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Entries from September 2020

Building Innocence on a Lie

How does a country cope with shame?

In July 1942 French police in occupied Paris carried out “Operation Spring Breeze”—arresting 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, who were detained in the Vélodrome d'Hiver (a cycling stadium). The detainees were held for five days with little food or water, while awaiting transport by cattle cars to camps in the East—mostly to Auschwitz. Of the 4,000 children rounded up in this raid, only six adolescents returned.

The Jews deported in Operation Spring Breeze represented only a quarter of the 42,000 ultimately deported from France to Auschwitz—811 of whom survived. However, the role of French police in conducting this raid remained a particular stain on the French conscience. After the war, many in France denied any culpability, claiming it was a Nazi operation. In 1994, President François Mitterand declared, “I will not apologize in the name of France. The Republic had nothing to do with this. I do not believe France is responsible.”

But in 1995 President Jacques Chirac reversed this position, acknowledging the work of 450 French policemen, and issued a public apology: “These black hours will stain our history forever ...  France, home of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.”

In 2017 President Emmanuel Macron renewed this apology: “It was indeed France that organized this roundup,” he said. “Not a single German took part. It is convenient to see the Vichy regime as born of nothingness, returned to nothingness. Yes, it’s convenient, but it is false. We cannot build pride upon a lie.”

There was surely a time when French citizens would have found it impossible to believe that their countrymen could be implicated in such a crime. But gradually, under occupation, a large part of the population, infected by the virus of racism and the cult of nationalism, succumbed to regarding their fellow human beings as the Other, not truly French, “not like us.” 

In Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 play Rhinoceros, he describes a town in which the citizens are gradually turning into rhinoceroses—rampaging through the streets, destroying gardens and causing a ruckus. At first people are shocked and horrified—but they gradually yield to the “new normal,” accepting that there is nothing so wrong with being a rhinoceros; in fact, it is those who cling to their humanity who are the real outsiders and dangers to public safety!

Only five years ago, in September 2015, Pope Francis spoke to a joint session of Congress, outlining a vision of the fundamental values—liberty, equality, compassion and solidarity—that make a country “great.” He did this with reference to four “great” Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Weaving a narrative intertwining religious truths with the highest civic ideals, he called for welcoming immigrants and refugees, caring for the earth, ending the death penalty, dedication to the poor and the common good and pursuing the goal of global solidarity.

Five years ago, that message seems like a time capsule from a different era. Did he already hear what most of us could not?—somewhere on the horizon, the distant hoof beats of the rhinoceros? He could not literally have known that the next year a presidential candidate would campaign under the slogan of “Making America Great Again,” and that, with strong Catholic support, he would go on to pursue an agenda aimed at countering all the policies and “fundamental values” outlined in his speech to Congress.

Yet five years later, I listened to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast where Attorney General William Barr, fresh from making good on his promise to execute federal prisoners, was awarded the Christifideles Laici award for his “selfless and steadfast service in the Lord’s vineyard.” He was followed by President Trump, who was lauded for his unparalleled commitment to the “culture of life.” And in between, there was a keynote by a respected Catholic bishop who lauded the Christian inspiration behind the Declaration of Independence and the importance of religion in the public square. There were pictures displayed of St. John Paul II in Poland, and even of the President honoring the Shrine of JPII, fresh from having bravely, with the help of his attorney general, dispersed demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets to pose with a Bible in the public square.

Someday, many may look back on our time and pretend that it was not we who put children in cages, dismantled environmental regulations, fiddled while 200,000 died, applauded those who marched under banners of hate—or imagine that it was all the work of a regime that was born of nothingness and returned to nothingness.

But we cannot build innocence upon a lie.

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.

By Their Fruits You Will Know Them

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”—Matthew 7:15-20

In this post I take our blog title and begin to explore, in a roundabout way, what it might mean if the house we are meant to “rebuild” is ourselves, that is, to paraphrase Pope John Paul II, the human person as a living house of the divine.  

When I lived in Scotland, I had a wonderful spiritual director, a good tree bearing good fruit. He was gentle, wise, perceptive, and had a fine sense of humor. Most importantly, he could see. He could see in the way the writer and cultural theorist bell hooks moves to define it in her wonderful book Belonging: A Culture of Place. She tells the story of her grandmother, Baba, who taught her that human beings are “shaped by space.” Baba’s house was filled with things of varied texture and color: sunlit lace curtains, strings of red peppers, braids of brown tobacco leaves, cups of burgundy wine. “Do you believe that space can give life, or take it away, that space has power?” Baba asked her granddaughter. She showed hooks “the beauty of the everyday,” taught her that “we must learn to see.”

My former spiritual director did for me what hooks’ grandmother did for her. For me and for many others in Glasgow and beyond, Catholic and otherwise, he helped create a sanctuary at the Ignatian Spirituality Centre in the heart of the city. As soon as I crossed the threshold into that space, I felt more at ease, more myself. Inside those walls the air seemed lighter, the colors, brighter. Ordinary objects provided a sense of welcome and safety: teacups and biscuit tins, bookcases crowded with books and house plants, a chapel full of light and art. I would meet with my spiritual director (though I prefer the term “anam cara,” or “soul friend,” which was used in the early Celtic Church) and talk about my prayer and daily life. Sometimes, after listening awhile, he would simply ask: Where was God in all this? Gradually I came to see patterns in what initially seemed formless and chaotic. Like bell hooks, I had found a space that gave life and “rebuilt” my interior landscape.

Watching the Democratic National Convention last month, my soul friend unexpectedly came to mind, though I had not thought of him for some time. The same question arose that he had asked so often. Where is God in this? Or, in other words, where is life? Was this virtual space, created to guard against the spread of COVID-19 and thus protect participants, life giving? I found it overwhelmingly and surprisingly so, especially in its inclusion of all U.S. people—Native American, Black, Hispanic, white, men, women, young, old, straight, gay, from every region, from many faiths and none. Here was a portrayal of the United States as diverse and reunited, a welcoming, merciful space, one of possibility in which a society might actually begin to heal and even flourish. The Democratic candidate Joe Biden, a Catholic, appeared human and humane, vulnerable and humble, yet strong and ready to protect and serve all Americans. “I will be an ally of the light,” he promised, “not of the darkness.”

Nothing I saw those nights of the convention led me to believe that Joe Biden is “Catholic in name only,” as one speaker declared during the Republican National Convention not long after, nor that Catholics who voted for Democrats would be condemned to hell, as a Wisconsin priest claimed in a viral video recently. I saw no evidence, as was claimed by some, that there was no mention of God at the DNC. To the contrary, there was more than enough to make an American voter aware of the Establishment Clause in the Bill of Rights (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”) uneasy.

By their fruits you will know them. In response to what David E. Decosse politely called the “fever pitch of false statements on the part of many claiming to speak for Catholicism,” he and others have attempted to clarify the responsibility of the American Catholic voter in the midst of a bombardment of constant lies and chaos. They turn to the teaching document on the subject from the U.S. bishops, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” What are the most important considerations for the responsible Catholic voter? The bishops name four principles of Catholic Social Teaching: the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity.  Political decisions ought to be governed by reason and confirmed by revelation using a well-formed conscience. Crucial is the formation of conscience, which seems neglected in today’s world. How does one develop a conscience, know the good tree? Perhaps all the Church needs to refocus on this, the “rebuilding” of interior landscape, on learning how to see.

Jennifer Reek is a writer, teacher and chaplain.

Catholic Universities are Not Yet a Paradigm for Ethics in the Church

Those eager for reform in the Catholic Church have looked to Catholic universities for inspiration. But Catholic universities are beset by many of the same problems that plague the Church: clericalism, top-down decision-making, lack of diversity, reluctance to change and a culture of fear. These are Catholic twists on more fundamental problems plaguing universities in general. As Jesuit ethicist James Keenan put it in his 2015 book, University Ethics:

Simply put, the American university does not hold its employees to professional ethical standards because it has not created a culture of ethical consciousness and accountability at the university, and this is in part both because of the nature of the contemporary university and because it does not believe that it needs ethics (4).

Universities don’t teach about university ethics. Few of their employees are held to professional ethical standards.

Most of all, the administrators – in particular, those at the highest level of the university from vice presidents and the president to the board of trustees – have not been trained in professional university ethics. Small wonder then that they do not promote a culture of ethical consciousness and accountability (6).

While this blind spot can occur in any type of institution, Keenan says universities and the Catholic Church are particularly susceptible. Both presume that because they teach ethics, they do not need it themselves. If Keenan is right, then Catholic universities are doubly hampered by their university culture and their Catholic culture.

This need for internalized professional ethics takes on new urgency during COVID-19. The month of August saw some universities open early, among them the University of Notre Dame. Notre Dame saw 512 positive coronavirus tests from August 3 to 28, in response to which it put all courses online for two weeks and will bring 87 students before disciplinary hearings. The editors of a student newspaper editorialized, “Don’t make us write obituaries.” They assert that while the university’s blaming of the outbreak on students “isn’t entirely misplaced, it has been used to deflect responsibility from the very administrations that insisted they were prepared for us to return to campus.”

To be sure, many Catholic and non-Catholic colleges are doing a better job. But the public looks to the flagship Catholic universities to see how they live their values. Notre Dame so far has not distinguished itself from its secular peers.

If Notre Dame and others fail, the deep causes will be what Keenan has diagnosed: the blind spot regarding ethics and the culture of commodification that has infected American universities. Universities have built up huge infrastructures to woo customers, and the entire U.S. higher education system has habituated young people into thinking that fun and amenities are what they need. COVID-19 is forcing everyone to ask what we have been doing. But there’s no way back to the stated ideal of a liberal arts education as the central purpose of college without a lot of financial pain.

Nor is there a way forward on important goals regarding diversity without making some sacrifices. The attitude of “ethics is for society, not for us” has tainted certain responses to the revitalized movement for racial justice. At one Catholic university, the reaction was to issue an impressive-sounding plan for diversity and inclusion. It features new procedures for reporting students who post biased statements on social media and an initiative to create new courses on diversity. Keenan would remind us, however, to beware of a possible disconnect between word and deed.

One would have to take a moment to notice what is not included in this university’s plan: goals and strategies to increase faculty and staff of color (less than 1% of tenured faculty are of color), to increase enrollment of students of color (about 5% are Black, compared to 10% of residents in the state and 40% in the university’s host city), and to be a better citizen of that financially struggling city. One might also be surprised to learn that the administrator in charge of a new student diversity center laid off the university’s rare Black employee with a supervisory role, only to put out a job ad calling for a more junior employee to do much the same duties.

Obviously, neither I, nor still less the reader, is privy to the particulars of a personnel decision. But a senior officer familiar with the situation gave me a take on why an action like this occurs with impunity: “It’s clericalism, pure and simple.” You see, the administrator in charge is a priest, known to have a long history of clashes with supervisees at two Catholic universities, firing or forcing out many of them.

Keenan’s diagnosis of the lack of internal ethics in such institutions is reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching about removing the log from one’s own eye (Matthew 7:5). In the case above, the log is the “defensiveness and certitude” of white progressives, which “make it virtually impossible to explain” to them how they uphold racism (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, 5).

Keenan concludes his book saying it’s time for those with institutional power ­– boards, administrators, and tenured (especially white, male) faculty – to get serious about internal ethics. Sadly, in my 25-year career in Catholic higher education, I have seen enough to be discouraged about all three groups.

But because of the Black Lives Matter movement, my hope has gravitated to students and laity – the folks with the numbers and the money, even though they have the least institutional power. We have seen what young people can effect through collective action. For instance, Georgetown University students voted in April 2019 to pay an annual fee into a reparations fund for the descendants of the 272 slaves that Georgetown sold in the year 1838. The students acted six months before the university itself did.

Catholic universities and the Church should not wait for demands or demoralization, both of which are already eating away at them. They should get to work on enculturating internal ethics while the time is ripe.

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.

Lo cotidiano: The Narrative Voice the Church—and the World—Still Needs

Times of crises will scatter people into different directions to make sense of what is occurring or to gather ideas for what can be done. The current global condition of fear and disruption caused me recently to amble through some older documents and articles, and happily I came across several essays by the late feminist theologian, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. Her voice in those writings is clear and dynamic, and she compelled her reader to ponder some difficult questions and confront some unsettling realities.  Paging through a few of her essays, I recognized that many of her ideas still resonate today in our tumultuous era of global pandemic, political and cultural protests, and the increasingly rancorous polarization between and among communities of citizens. Her call for a renewed appreciation of Christian caritas—love of God, love of neighbor—as a love that is cohesion (dare one say, solidarity?) rather than a kind of concession, and her insistence that the neglected voices of the marginalized (women, the poor, the oppressed) must be acknowledged and integrated into the theorized narrative that has been Church, find echoes, not surprisingly, in the words and ministry of Pope Francis. Indeed, reading Isasi-Diaz from 1996 and hearing Pope Francis in 2020 is like eavesdropping in on an amicable conversation between two impassioned advocates for human dignity and moral accountability. Yet, it is also true that now, as then, there are certain constituencies within, and without, the Church that reject even to the point of denouncing such advocacy, except perhaps as a vague (and, thereby, non-threatening) ideal.

Like most theologians of liberation, Isais-Diaz wanted to extricate the Church (the people of God) and its rhetoric (the good news of Christ) from the tight hold of an exclusive and powerful cadre who continue(d) to arrogate to themselves solely the representation of the Church and of the Catholic faith. Isasi- Diaz and her colleagues sought to illuminate the Church with the light of the simple faith lived by the disenfranchised millions and, for that reason, she placed at the heart of her own theology the concept of lo cotidiano, the “everyday.” It is an elusive term and does not neatly translate into English but Isasi-Diaz explains it as

… the sphere in which our struggle for life is most immediate, most vigorous, most vibrant … what we face everyday and … how we face it … (it) refers to the way we talk, with the impact of class, gender, poverty and work on our routines and expectations; it has to do with relations within families and among friends and neighbors in a community. It extends to our ... central religious beliefs [1] 

 Such a ‘liberating’ theme was/is not unfamiliar but the Church and the world are at a crossroads, and so her idea bears repeating. Isasi-Diaz was reminding both the leaders of the Church as well as the people in the pews of the necessary meaning of Christian caritas: it is a ‘love’ that is a kind of kenosis, an emptying of the will to be fully receptive to the reality of another. Christ is of course the sublime exemplar of caritas that is really kenosis and, for all his divinity, Jesus was fully human, fully aware of the people among whom he walked—among whom he chose to walk—and whom he loved and who loved him. He walked not among the priests and the scribes and the powerful but among the poor, the lost and the broken. Jesus knew the people in their daily lives and participated joyfully in that lo cotidiano: he went to the home and ate a meal with a social outcast; he understood with certainty the frantic fear of a parent whose child is ill, and he went fishing with a fisherman whose nets were empty but he still had to feed his family.

Pope Francis also perceives in the message of Jesus the principle of lo cotidiano. While he has spoken and written extensively about the physical blight of the global pandemic, its catastrophic reach and its cruel intrusion, he has also recommended a reframing of the current situation. Rather than focus on despair and fear (although he himself has identified with such sentiments), he has urged people to conceive of this time as a period of introspection and as an opportunity for spiritual and moral renewal, both an interior conversion (a personal kenosis) but also a sincere participation in lo cotidiano, following Jesus. As Pope Francis explained at a general audience in August,

Faith, hope and love necessarily push us towards this preference for those  most in need, which goes beyond necessary assistance... it implies walking  together, letting ourselves be evangelized by them, who know the suffering Christ well, … Sharing with the poor means mutual enrichment … we are led  to this by the love of Christ, Who loved us to the extreme and reaches the boundaries, the margins, the existential frontiers ...[2]

Walking with Christ and those ‘most in need’ to the edges of the human condition is a formidable challenge for anyone but it is a challenge that must be met if the Church is not fully and finally to be emptied. The high-minded rhetoric of a select few increasingly echoes along silent aisles and unoccupied pews exactly because it is rhetoric of a few who are privileged and the powerful but who  are no longer accepted to speak for others, especially for the many marginalized and poor ‘from the margins’ who have for too long been forced to remain silent or who were not permitted to tell their stories, to speak of their realities, have their voices heard. As Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz two decades ago and Pope Francis a few weeks ago both have suggested, for the Church not only to survive but to flourish, it must become filled with the light of day, irradiated and brought to life by the luminosity of lo cotidiano of the people of God.

June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.

[1] Ana Maria Isais-Diaz, “Lo Cotidiano: A Key Element of Mujerista Theology”, Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology, 10:1 (Aug. 2002), 9.

[2] http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/audiences/2020/documents/papa-francesco_20200819_udienza-generale.html