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Conversion & Revolution

The Velvet Revolution, the 1989 revolt that ended the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, was one of the great events of the postwar era. The Czech and Slovak generation that fomented it lived through an eventful half-century that took on the dimensions of high drama.

The first act of the drama could be said to have begun with the 1948 installation of a Stalinist regime in Prague. It would end in the mid-1960s, during the brief but rich moment of cultural and democratic renewal known as the Prague Spring. The second act might begin in 1968, with Soviet tanks putting a violent end to the Prague Spring, and show the dreary era of “Normalization,” when a Soviet puppet regime sought to undo the progress of the previous decade.

A happy final act could be traced from 1976 to 1989. The year 1976 saw the publication of Charter 77, an open letter that denounced the Communist regime’s human-rights abuses. (Many of the letter’s signatories were exiled, imprisoned, or lost their jobs.) Things looked bleak but, in a stunning reversal, the hopes of a people scarred by Stalinism and Normalization eventually prevailed in November 1989, when a series of peaceful protests led to the ouster of the Communist regime. To paraphrase one of the chief revolutionaries, the writer-turned-president Václav Havel: Truth and love triumphed over lies and hatred.

The Velvet Revolution was the product of art and culture, not only politics. Legend has it that its name was derived from The Velvet Underground & Nico, the 1967 New York rock album secretly distributed behind the Iron Curtain. The arrest of The Plastic People of the Universe, a homegrown rock group, was one of the inciting incidents for Charter 77. Václav Havel made his name as a playwright and essayist before entering electoral politics. Renowned philosopher Jan Patočka was the designated spokesman for the Charter 77 signatories, and something like their older, sage-like conscience.


It is as a testimony to this history that Tomáš Halík’s newly translated autobiography, From the Underground Church to Freedom, is of interest to American readers. A Czech priest and writer, and winner of the 2014 Templeton Prize, Halík served as a spokesperson for the church during the Velvet Revolution. Halík converted to the Catholic faith and discerned a vocation to the priesthood during the Prague Spring. In 1989, he would emerge as one of the intellectual leaders of post-Communist Czechoslovakia and (after partition) the Czech Republic.

Most of the book reads like a cross between a conversion story and a thriller: a tale of saints and books, state surveillance and spiritual reflections, underground journals and clandestine liturgies, secret words exchanged between dissidents in bus stops or whispered on Old World bridges at night. The thrill is not undone by the plodding last third of the book, a long account of Halík’s post-1989 successes, awards, trips, and academic appointments, including a fascinating account of a trip to Antarctica.

Given his background, Halík’s conversion was unexpected. Many Czechs have long had an ambivalent relationship with the Catholic Church, in part due to a nationalistic desire to shuck off all ties to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Moreover, the story of Jan Hus, the Czech reformer burned at the stake by Catholic authorities in 1415, has never left national memory. (The story impressed the precocious young Halík.) Though they baptized him as an infant, Halík’s parents were not churchgoers. But they did nurture his intellectual growth. Halík’s father was a respected literary translator with tacit anti-regime inclinations, who worked as a librarian (“the library was a repository for politically unreliable people,” he writes). Later in life, Halík would thank his father “for helping me find faith, in spite of being an ‘atheist,’ and for giving me the best religious upbringing by having been a good father.”

The life of the mind was integral to the work of resistance. Professors educated Halík in the modern thought of Arendt, Heidegger, and Rahner.

Halík discovered his vocation to the priesthood in his twenties, during the post-Stalinist “thaw” of the 1950s. This was a time when “the regime was no longer ‘the iron fist of the proletariat’ but seemed instead to consist of ludicrous bloated bureaucrats confronted by long-haired and bearded intellectuals in black sweaters with feelings of alienation in their heads.” This period was hospitable enough for learning; many priests were released from prison and became Halík’s teachers. Halík read voraciously, including many Catholic authors. His education, paired with his deep sense of interiority (“the expressive feeling…that at the very center of [my] solitude there was Someone with me”), and an encounter with a priest named Jiří Reinsberg, all contributed to his conversion and eventual priesthood. Reinsberg’s preaching moved Halík, who “gradually, Sunday by Sunday…shifted from my safe distance near the church door, pillar by pillar, closer and closer to the pulpit and the altar.”

Under the Communist regime, priesthood took on a special form: the priests of the underground church in Czechoslovakia worked in complete anonymity. Similar to the French worker-priest movement of the 1940s, the Czech underground priests adopted other trades and professions and saw their vocation as requiring them to live their lives immersed in the secular world. Halík worked as a psychotherapist, never telling anyone about his ordained status unless it was absolutely necessary. Both his mother and the cardinal of Prague did not know he was a priest. (Halík was ordained by a German bishop.)

Halík’s life took a definitive turn in 1968 while he was studying abroad at Oxford, feeling helpless as the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. (Halík, like all of his generation, was also deeply affected by Jan Palach’s protest by self-immolation later that year.) Soon, study trips to the West would no longer be possible. Despite the fact that his experience at Oxford was one of the happiest of his life, Halík decided that he had a duty to return to Prague and join the resistance. He took a train home, thinking he would likely never again receive an exit visa. He did not leave Czechoslovakia, except for a few state-sanctioned trips, until 1989.


Between 1968 and 1989, Halík was involved in all sorts of clandestine activities. As a priest, he said Masses, taught seminarians, and worked as a spiritual director. With fellow intellectual dissidents like Havel and Patočka, he participated in underground university seminars, wrote articles published in the secretive Samizdat journals, and helped distribute Charter 77 (though he did not sign it, because his bishop believed doing so might endanger his secret status as a priest).

The life of the mind was integral to the work of resistance. Professors like Patočka educated Halík in the modern thought of Arendt, Heidegger, Rahner, and others; guest professors from the West, ranging ideologically from Jacques Derrida to Roger Scruton, conducted secret seminars.

But it was the philosophical school known as “phenomenology” that was particularly important. Halík writes of being “high on phenomenology” after one of Patočka’s lectures. Phenomenology sought, among other things, to undo the Enlightenment notion that the empirical sciences can explain all reality. Instead, phenomenology attempts to uncover the primacy of first-person experience, which precedes any scientific data-gathering; it gives dignity of place to the daily realities—like beauty and value—that the empirical sciences cannot measure. Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that phenomenology “restored to things their horror and their charm.”

Phenomenology was also fundamentally at odds with the state-imposed Marxism taught in Eastern-bloc universities. It assigned a bigger role to individual conscience than to material processes in determining the course of history. In the first half of the twentieth century, phenomenology was embraced by Catholic theologians like the young Karol Wojtyła.

Halík emphasizes the Catholic elements in the Velvet Revolution, an event that was “marked by wit, laughter, and singing,” rather than violence and hatred. He prefers to call it “the Revolution of St. Agnes.” Havel’s arrest in January 1989 is often said to have sparked the revolution. But Halík observes that according to Czech legend, upon the canonization of Agnes of Bohemia—a princess who eschewed her riches for a life of charity and poverty—“all would be well in the Czech lands.” Agnes was canonized on November 12, the Velvet Revolution began on November 16, and the regime was gone by November 29.

Halík also argues that Cardinal Tomášek’s televised Mass commemorating the canonization of Agnes, during which he expressed support for the protests, was a key moment. He claims that “Prague had two heroes: Václav Havel and the priest Václav Malý.” Malý became a hero when he led thousands of protestors in reciting the Our Father during a critical moment when it appeared that the crowd was about to attack the policeman in charge of suppressing the protests: “The young policeman apologized with a faltering voice, and Václav Malý appealed to the crowd for reconciliation and forgiveness.”

In recounting these events, Halík is not attempting to “baptize” the Velvet Revolution. Rather, he seems to be building on the same general insight expressed by other, secular Czech dissidents. “Consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim,” Václav Havel declared in a 1990 address before the U.S. Congress. This is not a dig against socialist economics, but a theory, inspired by phenomenology, about political reform. No material progress can be made without cultural renewal and the transformation of the consciences of individuals: “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, and in human responsibility.” Halík stands on the same conviction when he claims that after Malý’s Our Father, the 1989 revolt “was no longer a political struggle but something much more significant: a spiritual healing. The situation suddenly turned into a sacred moment with a therapeutic dimension.”

For Halík, the church was an aide to the revolution because it provided the spiritual impetus and educational institutions for a cultural conversion. The revolution did not create utopia, and today the Czech Republic and Slovakia suffer from many of the same problems that afflict the rest of Europe. But it did usher in a new, hopeful way of looking at the world, and a renewed appreciation for truth and justice. This cultural epiphany might not be sufficient for long-term reform; but long-term reform, Halík would say, cannot come without it.

From the Underground Church to Freedom
Tomáš Halík
Translated by Gerald Turner
University of Notre Dame Press, $35, 352 pp.


Spiritual Resistance

The many current crises in our world all have something in common. Whether they are humanitarian or economic, whether they are threats to democracy or to creation, there is a common thread running through them. Each in its own way exploits and thrives on division—between the rich and the poor, humanity and the rest of the natural world, citizens and immigrants, the relatively safe and the deeply desperate. Each thumbs its nose at the common human dignity of all people and our joint responsibility for a secure political order, true human freedom, and a healthy natural world. Somewhere at the back of all these and other challenges is the lust for money and power. These issues are all parts of one larger, fundamental crisis: the degradation of the very notion of the human, brought on by the complex mechanism today called neoliberalism. We encounter it most directly in the triumph of finance capitalism and the arrival of surveillance capitalism, effective economically through globalization and politically through the deliberate erosion of the democratic process. To borrow a phrase from Jürgen Habermas, we are witnessing “the colonization of the life world by the system.” The crisis, then, is both global and intensely personal. The forces unleashed in the world by developments in the mode of capitalism are effectively refashioning the human person and the human community.

If “neoliberalism” is a word unknown to you, or simply one that you hear without its impinging much upon your life or consciousness, this is testimony to its sinister force. Coined by Friedrich Hayek, it referred to his belief that all reality can be explained on the model of economic competition, and that all human activity can be measured in terms of wealth, value, or price. Price in particular was a means to allocate scarce resources, and for its efficient function, the market had to be free and competitive. “The market” for Hayek was not just a term for economic activity, but one that described society as a whole. Hence, he could extrapolate a vision of human beings as creatures who would and should follow their own self-interest in competition for scarce resources. Through this human competition, we would learn who and what is really valuable.

All the ills of our contemporary world are either directly or indirectly related to neoliberalism, the globalized form of free-market capitalism that results from the impoverished understanding of a human being as a consumer seeking to maximize self-interest. One such ill is the growing gap between rich and poor nations, and between rich and poor individuals. The statistics are well known. Here in the United States, the richest 1 percent hold about 38 percent of all private wealth, while the bottom 90 percent have 73.2 percent of all debt. The richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Globally, the situation is far worse; forty-two individuals hold as much wealth as the poorest 3.7 billion. These are the perverse fruits of neoliberalism, the consequence of reducing human beings to “covetous machines.”

Today our biggest problems may turn out, however, to be the indirect consequences of such huge gaps in income, wealth, and prosperity across the globe. Critics of the free-market system and its attendant neoliberal ideology often challenge its excesses while reinforcing a sense of its inevitability. We, the securely affluent, have for the most part bought into the cultural and economic benefits of neoliberalism and closed our eyes and minds to the human consequences. Those who have less—and this is most of the world—struggle to survive the economic and cultural consequences of the same system. Frustration often leads to the violent rejection of the economic and political systems that accompany neoliberalism, and we end up with a politics of envy that threatens democratic culture. Look around our world today and we will see the progressive diminishment of true human agency. The forces unleashed by the global market render us seemingly impotent in the face of growing disparities of wealth and power, climate change, and a rise in nationalism that may presage a return to forms of authoritarianism or fascism that we thought the twentieth century had eradicated.

A recent call to arms against finance capitalism is contained in an extraordinary work by the distinguished American Protestant theologian Kathryn Tanner. In Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism Tanner presents a disturbing phenomenology of life under finance capitalism. Reversing Max Weber’s classic account of how Christian beliefs could be compatible with and even formative of capitalism, Tanner proposes a view of Christianity as perhaps the last best hope in the struggle against this attack on human flourishing. In the face of capitalism’s pretense to be “all-encompassing,” a return to a prophetic form of Christianity shows “the coherence of a whole new world” that can disrupt finance-dominated capitalism’s claim to inevitability.

The phenomenon of surveillance capitalism, not considered by Tanner, is even more insidious. Neoliberalism’s greatest danger is its ability to present itself as a default; it has become as invisible as the air we breathe and, for the most part, we regard it as “reality.” Surveillance capitalism intensifies this danger by threatening the freedom of human thought. In the words of philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger, the normalization of surveillance capitalism “leaves us singing in our chains.” If Hayek and his fellow-travelers imagined that the pinnacle of human freedom is being a consumer, companies like Google and Facebook set out to deny us even that freedom. These ultra-powerful companies gather knowledge about our experience and behavior to shape what we take to be our freedom, and sell it to those who want to profit from the chains we do not know are weighing us down. As Shoshana Zuboff puts it in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, we are not its customers. Instead, we are its sources of a crucial surplus, “the objects of a technologically advanced and increasingly inescapable raw-material-extraction operation.” Its actual customers are “the enterprises that trade in its markets for future behavior.” Even more sobering, “Our lives are scraped and sold to fund their freedom and our subjugation, their knowledge and our ignorance about what they know.”

In the struggle against the neoliberal system, there is a special role for theology. Both the individual theologian and the collective voice of the discipline must engage with the forces of dehumanization and resist their effects in the name of the God of love. Today, the form theological inquiry must take is one of active involvement in what might be a last-ditch struggle for human flourishing.

I propose that the path we take is one of “spiritual resistance.” I make no claim to having invented the phrase. We can look to the example offered by a small group of French Jesuit priests during the Second World War, whose notion of “spiritual resistance” was what they saw to be the only effective mode of engagement with the crisis brought on by the Nazi occupation of France. Their practical courage offers us some clues about how we might move forward as Catholic theologians, individually and collectively, in confronting our own human crisis and helping repair the torn fabric of creation. I first encountered many of these men in the movement of la nouvelle théologie that flourished in France in the 1940s. But I had no idea that behind their fine theological thinking lay clandestine work of enormous courage, conducted in great danger, in the struggle against Nazism.

Historian Étienne Fouilloux has commented on this development among these theologians, both the Jesuits and their Dominican counterparts like Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu. Dubbing them “servant theologians,” Fouilloux writes that each of them was “neither an agent of the magisterium nor a simple seminary professor, not an Anglo-Saxon scholar nor a German academic” but rather “an apostle whose desire to preach the gospel leads him to put his professional skills at the service of the Christian community, the most humble and the most distinguished.” In recent times much the same understanding of our role emerged in the late Ada María Isasi-Díaz’s notion of the theologian as “the professional insider.” The effective theologian, she thought, is someone rooted in the human world and its challenges, who can put the skills she or he has acquired in service of the community.

When France was overrun by the Nazis in 1940 and then partitioned into an occupied north and a so-called Vichy France in the south, French Jesuits responded with a form of resistance that suited perfectly their identity as Christian intellectuals, French patriots, and courageous activists. For four years under occupation, they regularly published the anti-Nazi journal Cahiers du témoignage chrétien, and later its more popularized cousin, Courrier français, in a fearless act of resistance. The famous opening words of the first issue of the Cahiers sounded a call to arms: France, prends garde de perdre ton âme—“France, take care not to lose your soul.” Fr. Gaston Fessard, the editor of the distinguished Jesuit journal Études and the author of this issue, and others like Henri de Lubac and Yves de Montcheuil all worked clandestinely and in fear of their lives. De Montcheuil was captured in 1944 and executed by the Nazis, and de Lubac himself recounts a number of narrow escapes from the Gestapo.

Publishing the Cahiers was, then, an act of what its authors called “spiritual resistance.” De Lubac was particularly clear in his assertion that the Cahiers was “in no way a political undertaking”; its inspiration did not come from a place on the political spectrum, but grew out of the Gospel. Yet the work they did clearly had profound political consequences. There was no doubt in their minds that Nazism was an evil they had to combat, but their cudgels were evangelical and humanistic. One can see this in the circumstances surrounding de Montcheuil’s capture and execution. De Montcheuil was paying what he called a “pastoral visit” to members of the French underground resistance (the so-called maquis) when the Gestapo made a surprise attack. De Montcheuil had been clear that he would not identify with the maquis because, as he said, their methods were often similar to those of the occupying force. He was also devoutly anti-Communist, though he recognized that some of the Communists’ values made them allies in what was a Gospel-inspired struggle for justice that aligned itself with no one political group. Though de Montcheuil was deeply involved in the Cahiers, his death was not directly connected to the journal. Instead, he was erroneously identified with the maquis because he saw it to be his priestly responsibility to offer them pastoral encouragement even though he did not approve of their methods.

There are real parallels between the psychic force of Nazi propaganda and the strength of neoliberalism.

The spiritual resistance offered by these French Jesuits and many others provide us with something of a template for thinking about our contemporary predicament. In different ways, the impact of Nazi occupation and the threat of surveillance capitalism represent attacks upon the human soul, deliberate efforts to encourage the abandonment of vital dimensions of human freedom. Had the Nazis not been defeated, Europe and perhaps the world would have entered into a dark age in which the life of the polis would have consisted of isolated individuals and the party to which their lives and fortunes would be hostage. Only by “joining the party” could citizens enjoy the fruits of the good life. De Lubac and the others recognized that the heart of the struggle was for a conception of the human that totalitarianism cannot abide. Moreover, they knew that their own courageous decisions might not in the end affect the outcome. The Jesuits who published Témoignage, along with their many co-conspirators, knew that if they did not stand up to evil, they would be complicit in a world dominated by those who had abandoned their true freedom for the swastika, and served by the enslaved hordes who would suffer under the Nazi regime.

The opening issue of Témoignage makes clear what was at stake. Beginning with the exhortation to “take care of your soul,” the journal declared that the most dangerous thing about the Nazi occupation was not the military might or the violence that was often perpetrated against French citizens, but the ideology that so stealthily entered into the souls of these citizens, seducing them into quietism or collaboration. Fessard carefully laid out how Nazism had triumphed in Germany and Austria, and showed how this applied to France. First, Nazism presented itself as not only compatible with Christianity, but also as its culmination. And so, Fessard writes, thinking now of Vichy France, if the church were to cooperate with Marshal Pétain’s call to “Work, Family and the Fatherland,” this was in effect collaboration in the aim of Nazism to rule the world. The Christian is gradually led into more and more compromises, finally accepting the vision of Nazism for world domination. Of course, the genius of Nazi propaganda was that its spurious intellectual consistency preyed upon the weakness of the human spirit. In the occupied north, one wanted to believe that “life could go on,” while in Vichy it was all too possible to imagine that one was free to continue to be authentically French. But collaboration and cooperation were in reality two forms of spiritual denial.

There are real parallels between the psychic force of Nazi propaganda and the strength of neoliberalism, in its modern guise as finance capitalism and especially—in its latest twist—as surveillance capitalism. Like Nazism before it, to get us on board—to “join the party,” so to speak—neoliberalism offers material luxuries and almost unlimited freedom of choice to many, at the cost of poverty and slavery to the rest. But its latest and most sinister form brings us quite close to the dystopia George Orwell predicted. Even those who seem to benefit may actually be enslaved to the party they have joined, unable to choose another option because there is no other option to choose. We may have abandoned true freedom, exchanging it for mere freedom of choice. In ignoring climate change and the fate of the earth, we overvalue our freedom to choose from an endless range of goods, perhaps to our eventual annihilation. In allowing democracy to seep away, we undervalue the deeper meaning of human freedom, exchanging it for short-term gains in comfort and security. And by knowing almost everything there is to know about our public lives, neoliberalism offers us a seriously debased vision of the human person, one wrapped up in our preferences and desires and given to immediate gratification. We become covetous machines, and we do not know it, or perhaps we do not care.

Spiritual resistance is not to be contrasted with physical or “real” resistance, as if it were merely a matter, say, of praying for an end to tyranny. The “spiritual” in spiritual resistance refers to the motivation rather than to the practice. As we can see in the example of Témoignage chrétien, de Lubac, de Montcheuil, and so many others took their lives in their hands daily. Spiritual resistance is resistance for the sake of the Gospel, rather than an ideological or political commitment, and motivated by a vision of human flourishing in a world that we call our home. Since the days of Témoignage theologians have learned to overcome the endemic anthropocentrism of Christian religious thought and to draw the good of all creatures into a picture of human curatorship, not ownership, of the earth. And sadly too we have come to realize the global and even perhaps apocalyptic scale of the impending climate catastrophe, something unknown half a century ago. But we have some distance to go yet in exploring the threats to the human posed by the mechanisms of surveillance, how to break free from The Watcher (perhaps a new name for Satan?) to be able to live our lives in accordance with the three marks of spiritual resistance: humility, realism, and action.

If the theologian’s task is to act courageously in defense of authentic human selfhood and the whole of creation, theologians must also bring the institution along with them. The Gospel must be the test and filter for all of our activity, and spiritual resistance will require our church to abandon its many confusions over the bifurcated spirit of modernity. There can be no spiritual resistance if we have capitulated to an anti-human culture. Today’s church still contends with the nineteenth century’s decision to adopt the structures of modernity while rejecting its positive values. Terrified of the onslaught of revolutionary ideas, the papacy of Pius IX simply dismissed all of modernity, as anyone who is aware of the infamous “Syllabus of Errors” knows. But at precisely the same moment that Vatican I defined the infallibility of the pope in a defiant gesture to the modern world, it also began to establish an ecclesial structure that came to look like any bureaucratic institution of modernity. In this, the nineteenth-century church made exactly the wrong decision. If it had been able to discriminate between the two sides of modernity and to see the human values that modernity wanted to promote as an expression of the values of Jesus in the gospels, then it would not have chosen such a structure as the antidote to the perceived threat of modernity.

The work of Catholic theology today must be one of both engagement with the church and spiritual resistance to the life-denying forces of neoliberalism. In relation to the church, it will require a thorough relativization of structure to life, to borrow a formulation from Yves Congar. In relation to society, we must challenge the neoliberal market economy and its attendant political amorality, along with the sinister trawling of our lives online in search of data with which to enslave us. The challenge will have to come from a Catholicism that foregrounds the Gospel and recognizes the close relationship between Jesus and the genuine human values modernity at its best represents.

The world of today is marked by the struggle between fundamentalisms and movements for liberation. The fundamentalisms may be secular or religious, but they are identifiable wherever their proponents proclaim them as the one, inevitable way. When Margaret Thatcher asserted that there was “no alternative” to the free market, she spoke as dogmatically as any Marxist of a previous era or today’s ugly mouthpieces of white supremacy or narrow nationalism. When Catholics proclaim Catholicism as the only ultimate account of the nature of things, they are being as fundamentalist as a biblical literalist or a Muslim jihadist. On the other hand, liberationist movements are frequently not as emancipatory as they may imagine themselves to be. They work only when they are coupled with an endgame that is defined by something other than opposition to the oppressions that they rightly resist. This is as true in the secular world as in the religious. Moreover, the ultimate objective of liberation needs to be not a political program or economic structure, but an understanding of what it is to be human that would generate new and just structures. The bishops at the 1968 Medellín conference expressed this well in their document on justice:

The uniqueness of the Christian message does not so much consist in the affirmation of the necessity for structural change, as it does in an insistence on the conversion of men and women which will in turn bring about this change. We will not have a new continent without new and reformed structures, but, above all, there will be no new continent without new people, who know how to be truly free and responsible according to the light of the Gospel.

And this, of course, was the fundamental belief of Yves de Montcheuil and the logic of spiritual resistance.

For many decades progressive religious movements around the world have learned from and espoused the cause of liberation from all forms of oppression. But today this is simply not enough. Freedom from was never enough, and freedom for has always been ill-defined. We must recreate the human world in the face of the threats to democratic life and to the earth. Moreover, “humanity” itself as a concept must also be reimagined. Neoliberalism reduces our true humanity, but Catholicism’s creaky espousal of fixed conceptions of human nature is an entirely inadequate response to this threat. Bland appeals to “human nature” in response to ethical challenges do not answer the concerns of many Catholics, especially younger ones. “I’m spiritual but not religious” is an expression of frustration as well as a gauntlet thrown down in front of the church, and at the feet of theologians. It is, to borrow from Marx, both a sign of distress and a cry of distress. But what are we going to do about it?

The task of theologians and ethicists is to be on the front lines of the struggle against the twin evils of excessive individualism and tyrannical neoliberalism. Again, the examples of Henri de Lubac and Yves de Montcheuil are instructive. They fought an evil at risk of their lives, and one of them paid the ultimate price. We are called to fight an evil that threatens our souls if we do not resist it, on behalf of those countless millions whose physical survival is at stake. Gustavo Gutiérrez defines poverty as “proximity to death.” When we ignore that reality, when we live in a virtual Paris under enemy occupation and try to carry on as usual, or we inhabit a virtual Vichy and persuade ourselves that our cowardice is for the best, we do indeed endanger our souls. Theology may at times be beautiful and elegant, but today it must also be dangerous. The defense of true humanity in a world that is our home has to confront the awful reality of the anti-human systems under which we suffer, even as we in some ways benefit from them.


Calling out Google and Amazon as seemingly benign behemoths is insufficient.

If neoliberalism today is truly out of control, what can theologians do? When liberation theologians were accused of reducing salvation to human liberation, they responded with this insight: The struggle against the evils of the present day, the effort to bring about the reign of God in history, is not the fullness of salvation; but salvation does indeed come to us when we enter the struggle for the values of the reign of God in history, knowing full well that the struggle will never end this side of the eschaton. Salvation comes to us when we act in weakness, when the virtue of humility leads us into the practice of kenosis. Salvation, we might say, is the personal and ecclesial transformation that occurs when we engage in spiritual resistance.

As individuals and as a society, we are called to the same spiritual resistance that inspired Témoignage. Like Fessard and de Montcheuil and de Lubac, our actions will be spiritual rather than political because they grow from the Gospel. But they will have enormous political consequences. De Lubac’s efforts were in defiance of the local Jesuit provincial superior in Vichy France. But de Lubac recognized that there are higher priorities than the preservation of the system. Vichy fell and Témoignage succeeded, though it was costly for some. De Lubac’s work demonstrates that even for a Jesuit vowed to obedience, obedience to the Gospel is a higher priority. Our loyalty to the church we love requires us to call it to account so that the deeper crises of our times will be marked by our engagement and resistance rather than our collaboration.

How are we, then, to engage Google and Amazon and the others? Calling them out as seemingly benign behemoths is insufficient. Their influence is overwhelming, but because it is here to stay, the challenge is to turn that influence to the service of the human community. The church does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of the Gospel. Our work internal to the church is to persuade it to embrace a simplicity of life and accompaniment of the poor that Pope Francis calls for in Laudato si’. Such a purified church will be well equipped to enter into a prophetic, head-on encounter with all that is “against nature.” The defense of the human is a confrontation with the anti-human effects of all that neoliberalism entails. And we cannot wage this war on our iPads. We may not have our Témoignage, but we have our journals and our popular magazines and even our blogs and our podcasts. How many of us are writing for them out of a sense of urgency in defense of the truly human? Can we make the connections between surveillance capitalism and the despoliation of God’s creation? Can we put pressure upon our universities and colleges and seminaries, which are so vulnerable to the blandishments of a world-system that they can neither understand nor control? Like the struggle against climate change, the amelioration of the effects of surveillance capitalism cannot wait.

Another world is surely possible, but as theologian Lee Cormie has written, the shifting shapes and the pace of change also mean that “another world is inevitable.” When we know that another world is inevitable, this may be either a warning or an opportunity. If we doze, we will wake up to 1984. But if we are awake to the knowledge that another world is inevitable, then hope is rekindled for the work that we have to do to ensure that world is one of human flourishing.


This piece is an abridged version of the presidential address delivered at the Catholic Theological Society of America convention in Pittsburgh in June 2019.


Pandemic, Protests & Pentecost

The Solemnity of Pentecost marks the end of the seven-week long celebration of Jesus’ victory over death. The liturgical readings of the Easter Season are intended to deepen the Church’s reflection on who Jesus is and his teachings in light of the Resurrection. The daily readings from the Acts of the Apostles prepare us for the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit by reflecting on her transformative power in the early Church. By the time we celebrate Pentecost, the Church’s spiritual questioning is not so much about our belief in Jesus as the Messiah, but the degree to which we commit to live out his teachings through the Holy Spirit. 

Los Angeles, like many other cities, has spent the entire Easter season indoors following stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis has accentuated the racial and economic inequalities rooted in our nation, and now, for the past three days, Los Angeles civilians have been protesting in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Although this devastating tragedy is deserving of anger and sorrow in and of itself, it is compounded by the deaths of all people from marginalized communities who have died in police custody, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the disregard for human life at the borders and in our prison system, and the loss of all those who, in this time of pandemic, have died because of systemic racial and economic injustices that have made them more vulnerable to exposure to the novel coronavirus. 

Those with metaphorical and literal pulpits have the responsibility to name the sin of racism.

The past three days of intended peaceful protest have led to confrontations with police authorities, looting, and arson. About five hundred people have been arrested in protests in Downtown Los Angeles on Friday night and continued protests in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills on Saturday. On the eve of Pentecost, following these events, a curfew was imposed on the entire city of Los Angeles.

In the midst of all this the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Pentecost. It triumphantly concludes weeks of joy in the Resurrection and looks to the Holy Spirit in hopes that she will renew the face of the Earth. 

On Pentecost Sunday we hear of how the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles as “tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:3) which led them to speak in different languages and inexplicably understand one another. In the second reading from 1 Corinthians, we are invited to imagine the Church as the Body of Christ with Jesus as its head and the Holy Spirit uniting it. In the Gospel reading we find ourselves with the Risen Jesus, pre-Ascension, granting the Apostles peace, proving his resurrection by revealing his wounded side, breathing upon them, and saying “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (John 20: 23).

I can’t help but imagine the homilies likely to be heard throughout the nation. The readings so easily lend themselves to messages about the unity of diverse peoples, the special gifts each person has to share with the world, the life-giving breath of God, and the power and authority of the Church given by Christ. But those messages, although true, will seem watered-down reflections lacking in substance and credibility because of their inability to make statements against the sins of the world, namely racism, sexism, and all forms of bigotry that counter the life of the Spirit. If we have learned anything from our communal reflection on the Acts of the Apostles this Easter season, it is that after the Ascension of Jesus and after the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and disciples became a prophetic force whose actions and words had the power to change individuals and society. 

In light of all that has transpired this Easter season, I am forewarned by those final words of Jesus in the Pentecost Gospel reading, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” So often this verse is used to speak to the authority of the Church’s Apostolic tradition. However, it also serves as criteria by which the entire Church and especially those in authority will be judged. With the power to forgive and to retain sin, those with metaphorical and literal pulpits have the responsibility to name the sin.

Heralds & Servants

It was indeed a cringeworthy moment when Pope Francis declared that deacons should be “moved away” from the altar, that they are to be “guardians of service, not first-class altar boys or second-class priests.” On the one hand, he is correct to speak of deacons as guardians of service, and to insist that they are not first-class altar boys or second-class priests. But to suggest that deacons should be “moved away” from the altar, as if the Eucharist could be treated as something unrelated to, or apart from, biblical diakonia, is at best misleading.

First, taken literally, this provocative statement would contradict all that we believe and teach about the Eucharist as “source and summit” of the church’s life, for, as Lumen gentium tells us, “all take part in this liturgical service, not indeed, all in the same way but each in that way which is proper to himself.” The Eucharist is the source of all the church’s power, including its power “to serve.” The deacon’s ecclesial identity, like the identity of priests, bishops, professed religious, and the laity, is formed and strengthened through his own participation in the Eucharist.

Second—and here I must disagree slightly with Christopher Ruddy—most of the theological literature of the past thirty years has stressed balance in understanding the meaning of diakonia in the church. I agree that in the first fifteen or twenty years of the renewed diaconate (roughly 1970 to 1990) there was, especially in the United States, an emphasis on the deacon-as-humble-servant. I remember, for example, being told during my own formation that a program of adult catechesis, which I had designed as part of a diaconal practicum, was not “diaconal” enough; the project needed to be more “hands on” in meeting people’s needs. Since at least 1984, however, the U.S. bishops have insisted on the “intrinsic unity” of the deacon’s ministries of Word, sacrament, and charity. As The National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States put it (quoting an earlier document by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops), “By ordination, the deacon, who sacramentalizes the Church’s service, is to exercise the Church’s diakonia. Therefore, ‘the diaconal ministries, distinguished above, are not to be separated; the deacon is ordained for them all, and no one should be ordained who is not prepared to undertake each in some way.’” 

The deacon is not a parish employee, and anything that perpetuates such a misunderstanding must be corrected.

It was during this time, when the understanding of diaconal ministry was expanding, that Professor John Collins’s landmark work Diakonia: Re-Interpreting the Ancient Sources (1990) first appeared. His invaluable contributions have influenced most of the major theological work on the diaconate for the past thirty years. So I would also disagree with Ruddy when he writes that “much English-language writing on the diaconate…remains wedded to the ‘humble service’ view.” That was certainly true earlier in the renewal, but not recently. Nor is the change evident only in the work of most of us writing on the diaconate. In 2000, during the Jubilee for Deacons, St. John Paul II addressed the deacons as “Apostles of the New Evangelization.” In the United States, an early draft of the USCCB’s 2005 National Directory on the diaconate ordered the three munera(offices) of the deacon’s ministry as charity/justice, Word, and sacrament. The bishops quickly amended this to specify that the Word leads to sacrament, which results in charity. It is precisely in this balanced and integrated approach to the roles of the deacon that we find the diaconate’s sacramental significance. As Ruddy correctly notes, the church does not ordain social workers.

The problem, then, lies not in the theology of the diaconate; it lies in the way the diaconate itself is being received “on the ground” in pastoral ministry. Some years ago I wrote about the confluence of three realities: that the renewal of the diaconate was taking place at the same time there was a nearly explosive growth in lay ecclesial ministry and a sharp decline in the number of priests. As Thomas Baker suggests, this has led to significant confusion over the nature and roles of all three groups of ministers. In the absence of priests, for example, it is not unusual for the deacon to be expected to “fill in for father” to the extent his ordination and faculties permit. The Holy See has repeatedly cautioned that the diaconate is not to be seen as “substitutionary” for other ministers, but simply saying that does not change the pastoral reality that deacons are often the only ordained ministers available when there’s no priest.

So where do we go from here? Let me briefly suggest three interrelated ideas.

First, the unique relationship between the bishop and the deacon must be strengthened and highlighted. We must focus on the ancient apostolic tradition that speaks of deacons being ordained not to the priesthood, but to the service of the bishop. On the ground, however, deacons are most often seen as providing service to the parish pastor, and certainly if the deacon is assigned to a parish, this is understandable. But just as priests are understood to have a unique bond with their bishop, so too must the deacons’ unique relationship with their bishop be recognized and affirmed.

Second, we must continue to expand the role of the deacon beyond the parish. The deacon is not a parish employee, and anything that perpetuates such a misunderstanding must be corrected. When deacons are assigned to a parish by their bishop, they are too often hired by the pastor to fill an employment position in the parish or parish school. This helps perpetuate the idea that the deacon is little more than a parish employee. And should the pastor/employer need to terminate the employment of the deacon/employee, while that deacon remains assigned by the bishop to the parish, a nightmare ensues.

Third, and finally, we must keep the insights of Collins in balance. Yes, as all of us agree, the deacon’s role as an “apostle of the New Evangelization” (John Paul II) begins with his ordination charge to be Herald of Christ. His serving at the sacred mysteries flows from this heraldic function. But we must not forget that all of this should lead deacons to serve as leaders in caring for others, including those acts of humble service that should characterize all Christians.  


Too Much Theory

Any deacon would wince at Pope Francis’s comment that deacons around the altar can look like “second-class priests.” But there is, alas, some reason for people to perceive us that way. Over the same fifty years in which the number of deacons in the United States grew from zero to more than 18,000, the number of priests declined by just about that same amount. Because of that, whatever the original plan for the diaconate may have been, deacons have inevitably been drawn into many of the parish and sacramental roles formerly filled by a now-nonexistent class of assisting priests. If we are seen so often around the altar—preaching, doing baptisms, leading communion services—it’s because the work needs to get done, and there’s no one else to do it.

I know that’s very much what happened to me. Whether I planned it or not (and in many ways I did not), my work as a deacon these past twenty-five years has been very parish-centered, and perhaps I do look a little like a second-class priest. But Sunday preaching, baptizing, marriages, and teaching are rewarding work, and the need for it has only increased—and so, I quickly found that the time I could devote to ministry was entirely devoted to those tasks. To be sure, the diaconate attracts some men who like the idea of being an almost-parish-priest, men who seem to love their title and the gray Roman collars that some dioceses encourage deacons to wear. But these are the exceptions. Most deacons simply want to help the church in whatever way turns out to be most needed, and often, that has meant stepping in to fill the gaps created by the decline of the priesthood.

As Christopher Ruddy points out, too many people (the pope included, apparently) still define the diaconate as an ordained “minister of charity.” Yet the original vision of the diaconate, implied by the word diakonia, was more wide-ranging, and it has yet to be fully realized. If we thought that deacons might become “ambassadors” and “go-betweens” working the territory in between the church and the world, we’re still waiting to see it. I, for one, have always hoped deacons could be seen more as ordained field representatives of the church, working in innovative settings and ministries impossible for most priests to be a part of. Yet the adaptability of the diaconate to whatever pastoral challenges the church faces is still mostly unexploited.

Deeply symbolic and theological language about both the priesthood and the diaconate sometimes ends up stifling creative thinking about their futures.

Why is this? Part of it, I fear, is that there is too much diaconate theory and not enough pastoral imagination. Ruddy’s article is in some ways an example: as with most conversations about the diaconate, it’s more about what it might be theologically and what it once was historically than about what the church now needs it to be. Deeply symbolic and theological language about both the priesthood and the diaconate sometimes ends up stifling creative thinking about their futures.

There’s another reason too, of course: the parish system in which most deacons now function provides a command-and-control structure that everyone understands. Despite the fact that, officially, deacons are ordained for service to the bishop, in practice deacons report to parish priests who oversee their work; parish priests report to bishops. New forms and settings for ministry often don’t fit well into this traditional arrangement.

But an alternative future isn’t unthinkable. The growth of the diaconate since its revival fifty years ago is already, on the surface anyway, a sign of great health and life. Yet the vast majority of deacons in the United States today are in their sixties and seventies. Can anyone picture the energy that would be released by another 18,000 or 36,000 deacons, many of them younger, many of them women, half of them of Hispanic and Asian heritage, asked by their bishops to open up new ways and places for people to encounter Christ? 

For this to happen, some of our bishops would have to feel a little more entrepreneurial, of course, and diaconate assignments would become more creative and perhaps less parish-centric. Recruitment efforts would have to reach beyond the usual suspects. Formation programs would have to become less academic, more pastoral, and offer schedules tailored to the younger working men and women you might want to see attending them.

With the right conditions, it could happen. There is, in a way, a tradition of deacons going off the reservation. Most scholars now agree that the seven men appointed to manage the daily distribution of food in the Acts of the Apostles shouldn’t be regarded as the first deacons, although that tradition lives on in deacon lore. What I have always liked about those seven is how quickly their “minister of charity” job description went out the window once the Holy Spirit and the needs of the world took over the process. Almost immediately after his appointment, for example, Stephen is not doing parish work but bringing “signs and wonders” to the community, while Philip is preaching miles away in Samaria to an Ethiopian eunuch, among others. I would love to see a second fifty years of the revived diaconate that has some of the creativity—and disregard for traditional job descriptions—of those first seven. 


‘An Incomparable Woman’

In the Papal Bull of 1631, Pastoralis romani pontifices, Urban VIII declared that 

In order to contain such great audacity with more strictness and so that these plants that are so harmful to the Church of God might not extend further, we have decreed that they be torn up by their roots…. We decide and decree, with Apostolic authority, that the life style and statutes of the congregation of women and virgins of the so-called ‘Jesuits’ are null and void from the very beginning and without any power and value. And in order to bring this about, with this same authority, we suppress and extinguish them in their roots, completely; we abolish them perpetually and abrogate them. And, in order that all the faithful consider them suppressed, we completely divest those of the aforementioned Congregation or Sect who held offices and responsibilities and we order, in virtue of holy obedience and, under pain of excommunication, that these persons live separately from one another, outside of the colleges and houses where they have lived until now.

Who was responsible for the monstrosity Urban condemned in such harsh terms?

Mary Ward was born on January 23, 1585, into a respected aristocratic Yorkshire family. This was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when English Catholics were driven into hiding, persecuted, often martyred. Two of Ward’s uncles had been implicated in the famous Gunpowder Plot—an attempted assassination of James I. In 1599, the family home was burnt to the ground by rioting mobs. Mary and her two sisters were rescued by their father and Mary was sent to the house of Sir Ralph Babthom at Osgodby-Selby. It was there that, at the age of fifteen, she first felt the call of a religious vocation. She entered the monastery of the Poor Clares at Saint-Omer in northern France. She was later sent as a lay sister to the Spanish Netherlands.

Ward’s ambition was to return to England, where monasteries had been abolished, priests were not tolerated, and lay Catholics lived under constant suspicion. In 1606, she founded a monastery specifically for English women at Saint-Omer in northern France. The community’s rule was very liberal, well adapted to the needs of Catholics in England. It provided both structure and flexibility. The “English Ladies,” as her nuns were called, would not wear a habit or live in a cloister, and they would dedicate themselves to the education of Catholic children and to supporting the local Catholic population in whatever way they could. Mary was, in fact, inspired in all this by the recently established Society of Jesus, and was in contact with Ignatius of Loyola. Members of her new community were even disparagingly called the “Jesuitesses” in some circles. Like the Society of Jesus, Mary hoped her community would not depend on the local bishop but directly on the pope.

Ward’s “rule” was, to say the least, controversial. It went against the statutes that the Council of Trent had established for women’s religious congregations. These required that women religious live cloistered lives, wear a religious habit, pray the Divine Office, and submit to the local bishop. The idea of giving women some of the same apostolic responsibilities that belonged to the male clergy was seen as a radical departure from tradition. So was the proposal that the “English Ladies” be self-governing. In brief, the Ladies were proposing a new form of religious life that threatened male supremacy.

Even some Jesuits opposed Ward, on the grounds that St. Ignatius had never wanted to establish a Society of Jesus for women.

Not all the popes were as opposed to Ward as Urban VIII was. In fact, Popes Paul V and Gregory XV, Urban’s predecessors, had both supported her. Even Pope Urban was not quite as hostile toward Ward as the strong language of his 1631 bull might suggest (that was the conventional style of bulls back then). After the promulgation of Pastoralis romani pontifices, Ward was imprisoned in Munich, in the convent of the Poor Clares. She was accused by the Inquisition of being a heretic and a schismatic (charges also leveled at Joan of Arc). When Urban learned of this, he ordered Ward’s release and summoned her to Rome. There, the same pope who had suppressed Ward’s order in northern France allowed her to open a new house for her community. She was not, however, allowed to leave the city until she was near the end of her life, nor was she to be recognized as the founder of her community. The ensuing events are hard to follow because, after the suppression, efforts were made to destroy all the related documents.

The times were, in fact, exceptional and rapidly changing. The antagonism between the English throne and the Catholic Church was aggravated by the papal excommunication of Queen Elizabeth and the release of her Catholic subjects from any oath of fidelity they might have made to her. In response, Elizabeth ratcheted up the persecution of English Catholics, who were suspected of plotting the overthrow of the queen. The Catholic Church in England was reduced to a mainly clandestine existence.

Ward, who had done all that she could to preserve what was left of the Catholic Church of England, obeyed the orders of Urban VIII without protesting and accepted the dissolution of her communities, whose members either returned to their families or entered recognized religious institutions. Under the patronage of the local nobility, some members of her “institute” in the Catholic countries of the mainland continued their work of education for Catholic girls and outreach to the marginalized. They lived in “companionship and discernment,” without the benefit of a religious rule and without being recognized as a “religious order.” In 1637, Mary was finally allowed to return to England where houses were established in London and Heworth, near York. The latter was the first convent to be founded in England since the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. Ward would remain there, an apparent failure, until her death in 1645.

Throughout her life, Mary gave proofs of utmost fidelity to the Catholic Church and to the pope, even when he attempted to eradicate all she was striving to do. She was opposed by a group of clerics who were obsessed with the niceties of canon law, as well as by those who were hostile to the innovations of the Jesuits. Even some Jesuits opposed her, on the grounds that St. Ignatius had never wanted to establish a Society of Jesus for women. Finally, Ward had to contend with all those who thought it “unnatural” for women to abandon the tasks ordinarily associated with their sex.

After her death, Ward’s companions carried on her work. Even though the institute had been officially suppressed and therefore had no official status as a religious congregation, they found ways of keeping it alive. It wasn’t until 1703 that Pope Clement XI approved a “rule” for the community. Pius IX subsequently recognized it as a religious institute. Today the Sisters of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or the Sisters of Loreto—so called because of Mary’s devotion to the Holy House of Loreto) number about seven hundred and are dispersed throughout the world. In addition to teaching children, the sisters have literacy programs for adults, give spiritual direction and counseling, provide shelters for the homeless, and participate in movements for greater justice in the world. The rule they were finally allowed to adopt included the wearing of the habit, but it also tried to incorporate the spirit of Ward’s intuitions.

In 1951, Pius XII referred to Mary Ward as “an incomparable woman”; John Paul II spoke of her as “a pilgrim of hope.” She was declared Venerable by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Ward’s trajectory seems to demonstrate an axiom in church history: it is often those who suffer humbly and patiently from the church’s contradictions who end up redeeming it, and sometimes also reforming it. Through her obedience and fidelity both to the church and to her own intuitions, Ward ultimately brought about a radical change, opening new possibilities for women in the church. 


Religion Booknotes

Far more than a mere book, the Babylonian Talmud is a vast assemblage of rabbinic learning and lore that in the Soncino Hebrew/Aramaic-English edition runs to thirty volumes. Barry Wimpfheimer’s treatment of it appears in a series called “Lives of Great Religious Books,” and the task facing the young professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University is daunting: How does one shape a “biography” of a collection so vast and unruly that it remains uncharted territory even for many Jews? This eminently readable and even enjoyable treatment testifies both to the author’s command of material and his control of exposition. In a world where obfuscation reigns, the clarity of Wimpfheimer’s prose is a welcome act of resistance.

He makes two smart compositional decisions. The first is to take seriously the conceit of a “biography,” with the Babylonian Talmud passing through three stages: the “essential” (how its many layers were accumulated up until the eighth century CE); the “enhanced” (how its texts were expanded through still further stages of exposition and debate); and the “emblematic” (how its influence waxed even when its actual study waned). This simple structure allows coverage not only of the Talmud but also of a surprising amount of the inner history of classical Judaism, for which—as text and as symbol, as something both reverenced and resisted—the Babylonian Talmud remained the central pivot point. The adjective “Babylonian” is important, for although another version of the Talmud developed in Eretz Israel and retains significant importance as historical witness, it never attained the central place in Jewish life held by the version called the Babylonian. 

Wimpfheimer’s second happy decision was to select, from a centuries-long collection of debates over God’s law, a single example of tort legislation—namely, the damages to be assigned in the case of fire damage caused to a person’s property through the action of his neighbor’s animal—and run it through all the stages of the Talmud’s growth. The specificity of this choice enables a fuller examination of the legal premises and logic involved in discussions that can be arcane even for insiders. It also enables the author to illuminate the ways haggadic material both supplements and at times subverts halakhah.

This extended examination assists a reader in appreciating the way in which apparently trivial situations give rise to the most serious questions concerning human responsibility in matters great and small. I found myself engaged from start to finish by the subtle minds of those sages. For anyone wondering what all the fuss was about for pious Jews from the days of Hillel to Potok’s streets of Brooklyn, from the raffish charm of Tevye to the sober post-Shoah witness of Primo Levi, this biography of the Talmud serves as an altogether admirable introduction. 

The Talmud: A Biography
Barry Scott Wimpfheimer
Princeton University Press, $26.95, 320 pp.


In the current political climate, the task of introducing the body of Islamic law called shariah in a fair-handed way is not only difficult but perilous, for the very term serves fanatics on all sides of highly charged controversies relating to Islam. Professors Esposito and DeLong-Bas (Georgetown and Boston College, respectively) possess both the requisite knowledge and dispositions to write such an introduction. Their effort appears in an Oxford University Press series called “What Everyone Needs to Know,” and is organized in Q&A format. This arrangement creates a “just the facts” style that tiptoes between enthusiastic endorsement and cautious defensiveness; it also creates more than a little repetitiveness. Thus, the very first chapter, “Shariah and Islamic Law: Myths and Realities,” lays out points that reappear—at greater depth, to be sure—in the next ten chapters. The less one knows about the subject, the more valuable such repetition can be; those already familiar with Islam may find themselves reaching in mid-chapter for an Ian Rankin mystery.

The authors do a fine job of showing the sources and functions of Islamic law through the ages, as well as its status in global Islam today. Especially helpful is their emphasis on the distinction between shariah as a body of texts (beginning with the Qur’an and the verified hadith of the Prophet), and the actual application of Islamic law—first by the classical schools of interpretation, then by teachers today. Readers are helped to see that the vast majority of Muslims worldwide do not share the hegemonic impulses of a handful of Islamic states, and the authors stress that by far the greater part of Muslims in America, much like Catholics of a century ago, are eager to live out shariah in a manner compatible with the American tradition of religious freedom.

Even readers with some knowledge of Islam can find deeper understanding in chapters dealing with such specific issues as “Women, Gender, and the Family,” “Freedom and Human Rights,” “Islamic Finance in a Global World,” and “Science, Bioethics, and Human Life.” The answers to questions posed in these sections reveal both how the interpretation of shariah among Muslims, like the interpretation of the Talmud among Orthodox Jews, remains a living and flexible guide to life, and how dramatically such interpretation can vary among distinct Islamic communities throughout the world.   

Shariah: What Everyone Needs to Know
John L. Esposito and Natana J. DeLong-Bas
Oxford University Press, $16.95, 352 pp.


“Latino” is an expansive, indeed elastic, category for the various artists and writers included in this set of critical studies by Michael Candelaria, lecturer in the Religious Studies Program and Department of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico. Candelaria wants to fill a gap concerning Christ in history left by classic treatments such as that by Jaroslav Pelikan. He is not interested in the conventional or typical; the reader should not look for folk art or piety. Instead, he has gathered figures he considers “outliers”—including a number defined much more by European than Latin American intellectual contexts—in an attempt to describe and critique the Christ depicted by their painting or sculpture, or in their fiction, philosophy, or theology.

Protestant proselytism enjoyed the benefits of neither imperial will nor Jesuitical sweat. It tended to be sporadic, freelance, and undersupported.

Candelaria devotes a chapter each to Salvador Dalí, Fray Angélico Chávez, José Clemente Orozco, Miguel de Unamuno, Jorge Luis Borges, and Richard Rojas. Subsequent chapters take up contemporary tendencies in “Liberation Theology” and “The Mestizo Christ” (which includes a bit on the Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldúa). A coda emphasizes the diversity of the images of Christ. The diversity is obvious when the hyper-sophistication of Dalí’s The Madonna of Port Lligat and Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) is set side by side with the raw muscularity of Orozco’s The Trinity of the Revolution, or when the passionately personal witness of de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life is compared with the playfully polysemic Three Versions of Judas. But it isn’t fully clear how such figures all fall within the category “Latino.”

While biographical and professional exposition dominate the treatment of each figure, Candelaria does not spare criticism. Mainly, he seems bothered when his outliers’ appropriation of Scripture does not match the historical certitudes offered by NT100 (see the gratuitous criticism of Fray Angélico Chávez), and even more distressed by what he considers a strain of “Gnosticism” afflicting many of these figures, a fault he seems to equate with traditional Chalcedonian piety (see his treatment of de Unamuno). It is surprising that Candelaria did not treat perhaps the most famous of Dalí’s treatments of Christ, The Sacrament of the Last Supper.

Candelaria’s prose—the standard for the academy these days—is a chore to read. Consider this typical sentence: “With an ancient Greek theme, Orozco expresses a universal ideal, transcending the provincialism of nationalistic art and the particularism of Mexican Catholic religious art, in contrast to the particularity of the revolutionary panels.” Where is an editor when we need one?

The Latino Christ in Art, Literature, and Liberation Theology
Michael R. Candelaria
University of New Mexico Press, $65, 248 pp.


In case we thought that North American problems with slavery were homegrown, Katharine Gerbner (a professor of history at the University of Minnesota) shows in great detail how the same problems existed in the colonized islands of the Atlantic as far back as the early seventeenth century—and indeed were imported directly from these islands to Maryland, South Carolina, and other Southern colonies. Gerbner’s analysis deals specifically with the deep ambiguities surrounding the baptism of African slaves. On the one hand, such a missionary effort would seem to be a Christian imperative; on the other, slaves holding Christian status could threaten the planters’ social order. Should not the “freedom of a Christian”—a Protestant ideal if ever there was one—be translated into social and political freedom as well?

Although her main focus is the island colony of Barbados, Gerbner devotes considerable attention to the Danish West Indies; and she gives as much or more attention to the efforts of George Fox and the Quakers, as well as Count von Zinzendorf and the Moravians, as she does to the Anglicans. The term “protestant” in the title is carefully chosen. Gerbner shows that Catholics cheerfully and methodically baptized slaves by the score, abetted by imperial edicts (especially of Portugal and Spain) and the coordinated efforts of religious orders like the Jesuits and Dominicans. No double-mindedness afflicted Catholic conversion activity among slaves, because unlike Protestants, Catholics generally didn’t elevate “freedom” as a distinctive mark of being Christian. 

Protestant proselytism enjoyed the benefits of neither imperial will nor Jesuitical sweat. It tended to be sporadic, freelance, and undersupported. A perfect example is the Oxford-educated Christopher Codrington, whose fervent efforts to Christianize slaves in Barbados remained frustrated, and whose bequest to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel—a bequest he intended for the conversion and education of African slaves—had the paradoxical effect of making the SPG a slaveholding organization. All these good-willed people were caught up in the incompatibility of enforced slavery and the Christian life; none of them could overcome the ideology of a planter establishment so powerful and pervasive that it even made profitability the measure of the keeping of the Sabbath.

Gerbner also carefully examines how slave conversions tended to shift the official Barbadian documents from the language of “Protestant Supremacy,” which distinguished slave and master on the basis of religion, to the language of “White Supremacy,” which distinguished them on the basis of race. This “need to distinguish” in favor of one over another is part of the toxic brew (mixed in part by Christians themselves) from which many still drink today. The book closes by treating George Whitefield’s 1740 “Letter to the Inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina,” which defended the conversion of slaves, as a transition point to a “formal defense of slavery in the Atlantic world” via its argument that becoming Christian made for better (i.e., more obedient) slaves.

“[T]he most self-sacrificing, faithful, and zealous missionaries in the Atlantic world,” Gerbner sums up, “formulated and theorized a powerful and lasting religious ideology for a brutal system of plantation labor.” Her judgment is harsh. But it is a judgment based on impeccable research. Christian Slavery is the sort of well-grounded microhistory that, in the end, proves more valuable than wide-ranging surveys and broad declarations.

Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World
Katharine Gerbner
​University of Pennsylvania Press, $24.95, 296 pp.


Denialism Is Nothing New

As the Spanish influenza epidemic was peaking in New York City in the fall of 1918, the managing editor of the Brooklyn diocesan newspaper took note in his weekly column that “Catholic churches were closed on Sunday in twenty-one States for the first time since America was discovered.” Then he recounted a conversation he’d had with a local woman that same day: 

We asked a lady if she went to Mass in the morning; she promptly answered in the affirmative; but, said we, “weren’t you afraid of getting influenza?” “No,” said she, “but if I stayed away from church I would be afraid of getting it.” It was sound Catholic philosophy.

Patrick Scanlan was two years into his fifty-one of running the Brooklyn Tablet, which built a national audience drawn to his combative style. He was eventually considered the dean of the nation’s Catholic press—the loudest supporter of Fr. Charles Coughlin when the radio preacher descended into his most obvious anti-Semitism in the late 1930s, and also of Senator Joseph McCarthy during his rise and fall in the 1950s.

That is, Scanlan made a career out of trafficking in the politics of resentment. There’s a glimpse of that in his objection to the temporary closings of churches during the extraordinary influenza outbreak: “To prohibit the people from congregating for a half hour or so on Sunday is to class the churches as a non-essential industry,” he wrote in an October 19, 1918 column. A century later, President Donald Trump spoke similarly when he said he would push governors to reopen churches immediately: “I’m correcting  this injustice and calling houses of worship essential.” 

This idea that the coronavirus pandemic and its restrictions on individual liberties are part of a conspiracy to undermine religious belief is seen in Scanlan’s heirs in conservative and alt-right Catholic media, and in such church figures as Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal Gerhard Müller and the conspiracy-minded Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

Fortunately, Scanlan’s diocese has not followed suit during the coronavirus pandemic; officials at the Diocese of Brooklyn say temporary church closings were unavoidable. “Though there are many who doubt and even publicly speak out against the decisions made to close churches and maintain social distancing, please know that decisions like these have not been taken lightly,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio wrote in his Tablet column. That was especially so for the Brooklyn-Queens diocese, which is “literally at the epicenter of the crisis in New York City, which is the epicenter of the United States. We have had to resort to these desperate measures to prevent the further loss of life and spread of disease. Life is God’s great gift and we must protect it.”

That is the heart of the matter; it’s a pro-life issue. No one is denying the need for religious faith. Masses of New Yorkers sought consolation in worship after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, and Catholic parishes performed their role admirably. But as much as one also needs Mass and the sacraments in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the sense of community and connectedness that the liturgy embodies, it would not be life-giving to risk other people’s lives for it.

In 1918, as now, there was a range of opinion on whether churches needed to be closed.

In the 1918 pandemic and now, dubious medical advice was used to buttress arguments that life can proceed without shutting down the places where large numbers of people gather. “The way to prevent yourself from getting it is to keep in good condition by going to bed early and rising early, sleeping with the windows opened, leading a regular life, eating regularly and simply, using cold water externally and internally several times during the day, and, above all things—taking long walks,” Scanlan wrote in his Tablet column, basing this on the work of the nineteenth-century German priest Sebastian Kneipp, a precursor of the naturopathic healing movement.

But long walks and good hydration notwithstanding, even healthy young people such as soldiers were vulnerable to an epidemic that killed 675,000 people in the United States; Scanlan’s predecessor as editor had died of influenza-induced pneumonia during his military service in the first round in March. Since there was no flu vaccine or antibiotic to treat secondary infections, isolation and quarantine were key to the response most health officials mounted. 

Within two weeks of Scanlan’s column, the Tablet was telling another story in an unsigned editorial:

It may be that our Catholic people are not really quite aware of the awful scourge that is upon us. One reason for our blessed state of ignorance is in the fact of the sane attitude of action of our Catholic authorities…. Masses are curtailed—there are now no High Masses—and other services shortened. The authorities have been acting cautiously, sanely, afraid to spread undue alarm. In cemeteries there are delays of burials wisely unannounced. The esprit du corps has been admirable. Nevertheless, the scourge is upon us. Priests and nuns are dying.

Still, the paper denounced the temporary closing of churches in Islip, a Long Island community then within the Brooklyn diocese, as “a disgraceful transaction.”

In 1918, as now, there was a range of opinion on whether churches needed to be closed. “The order of the Health Department closing the doors of the churches has already created much unnecessary alarm among the people,” Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore told the Baltimore Sun. “It was wrong to close them. Going to church soothes and quiets the faithful and at the same time brings to them a feeling of tranquility.”

Bishop Thomas F. Hickey of Rochester, New York, wrote in a pastoral letter that “In recognition of the word of duly constituted authority, we obeyed,” and noted that, “According to reports, our own city has suffered far less than other communities.” 

News of the epidemic was downplayed in most newspapers, where coverage of the frantic final weeks of the First World War dominated front pages. In the Boston Globe, the city’s decision to close churches played beneath the more shattering news that saloons could not offer bar service. “‘How Dry I Am’ to Be Tune in Boston,” the paper reported. “Churches and Bowling Allies Also Closed by Epidemic.”

The Catholic newspaper in Los Angeles, The Tidings, declared that the decision to close churches there “was entirely unnecessary and ill-considered…. However serious it was, the acute distress evident in other cities did not show itself here.”

Of course, it is likely that the measures LA authorities took had saved lives. A 2007 study found that closings of churches, theaters, schools, and other gathering places early in the 1918 pandemic reduced the peak death rates by half. It found that church closings were ordered in many cities, including Washington D.C., St. Louis, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Newark, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.

New York City is conspicuously missing from this list; to Patrick Scanlan’s pleasure, the city’s Board of Health decided against closing schools or churches. The health commissioner, Royal S. Copeland, focused on staggering business hours to reduce crowding on the subway.

Opponents of the closings in other parts of the country pointed to this frequently, since New York was known to have the premier public-health program. The 30,000 deaths suffered in New York fell short of a clear-cut success, but the rate compared favorably with other East Coast cities. Perhaps more important was that the city took early action to control shipping traffic.

As the second phase of the influenza pandemic wound down in New York and the Great War drew to a close in Europe, it took women religious to warn Tablet readers that more was to come. “During the influenza epidemic we witnessed such scenes in our hospital as never before,” the Sisters of St. Joseph at St. John’s Hospital in Long Island City, Queens wrote. “Medical men warn us that we may have some new epidemic following the coming of many ships from the war-scarred zone of Europe. We have to do all in our power to have our hospitals ready.

It was sound Catholic philosophy.

A Telling Spell of Catholic ‘Leadership’

Crisis reveals and clarifies. At a time when Catholic bishops, public intellectuals, and editors need to speak and act with moral clarity more than ever, the past month has seen such leaders doing the opposite. The cardinal of New York cozied up to the president. Editors at a respected national Catholic publication abruptly removed articles critical of the cardinal from their website. A prominent conservative Catholic commentator used Twitter to mock people who wear protective face masks. If anyone still wonders why young people continue to leave the church, and why many of us who stay are often anguished by our fellow Catholics with pulpits and platforms, the evidence is not hard to find.

On a phone call between Catholic leaders and President Trump that went public after a report in Crux, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan seemed barely able to contain his enthusiasm for a president who uses cruelty as a political weapon, energizes white supremacists, and degrades anyone who challenges him. The cardinal defended his chumminess on the call, and follow-up cheerleading for the president on Fox News, with the kind of false equivalency that often characterizes many bishops’ engagement in politics. “Look, are we in the sacred enterprise of accompaniment and engagement and dialogue or are we not? When you do it, you risk criticism from both sides,” Cardinal Dolan said in response to critics, specifically, those two thousand Catholics—including religious sisters, clergy, and theologians—who signed an open letter released by my organization, Faith in Public Life.

Bishops and other faith leaders have a right to engage with the White House. What Cardinal Dolan fails to acknowledge is the difference between “dialogue” or “accompaniment” and deferential coziness. When Trump boasted he was the best president in “the history of the Catholic Church”—and urged those on the call to get out the vote for his reelection— not one of the six hundred Catholic educators and bishops even politely pushed back against the president. That silence sends a message, even if unintentional, that church leaders will accommodate racism, misogyny, nativism, and cruelty in exchange for anti-abortion judges and funding for Catholic schools. We should expect more from bishops than transactional politics.

Cardinal Dolan’s defense that he sometimes applauds Democratic politicians and gets criticism from both the right and left isn’t a satisfactory response. While it’s true that neither political party fully reflects the expansiveness of Catholic social teaching, this default framework is proving inadequate to the urgency of the Trump era. False equivalency prevents us from speaking honestly. It’s one political party that has been twisted into the image of a demagogue who abuses power. It’s one party now defined by right-wing nationalism rooted in reactionary white resentment toward an increasingly diverse society. It’s one party obstructing policies that confront the existential threat of climate change. It’s lawmakers from one party who continue to put up barriers to voting rights. All of this is done by Republicans who call themselves “pro-life.” 

Moral integrity is not easily regained once it’s squandered.

“But what about abortion?” This is the rejoinder from many who dismiss or deny the fact that the Republican Party has been taken hostage by those who have little regard for defending human life and dignity in its broadest sense. It’s true that many leaders in the Democratic Party have moved from a “safe, legal, and rare” position, and now even seem skeptical of how President Obama rhetorically framed the need for common ground and abortion reduction. As I wrote in Commonweal last year, the absolutism of both parties reinforces polarities and has left little space for a conversation about abortion that doesn’t devolve into tribal politics. But when church leaders define abortion as the “preeminent” issue for Catholic voters, as bishops do in their Faithful Citizenship election-year document—and have failed to substantively update that guide even after the elections of Pope Francis and Donald Trump—the church’s moral witness in the public square shrinks in ways perfectly suited to manipulation by politicians with agendas hostile to most principles of Catholic teaching.

As public criticism of Cardinal Dolan’s flattery of Trump grew, the editors of U.S. Catholic—published by the Claretian Missionaries—responded in a particularly troubling way. Without explanation, the magazine abruptly deleted from its website two articles from respected scholars critical of Dolan and the bishops’ call with Trump, one by Stephen Schneck, a retired Catholic University professor who is the executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, and the other by Steven P. Millies, director of the Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union. After the National Catholic Reporter broke the story, Millies wrote on Twitter that he would never write for U.S. Catholic again: “I think contributing to the debate as a public intellectual is more needed now than ever.” (The National Catholic Reporter subsequently published both of the deleted articles.)

Meanwhile, another Catholic editor used words that were reckless in their own way. R. R. Reno of First Things launched a series of tweets in which he called the wearing of protective face masks, as recommended by public-health experts, a “PC gesture” and a form of “cowardice.” He contrasted people who “want to cower in place” with those “who want to live.” After days of criticism in Catholic and mainstream media, he issued a brief apology for what he called his “foolish and ill-considered remarks.” Yet by then Reno had already displayed his contempt for the common good, if not his reckless libertarianism, in a series of “coronavirus diary” entries on the First Things website, in which he bragged of his unauthorized visit to a New York City emergency room, and belittled social distancing, the wearing of face masks, and other measures meant to protect the public’s health.

First Things inhabits that particular Catholic ecosystem in which the coronavirus is no match for “muscular Christianity” and Pope Francis is a dangerous threat to the church. Consider also the recent manifesto spearheaded by papal foe Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former nuncio to the United States, which claims public-health responses to the coronavirus are an overhyped “pretext” to deprive the faithful of Mass and part of an assault on religious liberty. The petition, signed mostly by Italian clergy and conservative academics, also warns that efforts to use contact-tracing devices that can help limit the spread of the virus are a “disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control.”

Catholics with influence have a responsibility that comes with public platforms and access to political power. Moral integrity is not easily regained once it’s squandered. History will judge our actions today. Where will our Church stand?

A Sign of Trouble

If your church is reopening during the pandemic, what will liturgy look like? Well, everybody in the congregation will wear masks and sit far apart. There will be little or no singing, and big screens may take the place of printed programs. And, if the Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship (BCDW) at the USCCB has anything to say about it, you won’t get Communion until after Mass is over.

Yes, you heard that right. The guidelines sent out to all the bishops of the United States by Archbishop Leonard Blair, chair of the BCDW, recommend, as their preferred option, that people be given Communion at a Communion service after Mass rather than during the Mass itself.

Why not distribute Communion at Mass? The reason stated is that even though having the priest wear a mask would be safer for the distribution of Communion, “the Mass is imbued with powerful sacramental and liturgical symbolism. Wearing a mask…would be a detrimental counter-sign in this context.” In other words, they don’t want the priest to wear a mask at any time during the Mass, but they do want him to wear a mask to distribute Communion. So, rather than have him don a mask for the Communion Rite, they recommend taking Communion out of the Mass altogether.

This is, in a word, ridiculous.

Fortunately, individual bishops are free to ignore the advice given by the Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship.

First of all, I don’t know what school of liturgy would prohibit the wearing of a mask during a pandemic because doing so is a “detrimental counter-sign” to the “sacramental and liturgical symbolism” of the Mass. If anything, I think it would be received as a sign of pastoral care for the health and well-being of both the congregation and the priest himself (many of our clergy are older men with pre-existing conditions that increase their vulnerability). We are not even talking about wearing a mask continually, but merely putting one on for that part of the Communion Rite that involves distribution of the host to the assembly.

Second, it should be clear to everyone that sharing Communion in its proper place, at the Communion Rite, is far more central to the “sacramental and liturgical symbolism” of the Mass than is our ability to see the nose and mouth of the priest. The Second Vatican Council recovered a sense of Eucharist not only as sacrifice, but also as sacred meal, shared by the assembly in the heart of the Mass. When the assembly is present for Eucharist, having the priest alone receive is what would be truly a “detrimental counter-sign.”

There are other problems here as well. The guidelines recommend placing the altar breads for the people at the side of the altar, on their own corporal, removed from the host and chalice of the priest. This gives the wrong impression. Eucharist is our sign of unity; it is not a good idea to set the people’s Communion off to the side, as though there are two separate sacrifices on the altar. Are we not partaking of one bread?

Finally, they say Communion can be given on the tongue “without unreasonable risk.” Although the guidelines acknowledge that medical experts disagree about this, they give no space to an opposing view. Instead, they refer us to Redemptionis sacramentum (2004), a curial document that describes Communion on the tongue as a “right”—as if this were an absolute directive for all times and circumstances. This undercuts the bishops who have already suspended Communion on the tongue as a safety precaution.

The guidelines Archbishop Blair is promoting were actually produced by the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C. I am sure they were written in good faith and with the best intentions. There are a lot of guidelines out there; it should surprise no one that some of them have problems. What I find astonishing and disturbing, however, is that the chair of the BCDW—who has a cadre of professional advisors and could call on liturgical expertise anywhere in the country—should blithely send out a set of guidelines that does not respect the shape of the liturgy. Fortunately, bishops are free to ignore the advice given in them.

A few days after Blair’s message, the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions issued its own set of guidelines, and I am happy to say they are far better. They state, among other things, that “the Communion Rite is an essential and unmovable element of the Order of Mass.” Let every bishop take note.