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‘I Believe in the Beatitudes’

The illustration on the program for the funeral Mass for Thomas C. Cornell said it all. A colorful mandala by Commonweal and Catholic Worker artist Rita Corbin declared—and illustrated—“Pray, Study, Work for Peace & Justice.” Tom Cornell, who died on August 1, had done precisely that nearly every day of his eighty-eight years.

A graduate of Jesuit schools with a New England upbringing, Cornell arrived at New York’s Catholic Worker headquarters in 1962. He had read Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness in college, had heard her speak, and had applied for his conscientious-objector status, which he finally received after a four-year delay. (It took that long because, at the time, “Catholic conscientious objector” seemed an oxymoron to his local draft board.)

On coming to New York, Cornell was immediately dragooned by Day into editing the Catholic Worker paper, an on-the-job training assignment at which he quickly excelled. But life at the Worker included far more than correcting galleys and laying out the pages. It required living with the poor in poor circumstances, serving countless meals, welcoming waves of guests and seekers, and publicly demonstrating against war and other injustices. As an editor, Cornell interviewed striking mine workers, traveled to Alabama to cover civil-rights developments, demonstrated at a nuclear submarine base, and personally inaugurated the first public protest against the Vietnam War—all in his first year and a half at the Catholic Worker.

Still, there was community life to be lived—and redeemed—on a daily basis, and Tom had an eye for reporting on that as well. As he noted, the atmosphere at the Chrystie Street house was “tremendously dynamic.” To prove his point, he begins a 1963 column by describing the sound of shattering glass from the Worker’s first-floor storefront window, “a window we replace often.” The column then transitions to a scene at New York’s Centre Street courthouse. Here Tom accompanies a young Beat poet to a court hearing. The man’s name is Szabo. An illustration accompanying the article—unusual for the Catholic Worker paper—highlights the young poet’s Elvis-like features and Fonzie-like carriage. Significantly, he sports a large crucifix around his neck.

Tom reports that the first thing he hears walking through the marble corridors is the booming voice of a red-faced Irish cop. “Hey kid,” yells the officer at Szabo, “What are you wearing that crucifix for?”

“Well, it’s like I feel an identification with Jesus,” the young man replies.

Policeman: “What do you mean by that?”

Szabo: “I believe in the Beatitudes.”

Policeman (laughing uproariously): “It sounds like a pretty shitty organization to me!”

Whether writing or speaking, Tom would often offset his ingrained “New England conservative instincts” with a wry—and sometimes ribald—humor. At the end of that “Chrystie Street” column, he returns to the scene of the shattered window. But now he describes a different sound: “There’s quite a racket downstairs,” he relates. “The fellow who broke the window just came back and kicked down the door.”

He marched with Dr. King in Selma in 1965, and burned his draft card on several occasions that year.

That same year at the Catholic Worker, Tom met and fell in love with Monica Ribar. They married the following year. At the time, Tom was helping to cofound the Catholic Peace Fellowship (CPF); years later he would also be involved in launching Pax Christi USA. Under the auspices of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the CPF counseled hundreds of young men during the Vietnam era to follow their conscience in making decisions about the war. Tom became a mentor to many young men, some of whom remained lifelong friends. At the same time, he continued his active involvement in civil-rights issues and antiwar demonstrations. He marched with Dr. King in Selma in 1965, and burned his draft card on several occasions that year. (He had the chutzpah to ask his draft board for a replacement card so that he could burn it again.) To protest a new draconian law passed to deter such actions (penalties of up to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine), Tom helped organize a huge rally in New York’s Union Square. It was there, on November 6, 1965, that he read a searing statement lamenting that the “grave crime” listed in the new statute was not “the destruction of life but the destruction of a piece of paper.” His speech was met with threats by a group of counter-demonstrators who yelled derisively: “Burn your bodies, not your cards!” (Tom would later serve six months in federal prison for burning his card.) Part of Tom’s statement that day appeared in Commonweal, accompanied by the editors’ call for an immediate end to all bombing of North Vietnam.

But these are simply sketches from the earliest chapters of Tom’s long, peripatetic life of protest, witness, dissent, welcome, and pilgrimage. Over the course of the next sixty years, he worked with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, ran a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Waterbury, Connecticut, traveled the world on peace missions, advised the U.S. bishops on their 1983 pastoral letter on war, raised two remarkable children (and later delighted in five grandchildren), was ordained a Catholic deacon, and, for the last thirty years of his life, lived and worked with Monica at the Catholic Worker farm in upstate New York.

Tom had a strong background in Latin, which he enjoyed brandishing, and a finely trained analytical mind. He put these to work, in season and out, as a writer and speaker, defining and then defending such quixotic notions as anarchism, decentralism, the sacredness of life at all stages, and nonviolent unilateral disarmament. He was always ready to encourage others but was also ready to correct and enlighten when necessary. For example, he reported for Commonweal on a 1968 meeting in St. Louis of a group of American Catholics called the National Committee on Catholic Concerns. He concluded bluntly that it had not clarified the issues under discussion, let alone “come to grips with serious and urgent proposals” raised by the group itself.

Tom admitted having what he called a “Jesuit hard head,” and was always happy to bring it to bear when editing others, including Dorothy Day. He took pride in correcting her syntax (not always to her liking), and sometimes deleted elements of her rambling style. Yet he readily admitted that her columns held vast treasures: whole paragraphs of incredible insight and understanding, which were an invitation to self-reflection and delight. He judged rightly when he commented that their spiritual depth had “the power that you associate with an Avila.”

In his last years, Tom suffered greatly from the effects of shingles and a chronic, exquisitely painful neuropathy. Still, he carried on, welcoming guests to the Catholic Worker farm (“this incomparable community”), helping edit the Catholic Worker paper, being present to his family, serving as a deacon, mentor, and member of the board of the guild for the canonization of Dorothy Day, and planting trays of onion seeds when confined to sitting on the front porch. His final published words in the Catholic Worker (August-September 2022) were a riff on Catholic Worker anarchist Ammon Hennacy (d. 1970). The inimitable Hennacy, Tom wrote, was “sometimes a ‘pain in the ass,’” but “he was always very dear.” To the end, Tom could be both witty and appreciative.

He was buried on the feast of the deacon martyr, St. Lawrence. Like Lawrence, Tom had given his life daily in service of the Beatitudes. As St. Leo the Great said of Lawrence, so we can now say of Tom Cornell: “Let us rejoice…over the happy end of this illustrious man of God.”


Whose Voices Will Be Heard?

It’s the Sunday after St. Patrick’s Day, and I’m on the wooded campus of Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, to learn how to listen. The all-male Saint John’s has a partner school six miles away, the women’s College of Saint Benedict. I’d been up here a few weeks before to walk around St. Benedict’s “brother campus” with a girlfriend. We both had some loose ties to the place but still felt like outsiders visiting as we walked around on our own, lamenting the structural inequalities and other issues that can make it hard to see ourselves remaining part of the Church.

But today is different. I’ve come to Saint John’s for a reason. The call came from the Central Minnesota Catholic: “Pope Francis Wants YOU! To be a Listener for the Synod.” When I arrive, a student at the front desk invites me to walk through the center door of St. John’s Great Hall, a hulking old Romanesque church that, like a tomb, seals out the cold air and muffles my winter boots. I proceed along the grand and empty corridor, thinking to myself that in this building’s former life, I’d be walking straight through to the tabernacle.

In the oversized meeting room I find a dozen or so others who have also responded to the call. Soda and cookies have been set out on a side table—something to keep us energized through the long afternoon to come. Deb, a hospital chaplain dressed in purple tie-dye, invites me to join her table. Already there is a soft-spoken man in a coat and cap named Herman, who I’d later learn is a staff writer for a local farming paper.

Also among us is theologian and ecclesiologist Kristin Colberg, a member of the U.S. synod commission. She was in Rome in October 2021 when the synod opened, and she contextualizes our gathering by emphasizing that this is a radical process of listening together. She tells us that Pope Francis wants everyone involved in a Church of motion and emotion. That the synod is about closeness, and bringing us onto the same path. In her telling, Pope Francis says: Think of the ecclesiology of Vatican II. How do we hold ourselves accountable for living out Vatican II? What do we need in the Church to be the most authentic version of ourselves?

When we do introductions and talk about why we’re here, I’m the first to answer. But I make the mistake of speaking politically. “I think I can reach some on the margins,” I say. I’m thinking of the people in my life who’ve become disaffected with the Church—those who’ve been made to feel less-than because they are women, divorced, gay, other. Someone else seems to respond in kind, mentioning Bishop Barron and Eucharistic coherence. To be a better listener, I write down these reminders:

  • Do not trap people into this process
  • Maintain neutrality
  • Learn how to focus a conversation
  • Ask: Did I get this right?

Colberg, as a teacher of Church history, also imparts this lesson: each council is both a beginning and an ending, raising new questions that are to be answered and lived out in the Church. Here’s how we’re living out the synod: each of us signed up to be one-to-one listeners, but first we’ll practice in small groups. We’re invited to practice with people we don’t know, and yet Jim, a deacon and the only face familiar to me, joins my table from the other side of the room. Herman and Deb join in too, as does Vince—the one who mentioned Barron. We go around in a circle, listening to the person to our right, speaking to the person on our left. It’s a human effort. I fumble with my notes as I try to take in what Herman is saying. And even though I can see Jim’s earnest effort at listening as I speak to him, I still don’t quite feel heard.

During a break, Jim and Vince bond over the message they grew up in the Church with: pray, pay, obey. For so long, church has only been a matter of obligation. I think about this relationship to obligation. Some of the people closest to me feel caged by it, or belittled by its demands. Obligation is a difficult thing to embrace. Jim turns to me and asks me to weigh in on women priests. It’s not an issue I want to weigh in on, but I tell him that when it comes to decision-making, it matters who’s at the table.

There’s a very good chance the Church will mess this up.

Soon, Herman begins to open up. He tells me he was approaching the age at which he could become an altar server when the Second Vatican Council started. The council delayed his training. His teacher, Sr. Benedict, told him there was no way the Mass would be said in English when it had been in Latin since the time of Jesus on the cross. The bishops are all talk, she told him. But then, of course, he lived through what followed, the transition from Latin-only to Latin and English and finally to English alone. I think about that liminal period of Mass in dual languages. Is that where transformation happens?

We pair off in different corners of the room to practice a one-to-one conversation. I choose a seat by a window, and look up to see Deb has followed me there. We begin with the first prompt: Share a dream, vision, or hope you have for the Church. I offer an image. In the parish I grew up in, the Christmas Eve Mass is a bright spectacle. There are banners and trumpets and a young couple dressed as the Holy Family; three kings process down the aisle atop camels (in fact, dads elaborately costumed as camels). It’s the only day of the year the church is so crowded. I missed it this year, but received pictures from two close friends who were there, sitting with their families in the same sections they sit in every Christmas Eve. What brings them there now is a sense of family obligation—to use that word. But I wish, someday, we could all bring ourselves, our whole selves, there. To be at ease in this Church as women, divorced, gay, other.

When we reconvene after the one-to-ones, people begin to raise some of their concerns about the synod. What happens after the listening phase? Whose voices will make it into the report? What, if anything, will change? One woman expresses what I wanted to share at the beginning, my unspoken thought: There’s a very good chance the Church will mess this up. And yet. We still believe in the possibility of this moment. The possibility that this can lead to something transformative.

After the training, I wander around the campus for a bit. It’s quiet, and hardly anyone is around. A student is giving his parents a tour, talking to them in Spanish. Two men from my session walk through the monastic gardens, despite a sign reading “Private, do not enter.” I go down to Lake Sagatagan, frozen over and covered in snow, and take in the view. It’s open and empty, white on gray.

Just up and across the road is the cemetery my grandparents will rest in. My grandfather is a university alum—a Johnny—and my grandmother worked for many years in the St. Ben’s business office. My grandma was emphatic about this gravesite view, how beautiful it is out here, how nice to be on a lake. For now, we can laugh about it: “Mom, you won’t care about the view when you’re dead,” says my mother. But looking over the frozen lake in that dead season of March, I can see what my grandmother did for us. It’s a gift for us visiting outsiders. It tells me and my siblings and all the rest of my family who don’t belong to this place, a place so special to my grandparents, that we are in fact part of it. That this connection, like the synod itself, can be lived out in unexpected ways. After all, we have a view.


What It Means to ‘Represent’

The jump shots were graceful and precise, the offenses ran with creativity and perfect timing. The sellout crowd roared at a deft steal or a powerful blocked shot. As I watched the women’s Final Four basketball tournament this year, I realized that it was a pilgrimage of sorts for me—partly for the games themselves and partly because this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Title IX. As I left a panel discussion on that topic, it struck me that the Church could use a Title IX. An ecclesiastical Title IX would be an act of justice in keeping with Church teaching on the equal dignity of men and women and would achieve the reforms that Pope Francis seems interested in implementing, but in a more direct and effective way than his actions so far.

Imagining what such a thing might look like in Catholic life means first learning a little more about Title IX. Here is the text in its entirety: “No person in the United States shall, based on sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Title IX was the brainchild of Patsy Takemoto Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress, who went to law school when med schools wouldn’t take her because she was a woman. After the legislation was signed into law in 1972 by President Richard M. Nixon, it still faced fierce opposition as to its application to athletics. The male sports establishment ridiculed the very idea that women should have opportunities equal to those of men. It was bad enough that other programs and scholarships should be extended equally to women, but sports? When athletics was explicitly included in the title’s provisions, it was still a long way from being implemented—Sen. Jesse Helms, among others, opposed the measure and its application to sports, and the NCAA filed a (later dismissed) lawsuit challenging its legality in 1976. While the NCAA eventually came on board, true parity is still a work in progress. Recall the ridiculous disparity in workout equipment during 2021 in the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Up to the Sweet Sixteen, the men’s teams in their tournament bubble got a gym full of weight-training equipment, while the women got a single exercise bike, a few dumbbells, and some yoga mats.

What I remember first about Title IX is the uniforms. I was playing junior varsity basketball before Title IX came, and we wore the hand-me-down uniforms from the varsity squad. The varsity players were expected to use their uniforms as long as they could; our JV uniforms were old, stained, and so ragged that we had to wear t-shirts under them lest we suffer a lapse in modesty on court. Girls’ sports then just didn’t count for much, and JV girls’ sports mattered even less. But when Title IX kicked in, we got the varsity’s then-recent uniforms, and the varsity squad got new ones, because—well, because suddenly we counted. We still played to mostly empty stands then, even when I played varsity. But Title IX brought us a measure of dignity, an official recognition that, just like boys’ and men’s teams, we were representing out there. We girls—not only the boys—were the “mighty mighty Cosmos” of our fight song, and we strove to live up to our claim.

Title IX wrought an enormous shift in girls and women’s participation in sports. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, before Title IX, only one in twenty-seven girls played sports. Today, that number is two in five. The participation of girls and women in organized sports at every level is now commonplace, and that participation—mirrored in other areas affected by Title IX, like academic scholarships and access to graduate programs—is its greatest accomplishment. We are here, and we represent, on the court and in the classroom, and from there, everywhere. While it was legislated from above, the fact that it had its effect at the ground level was the source of its power, even to the most ordinary players in far-flung corners of the U.S. athletic world, even to a JV girls’ basketball team in a small town in Vermont.

This recentering of focus can be enormously empowering, especially in its rejection of the stereotypes of female weakness and dependence on male leadership.

It is participation that matters most: the opportunity to represent, to be the face and hands and fast-breaking feet of the school. If sports overall were only a matter of identifying and cultivating the best of the best, the Steph Currys and A’ja Wilsons, we misunderstand the endeavor entirely. The vast majority of boys and girls will never grow up to be Steph or A’ja, or Diana Taurasi or LeBron James. The importance of sports does not lie only in winnowing the field to find the greats. Even a bench-warmer like me benefited from the discipline of practice, the focus on teamwork, and other virtues that sports confer. Athletes can develop a frame of reference that depends on our own cultivation of the best we can do. For girls, sports can be an arena in which performance (one’s own and the team’s), not male approval, is key. This recentering of focus can be enormously empowering, especially in its rejection of the stereotypes of female weakness and dependence on male leadership, and of its challenge to general notions of second-class status that held sway in the pre-feminist era. Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins put it this way:

When you cure the perception of emotional frailty and physical incompetence in a young woman, you kill the idea that there are some things she is constitutionally unfit to do. And you seed a new idea in her, that she has the inalienable right to choose her professional interest and to work at it with an unembarrassed shouting passion.

The point of Title IX is not to compare girls’ and women’s sports to boys’ and men’s sports, nor is it a patronizing concession to let the “weaker sex” have some gym time, too. It is about equity, and the equal dignity of the athletic strivings of all people who practice their jump shots, or fling a javelin, or work out a floor routine in gymnastics. What it leads to is a conviction of one’s equal dignity, and a resolve that equal opportunity should be the rule, not the exception, not a concession from the boys. We sweat too, and we represent.


So what would Title IX—let’s call it “Titulus Novem”—look like in the Church? How would Catholic life be affected if it was mandated that “no person in the Church shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in any program or activity receiving Church funds”? First, as in Title IX, it is not a comparison of, say, whether women or men are better preachers, or more compassionate pastoral caregivers, or whatever. Such a comparison trades in invidious sex stereotypes and ignores the rich tapestry of the ecclesial gifts of different individuals called into service by God. No, Titulus Novem is about what it means to represent. 

Pope Francis has shown an interest in raising women’s profile in leadership in the Church since the beginning of his papacy. In his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, he wrote:

Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded…

(Then he spent the rest of that paragraph explaining that of course women cannot be priests.) He added more women to the International Theological Commission (then undercut that advance by calling them “the icing on the cake,” and praising them for their intuition, not their theological acumen). Recently, he announced that women and lay men can lead some dicasteries in the Vatican (which is great, but ask any Catholic: “How many dicasteries are there in the curia, and who leads them?”). And most recently, he announced his intention to add two women to the Dicastery of Bishops, implying that they would be members of the (currently) twenty-three-member dicastery, not consultants. A fine thing to do, but not exactly a powerful voting bloc.  

Here’s the problem. Putting women and laymen in such positions is admirable, and is certainly a step in a good direction, but it won’t have the kind of immediate effect that is needed to bring about real change. Making women into Vatican functionaries in small, easily outvoted numbers or giving them leadership of certain departments is unlikely to significantly increase the effective voice of women in the Church. Like Title IX, Titulus Novem would need to take effect at the ground level, in this case in the daily lived reality of the Church, not merely in the rarefied atmosphere of Rome. Like Title IX, Titulus Novem would mandate proportionate funding for boys and girls, men and women, for all Church-funded functions. Budgets, after all, are moral documents: Titulus Novem would mandate that the Church’s allocations treat its daughters and sons equitably, in keeping with the Church’s teaching on the equal dignity of women and men. 

So how might Titulus Novem actually work in practice? Here are a few thoughts. What if, every time a diocese fully funds the education of a man in seminary, it provided equal opportunity and equal funding for a woman? That alone would vastly expand women’s opportunities to minister in the Church and would especially benefit lower-income candidates. It would make their time in seminary easier, too, since they wouldn’t need to work for food and shelter while also holding down the full-time job of seminary studies. Funding equity would expand the range of ministries that women could pursue, since they’d be less pressured paying off educational debts after seminary. People called to less lucrative ministries—like many ground-level social-justice ministries—could follow that call without worrying that the student loan servicers would come after them. 

What if every Church-sponsored school had to be either co-ed or have equal facilities for boys and girls? What if vocation-exploration weekends for men and women were funded equally, and those vocations were celebrated and supported equally? What if we didn’t need a special collection for impoverished retired religious women and men, about three quarters of which is needed by women’s institutes?

Consider liturgy. What if every week at Mass we heard the words of the great women writers and mystics in our tradition, not just stuck into a homily as a reference, but as words to ponder, say, after the first or second scripture reading? What if we required women as well as men to proclaim the Gospel, so that we would see that the words carry the same power in a soprano or alto voice as in a tenor or bass? What if it were a requirement that altar girls as well as boys serve? We know that women do a lot of the support work in the Church, from dealing with altar linens to cooking for Church suppers, from childcare during services to religious ed, from being lectors and sacristans to training those ministers. What Titulus Novem would do would not be to keep those essential tasks from being done—the Church would not function without the unpaid labor of (mostly) women. Titulus Novem would require that women be included in the work and the benefits of the Church in all its functions. 

And, of course, priesthood would be changed if it were really based on vocation, education, and devotion—qualities not limited by sex. Catholic women are now specifically told that they cannot ever represent, that no one can encounter the presence of Christ if mediated by female hands. Anyone who has ever met women clergy from other denominations or seen the Christlike work of women in non-ordained ministries knows how silly and obsolete that notion is. It may help explain why moms are more likely to take their daughters out to soccer practice on a Sunday morning—where their girls represent—instead of to Church where they’re reminded of a stained-glass ceiling we’re told is Jesus’ fault. (And people who think of Jesus like that should go back and re-read the gospel of Luke, where powerful women and men together announce the Good News.) 

These are just a few ideas—in truth, I’ve found it difficult to imagine what true equity for women would look like in the Church at the ground level, because it is so far off. I’ve only had glimpses of what it might look like, only hints of anything like the way those glorious post–Title IX basketball uniforms felt back in the day. Without a bottom-up, visible, palpable requirement that women be treated equitably in the life of the Church, women will continue to be relegated to supporting roles, clapping on the sidelines while our brothers are the only ones who really count.

But it’s also true that when Title IX was passed, few could imagine the sea change it would bring. Simply requiring that women be treated like equal human beings, like people whose lives and strivings, hopes and dreams could not be shot down by the legacy of discrimination, fostered an enormous change in women’s educations and careers. We needed—and still need—Title IX. The Church doesn’t need (only) women serving in the Roman curia; the Church needs Titulus Novem.

Trump’s ‘Providential’ Defeat

I am not a regular C-SPAN viewer, although, much to the annoyance of my spouse, I am a compulsive channel surfer. The other day I stumbled upon C-SPAN’s coverage of a speech given by Steve Bannon at the recent ultraconservative CPAC conference. I watched about five minutes of it before surfing away in bemused alarm.

I’m not sure “conservative” is the correct term to describe what the annual Conservative Political Action Conference is now about. My sense is that, in years past, it drew a cross-section of American conservatives, but it now appears wholly devoted to Donald Trump’s grievance-driven populism. Bannon, recently convicted of failing to obey a congressional subpoena from the committee investigating the January 6 riot at the Capitol, allegedly had a hand in coordinating that violence. Bannon had already been indicted for pocketing money donated to finish construction of the border wall, but Trump pardoned him for that before leaving office. Does anyone doubt Trump will pardon everyone involved in the January 6 catastrophe if he wins the presidency again?

Bannon’s exhortation to the conference audience focused on the well-worn issues of supposed election fraud, the machinations of the “administrative state,” the mainstream media’s leftist agenda, immigration, and the financial fraud practiced by bankers and corporatists—often called “globalists”—who are responsible for destroying the middle class. Bannon traced his own “awakening” about those facts to the financial crisis of 2009. The Obama-orchestrated bailout of the financial system, Bannon argued, left the fat cats even fatter while immiserating the majority of patriotic Americans. He praised Trump for speaking and acting in the interest of ordinary Americans as opposed to the corrupt and arrogant elites in both parties. Trump’s followers will have to be 120 percent committed to the forthcoming battle or the nation will continue to fail and the forces of wealth, privilege, and cultural arrogance will triumph.  

How MAGA loyalists respond to the “stolen election” is the true test of their faith in Trump, but also of their belief in God’s providence.

All of that is MAGA boilerplate, but Bannon did say something that roused me from the stupor that usually sets in whenever I listen to one of Trump’s propagandists. Trump’s election victory in 2016 was “providential,” Bannon exclaimed. But even more surprising, Bannon claimed that Trump being driven from power in 2020 was “also providential.”

Bannon is still some kind of Catholic, or so I’ve read. He’s been loosely associated with conservative Catholic fabulists in Europe. Raised Catholic, he attended a Catholic military high school back when such things existed. Talk of Trump as a “providential” figure has been more common among his Evangelical Christian supporters than among Catholics. Some believe him to be a historical figure like the Persian King Cyrus, who liberated the Jews from Babylonian captivity. Trump, they say, is liberating the United States from the captivity of political correctness and the threat of socialism. It is an article of faith among these believers that God can use an imperfect man, such as Cyrus or Trump, to effect the destiny of his chosen people.

I found Bannon’s shrewd assertion that even Trump’s loss was “providential” particularly audacious. It buys into a familiar historical belief of millennialists, who prophesize the world is going to end on a certain date. When the world does not end as foretold, some devotees lose their faith, but others find a way to explain the prophecy’s failure as part of a larger plan—a necessary testing of the believers’ true faith. Clearly, this is how Bannon is recasting Trump’s loss. How MAGA loyalists respond to the “stolen election” is the true test of their faith in Trump, but also of their belief in God’s providence. Emphasizing that Trump is in this fight to the death, Bannon is rallying a millennial army. Anything less than total commitment will usher in defeat at the hands of the ungodly. Bannon stressed the same point again and again: despite Trump’s loss, the battle has only begun.

One would like to think that such anti-democratic movements are unprecedented in American politics, but of course they are not. It might be more accurate to say that they usually fail to capture the presidency. Nixon was corrupt, but he was not determined to pull down the entire constitutional order to salvage his presidency. More important, neither was his party. Trump and his Republican base present a more profound threat. Recent news reports have revealed that the former president was frustrated by his inability to co-opt the military for his political purposes. He even told someone that he needed generals as loyal to him as German generals had been to Hitler. That outcome is presumably something people like Bannon devoutly pray for. Let’s hope providence has other plans.

Evolution & Revelation

In Why We Believe, the anthropologist Agustín Fuentes has written a clear and concise account of belief in light of his extensive knowledge of human evolution. Fuentes, who has taught at Notre Dame and is now a professor at Princeton, has written several books and articles that strive to present a biologically informed but non-reductive account of human nature. While himself religiously unaffiliated, he has frequently worked with theologians and scholars of religion in various collaborative science-and-religion projects. For an evolutionary thinker, he has a remarkable openness to what can be learned from religious traditions, religious philosophers, and theologians.

His new book is intended to show that, while we are the product of evolutionary processes and belong to the biological world along with countless other organisms, our distinctive capacities for imagining, feeling, and thinking give us special responsibilities to shape our societies more justly than we have in the past. Fuentes wants to explain “why we believe” partly in order to correct what he calls the dueling “fundamentalisms” of, on the one side, religious people who refuse to allow their view of human nature to be shaped by the impressive and growing body of knowledge about human evolution and, on the other, secular intellectuals whose enthusiasm for scientific methods of investigation has led them to embrace “scientism”—that is, the assumption that science alone provides the kinds of explanations that count as real knowledge. Fuentes rejects the assertion of scientism that “beliefs” are mere subjective opinions that educated adults should not take seriously. He argues instead that, while the sciences do yield a vast array of insights into how things work, there are many other paths to knowledge that involve believing claims we cannot justify on scientific grounds. Most of what we think is true is not “immanently generated knowledge,” as Bernard Lonergan points out in Method in Theology, and our reliance on the division of labor means that “belief plays as large a role in science as in most other areas of human activity.”

Fuentes appropriately begins his book by laying out what he means by “belief” and “believing.” In popular discourse, the act of believing is often taken to mean affirming the truth of a claim without having any empirical evidence for it. Philosophers have produced an enormous body of literature debating whether there are necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for “propositional knowledge.” A great deal of that literature is critical of the (purportedly) traditional theory of knowledge as “justified true belief.” But rather than wading into these waters, Fuentes draws on Terry Eagleton’s conception of believing as a state of being “completely in love with a concept, an experience, a knowledge.” The capacity to believe is based in our distinctively human capacity “to imagine, to be creative, to hope and dream, and to infuse the world with meaning.”

Believing is a pervasive part of human experience and by no means the sole preserve of the religiously devout. Fuentes distinguishes between our core ability to believe and our believing that this or that particular proposition is true. Here he unknowingly resonates with the Catholic vision of faith as comprising both fides qua creditur (the faith with which we personally assent to a truth) and fides quae creditur (the content of what we believe). Living faith, in the Christian sense, is not simply believing that God exists, but believing in, trusting, and loving God. This is not Fuentes’s concern, but Catholics will have no trouble understanding his distinction between our capacity to believe and the particular ways in which we exercise that capacity in our lives.


Our ancestors transformed the world not only for transactional but also for transcendent motives. The formation of beliefs about how things could and ought to be proves central to our ability to improve our lot.

Why We Believe is divided into three parts: How did we as a species come to believe? How do we believe now? And what do we believe now? We came to believe because of the social, emotional, and cognitive resources that emerged in our primate ancestors. We evolved from intelligent mammals who were highly adept at cooperating and forming strong groups. Fuentes understands human behavior as embedded in particular “niches,” which he defines as the “dynamic multidimensional space in which an organism lives.” The distinctively human niche is not only material, biological, and ecological, but also “imagined, perceived, and constructed”—in short, “meaning matters” and therefore so do beliefs. Organisms shape their habitats and vice versa. Human beings have shaped their habitats according to what they believe.

Evolution has made believing possible. Fuentes explains that between 2.3 and 1 million years ago our prehuman ancestors underwent significant changes in nutrition, the structures of their bodies and brains, and practices of caring for their young, making tools, avoiding predators, and obtaining supplies of food. In the past half-million years, massive growth in communication and social coordination led to better ways of understanding the world, imagining better alternatives, and then acting to transform it. These developments eventually led contemporary humans to produce innovations in food acquisition and storage, the domestication of plants and animals, the establishment of large residential settlements, and the identification of specific places, times, and relationships as sacred. Readers of Commonweal will appreciate Fuentes’s recognition that our ancestors transformed the world not only for transactional but also for transcendent motives. The formation of beliefs about how things could and ought to be proves central to our ability to improve our lot.

Part two of Why We Believe provides an account of how the human imagination enables us to combine cognitive and social resources to shape our world. “Believing is thinking beyond the here and now and investing to the extent that thinking becomes one’s reality,” Fuentes writes. Though he does not cite William James, his vision resonates with James’s “will to believe.” Belief is made possible by culture, a rich fund of meaning from which we constantly draw and to which our daily actions contribute. We are “not unique in having culture,” Fuentes writes, but the human niche is “completely intertwined with language, socially mediated and reconstructed history, institutions, and beliefs.” He insists that we not only “have” culture but actually “are” our culture: “literally, it is us and we it.” The experiences, memories, and thoughts made possible by our collective cultural resources help form our very bodies through their “neuroendocrine systems.”

Culture is obviously a necessary condition of mind—the set of “skills and processes that enable us to think and act”—and the distinctive core of the human mind is the imagination. Fuentes adopts the philosopher Anna Abraham’s theory of imagination as operative in our powers of sensation and movement, emotions, memory, “novel combinatorial” (generative) capacities, and “altered states.” The physiological structures of the human brain allow us to create symbolic and emotionally compelling mental representations of states of affairs that do not yet exist but could in the future.

Our evolutionary history makes such productive beliefs possible, but their particular forms are shaped by the distinctive cultures within which we live. This does not mean that our shared commitments and deeply held beliefs are in fact nothing but “mere” cultural constructs. “Cultural constructs are real for those who hold them,” Fuentes writes. “That is the way the human mind works.” Such a position allows him to take religions—and religious people—much more seriously than do some of his peers in evolutionary theory. The problem with the dominant evolutionary explanations of religion, he notes, is that they “largely ignore what the religious experience is for believers.” Fuentes knows that third-person analysis is valuable but cannot fully capture religious experience that takes place in the first and second person—when, as Martin Buber puts it, an “I” encounters the absolute “Thou.”

Part three of Why We Believe spells out the implications of this analysis for what people believe. Fuentes does not assume that evolution provides any help explaining the content of what people believe (e.g., why Presbyterians believe in double predestination or Catholics in transubstantiation), but he does think knowledge of our evolutionary past can shed light on why we develop religions, economic arrangements, and patterns of affiliation.


We can take the key features of his discussion of religion, economics, and love in order. First, Fuentes distinguishes religiousness from “religion” in general and particular “religions.” He not only acknowledges that the vast majority of people describe themselves as religiously affiliated, but—with a laudable mixture of respect, intellectual humility, and genuine curiosity—wants to understand why they do so.

Fuentes describes “transcendence” as being “beyond the limits of any possible experience” but then refers to religiousness as an “experience of transcendence.” “Transcendence” and “religious experience” are both notoriously vague concepts. There is a huge range in the different ways we experience going beyond the flow of everyday life. Such experience includes attending an exquisite musical performance, witnessing an extraordinary act of generosity, viewing a luminous work of art, and being awestruck at the birth of a child. All these experiences can be described as “transcendent” in at least three senses: first, they allow us to experience goodness, beauty, or truth in moments that surpass what we normally encounter in everyday life; second, religiously sensitive people often read these experiences as disclosing what is “most real” in human life; and third, these experiences can be called transcendent because they elicit feelings of piety, reverence, and gratitude for their divine source.

Agustín Fuentes (Mark Thiessen/National Geographic Creative)

Fuentes takes seriously the experience of particular persons and communities but, unlike William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, Fuentes’s book doesn’t take into account the specific testimonies of such persons or communities. His underdeveloped and rather abstract references to “religious experience” are not particularly satisfying. It would have helped if he had incorporated what the philosopher John A. Smith calls the “religious dimensions of experience”—a more accommodating concept than Fuentes’s “religious experience.” Fuentes might also have considered what Karl Rahner called “the experience of self-transcendence” involved in any true act of knowing or loving.

Fuentes argues that early human beings evolved to become highly social, meaning-making animals, who at some point began to have beliefs about supernatural agents. These beliefs were later taken up and extensively developed by religious institutions that arrived with the development of complex, large-scale societies between four thousand and eight thousand years ago. Fuentes rejects the two dominant evolutionary theories of religion. One of these holds that religion evolved because it was biologically adaptive; the other views religion as an accidental by-product (a “spandrel” in the language of Stephen Jay Gould) of cognitive and social traits that were themselves biologically adaptive. Neither of these approaches provides a satisfying account of the centrality of religion in the lives of so many people. Religious experience and beliefs offer ways of addressing a human need. Once their basic material needs are met, human beings naturally strive to go beyond the mere here-and-now and to relate themselves to larger purposes and schemes of meaning. Belief in transcendent reality thus provides the foothold for the later development of institutional religions, with their rituals, codes, and practices.

Fuentes’s own social and ethical concerns are on display in his chapter on economics, which he defines as “an organized system of activity involving the production, consumption, exchange, and distribution of goods and services.” Here he strongly challenges the assumption, common in modern and modernizing societies, that free markets are the most “natural”—and therefore the most rational and efficient—way to organize an economy. The dominance of free-market ideology is rooted in a widespread cultural acceptance of the myth of Homo economicus, according to which human beings are best understood as rational economic actors always seeking to maximize their self-interest. Fuentes reminds us that theories of behavioral ecology that describe “market competition” as pervasive in nature miss the richness and complexity of actual animal behavior. He worries that an uncritical acceptance of free markets as “natural” leads us to treat massive global inequality as “inevitable.” Though some part of us may still believe that real human beings are more complex and less predictable than Homo economicus, this reductive model is now “deeply ingrained in [our] communal psyche.”

The rise and growth of permanent large-scale settlements, cities, and then nations brought with it a shift from egalitarian to hierarchical social orders. Adam Smith argued that modern markets would produce a more extensive distribution of wealth, but today a global market economy coexists with massive inequality. Fuentes is not an economist and he does not propose his own alternative economic theory. His goal is simply to undercut the widespread view that human beings are essentially selfish, that free markets are the most “natural” way to organize economic systems, and that radical inequality is just the way things have always been—and always will be. Fuentes urges his readers not to passively accept current inequalities: “We made them, and we can change them.”


The last chapter of Why We Believe focuses on matters of the heart. “Love” and related terms have many meanings even within the history of Western culture. Love has been identified with eros (desire), philia (friendship), agape (self-gift), or with some combination of these. The strongest part of this chapter is its discussion of compassion; the weakest, its treatment of sexual love.

Fuentes argues that the evolution of biological, psychological, and behavioral traits made possible the emergence of maternal-offspring attachment and therefore enhanced the likely survival of human newborns, who are exceptionally immature. He theorizes that the maternal-offspring bond eventually facilitated the pair bonds of mating couples, and then extended further to promote a broader array of social and physiological bonds within the larger group. Drawing on the work of the anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, Fuentes argues that evolution has produced in us a strong “affective hunger” that leads us to form social bonds far beyond what we see in any other species. Our ancestors extended compassion not only to their own offspring but to other members of their groups. Archeological evidence indicates “the emergence of consistent caring behavior that kept at least some of the injured, sick, and aged alive and part of the community” and produced a capacity to care for others “unrivaled in any other species.” Our strong in-group social cooperation, however, can sometimes be accompanied by hostility toward those outside the group.

Sex and marriage are the most controversial topics addressed in this book. We tend to draw sharp lines between sexual attraction, parental care, friendship, and other deep attachments, and often experience these kinds of relationship as fundamentally different from each other. But Fuentes claims that, “aside from slightly different hormone levels and other physiological responses related to sexual activity, romantic love is not biologically different from any other kind…. The idea that romantic love is distinct from other deep attachments is a product of cultural beliefs and worldviews, not our biology.” Fuentes argues that a great deal of anthropological literature challenges the assumption that we are naturally ordered to form exclusive, lifelong procreative pair bonds. (Catholics might think here of Pope Paul VI’s teaching about the “unitive” and “procreative” ends of sex.) According to Fuentes, sexual pair bonds are characterized by mutual sexual attraction that is preferential but not necessarily exclusive, reproductive, monogamous, or even marital. When he refers to marriage as “a recent occurrence in human history,” he seems to mean the natural history of our species rather than recorded history.

Fuentes rejects normative traditions that confine sexual activity to marriage, though he would perhaps be willing to have marriage continue as one lifestyle option among others. This is the direction in which Western cultures have been trending for decades. These anthropological observations are valuable for underscoring the challenges faced by those of us who endorse monogamy and would like others to do so as well. 

We might respond to that challenge by first asking how Fuentes moves from the “is” of diverse human social and sexual practices to the “ought” of moral standards. For most of recorded human history, there was no awareness of—let alone commitment to—human rights. These, too, are the “product of cultural beliefs, not our biology.” Belief in human rights is also “a recent occurrence in human history.” But rather than discount human rights for being of relatively recent vintage, we regard our belief in them as evidence of moral progress. Why can’t we say the same about the development of monogamous marriage, especially since the historical record shows that polygamous relationships have usually allowed powerful men to dominate their wives (and concubines)? More fundamentally, the social and ethical norms governing sexual behavior cannot be derived from knowledge of either our evolutionary past or our contemporary sexual proclivities, many of which reflect the impact of market forces, consumerism, and social media. Fuentes’s chapter on economics is sharply critical of the radical individualism of free-market ideology, but his chapter on love seems to endorse a radical individualism in sexual matters.

The norms governing sexual behavior cannot be derived from knowledge of either our evolutionary past or our contemporary sexual proclivities, many of which reflect the impact of market forces, consumerism, and social media.

The fact that we aren’t hard-wired to be monogamists does not mean we shouldn’t strive to be monogamous, any more than the fact that we are not hard-wired to be truth-tellers implies that we shouldn’t strive to be honest. The Christian tradition appreciates the special goods afforded by monogamous marriage, including deep interpersonal intimacy, acceptance, and the trust born of lifelong fidelity. In religious terms, the Protestant description of marriage as a lifelong covenant of love and the Catholic and Orthodox account of marriage as a sacrament both pledge the couple to love each other so truly that their relationship offers a glimpse of Christ’s love for the Church (Ephesians 5:30–31). Many of us are glad that civil marriage is now available to gay couples, and we applaud religious bodies that bless these unions. These developments extend the logic and benefits of monogamy.

Fuentes is strangely silent about families (both nuclear and extended), which seems odd for a thinker so attuned to our sociality. His criticism of belief in monogamous marriage does not mention the extensive social-scientific literature that shows that children raised by single parents are more likely to be poor, to have lower cognitive skills, to drop out of school, to have health problems, and to give birth outside of marriage themselves (see Kimberly Howard and Richard J. Reeves’s 2014 paper “The Marriage Effect: Money or Parenting”). Fuentes cares about the poor and laments inequality, but he does not acknowledge that the decline of marriage seems to contribute to both inequality and poverty (along with other factors, of course). Between 1980 and now, the rate of births to single mothers has doubled, from 20 to 40 percent. We are engaged in a massive social experiment that does not seem to be benefiting children. Of course, Fuentes is not against biological parents living with, and taking responsibility for, their children, but he doesn’t want society to put any pressure on parents to legally bind themselves to one another for life. Yet the legal and social bond of marriage is a stronger, more reliable form of commitment than the informal agreements of couples who cohabitate, and it is therefore a preferable arrangement for child rearing. Not taking into account the well-being of children is, at the very least, a significant oversight in Fuentes’s analysis of our beliefs about love.


Still, the strengths of Why We Believe significantly outweigh its weaknesses. Fuentes ought to be appreciated by readers of Commonweal primarily for his open-minded, non-reductive and non-polemical approach to religious matters. He has the confidence to think about nuanced and complex matters of belief that are often grossly oversimplified by popular writers. The very title gives a clue to the book’s tone: an aggressive secularist would be more likely to talk about “why they believe,” not “why we believe.” Fuentes does not say, “You (simple people) believe religion provides the path to God but we (scientists) know it is really nothing but a social institution constructed to serve certain social ends.” His non-reductive attitude to religion contrasts sharply with what we are used to getting from Richard Dawkins and other New Atheists, who believe society can be divided between the “brights” (who inhabit the “community of reason”) and the “dulls”—those incapable of rationality or invincibly ignorant.

Fuentes’s openness is remarkable. “Unlike many of my evolutionary explanation-oriented colleagues,” he writes, “I’m fully comfortable leaving open the possibility that some form of transcendent revelation plays a role in a religion’s particular beliefs.” This intriguing statement is partly just an expression of disciplinary self-restraint: as a scientist, Fuentes can reject only those claims that run against well-established scientific knowledge, and so he will not dismiss religious truth claims that can be neither proved nor disproved. This kind of humility should be normal; because it is not, it requires real intellectual courage. It will be met with mockery by militant atheists, and with gratitude by religious readers. Fuentes’s refusal to rule out the possibility that a religious tradition might really be shaped by divine revelation raises a host of questions, but these must be answered by theologians and philosophers rather than by anthropologists and evolutionary theorists.

Why We Believe provides a superb and very readable summary of one influential approach to our evolutionary past. Written in a graceful style, it briskly covers a vast amount of scholarly terrain in less than three hundred pages. And, like the best books in any field, it will leave the reader wanting to learn more.

Why We Believe
Evolution and the Human Way of Being
Agustín Fuentes
$28 | 280 pp.