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Entries from January 2022

Catholics and the Fascist Temptation

With the announcement of the beatification of Pope John Paul I, Pius XII stands as the most recent Pope not to be beatified or canonized. Pius XII had been on track for beatification, but Pope Francis halted these efforts in 2014. While Francis has cited the lack of a miracle as rationale, it seems likely that concerns about Pius’ studied neutrality during World War II had something to do with it. While not “Hitler’s Pope,” a combination of love for Germany and its culture, anti-communism and concern to protect the church from attack led him to (mostly) silence in the face of horrific evil. Pius has defenders who raise some valid points, but canonized sainthood is not owed even to the saints; rather, it serves the purpose of instructing the faithful in exemplary behavior—heroic virtue.

Pius’ stance during the war evoked 1930s debates that James Chappel has effectively described in his book Catholic Modern. Catholics during that period, rather than identify explicitly with either fascism or communism, tended (with some notable exceptions) to be either anti-communist or anti-fascist. This tendency reflected both the accurate sense of Catholics as “politically homeless” (though many sympathized with the corporatism of fascism or the redistribution of communism) but it also posed a danger: defining oneself by antipathy to one ideology often led to a kind of “anti-anti” sympathy for the other.

The term “fascism” became so radioactive in American politics after World War II that attempting to use it as a descriptor becomes challenging, but Robert Paxton offers some clarity on how to actually define this kind of movement: it begins from a preoccupation with decline of the political community and leads to the abandonment of democratic liberties and constraints in order to purge internal enemies. Paxton has warned in his book The Anatomy of Fascism, as well as numerous articles, that the U.S. faces a danger of sliding into fascism, but this is not inevitable—it would be the result of choices by many people who ought to know better.

The United States remains gripped in a political crisis that in many ways began with the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 and continued below many people’s radar during the first year of Joe Biden’s administration. While it may not go by that name precisely (though there were groups on January 6 that specifically used symbols and ideas evocative of fascist movements, including the Nazi swastika and references to “Camp Auschwitz”) there are clear fascist and otherwise illiberal overtones in today’s American political environment, particularly the rise in efforts to selectively restrict voting, sloganeering (“Let’s Go Brandon”), and the threats of stochastic terrorism. This is less in evidence in the “Acela Corridor” of the Northeast, but even slightly outside the major metropolitan and suburban regions of New York or Connecticut it becomes very much apparent.

The Catholic bishops have been notably silent about this dangerous political environment. With some occasional exceptions, their entire political apparatus has been centered on overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision striking down all state laws that banned abortion. These efforts appear to be on the cusp of succeeding, but rather than seeing this as a moment to shift emphasis and moderate, bishops such as Archbishop José Gomez have doubled down on culture war rhetoric, perhaps because this is all they know at this point.

Catholics, however, cannot simply place blame on the failings of bishops. Many lay Catholics, including intellectuals such as Chad Pecknold of the Catholic University of America and Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame, have joined the illiberal cause, evincing a particular fondness for Viktor Orbán’s neofascist Hungarian government. This kind of advocacy goes beyond simply arguing for a conservative political view—competing political factions are part of any democracy—and into the realm of attempting to build a kind of Fascist International. Short of advocacy, but perhaps even more dangerous due to larger numbers, is the silent complicity of those who are prepared to accept the fall of democracy if it does not particularly affect their everyday lives.

One of the key pillars of the post-1945 world order was the “never again” sensibility—that the fascist movements that brought about World War II and its horrors could not be allowed to return. The church’s embrace of religious freedom and opening to other religions (especially Judaism) at Vatican II was in part a response to that moment and the horrors that preceded it. We owe it to the architects of the Council, many of whom were involved in the resistance to fascism, to resist it again. Pius XII, while probably not deserving of canonization, kept silent in response to unprecedented events—if we keep silent now, we have no such excuse.

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

Setting the Cat Among the Pigeons? Pope Francis on Pets and Children

Pope Francis is arguably the most radical world leader of our time. Refugees, the climate crisis, neoliberal economics, technocracy, individualism—he has all these in his sights and he has fired off many eloquent and passionate appeals for humanity to wake up before it is too late. But sometimes he says something just a little—err— ill-considered?—and that sends the media on a feeding frenzy.

At a recent General Audience, he criticized couples who choose to have pets rather than children. This was a brief aside during a catechesis on Saint Joseph, but the media pounced on the story and it attracted many comments on social media as well. The Pope’s remarks were primarily directed to newlyweds, urging them to take the risk of becoming biological or adoptive parents, and warning about the threat of a “demographic winter” caused by declining birth rates across Europe, particularly in Italy. This might all seem like standard fare for an aging Pope who retains a romantic attitude towards marriage and family life, especially with regard to motherhood. It would probably have passed without comment if he hadn’t made that reference to having cats and dogs instead of children, referring to “selfishness” in a slightly different context—a subtlety that was lost amidst the headlines.

This is, however, not a new concern. Even before he was Pope, he has in the past complained about the amount of money spent on pets and cosmetics in a world in which children die of hunger. His comments can be interpreted as a criticism of consumerist societies that value possessions over people. As Sam Rocha (@SamRochadotcom) commented on Twitter, referring to the Pope’s Latin American background, “When you come from a place where people live like dogs, it is scandalous to see dogs live like people.” It would be consistent with the Pope’s concerns about the climate crisis if he had drawn attention to the high environmental cost of pet ownership and the decimation of wildlife by pets, including the vast number of birds killed by domestic cats. Nevertheless, it’s a pity he touched so briefly on such a complex and neuralgic issue.

For a start, there is no “demographic winter” in Africa, where a rapid expansion in population challenges the capacity of communities and states to meet the needs of young people. The problems caused by Europe’s aging population could be solved by more open borders, which would allow the free movement of people. This would, of course, depend on other factors, including the need to avoid a brain drain from poor communities and ensuring just working and living conditions for migrant workers, but these are not insurmountable challenges. Children born in affluent nations have a vastly greater environmental impact than those born in less consumerist societies. There are good environmental reasons for limiting the number of children we have, which is why the Church’s teaching on birth control is a dangerous anachronism that most Catholic couples sensibly ignore. Also, while I agree with those who see the decline in adoption and the rise in abortion as a regrettable fact of modern life, adoption is by no means a simple solution. It usually leaves the birth mother with a lifetime of anguish, yearning and regret, no matter how loved and cared for her child might be by its adoptive parents. Moreover, parenthood is a vocation that doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with marriage, and not every sexually active woman wants to become a mother. There are many ways of bringing the values of familial love to our relationships, and actual parent/child relationships can sometimes become fraught with soul-destroying conflict and misery. The domestic idyll that conservative Catholics see through rose-tinted spectacles does not exist, and it never has. I don’t think a celibate male hierarchy is the best environment in which to generate informed discussions about the intimate details of domestic life. Pope Francis has shown a willingness to face up to some of the messy realities of marriage and the family in Amoris Laetitia, but there is little evidence that his views have been influenced by dialogue with women.

However, it’s important to set the record straight. The Pope is not condemning pet ownership tout court. Some of the comments swirling around social media pointed to the irony of a celibate man criticizing those who are voluntarily childless, but he was addressing couples, and he also spoke of spiritual fatherhood and motherhood. Some commentators observed that it was bizarre for somebody who took the name of Saint Francis to criticize having pets, but in his Life of Saint Francis, Saint Bonaventure records that the saint refused to keep animals given to him as gifts and insisted on returning them to the wild, even when they kept coming back to him. The Rule of Saint Francis forbids his own friars from having anything to do with owning or using “any kind of beast of burden” (No. 15). This was partly because his rule of poverty did not allow for ownership of any property, but it was also because Saint Francis saw animals as sacramental. They are created by God just as we are, and therefore they are our brothers and sisters. His attitudes were a far cry from the sentimentality of much modern pet ownership.

These are conversations worth having, but please Pope Francis, remember the world is watching, and the media are always hungry for a few columns of papal trivia.  

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

The Divided Church and the Next Phase of Synodality

A new calendar year, just like significant milestones in the life of a person or institution, is a moment for us to reflect on the most recent phase of our personal and collective human journey and to prepare for the stretch of road that now lies ahead.

All aspects of our life on planet earth this past year were once again marked by the ongoing challenges (and hardships) posed by the coronavirus pandemic. We now begin year three (!) of this global health crisis.

And what has become painfully clear during this long travail is that we earthlings are more deeply divided than many of us had ever feared.

In almost every country in the world, people are sharply at odds with one another politically. And in many places around the globe, the unity that should bind Roman Catholics together has been further fractured.

Depending on which side of the divide they find themselves, believers will blame this aspect of their Church's long, ongoing crisis (which is much more complex than disunity) on something or somebody different.

Pope Francis tends to be the main reason for all the current woes of Catholicism, according to traditionalists and socio-political conservatives.

The obstinance of traditionalists and socio-political conservatives, on the other hand, is the reason for the Church's problems, according to reform-minded Catholics and socio-political progressives.

How can the divisions between these two groups, members of the same community of believers, be overcome?

It is unlikely that the synodal process, which Francis asked dioceses around the world to launch last October, will bring healing. At least in the immediate future.

One of the reasons is that many bishops—especially in the United States, but also elsewhere—are clearly not interested in this audacious project. Most of them seem terrified that the synodal process will only produce chaos and likely deepen the current divisions.

What else could one expect to happen if, as officials at the Synod of Bishops' secretariat in Rome have urged, all Catholics—even those who contest certain teachings and rules or those who no longer even attend Mass—are invited to come forward and have their say on the Church’s path forward?

Other bishops (and presbyters) apparently see the synodal process—which is extremely different from any diocesan synod or assembly that has been held in the past—as a serious threat to the current Church order in which only ordained clerics are allowed to make the most important decisions.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), as a body, has done practically nothing to promote the synodal process. Its vice president, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, has told Catholics in Southeastern Michigan that there is no need for it in their archdiocese.

Vigneron oversaw a local synod in Detroit in 2016 and believes that it sufficiently marked out the path of the archdiocese for the coming decades, even though that ecclesial assembly bore little resemblance to the synodal process the pope is trying make constitutive for Catholicism.

It will become clear next November whether the U.S. bishops have decided definitively to snub their nose at synodality. That’s when they elect their new conference president. And all but once in USCCB history has the vice president (in this case Vigneron) been voted to assume the top job. 

Pope Francis turned 85 last month and in March he is to complete nine years as Bishop of Rome. These are major milestones for both him and for all of us. During his time at the Vatican he has moved the Catholic Church in a markedly different direction than the one it was headed in when he was elected.

His effort to base all Church reform on a foundation of changed attitudes (or ethos) among priests and people—which is clearly and beautifully spelled out in the 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium—has borne much fruit, but probably not as much or as quickly as many had hoped or expected.

Of course, that is a matter of perspective. A minority of Catholics, unfortunately made up of many bishops and clergy, are not at all happy that so much fruit has already begun to sprout.

Nonetheless, the Church is still a long way from become the self-forgetful, risk-taking, missionary outreach community portrayed in Evangelii gaudium. It is still dominated by people (all of us to a degree) who are obsessed mostly with maintaining/reforming ecclesial structures or reinforcing/changing certain “teachings,” rules and customs.

And we are divided.

The only thing that continues to unite us is our professed belief in God. And it is only through God—in prayer—that we will discover how to heal what divides us.

Catholics are not very good at speaking about their “prayer life.” It’s too intimate and sometimes we find it even more embarrassing than talking about our sex life!

We’re not speaking of prayer that consists only of asking or thanking God for something. The prayer of discernment that the pope speaks about, like any good Jesuit would, is certainly a key to this the real type of prayer that is necessary.

But there is also something called contemplation—sometimes called the “prayer of the heart,” “centering prayer” or even transcendental meditation. It is sitting in silent stillness, clearing the mind and allowing oneself to be embraced by the Holy Spirit.

Most Catholics have grown up thinking this is only something for monks or nuns, but as Thomas Merton discovered monks aren't necessarily contemplatives. A lot of them are just introverts!

Perhaps the next stage of synodality and Church reform needs to be centered on a spiritual revival that helps Catholics—indeed, all Christians—discover the tools for building a deeper and richer interior life, whether through contemplative prayer, spiritual discernment or some other method that goes beyond just “saying prayers.”

The future of Christianity will likely depend on it.

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