Jairus and the Life-Giver


Things have come around in a circle. We talked about Jairus the synagogue official and his twelve-year-old daughter three summers ago–in the lovely little parish churches of St. Francis and St. Joseph. Shortly after that, I had to go to Roanoke. Now, praise God, I’m back as the shepherd of Franklin and Henry counties. And we’re talking about Jairus and his daughter again. [Spanish]

That was a World-Cup-Soccer summer, too—the summer of 2015. The women’s. And we won it, the USA.

Now, we don’t know if Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter played soccer. We do know, from the end of the story, that she had a twelve-year-old-soccer-player’s appetite. We also know that the girl’s father loved her. He refused to accept the apparent death sentence her illness had imposed on her. He wanted to continue to help her grow up.

As his daughter lingered on her sickbed, Jairus found himself surrounded by well-meaning Debbie Downers from all over the neighborhood. O, alas, alas! She’s dying! Woeful tidings! Lamentations! What a hopeless, cruel world we live in!

Maybe Jairus simply got annoyed with the weepers and the wailers. He got up and left the house. He strode off to look for the famous Nazarene rabbi, who had just returned to Capernaum from a visit to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Pope Paul VI 1975Jairus found Christ and begged Him to come to his home. “Lay hands on my daughter, and she will get well and live.”

Now, why did Jairus say this to Jesus? Did Jairus know what we know? Namely, that this wandering rabbi had the omnipotent power to form the heavens and the earth out of nothing? To knit together little girls and boys in their mothers’ wombs? So he could certainly save the girl from death?

Somehow, at least some part of Jairus did know. He believed in the Nazorean. Jairus appealed to this poor, dusty former-carpenter—appealed to him as if he were appealing to God. I think we can imagine the look that Jairus gave Jesus. Jairus had left the den of weeping and wailing that his home had become. He had stepped out into the light of day, because he refused to give in to despair. He wanted to keep fathering his daughter. He looked at Jesus with eyes that said: I have hope, because You have the power of life. Help me. Help us. Help our family.

Then the bad news came from the house: The little bundle of energy has lost the light from her eyes. She’s dead.

Now Jairus’ hope was about to falter. Maybe this is a meaningless world after all? But Christ returned Jairus’ gaze.

‘You had faith before. Hold on to it. You are dealing here with no mere traveling Torah expert. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Morning Star and the eternal Word. I am the Giver of Life. I love your daughter even more than you do.’

Jairus believed. He did not say, ‘Oh, no, teacher. It’s over. Let’s both go home. And I’ll start making funeral arrangements.’ No. Jairus believed that the girl who could eat her way through four or five pitas at one sitting, and who had a question about everything, and who loved to run around chasing the chickens—he believed what the Teacher said about her: She will live.

At that moment, dear brothers and sisters, we can find in Jairus something close to the epicenter of our own Christian faith. Because we believe in the Gospel of Life. We believe that God wills not that we should die, but that we should live. We believe that life and love have a meaning, an eternal meaning in God.

Pope Francis baby kissWe look at the earth and the sky; we see the people we care about around us; we honor the memory of those who gave us our inheritance. And we know: A power that gives life made everything. He wills a triumph of life. He loves with a life-giving generosity that never runs out. Death and darkness try to snuff out the power of life. But springtime comes.

People outside the Church think that our Catholic code of sexual morality and family life doesn’t make sense. They think the Catholic sexual rules cramp your style, limit your freedom, make you less of a person.

A huge irony, since denying the religious aspect of sex actually means failing to honor your own origins. We all come from that moment when a man and woman embraced in the way of marriage. That’s where we are all “from.” And it’s a holy place to be from. It’s where Jairus’ daughter came from, where all God’s sons and daughters are from.

This year we mark the fiftieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s solemn declaration that artificial contraception, condoms, birth-control pills, etc., have no place in the life of a Christian. Because the life of a Christian means believing in, and co-operating with, the Lord and Giver of Life, Who governs sex and marriage the way He does for His own very good reasons.

The entire sexual morality of the Catholic Church proceeds from this idea. There is nothing arbitrary or constricting about Christian chastity, inside or outside of marriage. Masturbation, pornography, sex outside marriage, homosexual acts, abortion, artificial fertilization, etc.—all of this is wrong for one precise reason: Because every human being always needs to be right where Jairus was spiritually when He looked at God and begged His help. And God looked back at him. And helped.

Jairus knew, at that moment: This is holy business, this business of marrying and having children and raising them. And God comes into the middle of it, to make it good. To give life. To fill the world with girls and boys who play soccer, and eat a lot, and spill stuff. And who fill our world with joy.

The Scandal of 2002, Painfully Revisited

I mentioned last week: the Cardinal who ordained me lost his right to minister in the Church, owing to an allegation that he sexually abused a minor, well over forty years ago.


No one wants to reflect on such things. But under the circumstances, I have no choice. This is my father in God, the man who received my lifetime promises and ordained me a deacon and a priest. And since Cardinal McCarrick touched many of our lives, perhaps you, dear reader, will benefit from our suffering a bit together, as we think this through.

The man who accused the Cardinal did so because the Archdiocese of New York (McCarrick’s home diocese) set up a process for victims of clergy sexual abuse to come forward. Apparently the Church in New York actively sought to get the problem out from under the rug. Only a reckoning with all the facts can bring peace and reconciliation.

(If you are a victim of sexual abuse reading this, and you have never spoken about it with anyone, please trust someone enough to talk about it.)

The program in New York provided Cardinal McCarrick’s victim with a forum in which to tell his story. The story checked out. So Cardinal McCarrick got treated as any other priest would get treated. Immediate suspension from ministry. (In this case, by order of the pope.)

Let’s remember that the Cardinal has not been found guilty of sexual abuse of a minor. There is no question of a civil legal proceeding, because the alleged abuse occurred too long ago for that. But Cardinal McCarrick has a right to a canonical trial, to vindicate his good name. He says he is innocent.

Or does he? His statement concludes with: “While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence, I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charge has gone through.”

Now, when someone undertakes to vindicate his good name after a false accusation, and insists, “I believe in my innocence,” and then apologizes… you have to wonder: Is this poor soul losing his mind? Or dealing with alcoholism or drug abuse? Someone of sound mind knows whether or not he sexually abused a minor.

In this case, the someone is 87 years old. Maybe getting a bit senile. But Cardinal McC still has his wits about him, as I am told by a friend of mine who spoke with him recently.

Conclusion: We have to read the Cardinal’s statement as an implicit admission of guilt. Like most accused priests that I know, Cardinal McCarrick likely will never have a canonical trial. The matter will go no farther than it already has. His indefinite pre-trial suspension will serve as his permanent punishment. And justice will never run its full course.

This is one of the great flaws in the system established by the “Dallas Charter” in 2002. It provides for an administrative penalty so severe (indefinite suspension based on an allegation) that the accused loses his basic legal right to self-defense.

But, in this case, there’s more. Rumors of McCarrick abusing his authority with seminarians have circulated for two decades. Last week, when the Archdiocese of New York announced Cardinal McCarrick’s suspension from ministry, two New-Jersey dioceses where McCarrick had served as bishop also made an announcement. Both dioceses had privately settled legal claims against McCarrick for sexual misconduct with adults.

The adults in question are likely seminarians. Apparently the accusations of misconduct came to diocesan authorities in New Jersey after McCarrick became Archbishop of Washington and a Cardinal.

When I was one of Cardinal McCarrick’s seminarians, I never wanted to believe the rumors about his having taken advantage of seminarians in New Jersey. The people who spread those rumors had their own axes to grind. I knew a kind man. But these settlements serve as evidence that there was truth in those rumors that I refused to believe.

Spotlight movieSo: This week I bit the bullet and rented the movie 2015 “Spotlight.” I had studiously avoided the film until now. It tells the story of the 2001-2002 Boston Globe investigation of sexual abuse of minors by Boston priests.

It is a remarkably excellent movie. It paints a picture altogether too real to ignore.

The movie draws you into the honest, diligent, angry work of the small team of journalists who uncovered something: A long-term conspiracy of silence about sexual abuse of minors by priests in Boston.

The most compelling characters in the movie are 1. the abuse victims, now adults, who struggle to say what happened to them, and 2. the good Boston-Catholic lawyers who have known for years about the extent of the problem, and tried to do right for the victims through confidential settlements, but who feared the damage that a public airing of the whole business would do to the Church.

The movie’s circle of human sympathy excludes one group of people: the men trying to run the Archdiocese. Indeed, the entire narrative thrust of the priest-sexual-abuse story requires that diocesan officials be excluded from consideration as potentially sympathetic human beings. Because the story is about a dishonest conspiracy of silence by those very officials.

The question is: Do the men running the dioceses of the US (and the Holy See, for that matter)–do they deserve to be excluded from the lens of human sympathy, as this movie excludes them? Are the diocesan officials in Boston, or anywhere else, really just villainous foils for the dogged heroes who struggle to bring the truth to light, like the Globe investigative team lionized in this movie?

I know enough about the inner workings of enough Church bureaucracies to say that this total exclusion from sympathetic light does a disservice to the truth. The caricature of predators whispering behind the choir screen has nothing to do with reality.

And not every case of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest should get recounted in the newspaper or on the internet. When Judgment Day comes, some bishops will get vindicated for the discretion with which they dealt with cases that merited such discretion, rather than airing the whole thing on some front page.

So “Spotlight,” as admirable a movie as it is, does not capture all of the reality of this huge mass of pain. But the reality isn’t pretty anyway. In fact, it is now much more maddeningly ugly than it was before.

In 2002, the Church in the US supposedly had a “reckoning” with sexual abuse. Adopted the necessary “policies.”

And the whole time, the man in front of the cameras was Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, a man who had not reckoned with even his own sins.

Today I imagine the man whom Cardinal McCarrick allegedly fondled back in 1971, when he was a 16- or 17-year-old high school seminarian. I imagine that man seeing that priest standing before all the news cameras as the leader of the American bishops’ response to the sex-abuse problem in the hyper-dramatized atmosphere of the spring of 2002.

I think: How many eons of penance will I have to do to help that man’s soul get reconciled to the mystery of Jesus Christ living in His one, true Church governed by the pope and the Catholic bishops in communion with the pope? What miracle of grace would it take for that man truly to come home to Mother Church?

The scandal did not get properly identified in 2002. It has never been properly identified. Pedophilia had very little to do with it.

Good, faithful Catholic people got horribly scandalized because:

A lot of priests took advantage of teenagers (mostly gay priests taking advantage of teenage boys, but plenty of straight priests abused girls, too). And the bishops involved sympathized with the predators instead of the victims. The bishops excluded the victims from the circle of human sympathy.

That was the scandal. It was a bishops’ scandal, not a priests’ scandal.

Lord Jesus said we will always have the poor with us. We will also always have with us priests, teachers, coaches, restaurant managers, uncles, etc., who take sexual advantage of teenagers. It’s a terrible thing. But it ain’t going away anytime soon.

The scandal of 2002 was: The bishops of the Church have no earthly idea how to deal with this perpetual ugly fact of life. They have no clue. They run scared from it, as if from an approaching saber tooth tiger, instead of standing their ground like men and thinking first of the wounded one.

No Church official has ever acknowledged the simple fact that that was the scandal. And none seems likely ever to do so. Makes me mad and sad, and I don’t know which is more painful. But the whole thing sucks.

Messy Survival

At Holy Mass today, we hear the end of the Sermon on the Mount.

On the Mount, Lord Jesus taught us how to have a relationship with God. Christ spoke with the authority of… God.

A Christian simply obeys. Repent, beg mercy, live in Christ’s love. Not complicated. Obey Christ, live in His Church. She possesses His words, His sacraments, His heavenly graces. She is by no means perfect in every respect. But true friendship with the Creator is possible because: the Church survives through thick and thin, all over the world.

Speaking of the world: World Cup. I would root for the US, but we’re not in it. So I root like mad for our friend and neighbor, the homeland of so many of our fellow parishioners, a nation with whom we share an enormous amount of history and culture, not to mention our Catholic faith.

Sweden slaughtered Mexico yesterday, 3-0. But Mexico survived to the next round anyway. Because South Korea beat Germany and knocked them out of the tournament. South Korea is out, too. South Korea and Germany went down in flames together. But because South Korea won, Mexico survived to play another day. When you survive, there’s hope. So Mexicans around the world are looking for Koreans to befriend.

St. Irenaeus
St. Irenaeus

Anyway: St. John the Apostle gave the mysteries of Jesus Christ to his pupil St. Polycarp. St. Polycarp gave them to his pupil, St. Irenaeus. St. Irenaeus is one of the first bishops who actually grew up Catholic, having been presented for baptism as an infant by Christian parents. St. Irenaeus shepherded his flock, in what is now France, before anyone ever thought of a book called a “Bible,” before anyone ever uttered the phrase “New Testament.”

Don’t get me wrong. The little books of the New Testament had long since been written. You could make a list of them, in fact, based on the writings that St. Irenaeus cited in his preaching and teaching. St. Irenaeus gave us the idea of a “New Testament,” a “Christian Bible”–by quoting from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the Acts of the Apostles, and the letters of Sts. Paul, Peter, and John.

Irenaeus cited these writings because they expressed and deepened the teaching and the ceremonies that he had learned from St. Polycarp, which came from St. John, and from Jesus Himself. The Church’s simple Sacred Tradition.

Simple and beautiful. Except that, for St. Irenaeus, it wasn’t so simple or beautiful. It was messy, like Mexico surviving to the Round of 16. At the time in history when St. Irenaeus had souls in his care, plenty of other books circulated, in addition to the New Testament books, purporting to offer Christian, or “spiritual,” teaching. Plenty of other authorities sought to win the adherence of the people, outside the fold of the Church. Kinda like now.

So Irenaeus had to sort it all out. He had to find a way to keep the true, simple faith of the Church alive in his part of the world. By investigating, arguing, and studying the true words of Christ constantly.

Irenaeus did it. It was a messy fight, but he did it. He kept the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church alive in Lyons. For that we rightly regard him as a towering hero.

He dealt with hard, complicated things, so that we could inherit the simple, beautiful thing to which the New Testament testifies: the mystery of Jesus Christ alive in His Church.

He died a martyr 1,816 years ago today. Pray for us, St. Irenaeus! Especially for this joker who was born on your feastday. (And for his mother, who deserves the credit.)

“Judge Not, Lest You Be Judged”

Sermon on the Mount by Fra Angelico

One of Lord Jesus’ most-famous sayings. But to understand its meaning, we clearly need a little context.

Because if we human beings stopped judging altogether, we would smash up the car and make enemies real quick. Plus none of us would ever learn anything.

Whenever you pull into a parking place, you have to judge the stopping distance and apply the brake proportionately. Whenever you encounter another human being, you have to judge what tone and manner of conversation fit the situation, to try to avoid giving offense, and to foster communication. And some of us have the responsibility of training others in doing good and avoiding evil—parents, teachers, supervisors, etc. So we have to judge the actions of others, and apply discipline sometimes–when our charges break the rules.

Constant judgments, therefore, in this life of ours.

What does our Creator and Lord mean, then, when He commands that we not judge? The answer is actually quite easy, quite precise, and readily available in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Following in the steps of the prophets and John the Baptist, Jesus announced the judgment of the Last Day in his preaching. Then will the conduct of each one and the secrets of hearts be brought to light. Then will the culpable unbelief that counted the offer of God’s grace as nothing be condemned. Our attitude to our neighbor will disclose acceptance or refusal of grace and divine love. On the Last Day Jesus will say: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (para. 678)

Our attitude toward our neighbor will disclose acceptance or refusal of grace and divine love.

To understand ‘judge not, lest you be judged,’ we have to start with: Almighty God brought me into being, and has offered me eternal life in Christ, without my deserving it. God has loved me without me deserving it.

Therefore: let me love my neighbor without stopping to wonder about whether or not he or she deserves it. Let me love my neighbor with divine love. This is someone with whom I want to share heaven. And we both need mercy to get there.

Bright Birthday

Chapel of St John Baptist in Ars
St. John Vianney built this chapel in honor of St. John the Baptist

St. Elizabeth gave birth during the brightest week of the year, when the long days almost swallow up the night, and the sun is as close as it gets (to the northern hemisphere.) [Spanish]

The prophet Isaiah declared: I will make you a light to the nations. The Lord Jesus Himself said of his cousin John: He was a lamp, set aflame and burning bright.

The Church makes a big deal of this summer birthday of the Baptist because… (three reasons, all of which have to do with light)

One. Christ had cleansed his cousin John of original sin before birth. When the Blessed Virgin, newly pregnant, came to visit her cousin in the Judean hill country, St. John the Baptist leapt in St. Elizabeth’s womb. The coming of the unborn Christ consecrated the unborn St. John. So the Baptist started life already holy, already brightened by God’s grace.

Two. St. John the Baptist had a totally unique relationship with Christ. The cousin became famous for his preaching of the coming Kingdom of God while Jesus still lived quietly in Nazareth. John baptized repentant sinners, like Christ’s Church would later do. Then John baptized his cousin, so that Christ could give to water His holiness, the sacramental power to cleanse the soul.

In other words, St. John prepared the way for Jesus, like a torch bearer. Before Jesus did any public preaching and teaching, St. John declared the truth about Him. Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior and King, in the new and heavenly covenant between God and man.

baptist-greco2Three. Like no one else, St. John can teach us about what Christ’s Church is. A couple of points on this.

First: the Church is the family of all people baptized into the mystery of Jesus Christ. Baptism involves purification, consecration, and enlightenment. Through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, Almighty God redeems us from the futile servitude of the fallen human race. He rescues us from a pointless life that only slouches toward death. He gives us a new birthright and makes us His own sons and daughters. He welcomes us into the everlasting, divine household.

For us to know this—to know the love of the Father who rescues His beloved children and gives us a life of hope and love: that is enlightenment. That is interior, spiritual sunlight. Holy Baptism delivers the faith of Holy Mother Church to us, the faith that St. John declared to the world: Christ conquers evil and gives eternal life. Holding that faith fills us with interior light. And that interior light of the Christian soul brightens the world even more than the sun.

Second way that St. John the Baptist teaches us who we are as Christ’s Church: The Church must live on earth in a kind of desert.

St. John left the populated areas of Israel and lived in the wasteland near where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea. St. John had only one foot in this world. The other had already stepped into the as-yet-invisible world to come.

That’s why people flocked to him. They came seeking something more than what this fallen world offers. This austere man drew them, because he had no traffic with the half-truths, the mixed motives, and the mediocre compromises with vice that fill the lives of most human beings.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Church isn’t just one big monastery. We Christians live in cities and in towns. The Church lives in communities of imperfect sinners. Because that’s what we are.

But, like St. John, the Church must keep only one foot here in the world of cookouts and soccer games and gas stations. The other foot is in the process of stepping into heaven. St. John the Baptist reminds us of that. Here on earth, we have no lasting city.

Anyone know the patron saint of parish priests? St. John Vianney. St. John Vianney loved the Blessed Mother, of course. But among all the rest of the saints, he loved St. John the Baptist the most. He took the name John Baptist at Confirmation. Then, when he became a parish priest, he built a chapel in his church and dedicated it to St. John the Baptist.

So: Happy Birthday. To the cousin, the holy man, the forerunner, the Baptist of the Son of God.

The Place Where Abortion is Illegal

Ireland voted to nullify its constitutional amendment protecting the unborn. Most people see this as: Huge victory for modern liberal ways. Huge defeat for traditional Catholicism.

cathleen-kavenyProfessor Cathleen Kaveny wants to see it differently. She has written a brief essay in Commonweal magazine that 1. lays out some moral realities about as clearly as you can and then 2. neglects to face them with real love.

Kaveny thinks that Roe v. Wade framed the moral issue in the wrong way. The court based its decision on the idea that the unborn child is not a person, at least not in the eyes of the law. To summarize Part IX of Justice Blackmun’s opinion for the Court: The unborn are not “persons,” as the word is used in the US Constitution. If they were, then the case arguing a right to abortion would “collapse.”

Kaveny thinks focusing on the personhood of the unborn child warps the argument, like this:

Pro-life = Yes, the unborn child is a person with the right to life. Therefore, abortion is homicide.

Pro-choice = No, the unborn child is not a person. Therefore, the mother’s right to make decisions about her own body can include a decision to abort a pregnancy.

Kaveny wants to frame the issue differently. In my book, she makes an enormously helpful set of points. First, let’s all, “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” concede the following:

1. Abortion involves taking the life of an individual human being.

2. That individual depends completely on the mother. Providing for a totally dependent unborn child imposes great burdens on the mother.


All the pro-lifers I know would agree: We don’t want any pro-life ‘allies’ who do not sympathize with the difficulties faced by pregnant women. Yes, the child has a right to life; no doubt. But that “right” has no meaning without the sacrifice of the mother. The real pro-life movement has no interest whatsoever in getting ‘in between’ the baby and the mother. As the old slogan has it: Love them both.

unbornCareful Catholic bio-ethical thinking long ago fully grasped this at its depths. Turning the “right to life” of the unborn child into some kind of absolute value leads you to an unpleasant place: Mother Nature Herself does not respect this right.

Many pregnancies end in miscarriage, a.k.a. spontaneous abortion. Many fertilized eggs never implant in the uterus. That means countless human beings in the first stage of life who disappear into a dark oblivion, with only God and His angels ever having known that they existed.

Kaveny gets it wonderfully right here. The problem of procured abortion is not, ultimately, a metaphysical matter. We have to focus solely on the simple moral question. Can it be right to choose to have an abortion?

At this point in her essay, Kaveny leaves us with only a handful of dust. She suggests that the Church, without having a ready answer to the question above, should rather “accompany” our contemporaries who think the answer is Yes. We should take the risk of “having conversations.”

Now, I am confident in saying that most of us priests with some years of experience under our belts have had quite a few conversations. ‘Father, the child will be born with a handicap.’ ‘Father, I’m pregnant with my boyfriend’s baby, but I want to go to college.’ ‘Father, he ran away with the hygienist. But I’m pregnant with our fourth.’

Now, if we (priests and all Christian believers) don’t patiently listen, sympathize, and offer support and helpful proposals, we s**k. But, by the same token, no honest moral calculus exists which could include a proposal that aborting the baby might be the right thing to do.

Because the baby is, manifestly, a baby, and not a Volkswagen. And it is this mother’s baby. The mother’s life, and the baby’s, are already entwined in such a way that violence against the one is ipso facto violence against the other.

To countenance the idea that abortion could be the right thing to do–that would involve a failure of charity towards both baby and mother. Just like refusing to sympathize with the burdens faced by the mother would involve a failure of charity towards both of them.

Kaveny rightly points out that the law fears to tread into the territory where blameworthy homicide and justifiable withdrawal of life-support come so close that they almost touch each other.

But she misses the one absolutely certain thing, the principle that can and does lead in the direction of a resolution of all the problems involved in any pregnancy: Intentionally killing the baby is not the right thing to do.

We human beings cannot see into the future. We can only make decisions based on our best lights right now.

I have argued for most of my life that we do not need faith in order to know that abortion is wrong, since sonograms clearly show us that is is.

But, on the other hand, it is faith that protects us from the hubris that justifies abortion, based on uncertain predictions about the future. Every line of thinking that leads to the idea that abortion could be the right thing to do–all of them start with fear of the future. From that fear of the future comes the compulsive attempt to control it, through violence.

If you read my review of Ross Douthat’s book about Pope Francis, you know that I deeply reject the distinction between “modern liberal” and “traditional Catholic.” But Kaveny’s essay actually leads us to a place where that distinction touches something real and stark.

Holding the faith of the Church means believing that God will provide. Abortion offers a false promise about controlling the future. In the Church of Christ, we must have the courage to say, in every case: God has a real future for you and your baby.


Dying out of Loyalty to a Not-So-Great Pope

“The Meeting of Sir Thomas More with His Daughter, after his Sentence of Death,” by William Yeames

St. Thomas More died willingly and peacefully as a martyr in 1535.

Everyone present at his execution, and everyone who knew him, would readily have granted that England had no more intelligent, knowledgeable, and cosmopolitan a statesman than Thomas More.

And everyone knew that he died for one reason: Because he would not betray his Roman-Catholic loyalty to the pope.

Beautiful. Especially when we think of the pope as personally representing everything virtuous and true.

But which popes occupied the Chair of Peter during Thomas More’s lifetime?

When Leo X was elected pope in 1513, he was not even a priest. He famously said, “Now that God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!” Leo X enjoyed the papacy while St. Thomas More was in his late thirties and early forties.

Pope Paul III Titian
Pope Paul III, painted by Titian

St. Thomas suffered martyrdom at age 57, when Pope Paul III reigned in Rome.

Certainly Paul III was a holier man that Leo X. But Pope Paul did have a number of children by mistresses he kept while he was a young priest. And he did create his 14- and 16-year-old grandsons Cardinals.

So, we have to rethink this a little. St. Thomas More died willingly and peacefully as a martyr, rather than betray his loyalty to the pope. And the pope in question was not an altogether awesome superman of a white-robed pope. Rather, the pope at the time was what we would have to consider a mediocre Christian at best. A mediocre Christian like me, or you.

Does that make St. Thomas some kind of patsy? Should he have betrayed his loyalty instead of dying as a martyr out of loyalty for a mediocre pope?

Don’t think so. Christ never promised a succession of saintly super-popes. He promised that the unity and integrity of the Church would endure because the papacy would endure.

In other words, the pope is the pope. The famous martyr for loyalty to the papacy, St. Thomas More, did not distract himself by judging the pope. Thomas simply kept faith with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, governed by the one and only pope there is, at any given time.

Consolation in the Spider Web

The gospel passage from Ash Wednesday makes an annual return appearance, at a weekday Mass, once every hot summer.

Live to please your heavenly Father. Pray to please your heavenly Father. Do kindnesses, and make sacrifices, to please your heavenly Father.

He will reward us. He knows the truth. He knows our motives, our intentions, and our struggles. He gives us a marvelous gift: Enough self-knowledge to see clearly that, without His sacrifice for us on the cross, we would have no hope.

This summer suddenly seems hotter and harder than others. Inspector-General reports, disputed interpretations of law at the southern border, special-counsel probes laboring on, and all the World Cup games are too early in the day for anyone in this hemisphere to watch them. Sometimes the world seems like a huge spider web of unsympathetic misunderstandings.*

God knows the truth. Let’s live to please Him.

When He comes to judge, and the struggle of this life is over, He will reward the humble sinner who begs for mercy.


mccarrickNota Bene. I learned this morning that the Holy See has suspended from the priestly ministry the Cardinal who ordained me. Because of an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor in the 1960’s. Cardinal McCarrick is 87 years old now.

The allegation against the Cardinal apparently received the same kind of preliminary investigation as any accusation against a parish priest or religious-ed teacher. (May God be praised for that fact.) The allegation was found to be “credible.” That means immediate suspension of priestly ministry, pending future investigation. Cardinal McCarrick denies the allegation. Perhaps the Congregation for Bishops (part of the Pope’s governing operation) will judge the case.

Back in the spring of 2002, I was a transitional deacon. Public outrage over cover-ups of sexual abuse had reached a fever pitch. On a Washington street, I had to elude a small group of angry teenagers who, seeing my Roman collar, threatened me. “Priests molest children!” And I wasn’t alone, among the priests and seminarians I knew, in facing such spontaneous displays of public anger.

At that time, Cardinal McCarrick served as the sitting Archbishop of Washington. I just went back and read the archive of his columns in the Catholic newspaper during that spring. All the columns were about the sexual abuse crisis. At one point during that frantic spring, the Cardinal made a solemn public declaration that he had never had sexual interactions with anyone. Ever.

Today I pray for my father in God, before whom I knelt to receive the gift of the sacred priesthood.

When Pope John Paul II created him a Cardinal in 2001 (at the same Consistory that gave us Cardinal Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis) the Archbishop took us seminarians with him. I got to serve Mass at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Cardinal ate pizza and drank Killian’s Red with us in the seminary basement once every school year. He laughed at my jokes.

May God have mercy on us all.


“Doesn’t Speak Too Well of the United States”

(Archbishop of San Antonio, Texas)

Click HERE for a way to contact public officials about this.

Higher Loyalty

Comey Trump

The rule of law. Former FBI Director James Comey has dedicated his life to it. He became a lawyer and a prosecutor. He followed a calling to pursue justice.

We Americans love tv shows about law-enforcement and criminal prosecution. We rightly respect the vocation of people like James Comey. Public servants dedicated to the rule of law: they keep our country from descending into a chaos in which bullies rule.

My dear mom lent me her copy of Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty. I tore through it. I feel a kind of brotherhood with the man, since we have two things in common: A tendency to bang our heads on door lintels, and an unexpected job transition at the same time last year.

As a US Attorney, Comey worked to convict gangsters and stock-market cheats, like Martha Stewart. Then he ascended to the highest echelons of the Justice Department. When the practice of torturing terror suspects became public in 2004, Comey took a stand against the George W. Bush White House. Because the law is the law, and it prohibits torture.

Comey A Higher Loyalty bookIn 2013, President Obama made Comey the head of the FBI. Comey writes about how he undertook to make the organization more open and communicative, a place where everyone could believe in the cause.

Meanwhile, some other things happened.

Former President Bill Clinton’s wife Hillary traded on her political connections and became a Senator from a state to which she had no real ties. Then she became Secretary of State. Finally, she ran for president and secured the nomination of the Democratic party.

A sober body politic would have recognized this nomination for what it was: A triumph of cronyism, insider-ism. Not a feminist breakthrough.

But the body politic proved itself far from sober. The other major party nominated a notorious liar–a shameless publicity hound, a wounded ego without any real accomplishments to his name.

It is no wonder, then, that a such a devotee of American ideals like James Comey would find himself at a loss during the summer and fall of 2016. In his book, he recounts how his mind jibbed and gybed, trying to figure out how to handle FBI public relations.

The agency had to investigate Hillary Clinton’s “careless” e-mailing as Secretary of State. Also: the Bureau had suspicions of Russian attempts to influence the American presidential election by stealing private e-mail exchanges and hijacking facebook feeds.

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the ‘rude mechanicals’ (a group of Athenian working men) aspire to please the Duke with a stage play. They intend to present the tragic love story of ancient myth, Pyramus and Thisbe.

The Mechanicals meet by night, in the woods outside the city, to determine their roles and begin rehearsing. But Nick Bottom, the weaver, wants to play all the parts. He wants to play both Pyramus and Thisbe. When he learns that a lion comes on stage, he wants to play the lion, too.

During 2016, James Comey became a kind of Nick Bottom. He had the part of FBI Director, a low-profile part, with very few lines. His role involved speaking only to his superiors in the Department of Justice and the Oval Office. And only about hard evidence, not political exigencies.

But Comey decided that Attorney General Loretta Lynch did not have enough credibility to tell the public about “Hillary’s damn e-mails” (as Bernie Sanders put it). Comey concluded that the troubled nation would not believe that the e-mailing didn’t involve any crimes, unless he delivered the message.

So Comey took the stage to speak the lines of someone else’s part. Then, three months later, he had to take it back. Then, ten days after that, he had to take back the taking back.

Comey also wanted personally to go to the press about the suspected Russian election hacking. But President Obama managed to talk him out of doing that, just like Peter Quince managed to talk Bottom the weaver out of playing the lion, and Pyramus, and Thisbe, all at the same time.

shakespeareTestifying before Congress in early 2017, Comey said that he felt “nauseated” at the thought that his public statements of 2016 somehow affected the outcome of the presidential election.

Problem is: He nauseated himself. He could have just kept his mouth shut, speaking only in the private fora where he had a duty to speak. But that option appears not to have occurred to him.

The fundamental idea of Comey’s book is: We Americans owe our loyalty to something higher than any political leader. Not to “partisan interests” but “to the pillars of democracy.” Comey enumerates those pillars as: “restraint and integrity and balance and transparency and truth.”

Speaking of the virtue of restraint: This past Thursday, the Inspector General released a report. They agreed with me. It’s official: Comey put himself in front of a microphone too often in 2016. (In the book, Comey mocks Rudy Guiliani for the same offense, ironically enough.)

Comey, as is his wont, immediately took to Thursday’s The New York Times to welcome the criticism, even though he disagrees with it. The work of an Inspector General involves the pursuit of the rule of law, the very thing he wrote his book to vindicate, etc.

Amen to all that. We all have egos that should be smaller, not just James Comey. And all our egos will indeed get a lot smaller when the Inspector General, Who sees and knows all, and Who weighs everything with perfect justice, makes His findings public, on the great and final Day.

Comey deserves a lot of credit for writing a fundamentally honest book. And he wrote a page-turner. The passages about his dealings with President Trump during the winter and spring of 2017 read like a movie. If the Trump administration were a movie, Comey would name it: “The Forest Fire Presidency.”

Trump secretly asked for Comey’s “loyalty” (hence the book title.) Comey didn’t know what to say. So the president soon fired him. Now, Trump calls Comey “the worst FBI Director ever.” Which means worse than J. Edgar Hoover, who suspected Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of being a secret communist, and had his phones bugged.

Comey characterizes the president as a kind of Mafia don. But Mafia dons have good organizational skills. To me, Trump looks a lot more like: a clueless, desperately unhappy fourteen-year-old boy maniacally masquerading as a grown man.

Comey almost certainly wrote his book to try and fulfill the teachings of his intellectual hero, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Neibuhr spoke and wrote repeatedly on 20th-century political questions. Neibuhr insisted that a Christian must seek to further the cause of justice in the world by talking part in public life.

Let’s leave aside the fact that Niebuhr would undoubtedly find Comey’s book blindly self-serving. The deeper problem is this: Neibuhr and Comey both share a false presupposition. Namely that “loyalty to truth” occurs in some pure realm where you can leave practical questions about religion unanswered. Basic questions of Christian practice, like: Did God write the Scriptures? Or: Is Jesus Christ alive right now? But that’s a topic for another day.

Comey and I agree on this: In November 2016, we, as a nation, found ourselves choosing between two candidates for president, neither of whom could claim with any real honesty to be worthy of the office.

How did we get there? We have had plenty of unworthy presidents before, to be sure. But we also had a Civil War before.

The post-World-War II “consensus” about the American presidency had serious flaws. Including the kind of megalomania that led us into unnecessary bloodbaths in Vietnam and Iraq. Or a self-righteous “solution” to our domestic race problems that didn’t really solve them at all.

But now we have totally wrecked that 20th-century consensus about who we are as a nation. We elected an unqualified, immature, dishonest president. We find ourselves barrelling down a blind alley.

Reinhold Neibuhr would be the first to point out that: In this fallen world, blind alleys usually harbor very dangerous, unhappy things in their unexplored shadows. I for one think that James Comey is absolutely right to speak out.