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A Person of Hope

“Is your father a person of faith?” I have been asked that question several times since my father, Daniel Ellsberg, announced in February that he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. I think of the answer he himself provided many years ago: “No, but I am a person of hope.”

My dad, a former defense analyst, is of course best remembered for copying a 7,000-page top-secret history of the Vietnam War, later known as the Pentagon Papers, and providing it to the press and public in 1971. For this action he was charged with 12 felony counts under the espionage act, facing 115 years in prison. At his arraignment, a reporter asked him, “Are you concerned about going to jail?” He replied, “Wouldn’t you go to jail if it would help end this war?”

It is characteristic of many people who perform extraordinary actions to believe that what they did is what “anyone would do.” But that does not make it less extraordinary. His memoir, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, could well be read as a conversion story, from his work as a nuclear war planner to his time in the Pentagon working full-time on “the problem” of Vietnam, then two years in Vietnam itself, where the sufferings of the Vietnamese people “became as real to me as my own hands.” This experience shifted his perception of the war from a “problem to be solved” to a “mistake to be ended.” But it was in his later work on the Pentagon Papers project itself and learning of the secret origins and history of the war that he came to see it as a “crime to be resisted.” By this time he had met young draft resisters, inspired by Gandhian nonviolence, who were going to prison in opposition to the war. It inspired him to ask, “What could I do to end the war if I were willing to go to jail?”

Where do faith and hope come into this? My father does not believe in “God.” I put that word in quotes because, as I once told him, “I do not believe in the God you don’t believe in.” We had many conversations or debates about religion over the years. He never could comprehend my conversion to Catholicism—though as he once told me, “Because of my respect for you, I have to think there is more to it than I can understand.” And yet over the many decades of his tireless protests against nuclear war, he was glad to welcome close allies among Catholics and other “people of faith.” And he appreciated my writing about saints and prophets, knowing well how much his own life had been affected by the power of living witness.

He is a “person of hope”—who believes that hope is not a feeling of optimism, but a way of engagement, a way of living that opened the way to transformation. You never know the possible consequences of your actions. His actions were in the spirit of a prophet, warning the nations that they were on the road to perdition, yet never despairing that conversion was possible and that we might choose life.

Dorothy Day often spoke of the need for “saint-revolutionaries,” among whom she included characters in novels by Ignacio Silone and Arthur Koestler—secular figures, who set an example of moral engagement and were prepared to sacrifice themselves for others. I think also of those honored by the “non-believer” Albert Camus, who, without the consolation of belief in an afterlife, still committed themselves to join with others in the struggle against the forces of death. In that struggle he welcomed the commitment of Christians who would avoid abstractions and confront “the blood-stained face history has taken on today”: a grouping of men and women “resolved to speak out clearly and pay up personally.”

My father spent the past fifty years struggling to warn the world of the perils of the nuclear “Doomsday Machine.” Approaching the end of his life, he wonders whether his actions had had any effect. Yet to his last breath, he continues to direct all his intentions toward the possibility of a great awakening or moral conversion. It would take a miracle, he acknowledged in his secular terms. It would require a wholesale commitment to “the others, those not of our immediate tribe, to future generations, to the earth, to our fellow creatures.” The fact that this was not only the moral choice but an imperative for our own survival underlined the urgency of this intention.  

“Is your father a person of faith?” I reflect on this question as Dad enters his final days.

“Yes. He is a person of hope.”

Robert Ellsberg publisher of Orbis Books and the author of many books, most recently, Dearest Sister Wendy … A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship (with Sister Wendy Beckett).

Strickland, U.S. Bishop's Social Media Sows Division

The German church’s synodal path has sparked plenty of talk about a possible schism or even a second Reformation. But while plenty of criticisms can be made of Der Synodale Weg, a potentially more severe threat to unity is looming in Texas. 

Joseph Strickland, the Bishop of Tyler, in Texas, recently told his almost 116,000 followers on Twitter that although he believes "Pope Francis is the Pope," he rejects Francis' “program of undermining the Deposit of Faith.” He added: "follow Jesus," with the implication being that somehow the Pope isn't. 

Bishop Strickland’s tweet was an attempt to distance himself from Patrick Coffin, a hard-right podcaster who rejects Francis’ election as the Successor of St. Peter. Coffin had arranged for Bishop Strickland to send a message to an online summit, and the bishop wanted to clarify his position.  

The Texan prelate has in the past endorsed social media content attacking the Pope and has tweeted that Cardinal Arthur Roche, the Holy See’s top liturgy official, should “return to the Catholic faith.” For a bishop—or any Catholic—this is dangerous territory. The Church’s catechism makes it plain that the Pope is “the visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” and defines schism as “the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” 

This case points to the dangers posed by social media to the Church’s communion and begs the question of why certain bishops in the United States have taken strong public stances against the German synod while staying silent about what is going on in their homeland. 

Yes, the German synod has pushed ahead with reforms on women’s ordination and the blessing of same-sex couples in ways that could be detrimental to unity. Senior officials in the Roman Curia have vocalized their concerns and held an extensive dialogue with German church leaders. Francis has also warned that the German process risks becoming “elitist” and “ideological,” focusing on outcomes rather than process. But no German bishop has publicly rejected Francis in the way that Strickland has just done.

Last year, the Archbishop of Denver, Samuel Aquila, wrote an open letter claiming the German synodal path challenges and “in some instances” repudiates the deposit of faith. Bishop Strickland has also issued a statement on “The German Bishops’ Error.” Yet the same Archbishop Aquila has described Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal nuncio who released a dossier of accusations against Francis and called on him to resign, as “a man of deep faith and integrity.” Archbishop Viganò’s accusations against Francis were later found to be full of inaccuracies and falsehoods, and the former diplomat is supportive of several conspiracy theories. Several other U.S. prelates, including Bishop Strickland, also made declarations of support for Viganò after his 2018 dossier was released and have never corrected the record. Siding with Archbishop Vigano when he was calling on the Pope to resign also has serious implications for unity. 

So far, the Holy See has not made any official moves to rein in Bishop Strickland. In previous pontificates, bishops who stepped out of line could expect a swift response from Rome. 

Nevertheless, Archbishop Robert Prevost, the newly appointed prefect of the Holy See’s office for bishops, has talked about the risks of bishops using social media, saying it can do “damage to the communion of the Church.” Archbishop Prevost has insisted that a bishop must be “a pastor, capable of being close to the members of the community.” The main concern in Rome will be whether the bishop serves his flock or pushes an ideological agenda. 

In the past, Francis has said he’s “not afraid” of schisms, although he prays it won’t happen. “When you see Christians, bishops, priests, who are rigid, behind that there are problems and an unhealthy way of looking at the Gospel,” he says. 

The synodal process, with its emphasis on listening and dialogue, offers an antidote to the polarization in politics and the wider culture which has infected the church. Father Timothy Radcliffe, the Dominican friar who Pope Francis asked to lead a retreat for the October synod assembly members, has talked about the synod as “daring to open yourself to people who’ve got views other than your own.” It’s a process, he says, that can help break people out of their “bubbles” and “sterile culture wars.” The invitation is there for anyone who wishes to take part. 

But the concern with Bishop Strickland is that he will continue to use his large social media following to sow division and promote his public rejection of the Francis pontificate. At some point, Rome may need to act.  

Christopher Lamb is Vatican Correspondent for The Tablet and author of The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church. 

Neglect in the Daily Distribution

The Epistle and the Gospel from this past Fifth Sunday of Easter show us the early Church facing difference and diversity. The Jewish members of the Christian community identified as either Hebrews or Hellenists. They had different languages, customs and ways of being church. The Epistle tells us how they were trying to resolve the concern for the vulnerable Hellenist widows who were “being neglected in the daily distribution.” To solve the issue, it seems that they gathered the community in what appears to have been a small synod. Then in the Gospel, as if to announce the diversity of the people of God, Jesus tells us there are many dwelling places in his Father’s house. These readings might serve as an example for our Synodal process. But I wonder.

This past February at Sacred Heart University, Cardinal McElroy delivered a stunning Bergoglio Lecture on the Synod’s “vision of a church capable of radical inclusion, shared belonging and deep hospitality according to the teachings of Jesus.” In response to the Cardinal’s call for pastoral inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, and his anticipation—and powerful refutation—of those who would retaliate against his position, there was an appalling complaint against him.

The LGBTQ+ community, who constitute one portion of the people of God, are too often excluded, degraded and demonized as living lives that are “gravely evil.” From the Catechism of the Church, the sexual lives of LGBTQ+ people are described as “intrinsically immoral and contrary to the natural law.” Fr. James F. Keenan, in his book, A History of Catholic Theological Ethics, explains that the Church’s moral teachings about sexuality developed over centuries culminating somewhere in the 17th century when the Church asserted a negative evaluation of sexual desire, without, of course, understanding this desire in the complex development of human personality. He explains that this negative view derives from the lives of early church monks who were dedicated to both holiness and celibacy and who had to address their sexual urges and desires. So, for example, dealing with masturbation became a serious sin. It still is, that is, if young people in the Church actually cared. Sins against nature, Keenan tells us, are sins that have semen flow anywhere except into the female vessel. Keenan explains that in the Catholic moral tradition, no other moral issue has had such a powerful negative response as does sexual sin. More recently it appears, too, that the U.S. Bishops’ document rejecting gender-affirming medical treatment for transgender persons lacks the “listening and exchange” urged by Pope Francis in his address to the Alphonsian Academy.

Ethics have to do with our behavior, but there is a more fundamental problem. Over the centuries, an essentialist, gender binary ideology has developed the patriarchal systems, structures and norms that undergird our thinking and feeling about gender identity and sexual behavior. And even though science shows us that male and female, in both the natural world and with human persons, run on a spectrum in different ways, and that, for example, a person may be chromosomally male or female but possess sex organs that present differently, we are bound by our binary, essentialist understanding of human persons.

In his lecture, Cardinal McElroy wondered why “there is such a powerful and visceral animus to the LGBTQ+ community.” In response, I would offer that the (mis)perceived “other-ness” of the LGBTQ+ community strikes a potent irrational, possibly unconscious, fear that wrongly leads to exclusion and moral censure. The reality of the LGBTQ+ community challenges and disrupts binary thinking. The question becomes, what does it mean to be human?

There are Catholic theologians and ethicists much better equipped than I am to address the issues raised here; and address these issues they must, because we are seeing our young people drift from and leave the Church in numbers. Part of the reason they leave is because they do not see or experience welcoming and belonging in the Church. They do not experience the “many dwellings” that Jesus promises.

I emphasize with my students that we are all created in the image of God, that we—each individual—are loved into being by a loving God. I tell them that the story of the Gospel is a story of love, that Jesus embraced and walked with the marginalized, that Jesus’ Easter suffering, death and resurrection is for all of us. But I think, instead of hearing me, they see the Church’s “neglect in the daily distribution.”

Michelle Loris is the chair of the Catholic studies department and associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Sacred Heart University.

Breaking the Distrust Doom Loop

The past few decades, and especially the past few years, have raised concerns about Americans’ low trust in institutions and each other. For years now, we’ve heard about opinion polls that report the public’s continually declining trust in institutions such as Congress, the presidency, the news media, organized religion and many others. In recent years, political polarization has grown dramatically, leading Americans to have lower trust in fellow citizens of the opposite political affiliation.

At the end of March, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about a new Wall Street Journal poll suggesting that the value Americans place in religion, patriotism, community involvement and having children has dropped since the year 1998, by about 20 percentage points in each case. Brooks says that he understands the disillusionment, especially of younger Americans who have “grown up in a crappy time — Iraq, the financial crisis, Trump, George Floyd, the pandemic, a widespread sense that you won’t be as well off as your parents.” Positively, he points to signs of renewal in the U.S. economy and glimmers of a return to sanity in politics.

Yet, he writes, “My fear is that the latest renewal will be killed in its crib by the intractable forces of cynicism and withdrawal. My fear is that we’ve entered a distrust doom loop.” Brooks puts his finger on a wide-ranging cultural phenomenon that concerns a lot of Americans. As we know, the Catholic Church is caught up in this phenomenon, for reasons both of its making and out of its direct control.

I appreciate the tack that Brooks has taken in his writing and public speaking in recent years— seeking a capacious middle-ground conservativism, pulling back hard from the MAGA-turn of the Republican party, and introspecting about the moral and spiritual traits that are conducive to personal and social flourishing. But this gradual shift places him in the crossfire between conservatives who think he’s gone squishy and liberals who think he hasn’t atoned enough.

As to be expected, then, many of the thousand readers’ comments on his essay, coming mostly from a liberal perspective, took Brooks to task. Two matters grated on them particularly: that Brooks focused the article on patriotism and that he framed the essay as an open letter to the Zoomer generation. The first choice opens up an important conversation about what it means to be patriotic, and Brooks did his best in the limited space of an op-ed to articulate a critical and inclusive form of patriotism.

But his second choice, to write to Gen Z, is more problematic because even if trust in institutions and in some classic values is particularly low for the youngest Americans, (a) such trust is historically low across the generations and (b) young people have particular reasons to be distrustful and cynical. Brooks does acknowledge both those points, but he’s not quite able to get over nostalgia for the era in which he grew up.

As writers on this blog often point out, the younger generation of Catholics and those raised Catholic have lots of reasons to be distrustful of, or just not interested in, the Church. And this entire blog is motivated by a “Bergoglian” principle that reforming the Church authentically is not about looking back in nostalgia—which the Pope calls “the siren song of religious life”—but looking forward in hope and with courage.

As a national and global crisis, the breakdown of trust seems an overwhelming problem. But much better than asking, “So what can I possibly do about it?” is to ask, “What are we, the followers of the risen Christ, called to do about it?”

We can attend to how we are building trust within our particular relationships and local communities. As I often like to describe in my contributions to this blog, the parish has an important role to play. In 2015, a conference was held at the University of Notre Dame, which became the book Polarization in the US Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal. In her contribution to the conference and the book, Erin Stoyell-Mulholland, a student pro-life activist, said:

Understanding the important role that parishes can take in decreasing polarization in the church is an important first step. Systematic change rarely comes from a top-down approach. It is through building community and cultures that encourage respectful dialogue with whom we disagree that we can begin to see other people’s experiences…. We should want to go to Mass alongside those who make our blood boil.

Pope Francis, in his letter Rejoice and Be Glad, writes:

The common life, whether in the family, the parish, the religious community, or any other, is made up of small, everyday things … A community that cherishes the little details of love, whose members care for one another and create an open and evangelizing environment, is a place where the risen Lord is present, sanctifying it in accordance with the Father’s plan.

We can curse the darkness, or we can light a candle. Little acts are powerful and they do add up to something bigger. They add up if we do the small things not only one-on-one for individual people but also to build beloved communities—families, parishes, workplaces, civic organizations—that then do bigger things for even bigger communities and more people.

Let’s hope that neither the U.S. nor any other nation—nor the Catholic Church—is in “a distrust doom loop.” But even when trust is frayed and nerves are raw, the best advice is to heed the Psalmist (37:3): “Trust in the LORD and do good; live in the land and cultivate faithfulness.”

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