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Entries from July 2020

Twilight of the Idols

It has been an iconoclastic summer in the U.S. and across the world, particularly societies such as Britain that once commanded racist empires and still benefit from that fact. Statues honoring historical figures – Confederate generals, U.S. presidents, Christopher Columbus, to name but a few – have been brought down both by groups of protesters and voluntarily by local governments. Sports team names have come up for reconsideration. This iconoclasm has extended to the Church, particularly as figures such as St. Junipero Serra, whose accomplishments spanned church and state, have come under rightful criticism for promoting racist ideas and practices. How are we to interpret these events? Are they a victory for social justice or “cancel culture” run amok?

Such conversations often benefit from proper distinctions. My teacher, the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, has drawn a very useful distinction between what he calls the idol and the icon. The idol, for Marion, is something that is venerated out of proportion with what it is, and thus violates the Biblical commandment against worship of graven images over and against God. The icon, meanwhile, leads us through itself to a true worship of God – it communicates something that it is not. Thus, an image or statue in a church is not idolatrous for Catholicism because it sacramentally helps bring us to the divine through matter.

How does this distinction help us through our present predicament?  Clearly, some figures venerated by statuary have no business being honored as they portray symbols of hate – these are inevitably idolatrous rather than iconographic. Confederate generals, regardless of whatever personal qualities they may have possessed, took up arms against the United States in a war waged with the continuance of slavery as its goal. Their names and images should not be honored anywhere in our nation. Other figures from United States history, such as the “Founding Fathers,” are in a more ambiguous position. Many were slaveholders, though the ideals they expressed in founding the United States – while expressing personal hypocrisy – ultimately led to the undoing of slavery as an institution. In other cases, such as the statue of Theodore Roosevelt that has been removed from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the blatant racism of the particular image overshadows the question of whether the historical figure ought to be honored.

This brings us, then, to the intersection of this discourse around statues and images and Catholicism. While the United States was founded as a Protestant nation and Catholics (particularly recent immigrants) remain “other” to aspects of our national identity (though certainly not to power and its abuses), a number of Catholics have been publicly honored with such statues. Most notably, images of Christopher Columbus (not a saint but a symbol for many Italian-American Catholics), St. Junipero Serra, and St. Louis IX of France (namesake of the city) have become increasingly controversial. This criticism and at times destruction (such as the statue of Columbus that was thrown into Baltimore’s harbor) have been met by some Catholics with defensive cries that such attacks are anti-Catholic. In St. Louis particularly, some Catholics put on pious displays positioning the French king as a great patron of Western civilization and downplaying any controversies around his actions toward French Jews.

What, we must ask, are we venerating when we honor historical figures such as this? In the case of saints such as Serra and Louis IX, we must consider in particular how our honoring of them as saints might differ from honoring them in the public square as part of a kind of “civil religion” in a pluralist democracy. Saints were not perfect people; indeed, we ought to hope they were not if our own aspirations to sainthood have any hopes of being realized. Their veneration even within the Church changes over time; saints are routinely moved on and off the calendar precisely because the relevance of their veneration to the faithful has changed. Before we become defensive about their images, then, much less those of figures such as Columbus, we ought to ask why we are doing so and in support of what goal.

Catholics, then, need not be afraid of this twilight of the idols. While there are surely historical precedents of protest movements becoming excessive, we are not at that place right now; our nation is still too far from collectively admitting that black lives matter to argue that protesters have achieved their goals. We ought to rather ask ourselves if, when we defend images of saints who were complicit or worse with evils done to people of color and other oppressed groups, we are defending their sanctity or precisely their actions that are least demonstrative of it. God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed, and we show God no favor by excusing oppression for our own comfort and that of our supposed civilizational heritage. “God is not in strength but in truth,” says the monk Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, and that ought to be our motto as Catholics and as Americans during this reckoning.

Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.

Women Who Walk Away

Elisabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna outside Salisbury Cathedral is a statue of a life-sized woman with her back to the cathedral, dwarfed by the medieval edifice behind her but striding resolutely towards the open spaces ahead.  At a time when we are acutely aware of the communicative power of statues, that figure expresses where I find myself today, and I know that many Catholic women feel the same. Throughout the pandemic, we have been using social media to share our experiences, insights and stories from around the world. I have recorded a series of interviews with Catholic women from different cultures and contexts, and the same themes have emerged repeatedly.

While priests continue to say Mass in empty churches and ecclesial hierarchies have receded into the background, a vibrant sense of lay renewal has been taking place in the midst of solitude, struggle and grief, often led by women. Some have longed for the reopening of churches and a return to the sacraments, but others have been ambivalent. The domestic church has come into its own as women have found creative ways of maintaining liturgical and devotional rituals in their families or religious communities. Those who live alone or who, like me, are the only Catholics in their households, have had to search deeply within ourselves for the resources to nurture our faith without sacraments or community to sustain us.

Confined to our homes, we were unable to do anything but pray for our wounded world and our suffering neighbors, and this gave prayer a new intensity and focus. The Black Lives Matter movement created a volcanic eruption in an already volatile social environment, laying bare the ruptures in our broken societies and heightening awareness of the gross injustices that fester beneath the self-congratulatory banalities of modern liberalism. We became aware of how the family home is a torture chamber for those trapped in abusive or violent relationships with no escape during lockdown. Migrant workers and refugees became the poorest of the poor, as wealthy nations afflicted by the pandemic turned in on themselves and those on the margins were abandoned. These issues will become increasingly important as the world emerges from the pandemic to face an era of profound instability and risk.

But many women have also described the joy they felt with the cessation of human activity and the healing of the natural world. In our newfound leisure, we were able to cultivate a sense of attentiveness to nature and to appreciate anew the beauty of God’s creation. This too was part of an awakening and a call to renewal and transformation. The vision of Laudato Si’ has become not only possible, but essential, if we are to build a new world on the ruins of the old—a world in which the Catholic faith might offer inspiration, hope and freedom for those who want to work for the healing of the earth and the dignity and rights of our neighbors in need. From this perspective, to practice our faith would in future mean to stand in solidarity with all who are determined to resist the powers of destruction and exploitation and to use this opportunity to reimagine and recreate our relationships within our communities and in our natural and social environments. The Catholic Church is perhaps the only global institution with enough influence to lead such a movement for change, embracing the whole human family and all of creation in its vision—as Laudato Si’ does.

All this is to explain why I felt such dismay when I read the new Instruction issued by the Congregation for the Clergy, with the wordy title, “The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church.” This is a set of rules for the reorganization of parish life necessitated by changing cultural norms and a shortage of priests. It is an iron fist in a velvet glove. Its florid rhetoric of evangelization masks a ruthless grab for clerical power and the establishment of a rigid line of demarcation between priests and the rest of us. Not all men are ordained but all the ordained are men, and therefore this is also a reassertion of male authority and female subordination. I don’t want to hear manipulative platitudes about priesthood not being about power but about service. I know too many women whose sense of belonging within a parish or Catholic institution has been destroyed by priestly abuses of power, and I know too many priests who will seize upon this document to wrest leadership roles away from women and to reinforce their sense of entitlement, privilege and superiority. Consider, for example, paragraph 96:

[I]t is the responsibility, first of all, of the diocesan Bishop and, as far as it pertains to him, the Parish Priest, to see that the appointments of deacons, religious and laity that have roles of responsibility in the Parish, are not designated as “pastor,” “co-pastor,” “chaplain,” “moderator,” “coordinator,” “Parish manager,” or other similar terms reserved by law to priests, inasmuch as they have a direct correlation to the ministerial profile of priests.

Pope Francis approved this document, but I doubt if he studied it; for it turns back the tide in the struggle against clericalism that has been a hallmark of his papacy.

I am writing this on the Feast Day of Mary of Magdala, the Apostle to the Apostles—a title finally given liturgical recognition in 2016 when Pope Francis elevated her memorial to a Feast Day on a par with the male apostles. If a woman can be called an apostle, why not a chaplain, pastor, coordinator —or even, priest?

When those clerics in the Vatican look up from their power games, they may discover that there is nobody left to lord it over except themselves. Like the Walking Madonna, like Mary of Magdala, sometimes a woman must turn her back on the institutions and structures, stop clinging to the past and stride with courage and determination towards a future that opens before us in all its unknowability, risk and opportunity, knowing that the risen Christ dances ahead of us along the precipitous path of faith.

Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London.

The House is Burning …

It’s impossible to rebuild a house when it’s still on fire. The work of reconstruction cannot begin until the blaze is extinguished or the structure is completely reduced to ashes.

Catholics in the United States are watching two of their dwellings burn right now – their spiritual home and their geographical home.

The uncontrollable fire that continues to sizzle in the edifice of the Church – stoked by the still-ongoing child sex abuse crisis, the never-dying embers of misogyny and the reemergence of clericalism – has been tamed somewhat. But it is nowhere near to being completely stamped out.

The inferno that now consumes the United States – fueled by a misguided sense of American exceptionalism, the explosion of racism and social disunity, a completely irresponsible response to a deadly pandemic and the complete lack of national leadership – has only just begun to rage.

If this blaze is not put out soon – and it is hard to see how that will happen under the current president – this house is in grave danger of burning to the ground. From the other side of the Atlantic, it looks that serious.

But do people in the United States, specifically Catholics, see the gravity of the situation? There are signs that they do not. Perhaps it is a matter of not being able to see the forest for the trees. And this is very worrying.

A recent poll showed that upwards of 60% of white Catholics at this moment intend to vote for Donald Trump in November.

Perhaps they have convinced themselves that by appointing socially conservative judges willing to legislate against abortion the president has earned a “get out of jail free” card that allows him to forge ahead with his otherwise recklessly grotesque, immoral and un-Christian behavior and policies that are tearing the nation asunder.

One can only wonder what Catholics who support Trump think of Pope Francis. It’s hard to imagine two such substantially different personalities with such opposite worldviews and religious beliefs.

Francis has put forth a blueprint to help rebuild his smoldering Church so that it conforms more closely to the simple, yet demanding message of the gospel (cf. Evangelii gaudium).

This Church is the entire People of God, reformed in her missionary outreach and evangelization. And a key part of this mission is to work for the inclusion of the poor in society and promote peace and dialogue among all peoples.

Francis has even emerged as one of the world’s most convincing leaders of an urgent project to unite all humanity regardless of race, creed or nationality in saving our common home – the earth – from destruction.

He argues for this with courage, humility and farsightedness in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’.

The U.S. president’s “program,” if such exists, is completely opposed to this. It is based on no foundational document or secular equivalent of the gospel, other than unbridled capitalism, social Darwinism and greed.

Instead of outreach, it’s inward looking and insular. Instead of helping the poor, Trump’s personal demeanor and his administration’s policies actually punish and belittle the poor and disadvantaged.

They reward the wealthy and favor rugged individualism, while encouraging a lustful consumerism and the raping and pillaging of the natural environment. The promotion of peace and dialogue, meanwhile, is not a phrase that is even vaguely familiar to Donald Trump.

Catholics who support him have given him quite a pass, indeed.

“In my father’s house there are many dwelling places,” says one translation of John 14, 2. And that’s the case in the Church as well.

The Church in the United States is just one dwelling place or part of the one big house that is the Universal Church. And while the fire has subsided in other parts, here it looks to be blazing out of control.

The lack of episcopal leadership, unified or otherwise, leaves one speechless and fearful for the institution’s very survival in this land. In the face of a country that is unraveling before the eyes of the entire world, the U.S. bishops have been tepid in their condemnation of almost any evil except abortion – and what they perceive as assaults on religious freedom.

The Catholics in the United States right now are “like sheep without a shepherd,” to use the biblical metaphor. Put another way, they are in a burning house with not enough men in authority who are willing or able to put out the fire or rescue those inside.

It is hard to watch what is happening to the United States and the Catholic Church there right now. Americans tend to believe our country is very different from every other place on earth.

Most are convinced that its peculiar governmental structures – or at least the ethos that sustains them – are resilient enough to weather any firestorm, survive even the most incompetent and corrupt leaders, and secure infinite and unlimited economic growth.

This is a fallacy. That Catholics, especially those in the episcopacy, cannot see this, suggests that they identify firstly as citizens of the United States, and only afterwards as members of the Church.

Meanwhile, the fires continue to burn in both houses they occupy…

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

Accompaniment and Marginalization

In these days of concern and protest over police violence against people of color, and with what is hopefully a burgeoning awareness on the part of the rest of us of the extent of our white privilege and the blindness that accompanies it, what does the gospel lead us to do? One of Pope Francis’s more pugnacious pronouncements is that the only acceptable ideology is the ideology of the gospel. In other words, our principles need to be drawn from the example of Jesus, and if they seem to outsiders to be a product of one political ideology or another, that is just too bad. They grow out of the gospel. We are not liberals or conservatives. We are gospel radicals.

So, for example, the preferential option for the poor might sound like a liberal platitude, but it is God’s preference in the words of the Hebrew prophets and in Jesus’s proclamation of his messianic credentials in Luke chapter 4. Because God chooses the poor, as liberation theologians have taught us now for half a century, it is our responsibility to side with the poor. Indeed, to walk with them. We have no choice, but when we see how little this principle is truly employed in our society, whether it comes from leftist politics, bleeding hearts or the gospel, it is obvious that some of us have a voice, while others are silent or silenced. The majority stand at the margins of political life and cultural opportunity, wondering their turn will ever come.

What does it mean to be marginalized? Many of us do not know, because it has never happened to us. Wealth or education insulate us from marginalization. Whiteness also works in this way for many, even for many of those who have neither wealth nor an advanced education, simply because the color of their skin bestows privilege upon them. But those who do know what it is to be marginalized hear it in the deafening silence with which their vision of the world is received by the rest of us. They smell it in the stench of white racism; they can measure it by the gap between rich and poor in our new gilded age; they encounter it in patriarchy; and they taste it in the gall of lack of opportunity and, often enough, lack of hope.

The most salient feature of marginalization is lack of voice. The dominant discourse of our society reflects the perspective of the wealthy and the educated, if not simply the rich and famous. To be a liberal representative of the privileged classes is to believe in and perhaps even to work for the expansion of our privilege to include more of those who do not currently benefit from it. So we might favor expanded educational opportunities, greater access to fair housing and employment, and so on, and who would not agree that these are laudable ends? They do not, however, adjust the power relations in society. Being the beneficiary of the largesse of the powerful is only minimally satisfactory. It is surely better than nothing, but to quote once more from the lexicon of liberation theology, it does not raise a person to true subjecthood. That person remains the object of another’s attention, or in many cases still the victim of social oppression.

True subjecthood for oppressed peoples is an enormous challenge for society. It cannot happen without reversing the social hierarchy of those who are in and those who are out. The marginalized need to occupy the center, the former center needs to migrate to the periphery and be silent for a time. This reversal can only happen in one of two ways, either by revolution or conversion. If a violent reversal of power relations is not to occur, there has to be a true change of heart that will be measured in the abdication of social and cultural power in favor of the voice of those who have been silent for millennia. It is just possible that the new awareness that is breaking over white America that the tale that black Americans have told forever about the many instances of police brutality is, in fact, not an exaggeration, but unvarnished truth, just may be the catalyst for systemic change. If white America is not to be pushed aside, it must step aside. We have to escape our hegemonic captivity to the myth of America as the land of the free, and learn about its dark underside.

How will change happen? White America could step aside in a vast act of altruism in the service of justice, but that would be an unlikely miracle, with perhaps too much negativity in its strategy. A better course of action that might more gently produce the same result would be to accept Gustavo Gutierrez’s call for walking with the poor, for caminando con los pobres, for the warm human act of accompaniment. When we walk with the other or, as is sometimes said, when we walk in their shoes, we learn to see the world the way they see it. Achieving this requires generosity on the part of the systematically disadvantaged and humility on the part of the oblivious oppressors. Humble walking above all requires listening, not talking. And listening is a profound act of decentralization. One of the most comforting datums to emerge from the recent turmoil in our cities is that young people of all races believe that the single most important step we can take to address racism lies in community building.  Our challenges of racism will begin to dissipate when white America learns to stand aside and stand beside, to listen to the voices, the experience and, yes, the creativity of the other. That way lies healing.

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

We Need to Look Out for One Another

In the 10 years I spent as an RCIA director, one of the biggest challenges I faced was marshalling my diplomatic skills in response to magical thinking. Not from the catechumens, mind you, but from zealous sponsors like the one who stressed the heightened efficacy of engaging in a favorite devotion at a specific time or the woman who asserted we could say with confidence that the Blessed Virgin always wore blue.

In what I considered a great act of restraint for this outspoken cynic, I looked for ways to be respectful of people’s deeply held traditions while ensuring that the catechumens didn’t leave thinking they were required to engage with the specific sacramentals and devotions cited by their sponsors as part of their newfound life as Catholics. It was a fruitful exercise for me because I had to remind myself that I had no right to judge others’ engagement with things that are not provable but don’t harm anyone by belief in them. 

The arrival of COVID-19, however, has brought with it a far more serious—and dangerous—kind of magical thinking, and it comes from those who think we can proceed as we always have when it comes to liturgy.

Requests to compromise for the safety of others are seen by some as an attack on religious freedom, a thought process that reveals a selfishness antithetical to the very nature of the communal life of the church.

No sooner had my own archdiocese taken to social media with the news that parishes could opt to re-open—an announcement accompanied by an infographic about the protocols people were urged to take—then the pile-on began.

“Forcing masks on the population and the faithful especially is a sign of oppression of God’s people,” one woman responded.

The need to minimize the risk related to returning to church is clear. Cases abound of churchgoers from various denominations becoming infected after attending services. In Germany, for example, 107 people tested positive who attended a service in a church in Frankfurt after it reopened in May, even though new government rules called for social distancing and hygiene measures.

While there is still so much we do not know about COVID-19, numerous studies suggest that wearing a mask, in tandem with hand washing and social distancing, is a key element of preventing the spread of the disease.

Yet the naysayers persist. When Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the leading infectious disease experts in the world, urged churches to use “common sense,” an approach he says includes delaying the resumption of Communion, he, too, was greeted with a barrage of criticism, including one twitter commenter who asserted, “Shame on him for saying Catholics should not go to Holy Communion.” One person went so far as to suggest he was in the hands of Satan. Apparently the problems doesn’t reside only with the laity. Pope Francis has weighed in, citing the “adolescent resistance”  of some priests who have been reluctant to put safety measures in place to protect churchgoers.

Have church-going Catholics suffered from the loss of access to sacraments during the pandemic, and especially during the Lenten and Easter seasons? Absolutely. There is a deep hunger for Eucharist that spiritual communion and online masses can’t always fill. The pandemic has called on all of us to sacrifice, and all of us have suffered in a variety of ways because of the privation. For a significant number of Catholics, and particularly older ones, this will be the first time they have missed Mass.

But these strange times offer us a chance to engage with our faith in a renewed way as members of the Body of Christ, and that includes looking out for each other. It’s a safe guess that some of the first back to church will be older Catholics whose age makes them particularly vulnerable to illness. Once in the pews, Mass ceases to become an individual experience in front of a computer screen in the safety of home, but, as it was always intended to be, the communal experience of the faithful.

It is ironic that in the rush to get back to Mass, some see this as an individual action—my right to receive communion on the tongue, my right to go maskless, my right to receive the sacrament of reconciliation in a confessional—risking compromising the safety of other people. This includes priests, many of whom, as elderly men, are themselves at risk of becoming ill.

There is a form of magical thinking happening that says faith trumps science in terms of determining how to proceed, but we have to trust pastors, in consultation with those who are on the front lines, to ponder all the variables as the great reopen begins, with priests truly acting as shepherds. My desire to get back to Mass cannot come before the safety of others, the people in my faith community.

We all need ignore the ridiculous conspiracy theories—Dr. Fauci trying to betray the church or public health regulations being a plot against religious life—and think about what we are doing for each other. In our desire to get back to the communion line, for example, have we thought about the additional cleaning costs parishes face, or the vulnerability of the volunteers whose selflessness is allowing people to return? Not one of us can say with confidence that we are not at risk of infecting others. If there are ways to minimize the risk, let’s take those steps. And if some locations cannot yet open with confidence, then the wait will just have to drag on.

My hometown of Toronto was one of the worst hit during the SARS epidemic of 2003. At that time, holy water fonts were drained, and the kiss of peace was turned into a polite nod or smile, a touchless acknowledgement. We managed.

SARS brought with it a shadow of the destruction that COVID-19 has, and with the apparent risk of a second wave later this year, we need to be thinking ahead to ensure we keep others safe, for whatsoever we do for the least of our sisters and brothers, we do for the risen Christ. Both science and faith reveal that to me. As the hashtag reads, we really are all in this together.

Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.