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I will read to you, dear reader, if you like.

Book Four of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles.

This podcast will have 97 installments, taking us from now until near the end of the Easter season.

Chapter 1 briefly reviews how we can come to know something about God using human reason–the contents of Books I-III of SCG.

Then St. Thomas explains how, in Book IV, we will try to grasp as best we can the truths which God has revealed about Himself, truths which transcend our ability to understand, at least right now.

He also touches on the fact that, ultimately, we will understand.

St. Thomas and an Accusation


St. Thomas Aquinas died on March 7, 1274, in an abbey about 60 miles southeast of Rome. We usually keep the saints’ feast days on the anniversaries of their deaths. March 7, however, almost always falls within Lent, which would get in the way of feasting.

Almost 100 years after Thomas’ death, the pope decided to move the saint’s remains to the mother church of Thomas’ religious order (the Dominicans), located in Toulouse, France. At the time, the pope himself lived in France, in Avignon.

The 1,200 mile procession with St. Thomas’ relics concluded like this, according to the secretary to the Master General of the Dominicans at the time:

On Sunday, January 28, the sacred body was carried to a certain small chapel, according to the command of our Lord Pope Urban V… There were over 10,000 torches and 150,000 people… This ceremony was such a solemn event that a comparable ceremony had not been seen for a century in the city of Toulouse.

Couvent des Jacobins de Toulouse - Autel de St Thomas d'Aquin
Tomb of St. Thomas Aquinas, Toulouse, France

…The second part of St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica considers human decision-making and morals. The second part of that second part explains the particular virtues, including, of course, justice.

Part of the section on justice covers the business of crime and punishment. Question 68, article 1, poses the question: Does someone who knows about a crime have the duty to denounce the criminal?

St. Thomas says Yes, basing his answer on Leviticus 5:1, which says that a witness to a crime becomes complicit if he says nothing. St. Thomas’ words explaining his answer ring across the centuries:

In the case of a crime that causes injury to the community–bodily or spiritual corruption in the community–a man is bound to accuse the criminal, provided he can offer sufficient proof.

There’s more. St. Thomas considers this objection:

Subjects should not accuse their superiors, nor persons of lower degree accuse those of higher degree.

The saint answers the objection like this:

Subjects are debarred from accusing superiors, if it is not the affection of charity but their own wickedness that leads them to defame and disparage the conduct of their superiors. But if the subject can prove the accusation, it is lawful for subjects to accuse their superiors out of charity.

So I accuse the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy of continuing injustice towards the survivors of sexual abuse. The hierarchy continues to operate according to this principle, if you can call it a principle:

Sexual abuse is a shameful private matter that should be kept from the public eye. If people know that clergymen have committed this crime, they will lose the faith. Therefore, it should be hushed up, at any cost.

First let me mention two fundamental problems with this idea.

Problem 1. This modus operandi condemns sex-abuse survivors to a life in the shadows. Also, it endangers other possible victims. Sexual abuse is not a purely private matter. It causes “corruption in the community,” as St. Thomas put it.

The peaceful stability of any community depends on criminal justice. Criminals must be publicly tried and convicted of their crimes, and punished accordingly. The victim of a crime is certainly not to blame for the crime and should not bear any shame for having suffered such victimization. Secrecy about a crime protects the criminal.

Problem 2. Catholics have not, in fact, lost faith en masse because priest-criminals exist. There are hundreds of thousands of priests on earth, and thousands of bishops–some of them are bound to be criminals. That fact does not, in and of itself, scandalize the faithful–using “scandalize” here in the strict sense of damaging or destroying someone’s holy faith.

What has scandalized, and continues to scandalize, the Catholic faithful is: the systematic cover-up of crimes committed by clergymen, a cover-up orchestrated by the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

I will demonstrate that this incorrect and cruel principle does, in fact, guide the current Catholic hierarchy, in subsequent posts covering these two instances:

1. The leaked transcript of the Kenneth Feinberg conference call with upstate New York dioceses in December 2017.

2. The final disposition of the Bishop Joseph Hart ecclesiastical criminal case.

Stay tuned.

Guest Post: Matt O’Herron

Matt O'Herron

Political Musings on the Anniversary of Roe v. Wade

Contemplating the events of the past month, or 10 years, or 48 years since Roe v. Wade, has led me to believe that we who believe in charity, Christ’s divine love, need to distance ourselves from a political mentality. I am not suggesting no longer running for office or abandoning political science or not voting. What I am suggesting is that people who profess a faith which holds that “God is Love” is both the foremost truth and the highest ideal remove themselves emotionally from, and no longer identify with, politics.

Since Roe v. Wade, and perhaps before, Catholics in America have watched and participated in an ideological political battle between two parties that has not helped us love our neighbor. We have poured mountains of time, emotional energy, millions and millions of dollars–and sometimes–ourselves, into trying to create political solutions to moral and philosophical problems that pre-date the 20th century. In practice we have forgotten that there are no temporal solutions and have fallen into the trap of identifying ourselves as supporters of one or the other political party or candidate because they seem to represent more of what we believe our faith asks of us. But there is a reason the Beatitudes make no mention of politics.

unbornSetting aside the fact that neither party comes close to a platform that reflects the Church’s social teaching, we have allowed this errant self-identification to both cloud our overall ability to be charitable and to lull us into thinking we are being “good” Catholics by vehemently espousing particular political views and supporting candidates who have little interest in charity or the truth.

In today’s climate, if we are going to properly foster the mentality Jesus actually asks of us, Catholics in general ought not identify as Democrat or Republican, at least not publicly (unless forced to do so to run for office). We should not find ourselves vociferously supporting deeply flawed candidates or their parties or using their catch-phrases. Stoking political passion both in ourselves or others is not Christian. On the contrary, it is at best a distraction from charity and, at worst, a fanning of the flames of irrationality. There is no search for truth or love in politics today.

We cannot and will not make the United States a Christian country, whatever that means in the 21st century. Half of the positions one side or the other supports are unchristian. Half of what most Christians do is unchristian. If we had poured all the political passion, rhetoric and fundraising into a zeal to actually accomplish face-to-face charitable works, the country would be more Christian than any political crusade could have made it.

We ought to refrain from digital political discourse as well. Conservative catholic and liberal catholic are terms we ought not to permit or identify with. Every Tweet or post that supports a candidate is only read by those who agree with the writer anyway. Who is that helping? Why place ourselves in a camp? Christians have done a  disservice to what should be our cause by identifying politically and becoming cheerleaders for candidates. Doing so separates us. Our identity should be humble and struggling Christians and our communications should reflect that.

It is true that Roe v. Wade is a colossal evil in this country, but it is not the actual killing of a baby. It is a legal decision. Abortions happened before it was handed down and will happen if it is overturned. Would we all get along if it was overturned? Would we actually do anything concrete for mothers and others in trouble if it were overturned? Do we do anything for mothers and others in trouble now?

The effort to overturn Roe v. Wade was and is noble but part of the evil the decision has wrought is sucking Catholics into the vacuity and furor of present-day politics. We find ourselves expending our energy and talents on candidates and parties that do not foster authentic Christianity. For those who recognize abortion is a tremendous evil, it has forced us into painful decisions that we have let identify us politically, instead of as Christians making a hard choice as best we can.

american-flagA person striving to live a charitable and truth-filled life should only begrudgingly accept the fact that a vote has to be cast for someone, whether that someone is from one of the two popular parties or not. The same holds true for Christendom. In today’s America, most of the time, an authentic Christian ought to be holding his or her nose and grimacing when their vote is cast.

Had Catholics, Christians, and “all monotheists who believe in charity” spent all our blood, sweat and tears on charitable works instead of political endeavors, imagine! For 48 years, many Catholics have engaged in a political struggle that has maybe, just now, resulted in a Supreme Court that might overturn Roe v. Wade and return the decision on abortion to the states. Then what, another 48 years? The loss of the Christian culture requires a different solution.

Roe v. Wade serves as the most egregious example of how wrong our system can be. It reveals two points to consider. First, Christians are not going to change the world through politics. Secondly, Christians have allowed politics to drive us apart. Symbolically and practically, what we need are pro-life community centers next door to every abortion provider, staffed and funded by all the money currently being wasted on political and media endeavors supporting this or that, Republican or Democrat, candidate, or this or that “left- and right-” leaning Catholic publication which belittles the other side and trumpets the praises of deeply inadequate political figures.

The time has come for Catholics to fundamentally alter their approach to engaging the problems in the country. While continuing to be civically active, vote, and run for office, we must emotionally and rhetorically leave politics behind. If there is any great political insight to be taken from Scripture, it is that even the greatest empire the world has ever seen could not keep the religious “right and left” from killing Christ (Mark 12:13-17). Politics has become the algorithmic science of screaming as loud as one can to one’s own camp. There is no longer a redeeming reason to identify politically. The only way to keep our country beloved, or make it beloved again, is to focus on charity.

“Anglican Watch” Interview

Anglican Watch

Mr. Eric Bonetti writes a blog called “Anglican Watch.” He kindly interviewed me for his blog, and we agreed I would publish the interview here, also. His questions are in bold, and my answers follow.

  • My understanding is that the Vatican has essentially taken a pass on your complaint. Where does this leave you? How do you spend your days? And what are your next steps?

Yes, it appears that the Vatican will let Bishop Knestout’s decisions stand. This leaves me suspended from public ministry indefinitely, for no good reason. I continue to celebrate Mass and the Divine Office, with the good Lord and the denizens of heaven for company.

Since it appears that this strange situation will likely stretch on, I have been busy lately trying to set up a long-term place to live. Once I get that settled, I will return to writing daily, which seems to be the ministry that divine Providence is giving me at this point.

  • The public has read your story with interest. From your perspective, what is the biggest issue in your dispute with the church?

I think there are two inseparable issues involved in my case. One, honest accountability regarding sex-abuse cover-ups. Two, freedom of speech regarding Topic 1.

  • Is the larger issue perhaps with power, and how it is used in the church, versus the still appalling issues with sexual abuse?

I think that sex abuse by clergy, especially bishops, and episcopal abuse of power are two sides of the same evil coin. According to my limited understanding of it, clergy sex-abuse does damage, above all, by abusing the sublime power of the sacerdotal office. The abuse wounds the victim’s most-important relationship—with God. The wound comes not solely, or even primarily, through the physical violation of the body, but by the manipulation—and crushing distortion—of the victim’s interior religion. Clerical abuse of power—even when no sex is involved—does the same damage, in the same deep region of the soul.

  • How do you respond to those who say you should have just stayed quiet and let things sort themselves out?

I have lived through enough cycles of the recurring Catholic sex-abuse scandal to know that the problem will never “sort itself out.” Rule by self-interested Mafiosi never ends on its own. People who want a better kind of society have to take risks, make powerful enemies, and seek the truth no matter what it costs. The Catholic Church, considered as a human society, is a community ruled by self-interested Mafiosi, at this point in time.

  • How do you respond to those who say that your comments are blasphemous, brash, or disrespectful? Or perhaps not “easygoing?”

I have tried to maintain equanimity and humility. I have failed in that at times, and I have begged pardon of my readership when I did. But the anger many of us Catholics feel towards our hierarchy springs from a just and honest assessment of the well-known facts.

We owe our prelates respect and the benefit of the doubt—until they forfeit the right to it. If the Vatican McCarrick report shows anything, it’s that too many people gave the benefit of the doubt to a man who manifestly did not deserve it, just because he was a bishop and then a Cardinal—with vast damage ensuing as the result of that misplaced trust and deference.

  • Setting aside for a moment the issue of sexual misconduct in the church, how prevalent is non-sexual abuse, like abuse of power?

Forgive me for putting it this way, but it is not an overstatement: Abuse of power is really the only thing holding the Catholic Church together right now. The facts now on the table have left conscientious people with no choice but to dissociate themselves from the institution, at least to some extent. Everyone who is “all-in” for Catholicism at this point in history has a compromised conscience, at least partially so. Intellectual or spiritual laziness, or fear of having to face difficult spiritual realities alone, currently binds Catholics together with hierarchy–not honest religion or real Christian communion. We believe it’s the real Church; we believe in the grace conferred by the sacraments. But honest people, considering the Catholic Church as a human institution, see an unrepentant international organized crime syndicate.

  • What about sexual abuse? How common is it in the church? Has the church gotten better in dealing with it? Better in preventing it?

When sexual abuse occurs, evil triumphs; when a victim speaks out about it, good triumphs. Our hierarchy continues to fail at grasping this fundamental and obvious distinction. They think that clerical sexual abuse becomes an evil WHEN the victim speaks openly about it.

You don’t know how prevalent clerical sexual abuse is until 20-40 years later. We know now that clerical sexual abuse was alarmingly prevalent thirty years ago. We will likely know the same thing about now, in 20-40 years.

To my mind, though, that’s not really the issue. Right here and now what we can control is: How do I react, when someone confides in me about being sexually abused? How do I carry myself, and talk, and listen–so as to make such a confidence possible? How do I respond in a Christian manner? If I have any kind of authority over the situation, what ought I to do with that authority, to redress the grave injustice? As an institution, we seem to be light years away from having solid answers to these questions.

  • Some say that unbridled clericalism is one of the root causes of the problems facing the Catholic Church. Is this accurate? Do you think this is an issue for other faith traditions?

I think “clericalism” makes sense as a term, if defined precisely. In the Church, a deacon, priest, or bishop, has the role of representing Christ as the giver of saving grace. As such, the clergyman deserves commensurate reverence from the Christian, who humbly knows that he or she needs the grace. But ordination does NOT give personal holiness to the ordained. The ordained person remains a sinful human being like everyone else, needs grace like everyone else, and is as capable of committing a crime as anyone else is. A criminal clergyman deserves the same prosecution and punishment as any other criminal.

I think confusion about this distinction between the religious leader as a representative of something, and the religious leader as a fellow human being, runs through all organized religion as a constant danger.

  • How did you discern the path to priesthood?

I converted to Catholicism in college, after I fell in love with Christ crucified, living on earth in the Blessed Sacrament. The Lord called me into the Church and to the priesthood at the same time.

  • Situations like this can lead to growth for those involved. How has this experience shaped your faith? Would you do anything differently?

I have some regrets: in November 2019, I published an intemperate post that I should have waited 24 hours to edit and then publish. In 2000-2003, when I was a seminarian under Theodore McCarrick, and during the Boston Globe Spotlight scandal, I did not study the issues well at all, did not understand them. I wish I had thought the whole thing through better, back then.

All that said, I feel closer to God now than I ever have, more loved by Him than ever. I am in the situation I am in because it is His will for me, for the sake of some good too mysterious for me to comprehend at the moment.

  • What advice do you have for those who are ousted from the church, or perhaps quietly pushed aside, for criticizing the church and its conduct?

My advice would be: Double-check all your facts, think through all your conclusions as carefully as possible, pray, and keep fighting. We are living through a period of Christian history when the institutions are deeply compromised. Living peacefully in them is no sign of virtue, in itself. Quite the contrary.

  • In the best of all possible worlds, what would you like to see as an outcome?

If I could go back tomorrow to the life of pastoring the two parishes here in Rocky Mount and Martinsville, I would be very happy. I have loved doing that more than anything I have ever done.

  • Many faith traditions are seeing precipitous declines in membership in recent years. Is the church in decline? And what do you say to those who believe that organized faith is in trouble?

I think the coronavirus crisis has quickly brought organized Christianity in the Western world to the brink of mortal peril. We cannot imagine that “normal” parish life will return. The money will gradually run out and the institutions will fail. I think our hope lies in understanding that this age is like the Apostolic Age, as far as the life of the Church is concerned.

  • Do you have any further thoughts or comments you’d like to share?

I appreciate your kind interest and the excellent questions 🙂

Guest Post about Virtus Article on Reporting Up the Chain

Around here, all Catholic teachers, youth leaders, clergy, and parish volunteers know about “Virtus,” a website that offers sex-abuse educational material, for a fee.

VirtusIn order to interact with young people in parish life, we all must read and respond to the articles that Virtus publishes regularly. This on-going education plan is one of the key elements of the strategy for ‘child protection’ devised by Church authorities after the Boston Globe Spotlight scandal of 2002. Every diocese has a ‘child-protection co-ordinator,’ with the task of policing the compliance of everyone who interacts with young people in Catholic parishes. We all have to read and respond to every article by answering on-line questions about it.

No complaints about any of that, in and of itself. Virtus bulletins sometimes have insightful and helpful information. That said, last month’s Virtus bulletin had the following message:

The media has reported sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. It may seem disheartening to us Catholics. But getting the truth out is a good thing, and the Church learns from mistakes that leaders have made in the past. We, the Catholic faithful, are the ‘child protectors.’ If we see something that looks wrong, we must report it up the Church chain of command.

[I would link to the article, so that you could read it for yourself. But the article is not available to the general public, only to paying customers.]

A parishioner and generous volunteer here noticed the hole in the article’s argument, and wrote this letter to the editor of the Virtus bulletins:

Dear editor,

You invited constructive feedback. I hope this is considered constructive.

I was pleased to see an article that touched on the need for accountability and open conversation, and the admission that we Catholics might have this feeling of “when will this all end!”

I also recognize that the intent of these posts is to guide and encourage those in youth ministry to be alert, and know how to identify and address unsafe practices or suspect behavior. I know the purpose is not to address the failings of our leadership.

I would argue, however, that the accountability issue is huge! Why bother reporting something when we don’t believe any good will come of it? Why report up the chain of the church leadership when they are poised to protect the institution, not the child? What assurances do we have that if we report up, and an incident is not addressed, that those in positions of authority will be held accountable?

While the McCarrick report shares more than what was previously known publicly, it still seems vague. The report indicates a flow of information that sadly confirms a behavior of “passing the buck” and a pattern of response that gives preference to testimonials of colleagues rather than believing those who were molested or inappropriately treated. The report shows no ardent desire for the health of our children and the conscience of the Catholic people, who would demand no stone be left unturned!

It saddens me that the McCarrick report explains away the sequence of seemingly lack-luster investigations rather than taking a very different approach. Namely, actually holding those parties who are still in leadership positions accountable, according to their extent of involvement. Some people think they are untouchable. Until that changes, the church, that is the people, will continue to suffer for the sins of their leaders.

I would hope that today an incident report would be properly investigated and not brushed aside. Still, I would err on the side of reporting to the civil authorities, because there is no conflict of interest, as there might be with a parish priest or bishop, archbishop, cardinal, etc.

The net is that we, the people in youth ministry, need to know that a complaint will be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly and properly, and that we will be kept informed (rather than experiencing some mysterious disappearance), regardless of whether it is behavior toward a child, a teenager, or an adult.

And if this doesn’t happen–if we the people have to report up (above the bishop)–we need to know that the bishop will be dismissed for not doing his job!

No excuse is acceptable for ignoring, brushing aside, or disbelieving a report without a proper investigation. No excuse is reasonable for rushing to judgment, when the truth and the health of our children and parishioners is at stake. While there is historical evidence to suggest that some might attempt to libel or discredit vis-à-vis a claim of abuse or inappropriate behavior, it is not reasonable to disregard a claim based on that defense. The field of psychology has come far enough for us to understand that children, in particular, do not lie about such claims.

We also need to know that the behaviors previously present in our seminaries have been eliminated, and that our future priests are no longer being subjected to such inappropriate advances as acknowledged in the McCarrick report. Who in their right mind would allow their child to consider seminary knowing that he might be put into such compromising and humiliating situations?

Thank you for reading this note.

–Bernadette Harmon

Bernadette received a brief, courteous response from the editor. She awaits, however, answers to these questions that she posed in a follow-up e-mail:

If we report something, how long might we expect to wait before getting a response?

How do we know if our report is getting brushed aside?

How long should we wait before escalating?

Should we try discreetly to take video or audio of suspect behavior?

How do we keep ourselves and our family safe if we choose to make a report?

How long should we wait between reporting to the pastor, then later to the bishop or to law enforcement?

What recourse do we have if we are asked not to come back to ministry after making a report or get let go from a staff position?


Keeping the Feasts in 2021


This Sunday we commemorate the Lord Jesus going into the water of the Jordan River for baptism. I think many of us miss blessing ourselves with Holy Water when we enter and exit the church. The little stoups remain empty, to prevent spreading any germs. Understandable. But we miss it. [Spanish]

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord ends Epiphanytide. In the parishes here in Rocky Mount and Martinsville, we had the Epiphany custom of solemnly announcing the important dates of the liturgical year to come.

On the 17th day of February will fall Ash Wednesday… On the 4th day of April, you will celebrate Easter day… On the 16th day of May will be the Ascension… On the 23rd day of May, the feast of Pentecost. On the 6th day of June, the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. On the 28th day of November, the First Sunday of the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Last year, on Epiphany Sunday 2020, we had the solemn announcement of the dates. Little did we know what lay in store. This time last year, we had no idea what a wild ride the liturgical year of 2020 would become.

I mentioned early last year that I hope one day to climb the tallest mountain in the continental U.S., Mount Whitney. If you paid close attention to my little videos last May and June, you saw a poster of Mount Whitney that I had on my wall behind me. Good Lord willing, I will make the ascent this coming August.

Mt Whitney sunrise
Mount Whitney at sunrise

Last February I traveled out to the Sierra Nevadas to size Mount Whitney up, so to speak–to get a feel for what I would need to do, to get to the top. While I was out in that area, I also visited the Grand Canyon.

As I gazed out over the Grand Canyon on February 20, 2020, a group of rafters 5,000 feet below me had just set out for a month-long trip through the bottom of the canyon, along the Colorado River. There’s no cellphone service down there, so those rafters had no contact with the world outside the canyon for a whole month. That was the idea—to get away, to get “off-grid.”

The rest of us spent that month learning about the virus that had started in Wuhan, China. We looked on in disbelief as the whole nation of Italy shut down. Then our own United States shut down. The rafters emerged from the Grand Canyon, and back into contact with the world, on the very day that the bishops here in the U.S. shut down public Masses until further notice, in the middle of last March. I think we can imagine how stunning it must have been for them. They left a normal world, and returned to… well… highly abnormal.

Anyway, for the second half of Lent last year, and for most of the Easter season, we only had Mass via facebook live. We had Palm Sunday and Holy Week via smart phone, with contactless drive-thru palm pickup. Then the parishes here partially re-opened on Ascension day. In the meantime, I had gotten removed as pastor and suspended from ministry.

When we start the year by doing the solemn announcement of the dates of the big feast days, I think it gives us a sense of steadiness, stability. We start the year by remembering that Christ’s Church will make Her way through the annual cycle again, respecting the rhythm of the seasons as we always do. Hopefully we will grow a little closer to God this year. Steady progress toward heaven. That’s how gardens grow. Maybe it seems boring on the surface. But ultimately, it’s very beautiful.

This past liturgical year involved just about everything except steadiness and stability. The disturbances in parish life have wounded us all. We should not underestimate how deeply they have wounded us. Trauma in your spiritual life is the worst kind of trauma, and takes the longest to heal. We need to go easy on ourselves.

And we need to try to hold onto whatever liturgical steadiness we can get our hands on. Marking our calendars for the big holy days of 2021—to do that, after the year we have had—it takes on a whole new significance, I think. The life of Jesus Christ’s grace will continue. We will carry on. This past year saw a painful number of business closures, and an even-more-painful number of human deaths. But not Christianity. 2020 did not kill our faith.

The trauma during the holy days of 2020 has made keeping the holy days in 2021 more urgent. And it will make keeping them more sweet. God remains with us. Jesus Christ, our Savior.

Capitol Memories

Pope Francis pauses in front of a sculpture of Spanish-born Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC
The Holy Father in the U.S. Capitol, September 2015, looking at the statue of St. Junipero Serra in Statuary Hall

My newlywed parents lived on 4th Street, S.E., Washington, D.C., around the corner from the U.S. Capitol, in the 1960’s.

In those days, the park east of the capitol building still had a grove of elm trees at the western end of East Capitol Street. The trees were over a century old. They chopped down a couple dozen to build the underground Capitol Visitors Center in the mid-2000’s–supposedly enhancing security.

(Frederick Law Olmsted designed the U.S. Capitol park in 1874. He also designed Central Park in New York City.)

In the 1970’s, tourists entered the Capitol through the east door, at the top of the main steps. On weekend afternoons, you might have to wait in line for fifteen or twenty minutes. There was a single guard at the door.

Our family walked through those doors to see the beautiful building on occasional Sundays, after church. There is a Kirkwood in Statuary Hall, a native Marylander who became governor of Iowa during the Civil War. He is a distant kinsman of my father’s clan.

Samuel Kirkwood in Statuary Hall Capitol

The painter who produced Apotheosis of George Washington in the capitol dome died in 1880. His grave is in Glenwood Cemetery, off North Capitol Street. My dad lies buried about thirty feet away.

In the blizzard of 1979, my brother and I sledded down the hill to the west of the capitol. The streets were clogged with parked farm tractors covered with three feet of snow. The farmers had arrived in Washington to protest something, right before the snow began to fall.

Tractors on the Mall in Washington during the blizzard of 1979 (Smithsonian archive)

I lived in the 400 block of East Capitol Street as an undergraduate at the Catholic University of America, from 1992-1994. I had a movie poster on my wall, which had the same view of the Capitol that my roommate and I had, when we walked out our front door.

Good to Go movie poster

Every day I ran to the Lincoln Memorial and back, stopping to stretch in the Capitol park. In those pre-9/11 days, you could walk right up to the capitol building and lean on it to stretch your quads. There were no barricades. My friends and I had picnics under the elms on springtime Saturdays.

In the summer of 1993 I gave the tours on the Tourmobile that circulated around the mall. Sometimes I explained the history of the U.S. Capitol building and it’s expansion through the nineteenth century.

Original US Capitol and now

As a priest I was assigned twice to parishes on Capitol Hill. I lived within walking distance of the building from 2004-2006 and from 2009-2010. I did the same daily run down the mall, but it had grown a little longer, because you had to run around the security perimeter around the capitol that had been imposed after 9/11/2001.

President Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, gave his inaugural addresses from the east side of the capitol, facing the Atlantic Ocean. I remember listening to Jimmy Carter speak on the east side in January 1977. (I didn’t understand it; I hadn’t turned seven yet.) Ronald Reagan was the first president inaugurated on the west side, facing California, in 1981.

…I don’t think we should sacralize our political institutions. The invasion of the building today was not a “desecration.” Politics is not a sacred business. It is, by definition, worldly. The U.S. Capitol is not a temple.

What we can say is this: we have reached Act V of our own tragic American Macbeth. We deserve stability in our land. President Trump has become, in the words of General Jim Mattis, a “man without a country.”

May our children and grandchildren have picnics on the capitol lawn, with malice towards none and charity for all. May the good Lord help us keep peace for them to inherit.

To Honor and Not to Honor

Villalpando Magi

They came to honor the Child. The shepherds and the magi. We go to honor Him, too, by making a spiritual pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Not just to honor Him, of course, but also to praise and adore Him, and to rejoice at His birth. But let’s focus on the giving of honor. [Spanish]

We honor God above all things. All goodness, all nobility, all truthfulness, all grace comes from God. We owe God everything. We exist because of His generosity. We respond to His kindness by consecrating ourselves in His service and honoring Him for Who He is.

Like the shepherds and the magi, like St. Joseph and the Virgin, we honor God made man in Christ. By honoring the Son, we honor the Almighty Creator and provident Father of the universe. And by honoring the incarnate Word, not only do we honor the triune God, but also we honor everything virtuous and honest about mankind. The God-man has infinite divine virtue and the perfection of humanity. We honor all of that, when we honor the newborn Christ.

Recognizing all that is honorable about God and man in Jesus liberates us from idolatry. Honoring the Christ attunes us to reality as it truly is. God is God, and only God is God. God made the human race beautiful, in His image. We betrayed that; we betrayed our true selves. But God became one of us to restore and fulfill the original holiness of mankind. We honor that true loveliness of our race when we honor Jesus.

Fra Angelico ordinationTo give honor where we should give it, and not where we shouldn’t: that’s a matter of honesty and justice, a matter of maintaining personal integrity as human beings. (See St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica, Pars II-II, q63 a3.) It’s a sin to neglect to honor someone who deserves our honor. That’s called disrespect. It’s also a sin to honor someone who doesn’t deserve it. That’s called flattery or sycophancy.

A couple weeks ago, a priest who supervised and guided me when I was a seminarian became a bishop. I watched the ceremony on YouTube, praying for my one-time mentor and for the people of his new diocese.

The Cardinal Archbishop who presided over the ordination gave a long homily, as they always do. But this one wasn’t totally boring. The Archbishop reflected on where bishops come from and what their fundamental role is.

The office of bishop comes from Christ, and the bishops give us Christ. Jesus founded His Church on the Twelve Apostles, the first priests and first bishops. Without the unbroken succession of the laying on of hands that started with the Twelve, and which has now continued for two thousand years, we would not have the Holy Mass or any of the sacraments. No one can make himself a priest. Only a bishop can make a man a priest, who can give the Body and Blood of Christ to the people.

We have to honor this. We have to honor bishops and the pope, because they are the successors of the original Apostles as Jesus’ representatives on this earth. The pope and bishops of today are the living ends of the chain that links us with the baby born in Bethlehem.

Death of an Altar Boy E.J. Fleming CroteauAll that said, we have to remember what we read in Scripture: Like snow in summer, honor for a fool is out of place… Like one who entangles the stone in the sling is he who gives honor to a fool. (Proverbs 26:1,8)

Very few people attended my one-time mentor’s ordination as a bishop. The people of his new diocese were stunningly, painfully absent from the ceremony. The pandemic kept people away, to be sure. But that’s not the whole story.

We learned earlier this year that the previous bishop of that diocese covered-up sexual abuse that had been committed by the bishop there a generation ago. At least two of the previous bishops of that diocese were guilty of sexually abusing minors, as well as dozens of priests there. To this day, the diocese has not reckoned with the full truth.

One of the priest-abusers likely killed one of his young victims. It is a murder mystery that still lingers. A skilled investigator wrote a book about the case a couple years ago, calmly laying out all the facts. It is practically impossible to read that book and retain any sense of honor for the clergy of the Catholic Church.

Another old priest friend of mine died just before Christmas. I attended his funeral, but I could not concelebrate, since the bishop here has unjustly suspended me from ministry.

Now, I don’t mean to “project” as the psychologists put it. But I think that my standing away from the altar at my friend’s funeral put me in the strained kind of place that a lot of Catholics find themselves in these days. I knew I belonged in church for the funeral. For me to be anywhere else would have involved betraying my friend and my faith. But I could not fit in there, as if nothing were wrong. For me to concelebrate the Mass peacefully—that would have required my making concessions to the bishop months ago, concessions that would have betrayed my conscience.

This is where I find myself as the new year of grace begins. I daresay you, dear reader, find yourself in a similar place. Let’s make a resolution for 2021: That we will trust God and trust Christ. Let’s trust that His plan will involve better days to come. And let’s trust that, to get there, we won’t have to betray either the Church or ourselves.