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Entries from June 2020

The Church Must Look Outward, Not Inward

It has been a hell of a year here in the U.S., a time of diminishment and decline and desperation. How can the Catholic Church respond to the moment in which we find ourselves, and might those responses, in turn, be a part of the ongoing effort to renew the Church?

Diminishment. For years, budget cuts at the federal, state and local levels have prioritized those who carry guns over those who carry bedpans. Funding for the U.S. military and the police has gone up, while funding for health care and social services and education has gone down. Bureaucracies needed to help a complex society cope with complex problems have been hollowed out and were unprepared when a new threat like the coronavirus appeared.

I read in the paper that the European Union is preparing to open its borders again, after being in lockdown since March. They may continue to bar entry to U.S. citizens because of the spikes in the rate of news Covid-19 cases. In Texas, the second-largest state in the union, new cases are up 15% in the past week, and in Arizona they are up a horrifying 39%. Georgia’s Hartsfield airport is the busiest in the world, and that state has seen cases increase by 13 percent. No wonder the Europeans want to keep the door shut.

But think about this: Americans are being barred from traveling the world because our society and polity was incapable of keeping up with other countries that have successfully confined the spread of the virus. Is this was making America great again, what was average supposed to look like?

Every time President Donald Trump opens his mouth, a lie pops out, or several of them. In a recent interview with EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo, the president lied about mail-in ballots and about all he had done to protect statues from vandalism. He lied about John Bolton and about the DACA decision from the Supreme Court. Every time a lie from the chief magistrate goes unchecked, deviancy is defined down, and our commitment to democratic norms declines.

Nowhere has the decline in public morality been more obvious than in the cavalier way some people have placed their desire to avoid discomfort ahead of the dignity and even the lives of fellow citizens. Some people, egged on by the president, refuse to wear a mask in public. They refuse to maintain social distance. If you think wearing a mask is uncomfortable, you surely wouldn’t want to wear a ventilator. People who work in hospitals and nursing have repeatedly pointed out that they are the ones whose lives are most on the line, yet the clown at the paint store won’t wear a mask? And the president of the United States holds a massive rally and does not require attendees to wear them?

The elderly, especially those in nursing homes whose lives are characterized by loneliness to begin with, simply do not enter into the picture as far as the president and his reelection team is concerned. And young Americans, convinced that they can survive the virus, are unwilling to inconvenience themselves on behalf of frontline workers and the elderly. Libertarianism has triumphed.

If all that was not enough, the entire nation was confronted by an instance of almost pure evil as a Minneapolis cop knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while the life flowed out of the handcuffed man, and we all watched in horror. The pent-up rage of black Americans, for whom police violence has become all too common, spilled into the streets, justified to be sure, a cry of desperation. The moral arc of the universe that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., warned was long, but insisted it nonetheless bent towards justice, seems to be bending very slowly, if at all.

Instead of seeking to unify the nation against a renewed effort to confront the original national sin of racism, the president stoked divisions, sent troops to tear gas peaceful protesters so he could have a photo op at a church, and saw an opportunity to restore his election chances by riling up his white nationalist base. His desperation – immoral and narcissistic – could enter into a dangerous symbiotic relationship with the desperation of black Americans.

What can the Catholic Church do in these circumstances? At a time when our culture is so badly divided, Catholics must take steps to build up the culture. Culture, by definition, is inclusive, it unites people; it builds them up and confers significance on all that is beautiful and true. Like all human creations, it is susceptible to sin and corruption, to be sure, but the building up of culture is fundamentally a generative, creative process.

The Catholic Church is catholic. It is found everywhere, and everywhere it must seek to comfort those afflicted by the COVID-19 virus, including those for whom the afflictions are economic not just medical. Millions have lost their jobs. The Church must reach out to foster racial unity, helping our society to invest social capital into neighborhoods bereft of hope and hope into the hearts of those filled with despair. The Church must, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, proclaim to our society: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (IS 5:20) The Church must teach the parable of the Good Samaritan, in our pulpits and in our ministries and in the way we lay Catholics conduct our lives, asking searching questions about our life choices: What have we done, personally, to help correct the gross inequality Black and Latino Americans suffer? Protest? Yes, and vote as well. But have we made brothers and sisters of some of our black and Latino neighbors such that we might help them overcome the disadvantages they face in employment opportunities or in obtaining credit? Do our parishes work with community banks and with realtors to help black Americans achieve the home ownership rates that white Americans enjoy? Do we work to ensure that real estate agents help our neighborhoods integrate?

There is much that the Catholic Church can do to help the nation face the various crises we face at this moment. Each of them requires the Church to look outward, not inward. I am reminded of what then Cardinal Bergoglio told the gathered cardinals before they entered into the conclave at which he was elected pope: “I think of the image of Jesus knocking at the door. Perhaps he is knocking to get out.”


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


It Is Time to Repent of Racism and Act Against It

This past winter, I was walking along a sidewalk with Martha Hennessy when the question of whether property destruction is nonviolent came up. It is an old question, one that has been a point of disagreement between the Catholic Worker movement and the Plowshares movement, both of which Martha is active in. A granddaughter of Dorothy Day, Martha is currently awaiting sentencing for illegally entering and vandalizing the Kings Bay nuclear submarine base in Georgia. She told me that day on the sidewalk that she generally sided with her grandmother’s belief that property damage is violence. But, she said, the greater violence was the unfathomable damage the nuclear missile housed at the base could do.

Recent protests for racial justice across the United States have brought this question to light again as some protests have devolved into looting or damaging police vehicles. The destruction of Black lives, some activists argue, is more important than the destruction of property. While I do not believe that violence is categorically justified so long as it is fighting a greater violence, it is certainly true that killing someone is a greater evil than destroying property.

Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, leads us beyond this debate, urging Catholics to look at violence as a symptom of the greater sickness of injustice. He writes:

“When a society—whether local, national or global—is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear. If every action has its consequences, an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death. It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which cannot be the basis of hope for a better future” (Evangelii Gaudium, 59).

So, how to excise this evil from our social structures? We must begin with ourselves, examining our consciences for our participation in the sin of racism and other social sins and repenting of them—that is, taking action personally and as a Catholic community to counteract racism.

The first step is educating ourselves, forming our consciences so that we can identify our sin and resist it in the future. Recent weeks have brought a surge of antiracist reading lists and resources to help us do this, including Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt’s Black Catholics Syllabus, which compiles reading materials, videos and podcasts centering the Black Catholic experience to teach the faithful about white supremacy, antiracism and implementing change on an individual and institutional level.

Olga Segura, a writer on Black Lives Matter and the Catholic church, has a concrete list of actions that Catholics can take to fight systemic racism. She urges parishes to invite speakers from the Black Lives Matter movement, pastors to speak about racism from the pulpit, dioceses to implement antiracism training at all levels, bishops to hold a day of mourning and prayer, leaders to appear on the front lines at protests and all Catholics to donate to the movement.

Any of our actions against racism must be driven by an interior conversion. St. Paul writes that our actions are empty without love (cf. 1 Cor. 13), and true Christian love necessitates humility and sacrificing our own comfort, even to the point of laying down our lives for others (cf. John 15:13). Repenting of the personal and social sin of racism will mean facing down painful facts about ourselves, having uncomfortable and unpopular conversations and even giving up opportunities, platforms and power to raise up our Black brothers and sisters.

The Black theologian James Cone wrote in his famous essay “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” that “Most whites want mercy and forgiveness, but not justice and reparations; they want reconciliation without liberation, the resurrection without the cross.” White Catholics, it is time to take up our cross: to repent of racism and act against it, being a moral leader in dismantling “evil crystallized in unjust social structures” in order to, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., bend the arc of history towards justice, with God’s help.


Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming biography of the French poet, social worker and mystic Madeleine Delbrêl will be published by Liturgical Press.


The Virus and Our Response

For many people, this time of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to mind Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, the story of a North African port city quarantined during an outbreak of bubonic plague. Camus’s subject is not really the plague itself but the response it evokes, and what it reveals about a range of people, some of whom (not generally religious people) emerge as heroes.

For Camus, the plague was a metaphor for its moral counterpart. Among other things, he had in mind the response of French citizens—whether collaborators or resisters—to the German Occupation. But even the Occupation was, in turn, an instance of the eternal problem of evil. One of Camus’s complaints against Christians was his suspicion that their belief in eternal life rendered them passive in the face of injustice and the suffering of the innocent.

To bring “the plague” back to our own situation, on one level, the present administration’s response to the virus has been consistent with a pattern of incompetence, spin and lies, denial of reality, self-congratulation, partisan boosterism, scapegoating of foreigners, blaming the messengers and truth-tellers. But as with Camus’s novel, the virus is also a metaphor for a spreading moral contamination. During his campaign, Trump made no effort to disguise his cruelty, divisiveness and authoritarian tendencies; on the contrary, he ran on this persona. What has been surprising is how quickly his particular brand has infected large portions of the country—an entire political party, three branches of government, various agencies, portions of the media and broad swathes of the religious community. Political rivals who once called the Leader a conman and pathological liar eventually caught the virus: pledging their loyalty, repeating his lies, attacking his enemies, laughing at his “jokes,” saluting his assaults on the law, the Constitution and basic decency.

Has the leadership of the Catholic Church in America also caught the virus? For many decades, American bishops signed on to the message that abortion is the preeminent political issue—trumping all others. This made it easy for the Republican Party to lay claim to the “Catholic vote” by touting itself as the “pro-life” party, even while espousing policies that denied key tenets of Catholic social teaching. Even Trump, the avatar of hedonistic indifference to any virtue apart from “winning,” found it easy to claim this “pro-life” mantle.

Where has this brought us? On a recent conference call with 600 Catholic bishops and other “leaders,” Trump called himself “the best president in the history of the Catholic Church.” He said his support for the pro-life cause has “been at a level that no other president has seen before.” The agenda of the meeting was ostensibly support for Catholic schools, but Trump made a naked pitch for support in his reelection, warning that victory for the other side would be disastrous for Catholics. For his part, Cardinal Dolan called the president a friend and joked that he talked with him more than he does with his own mother. In a later Fox News interview, the Cardinal praised Trump for his “leadership” in the pandemic and expressed particular appreciation for his sensitivity “to the feelings of the religious community.”

An editorial in America magazine defended the conduct of these bishops in seeking common ground with the president on topics of grave concern to American Catholics. The problem with this argument is that in lending support to such a man’s reelection, one doesn’t get to pick the policies that one happens to agree with, or that benefit one’s own community. You buy the whole package: the racism, the cruelty, the reckless disregard for the weak and vulnerable, the wanton assault on the environment, the disdain for any sense of global community or common good.

The true subject of The Plague is not the virus itself, but what it reveals about us. Camus’s heroes—and those of our own moment—are those who resist the plague, who cry out ceaselessly on behalf of the vulnerable, who affirm basic decency, practice solidarity, defend what is right and true, and hold out hope for a world that is safe, just and good.

In a famous talk to Dominicans after the war, Camus described what the world expects of Christians: that they “should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt ... could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally.”

The story is not about the virus, but how we respond to it.


Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books and the author of many books, most recently, A Living Gospel: Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives.