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Entries from March 2020

American Exceptionalism and the Coronavirus

Like many Americans who live in Rome, my inbox has suddenly been overloaded with emails. New message alerts have been popping up more frequently on the various social media apps I use. And recently, people have been trying to reach me for a phone or video chat several times each day.

Most of these are friends and family from the United States. They are checking in to see if we’re safe. Or is to satisfy a morbid curiosity about what life is like in Italy, currently the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic?

It doesn’t matter that I live in Rome, where there have been relatively few cases of infection compared to the northern region of Lombardy where the virus is ravaging the people of cities like Bergamo and Milan.

“I’m great,” I tell them. “I don’t have the virus, as far as I know. At least I haven’t had any visible symptoms,” I say, reciting the same response of the past two or more weeks since all of Italy went into lockdown.

Thank God I can still repeat myself.

Then I assure them that I’m not really bored or going stir crazy during this virtual house arrest. In fact, I’ve never been busier with writing and editing. And since I usually work at home anyway, this is not that much of an inconvenience. But not being able to go to the gym each afternoon sure is!  However, I’m managing with that, too.

Then, probably less tactfully than intended, I tell my American friends that I am much more worried about them. And they should be, too. I try to explain that soon the United States will outpace Italy in infections—which, in fact, actually happened just as I sat down to write this piece…

I watch both CNN and Fox News each evening to see how people in my native country are reacting and responding to the spread of COVID-19. And this merely verifies my fears that the United States is so deeply divided into roughly two substantial blocs, and people cannot even agree anymore on what is black and what is white.

Yet, the coronavirus crisis has shown me—painfully—that most of them do agree on one thing: the United States is different and better than all other nations of the world. And if anyone can beat COVID-19, it is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Belief in American exceptionalism will not immunize people in the 50 states from the current pandemic. Yet the behavior many of them are displaying suggests that they believe this—or something else—makes them less susceptible to contracting the disease than folks in Italy, China or anywhere else on the planet.

Selective adherence to the social distancing and self-isolation directives (where they even exist) is proof that people in the United States have not understood that they are just as vulnerable—and probably more so—than we in Rome.

We see this happening every single day, beginning with the people who are applying the measures to stop the spread of the disease. The U.S. president begins his press briefing as members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force huddle, shoulder-to-shoulder behind him. “This is serious, so remember to practice social distancing,” they warn us. But the optics signal to the American people that it’s not really that dangerous, at least not for everyone. Not for people of importance, those in authority.

The president calls this a war and promises that America will be beat it. He proclaims his hope that the country will “be opened up and raring to go by Easter.” Maybe Easter 2021… This pandemic has just arrived in the continental United States, and anyone who tries to make you believe it’s going away soon is nothing but a snake oil salesman. The crisis has only just begun. 

Unfortunately, Catholics won’t find much guidance from their national spiritual leaders. The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference tweeted “five spiritual tips for you to live out at home during the #coronaviruspandemic.” They included getting to know your next-door neighbor better and taking walks with friends! That is not social distancing. And when it was pointed out, the USCCB quickly removed the tweet and replaced it with one offering more sober advice.

The conference does not inspire confidence. But neither do so many of the individual bishops. Almost all of those who have seminarians and priests studying in Rome called the young men back to the United States because of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy. Most of them did so in early March, but the rest scrambled to get the seminarians out just as the pandemic was exploding in the United States and the president was closing the borders to people arriving from Europe.

God only knows what these bishops were thinking. No doubt, they were guided in part by that sacrosanct creed: American exceptionalism. They don’t seem to be fans of socialist Italy’s single payer healthcare system (which doesn't work, according to Joe Biden!). The bishops—who opposed the American Health Care Act (Obamacare) on ideological grounds that would make the most rigid of Pharisees blush—obviously think their men needed to be rushed back home where, if needed, they could get the best health care and be treated by the greatest doctors in the world.

These seminarians will not be returning to Rome for a very long time. They’ll be lucky if they make it back in time to serve the pope’s Midnight Christmas Mass. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Certainly, the bishops wanted to make sure their men got out of Italy while they could, especially so they would be back in their dioceses for spring and summer ordinations. But if the United States continues to try to deal with the pandemic in the current haphazard, piecemeal fashion, the virus will continue to spread like brushfire, and there will be no ordinations—except, perhaps, in the cathedral sacristy. Then only a few people would risk getting infected instead of an entire congregation.

The coronavirus is extremely contagious, and it does not discriminate. Rich or poor, famous or unknown, nobility or peasant stock, cleric or layperson… It makes no difference. Anyone can get it. But it is extremely dangerous for those over the age of 70 and people of any age with preexisting health issues (including obesity, asthma, diabetes, heart conditions, psychological problems, etc.). Most of the people who die of COVID-19 are in these categories.

And that should deeply worry Catholics in the United States, at least from a Church point of view. Because a good many of their priests and bishops fit into those categories, as well, and would be in grave danger if they were to be infected.

We in Italy appreciate the messages of concern and encouragement our friends in the States are sending our way. But, honestly, we are more concerned about folks in our native land, which could very well become like northern Italy 50 times over. Fortunately, many Americans share our concerns. And, hopefully, they still have enough time to convince those in the country who don’t.

Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.

Could the Intellectual Periphery Be Closer Than We Think?

The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents and of all misery.” (Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, 2013)

I have been thinking a lot lately about the words of Jorge Bergoglio to the assembled cardinals in 2013 that, apparently, played a big role in his subsequent election to the papacy. This was the injunction to “go to the existential peripheries.” There are many kinds of periphery, and some of them are noncontroversial and dear to the heart of Pope Francis. The poor, the hungry, the oppressed, these are the obvious peripheries—the groups that have been named for many years by liberation theologians as “the marginalized.” In the well-known wish of the pope, “I want a church that is poor and for the poor,” these peripheries are to be made central. The missionary disciple who goes out to these peripheries with the message of the preferential love of God is doing exactly what the gospel demands.

But what of the other peripheries he includes? I have been considering, in particular, the peripheries of “ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents.” When we think about outreach to the poor, we know that the grace of God is extended preferentially to them, and the missionary disciple’s task is to make this clear by concretizing it. To see this in action, take a look at Paul Farmer’s work in health care in Haiti, Ecuador and Rwanda—work influenced by the theology of Gustavo Gutierrez. But just as grace is always already present to the poor, it is equally always already present to those who are indifferent to religion and those whose “intellectual currents” are not easily embraced in the Christian vision.

What does “intellectual currents” mean? An obvious example would be atheism, which is certainly more than “indifference to religion,” and 55 years ago the Second Vatican Council adopted an irenic posture towards those whose lives apparently do not need faith in God, even recognizing that the world has much to teach the church. But would I be entirely wrong to imagine that among the intellectual currents Bergoglio had in mind might have been what clerics love to call “radical feminism,” the “ideology of gender,” and neoliberalism? What does it mean to go out to those intellectual peripheries with the message of the gospel, knowing that these and others are always already graced?

Another of Francis’s favorite words is “dialogue,” and evidently the missionary disciple is called into dialogue with those whose intellectual positions not only come into conflict with gospel teaching, but whose grace-filled wisdom might also have something to teach the church that the church would not otherwise know. Upholstered with teachings or mere opinions that we may imagine belong to the heart of the gospel, encountering the grace-filled intellectual other, we might even find that we are, at the periphery, encountering the gospel anew. In his Marianist Lecture at the University of Dayton a couple of decades ago, Charles Taylor said that the church owed its commitments to justice and freedom to the intellectual currents of the Enlightenment. That kind of debt to the secular world was not exhausted in the 19th century. Indeed, the debt was not recognized for a century or so, and such might be the case for the intellectual currents with which the church is struggling today. So, the logic of Francis’s call to go to the intellectual periphery is one of overcoming the unhealthy polarizations of our contemporary world. When we recognize with Georges Bernanos that “grace is everywhere,” we have no other option than that of respect, of radical hospitality to the other who is no more and no less than us a mysterious mixture of sin and grace.

The one dimension of this outreach to the periphery that may not always be attended to is the internal outreach to those whose intellectual currents may be at odds with one or other official stance of the church. If the missionary stance of the church needs to be centrifugal, to move from the faith community out into the world, and if the centripetal opposite is too often a sterile kind of ecclesial navel-gazing, it is also true that no missionary orientation will be effective if the center from which it emerges is not itself sound. Hence the pope’s linking of being “for the poor with being poor.”

But at the same time, a church that can dialogue openly with the secular world, with all the potential relativization of its own positions that this might entail, needs to come to the task with an openness to its own internal differences. A case in point: Pope Francis’s evident lack of real understanding of the objectives of global feminism and of the many challenges of varied gender identities sets up a need for open dialogue with faithful Catholics who do not share his perspective and who may, in many instances, understand better the complex issues he is trying to address. Here, of course, the danger is that internally to the church there lingers the assumption that on ethical issues there is one approved perspective and therefore no need or room for dialogue with difference. This is much clearer when we move from the sensitive struggles of Pope Francis to the ugly power-play of a number of American bishops who seem to think that the gospel calls them to fire good teachers in same-sex relationships, oh, and by the way, to eject their children from the Catholic school system.

What if we recognize that it is increasingly the case that the range of ethical postures that we find in the world as a whole is matched by the variety of convictions of faithful Catholics? For quite some time now, the church has accepted the idea of the development of doctrine. Development implies growth, and growth requires dialogue and argument. But what about the development of ethics, which will be intrinsically connected to our developing understanding of human nature? In one area, that of the relationship between a theology of creation and the kind of concern for the earth expressed in Laudato Si’, we have managed to grow in a healthy direction. In consequence the church in general, and the pope in particular, have become global leaders on environmental issues. Here, we might say, the dialogue has somehow been successful. Can we now imagine the same process occurring in the realm of sexual ethics, biology and the possibilities of medical technology? Only, I think, if the church can manage outreach to the internal periphery. Respect for the external other cannot consistently coexist with the condemnation of the internal voice of dissent.

Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.

What Are We Doing to Become Church?

When Brian Moore’s extraordinary novel Black Robe was published in 1985, I asked my mother whether she planned to read the book. In theory, she was a natural audience for the fictionalized account of the Jesuits’ foray into North America to minister to Indigenous communities. A teacher of Canadian history who could quote extensively from the Jesuit Relations, she surprised me with her answer. “I don’t want to know that my heroes have feet of clay,” she said firmly. Conversation closed.

I thought of our talk when news broke of Jean Vanier’s abuse of a number of women. A born cynic, I cannot remember the last time I was as shocked by a church-related story. As I let the news sink in, however, it was my own shock that surprised most. 

The church — or my perception of it — has changed markedly in the 35 years since my mother expressed her fears of learning something that might disappoint about the institution she loved. In the intervening years, we have wrestled with systemic sexual abuse, the torture of residential schools, financial scandals, the death of vocations, a church increasingly divided between hyper-orthodoxy and a craving for growth, the continued denial of the rights and dignity of women, the flight of once-devoted Catholics from the pews and the ongoing questions around Pius XII and his wartime role. That anything shocks anymore is the true surprise. Many now see the institutional church as a house of cards, as fragile as feet of clay.

It is all too easy to despair. Despair is a natural outcome from profound disappointment and disillusionment. But from the ashes of the church of my childhood, there remains hope for the emergence of a place that reflects not only the spirit of Vatican II, but also that of the New Testament — the church of the apostles, of Paul, of Mary of Magdala.

The church I long for is one that is built upon what Notre Dame theologian Fr. Tom O’Meara, O.P., calls a horizontal ecclesiology. He argues that the discussion of the universal call to holiness in Vatican II’s Lumen gentium makes clear that we are all to be engaged in the act of building church — an act that is not about spires and statues but about feeding the poor and comforting the sick and building a true kingdom on earth. While priests, saints and the hierarchy will always have a place, the rest of us are also called upon to be church, too, understanding that we are just as integral as the people who currently rest on pedestals. It offers important empowerment to laity because it asks us truly to embrace the call to be priest, prophet and king.

But answering this call requires profound change. One of the best lectures I heard while studying theology came from a priest who argued that St. Paul would not recognize a modern Mass because of its focus on transubstantiation itself, rather than the change brought forth by transubstantiation on the people gathered together in Christ’s name. Thoughts like these can rock the complacent and enrage those who stand on constant watch for hints of sedition.

One of the beauties of the Mass we hear today is that we are sent forth not with ite, missa est, which to the uninspired is merely a marker of time, but with the option to “go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life” or with a call to announce the Gospel of the Lord. We are meant to do something when we leave, something that reflects the change we have undergone by participating in liturgy. 

But we live in a time of great distraction, with warring social media factions focused on sneering or cheering Cardinal Burke’s love of the cappa magna or debating Cardinal Sarah’s assertion that receiving communion in the hand is a sign of Satan at work among us. With a truly empowered laity, these debates would fade away; they simply would not matter because we would all be too busy.

If we were all better engaged, our focus could shift from an upward gaze to a gaze at those among us. Those like my mother, who quietly adopted Therese of Liseux’s little way. She often cited the passage in L’Histoire dune ame in which the saint discussed fighting her annoyance with a community member who persistently splashed her while they worked in the convent laundry. My mother recognized that small acts of patience, of kindness, of charity, in their own small way, could make a difference. It was always easier to see the face of Christ in my mother than in a hidebound cleric.

We are at a moment of great opportunity, a time to truly create the church envisioned not only at Vatican II, but the church that created such zeal in Mary Magdalene, in Paul, in the martyrs. It’s time to tear down the pedestals so that we are no longer upended by disappointment. But that means insisting on parish councils in all churches so that we all have a voice; ensuring that parishes become true community centers rather than stopping-off places; making a concerted effort to ask ourselves what we are doing to become church.

It isn’t easy, but surely it is worth the effort.

Catherine Mulroney is programs coordinator at the faculty of theology at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

Time for Some New Wineskins

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia provoked plenty of agita on the Catholic Left. The pope’s failure to use the occasion of his exhortation to permit the ordination of older, married men for service in the Amazon as well as his discussion of women, which harkened back to language John Paul II used to employ, caused an uproar and dominated headlines. “Pope Francis Sets Aside Proposal on Married Priests” was the headline in the New York Times, while the lead story in the Washington Post was headlined “Pope Francis backs away from celibacy exception, putting off decision on allowing married priests in the Amazon.” In the fourth paragraph of the Post story we were told that the exhortation “was in turn a poetic tribute to environmental beauty and a warning about its destruction.” Then, another 11 paragraphs before the environmental focus of the document reappeared.

It is not news that we Americans are a myopic bunch, but this was ridiculous. The synod fathers last October did indeed open the door to married older clergy as well as to the restoration of the diaconate for women. As a focus of discussion at the synod, however, these issues did not make the top ten list of concerns. The pope’s text reflected the synod’s discussion in its primary focus on the challenges to the environment in the region, the importance of honoring indigenous cultures, the need for inculturation of the Gospel, etc. But, for Americans, what really mattered was the gender issues. Is it really more important that the Church start ordaining married men than that we all work to save the “earth’s lungs” as the Amazon rainforest has been rightly called? 

The Latin Church is only beginning to wrestle with synodality as a method of governance and expression of that collegiality for which the Second Vatican Council called. And, it is clear that there is the actual synod discussion in the hall, and the polarized, politicized discussion about the synod outside. The two do not always have a lot in common. It is vital that Catholics look past the headlines to see the tectonic shift that is happening as Pope Francis tries to direct the Catholic Church away from the ultramontanist ecclesiology of the past 200 years without losing the essential purpose of the Petrine ministry as a ministry of unity. It is a bit like watching a sumo wrestler shift his enormous weight from one foot to the other.

For example, the proposal on married clergy narrowly crossed the two-thirds threshold for inclusion in the final document from the synod. It was far from unanimous. At Vatican II, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, got more non placet votes than any other proposal, but it still passed by 2221 to 88. It was nearly unanimous. More importantly, Pope Francis has repeatedly told us that synodality is not a parliamentary form of government where issues are decided by a majority vote. The chief protagonist must be the Holy Spirit, and the role of synod participants is that of discerning God’s will, not promoting their own self-willed agenda. This side of the abyss, there is no easy way to draw lines between God’s will and self-will, the righteousness of God and the righteousness of self. It requires prayer, dialogue, discernment and self-abnegation.

In our time, Americans of all ideological stripes warm to a particular type of protagonist, the activist. He or she focuses like a laser on a particular issue, promotes a particular agenda, deflects challenges, impugns alternative theories, does not worry overmuch about collateral damage, reduces the claims of justice to his or her own circumstances. For the activist, myopia is not a problem but a requirement of battle.

Regrettably, and for reasons I find difficult to fathom, some in the modern academy, especially among Catholic theologians, wish to join the ranks of the activists. They wish to venture forth out of their ivory towers, take up their placards, don their sloganeering tee shirts, march on the barricades. However, those of us who may wish to promote change, within the Church or within society, do not need another person with another placard. We need theologians to bring something other than a sign to the public square, we need them to bring theology! Dear theologians: Do not think participation in a protest wearing a “Black Live Matter” T-shirt represents an apotheosis of your craft and profession. Distinctions and theories are the apotheosis of academic life and who will bring them if not those whom our society affords the time and the resources to reflect upon issues away from the tumult and noise?

How—or even can—we American Catholics come to appreciate what the pope is trying to achieve? Do we recognize that our dying Church in the industrialized world should scarcely think of itself as a model for anyone else? On an issue like married clergy or women deacons, why is there so little discussion of how these innovations for us in the Latin West have affected the ecclesial life of other churches, from our Eastern rite Catholics who have ordained married men throughout their history, and who are in full communion with us, to the churches of the Reformation that have embraced change only to find themselves further divided one from another? Not once—not once!—during the whole preparation for the synod, during the synod itself, or since, have I seen an intelligent, popular essay on how the issues discussed there might affect ecumenical relations.  

The problems facing the Church in the United States are many, but none greater than the utter intellectual exhaustion of the post-Vatican II generation. How can we use old markers of progress or decline, 70s markers, as if they are still useful? It is like possessing a map of a city that is 40 years old: There may still be some important landmarks that have not changed, but the city now has a subway, and new hotels and restaurants, none of which are drawn on the old map.

I seem to recall Isaiah sharing the Lord’s words: “Behold I am doing something new. Do you not perceive it?” I seem to recall Jesus saying something about new wine and old wineskins. Alas, in our inability to get past our egos and agendas and attend to the Lord’s bidding, most of us moderns are no better than the ancients. At least Pope Francis is trying. Will we follow?

Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.