithal to track down the text Hart mentions in Origen’s Commentary on Matthew about some bishops permitting the divorced to remarry (it’s 14.23), to find that Origen condemns the practice (three times!) as “contrary to the Scriptures”? I doubt it. Hart’s glib dismissals serve more to hide the truth than to illuminate it.

Theodore G. Janiszewski
Rochester, N.Y.


David Bentley Hart replies:

Theodore Janiszewski should read more carefully. For one thing, whatever sneering or dismissive tone he detected in my article is one he has imagined. For another, he should learn the difference between the “mainstream” of Christianity and “Western Catholic tradition.” More to the point, none of his complaints are actually germane to what I said. In order:

Even if Ephesians and Colossians are authentically Pauline, the House-Tables have nothing to do with either a sacramental or a fully theological concept of matrimony. Nor do they negate Paul’s attempts to discourage matrimony whenever possible. All my remarks on the New Testament were meant only to explain why early Christians did not all arrive at the same conclusions regarding the scriptural evidence.

Chrysostom and the fathers of the East are often very positive in their description of matrimony, much more so than their Western counterparts. And, yes, Chrysostom on more than one occasion, following Scripture, uses marriage as a type (that is, an image) of Christ’s presence—as he does many things drawn from nature, such as fire, water, family, polis, wine, fruits, etc. I never said he disliked marriage. It is still clear from all his writings on the matter that he saw it as a natural institution, no different in kind for Christians than for pagans, and not sacramental in the sense we would recognize now.

Crouzel’s book has been torn apart so often that its present scholarly status is nil. A pious work, but absurd. The documents are quite clear. The evidence is unambiguous. No good church historian regards Crouzel’s argument as worthy of serious attention.

I never said that there were not Christian sources from antiquity that forbade divorce and remarriage. What I said was that there was no universal and consistent practice, and no single authoritative dogmatic of theological consensus on the matter. Hence the point of producing those canonical sources that permitted it.

I also never said Origen approved of divorce and remarriage. I said that he reports that many bishops in his time did allow it. Which is to make the same point as directly above.

If Janiszewski had bothered to read my concluding remarks with care, he would have seen that, far from celebrating the contradictions of the past or recommending any particular course of ecclesial action, I in fact somewhat lament the laxity of both East and West in this matter.

In a sense, the exaggerated response of many traditionalist Catholics to my really very tentative article is instructive. The sane response of anyone who sees current Catholic teaching as correct should be along the lines of: “Of course the historical evidence from the church’s early centuries is diverse and contradictory, as with so many aspects of Christian doctrine. But the Holy Spirit has guided the development of church teaching to its present form and thus vindicated certain ancient bishops and theologians and scriptural exegetes while consigning others to the history of error.” But traditionalist Catholics all too often—like their Orthodox counterparts—insist that their beliefs come wrapped in comforting fictions that every good historian knows to be false. And yet there is nothing in their doctrinal commitments that should require such fictions. A faith that demands dishonesty is, by definition, not faith.


Exposing the Spirits

The synod on the Amazon will be remembered as the moment that bishops gathered in Rome asked the pope to ordain married men in order better to stand with the wretched and vulnerable in defense of their lives and land. Whatever Pope Francis does now with that request, it is an important moment for the church, a sign that the pastoral and sacramental demands of the people of God in a particular place need not always be sacrificed on the altar of uniformity. Perhaps ecclesiologists will say it was the moment that the great unresolved issue of Vatican II—whether the local or the universal should take precedence—finally settled on a proper balance.

But the three-week gathering of close to 300 people (182 of whom could vote on the final document) was about much more. Francis came closest to expressing the shift it represented in his end-of-synod address, when he urged reporters not to focus only on the who-won-what in “minor disciplinary matters” but to “take time to look at the diagnoses, which is the dense part, the part where the synod expressed itself best.” The Amazon was being stripped, plundered, burned; its native people, guardians of the ecosystem, were desperate for help, looking to the church to stand with them. To come close, the church had to change, to embrace new thinking—especially on what they called ministerialidad, the question of ministries. Grasping the problem didn’t mean more study but conversion. And conversion began with a shift of perspective—with coming to see the world a bit more as God does.

The really exceptional thing, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, of La Civiltà Cattolica said, was the “radically pastoral” nature of the synod. Spadaro, who sat through all three weeks of the speeches and small-group meetings, was struck by how the bishops from Amazonia who made up the bulk of the “synod fathers” (those who can vote) shared the same pastoral challenge: how the church could better serve their hurting people, how it could stand with them against what the final document calls “the predatory extractivism that responds to the logic of greed, typical of the dominant technocratic paradigm.” The beauty of the synod was not only that it asked that question, but that, through frank and honest exchanges, in prayer and in dialogue, it got some answers.

The native peoples’ leaders at the synod were key to its pastoral conversion. Their stories of suffering and of the astonishing violence directed against them formed a constant backdrop, as did their expressions of faith in Jesus and in his church. “The politicians don’t listen to us, but you are listening to us” was the message many of them gave the bishops. José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, a Venezuelan leader from the Curripaco people, said the Catholic Church was “the only institution that is asking the world to wake up to what’s happening, and to save us.” He had asked the pope to “stop the invasions from outside” and to protect his people, because when they stood up for their rights they were imprisoned or even killed. Yesica Patiachi Tayori, a bilingual teacher from the Harakbut people in Peru, stood up to tell the pope: “Brother Francis, you seem alone, but you are not alone. The native peoples of the Amazon are with you!”

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The question was how the church could in turn be with them. The ecological question was also the “ministries” question. When almost all the local players in the region—the politicians, the foreign investors, mining companies, cattle ranchers, the prosperity-gospel evangelists—are in thrall to what the pope has called the technocratic paradigm, who but Catholic Amazonians will defend the integral ecology of the Kingdom of God? Yet how, in remote areas where they might be able to celebrate the Eucharist no more than once a year?

To answer that question the synod had to ask what kind of church it would be if it heard the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth as one cry, and responded as Christ would. The way toward an answer was in the final document: a church that is permanently undergoing a fourfold conversion—cultural, pastoral, ecological, and synodal—to become Samaritan, merciful, missionary, “inserted and inculturated,” a servant church, educating and evangelizing, standing with the people in defense of their rights and their land.     

The pope asked the synod more than once for un desborde, a Spanish word that means a river breaking its banks in response to a sudden flow of water. He wanted to open up the synod’s thinking like that, so that the Holy Spirit could overflow. What emerged was a vision and a mission. “We may not be able to modify immediately the destructive model of extractivist development, but we do need to know and make clear where we stand, whose side we are on,” the final document reads. The church had to defend the life of the poor: of the people, of creation, of family, of culture. In asking how the church could do so given its paucity of resources, the vast distances involved, and the great powers it must face down, the Amazon synod was doing what synods do best, not just repeating familiar propositions, but searching for new answers to urgent pastoral questions.


Inside the synod hall the Amazonian bishops faced intense opposition from the minority of curial cardinals.

Dom Neri José Tondello, bishop of Juína in Brazil’s Mato Grosso, led Portuguese A, one of the small groups that boldly called—as more than half of them did—for a women’s diaconate and married priests. Juína diocese is on the edge of the Amazon region, at least two days’ drive from Manaus, and covers around fifty thousand square miles. It has 130,000 Catholics—including seven thousand indigenous in twenty-seven villages and eleven ethnic groups—spread over thirteen immense parishes or mission areas, each of which has dozens of “base ecclesial communities.” Dom Neri has twenty priests, ten permanent deacons, and sixteen women religious, plus many hundreds of catechists and “animators”—essentially leaders of the base communities.

Dom Neri and most of the other Amazonian synod fathers supported the proposal made in the synod by retired bishop of Xingu and local church hero Dom Erwin Kräutler to ordain suitable married “elders” of proven virtue, viri probati, who would in most cases be the “animators” of those communities. They argued that priests rushing from community to community cannot possibly “know the smell of their sheep,” to use the pope’s famous phrase, and therefore a new type of priest—not replacing the celibate priesthood, but alongside it—is needed, at least in these missionary zones. The move was key to moving from a pastoral model based on visits to one based on presence. By introducing ordained ministry back into the community, the church could enable access to the sacraments but also better inculturate the priesthood. This question was also linked to the principle of synodality: good priests don’t just fly in and make arbitrary decisions but consult with local people. In dioceses like Dom Neri’s, therefore, a priesthood like that of the first millennium—local married elders, rather than young men trained in far-off seminaries as a separate class—made far more sense.

But inside the synod hall the Amazonian bishops faced intense opposition from the minority of curial cardinals, who said this was a universal question: the impact of ordaining viri probati in one region would be to undermine celibacy worldwide. Some said no such decision could be made by this synod, but would require its own special synod. Those who took their inspiration from Dom Erwin Kräutler replied that the Amazonian bishops should not be prevented from discussing a proposal for their own region as long as that proposal did not directly affect the church elsewhere. The law of celibacy was not intrinsic to priesthood, and the church had made other exceptions to it. The Eucharist, by contrast, was essential to the sustenance of the People of God, and to sacrifice it to a clerical discipline was not the Gospel.

There were many positions in between. Many of the non-Amazonian but also non-curial synod fathers wanted to respect the discernment of the local church but worried that the viri probati proposal would be too “fungible,” as one archbishop put it to me. His concern was that his seminarians would look over to the Amazon and ask, “Why do I have to be celibate?” He believed there needed to be a clear answer to that question, a way of showing that Amazonia was indeed a special case. Others wanted to be sure that the viri probati were on a distinct track, so you didn’t get, say, a seminarian on his way to ordination deciding to get married.

You can see traces of the struggling and the horsetrading in the final document’s paragraph 111—the one proposing the ordination of viri probati. It received a majority of more than two-thirds (128 votes) but also the largest number of negative votes (41). The synod fathers said celibacy was “a gift of God to the extent that this gift enables the missionary disciple, ordained to the priesthood, to dedicate himself fully to the service of the Holy People of God.” But they had no truck with the argument made by some of the conservative curiali, that there was some kind ontological connection between being a priest and not marrying. Celibacy has “many reasons of convenience” with the priesthood, the synod fathers said, but is not required by it. Appealing to the argument from Lumen gentium 13 that “legitimate diversity does not harm the community and unity of the Church, but expresses and serves it,” paragraph 111 proposed to establish “criteria and dispositions on the part of the competent authority” to ordain viri probati—essentially a dispensation from celibacy.

Significantly, the final document proposes ordaining not “elders”—the term used in the Kräutler/Lobinger proposal—but rather “suitable and recognized men of the community” who have “a fruitful permanent diaconate” along with a “legitimately constituted and stable family.” In other words, these are long-standing permanent deacons, not seminarians with doubts about celibacy. In order to allay fears of fungibility, paragraph 111 adds that the mission of these viri probati is geographically confined to “sustain the life of the Christian community through the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments in the most remote areas of the Amazon region.”

The archbishop worried about the effect on his seminarians was happy. So was Dom Neri. When I meet him the day after the vote, he was sending the key paragraph to one of his permanent deacons. Now in his fifties, the deacon left seminary in order to marry, but went on to have a fruitful diaconate, and hopes one day to be ordained a priest. “It’s what was possible,” Dom Neri says of the text. “They were wise: they didn’t force it, but they opened the door.” Of course, the pope has to respond in an exhortation likely to be out before the end of the year. But Dom Neri thinks much will now depend on the new pan-Amazonian bishops’ body the document calls for (“a permanent and representative episcopal organism that promotes synodality in the Amazon region”). He thinks that body—the pope described it in his speech as a kind of bishops’ conference for the region—will eventually request that the pope delegate to it his authority to dispense from celibacy on a case-by-case basis. Dom Neri also sees a way forward in the Amazonian Rite that the synod’s final report also proposes. This could start as a special liturgical rite incorporating aboriginal symbols and rituals but eventually evolve into a sui iuris church like that of the Copts or the Chaldeans. Because most of the twenty-three different rites in the Catholic Church already have some form of married priesthood, this would make the Amazonian viri probati even less threatening to a Latin Rite that for the past millennium has insisted on mandatory celibacy.

In his end-of-synod speech, the pope seemed to want the Amazonian bishops to push in that direction, noting that many of the twenty-three churches with their own rites “started out small, but building traditions as the Lord led them.” He said they “shouldn’t be afraid” of pushing out in that direction, always under the guidance of the universal Church.


Time and again the women who participated in the synod expressed their satisfaction that they were treated as equals.

It was after the conquistador Francisco de Orellana saw women fighting pitched battles on its banks that he named the Amazon after the Greek warrior women of myth. The three dozen women taking part as experts and auditors at the synod were tough too: indigenous leaders fighting for land and human rights, religious sisters on the frontline of the fight against human trafficking, as well as women church leaders who act as catechists and animators, in effect running the base communities that are the basic unit of the church in the Amazon. Some 60 percent of Catholic communities in the region are led by women.

Time and again the women who participated in the synod expressed their satisfaction that they were treated as equals, even dubbing themselves “synod mothers.” Many of them urged that their leadership be formally recognized in the Amazon, through the female diaconate and in other ways. Sr. Inés Azucena Zambrano Jara, an Ecuadorian nun working in Colombia to protect and enhance the place of native women, said that a female diaconate would “confirm our identities, our baptismal nature” and most of the Amazonian bishops also favored a female diaconate in order to strengthen the church’s presence through a whole variety of new ministries. Dom Neri’s group, for example, urged that the “minor orders” of lector and acolyte also be opened to women. Another Brazilian group argued that if Vatican II had opened the permanent diaconate to men for the good of the church, “the same argument is valid to create a diaconate for women in Amazonia.”

The final document fell short of backing that call, offering instead to “share our experiences and reflections” with the experts Francis appointed in 2016 to look into the issue. That might look like a damp squib—and many women observers and participants were indeed disappointed—but almost everyone failed to notice that the document offers something far more radical: a call for “the institution of ministry for female leadership of the community” in recognition of “the ministry that Jesus reserved for women.” True, the expansion of leadership roles for women mentioned in the document mostly concerns leadership roles for lay people in general, such as “special ministries for the care of our common home.” But paragraph 95 calls for the church in the Amazon “to promote and confer ministries for men and women in an equitable manner,” adding that “the Bishop may entrust, for a specific period of time, in the absence of priests, the exercise of pastoral care of the communities to a person not invested with the priestly character.” It adds that the bishop “may constitute this ministry on behalf of the Christian community with an official mandate through a ritual act so that the person responsible for the community is also recognized at the civil and local levels.” Given that most people with pastoral duties in Amazonia are lay women, this means bishops will be conferring on lay women the presidency of local Catholic communities. Mauricio López, one of the synod organizers, told me: “In many ways this is much bigger than the female diaconate. Many women have been saying: we don’t want to be clergy, we want to have our leadership and authority recognized by the bishop. Here it is.”

Close to the end of the synod, a letter was handed to the pope asking that the general superiors of women’s religious congregations be allowed to vote on the final document, given the absurd anomaly that delegates who are non-ordained religious brothers could do so. It didn’t happen this time, but in his closing speech Francis said the religious sisters had laid down a gauntlet that he would pick up. To applause, he said he would reopen the women’s-diaconate commission, with new members and with more weight, under the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.


At the start of the synod the opposition created a major media distraction by claiming that indigenous people were “worshiping idols” in the Vatican gardens.

Every Francis synod has its shenanigans—old-fashioned Roman power games that the curia remains expert in—as well its attacks, both ideological and spiritual. This synod was no exception. There was disgust, for example, at the way Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the outgoing synod general secretary, removed Dom Erwin Kräutler and others from the commission that redacted the synod’s final document, one of many attempts by the curia to try to exclude members of the Latin-American group linked to REPAM, the Pan-Amazonian church network created in 2013 that has organized the remarkable three-year preparation of the synod in the region.

Perhaps because of that gutting of the redaction committee, the draft of the final document handed to synod fathers at the beginning of the final week was a huge shock. The viri probati and the female diaconate were there, but it wholly failed to capture the thinking and vision that had emerged in the synod (“totally uninspiring!” one synod father told me.) A group of bishops went to the pope, who agreed that a major revision was needed. The redaction commission was reformed, and experts were brought in to help incorporate into a new relatio synodi the 831 modi, or amendments, produced by the twelve small groups. In just two days and one long night, the commission had hammered out an uplifting 33-page document, every paragraph of which passed with a two-thirds majority.

The attacks on the synod began long before the bishops gathered in Rome, mostly from an alliance of ideological convenience between right-wing traditionalists clustered around an integralist Brazilian movement called Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), populist nationalists linked to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who has backed exploitation of the Amazon and accused the church of interfering with state sovereignty, and the North American conservative Catholic media such as LifeSite News and EWTN, whose assumption is that all change is a surrender to modernity. Prior to the synod they ran interviews and articles that sought to portray the synod as heretical, syncretistic, Marxist, and a backdoor attempt by Francis to impose his “liberal agenda” on the church.

At the start of the synod the opposition created a major media distraction by claiming that indigenous people were “worshiping idols” in the Vatican gardens. The original story by an EWTN-owned news agency claimed that knee-high wooden figurines (bare-breasted, pregnant Amazonian women) were pagan fertility symbols belonging to pre-Colombian earth-worship. The truth later emerged that the objects, bought in Manaus market, were simply a craftsman’s expression of buen vivir, the typically Amazonian respect for all created life. The figurines had no specific religious significance to begin with, but were taken throughout the region by itinerant Catholic missionaries and described by some as “Our Lady of the Amazon.” But by the time these clarifications emerged, a frenzy had been whipped up, and the opposition media at the synod continued to demand from bewildered Vatican officials a definitive statement as to whether or not the figurines were “pagan.” Other journalists publicly offered an apology to the native peoples of the Amazon for the contempt and disrespect they were being shown.

Then, on October 21, LifeSite News publicized a video showing two unidentified men removing the figurines from a church close to the Vatican that was the base for the groups accompanying the synod. Just like ISIS videos depicting the smashing of statues of the Madonna in Baghdad churches, the video showed the men tossing the statuettes into the Tiber from the Ponte Sant’Angelo. As news spread, so did the disgust within the synod. Indigenous leaders were amazed at the contrast between the respect they were shown inside—where the pope had at one point bowed his head and asked for their blessing—and the contempt from North American Catholic media. “You may not recognize or like the forms we have to express ourselves,” one native leader, shaking with emotion, told journalists, “but at the heart of everything we do and believe is Jesus Christ.”

The Vatican accused ultra-conservative Catholic social media of fomenting hate, saying the statues were “an effigy of maternity and the sacredness of life.” Cardinal Pedro Barreto, who co-presided at the assembly, said the theft of the images contradicted one of the key lessons of the synod, which was respect for culture as the “seed of the Word” and showed astonishing ignorance. The controversy was of course a distraction from the synod, but in another way it highlighted the need for conversion that the synod was addressing. In Ignatian terms, this episode had exposed the spirits: the spirit of the synod—joyful, respectful, pastoral, close to the poor—and its opposite: the spirit of hate, contempt, fear.

Which makes the final document’s triumph, especially on the topic of inculturation, even more beautiful. “Christ in His incarnation left aside his divine prerogative and became man in a concrete culture in order to identify himself with all humanity,” the document notes, quoting St Irenaeus that “what is not assumed is not redeemed.” “Only an inserted and inculturated missionary Church will promote the emergence of particular autochthonous Churches, with an Amazonian face and heart, rooted in the cultures and traditions proper to the people,” the document went on, before describing how those cultures offered the “seeds of the Word” in their ancestral values, their “integrating vision”—and of course their connectedness to nature.

The day before the vote, the pope announced that three of the stolen figurines had been recovered from the Tiber by policemen and were back on display inside the synod hall, looking peaceful and quite unperturbed by the violence done to them by unnamed fanatics. The brief period during which they were missing happened to coincide with the extraordinary effort to save the synod’s final document. Judging by the result, it was the first beautiful miracle of Our Lady of the Amazon and the Tiber.

This article was made possible with support from Commonweal’s Paul Saunders Fund.

“Joker” is not a political statement . . . it’s a spiritual nightmare

Todd Phillips’ Joker is shaping up to be the most controversial film of the year, if not the decade. A brutally dark, 70s-style art-house film that turns the comic book genre on its head, it has been surprisingly popular with moviegoers and surprisingly unpopular with critics, garnering 90% and 69% in its respective Rotten Tomatoes scores. Critics’ concerns seem to boil down to two major themes: its apparent justification of violence and the political subtexts attached to that. And be warned: the film is violent, and Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness is very disturbing indeed—so much so that I can’t say I recommend it. At the very least, only adults should be seeing it, and even then, those of faint heart or unsound mind should steer clear. But for those who have already seen it (or who will see it no matter what anyone says), I hope it’s clear that Joker really makes us…

William Barr, Catholic Moralist

I finally got around to reading Attorney General William Barr’s Notre Dame speech concerning the threats now endangering religious freedom and marginalizing religious believers. I share Barr’s worries about the political and legal pressures being applied to religious organizations that profess traditional views about sexual morality, marriage, homosexuality, and transgenderism. The insistence of presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke that such groups be denied tax-exempt status is not only politically tone-deaf; it is also deeply illiberal. Democrats should reject such demagoguery. Freedom of religion or conscience means little if it does not protect the rights of those whose views we judge to be wrong. On this fraught issue, live-and-let-live should be the path forward. Better judgments on the value of the new sexual dispensation can be made in a generation or two. In a democracy, the sincere beliefs of people on both sides of such a complicated issue, especially one that implicates how families raise their children, deserve respect and tolerance.

But the bulk of Barr’s speech was a snide version of conservative Catholic boilerplate, designed not to persuade anyone but to flatter true believers and incite the troops. Barr claimed that “Christianity teaches a micro-morality. We transform the world by focusing on our own personal morality and transformation.” But this “micro-morality” has more to do with Republican Party orthodoxy than with the Gospel. So much for the long record of the church’s support for labor unions and a robust role for government in caring for the poor and promoting civic virtue. So much for Catholic social teaching, period. Barr seems to believe the church can tell you what is moral in the bedroom, but not in the workplace or the marketplace. Of course, it’s possible to be a Catholic and disagree with the church’s social teaching. But ignoring that teaching, as Barr did in his speech, is another matter.

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Barr, a very rich man, contrasts his micro-morality to the actions of those misbegotten souls who “find salvation on the picket line” and “signal” their “finely tuned moral sensibilities by demonstrating for this cause or that.” He describes a recent experience in church, but smugly reassures his audience it did not occur in his parish. At the end of Mass, an announcement was made by the chairman of the Social Justice Committee about homelessness in Washington, D.C. The chairman reported on visits to the D.C. government to lobby for “higher taxes and more spending to fund mobile soup kitchens.” Barr suggests that this sort of political activity is virtually un-Christian. The orthodox Catholic solution, he argues, would have been to call for volunteers to staff the soup kitchens. Of course, volunteerism and individual responsibility for helping the poor do not negate the need for government action to address a problem as immediate, daunting, and complicated as homelessness. Barr disagrees. “The solution to the breakdown of the family is for the State to set itself up as the ersatz husband for single mothers and the ersatz father to their children,” he writes, caricaturing the views of those who advocate for government action. “Today—in the face of all the increasing pathologies—instead of addressing the underlying cause, we have the State in the role of Alleviator of Bad Consequences. We call on the State to mitigate the social costs of personal misconduct and irresponsibility…. The call comes for more and more social programs to deal with the wreckage. While we think we are solving problems we are underwriting them.”

Barr’s moral preening is almost surreal. But perhaps it is not surprising.

Barr paints a very dark picture of the moral “chaos,” much of it sexual, now sweeping across American society as religious morality is discarded for “licentiousness” and secular godlessness. If his speech is any indication, he sees no connection between societal disarray and economic inequality. No connection between the consumerist mentality that pervades society and fuels the economy and the inability of people to “put chains on their appetites.” No connection between the vaunted individualism of Americans and our abiding social animosities. Neither does Barr mention Jesus’ rather dark view of the moral corruption wealth causes. The eye of the needle is wide in Barr’s version of Catholicism. Trump Tower might even squeeze through it.

Coming from someone eager to advance the agenda of a president who is a model of licentiousness and moral chaos—a president who claims he has never asked God for forgiveness—Barr’s moral preening is almost surreal. But perhaps it is not surprising. Barr’s understanding of Christianity is essentially Pelagian; nowhere does his notion of “Judeo-Christian” morality reflect the paradoxical and decidedly “macro” teachings of Jesus. “Modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as otherworldly superstition imposed by a kill-joy clergy. In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct,” Barr argues. “Religion helps teach, train, and habituate people to want what is good…. In other words, religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.” Describing the morality of Jesus as essentially utilitarian and this-worldly is like championing Trump as an avatar of democracy.

I had been to Mass the day I read Barr’s diatribe. The readings that day were piquant. In the Responsorial Psalm we were reminded that “the Lord hears the cry of the poor.” The first reading was from Sirach: “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites. Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed. The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.” Mere virtue-signaling, one assumes. The passage from Luke’s Gospel was the story of the self-righteous Pharisee who praises his own virtue. His pride is contrasted to the humility of the tax collector who begged forgiveness for his sins: “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Whatever the truth of Barr’s speech, there was nothing humble about it.

In a remarkably prescient piece written in 1996 titled “Looking Backwards from the Year 2096,” the philosopher Richard Rorty speculated that America’s democratic institutions would break down in 2014 under the relentless demands of a globalized economy, ushering in an era of authoritarian rule. Rorty speculated that a new birth of democracy, one that embraced the relationship between “the moral order and the economic order,” would arrive in 2096. “Just as twentieth-century Americans had trouble imagining how their pre-Civil War ancestors could have stomached slavery, so we at the end of the twenty-first century have trouble imagining how our great grandparents could have legally permitted a CEO to get 20 times more than her lowest paid employees,” he foretells. “Such inequalities seem to us evident moral abominations, but the vast majority of our ancestors took them to be regrettable necessities.… Looking back, we think how easy it would have been for our great-grandfathers to have forestalled the social collapse that resulted from these economic pressures. They could have insisted that all classes had to confront the new global economy together.… They might have brought the country together by bringing back its old pride in fraternal ideals.” Fraternal ideals! Not very “micro,” but perhaps Judeo-Christian in the best sense.

It’s Time for Catholics to Embrace Halloween

As we near All Hallows Eve, aka Halloween, the walking encyclopedia that is Father Steve Grunow discusses everything you ever wanted to know about Halloween and its deeply Catholic roots.

Rawls & Theodicy

According to a possibly apocryphal story, one crusty political theorist wondered to another whom they should hire next, having lived through two successive trends in their field. One wave had brought the history of political thought from the Greeks through World War II to a new level. The other had made an academic industry of John Rawls, the great American philosopher whose A Theory of Justice (1971) did more than any other book to define the terms of political thought in our time. “It’s obvious what comes next,” his friend replied. “The history of Rawls!”

And, in fact, two young Harvard political theorists have come out simultaneously with two of the best treatments imaginable of the context and meaning of Rawls’s epoch-making book. But the two could not be more different. In the Shadow of Justice, the exciting new leftish history by Katrina Forrester, suggests that, for all his abstraction, Rawls was offering a metaphysical gloss on the program of the right wing of the British Labour party of the 1950s, when it was seeking an increasingly market-friendly vision of socialism, one that would eventually devolve into neoliberalism. For her right-leaning colleague Eric Nelson, by contrast, Rawls is a failed early-modern theologian, whose legacy is to leave liberals without a good reason to believe that justice requires even modest redistribution.

Nelson is astonishingly gifted and hard-working. At a strikingly young age—he is only in his early forties—he has now written four equally impressive books. They are remarkable in their erudition. With enviable mastery of the classical and Jewish traditions and awesome knowledge of early-modern political theory, Nelson has new things to say about every topic he touches, even when his arguments are not totally convincing. Never until The Theology of Liberalism, however, has he let himself cross the bridge from history to present-day debates.


The gist of his argument is that nobody knows for sure that the distribution of gifts and talents is unjust.

“The left has no concept of forgiveness of sins,” tweeted conservative Christian Erick Erickson in August during the kerfuffle around the New York Times 1619 Project” on the legacy of American slavery. This is basically Nelson’s argument too. But he pursues it brilliantly at a rather higher level of discourse.

Nelson opens his book by placing Rawls’s recently discovered Princeton University senior thesis, written in 1942, in the long Augustinian tradition of Christianity that denied that sinful humans could save themselves. For Augustine and his followers, Pelagianism—named after a late-antique theologian who was condemned as a heretic by the Catholic Church—overstated the extent to which human beings can earn their salvation. Such a belief verged on an ideology of self-redemption of individual sinners or of humanity itself that (as Rawls put it at age twenty) “rendered the Cross of Christ to no effect.” For Rawls, at the time a committed Christian who planned a career in the Episcopal priesthood before World War II service in the Pacific caused him to lose his faith, it followed that “no man can claim good deeds as his own.” To contend otherwise inflated human capacity and courted sacrilegious idolatry of humanity itself.

Nelson contends that this Augustinian response to Pelagianism lurked in Rawls’s defense of fair distributional justice long after he had moved on to secular philosophy. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls remarked that “no one deserves” their social ascendancy and the natural gifts—intelligence or industriousness—with which they achieved it. The fact that one person was endowed with them and another not was “morally arbitrary.” A theory of justice aiming at fairness rather than fortune would reject any sense that people deserved their class position. Some redistribution from the rich to the rest was therefore just.

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What Nelson does with this parallel between Rawls’s Christian senior thesis and his mature theory of redistribution is more contentious. Demonstrating that most founders of the liberal tradition were Pelagians, he insists that it is difficult to reconcile Rawls’s rejection of moral arbitrariness with the politics he hoped to advance.

“Liberalism,” writes Nelson, “began as a theodicy.” By this he means that for the major liberal thinkers in the early-modern period, the attempt to justify the ways of God to men almost always included the belief that God is unfailingly good. It is their own autonomy that leads humans, if they choose not to conform to God’s plan, to introduce evil into the world on their own. What made for the correlation of Pelagianism with liberalism is that the theological defense of human freedom—including freedom to err—implied that individuals should be allowed politically to seek perfection on their own, without the interference of states or sects. Liberalism was born out of the insistence that, since agents were free enough to save themselves, they had to be left alone enough to have a chance to do it.

Observing that early liberals embraced the very theology that Rawls rejected, Nelson thinks Rawls’s followers are left with a big problem. Liberalism originated in the Pelagian heresy that refuses to saddle human beings with original sin, or to make them utterly dependent on the divine, but instead grants them autonomy, dignity, and (at least potential) self-made perfection. How, then, can Rawls and his followers reject Pelagianism without also rejecting liberalism?

Nelson’s answer: they can’t. Either you adopt the Augustinian line that, while no one earns their gifts and talents, any seemingly unfair distribution is part of God’s mysterious design, whose meaning is to be revealed only at the end of time; or you adopt the Pelagian view that you do earn them—that greater wealth really might reflect greater merit. You can’t have it both ways, as Rawls and his followers want.

After suggesting that Rawls’s Augustinian case for redistribution is incoherent, Nelson spends the rest of his book arguing that Pelagians, who believe in the autonomy of human beings, will also find it difficult to make a case for more egalitarian distribution—at least as a matter of obligatory justice, as opposed to optional public policy (a possibility Nelson graciously acknowledges).

The gist of his argument is that nobody knows for sure that the distribution of gifts and talents is unjust. Denying that alternative worlds were better, he observes, is what early-modern Pelagians spent their time doing, perhaps most famously when arch-Pelagian G. W. Leibniz coined the term “theodicy.” It is illicit, Leibniz claimed, to infer from the apparent unfairness of the created world that God didn’t do the best he could with the imperfect human materials he was working with. If you think our reality is not already optimal, you haven’t considered what God had to deal with in making it. What if doing better on one front might have worsened the world in other ways?

What the Lisbon earthquake was to Leibnizians—a scandal for the simpleminded that did not necessarily disprove God’s goodness and justice—neoliberalism is to Nelson. How, he wonders, do progressive advocates of redistribution know we are not already in the fairest of all possible worlds? The mere fact of unequal distribution—whether of wealth itself or of the talent it rewards—hardly proves that a better state of affairs is possible, or that the pursuit of a more equitable distribution would not lead to a worse outcome.

But Nelson’s argument could be turned against him: if no one can know for sure that we are not already in the fairest of all possible worlds, neither can anyone know that we are. Leibniz himself conceded that no conclusive proof is available that the way the world has worked out is best. “Theodicy,” Nelson says when resting his own case, “could be neither demonstrated nor refuted.” If that is so, however, then it is really a matter of determining whether to force on egalitarians the obligation to prove conclusively that—in the old slogan of the alter-globalization movement—another world is possible. Why not instead place the burden on those who conclude that existing inequality is the best available scenario?

In his responses to Leibniz, in any case, Voltaire never took it upon himself to prove that his foe had rationalized horror, the better to preserve the belief in God’s goodness in a flawed world. Rather, Voltaire simply ridiculed him. However difficult if might be to show that it’s false, the notion that our history of crimes and misfortunes has led to the best imaginable society is simply too incredible for us to allow it to get in the way of a zeal for just reform. Nelson surely wouldn’t have required of abolitionists that they prove to dominant skeptics that a better world without chattel slavery was possible before they resolved to achieve it. Why is the case of fair distribution any different in the alarmingly unequal situation of the present?


But there is also a deeper quandary about the way that Nelson brings old theology to bear on contemporary philosophy. He insists that a lot follows from restoring their lost unity, as he does so intrepidly in his book.

The book does not establish that a secular politics demanding more fairness for a society of moral equals is not a just cause—let alone that egalitarian liberalism is or has to be theological.

Nelson is right, of course, about the influence of theology on the assumptions of Western thought, and even on Rawls himself. Nelson convincingly says that in the early-modern period, theology and philosophy were not even distinct enterprises. Amos Funkenstein, one of the many great students of early-modern thought to have taken up similar issues before Nelson’s book, called the results “secular theology.” For that matter, a host of authors, most recently Ian Hunter, have explored the way that the ongoing contest between the heirs of Augustine and Pelagius structured the origins of modern political thought. Besides reconstructing the history in an illuminating and original way, however, Nelson also places Rawls in the theological tradition better than anyone so far. For example, he produces an arresting piece of evidence from Rawls’s library, showing that even after A Theory of Justice Rawls could express skepticism about a claim in a book he was reading by writing “Pelagian-ism” in the margin.

But it takes quite a bit more work to insist on the continuing relevance of theology to political theory. “Liberal political philosophers,” Nelson writes, “have been unwittingly taking up positions in the theodicy debate.” Yet, as Nelson himself acknowledges, it does not follow from the fact that many liberal theorists centuries ago operated in a Pelagian framework that all have done so—they have not—or that they must go on doing so forever. Beyond this, the liberal argument for redistribution, from the premises that nobody deserves their starting points in life and that it would be possible to create a fairer society, has to be proved or disproved by our best secular reasoning.

That contemporary liberal political philosophy is reminiscent of Christian thinking about God’s justice, and was even started by someone with commitments in that old discussion, is surely fascinating as a matter of intellectual history. But if the theological framework were dispositive, Nelson would not have had to spend so many pages of this book mounting a purely secular critique of the liberal argument for redistribution. Nor does the fact that Nelson’s own argument might have roots in theological positions that were first staked out in the theodicy debate necessarily make it any stronger.

I don’t mean to suggest that the history of philosophy is irrelevant to its present and future, or that Christianity in particular has not deeply informed our world of thought. The Theology of Liberalism is a great and rewarding book, for insisting otherwise on both counts. But it does not establish that a secular politics demanding more fairness for a society of moral equals is not a just cause—let alone that egalitarian liberalism is or has to be theological.


The Theology of Liberalism
Political Philosophy and the Justice of God

Eric Nelson
Harvard University Press, $29.95, 232 pp.

The Journey of Dave Matthews through the Thresholds of Conversion

Life is hunger, thirst, and passion for an ultimate object, which looms over the horizon, and yet always lies beyond it. When this is recognized, man becomes a tireless searcher. —Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense As an evangelist especially interested in proclaiming Jesus in a postmodern context, I am uniquely engaged by musicians whose lyrics unpack some of the movements of their own spiritual journey. Postmodernity spends so much of its time acting like these questions do not exist that I love when they emerge from the creative enterprise of songwriting. It’s like as you enter these deeper places in your heart from which you write, you cannot escape the real questions that lie in those places. Songs like those teach me who people are at their core; they show what is at the heart of the human condition which,…