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St. Philip Neri’s Eucharistic Joy

The very thought of a “saint” intimidates many of us. On the one hand, we intensely admire a St. Francis or St. Thérèse of Lisieux. On the other, we are awestruck, humbled, and perhaps a little unnerved by such supernatural virtue. For most of us live more ordinary lives and tend to identify with the virtues that seem within reach, what we can see as our best selves projected before us. We may recoil, however reverently, at a degree of spiritual development that we cannot—or is it will not? —make our own.

Enter St. Philip Neri, a sixteenth-century man whose feast day this month—May 26—should remind us that he was a pillar of the Counter-Reformation Church and yet also a saint for all seasons. The recent quadricentennial of his canonization—four hundred years ago last spring—signifies not his remoteness from us, but rather his remarkable nearness. For a saint, Philip was remarkably ordinary. One might even say he was extraordinary in his ordinariness. He should therefore both inspire and console us. He was not a brilliant thinker, not a spellbinding homilist, not a visionary seer, not a missionary bestriding the globe. He was instead something equally if not more valuable: a divinely blessed listener and a pilgrim of Eucharistic joy. This combination made him an outstanding and indefatigable confessor who regularly devoted hours each day—sometimes as many as sixteen!—to hearing confessions. He heard them even on his sickbed.

But what St. Philip of Neri was even better known for was his mirth, his high jinks and infectious laughter. As the adage has it: he seemed to have wings because he took himself so lightly. Nothing got him down. Endlessly grateful for the blessings of Providence, he was constantly chuckling. His example, following in the tradition of holy fools of earlier centuries, helped serve to modify and even upend the old notion that Christians shouldn’t laugh, which had even been codified as a requirement for humility (precept number 10) in The Rule of St. Benedict.

Because of his capacity to listen and his gift for friendship, people found Philip utterly lovable: a master who cultivated boundless sympathy and yet somehow maintained firm detachment and objectivity toward his friends. His power to direct and edify people through ordinary conversation led his follower Cardinal Agostino Valerio to dub him “the Christian Socrates.”

He was instead something equally if not more valuable: a divinely blessed listener and a pilgrim of Eucharistic joy.

This is why St. Philip Neri strikes me as such a good model for us today. Can’t we all become better listeners? Can’t we all practice the art of friendship? Can’t we all inspire others to become their best selves? These are all realistic goals for ordinary people. No stigmata required. Finally, can’t we also become more attuned to the call to “live the Eucharist”—a Greek word (eucharistia) that means “thanksgiving”? Gratitude, too, is an ordinary, unintimidating virtue.


Born in 1515 to a family of modest means in Florence, Philip Neri was apprenticed at the age of sixteen to an uncle who was a wealthy tradesman. But Philip was soon disillusioned with commerce and believed he might have a religious vocation, so at eighteen he ventured to Rome and enrolled in a seminary. After three years there, he gave up on ordination, though not on his vocation. He spent the next thirteen years in a lay apostolate—very unusual for that era. He became a kind of street preacher and itinerant hermit who “preached” by simply talking to people one on one. He would talk with anybody; more often, he just listened. “Well, my brother,” he would interject, “when and where shall we begin to do good?” The answer was always the same: here and now. St. John Henry Newman, the great nineteenth-century convert who founded the first Oratory in England, called this mode of witness “the apostolate of personal influence.” St. Ignatius of Loyola, who knew young Philip personally, called him simply “The Bell”—that is, a soul whose upraised voice inspires others to ring out with joy.

At thirty-four, Philip—still a layman—co-founded the Confraternity of Pilgrims and Convalescents, a mixed lay and clerical fraternity. Its members attended Mass together and provided hospitality for pilgrims. In the jubilee year 1550, his small circle often served meals for five hundred people a day. This work with his brothers, and for his brothers and sisters, deepened Philip’s faith; his confessor persuaded him to accept ordination. As a parish priest, Philip soon began to attract far more people than ever before.

There were days when he would hear over a hundred confessions—he believed in using the confessional as a form of spiritual direction—and then he would emerge from the confessional only to pray, celebrate Mass, and sing with his fellows. When he retired to his room above the church, people would often follow him, crowding into the small space for discussion. Soon he began to conduct such discussions in a larger space, eventually in the church itself. Someone would make a short presentation—seldom Philip himself—and others would begin to respond. And this is how the famous Congregation of the Oratory was founded, almost by accident.

The Oratory started as an informal prayer, discussion, and choral group of laypeople who were magnetized by the force of Philip’s appealing personality. “Oratoriummeans “place of prayer.” “Ora et labora” (pray and work) was the basis of the ancient monastic ideals, as formulated in the Rule of St. Benedict. Philip united these two activities seamlessly, proclaiming that the Oratorian seeks to pray and work constantly, and often simultaneously.

Eventually, some of his followers also became priests and they all lived together. This development marked the formal beginning of the Oratory as a religious community that grew to include aristocrats and cardinals. There were breaks for walks, with members singing as they strolled. One thing led to another, so that the practice of stretching one’s legs between discussion sessions evolved into full-scale, all-day pilgrimages to each of Rome’s seven basilicas. The crowd traveled on foot and stopped for picnics and concerts. They were often accompanied by troubadours and bands. The “house choirmasters” were Palestrina and Giovanni Animuccia, the distinguished Roman composers. The pilgrims ranged from tradesman to aristocrats and bishops—and, on at least one occasion, Michelangelo.

Can’t we all become better listeners? Can’t we all practice the art of friendship? Can’t we all inspire others to become their best selves? These are all realistic goals for ordinary people.


The key to Philip’s personal appeal was his humor. As a boy, his favorite reading had been a famous joke book by a fellow Florentine, Arlotto Mainardi. As a man, Philip was quite a jester—and very jolly as well as a little zany. Writing about Philip in his Italian Journey, Goethe dubbed him “the humorous saint.”

But it wasn’t just that Philip liked a good joke. He radiated joy, a kind of elevated bonhomie. In Mystic in Motley: The Life of Saint Philip Neri, Theodore Maynard reports that Philip would burst suddenly into song at Mass. Fearing he might swoon at the altar with ecstatic fervor, he would direct his altar boys to read aloud his favorite jokes from Mainardi’s book, to bring him back down to earth so that he could concentrate on the ritual tasks at hand. But even this wasn’t always enough to calm him for long. We are told that, as he read the Passion during Holy Week, Philip would play with his keys and spin a sundial placed near the altar in order to help him keep his composure.

On non-liturgical occasions, however, Phillip gave full vent to his holy foolery. For instance, immediately before a visit to a lady of high birth, Philip shaved his long beard—but on one side only. On another occasion, holding an audience with several priests and bishops whom he regarded as excessively strict and morose, he made a parlor guessing game out of forecasting the upcoming papal elections (during the Inquisition, no less!). Philip would sometimes wear his clothes inside-out or dress like a clown, in bright and mismatched shirts and trousers, topped off by a large blue cushion as his hat. (Hence the “Mystic in Motley” of Theodore Maynard’s title.) Or he would carry a broom around, and regularly stop to sniff it and rhapsodize about its aroma. At one Mass, he deliberately mispronounced some Latin words because he had been criticized severely for his alleged ignorance by a fellow prelate. Philip made sure to botch the Latin when the offending prelate was in attendance and planning to report to higher-ups about Philip’s masses.

Philip’s stunts and shenanigans were well known—as were his robust expressions of physical affection. He would box people on the ears, hug them dearly, then do a jig. Some historians have interpreted these actions as the “crazy love” of the fool for Christ, who seeks to be brought lower in the world’s eyes as a way of keeping his ego in check.

The key to Philip’s personal appeal was his humor.

Unsurprisingly, such unorthodox behaviors—not to mention the extravaganza of the Oratory on pilgrimage—finally brought Philip to the attention of the Inquisition. The Oratory and Philip were accused by some clerical bluenoses of being an assembly of heretics and profligates. For a few years in the late 1550s, under Pope Paul V, the Oratorians’ pilgrimages were forbidden and other restrictions were set in place. “I am an obedient servant,” Philip remarked on hearing the pope’s decision, and he did not put up a fight. Nonetheless, he eventually prevailed: by the mid-1560s, the activities of the Oratory had resumed, and it soon flourished on a scale greater than ever.


Goethe identified so strongly with Philip that he travelled throughout Italy during his twenties under the alias “Filippo Miller, pittore tedesco” (Philip Miller, German painter). No admirer of the Catholic Church, Goethe made an exception of “my patron saint.” Goethe’s two essays on Philip introduced him to the German-speaking public and established his fame in non-Catholic Europe as “the merriest man alive,” the “saint of Holy Wit.” Or as Theodore Maynard put it: “He was an incomprehensible saint, an impossible saint, and yet the most human of humans.” Philip embodied “an exquisite blending of Grace and nature,” writes Father Joseph Hussle, SJ. “Few men have ever been so deeply loved.”

Phyllis McGinley gives voice to that perception in her endearing and witty poem, “Goethe and Saint Philip Neri”:

Knight, novice, scholar, boisterous boy,
They followed after him with joy
To nurse his poor and break his bread
And hear the funny things he said.


For Philip Neri (by his birth
A Florentine) believed in mirth,
Holding that virtues took no harm
Which went with laughter arm in arm.


Two books he read with most affection—
The Gospels and a joke collection;
And sang hosannas set to fiddles
And fed the sick on soup and riddles.


So when the grave rebuke the merry,
Let them remember Philip Neri.

We need saints like Philip Neri—examples of lightness of spirit, divine laughter, and daily eucharistic joy. We need saints who, whatever their eccentricities, appeal to ordinary people. The “Bell” rings out to us across the centuries, not only on his feast day, not only on holy days, but on all the days of ordinary time when our faith must be lived out not in heroic displays of virtue or devotion, but with small, modest acts of joyful charity.

The Poetry of Reality


"I am beginning to despair
And can see only two choices:
Either go crazy or turn holy."

—Adélia Prado, “Serenade”

Sometimes the mystery of existence—that we exist at all, that we feel so homelessly at home in this place—gets embedded so deeply in life that we no longer feel it as mystery. Language, too, partakes of this sterilizing sameness and becomes in fact as solid and practical as a piece of wood or a pair of pliers, something we use during the course of interchangeable days. Poetry can reignite these dormancies (“words are fossil poetry,” as Emerson put it) of both language and life, sending a charge through reality that makes it real again.

I woke this morning so leaden I could hardly rouse myself from bed. I clutched for despair, but all the loyal life buoys—failure, self-contempt, God’s “absence”—drifted out of reach. I felt...nothing, my whole being as solid and insentient as a piece of wood or a pair of pliers. (Hölderlin, going mad: “Nothing is happening to me, nothing is happening to me!”) It was a teaching day, as unluck would have it: Gwendolyn Brooks, in a graduate divinity-school seminar called “Poetry and Faith.” When I was a child, the two most intolerable aspects of my life (or the two of which I was then conscious) were church and school. Both seemed to me so geologically dull I felt my arteries hardening. It seems either cold fate or high irony, then, that I should end up in church school. Some people can’t conceive of a god who can’t suffer. Me, I can’t conceive of a god who can’t laugh.

One wants a Teller in a time like this.
One’s not a man, one’s not a woman grown
To bear enormous business all alone.


One cannot walk this winding street with pride,
Straight-shouldered, tranquil-eyed,
Knowing one knows for sure the way back home.
One wonders if one has a home.


One is not certain if or why or how.
One wants a Teller now:—


Put on your rubbers and you won’t catch cold.
Here’s hell, there’s heaven. Go to Sunday School.
Be patient, time brings all good things—
(and cool
Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain?)—
Behold, Love’s true, and triumphs, and God’s actual.


—Gwendolyn Brooks, from “The Womanhood”

Some people can’t conceive of a god who can’t suffer. Me, I can’t conceive of a god who can’t laugh.

When first reading this poem, one is likely to understand “teller” as some sort of recorder or attentive onlooker. One wants a sensitive witness to capture and memorialize the “truth” of what happens “in a time like this.” (The surrounding poems suggest war and social crisis, but specificity isn’t needed; everyone alive has “a time like this.”) But that reading quickly collapses. (That it was possible, though, lingers through and influences the rest of the poem.) What one wants, actually, is a teller to tell one what one knows is not true. Because in fact you are going to catch cold, bone cold, and hell and heaven are hopelessly fused in this life, and time is ticking every instant toward a catastrophe orchestrated just for you.

But what about that last line? Is it merely a continuation of the wry irony of the first three lines of the stanza? Or does the parenthetical question, and the “cool strong balm” of its sound, chasten and change the tone so that the “Behold” is credibly prophetic and annunciatory, not merely mockingly so? And if that word is credible and volatile in the ancient sense, then what of the assertions that follow?

“Actual” is a very precise word, a “telling” word, a crucial wingbeat away from the word “real,” which one might have expected. “Actual” comes to us from the Old French actuel, meaning “active, practical.” Farther back, the Latin actus meant “driving, doing, act or deed” (an actus was, literally, a cattle drive). Clearly the word once referred less to a condition than an action, less to a state of being than being itself. To say that God is actual, then, in the context of this poem, is not necessarily to say that God is “real.” It’s to say that God is so woven into reality that the question of God’s own reality can’t meaningfully occur.

One more pinhole precision: “and cool / Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain.” At, not the more expected in. The burning is not psychological, or at least not entirely so, but circumstantial. The threat of meaninglessness is inside the speaker’s mind, but it is a response to a threat that is external and palpable. The powers invoked by the poem—of telling (poetry), of love and God and patience—are not simply effective in the “real” world. They are what makes the world real. In the end, this is not a poem about the reality of love, divinity, or poetry, but about the love, divinity, and poetry of reality.

Too much interpretation? Yes and no. Gwendolyn Brooks certainly never sat down and self-consciously seeded her poem with these meanings. My guess is she chose both “actual” and “at” entirely for the sounds (both of which are less predictable, less mellifluous). But that’s the mystery of language, and of its reach into—rather, its co-extensiveness with—life, love, and God. A reader’s need can release a meaning an author never intended, but which her whole-souled submission to sound enabled. That’s what happened for me in the midst of my barren dread this morning, and for the rest of the day love was true (from Old English, meaning steadfast, loyal), God was a verb (how lively and lovely the class!), and I was rescued by a revelation so tiny it would take a crazy and holy attention to see it as such.


In Praise of the Pitch Clock

In January of this year, over the objections of players, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred announced that a pitch clock would be introduced in the major leagues for the 2023 season. There would be a thirty-second timer between batters, and during an at bat, pitchers would have fifteen seconds to deliver a pitch after receiving the ball from the catcher when the bases are empty, twenty seconds when there are runners on base. Manfred stated that the pitch clock was a direct response to fan feedback. “What do our fans want to see on the field?” he asked. “Number one, fans want games with better pace.”

I’m on record as opposing the pitch timer, and I opposed it on aesthetic, even theological, grounds:

Baseball has the eternal built into it, from the circular nature of each player’s voyage around the base paths to its refusal to have the game limited by the constraints of time, and the pitch clock introduced something alien to the game, like a virus that couldn’t but compromise the health of something that was otherwise healthy and beautiful.

My own argument against the pitch clock was in large part written in opposition to the constant refrain about the need to speed up baseball’s pace of play in baseball, and I drew on Josef Pieper’s writing on leisure to make my case. In his classic Leisure: The Basis of Culture, the German Catholic philosopher argued that a society dominated by work is inhuman. To be fully themselves, humans need leisure, by which Pieper meant the time and focus required to contemplate things as they really are, to be able truly to see the underlying patterns that give meaning to existence.

Pieper ultimately connects such leisure to the worship of God, but I argued that baseball’s leisurely pace and deep patterns lend themselves to an analogous kind of contemplation, provided that those who attend the church of baseball open themselves in silence and equanimity to baseball’s contemplative dimension. And I suggested that the introduction of a pitch clock would disrupt this dimension by bringing the temporal into the eternal, the mundane into the extraordinary.

I don’t know how else to say this, so I’ll just have to come right out with it.

I was wrong.

In an essay called “Work, Spare Time, and Leisure,” Pieper wrote that it is possible for anyone to “touch, in contemplation, the core of all reality, the domain of the eternal archetypes” when gazing upon a flower or a human face, when listening to a poem, or when focusing on a sculpture or painting. He argues that such contemplation “can happen in countless actual forms,” and while some might quibble with my suggestion that one of these forms could be watching a baseball game, it’s not easy to dismiss the witness of those, like myself, who experience baseball in ways that can only be described as transcendent. Pieper would, I think, understand.

Baseball’s leisurely pace and deep patterns lend themselves to an analogous kind of contemplation, provided that those who attend the church of baseball open themselves in silence and equanimity to baseball’s contemplative dimension.

At the same time, Pieper emphasizes that such contemplation can only occur “if the conditions are right.” Some of these conditions have to do with the disposition of the viewer, as I wrote about in my earlier piece when I referred to Pieper’s conviction that the contemplation associated with leisure is possible only for the person who possesses calm and is content simply to be. As I wrote then, such leisure is for Pieper “a condition of the soul,” an “attitude of inward calm, of silence” that “means not being ‘busy,’ but letting things happen.”

What I neglected to consider is that, for this kind of contemplation to occur, one’s internal disposition is not the only factor. It is also necessary that one gaze upon that which is beautiful; it should, in other words, be capable of bringing one to contemplation.

There is, as I’ve argued, something incomparably beautiful about baseball related to what A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former professor of literature and commissioner of baseball, called its “deep patterns.” There are some who think baseball is boring because they’re used to the surges of adrenaline that come with what theologian David Bentley Hart referred to as the oblong games, those sports focused on penetrating an opponent’s territory to deposit or carry an object into a goal or end zone. As a devoted fan of both soccer and hockey, I appreciate the excitement of such sports. But while such games require great skill and provide flashes of beauty, they do not contain within themselves the kind of subtle movements and rhythms baseball does. The threeness of its structure—three outs, three bases, 32 innings and the same number of players on the field—as well as the way baseball dramatizes and celebrates the human impulse to depart from home and to return or at least to help others to do so, all of this speaks to something deep within the us.

The problem is that baseball had morphed into something that obscured these deep patterns, making it difficult to see and experience the beauty of the game. The problem was not the length of the games. NFL games average 3 hours and 12 minutes to play, and college football games take even longer. In 2022, a nine-inning MLB game averaged 3 hours and 6 minutes, but the complaints were generally not about how long it took to play those games, but about what those 3-plus hours of baseball looked like.

Long and meaningless pauses took place between pitches as hitters stepped out of the batter’s box to adjust their gloves or as pitchers meandered around the mound before finally deciding to step on the rubber to throw a pitch. Even then, pitchers could and would take extra time as their catchers went through a battery of signs to determine what kind of pitch the pitcher would throw.

The negative spaces that exist in baseball—the time that exists between pitches or between moments of action on the field—are features, not bugs, of baseball. The silences are, in fact, part of the beauty of the game, part of what gives space for viewers to enter into the leisure necessary for contemplation. But over the past forty years, these negative spaces took over. During the 1970s into the mid-1980s, games regularly averaged around 2 hours and 30 minutes, exemplifying that the pace of play was such that the negative spaces hadn’t overwhelmed the sport. The average time of game started to creep up during the late ’80s into the 2 hour and 50 minute range, where it largely stayed throughout the ’90s. But in 2000, the average time of game reached 3 hours for the first time, and since 2012, the average hasn’t gone below 3 hours, reaching a peak of 3 hours and 11 minutes in 2021. Now, with the introduction of the pitch clock this year, games are averaging 2 hours and 36 minutes, close to the length of games in the 1970s.

The problem is that baseball had morphed into something that obscured these deep patterns, making it difficult to see and experience the beauty of the game.

There has been some pushback, mostly from veteran pitchers who never had to play with the pitch clock before (it’s been used in the minor league for years). New York Mets ace Max Scherzer complained that pitchers now have to focus on the clock rather than the game, while the Chicago Cubs’ Marcus Stroman said he feels “super rushed.” But these pitchers fail to understand what was being lost in the game without the clock.

I am reminded of a recording I once heard of Thomas Merton teaching the novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani about Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s document on the liturgy. Merton talked to the novices about how the liturgy is supposed to manifest the “true nature of the church” to those within and without the Church, and he was clear that the liturgy as it was being celebrated prior to Vatican II failed in this respect: “Does it manifest the true nature of the church if you have one guy in a corner mumbling, and an altar boy kidding around with another altar boy and there’s a bunch of nonsense going on, and nobody knows what’s happening, and there’s just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo going on in the corner?”

In the style of Merton, I might ask the following regarding baseball as it developed over the past four decades. Does it manifest the contemplative dimension and beauty of baseball if you have a pitcher wandering aimlessly around the mound between pitches, a batter stepping out repeatedly to adjust the velcro on his batting gloves, players standing in place on the field as they wait for a pitch to be thrown, and spectators staring around at everything except the field where there exists little in the way of rhythm and, because of that, little ability to see the deep patterns and rhythms of the game?

There are many who have argued for the reform of baseball, and some of the recent attempts at reform are profoundly lamentable. The extra-innings zombie runner (or “Manfred Man”) is an abomination, and I regret the universalization of the designated hitter and so the elimination of a key difference between the National and American Leagues.

However, the pitch clock brought baseball back to itself in a way that I could never have predicted. For that, I am grateful.

Duke Ellington’s Sacred Swing

Like that of many monumental artists throughout history, the legacy of Duke Ellington is one of contradiction. As serious, skillful, and ambitious a composer as American music has ever known, he was just as capable of turning out myriad offhand tunes that reveled in their informal charm. If spirituality infuses some of his most personal pieces, sensuality suffuses the wider catalog of his work. He was a natural charmer who could win over any audience; he could also be an aloof and self-serving friend and lover. But a legion of Duke devotees wouldn’t have it any other way. For it’s his embrace of life in all its abundance and inconsistency that feeds his gorgeous command of sound, the tonal elements he transformed into music as vital and communicative today as it was when it was first produced during the past century.

It’s been fifty years since the 1973 performance of Ellington’s “The Majesty of God,” the third in a series of “Sacred Concerts” he initiated in the mid to late 1960s and the last major fully completed work of his lifetime. (Ellington would die less than a year later, in May 1974.) The Third Sacred Concert is an authentic demonstration of his attempt to express the spiritual aspect of his art. Ellington was raised in the warm embrace of family, and religion—if not strict religious practice—remained important throughout his life. He was said to have read the Bible thoroughly numerous times, and to turn to Scripture when in need of consolation. He counted clergymen among his friends and found comfort in spiritual reflection. Important spiritually inspired pieces include his enduring hymn “Come Sunday,” composed in 1942 for the extended work Black, Brown, and Beige, which was heard at the Ellington orchestra’s first Carnegie Hall concert in 1943.

“The Majesty of God” may not be an indisputable high point of Ellington’s career, but it is shaped by many of his trademark musical felicities—more than enough to warrant attention a half-century later. Consisting of seven segments, it includes original lyrics by Ellington along with passages from the Old and New Testaments and the Lord’s Prayer. The basic message is one of ecumenical praise, while “Ain’t Nobody Nowhere Nothin’ Without God” is Ellington’s unabashed testament of faith. Yet from first note to last, this is Duke Ellington music—that is, it doesn’t depart from his characteristic melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and tonal universe. It delights while conveying deep emotions and it swings. Anyone unfamiliar with the English language yet conversant with Ellington’s music would recognize it immediately as his. You might not steer an Ellington novice straight to “The Majesty of God.” But those already acquainted with Ellington’s work will find it an instructive piece that furthers understanding of how he achieved wondrous effects by utilizing the resources at hand.

Anyone unfamiliar with the English language yet conversant with Ellington’s music would recognize it immediately as his.

Ellington’s music can’t be separated from his valued collaborators, the dazzling musicians whom he nurtured and built his sound around. By the time of the Third Sacred Concert, nearly all the significant players from Ellington’s late-period band were gone, including alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, trombonist Lawrence Brown, and clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, while tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves and trumpeter Cootie Williams were unable to attend the concert. Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s invaluable co-composer and arranger, had died in 1967. Yet even without his star soloists and creative partner, Ellington pulls it off. Elements integral to the record’s success were guest soloist Alice Babs, whose soaring soprano brings additional dimension to the words; baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, who had devoted a lifetime to Ellington, and whose horn provided the ballast for the band; Ellington’s own piano work, as underrated as it was inimitable; and the splendor of his orchestra, which, despite the missing personnel and sparing use in this work, could still sound authoritative and regal, thanks to Ellington’s skillful writing and arranging.

You come away from “The Majesty of God” certain that its composer was sincere in his beliefs, open to the inspiration of unguarded spiritual thought. Yet he was no less open to what the world offered up—good, bad, and everything in between. Those who admire Ellington’s music sense that this was a man who loved people, and food, and sex, and romance, and travel, and community, and the multitude of other pleasures life offers. You can also hear him responding to the political, social, and existential tribulations that Black Americans have had to endure. Parsing the supposedly specific images that Ellington claimed as musical correlatives in his strictly instrumental works can be more obfuscating than illuminating. Is “Harlem Air Shaft” an overview of communal life in uptown New York? Is “Reminiscing in Tempo” a portrait of his deceased mother? With Ellington, it’s always dangerous to confuse inspiration with literal interpretation. But his creativity was obviously fueled by whatever he encountered. Read whatever you want into his expressive music, it all comes out the same. Ellington’s art elevates the spirit, mind, and body.

It’s not enough, assuming that this is still true, that he remains a famous name, or that he’s associated with a few classic songs: “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Solitude,” and “Mood Indigo” among them. Ellington’s oeuvre is far vaster. As critic Gary Giddins says in Jazz (written with Scott DeVeaux),

In what category do you place a pianist, bandleader, composer, and arranger who created an ensemble unlike any other and wrote practically every kind of Western music other than grand opera—from ragtime to rock’n’roll, from blues to ballet, from stage and film scores to tone poems, oratorios, and sacred concerts, not to mention works for instrumental combinations from piano-bass duets to symphony orchestra. A proudly black artist, whose subject matter never departed for long from African American history and life, he also wrote about the full breadth of America and much of the world.

A career that stretches from the early 1920s to the early ’70s may seem daunting, but streaming services make exploration far easier. (“The Majesty of God” doesn’t show up on Apple or Spotify, but it’s available on YouTube.) Like the man, the music is multidimensional. He found room for virtually every jazz idiom that blossomed in his lifetime, yet the miracle is how little of his work sounds imitative or generic, and how much is stamped with a fingerprint-like individuality. How Ellington managed to work so closely with so many extraordinary musicians and to have all of them speak his specific language is a gift that still can’t be explained. But maybe we should just be thankful for it. In this still-new millennium, Ellington’s art is as vivid as ever, and perhaps even more necessary.


Reading ‘Pacem in Terris’ in 2023

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the debate on Catholic teaching on peace has taken a turn. As Tobias Winright recently wrote in Commonweal: “This war tests…the recent narrowing of the Catholic ethic of war and peace to nonviolence.” Indeed, thinking about Ukraine’s response to Russian aggression in the context of Catholic moral tradition requires a re-reading of Pacem in Terris—the highest moment in the modern magisterium of the Catholic Church on peace and war.

The encyclical was dated April 11, 1963—Holy Thursday—but it had been signed on April 9, in an event that was televised around the world. Images of Pope John XXIII signing his last encyclical (he would die less than two months later) filled the news. The New York Times published the text in its entirety in its April 11 edition. Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, professed Pacem in Terris “an initiative in favor of peace.” Mainstream and other publications all across the globe devoted similar attention.

Pacem in Terris arrived six months after the Cuban missile crisis, and largely because of it. The most dangerous moment in the history of the Cold War compelled John XXIII to ask Italian theologian Fr. Pietro Pavan to draft an encyclical on peace. The document and the attention it received reflected the central role the Catholic Church played in articulating the moral language of the nuclear age—a language that developed previous doctrine in some important ways.

Sixty years later, the war in Ukraine—along with the marginal and somewhat controversial role of Pope Francis and the Vatican—affects our reading of Pacem in Terris. Neoconservatives are using the occasion to highlight the encyclical’s “deficiencies.” That’s an ahistorical and disingenuous assessment. Nevertheless, certain pressing developments do force us to reconsider it in a new context. For one thing, the abandonment of nuclear-weapon agreements could herald a new arms race and raises the risk of nuclear proliferation. As the Holy See delegation to the UN stated in April during the General Exchange of Views at the United Nations Disarmament Commission: “Tragically, the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis are being forgotten and numerous arms control treaties have been discarded, reflecting a paucity of trust internationally and accelerating a worrying trend toward rearmament.” Additionally, the plight of Ukraine—a country that gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994 and is now defending itself against a nuclear power—might inspire other non-nuclear countries to seek out or develop their own nuclear weapons in hopes of deterring invasion. Finland’s April decision to join NATO, meanwhile, deprives Europe of a country whose neutrality was critical in formulating the 1975 Helsinki Accords—hammered out at a peace conference it hosted, and to which the Holy See made significant contributions. And as the invasion leads other countries to reconsider their longstanding neutrality, the Holy See’s recent invocations of a “new Helsinki” seem more and more like a dream.

Thinking about Ukraine’s response to Russian aggression in the context of Catholic moral tradition requires a re-reading of Pacem in Terris.

There are less visible considerations, but they are no less profound in terms of the history of theology. In addressing the issue of peace and war, Pacem in Terris also founded a new Catholic language of rights—human, social, political, and economic—in ways that were foundational for the documents of Vatican II, including the one on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae. Pacem in Terris also opened the door for social and political cooperation between Catholics and non-Catholics, thanks to its distinction between “error and the errant” as a response to the political ideologies and mass political parties of the Cold War. This distinction has become much more difficult to maintain and less useful in de-escalating tensions as identity politics and the theologization of the “culture wars” assumes an identification between “error and the errant.” If the Church was successful in using the distinction to deal with ideological clashes, it is finding it harder to apply when the emphasis is on identity.

There are also considerations in terms of the history of war. Pacem in Terris was crafted in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis but was also informed by the lived experience of World War II—“total warfare” and America’s use of atomic weapons against Japanese civilians in August 1945. But since the encyclical, we have seen the spread of what are euphemistically called “police operations” and “humanitarian wars.” We have seen the use of remotely controlled weapons that distance the attacker from the attacked and create the false impression of “surgical strikes” that hit their targets with precision while sparing civilians. Meanwhile, weapons that once could only be developed by a wealthy state power can now be made with technology found in consumer electronics; one of the most successful drones used by Russia against Ukraine is the low-tech Iranian Shahed-136, which costs $20,000 dollars.

“Shahed” in Persian means “witness,” as in “I bear witness that there is no God but God.” In 1963, religious rhetoric in support of war was not as common as it is now, especially in Europe. The heated debate over collaboration with Moscow against the non-autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine, and the justification for Putin’s aggression provided by the Patriarch of Moscow, are just two examples of how ethno-nationalist leaders and public figures around the world—from the United States to Russia, India, Hungary, and Italy—are making a rhetorical connection between religion and war. It’s a problem for Christianity, Hinduism, and even Buddhism: states with substantial Buddhist populations have armies today.

Pacem in Terris’s famous condemnation of nuclear war as “irrational”—in the powerful Latin translation of the original Italian, alienum a ratione—and the recourse to “human reason” sit uncomfortably alongside the return of anti-Enlightenment irrationalism (visible in the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories) and, in Christianity, the re-emergence of the apocalyptic-driven alliance between religion and politics. In the case of the Moscow patriarch’s justification of the war in Ukraine, the concept of a “metaphysical” struggle against a godless international order is a complete contradiction of the rational approach of Pacem in Terris and a sign of the collapse of the post–Vatican II ecumenical dialogue (and not just between the Vatican and Moscow). Pacem in Terris invested in the rationality and the scientific reachability of peace based on a sense of “progress” (a word that appears twenty-one times in the encyclical), which since then has lost much of its power to persuade and appease. Pope Francis, who has talked many times about “the third world war being fought piecemeal,” has adopted a more humble and plainly less progressive-scientific language—that of being “artisans of peace.”

Sixty years on we can say that Pacem in Terris has been vindicated, especially in its insistence that “human coexistence must be considered above all as a spiritual fact.”

The most dramatic change affecting Pacem in Terris today is the representative nature of papal teaching on peace and war in global Catholicism. It has become harder to believe in not just the unity of the one human family, but also in the unity of the one Catholic Church. The difficulty Francis has had in taking a position on the war in Ukraine is attributable in part to his lamentable lack of verbal discipline in the too many interviews he has given lately. (It will be interesting to see what comes of Francis’s meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on May 13.) But it also reflects a real lack of consensus in the global Catholic community—and the gap between Catholics in the Anglo-American West and Eastern Europe who support Ukraine versus those in the Global South who see Putin’s invasion as a European war and support for the invaded country as support for the United States and its interests. Francis himself hews to interpretations of the nonaligned world more than “the free world” in ways that we cannot find in his predecessors since John XXIII.

After the publication of Pacem in Terris, President John F. Kennedy requested an audience with John XXIII, who died before it could take place, on June 3, 1963; Kennedy himself would be assassinated a few months later. Reading Pacem in Terris today, when the United States has its second Catholic president, brings into relief how politically impotent Catholics and the papacy have become since that time. The post-conciliar consensus arose from the fact that Pacem in Terris reflected an understanding of the world transitioning from an imperial-colonial order to the Cold War of ideological empires—the so-called “free world” against the atheistic Communist totalitarianism. That consensus is now in crisis, and the inversion of roles is complete: a “God-with-us” Russian regime against an anathematized, decadent, secular West.

This civilizational narrative is clearly ideological and instrumental. But sixty years on we can say that Pacem in Terris has been vindicated, especially in its insistence that “human coexistence must be considered above all as a spiritual fact.”

A Win-Win-Win?

In 2005, two parishes in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, St. James in Mequon and St. Cecilia in Thiensville, merged to become one combined parish named Lumen Christi. The rationale for the merger was a familiar one: the archdiocese’s worsening priest shortage. I joined the pastoral staff of Lumen Christi in 2013, when the then-merged parish was evaluating whether they should combine into one geographic site, using the St. James church building rather than both locations. When the parish held a listening session to discuss the issue, a debate quickly broke out about how to furnish the combined site. People from St. James insisted that they could not bear to lose their crucifix. Someone else suggested that they could utilize the tabernacle from the St. Cecilia site, since it seemed the crucifix had to stay. People continued to chime in with opinions about how to best combine pieces of both spaces.

An older gentleman raised his hand and stood up. He looked around the room and said, “My grandfather was baptized and St. Cecilia. I was baptized at St. Cecilia. My son and granddaughter were both baptized at St. Cecilia. I am sorry about your decorating dilemma, but I want you all to know that I am not too excited about leaving my home parish to go worship at yours.”

Nine years later, Lumen Christi has combined into one site in a way that honors both former parishes, and their process is an example of how to manage mergers thoughtfully. But the man’s comments have stuck with me, and I continue to be sad for his loss. It seemed to me that parish mergers and closures ripped apart communities and brought a lot of unnecessary pain. I wondered why the preferred method of dealing with the priest shortage, in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and elsewhere, has been to merge parishes, when an alternative exists.

This alternative is Canon 517.2, which allows lay or deacon leaders to serve as the administrators and spiritual leaders of their parishes. The canon states:

If, because of a lack of priests, the diocesan bishop has decided that participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish is to be entrusted to a deacon, to another person who is not a priest, or to a community of persons, he is to appoint some priest who, provided with the powers and faculties of a pastor, is to direct the pastoral care.

Rather than requiring a single priest to be the head of the parish, and closing a parish when one isn’t available, the model allows other qualified members of the faithful to lead the parish day-to-day. This model does not have a universal name; the leadership role it involves is most commonly referred to as “parish-life coordinators,” but they also go by “parish administrators” or “ministers of Canon 517.2” (which rolls off the tongue). In Milwaukee, these ministers are known as parish directors.

According to data from CARA, since the 1960s, the number of active priests in the United States has dropped by 38 percent. Today there are six times more parishes without resident priests. In Milwaukee the numbers are even more dire: a drop in the number of priests by about 73 percent since the 1970s. Seventy percent of priests here are sixty years old or older. Milwaukee has used the Canon 517.2 model increasingly since the 1980s, but still not very often; parish administrators make up only 7 percent of the total parish leadership in the archdiocese. At the same time, as a result of mergers and closures, the number of parishes has decreased from 265 to 197.

I wondered why the preferred method of dealing with the priest shortage, in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and elsewhere, has been to merge parishes, when an alternative exists.

Given this reality, I wanted to know more about the experience of parish directors in Milwaukee. Does this model of leadership work? What challenges do parish directors face? Why is this model not used more? Could it be a long-term solution to the priest shortage? With permission from the archdiocese, in 2017 and 2018 I conducted research interviews with the eleven parish directors in Milwaukee at the time—four lay women, three lay men, and four deacons. These ministers had served in the role anywhere from a half a year to twenty-two years. They were open and generous in sharing their stories and provided valuable information about Canon 517.2 that is of use to the whole U.S. Church.


It is surprising how different Catholics’ perceptions of what it means to be a parish can be. Most Catholics have never experienced a lay or deacon parish director, but for those who have, they do not flinch at this alternative form of leadership. I recently told a colleague who was raised in a lay-led parish about my research on Canon 517.2. Her first reaction was surprise: “Isn’t that normal?” she asked. The truth is that communities led by parish directors are by far in the minority.

But according to the parish directors I spoke with, the model works. They spoke especially of a renewed vibrancy in parishes that might have otherwise died—new committees, new initiatives, or new programs that got many parishioners involved and active. They also said that their parishioners feel known in a way they hadn’t before. Catholics can tend to defer to a priest-pastor, which can mean that they don’t become involved in parish life or governance. This is not a spiritual laziness (in most cases), but it can create a lack of responsibility in some Catholics. But when there is no priest to lead, parishioners have to step up. They often feel responsible for the well being of their parish and are empowered to get creative.

The other side of this bargain is that parish directors feel especially accountable to their parishioners for providing a good experience of Church life. When the leadership structure of a community is upended, its members reevaluate why they are a part of that community, and parish directors feel that they need to work hard to remind people why they should stay. As Bridget, one of the parish directors said, “It has to be meaningful, or else [parishioners] have other stuff to do.”

One secret to their success is their “ministry of presence.” This kind of pastoral attention is not a new approach, but it does require an available and engaged person to attend to parishioners’ needs. In the current shortage situation, too many priests are pastoring multiple parishes, or are asked to stay in active ministry far beyond their prime. By expanding the leadership pool, parishes can ensure that leaders have time to engage with their communities. For far too long, we have overburdened our priests with lofty expectations that can lead to burnout and communities starving for engaged leadership.

Where exactly, then, do priests fit into the parish-director model? Canonically speaking, each minister serving under Canon 517.2 must have a supervising priest, and this relationship is a wonderful opportunity for mentoring for the parish directors. In addition to the supervising priest, there can be an assisting priest assigned to help with the sacramental life of the parish. This assisting priest is often a “senior priest” retired from full-time active ministry. Assisting priests love ministry and being connected to a parish community, but are glad to put the days of managing staff and suffering through finance-council meetings behind them. One of the biggest surprises of my research was the consistently positive relationship between the parish director and the assisting priest, which parish directors described as respectful partnerships.

According to the parish directors I spoke with, the model works. They spoke especially of a renewed vibrancy in parishes that might have otherwise died.

One critique of this model is that it could reduce the priest to a “sacramental dispenser.” While the potential for this does exist, the Milwaukee priests serving in this role wholeheartedly disagreed with this description. In the best case, the assisting priest builds a relationship with the community, where they are a consistent presence. While they can’t take on all of the leadership of a parish, they can continue to bring their spiritual gifts to the faithful.

The parish directors described a “best of both worlds” scenario: there is still a priest presence in the community, but the day-to-day operations and leadership can be done by a well-qualified, passionate lay or deacon parish director. As Michael Scott said in The Office, “It is a win-win-win”: for the parish directors who are empowered and supported in their leadership; for the assisting priests who can share their priestly vocation without being bogged down by bureaucracy; and for the parish community who benefits from a dynamic duo of leadership.


There are only a handful of dioceses in the United States that use the Canon 517.2 model. Why has there been such hesitation to take it up? Admittedly, it is certainly nontraditional. Most Catholics associate parish life with a priest-pastor and haven’t had much opportunity to imagine what other models could look like. To some, this model could look like a threat to the status or role of the ordained.

Certainly, the model only works in a diocese with a bishop supportive of the use of Canon 517.2. It’s the bishop who authorizes the placements of parish directors—or he can choose not to. The three archbishops who have led Milwaukee since the 1980s have had varied levels of enthusiasm for an alternative model of leadership; with every leadership change, the momentum of the model is thrown into jeopardy.

Moreover, hesitancy about the model doesn’t necessarily mean it is never implemented; it means that when it is implemented, it is done so haphazardly and with minimal support for parish directors. Of the eleven parish directors in this study, four were placed in parishes under “emergency circumstances”—meaning that there was not a long-term plan for them to take on leadership. Rather, they were placed there because the pastors were suddenly unable to fulfill their assignments and there were no available priests to take over. In these situations, the parish directors had little time to prepare or learn about the parish before assuming the role. One parish director reported feeling underprepared to manage a parish budget; another parish director described the awkwardness of being on the parish staff one week and overseeing it the next.

If this model were embraced in a proactive way, parish directors would have more opportunity to be successful. One of the most important things dioceses could provide to make this model work is more education. As it stands now, if a lay person wants to obtain an advanced degree in theology, they usually have to fund their own way. On the other hand, if a young man decides to enter priestly formation, he will have financial support and housing, and be assured of the faithful’s prayers for his vocation. Vatican II reminded the Church that all baptized are included in the “People of God” and are part of the family of faith, but it is clear that the Church prioritizes certain vocations over others.

And even the parish directors who are installed and supported sense that their roles are fragile. It’s not uncommon for parishioners to ask, “When are we going to get a priest?” In a Church where clericalism still has a foothold, parish directors understand they are not always parishioners’ first choice. As a result, they feel a need to be cautious in their leadership so as not to rock the boat. They also tend not to promote the good work they are actually doing, which can lead to a cycle of feeling undervalued. Women in particular feel that they have to be the “best of the best” to get and keep the role. Many of the women parish directors in Milwaukee have doctorates, university-teaching experience, and decades of experience in a pastoral role; without these, they may not have been considered. More vocal, formal support from the archdiocese could go a long way in the acceptance and education about the role of parish directors for the faithful.

Ultimately, the Canon 517.2 model is a temporary one. Without change to canon law, there can only be parish directors as long as there are also priest administrators and assisting priests. But based on my discussions with the parish directors of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, I am confident that this is a viable model for the foreseeable future to deal with a shortage of priests—a problem we face whether we like it or not.

It’s worth noting that the canon is one of the boldest ways laypeople have been empowered since Vatican II, giving them a practical and authentic share in Church leadership on a local level. It echoes Vatican II’s call to faithful service for all the baptized. If the bishops would embrace this model, they could develop a more inclusive, proactive plan to use parish directors. Dioceses could provide better training and place parish directors intentionally to help parishes thrive. It’s also an incredible opportunity to elevate women to leadership roles in the Church and would make a bold statement of equality among the faithful.

In a time of uncertainty about the future of parish life, we have to ask ourselves a challenging question. What do we, as a Church, prioritize? Do we cling to an established leadership model that is struggling, or do we encourage the People of God to lead in their faith communities? If we embrace the latter, then we must let the Holy Spirit invigorate our leadership and enliven our faith communities in a way that breathes new life into the Church.

Sanitizing John Paul II

Apparently, it is in NATO’s interest to prevent public discussion of Pope John Paul II’s role in covering up child abuse. At any rate, this was the message sent out into the world by Poland’s right-wing government in early March. 

Not three weeks after President Joe Biden’s second state visit to Poland inside of a year, Poland’s foreign ministry issued a “summons” to U.S. Ambassador Mark Brzezinski regarding an alleged campaign “to weaken the Polish Republic’s ability to fend off a potential enemy as well as its resistance to threats.” The so-called campaign began with a documentary film aired on March 6 on Poland’s TVN, whose principal owner is actually Warner Bros. Discovery. TVN is well known for its opposition to the current government—in fact, given the government’s stranglehold on state-subsidized as well as religious media, TVN has effectively become Poland’s only independent TV network. 

The film, Franciszkańska 3 (named for the street address of Karol Wojtyła’s residence as Archbishop of Kraków), offers detailed testimony and investigative reporting showing that the future pope covered up child molestation by priests in his archdiocese. Mere discussion of this testimony, according to Poland’s current minister of culture, is tantamount both to an “attack on the Polish national interest” and to “hybrid warfare” that will weaken Poland’s ability to fulfill its NATO obligations and to support its neighbor, Ukraine.

Biden is only the second Roman Catholic president in U.S. history, and the first sitting Catholic U.S. president to visit Poland. (John F. Kennedy visited as a senator.) His February trip to Warsaw overlapped with Ash Wednesday, yet rather than attend Mass publicly in the company of Polish officials, Biden attended a private Mass in his suite at the Marriott. The choice of celebrant is telling: it was not a bishop, but an Augustinian monk who is former head of the Polish Council for Christian-Jewish dialogue and is closely tied to Poland’s storied but rapidly dwindling movement of liberal Catholic intellectuals.

Biden has indicated that his private meeting with John Paul II in 1980, when Biden was a senator, was among the highlights of his life. But now, visiting that pontiff’s homeland, a country that ranks, demographically and historically, among the most Catholic in the world, on an important day in the Catholic liturgical calendar, the deeply Catholic U.S. president avoided any direct contact with Poland’s Catholic hierarchy.

Apparently, it is in NATO’s interest to prevent public discussion of Pope John Paul II’s role in covering up child abuse.

To be fair, the Catholic Church worldwide has confronted child abuse within its ranks only belatedly, partially, and amid a whirlwind of obfuscation. Even serious scholarly histories of the Catholic Church have barely grazed the surface (a crucial exception is Notre Dame provost John McGreevy’s authoritative new survey of modern Catholic history). The Polish pope himself was at the heart of this problem, amassing as he did throughout his twenty-seven-year pontificate a record of protecting the Church as an institution at the expense of justice for victims and punishment for perpetrators. Too often, the word “mercy” justified repeated transfers of recidivists from one diocese to another, one school to another. Films and investigative reporting have amply documented the abuses and their concealment; in the United States, 2015’s Spotlight and the haunting 2012 documentary Mea Maxima Culpa stand out. In Poland, however, the government and the episcopal hierarchy march in lockstep to prevent a serious national reckoning with child abuse by Catholic priests—because that reckoning would have to start with Poland’s most famous export to the world, Pope John Paul II.

2023 is an election year in Poland; as in so many other countries, the politics of the past decade has demonstrated that fomenting culture wars electrifies the base. Despite its international leadership on Ukraine and its attempts to broaden its constituency with social-benefits programs, Poland’s right-wing government is not assured of victory. That being said, its sudden militancy in defense of John Paul II may be one of the most egregious examples of manipulating national memory that twenty-first-century Poland has seen yet. On March 9, at the initiative of Poland’s minister of culture, the lower house of Parliament voted on a resolution “in defense of John Paul II’s good name.” The scene was spectacular: scores of MPs cast votes while holding poster-sized votive images of John Paul II, after which the house’s speaker delivered an oration condemning “the foreign-owned television station operating in Poland” that aired the documentary, equating TVN with “the worst years of communist propaganda.” A critical center-right MP fired back, “You are trying to sign John Paul II up for PiS [Poland’s current ruling party], not to defend him,” for which he was shouted down as an anti-Polish “Judas.” Two days after this legislative spectacle, Polish president Andrzej Duda declared that the “memory of Saint John Paul II represents an integral element of our national heritage and is part of the Polish national interest, which we must defend with absolute devotion and decisiveness, without consideration for the consequences. This is our civic, patriotic, and historic responsibility.”

Completely lost amid this militant grandstanding are the voices of victims of child abuse by Catholic clergy—voices once again silenced in the face of realpolitik.

Yet what makes John Paul II such a powerful standard-bearer for Poland’s global standing goes far beyond national politics. The Law and Justice party’s parliamentary speaker underscored, after all, that the documentary came from a “foreign-owned”—i.e. not really Polish—TV station. This is a tactic well known from Vladimir Putin’s playbook for shutting down Russian civil society under the pretext that its institutions were serving foreign masters. Summoning the U.S. ambassador to the Polish Foreign Ministry three weeks after the country hosted President Biden wasn’t just about Polish history or Polish elections, but about Poland’s role in the defense of Ukraine. The takeaway message: an open and frank discussion about John Paul II’s past not only threatens the national interest, but also acts as “hybrid warfare” to weaken Poland’s effectiveness as NATO’s eastern bulwark.

We don’t yet know what Ambassador Brzezinski thought of all this, but two things are clear. First: bittersweet as it must have been for him personally, President Biden was right to keep his Catholicism private in the homeland of a pope who was an important source of inspiration for him. To do otherwise would be to lend ammunition to the fundamentalist faction guiding Polish memory politics. Second: proclaiming itself the international defender of the good name of John Paul II—in many respects, the defining pope of the Cold War—in an era of renewed conflict with Russia is such a strong card that it apparently entitles the Polish government to renew its longstanding attempts to silence critical media outlets. Completely lost amid this militant grandstanding are the voices of victims of child abuse by Catholic clergy—voices once again silenced in the face of realpolitik.


No War Is Good

My newsfeed knows what kind of stories I like: “Retired Russian General Says Putin is Leading Russia to Defeat”; “Russia’s Budget Deficit Has Surged”; “Russia Just Lost One of its Most Advanced Weapon Systems”; “New Reports on Putin’s Ailing Health.” For a short while I was also getting stories from the Hindustan Times about how the brave Russian soldiers were devastating the Ukrainian army—I must have clicked on the wrong article—but that has stopped, and the news is all good again. Like most people in the West, I find myself cheering Ukraine’s armed forces on as they inflict casualties on the Russians. This war is, as Leon Fink and others have argued, a “good war,” maybe the goodest war since World War II. The military defense of Ukraine seems to fit all the traditional Catholic just-war criteria. The lines are so clearly drawn between the aggressor and the smaller, freer nation it attacked that the war has captured our attention in the West. Add the Ukrainians’ plucky and unexpectedly successful defense against steep odds and the war in Ukraine has all the elements of must-see TV.

I don’t think this attitude is good for my soul. As the casualties mount on both sides of the conflict, I am increasingly troubled by the “good war” narrative. Not because I have any sympathy for the Russian version of events; this is clearly an unprovoked war of unjust aggression, prosecuted with criminal brutality against soldiers and civilians alike. I do not believe that Ukraine belongs to Russia’s sphere of influence any more than I believe in the Monroe Doctrine, or any more than I believe that an eighth-grader who is being bullied should accept the school pecking order as natural and inevitable. Nor do I have any affinity for Republicans whose opposition to support for Ukraine is an unappealing admixture of “America First” chauvinism and sotto voce admiration for Putin’s putatively Christian nationalism. Rather, as a Christian, I think there are reasons why lament rather than cheerleading should be our first response to the war in Ukraine. Three considerations should complicate the narrative of a good war for any Catholic.

The first is the disproportionate nature of the West’s response to the invasion of Ukraine when compared with conflicts elsewhere. The Catholic just-war criterion of proportionality is usually restricted to the consideration of whether the means used are proportional to the end sought. But a Catholic approach should also call into question the proportionality of our response to various conflicts going on in the world. The outpouring of aid for Ukraine has been motivated by a genuine concern for the victims of the invasion, a concern that is stoked by news stories updated every hour. The suffering of millions in Ukraine—and of Ukrainians scattered to other countries—has rightly attracted our attention and empathy. But the Russians have been shelling Syrian civilians and destroying their cities for years with barely a shrug from most of us in the West. In September 2018, the head of the Kremlin’s parliamentary defense committee announced that in Russia’s first three years of backing the Assad regime it had killed 85,000 people in Syria. Russia claims that these victims were all terrorists and that Russian forces killed no civilians, but that is clearly false. Millions of civilians have fled Syria, but only 20 percent of them have been welcomed by the West. Since the invasion of Ukraine began a year ago, the number of Ukrainian refugees Europe has accepted is about four times the number of Syrian refugees that it’s accepted in the ten years since the Syrian civil war began. The United States has fast-tracked refugee status for Ukrainian citizens, while other refugees from places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo wait. The conflict in Congo has been the bloodiest in the world since World War II, with the number of its casualties dwarfing those of the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts combined. But Congo never appears in my newsfeed, and most in the West pay no attention to war there.

As the casualties mount on both sides of the conflict, I am increasingly troubled by the “good war” narrative.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the “good war” narrative is unavailable to places where people are less like “us,” places where the majority is Muslim or Black. The just-war criterion of right intention prohibits going to war for self-interest; it should perhaps be expanded to critique the ways in which self-regard more generally skews the way we get involved in some wars and ignore others. In the weeks following the invasion last year, there appeared a smattering of articles in the Western press asking why the attention paid to Ukraine was so disproportionate, but I have not been able to find such articles more recently. Africans, meanwhile, seem not to have forgotten. Russia enjoys significant support among African leaders and African people, in part because Russia is seen as an alternative to Western neocolonialism. For us, the West are the good guys and the Russians are the bad guys; for much of the rest of the world, things are more complicated, in large part because our interventions in other parts of the world have not always been as altruistic as we like to think. The United States has poured arms into many places in Africa, Central America, and the Middle East, providing military aid to some very unsavory regimes and leaving devastation and chaos as our legacy. We should pause before concluding that pouring arms into Ukraine can somehow be innocent of such moral taint.


The second complicating factor for the “good war” narrative is the rise of Ukrainian nationalism, which is applauded in the West as a way to counter Russia’s attempt to erase Ukrainian culture. While I fully sympathize with the effort to resist Russian cultural imperialism, I worry that one of the casualties of the war will be prewar Ukraine’s openness to creating a multiethnic, multilingual democracy without the kind of militant nationalism that has been a scourge in so many places in the world, not least in Russia. It is of course true that not all nationalisms are the same, and the hardening of Ukrainian nationalism is an understandable reaction to a mortal threat. Nevertheless, nationalism—in its Russian form—was the principal cause of the invasion of Ukraine, and I am not convinced nationalism is something the world needs more of.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes the division of humanity into nations as a check on the pride of Babel, but it also says that “the idolatry of the nation and of its rulers constantly threaten this provisional economy with the perversion of paganism” (57). Seeing the division of the world into nations as a “provisional economy” complicates the just-war criterion of legitimate authority. Nation-states do not have absolute value, and all are challenged by the call to catholicity, which promotes the unity of the whole undivided human race. Defending the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian nation-state—that is, the borders Ukraine has had since 1991—is not an absolute value. One of the darker impulses of nationalism is to survey the horrific carnage unleashed to defend borders and to declare it “worth it.”

Which brings me to the third and weightiest reason to question the “good war” narrative: there is no such thing as a good war. Each Russian soldier sent back to his home village in a body bag is not a victory for the good side, but a wound in the heart of God. There is no question that the invasion of Ukraine is unjust, and I am in no position to tell Ukrainians how to respond. As a Catholic, however, I must lament the slaughter on both sides, the Ukrainian children killed by Russian missiles as well as the scared Russian teenagers used as cannon fodder on the front lines. Pope Francis has been criticized for not coming more firmly to Ukraine’s defense, but he is trying to do something more difficult: to respond to the invasion as a follower of Jesus Christ. Whatever else it is, the war in Ukraine is a massive failure by Christians on all sides to imagine the world as Christ would. Christ asks us to love our enemies, to respond to an excess of evil with an excess of love. We rarely stop to ask what that might look like.

There is no such thing as a good war. Each Russian soldier sent back to his home village in a body bag is not a victory for the good side, but a wound in the heart of God.

We tend to rely instead on just-war criteria to give a vaguely Christian sanction to whatever the military was going to do anyway. But the just-war tradition at its best is not a checklist of criteria to justify violence; the just-war tradition implicitly recognizes the primacy of nonviolence for followers of Jesus by demanding that a stringent moral test be passed before violence can be used. Even where those conditions are met, violence is always a last resort, a recognition of failure. Nonviolence should be the first resort, the default position for a Christian.

In fact, there have been many examples of active nonviolent resistance to the Russian invasion in Ukraine. An October 2022 report by the International Catalan Institute for Peace identified 235 acts of nonviolent resistance just in the period from February to June of last year. Such acts include farmers refusing to sell grain to Russian soldiers, firefighters refusing to join Russian departments, nonviolent protection of local officials and school directors, setting up alternative governments, and engaging Russian civil society with antiwar messaging. The report found that nonviolent resistance has protected civilians, strengthened local governance and community resistance while hindering the military and political goals of the Russian authorities, and undermined the Russian narrative about the war. Nonviolent activists say they would like their stories to be heard in the West and would like to be supported with as much enthusiasm and resources as violent resistance has generated.

Those who initially did not believe the Ukrainian military resistance had a reasonable chance of success—another just-war criterion—have mostly changed their minds. But no one yet knows how this war will turn out. To those whose fields and homes and loved ones and lives have been destroyed, will we ever arrive at a point where we will be able to face them and say it was worth it? That is a judgment we should tremble in fear to pronounce. As Pope Francis said two days before the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, “That which is built on ruins will never be a true victory.” We easily acknowledge the right to self-defense that Ukrainians have exercised as a justification for their use of violence. I am certainly in no position to scold the Ukrainian whose village is being overrun for taking up arms. But Eli McCarthy has emphasized the right to life as an alternative lens for viewing this conflict. If the hundreds of thousands killed and the millions displaced have a right to life and safety, then the definition of success changes. Avoiding carnage might take priority over defending borders. Nonviolent civilian defense, noncooperation, and peaceful protest might constitute a strategy for making Ukraine ungovernable by the Russians. As Pope Francis has pointed out, the Russian empire of Communist regimes fell thirty years ago because of nonviolent protest. It is not simple naïveté to think it might be effective again.

Nonviolent resistance, however, is not just a plausible strategy to defend Ukraine but also a path to conversion on both sides of the conflict. As Pope Benedict XVI said, “For Christians, nonviolence is not merely tactical behavior but a person’s way of being, the attitude of one who is so convinced of God’s love and power that he or she is not afraid to tackle evil with the weapons of love and truth alone. Love of one’s enemy constitutes the nucleus of the ‘Christian revolution.’” In the face of Putin’s “Christian nationalism” it is hard to imagine the power of Jesus’ Christian revolution, but that is what we are called to do. Again, my point is not to tell Ukrainians what to do, but to allow our imaginations to be captivated by those Ukrainians who know firsthand that there is no good war and who seek to try something else. 

This article appeared as one part of an exchange about the ethics of war in Commonweal’s May 2023 issue. You can read the other part of the exchange, by Tobias Winright, here.


Engaging Confederate Nostalgia

Main Street was mobbed. My daughter and I dodged the milling throngs of Soda City, the weekly street festival and farmers market in our adopted hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. We strode past the food trucks and CBD oil stands and easels of palmetto-tree watercolors with our eyes fixed farther down the street, toward the State Capitol. There another kind of celebration was taking place: Confederate Memorial Day.

Up ahead on the steps were clusters of Confederate Army reenactors, some wielding period rifles. A band nearby was blowing Dixie, and an unfurled battle flag of the Confederate States of America, roughly forty by sixty feet, was draped on the steps of the gold-domed Capitol building. We stopped at the traffic light on Gervais Street, next to a group of Black protesters. When the light changed, I turned to my daughter. She had witnessed Southern iconography during her college years in Richmond, living near Monument Avenue with its oversized statues of Confederate heroes, now vanquished. But even she was shell-shocked.

“Let’s go talk to them,” I said. She nodded, then we crossed the street.

Confederate Memorial Day continues to be a legal holiday in the state of South Carolina. Observed on May 10, it marks the anniversary of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson’s death in 1863. Jackson died of pneumonia a week after his troops accidentally fired on him during the Battle of Chancellorsville, fought near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and his name and legacy continue to be honored throughout the South. There is a longstanding and complicated history in South Carolina of embracing the Lost Cause, an interpretation of the past that depicts the Confederacy’s cause in the so-called War of Northern Aggression as noble, more concerned with economics and states’ rights than the preservation of slavery. With the passage of Act 80 in 1896, South Carolina recognized two legal holidays: May 10 for Stonewall Jackson, and January 19 for the birthday of Robert E. Lee. Old traditions die hard. Even today, most state offices close on Confederate Memorial Day.

South Carolina is not alone. Every April, state offices in Mississippi and Alabama shut down for their Confederate Memorial Days. Legislators and advocates in all three states trumpet “Heritage, Not Hate.” But not everyone is enamored. Former South Carolina congressman Joe Cunningham wrote last year during an unsuccessful bid for governor, “This is another example of how our state continues to live in the past. It’s embarrassing. When I’m governor, we’re going to end Confederate Memorial Day and make Election Day a state holiday instead.”

There is a longstanding and complicated history in South Carolina of embracing the Lost Cause.

Even in a state where 29 percent of the population is Black, far higher than the national average of 13 percent, white conservative Republicans dominate the state legislature and national political offices (in addition to Tim Scott, the only Black Republican senator in the United States). It’s hard to imagine Confederate Memorial Day disappearing, despite the efforts of grassroots campaigns in the politically blue bubbles of Columbia, Greenville, and Charleston.

It's true that then-governor Nikki Haley removed the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds in 2015, in the aftermath of the killing of nine Black members of a Bible study group at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston by a white supremacist. She should be commended for that. But it’s also true that Gov. Haley had fiercely resisted calls to remove the flag prior to the massacre.

For those of us who have a visceral objection to Confederate Memorial Day—who are appalled at not only commemorating but celebrating an economic and social system that oppressed a race for over two centuries—how should we engage a worldview that doesn’t see the harm of such celebrations, or that embraces the mythology of the Lost Cause?

My theology requires me to recognize, first and foremost, that every human being possesses an inner light, a spark of divinity, which orients me toward hope—not an eschatological hope of a coming Kingdom of God, but hope in the moment, firmly rooted in the concrete and tangible expressions of the love, welcome, forgiveness, and inclusivity we read in the stories of Jesus’ ministry.

What then must we do?

Upon entering the grounds of the Capitol, my daughter and I approached three men near the steps, just a few feet from the massive Confederate flag. Two were in Confederate Army regalia, one with a water bottle in hand. Another wore khakis, a polo shirt, and sunglasses.

Just as I nodded and extended my hand, my daughter blurted out, “What do you guys think you’re doing?”

Not the opening I anticipated, but I admired my daughter’s bluntness. The man in the polo shirt smiled. “Just honoring our ancestors,” he said.

Unsure, I shook their hands and removed my sunglasses. “My mother’s family is from North Carolina,” I said. “We spent our summers at Wrightsville Beach, near Wilmington. Ever heard of it? Lots of ancestors from the South. I’m one of you.”

My theology requires me to recognize, first and foremost, that every human being possesses an inner light, a spark of divinity, which orients me toward hope.

And in a sense, that’s true. James Ewell Bell, my great-great-grandfather, originally from Virginia, was a captain and surgeon in the Confederate States Army. His headstone sits in our family burial ground in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington, along with kinfolk going back to the Revolutionary War. James Ewell Bell owned eleven African Americans, and according to Freedmen’s Bureau Records, 1865–1878, all of those enslaved were from the Durden family. At least once a year I make a grudging pilgrimage to Oakdale, and when I do, I wonder: Where would I have stood on slavery in the run-up to the Civil War? Would I have acted any differently than my great-great-grandfather James?

I’d like to think I would have joined the ranks of the great Quaker Levi Coffin and the other abolitionists of the North Carolina Manumission Society to work on the Underground Railroad and fight our country’s greatest sin. But after six decades on this earth, I’m increasingly aware of how difficult it is to recognize and acknowledge our own complicity in injustice. I’m part of a society that perpetuates racism, demeans women, mistreats children, and mutilates the environment. Of course James Ewell Bell was horribly wrong about slavery. But before I smugly assert my moral superiority to my great-great-grandfather, I need to ask: How will I be judged by my descendants a couple centuries into the future? Will they view me as I view my great-great grandfather?

“My family was too poor to own slaves,” the man in the polo shirt said. “They were dirt farmers. All we’re doing here is remembering them.” He paused, then began again. “And don’t forget, only 1 percent of the South owned slaves.”

There it was again: the 1 percent fallacy, disproven by scholars for decades but still cited by apologists of the Confederacy. Joseph Glatthaar, history professor at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, estimates that nearly 20 percent of households in seceding states owned human beings in 1860. Other historians suggest even more.

I turned toward the crowd. Several police officers stood on the perimeter of the Capitol grounds, some of them chatting and laughing with groups of reenactors. The Black protesters on the other side of the street remained calm, a few holding posters, staring intently at the drama in front of them. What must they be thinking? I couldn’t imagine.

“It’s been over 150 years,” I said, nearly pleading. “Isn’t it time to move on? This flag and this celebration is about oppression, a system of enslavement, of hatred, not heritage. Look at those people over there.” I pointed to the group of Black protestors.

How will I be judged by my descendants a couple centuries into the future? Will they view me as I view my great-great grandfather?

“They don’t seem bothered by it,” the man replied.

“So tell me,” I said, trying to steady my voice, “how would you feel if your ancestors were enslaved?”

The reenactor with the water bottle, who had been glaring at me since my arrival, flicked the bottle at me, sprinkling my pants with droplets. “This is bullshit!” he said, then walked away.

“Sorry about that,” the man in the polo shirt said. “He gets pretty fired up on Confederate Day.”

After an awkward pause I spoke again.

“You’re hurting people,” I said. “You’re hurting this state. Is that what you want?”

“We’re just honoring our ancestors,” he said. “It’s about heritage. That’s all.”

Silence. I thought of another tack.

“Have you ever heard of Walter Edgar?”

Walter Edgar is a celebrity in these parts: a retired professor of history from the University of South Carolina and author of the authoritative, seven-hundred-page history of the state, as well as a radio personality and a member of the Order of the Palmetto, the highest honor a citizen of South Carolina can receive. Everyone here knows Walter Edgar.

“Yeah, sure, I’ve heard of him.”

“You should read his books,” I said. “See what he says about heritage and history, and about the Civil War and Reconstruction. I was just talking to him last week and—”

“You know Walter Edgar?” he said, incredulous.

“Yes,” I said. “We publish his books.” I reached into my pants pocket and pulled out a business card from the University of South Carolina Press and handed it to him. “Let me know if you want one of his books,” I said, “and I’ll send it to you.” He smiled and thanked me.

It was time to go. I wasn’t sure how to end the conversation.

“Well,” I said, “We agree to disagree.” I extended my hand, and we shook. As I left, I turned and said the only thing that came to mind.

“Peace be with you.”

I never heard from the man in the sunglasses. Our conversation didn’t change his thinking, I’m certain of that. And I’m not sure I did the right thing, as a citizen or as a father. Another Confederate Day has come and gone. I’ll show up next year, on May 10, if there’s a gathering at the Capitol. But I wonder what I’ll do then. As I acknowledge the inner light in all people, the divine spark, what will hope require? Engagement? Protest? Anger? Moral revulsion? All of the above?

I think I’ll talk it over with my daughter.

The Possibility of a Just War

While this year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in terris, which was issued on April 11, 1963, the past fifteen months have served as a reminder of the continuing threat and reality of bellum in terris. Indeed, Pope Francis has remarked more than once that “a third world war fought piecemeal” is underway not only in Ukraine, but also in Syria, Myanmar, and “everywhere in Africa.” As the pope has also noted, the people of Ukraine are being “martyred” by Russian aggression, and the consequences of this war are affecting other people, especially the poor and vulnerable, in places such as Africa. Finally, the risk of escalation from conventional to nuclear war—with repercussions for the whole world—has weighed heavily in statements by Pope Francis and others.

At the same time, Pope Francis has been criticized for suggesting that NATO’s expansion was partly to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and for failing to denounce more explicitly Vladimir Putin and the Russian forces. But in his Angelus on March 6, 2022, the pope did say that what is happening is not merely a “military operation [Putin’s euphemism], but a war that sows death, destruction, and misery.” Likewise, a week later Francis referred to the “unacceptable armed aggression,” obviously with Russia in mind. Yet he added that “those who support violence profane” God’s name, since “God is only the God of peace.” Did this last judgment refer only to the forces of the aggressor or also to Ukrainian men and women who have felt compelled to take up arms in defense of their country and fellow citizens? Again, after the massacre in Bucha, Pope Francis deplored the “ever-more horrendous acts of cruelty done against civilians, unarmed women and children, whose blood cries out to heaven and implores, ‘End this war. Silence the weapons. Stop sowing death and destruction.’” While clearly condemning Russia’s indiscriminate violence against Ukrainian civilians, the pope’s plea “to silence the weapons” sounded to some as if it could be directed at both countries. A year later, at his Sunday Angelus on March 19, 2023, Francis prayed, “Let us not forget to pray for the battered Ukrainian people, who continue to suffer due to war crimes,” but he went on to pray for “the mothers of the Ukrainian and Russian soldiers who have fallen during the war”—thereby, as one report put it, “continuing the path begun by Vatican diplomacy since the conflict began in February 2022, trying to stay equidistant between Russia and Ukraine.”

Massimo Faggioli has argued in these pages that “Russia’s war in Ukraine, where there is clearly an aggressor and an attacked,” tests the Vatican’s position of permanent neutrality in international relations, a policy that risks “drawing moral equivalence between Russia and Ukraine.” I would add that this war also tests the recent narrowing of the Catholic ethic of war and peace to nonviolence. On several occasions—including in a recent call for people to pray during the month of April for a culture of nonviolence and peace—Pope Francis has claimed that “any war, any armed confrontation, always ends in defeat for all.” Accordingly, he implores us to reject violence: “Let us make nonviolence a guide for our actions, both in daily life and in international relations.”

This emphasis on nonviolence appeared in Francis’s 2017 World Day of Peace message, “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace,” which he wrote at the request of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, a project of Pax Christi International. In April of the prior year, Pax Christi International and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace sponsored a Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference that issued an “Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence.” While urging the Church to promote education and training in active nonviolence, the Appeal asserted “that there is no ‘just war’” and that “often the ‘just war theory’ has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war.” Although “often” is not the same as “always,” the Appeal went on to recommend that the Church should “no longer use or teach ‘just war theory.’” Pope Francis has appeared sympathetic to this recommendation, writing in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti that “it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’ Never again war!”

David DeCosse observes that an increasing “Catholic skepticism about the moral justification of war at all” has developed in recent years. According to Lisa Sowle Cahill, proponents of this move toward “a pacifist direction,” though still a minority, have “considerable” sway and see “all military action as a moral failure.” This view is reflected in the prayers and remarks of Pope Francis, as well as in op-ed pieces by some Catholic theologians—most notably Eli McCarthy, one of the more influential promoters of nonviolence, just peace, and the rejection of just-war theory.

Although I was moved by the example of Gandhi and attracted to Christian pacifism, I continue to think that using armed force is sometimes the morally right thing to do.


I have often wondered, though, how a Ukrainian soldier or civilian who took up arms to defend his or her fellow citizens must feel whenever the pope and others have emphasized nonviolence and condemned the use of armed force. If I were in such a person’s shoes, would I feel like “a moral failure” because I had used armed force to repel an invasion? While I have never found myself in such dire circumstances, when I was an ROTC student and also a law-enforcement officer in the 1980s, I wrestled with such questions—especially in the latter capacity, where I sometimes had to use force to defend myself or others from violent attack. Although I was moved by the example of Gandhi and attracted to Christian pacifism—and even studied under two of the most influential critics of just-war theory, Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder—I continue to think that using armed force is sometimes the morally right thing to do. It may not be good, but it is right—as long as it is just.

Eli McCarthy insists that Pope Francis is not “condemning or judging people in very difficult situations, like some [some?] Ukrainians who choose to take up arms in violent defense of their country,” and that the pope “affirms and admires their willingness to take a high-risk stand against injustice rather than to be passive.” Still, McCarthy himself highlights and endorses only examples of nonviolent methods that some Ukrainians are using to resist Russian forces. After all, in his view, what the pope has in mind “is also not about justifying methods of war and enabling the violent dynamic to perpetuate and spread.” I worry McCarthy’s words about those “who choose to take up arms” come across as condescending. It isn’t enough to say that their willingness to actively resist injustice is commendable; their use of armed force in that resistance is also morally justified. I suspect that if they could have chosen some other method of resistance, most Ukrainians would have done so, but Russian bullets were already flying, Russian tanks already rolling in, Russian missiles already striking not only Ukrainian military targets but also civilian apartment complexes, schools, and hospitals. As for McCarthy’s concern about “justifying methods of war,” in the Catholic moral tradition, just-war theory rather aims to limit and constrain both when war is justified (jus ad bellum) and how it is conducted (jus in bello). In recent years, this tradition has also yielded criteria and practices for jus post bellum—justice after war—so as to put an end to “the violent dynamic” about which McCarthy is rightly concerned.

As DeCosse observes, “In the face of overwhelming odds, the Ukrainians fought back,” a feat that leads him to ask, “What are the implications of their decision to engage in a war of self-defense for the current debate within Catholicism over the rejection of just war theory in favor of Christian nonviolence?” This war has forced Catholic theologians and ethicists to ask whether some of us, including perhaps Pope Francis, have acted prematurely in relegating just-war theory to the margins or even supplanting it with pacifism. I say “perhaps” because, contrary to McCarthy’s interpretation of the pope’s position, over time the pope has come to acknowledge the moral legitimacy of the Ukrainians’ armed resistance. “To defend oneself is not only licit,” the pope said in September, “it is also an expression of love toward one’s homeland.” In a letter addressed to Ukrainian young adults, Francis wrote that “to courageously defend your homeland, you had to put your hands to weapons instead of the dreams you had cultivated for the future.” And, in his recent call for prayer in April, while urging the world to “develop a culture of peace,” the pope added, “remember that, even in cases of self-defense, peace is the ultimate goal.”

Admittedly, Francis has never said that the Ukrainians are fighting a “just war” or that the Russians are conducting an “unjust war.” But the traditional moral criteria for just war—just cause, right intent, proportionality, discrimination, etc.—are the bases for many of Pope Francis’s remarks about legitimate defense versus aggression and indiscriminate slaughter. Even if we don’t always name them as such, the Catechism reminds us that “these are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the ‘just war’ doctrine” (2309).

In my view, if there was any real debate in Catholic circles on the ethics of war and peace in recent decades, it was between these two approaches, not between just-war theory and pacifism.


Massimo Faggioli has suggested that the war in Ukraine might prove to be “a turning point” in Catholic teaching about war and peace. Michael Sean Winters writes that “the most significant intellectual development in the life of the church this year was the emphatic reinstatement of just war theory as the principal Catholic moral approach to violence.” Perhaps “reinstatement” is an overstatement, for just-war theory was never really set aside, not even by Pope Francis, even if he no longer uses the term.

Of course, there’s more than one version of just-war thinking within the tradition. Cahill and others identify two basic approaches to just-war theory: one that offers “energetic defenses of war” and another that advocates a more “restrictive” or “stringent” use of just-war reasoning and principles. In my view, if there was any real debate in Catholic circles on the ethics of war and peace in recent decades, it was between these two approaches, not between just-war theory and pacifism—that is, not until the 2016 Appeal’s condemnation of just-war theory. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, many articles, blogs, and op-eds by Catholics and others representing the two broad approaches to just-war thinking have offered a moral evaluation of the fighting by both sides, as well as of the provision of support and arms by their allies.

Representing the less stringent camp, George Weigel maintains that “the just-war tradition is the normative way of thinking about the challenges of war and peace within a classic Catholic understanding of international relations,” even as he acknowledges that this tradition includes a “peace imperative,”—a “jus ad pacem” commitment for “conducting a just war in such a way that a just peace is its result.” While acknowledging the complexities of just-war analysis, Weigel holds that Russia’s “war on Ukraine is clearly” and “unambiguously” unjustified as well as unjustly conducted, whereas Ukraine’s “is a war of legitimate self-defense, which…has been conducted proportionately and discriminately.” Similar analyses have been offered by J. Daryl Charles, Anglican theologian Nigel Biggar, and others associated with the less restrictive approach to just war.

From the more stringent camp, Gerald J. Beyer worries that his “fellow citizens and colleagues in the academy in the U.S. do not grasp the reasons for the war and its monumental stakes.” Beyer warns that “this war is about annihilating a country and its people and continuing Russian expansionism if left unchecked.” He emphasizes that he is not “hawkish,” much less a “warmonger”: he opposed the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, Beyer says he “abhors war and believes that all other reasonable means should be exhausted before the use of lethal force is undertaken,” but he is “convinced there are times—albeit rare—when the evil is so great that no measure other than force will prevent grave atrocities on a massive scale.” While he supports the active nonviolence, civil resistance, and just peacemaking practices advocated by the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative and others, Beyer believes that these “alone will not stop the Russian juggernaut.” Other Catholic theologians and ethicists—including Anna Floerke Scheid, David DeCosse, Ramón Luzárraga, Ashley Beck, and myself—take the same view.


Cardinal Robert W. McElroy spoke on “Our New Moment: Renewing Catholic Teaching on War and Peace” at the University of Notre Dame on March 1, 2023. Like Faggioli, McElroy believes the war in Ukraine is a turning point. The Church, he argues, still needs to prioritize nonviolence, but we also need “a deep renewal, restructuring and expansion of the Catholic teaching on the legitimacy of war in extremis.” McElroy recognizes the flaws of just-war theory and the risks of its misapplication, but he thinks the “ethical tools” are present “to be forged into a larger ethic of war” for times such as this one. He laments the lack of an “ethics of war termination,” though this question has actually received significant attention from just-war theorists in recent years.

Both McElroy and Faggioli mention the U.S. bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, which sought to “help Catholics form their consciences and to contribute to the public policy debate about the morality of war.” I know it helped me as I wrestled with these questions at the time. When the United States went to war against Iraq twenty years ago, Drew Christiansen, SJ, asked “Whither the ‘just war’?” and replied that Catholic teaching, as reflected in documents like The Challenge of Peace, has “evolved as a composite of nonviolent and just-war elements.” In his recent book, Preventing Unjust War, Roger Bergman argues that The Challenge of Peace, which “takes nonviolence seriously” and “teaches a strict interpretation of the just-war tradition,” offers a “richness” that is “missing from the Appeal” of 2016. He thinks the bishops “got it right”: “We should simultaneously develop strategies of nonviolence and hold to a strict understanding of when war can be justified, and when it cannot—but we should not jettison the tradition until it is genuinely obsolete.”

I agree. I recommend a return to the bishops’ insistence that proponents of nonviolence and just-war theorists can work together in a complementary way. Indeed, Pope Francis’s 2017 message on nonviolence makes the same point: “Peacebuilding through active nonviolence is the natural and necessary complement to the Church’s continuing efforts to limit the use of force by the application of moral norms.” Accordingly, in his recent book on Catholic social teaching, the pacifist theologian William O’Neill, SJ, encourages both sides of the debate to “not condemn” but rather to “learn each from the other” and work together. Such a joint effort could eventually produce the “larger ethic” Cardinal McElroy hopes for—what I would call an ethic of legitimate defense, both armed and unarmed. Perhaps the Ukraine-Russia war will further stimulate collaboration among Catholic theologians and ethicists. Maybe it will even lead to a new synthesis, one that will help guide Catholics and others to defend and achieve a just and integral peace. We can hope.

This article appeared as one part of an exchange about the ethics of war in Commonweal’s May 2023 issue. You can read the other part of the exchange, by William T. Cavanaugh, here.