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Entries from November 2020

Thanksgiving and Apocalypse

To give light to them that sit in darkness,

and in the shadow of death:

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

  • Luke 1:79

American Catholics arrive at Thanksgiving this year on a somber note. The calamities of 2020 have been many: An ongoing pandemic with hundreds of thousands of lives lost and others forever changed for the worse; devastating fires and repeated hurricanes offering a glimpse of the future horrors of climate change; police killings that have pointed out once again America’s “original sin” of anti-black racism; brazen denial of the reality of fairly counted and reported election results that poses a threat to our democracy; and last but not least, for Catholics in particular, the McCarrick report highlighting the deep rot of clericalism within the church and the many, including John Paul II, who failed to stop the former cardinal’s sociopathic rise. There is a reason “#2020” has become synonymous with catastrophe on social media. There is little, seemingly for which to give thanks except having made it through the year.

This year, as is often the case, Thanksgiving coincides with the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of Advent. This oft-misunderstood season does not simply serve as a prelude to Christmas but rather highlights the two comings of Christ: first, the apocalyptic coming of Christ at the end of time (thus bookending the period at the end of the liturgical year which also emphasizes this theme); and only thereafter hinting at the commemoration of Christmas. Advent is often put forward as a corrective to the commercialization of Christmas, but this year looking backwards in the calendar of the American civil religion to Thanksgiving might offer some insights.

Each year since 2008, I have attended the Advent Procession at Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue, an Episcopal church in New York City renowned for its music program. Until his sudden death in 2015, that choir was conducted by the great John Scott, and a staple of the service under his direction was Philip Moore’s setting of the Benedictus from the Gospel of Luke recited each morning as part of Morning Prayer. Moore’s haunting setting (now available on YouTube thanks to one of Scott’s former assistants), elaborating on the Gregorian Tonus Peregrinus or “wandering tone,” evokes the tension of Advent between the already and the not-yet: confidently waiting for something better yet still tentative about its arrival. That mood, I would argue, suits us well as we approach this Advent and this Thanksgiving. We await an apocalypse – not the end perhaps, but at the least a breaking through of justice and righteousness; and also await the tenderness of Christmas, perhaps not in Christmas itself but the ability to embrace our loved ones, in the words of the canticle, “without fear.”

Our society has certainly reached an apocalypse in its original sense of unveiling: all sorts of frightening unmaskings are taking place (and not just those related to low compliance with public health directives). The motivations and calculations of many powerful people in our society have lost all nuance. We fear with Yeats’ great apocalyptic poem that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  As one of the great witnesses to Advent, Alfred Delp, S.J., put it, the season shakes us out our “pathetic complacency.” There is no room now for complacency. Complacency means abandoning others to disenfrancisement, displacement, dehumanization and, ultimately, needless death.

Many reasons have been given for why our society has reached the point it is at now, in danger of crumbling from within. I would submit that one of the most profound ills of American society in our time is a deep bad faith that has injected a profound nihilism into our politics. This is not, pace some arguments made in Catholic circles, simply the fruit of “both-sides” polarization, but the result of the quest for power and privilege no matter what the cost to others. The story of McCarrick shows one example of such profound bad faith; the aftermath of the 2020 election and the undermining of democratic institutions for partisan purposes shows another one. Such bad faith comes, Delp argues, from avoiding the disquiet that comes from facing God. In a different way than Lent and its penance for our sins of commission, Advent ought to disquiet us by our failure to even in meager ways approximate the eschatological glory that awaits us.

This Thanksgiving, we need Advent more than ever. Let us pray with the community of the Didache in their Eucharistic Thanksgiving: May grace come and this world pass away.  Not entirely (yet), perhaps, but the bad faith, cynicism, fatalism and racism that have been part of the human contribution to #2020 cannot pass away quickly enough.

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

Tyranny, Obedience and the Closing of the Catholic Mind

After leaving my academic post earlier this year, I am rediscovering the joy of reading for its own sake, free from publication deadlines and the pressure to produce peer-reviewed journal articles. This week I started reading Bernard Häring’s three-volume study, Free and Faithful in Christ. Published in 1978, the first volume – General Moral Theology – can, with hindsight, be seen as a pivotal moment when the tide began to turn in the postconciliar Church. As a formative influence on the Council, Häring writes with all the intellectual vigor and openness that characterized Catholic theology after Vatican II, but the election of Pope John Paul II that same year would see a closing down of the Catholic mind, with an increasingly authoritarian approach promoted by John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Head of the CDF and then as Pope Benedict XVI.

The McCarrick report (published by the Vatican on November 10) exposes the damage caused by two popes who appointed bishops to do their will in the U.S. Church, clamping down on progressive and liberationist Catholicism and cultivating an obsessive preoccupation with sexual and reproductive issues – particularly abortion – that has contributed to the near disintegration of democracy in U.S. politics. That same day saw the British publication of a widely anticipated report into sex abuse in the Catholic Church by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA), and it makes equally devastating reading with regard to the failure of the Church’s most senior leaders to offer an appropriate response to the trauma of victims and survivors and to take effective action to investigate charges of abuse.

It was against this background of clerical complacency, cronyism and betrayal that I read these words from Häring’s introduction. He writes,

what most influenced my thinking about moral theology was the mindless and criminal obedience of Christians to Hitler, a madman and tyrant. This led me to the conviction that the character of a Christian must not be formed one-sidedly by a leitmotif of obedience but rather by a discerning responsibility, a capacity to respond courageously to new value insights and new needs, and a readiness to take the risk. (p. 2)

I am not suggesting a direct comparison between Trump and Hitler, but the support of many white Catholics for Trump is deeply disturbing. Nor am I suggesting that the U.S. Church has a monopoly on mindless and criminal obedience to tyranny. Across eastern and central Europe, and playing an obscure but influential role in Brexiteering British politics, there are powerful Catholics today walking a dark path towards political extremism. The warning lights are flashing orange for the future of democracy, and the Catholic Church is not an innocent bystander. So, I focus on the U.S. only because it is the crucible of so many of the conflicts in the Church today, and I find myself asking how far the Catholic education system there bears some responsibility for the failure to develop the qualities of moral formation that Häring describes – and, of course, I know that this refers only to a minority within the vastly diverse demographics of U.S. Catholicism, but it is a significant minority.

I’ve had the pleasure of teaching exchange students from U.S. universities in London. I was surprised to learn from some that their Catholic schools would bus them to March for Life events. March for Life is a well-funded vehicle for promoting the values of the U.S. religious right in countries as far afield as Croatia and Kenya, often working alongside the petition website CitizenGo, which gathers thousands of signatures from its subscribers around the world for campaigns against sexual and reproductive rights. I asked those exchange students if their Catholic schools encouraged them to join protest marches about other issues of social justice, but they said no. This is anecdotal, but I wonder how typical they were.

I have my own experience of constraints on the intellectual freedom of Catholic institutions in the U.S., having been ‘disinvited’ in 2012 from the University of San Diego where I had been asked to take up a six-week fellowship by my dear friend and colleague, the late Professor Gerard Mannion. The Newman Society was behind the campaign to have me banned, and I understand they have put similar pressure on other academic institutions in the U.S. Their doctrinal weapon was Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic Universities, Ex Corde Ecclesia, which lent justification to many acts of censorship and intimidation. Watching from a distance, all this makes the land of the free seem very unfree insofar as Catholic intellectual life is concerned.

So reading Häring in this time of tumult, I’m reflecting on how high a price is being paid for the failure of the last two papacies to defend the Church’s rich traditions of learning and philosophical enquiry. Pope Francis has done much to reanimate the spirit of Vatican II, yet his obstinate resistance to engaging with women scholars or with gender theorists means that, however much he condemns clericalism, he continues to support a male hierarchical elite that underpins most of the systemic failures and abuses afflicting Catholic life today.

But there is no going back and there is no normal to go back to. After the pandemic recedes, and when we begin to take stock of the lessons to be learned from the U.S. election and from the publication of two more devastating reports into the ongoing sex abuse scandal, we may realize that the Church as we know it is finished. Far from seeing this as a tragedy, I believe that in the dying throes of this corrupted and dysfunctional institution, we can discern the birthing pains of a new era struggling to be born, but the stakes are high and there is much to lose if the old authoritarianism reasserts itself. This is indeed a time when Catholics must manifest ‘a discerning responsibility, a capacity to respond courageously to new value insights and new needs, and a readiness to take the risk.’

Tina Beattie is professor emirita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.

A Church and Nation in Need of Reconciliation

As if further proof were necessary, the results of the recent U.S. elections have forcefully confirmed what we already knew: the United States is a deeply divided nation. And so is the Catholic Church in this country.

On November 7 – four days after Election Day – almost every reputable news organization reported that the Democratic candidate and former vice president, Joe Biden, had won enough electoral votes to be declared the next occupant of the White House.

But the Republican incumbent, President Donald Trump, has yet to concede the election. Without any evidence, he and his diehard supporters are claiming that the voting was “rigged” to help the Democrats “steal the election.”

At the time of this writing, the ongoing tabulation shows that Biden has received just over 77 million popular votes, while Trump has garnered a bit more than 72 million. A five million vote difference seems an awful lot, but not when we’re talking nearly 150 million total.

The Democrats had hoped for a much, much wider margin. They wanted (indeed they needed) a landslide to argue that the American people had repudiated Trump’s dark and divisive politics and rhetoric.

But there was no repudiation. Some 72 million Americans actually told the rest of the nation that they approve of the way the president has conducted himself and conducted the nation’s affairs the past four years.

Various polls suggest that the divide could be even worse among Catholics. Some show that white members of our Church actually voted predominantly for Trump. This is a problem. A big problem. Especially when one considers that Catholics for Trump and Catholics for Biden are basically living like separated spouses under the same religious roof. They are not talking to each other. Or when they are, it is usually in harsh and accusatory tones.

Biden, who is a lifelong Catholic, says he wants to heal this gaping wound. But how can he possibly do that? Most Catholics who voted for Trump have excommunicated the former vice-president because he does not oppose legalized abortion. They, and the rest of Trump’s supporters, are also angry just at the thought that the man who “stole” the election now wants to heal the nation.

So, what is to be done? More specifically, what can Catholics do to move this forward?

First, we need to change our tone and rhetoric. We need to stop demonizing each other and refuse to magnify, retweet, “like” or forward personal attacks on either candidate or their supporters. That includes things that are factually untrue or unsubstantiated.

Second, we need to find a way to talk to one another about our concerns. Many families are divided by their political choices. Some – perhaps most – have decided to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the living room, refrain from mentioning anything pertaining to politics and make believe we’re all one big happy family. Sadly, we are not – not as a Church or as a nation.

Third, let’s finally admit that the U.S. political system is not working. At least not the way it should. That it took nearly a whole week to count enough of the ballots to determine a winner of the presidential election is a sign that all is not well.

Leaving aside Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of vote rigging, we should all be able to agree that the cumbersome, antiquated and extremely slow process – actually 50 different processes – that we witnessed this year was not the most shining moment of a people that has been indoctrinated into believing that theirs is the greatest democracy on earth.

In fact, the history of democracy in the United States is that of trying to severely limit democracy and who has the right to vote. From the very beginning of the nation, when only white male landowners were allowed to cast a ballot, there has been a constant struggle to expand the electorate.

Each state has different voting laws, deadlines, types of ballots, methods of tabulation and so forth. And then there is the uncomfortable matter of the Electoral College. Each time the electoral vote is close, the party whose candidate ends up on the losing end raises suspicions of irregularities or even begins a new drumbeat to abolish the Electoral College. The party whose candidate ends up winning is usually not interested in addressing either of these concerns.

Perhaps this year can be different. And maybe Democrats and others who supported Biden (especially Catholics) can actively partner with Republicans and Trump supporters to begin an honest and respectful national discussion aimed at devising reforms that will ensure more transparency, fewer chances of irregularity and – dare I say it? – a fresh look at the usefulness (or not) of the Electoral College.

And, finally, we need to pray – especially for President Trump. We need to pray that he is enlightened and endowed with the good grace to be part of the healing process, rather than the tearing apart of the nation.

Certainly, if there is evidence of voter fraud he – we all – should support every means to verify and clarify. And if the margins of victory are razor thin in key electoral districts, no one should be afraid of recounting the votes.

But we need to stop the harsh and hateful rhetoric, accusations and recriminations. Within the country and within the Church. It won’t be easy after these past four years, during which, one way or another, we have all been drawn into thinking that we have a right – at least at times – to speak our minds without having to abide by political correctness.

No, it won’t be easy.

But what is the alternative? If the United States does not have some sort of national reconciliation, the future will be bleak. And dangerous.

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

Catholics Need to be Independent Voters

By the time you read this blog, the voting will be over, but the counting will still be going on—perhaps for many days more. But whoever is President for the next four years, Catholics and their church need to do some serious soul searching as we look into the future. And I suggest we begin by abandoning all party affiliations and reregistering as independents.

A few weeks ago, I got some negative responses to an op-ed piece I wrote for the local newspaper (and many more positive ones) by suggesting that we all should be independents, but that this time we just had to vote Democratic. Even, I said, this time “Jesus would vote Democratic.” I suppose the remark could be considered a little inflammatory. It certainly wasn’t intended to cheer up Democrats or enrage Republicans. But all Catholics are independents, right? Jesus would have been an independent. And one of the notable things about almost all independents is that they vote and, almost inevitably, they vote Democrat or Republican. So, I wasn’t saying that Jesus is a Democrat or that he is opposed to Republicans. Just that an independent is going to vote one or the other, and this time it would have to be Democratic.

That we all should have been voting Democratic follows from Pope Francis’s critique of ideology. The only acceptable ideology, he has written, is the ideology of the gospel. All other ideologies straitjacket our thinking. But the ideology of the gospel enlarges thinking and calls on us to believe there are no limits to the message of life that is at the heart of the gospel. The gospel is prolife in all its many manifestations, prolife in the broadest possible sense of the phrase. If you put your head in the sand and deny climate change, you are not prolife. If you don’t wear a mask and practice social distancing, you are not prolife. If you live quietly in a country that profits enormously from the sale of arms, you are not prolife. And on the question of abortion, those who are not prolife can be found in both the prolife and prochoice camps. There are what we Brits call “headbangers” at both extremes. In the middle, we face the awful challenges of moral choice. But not because we are Democrats or Republicans.

Now that the voting in this most contentious of elections is over, it is time for the Catholic church and the community of faith, evidently not always exactly the same, to ask ourselves what should be the relationship between our Catholic identity and issues of political choice and civic virtue. And there, of course, is the heart of the issue. Political choices need to be made to promote civic virtue, not xenophobia or short-term personal gain. This is the core of the difference between calling someone a politician or a statesperson. In recent years, we have seen the worst of politicians putting their own egos or their own party’s advantage ahead of the national and global common good. If politicians belong to one party or another, it has to be because they see that party as promoting the common good. And when it doesn’t, well, you vote your conscience.

What is true for our elected representatives is equally true for those of us who elect them, and those in our community of faith who have more power or influence over Catholic public opinion. First to the bishops: If they cannot agree on ethical priorities, as apparently they cannot, then they need immediately to abandon the hoary old “Guide to Faithful Citizenship” in favor of something better. Perhaps silence would be better than a document that carefully explains how Catholic voters should not be single-issue people, but which is now prefaced with a statement that clearly says abortion is the pre-eminent issue for voters. This judgment is a commercial for the Republican party that contradicts the teaching contained in the document, and one that is so blatant that I would like to think that the next administration will take a long hard look at the tax-exempt status of the Catholic Church. In fact, it was made pretty clear in recent months that some bishops and many clergy have been using the pulpit to contradict their own USCCB document, and there may be a price to pay.

But what of us, the people in the pew who vote? The first requirement for the exercise of an informed conscience, and here I agree with the bishops, is that we learn what is at issue and what is the quality of the arguments martialed on both “sides” to try to convince us. Bishops have no claim to our allegiance if they argue badly. (That is one reason, by the bye, that the Catholic faithful is largely not with them on issues of clerical celibacy and quite divided over the role of women in ministry.) So, bishops need to argue differently from politicians. No ego, no personal gain. No, they need to turn to the advice of Pope Francis and stick with the ideology of the gospel. As also should we voting faithful.

The gospel demands our commitment to the message of the Incarnation, that God so loved the world that the divine entered into history to the fullest possible extent, that of suffering and death. Our task as Catholic Christians is to love the world for God, to be a loving presence of God in history. And it is this and nothing else that should inform our commitment to civic virtue. Of course, we all can argue about what is the best course of action for civil society to take to make the world more like its God gave it the freedom to become, to become more like God, to be more loving. But we cannot argue about the gospel principle itself. There is no Christian argument for choosing the less loving course of action, whatever the cost. The cross is the Christian proof of this, and the resurrection into new life is the reward.

Our political choices moving forward require us to embrace the cross, to tackle the difficult civic and human issues in the service of bringing new life to the world. The only single issue that we should stand for is the single issue of a more contented life for all of humanity in a world that is our home, a home we share with the rest of God’s creation. This has absolutely nothing to do with party affiliation. So as a first step, let the Catholic community make a public commitment to status as independent voters. Our vote has to be won, and it will be won only if the political platform promotes the fullness of life. Which is indeed the ideology of the gospel.

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