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Radical, Moderate, and Necessary

Author E. J. Dionne Jr. also discussed this topic and others with Commonweal Editor Dominic Preziosi on the Commonweal Podcast. Listen here:

 

Catholicism is underperforming in American public life. Its social doctrine is admired well outside the confines of the Church. Yet it remains poorly known and insufficiently appreciated by the faithful.

Those inspired by Catholic thinking have always been alive to the importance of balance—between personal responsibility and a concern for community, between individual rights and the common good. This sense of equilibrium could be an antidote to much that is wrong in our public life. But in so many public proclamations by Church leaders, we hear far more about cultural warfare than balance, more about gloom than hope for modernity, more about dangers than possibilities.

The Church’s teachings about politics represent a radical brand of moderation that is missing in our discourse—radical, because they offer a sharp critique of the status quo and its assumptions; moderate, because they understand the imperative of weighing competing goods and seeing human beings as fallen but also capable of transcendence and redemption.

The old Catholic concept of the “social mortgage” speaks powerfully to our economic moment and to the reality of growing inequality. It underscores the obligations of those who have achieved financial comfort toward the society that enabled their success, and especially toward those who have the least.

The idea that there are “essential workers” has been popularized during the pandemic, and one can say a prayer of thanks for that. The phrase calls attention to the contradiction between our claim to value those who undertake this labor and our failure to stand up for the adequate pay and decent working conditions they deserve. Again, this reflects Catholic teaching, going back to Rerum novarum, that has always insisted on the dignity of work and the right of workers to organize collectively and to lead ennobling personal and family lives.

And, yes, the family matters, as Catholicism has always taught. But here we come again to the ways in which the Church’s leadership so often shortchanges itself, its membership, and the world. That the phrase “family values” is now so closely associated with hostility to LGBTQ people is a shame and a sin. What a dedication to family should be about is the joy we take in the responsibilities of relationships that nurture the next generation.

Family values, rightly understood, should challenge prejudices, not reinforce them. An emphasis on family tells us that the work we do in the marketplace is not the only kind of work that matters, nor is it the most important. Family overturns prejudices related to age—all members of the family, from toddlers to great-grandparents, are appreciated for who they are, who they have been, who they can be.

And we are called to love members of our families even when their views, their ways of living, and their forms of self-expression might annoy or trouble us. In that love, we can also learn how to empathize with those outside our families who are unlike us and might disagree with us.

 

The Church’s teachings about politics represent a radical brand of moderation that is missing in our discourse

If I am disappointed that American Catholicism is not bringing to our politics what Pope Francis has called “the joy of the Gospel,” it is an impatience born of gratitude, not bitterness. Perhaps that’s why I have used the restrained word “underperforming” to describe what others might fairly see as the scandalous failure of its leadership to speak fearlessly and consistently against the social and moral failures of the Trump presidency.

So much of what I believe has been shaped by the Catholicism I learned from my parents, from the Sisters of St. Joseph, and from the Benedictine monks who taught me in high school. It’s true that I remain enraged by the scandals and can easily identify with those who have left the Church in disgust; they include many people I am close to.

Yet I continue to admire the work on behalf of charity and justice undertaken by so many of the institutions the Church has built. As I have already suggested, I see Catholicism—particularly in its post–World War II form—as offering intellectual resources the democratic world can use at a moment when democracy finds itself in crisis.

This only deepens my sadness over the narrowing of the American Church’s public witness and its failure to take advantage of the enormous opening Pope Francis’s papacy offers. Now should be a time for a renewed embrace of a social Catholicism that gave rise to Christian Democracy, a vibrant Catholic role in the labor movement, and a healthy, dialectical relationship with modernity.

After 1945, the Church took decisive steps, ratified by the Second Vatican Council, to accept modernity’s moral gifts on matters of democracy, religious freedom, and human rights. At the same time, it maintained a critical attitude toward modernity’s acids—the contemporary world’s slide toward a radical rather than a tempered individualism, and its skepticism of tradition in all its forms. Tradition, as Catholics know as well as anyone, can be stifling, but it can also be liberating and instructive.

These Catholic gifts are largely unknown among the young who have come to associate Catholicism with the issues the loudest Catholic voices speak of incessantly—opposition to abortion and gay marriage—and not much else. This is an enormous problem, both for our politics and for the future of the Church, and it will be aggravated by the battle over the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

And this frustration can congeal into anger in response to the insistence by so many right-wing Catholics, including some bishops and priests, that it is a moral obligation to vote for a man who can fairly be seen as the most corrupt, morally flawed, selfish, and bigoted president in our nation’s history. These are symptoms of a Church that, far from being the “counter-cultural” force my conservative Catholic friends have recommended as its natural path, has conformed itself to the cultural and ideological wars that have led our country’s politics to a dreadful impasse.

The polls show that the primary division among Catholics in 2020, as in 2016, is along ethnic and racial lines. White Catholics offer majority support to Donald Trump, Hispanic and Black Catholics oppose him—which means that Catholics are divided along the same lines as the rest of the country.

Perhaps this should not shock us. Except for a brief period in the early 1960s, when four out of five Catholics voted for John F. Kennedy to break the political barriers against their full political participation, Catholics have never been monolithic in their political views. Even Kennedy joked that he had the support of the nuns, while Richard Nixon enjoyed the sympathy of many bishops. It’s an old split.

Since the 1970s, there has been no “Catholic vote”—and yet the Catholic vote has remained important. For a half century, Catholics have been a 40-40-20 group, each party guaranteed about two-fifths of Catholic ballots with the remaining fifth up for grabs. And given the importance of Catholic voters in the non-randomly chosen states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the preferences of that Catholic swing group can matter enormously. Nonetheless, the polarization of Catholics along white/non-white lines is, to say the least, discouraging, because it means that a substantial majority of white Catholics support a man who traffics relentlessly in racism and nativism.

As befits a Church built by immigrants, its leaders have been unusually and properly united in speaking out in defense of new arrivals to our shores and against Trump’s cruel policies toward migrants—reinforced in their witness by Pope Francis. Yet this has not made much of a difference in the views of the faithful. Many Catholics have joined their white Evangelical brethren in supporting Trump because of his (newfound) opposition to abortion, and as a bulwark against what they see as the threat of liberal secularism.

But this alone does not explain Catholic support for Trump, and we must also confront a disturbing truth: that white Catholics, like white Protestants, are in many cases drawn to rather than repulsed by Trump’s appeal to racial backlash. As Robert P. Jones argues in his recent book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, white Christians, including Catholics, were influenced by “powerful fears about the loss of white Christian dominance amid a rapidly changing environment.”

One might have thought that the election of Pope Francis would lead to a call to conscience on such questions and a renewal of a more social Catholicism in the United States. On the contrary, leading American bishops have been among Francis’s most enthusiastic detractors. They have sharply criticized the direction in which he is leading the Church. America’s Catholic bishops continue to speak about “intrinsic evils,” “non-negotiable issues,” and most recently of the battle against abortion as their “preeminent priority”—even as Francis has emphasized the need for a different path. He has said so explicitly, again and again. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” he said early in his papacy.

There are important voices in the hierarchy, the “Francis bishops”—their leaders include Cardinal Blase Cupich in Chicago; Cardinal Joseph Tobin in Newark, New Jersey; and Bishop Robert McElroy in San Diego—who speak boldly, urgently, and lucidly on immigration, the struggle against racism, labor rights, climate change, and social justice. But they are fighting a tide that has been moving in a different direction since the 1980s. The American Catholic conversation has strayed far from both the radical Catholicism of the 1960s (despite the honorable endurance of the Catholic Worker movement) and the liberal Catholicism associated with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “seamless garment” approach to the life issues, war, economics, and opposition to the death penalty. Bernardin, you might say, prefigured Francis’s priorities. 

The decline of progressive Catholicism reflects not only a reorientation of the hierarchy during the John Paul II and Benedict years, but also a transformation of the American Church’s social base

The decline of progressive Catholicism reflects not only a reorientation of the hierarchy during the John Paul II and Benedict years, but also a transformation of the American Church’s social base. A 2015 Pew Research Center report found that nearly 13 percent of all Americans are former Catholics, people who were raised in the faith but who now identify with other religious traditions, or no religion at all. The Church’s losses have been especially pronounced among the young—only half of millennials raised Catholic have remained in the Church, Pew found, and only 57 percent of Gen Xers have stayed. Those who continue to identify as Catholic are thus older and, on the whole, more conservative. This is a great loss for the Church as a whole, but it is a loss that has specifically decimated social and progressive Catholicism’s successor generation.

 

There is a kind push-pull effect at work among the Catholic faithful, and in religious America generally. The more that Christianity, including Catholicism, is associated with right-wing politics, the more alienated from religion progressives, especially young people, become—and the more inclined they are to dismiss the institutions of faith and religious people altogether.

But the more this happens, the easier it becomes for right-wing politicians to cast liberals as hostile to belief itself. Few have articulated this view more passionately than Attorney General William Barr, who might fairly be seen as America’s leading Catholic Trumpist (although many seem to be auditioning for this role). Speaking last October at Notre Dame, Barr denounced “the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism,” and argued that “the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has brought with it immense suffering, wreckage, and misery.” He left no doubt about where the political blame for all this lay. “Among these militant secularists are many so-called ‘progressives,’” Barr said, adding this little jab: “But where is the progress?”

If there was little subtlety here, there was no subtlety at all when Trump declared in August that Joe Biden would “hurt God.” This conceded remarkable spiritual powers to his Democratic opponent. Biden, Trump said, would create a world of “no religion, no anything,” adding, “He’s against God. He’s against guns.” That God is now linked to guns might be distressing, except that the phrase was a giveaway: God, like guns, is about a narrative of social conservatism, not any theological reality.

The attacks on Biden’s religious standing have continued, a sign, perhaps, that the Trump campaign is genuinely worried about a Democrat who talks openly about his faith, attends Mass devotedly, and would become, if he won, only our second Catholic president. Biden’s age may be an asset in this respect: older Catholics who tend to be more conservative can look at him and say, instinctively, “Yeah, he’s one of us.”

This is dangerous to Trump, which is why he mobilized Lou Holtz, Notre Dame’s legendary football coach, to declare at the Republicans’ online convention that “the Biden-Harris ticket is the most radically pro-abortion campaign in history. They and other politicians are Catholic in name only and abandon innocent lives.” And never mind that Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, is a Baptist.

What’s fascinating about 2020 is that Holtz’s “in name only” charge may have done more to arouse anger among Catholics who are not associated with the political Right than to stir the Trump-supporting (or football-loving) Catholic faithful. Fr. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, issued the requisite statement that Holtz’s comments did not reflect any endorsement of Trump from the university. But he went a step farther. “We Catholics,” Jenkins said, “should remind ourselves that while we may judge the objective moral quality of another’s actions, we must never question the sincerity of another’s faith, which is due to the mysterious working of grace in that person’s heart.”

In September, a group of more than 150 Catholic theologians, nuns, and former staffers at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops signed a letter urging Catholic voters to oppose Trump as a man who “flouts core values at the heart of Catholic social teaching.” Their ranks included not only longtime progressive activists such as Sr. Simone Campbell of the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, but also leading Catholic scholars and university officials, including Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, as well as Dolores Leckey, Francis X. Doyle, and Frank Monahan, top former Bishop’s Conference officials from its earlier, more progressive incarnation.

The deep split we are witnessing among Catholic public voices in this year’s campaign is, in one sense, simply a part of the larger struggle going on inside the Church, reflected in conflicting attitudes toward Francis’s project. And those who embrace a more social Catholicism might take heart in the fact that progressive Catholic voices are louder and more widely noticed in 2020 than they have been in past campaigns. This is partly a reflection of the odious nature of Trump’s policies, which also led to the embrace of Never Trumpism by some conservative Catholic intellectuals. To their credit, they refuse to link arms with a man who so regularly flouts common decency.

But the growing public presence of social justice Catholicism predates Trump and Francis’s election. Groups such as Nuns on the Bus, organized by Sr. Simone and NETWORK, commanded sufficient media attention during the 2012 campaign to complicate narratives equating Catholicism with Republican voting and conservative ideology. And while right-wing bishops have in the past been far more outspoken at election time than their more moderate or progressive brethren, there are signs of change this year.

“I think that a person in good conscience could vote for Mr. Biden,” Cardinal Tobin said at a September 15 event co-sponsored by centers at Boston College, Trinity College, and St. Anselm College. “I, frankly, in my own way of thinking have a more difficult time with the other option.”

Yes, the morally “difficult” option is Trump, who, as the editors of America wrote in an editorial published the day after Tobin’s comments, might be “ostensibly pro-life,” but in fact “has undermined the constitutional order to a degree unprecedented in modern U.S. history.”

 

The crisis created by Trump and Biden’s public embrace of his Catholicism may thus mark the beginning of a new and much-to-be-wished-for phase in the American Church’s political engagement

The crisis created by Trump and Biden’s public embrace of his Catholicism—Biden calls his faith the “bedrock foundation of my life”—may thus mark the beginning of a new and much-to-be-wished-for phase in the American Church’s political engagement. What needs to happen?

For the long run, the bishops must come to understand that a political approach centered on an insistence that abortion must become illegal will keep leading the Church into blind alleys. Many Christian Democratic parties have already recognized this. It is not even a promising strategy for reducing the number of abortions, given the likelihood of a high rate of illegal abortions that would also threaten women’s lives.

This could open the way for creating a genuine culture of life, rooted, as Commonweal columnist Cathleen Kaveny has argued, in a respect for both autonomy and solidarity, and a full embrace of gender equality. It would begin with an acknowledgement that poorer women account for about seventy percent of all abortions in the United States. Robust policies to help poor women (which is to say, a far greater degree of social justice) combined with wider access to contraception (which I know is inconsistent with current Church teaching) would substantially reduce the number of abortions. The paradox is that pushing Catholic social teaching to the forefront will do far more to create a culture of life than the culture-war campaigns of recent decades. And those who insist that faith requires supporting Trump and opposing LGBTQ rights must ponder how doing so closes off so many, especially among the young, to the possibility of dialogue and conversion.

For their part, religious progressives must recognize their obligation to do all they can on their own side to ease the vicious cycle the culture wars have let loose. They need to make clear (as Biden has) that hostility to religion and, at times, to people of faith themselves, is not only politically disastrous but also fundamentally illiberal. It feeds the sorts of arguments that Barr is making and effectively concedes the Christian tradition to reactionaries.

In fact, the Catholic social tradition is decidedly progressive. How progressive? Consider: “The present system stands in grievous need of considerable modifications and improvement. Its main defects are three: enormous inefficiency and waste in the production and distribution of commodities; insufficient incomes for the great majority of wage earners; and unnecessarily large incomes for a small minority of privileged capitalists.” These aren’t Bernie Sanders’s words. They are drawn from the American Catholic Bishops’ 1919 Program for Social Reconstruction that, as the scholar Lew Daly has argued, can be seen in retrospect as having offered the moral underpinnings for what became the New Deal.

The 1919 bishops were writing after a shockingly destructive war, and in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and great economic uncertainty.  A century later, public Catholicism in the United States must be up to the tasks of our own perilous moment. This is no time for underperforming. “If the church is alive,” Pope Francis has said, “it must always surprise.” This would be an excellent occasion for surprises. A God of mercy demands no less. 

Issue: 

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” and the Return to Eden

Yes, I get it. Tenet was confusing as heck . . . and I loved it! Christopher Nolan’s latest cinematic exploration involves David Washington, “The Protagonist”, in a sci-fi spy thriller with a highly complex and inverted timeline. While confusing at times, I love that Nolan’s storytelling usually contains a deeper concept the audience is invited to ponder. His cinematography is certainly visually imaginative and immersive, but it is not intended merely for entertainment. Further, while Nolan’s movies would not be considered obviously connected to Christianity, the themes and ideas that are explored consistently resonate with a Christian, if not Catholic, worldview. In this way, Nolan’s movies can often work as a springboard into Christian truths. An authentic Christianity exercises imagination in mining truth from the world around it. While Tenet is not saying anything necessarily religious or spiritual, the movie places before its audience an idea to ponder…

A Prophet Unarmed

Jean-Christophe Attias’s new book on Moses is strange, contradictory, and altogether unlike anything I’ve ever read. More abstract art than scholarship, story, or memoir—it blends elements of all three—A Woman Called Moses: A Prophet for Our Times dispenses with orderliness in favor of a kaleidoscope of conflicting elements. Some of these are problematic, like the gendered claim that Moses was a “woman”—not because he transcended gender binaries but because, as Attias has it, Moses was fragile and weak, like a woman. (The original French title is Moïse fragile.) I finished this intensely personal, evocative book exasperated. And yet I couldn’t shake it, and I still can’t.

A professor of medieval Jewish thought at the Université PSL in Paris, Attias is known for a number of books about Judaism. (English translations include The Jews and the Bible, The Jew and the Other, and Israel, the Impossible Land.) His latest book is distinctive. It’s not the product of a working historian but rather “the book of a Jew,” one who has been “suddenly liberated from the constrictions, constraints, and petty pedantries of his main discipline.” Throughout, Attias interweaves classical Jewish commentaries with specific biblical scenes from Moses’s life in the Pentateuch. He then uses them to build a complicated and provocative picture of Judaism’s most important prophet. Often retrieving obscure and overlooked biblical passages and reflecting on them imaginatively, Attias claims to look “behind the veil” of traditional scholarship to behold “the plain face of a plainly human Moses,” one that belongs simultaneously to Egypt and Israel. Victimized and hounded by God, Moses for Attias is an inadequate and abused figure, frail and even “feminine.”

Relying more on rabbinical thought than on the Bible itself, Attias writes from a distinctively Jewish perspective. He seems to assume a primarily Jewish audience, and a particular one at that. His prose often reads rabbinically, and his arguments develop non-linearly. Attias frequently draws connections to other biblical passages that can seem arbitrary—that is, unless one is versed in the entire corpus of written and oral Jewish tradition. Because his reflections tend toward the philosophical rather than the textual, readers expecting exegetical rigor or biblical “accuracy” will find themselves perplexed. 

That’s not to say Christians shouldn’t read it. They should. Christian exegetes have traditionally reduced Moses to a mere prefiguration of Christ, and Attias loudly registers his distaste for this kind of supersessionism. Time and again, he dismantles Christocentric views of Israel’s prophets, instead highlighting unflattering rabbinic perspectives on Jesus. Attias also insists on reclaiming Moses as the unique transmitter of Divine Law to Israel, and at least in this endeavor, he’s to be commended.

 

While it’s true that Attias’s stated intent is progressive, he ironically perpetuates a toxic understanding of gender relations.

Still, it’s difficult to fully buy into the hype surrounding A Woman Called Moses. Some reviewers have praised the work as “original and magical,” a “creative work of contemporary Jewish thought” that combines modern sensibilities and literary finesse with the “biblical imaginary and classical commentaries.” A better, more accurate description lies in Attias’s own conclusion, where he acknowledges the book’s real weaknesses:

The Moses of this book is not Moses, assuming there ever was a Moses. He is not the Moses of history, or even of Scripture. Without being arbitrary, the portrait I have sketched is certainly incomplete and only relatively coherent. I have liberally derived almost as much in the way of materials, forms and colours from the rabbinical tradition as from the Bible. And, in opting to rely on some of the most enigmatic verses of the scriptural text to clarify his features, and sometimes also to obscure them, I am not unaware that I might have conveyed a sense of hanging ‘mountains on a hair.’ I take responsibility for these limitations, this presumption and uncertainty. Yes, my Moses is ‘frail’ in this sense as well.

Whose Moses are we really discussing then: God’s, or Attias’s? Attias’s use of the phrase “mountains on a hair” is worth pausing over. In the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish oral exegetical tradition compiled in the third century, the “mountains” are voluminous interpretations of Sabbath laws that rest on tenuous “hairs” taken from Scripture. And Attias’s interpretive methodology, based primarily on his own arbitrary predilections, is indeed tenuous, if not outright tendentious. He makes a few facile claims, asserting that historical-critical methods of biblical interpretation merely enact “violence” in order to “deconstruct” the Bible. This is inadequate: Jewish (and Christian) interpreters have long understood that historical methods are but one part of the whole, useful tools that deepen our understanding of the Bible’s embeddedness in time and place. This hardly harms our faith. Quite the opposite; such knowledge aids our understanding of the Divine.

As a trained historian, Attias should know this. But he occasionally reads the Bible like a fundamentalist, decoupling the text from its historical and literary contexts. One example: Attias adopts the classic literalist interpretation of Moses as the sole author of the Torah, rejecting the notion that it could have been written by later scribes. Attias thus places himself in an untenable position. He suggests that the historical Moses may never have existed, while simultaneously basing his entire literalist exegesis on the assumption that Moses did.

Attias’s exegetical problems aside, he makes two other problematic assertions in the book. The first has to do with gender. Attias uncritically adopts binary definitions of male and female in his vision of Moses “as a woman.” In Attias’s logic, a man is strong, virile, dominant. A woman is “weak” and “feeble.” In passages where Moses falls short of his duties, when he fails (seemingly) to produce a progeny, when he collapses from fatigue, he is “acting like a woman.” While it’s true that here Attias’s stated intent is progressive, he ironically perpetuates a toxic understanding of gender relations.

There’s also Attias’s simplistic view of Judaism. This comes at the end of the book, when Attias reveals his desire to offer an alternative “Judaism” to the two that he suggests are readily available: that of Abraham (purely ethnic), and that of Joshua (conqueror of the land). Attias’s deeply divisive and overgeneralized sweep of modern Judaism ignores and paints over a rich diversity of contemporary Jewish perspectives. One wonders how he would categorize various Jewish movements (such as Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative), or how he would differentiate, say, American Judaism from French Judaism.

It’s possible that Attias is pushing back against presumed anti-Semitic tendencies in French continental philosophy (Alain Badiou comes to mind). In presenting Moses as the figure of a third Judaism, one that is both distinctly Jewish and simultaneously universal (Egypt/Israel, man/woman), Attias may be offering a rejoinder to the reductive binary that stereotypically juxtaposes Jewish-law-particular against Christian-grace-universal. Attias’s good intentions aside, what counts is the result. Here he ends up perpetuating the same biases he’s trying to break down.

These problems aside, Attias’s portrayal of Moses nevertheless reveals the author’s respect, tenderness, and even love for the figure. Moses’s fragility is also the fragility of the transmission of Torah itself—Divine Law and Word—and the miracle of its perpetuation. “It is transmitted from mouth to ear,” Attias writes,

from God’s mouth to Moses’s ear, from Moses’s mouth to Joshua’s ear, and so on indefinitely, from teacher to disciple, from generation to generation down to our own, in a chain that might seem fragile, but whose continuity and reliability the tractate of the Fathers is intent on affirming, from Moses onwards.

Ultimately, through his imaginative, playful, and often exasperating depiction of Moses, Attias discloses a poignant longing and hope. And he poses a set of questions we all need to ponder: Who embodies our own fragile, miraculous chains of tradition? Who has seen the entirety of history and promises, daringly, that its arc bends towards new life, despite all the pain and suffering? Ultimately, for Attias, this figure is Moses, within whom lies the promise and embodiment of death and resurrection, for Israel and for us all.

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The Celestial Intercession of the Holy Archangels

The angels in their glorious celestial array are the servants and messengers of God, the “mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word” (Ps 103:20, CCC 329). The spirits surround the throne of God and fill the heavenly courts with their unending song of praise. Sent forth, they carry out their missions of protecting, guiding, and strengthening his people. Of all the myriads of angels in the service of the Lord, Scripture gives us the names of only three: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Each of these Archangels has a certain privileged place in ministering to the Church, and to each we can attribute a characteristic especially needed in our world today. St. Michael: Peace At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people . . . [and] your people will be delivered. (Dan. 12:1) There is no need to number this year’s…

For Too Many Catholics, “Jesus Was Just a Great Teacher…”

The recent “State of Theology” survey alarmingly demonstrates that US Catholics are far from uniform in believing in the divinity of Christ. In fact, many tend not to believe in his divinity. When confronting the statement “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God,” a shocking  30% of Catholics “agree,” 27% “somewhat agree,” 9% are “not sure,” 12% “somewhat disagree,” and 22% “disagree.”  When a majority of Catholics in the United States agree or somewhat agree that Jesus of Nazareth was just a great teacher but not God, we have a crisis on our hands.  The tendency to see Christ as merely human likely stems from the same worldview that informed the findings of last year’s Pew Report on transubstantiation, wherein only 31% of responding Catholics expressed belief in the Real Presence.  Understanding this worldview…

Amy Coney Barrett and the Role of Conscience

In 1873, St. John Henry Newman found himself in a public quarrel with Prime Minister William Gladstone. At issue was the Irish University Bill, which allowed Catholics to matriculate at Irish universities, but would have also destroyed plans to create a Catholic university. The Catholic hierarchy in Ireland opposed the bill, which failed and brought down the government, and Newman became a target of the fallen Prime Minister’s criticism. In response, in 1875 Newman published his “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” which reflects upon Gladstone’s central concern: “Can Catholics be trustworthy subjects of the State?” The question Newman answers in his text has remained a source of tension in modern liberal societies. In the presidential campaign of 1960, John F. Kennedy was questioned about whether he would take marching orders from the Pope. The lore in my own family is that my Baptist grandmother, the daughter of strong…

The Corruption of the Word

In a chapter on liars and lying in his Essays, Michel de Montaigne draws distinctions between truth and its opposite. There is not only the distinction “betwixt an untruth and a lie, and say that to tell an untruth is to tell a thing that is false, but that we ourselves believe to be true.” There is also the distinction between forms of lying and of telling the truth: “If falsehood had, like truth, but one face only, we should be upon better terms; for we should then take for certain the contrary to what the liar says: but the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand forms, and a field indefinite, without bound or limit.” Montaigne places a special emphasis on the value of the word, where the word is first and communication is second. Inverting the usual priorities, Montaigne emphasizes that the word is an end, while communication is a means: animals also communicate, but there is a difference in the way humans speak. Montaigne calls lying “an accursed vice” because it’s an eminently antisocial behavior: “We are not men, nor have other tie upon one another, but by our word. If we did but discover the horror and gravity of it, we should pursue it with fire and sword, and more justly than other crimes.”

As we’ve seen during the last few years in this country, manipulation of the word by powerful people is characterized by vulgarity, superficiality, and banality. Montaigne asks, “How much less sociable is false speaking than silence?” The word is the place of our singular humanity, anchored as it is in our flesh, in our social condition, in our sexuality, in our personal history. Only an appropriate use of the word makes the world intelligible and human. The defense of democracy is above all the defense of the word; with the falsification of the word everything else is betrayed and trust is undermined at the root. The corruption of the word corrupts democracy: “Since our relationships are regulated by the only way of the word, he who falsifies the word betrays the public society.” Democracy thrives on exchange, dialogue, comparison of opinions; words shape laws, rules, and norms. In a democracy the word substitutes for violence, allowing the peaceful resolution of conflict and making civil coexistence possible. W. H. Auden spoke of the connection between the falsification of the word in the public square and the strife in our streets in 1971. “As a poet—not as a citizen—there is only one political duty, and that is to defend one’s language from corruption. And that is particularly serious now. It’s being so quickly corrupted. When it’s corrupted, people lose faith in what they hear, and this leads to violence.” We are seeing an even more accelerated version of this today, especially in American politics, as social media overflows with images and text that seem to promote a strategy of organized lying: concealment of truth, distortion of the meaning of events, presentation of falsehoods as facts. 

In a democracy the word substitutes for violence, allowing the peaceful resolution of conflict and making civil coexistence possible.

There’s also the blatant lying that characterizes much of the Christian propaganda for Donald Trump. It’s used to peddle, misrepresent, or justify just about anything—from his alleged pro-life beliefs to his contempt for scientific (or any kind of) expertise to his attacks on political opponents as godless socialists to his mishandling of the pandemic. There are members of the Catholic hierarchy who have subordinated themselves to Trumpism and the aims of his campaign, going so far as to claim that Trump’s opponent is not a “real” Catholic—and in doing so, have themselves embraced the manipulation of the word. The implications of this go beyond politics. This is further evidence of the failure of establishment Catholicism in the United States, and a betrayal of Catholic intellectual tradition. It represents another step in the metamorphosis of the American Church into something like conservative white Evangelicalism—a Church with the soul of an ethno-nationalist political party—and one whose bonds of communion with the pope and the global Catholic community are conditional.

In this sense the emptying of the word reveals a corruption of the word in religion—which has consequences for Christianity. The post-synodal exhortation Verbum Domini (2010), one of the most interesting documents of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, contains this passage on the sacramentality of the word:

Pope John Paul II had made reference to the ‘sacramental character of revelation’ and in particular to ‘the sign of the Eucharist in which the indissoluble unity between the signifier and signified makes it possible to grasp the depths of the mystery.’ We come to see that at the heart of the sacramentality of the word of God is the mystery of the Incarnation itself: ‘the Word became flesh’ (John 1:14), the reality of the revealed mystery is offered to us in the ‘flesh’ of the Son. The Word of God can be perceived by faith through the ‘sign’ of human words and actions. Faith acknowledges God’s Word by accepting the words and actions by which he makes himself known to us. The sacramental character of revelation points in turn to the history of salvation, to the way that word of God enters time and space, and speaks to men and women, who are called to accept his gift in faith.

Vatican II’s constitution on revelation, Dei verbum, talks about the Catholic understanding of “an inner unity” between deeds and words. Dei verbum describes an idea of revelation in which man is “a creature of dialogue who becomes contemporaneous with the presentness of God and in the fellowship of the word receives the reality which is indivisibly one with this word.” The inner unity between deeds and words is not confined to the Word of God. Fellowship with God and our common humanity assumes a shared fellowship of the word, on the possibility of truthful communication. The difference between a social and anti-social use of the word is the difference between the concept of truth as fruit of inspiration, which is about forging a public covenant with the divine and our fellow human beings, and the idea of conspiracy, whose gnostic undertones suggest a secret knowledge available only to the initiated, and so undermine the possibility of that covenant in both the religious and civic spheres.

The word has a performative quality. But so does the lie—in the secularized liturgies of our political systems and ideological subcultures, and in our ecclesial contexts. We have ample evidence of the damage done by organized, systematic lying in our politics. The impact of it in the Church remains to be seen.

On Mark Galli and Why Evangelicals Become Catholic

Our convictions are never entirely safe. Any time an intelligent peer who also strikes us as a man of integrity—a good man, let us say—advocates for a worldview in contradiction with our own, we are obligated to take the disagreement seriously. This is true all the more when such a person moves out of agreement with us. For here, we must tell ourselves, is someone who takes the truth seriously. Laying all his cards on the table in The Last Word, atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel implies this uncomfortable fact when he admits, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.” Now, as of late, it has become public knowledge that Mark Galli, the former editor-in-chief of the popular evangelical magazine Christianity Today, has entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. Admitting that…

Beauty and Substance: A Reflection on the Anniversary of “Evangelization & Culture”

Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch. —Luke 5:4 Over eighteen months ago, on a chilly day in February, I was honored to join Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Institute to help bring a new venture to life. That venture was Evangelization & Culture, the flagship journal of the Word on Fire Institute. Excited by the task at hand and accompanied by a small cohort of talented designers and editors, writers and marketers, we at once had to ask ourselves, “How will we do this and, more importantly, why?” Thus, with child-like enthusiasm, the intercession of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and plenty of Dot’s Pretzels, coffee, and Diet Mountain Dew, our work began. From the very beginning, we wanted Evangelization & Culture to be different. At its root, we wanted the…

What Francis Means by ‘Fratelli Tutti’

If you want to understand Pope Francis, it helps to know tango, soccer lingo, and colloquial Argentinian Spanish. Making sense of Francis, I propose, also requires an ability to think in hyperlinks. In other words, what he says opens paths to multiple references that further enrich and expand possibilities for interpretation. Francis plays with language and space. This is clear from the fact that his first trip outside of Rome was to Lampedusa, and most recently, in the title of his forthcoming encyclical, Fratelli tutti, to be signed in Assisi at the tomb of St. Francis.

There is no doubt about Jorge Bergoglio’s devotion to his medieval muse and namesake. From the moment his papal name was announced, his pontificate has been marked by a series of homages to the saint. Among the more obvious ones are the Umbrian words of the canticle that gave rise to his reflection on the care of creation and our common home in Laudato si’ (2015). A year ago, on the October 4 feast of the saint, the pope consecrated the Synod of Bishops of the pan-Amazon region to Francis. Soon, a much-anticipated encyclical on human belonging and solidarity will be signed on the day that Franciscans celebrate the Transitus of St. Francis, his passing from life through death to eternal life, and released publicly the following day on his feast.

Controversies abound over the title, an expression translated into English as “all brothers.” Franciscan scholars in particular point toward the Admonitions of St. Francis addressed in Latin to his fellow friars, “omnes fratres.” Admonition number 6, said to be the inspiration of the reflections that follow in the encyclical, begins, in its English translation, “Let us all, brothers, consider the Good Shepherd, who to save His sheep bore the suffering of the Cross.” As a direct quote from a document intended for a community of Franciscan friars in the thirteenth century, the reference is part of an in-house conversation. Considering Pope Francis’s memorable metaphor that calls ministers to be shepherds who need to be living with the scent of their sheep, there is definite resonance with what follows in Admonition Six: “The sheep of the Lord followed Him in tribulation and persecution and shame, in hunger and thirst, in infirmity and temptations and in all other ways.” In other words, shepherds who smell like their sheep must share the vulnerabilities, risks, and dangers of the flock. Not to be forgotten in this context are the words of the pope in an interview with Antonio Spadaro just a few months after his election: “I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess.”

While some have expressed legitimate concerns about the current title, I am intrigued as to why Fratelli tutti will remain in Italian, across all translations, when the Admonitions were composed in Latin. As I wrote earlier this year in my commentary on Querida Amazonia, Francis uses languages to signal intimacy. In a 2014 video to soccer teams participating in the “Match for Peace,” the pope apologized for delivering his message entirely in Spanish. This language, he explained, was the one of his heart, es el idioma de mi corazón.” Like the upcoming encyclical, his 2020 post-synodal apostolic exhortation bears an untranslated title, Querida Amazonia, in Spanish. I believe that this is one way he communicates how dear this particular place, its issues, and its people are to his heart.

“Fratelli tutti,” the women repeated, as they cared for each suffering body, an acknowledgment of solidarity born out of their lived experience.

Italian too is a home language for Francis, the son of northern Italian immigrant families, and the words “fratelli tutti” have another life. In 1859, the carnage of war devastated the northern Italian landscape and overwhelmed the town of Castiglione delle Stiviere with thousands of casualties from the battle of Solferino and San Martino. Churches literally became field hospitals, sheltering enemies who were made vulnerable neighbors because of the suffering and space they shared. Ordinary townsfolk, many of them women and girls, cared for the wounded and offered a comforting presence for the dying. A monument near the cathedral now commemorates the sacrifice of these heroic women.

At the Duomo di Castiglione delle Stiviere-Santi Nazario e Celso, the cathedral-turned-field hospital, a Swiss Calvinist businessman, named Henri Dunant, got involved, as did other visitors and tourists to the town, accidentally thrust into a humanitarian crisis that was both local and international in scope. Dunant documents his experience in the book A Memory of Solferino. Readers beware: he describes the trauma and the gore in graphic detail. “Men of all nations lay side by side on the flagstone floors of the churches of Castiglione…ranged for the time being close together inside the chapels,” Dunant observes. He writes of injured, mutilated, and dying soldiers from all sides, some from across the Italian peninsula as well as troops who were French, German, Austrian, Arabs, Slavs, Bohemians, Croatians, Hungarians, and Africans from lands colonized by Europeans.

From their own limited resources and an abundance of compassion, the people of Castiglione responded to those who were broken by the horror of war. Dunant ponders the fact that it was the women who recognized that regardless of uniform, race, or nation, these were “all brothers.” “Fratelli tutti,” the women repeated, as they cared for each suffering body, an acknowledgment of solidarity born out of their lived experience. From the example of these women and the response of the town, Dunant was inspired to found what became the International Red Cross and Red Crescent.

Pope Francis is no stranger to the work of humanitarian networks and of all who share commitments to build a better and just world, while, at the same time, responding to crises that demand immediate attention. Care and accompaniment of those made vulnerable by circumstances and structures, of those pushed even closer toward the margins of our societies, economies, borders, and healthcare systems, are not only Catholic concerns. Mid-pandemic, the pope began his daily Mass on May 8 by remembering that, “today is the World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. Let us pray for those people who work in these meritorious institutions. May the Lord bless their work that does so much good.” His homily focused on consolation, appropriate for the day that coincides with Dunant’s birthday.

In January 2018, Francis held an audience with more than six thousand members of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Reflecting on their statutes, his remarks underscored the value to care for the suffering of others in ways that honor the humanity of all, without partiality or discrimination. This mission, also evident in Francis’s own commitments and in Catholic social teaching, is predicated on the cultivation of mutual understanding, lasting peace, and social friendship. He concluded his remarks by remembering their martyrs, those who “in performing their aid mission, have lost their life.”  

The cathedral of Castiglione delle Stiviere is noted for yet another familiar face in the pantheon of care and solidarity with those who suffer. The Jesuit saint Aloysius Gonzaga was baptized and received his first communion in an earlier cathedral that stood on the same site where solidarity and care without exclusion were lived centuries later by the women who recognized “fratelli tutti” in suffering. Aloysius lost his life by caring for those stricken by plague in Rome.

For Francis, COVID-19 functions as a sign of our times, as locus theologicus, and as a metaphor for intersecting social injustices that it exacerbates and illuminates. Throughout the pandemic, he has thought aloud—through homilies, messages, reflections, and audiences—communicating a popular catechesis of belonging and of healing our interconnected relations with each other and creation. As we await his next encyclical, it is worth remembering that social teaching is not addressed solely to Catholics. Typically, the audience includes all people of good will. I do not claim to know the mind of Pope Francis, nor do I dismiss the concerns that have been expressed about the limitations of gendered language. I can’t help but wonder if “fratelli tutti” might also serve as a hyperlink to a larger world of meaning and solidarity.