Increasing Sense of Helplessness

greengrass united 93

Paul Greengrass made the 9/11 movie–United 93.

Everything in the little worlds of FAA Headquarters, and Newark airport, and the regional air-control centers in New England and New York–everything began normal, a lovely late-summer morning. Then chaos, and a sense of utter helplessness, builds little by little. For two agonizing hours.

Yesterday, in holy Mother Church, the sense of utter helplessness built a little more.

Beautiful West Virginia had a bishop from Philadelphia. He used to run the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and I knew him then. He and I had a run-in with then-Cardinal McCarrick over a homily I gave at a friend’s first Mass.

Your humble servant celebrated Mass in Bishop Bransfield’s diocese just last Wednesday, the anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death, while I was on a little vacation in Berkeley Springs, WV, with my dear mother and brother.

We prayed special for Bishop Bransfield at that Mass, because his 75th birthday drew nigh. Time for a transition, since bishops must resign at that age.

Yesterday things got weird. The Pope accepted Bishop Bransfield’s resignation, effective immediately. The Archbishop of our ecclesiastical province left Baltimore to go to West Virginia. To investigate Bishop Bransfield’s evils. Without any public explanation of what those evils are.

Weirder still: The president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is the Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, in Texas–Daniel Cardinal DiNardo.

Eleven years ago, Texas dispensed with any statute of limitations for the criminal prosecution of sexual abuse of minors.

Cardinal DiNardo’s right-hand man for Hispanic ministry is Father Manuel LaRosa-Lopez. Turns out that he has just been arrested by the police. For alleged crimes that occurred about twenty years ago.

He was arrested while Cardinal DiNardo was in Rome to meet with the pope to plan out how to deal with the crisis.

pope dinardo gomez

Paul Greengrass could not make a movie more excruciating than this. And the worst part is the utter meltdown of effective communication.

Archbishop Lori, of Baltimore, issued a statement, touching on “the troubling allegations against Bishop Bransfield.” What allegations? Over a decade ago, an avowed pederast priest accused Bransfield of sexually abusing a minor. It was a pure-hearsay allegation. The minor himself (now an adult) testified that Bransfield had never done anything wrong.

While Cardinal DiNardo exchanged jokes with the pope, his Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston issued a defensive statement of self-contradictory bureaucratic gobbledegook to explain the Father LaRosa-Lopez affair.

Paragraph one narrates a course of events in which the principle of zero tolerance for sex abuse of minors was manifestly not followed. Then the concluding paragraph of the statement insists that the diocese simply will not tolerate sexual abuse. And the entire upshot of the statement is: If there are any problems here, it is the fault of the victims, their families, and Child Protective Services. Not our fault. At all. Not us.

…Meanwhile, the pope announced a synod of all the heads of the national bishops conferences, to deal with the crisis. In February.

What will happen? The same thing that has happened over and over again for years and years.

The pope will tell the bishops conferences that they absolutely positively have to deal with this problem. The bishops conferences will say, there’s nothing we can do. Only the Vatican can deal with this. Then everyone will congratulate each other and go home.


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.

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.

Mortara: Movie, Not. Book, Yes.

kidnapped mortara

Steven Spielberg had his script; he had chosen his locations and had begun to build his sets. He had cast almost all his parts. He just needed a boy to play Edgardo Mortara, the six-year-old that Pope Pius IX had taken away from his Jewish family in 1858, because the boy was Catholic. (A maid had baptized him when he lingered at death’s door as an infant, but he did not die.)

Spielberg, however, could not find the right child actor. The director searched in vain for the boy he needed “to carry the movie.” A little over a year ago, Spielberg gave up. We apparently won’t see a blockbuster Edgardo-Mortara movie anytime soon. (Harvey Weinstein had the idea of making a movie about Mortara, too. But…)

Spielberg had wanted to recount the early life of the Jewish-born Catholic priest who once enjoyed international fame. During his childhood and teenage years, Edgardo Mortara’s name passed the lips of practically every king, queen, prime-minister, and president on earth. And it appeared in the editorials of practically every newspaper, as the world lurched into the political alignments that eventually led to World War I.

Napoleon III
Napoleon III

But Spielberg had made a bad choice about the book upon which to base his script. David Kertzer wrote The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara without reading one highly significant document: Father Mortara’s own memoirs.

Kertzer has since raised quibbles about the reliability of the text of Mortara’s memoirs, originally written in Spanish. But the disputed passages do not change anything fundamental about the book. The Atlantic called the final Italian (and English) text “heavily doctored.” But close analysis does not support that charge. The real problem is that the anti-Pope-Pius side of the debate regards Mortara as having been “brainwashed.” But, by that logic, all Catholics who believe in Christ and His Gospel have been brainwashed.

So, back to our task at hand: a consideration of Mortara’s words. As an adult, Father Mortara wrote his story, in order to defend Pope Pius IX from the charge of malicious kidnapping. In so doing, Mortara told the tale of a beautiful, holy life. He thought he was praising Pope Pius’ holiness. But he was in fact unwittingly revealing his own.

Maybe Spielberg couldn’t find the “right” actor, thereby dooming his movie, because the story, as he intended to tell it, only included half of the facts. How can you tell a good story on film, while neglecting the point-of-view of the protagonist himself?

(Let’s let Spielberg concern himself with projects like Indiana Jones XVII, or whatever he’s up to, and focus on whether Mortara rightly concludes that Pope Pius rightly ordered his “sequestration” from his family.)

Italian scholar Vittorio Messori unearthed Mortara’s memoir. In spite of all the controversy that surrounded Mortara’s life, his own book had never been published for the general public. Messori wrote a lengthy introduction and published the book in Italian. Now Ignatius Press has published an English translation.

“The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” by Moritz Oppenheim

Earlier this year, Father Romanus Cessario “reviewed” Kidnapped by the Vatican? for First Things magazine. But Father Cessario paid scant attention to anything about Mortara’s life after age six. Indeed, Messori himself, in his introduction, apologizes to the reader for Mortara’s supposedly inartful and unconvincing prose. (Ironically enough, Messori’s prose requires a lot of concentration to grasp; Mortara’s, by contrast, flows smoothly.)

In his introduction, Messori belabors the following point: Pope Pius IX’s 19th-century critics were hypocrites. In other Christian lands, baptized children were removed somewhat routinely from non-Christian homes. And in the Muslim world, Christian children could be castrated and enslaved.

Okay, but this argumentation does not resolve the moral question about Pope Pius’ decision to remove Mortara from his family home. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Anyway, it’s as if Cessario and Messori, intent on defending Pope Pius IX’s decision, fall into the same trap as Kertzer and Spielberg–and everyone else intent on demonizing the pope: All of them treat Father Mortara’s own point-of-view as an unnecessary afterthought.

The Pope was obviously terribly, grievously wrong to take Edgardo from his parents! It was crass anti-Semitism!


The Pope had good reason and basically did the right thing, according to solid 19th-century logic!

It’s as if the polemicists consider these the only options, and what Mortara himself has to say–that doesn’t really matter.

But actually sitting down and reading Mortara’s words forces you to take him seriously. I picked up the book to test my own conclusions about the affair against what the man himself says. (I’ll come back to that shortly.)  Once I started reading Mortara’s own narrative, I couldn’t put the book down. He tells the gripping story of his early life.

For example:

The Risorgimento took control of Rome during Edgardo’s teenage years, and the pope no longer had any governing power. The new Italian government had a mind to return the young man, now a seminarian, to his family home–by force if necessary, against Edgardo’s own will and strenuous objections.

So Edgardo and his seminary professors enacted a plan for the young man to escape the city on a midnight train to Austria, disguised and accompanied by a similarly disguised seminary priest.

Pius IX
Blessed Pio Nono

As the two of them waited anxiously to board the train, the priest saw Edgardo’s father, also at the train station that very same night. The companion informed Edgardo of his father’s presence; they sat motionless to avoid his glance.

Edgardo marvels that his father did not see him. I wonder myself if perhaps the father actually did recognize the son, but loved him enough to keep quiet and allow him to escape, so he could live the life he wanted to lead.

Anyway, Father Mortara wrote a vivid, eminently readable book. He narrates the facts of his early life, including his “removal” from the family home by order of Pope Pius, so that the boy could receive the proper Catholic education to which his baptism entitled him.

Mortara offers not only a narration of facts, but also a moral defense of the pope. Father Mortara argues as follows: His parents had employed a Christian shabbos goy (non-Jewish sabbath servant) in defiance of the law. The law prohibited Christian servants in Jewish households precisely to avoid cases like Mortara’s, where a baptism at the point of death produced a Catholic who wound up surviving and required a Christian education. The Mortaras broke that law.

According to Mortara’s moral reasoning, the responsibility for his removal from his family therefore lies with his parents.

Everyone involved regarded the removal as highly regrettable. The Pope had offered a compromise alternative: Edgardo could attend a Catholic boarding school in Bologna (his hometown), and his family could see him every week. But the Mortaras rejected this proposal.

So, according to Mortara, and according to Pope Pius himself, the Pope had no choice. He had an obligation to see to it that Edgardo received a Catholic education.

Now, let’s pause for a moment and acknowledge this: Both the Pope and the parents recognized something very important: Every child has a right to a thorough education in religion.

The idea of “waiting till he grows up, so he can decide” did not appeal to either party in the dispute. Because both sides recognized that no such option really exists. Children will grow up with the religion of the adults they live with. If that religion = “none,” then the adults have failed to provide the religious education that the child deserves by right.

Back to Mortara’s argument: His parents had broken the law. He was a Catholic six-year-old, with a right to a Catholic education. His parents would not co-operate with the Pope’s humane compromise proposal. Therefore, Pope Pio had no choice, and his parents were to blame for the pain.

The Pope himself echoed this logic in his repeated response to the critics who demanded that he return the child to the parents. Non possumus. We cannot.

Now, you don’t have to be an anti-clerical, anti-Catholic worldling to see the hypocrisy in such a statement. As I mentioned, in the book’s introduction, Messori points out the hypocrisy of the Pope’s critics. Fair enough. But:

How many baptized children living in the papal states in the 1860’s did not receive the proper Catholic education that they deserved? It is staggering to imagine the number of Catholic children who languished in religious ignorance because of parental inattention–inattention by Catholic parents. In every generation, we face this problem. And the Pope never claimed to have an irrevocable divine mandate to remove these children from their homes.

No. The non possumus; the laying of the responsibility on the parents for the “sequestration” of the child: not credible, not accurate, not true.

The pope could have offered the compromise; he could have received the refusal; then he could have said: We strongly urge you to educate your child as the Catholic that he is. You owe him that. We stand ready to help you.

And then the pope could have left it at that, trusting in God, and His Providence, and His unfathomable wisdom in the care of souls.

Mortara praises Pope Pius for “saving him from hell.” If the boy or young man had had to return to his Jewish parents, he thinks that he would certainly have wound up damned. In his mind, a black-or-white alternative presented itself: 1. The reprobate world outside the perfect society of the Church. 2. Salvation under the aegis of the Successor of St. Peter.

But this distinction does not altogether harmonize with the New Testament.

First of all, as Pope Paul VI pointed out on the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Papal States, St. Peter never received a mission to govern everything. Christ made Peter and his successors the chief shepherds, the pastors of the world.

Some authority must possess the power to remove children from their homes, if necessary. Parents can and do commit crimes against their children. (The great Roy Schoeman, in his forward to the English edition of Mortara’s memoirs, points this out. Parents do not have absolute power over their children.)

We would say that failing to give a Catholic child a Catholic education is a crime, a grave dereliction of duty. But can we honestly argue that, all other things being equal–the child safe and fed and protected from danger–that under such circumstances, such a crime should be punished by removing the child from the home? Can we honestly argue that such a punishment would serve the cause of building up the Catholic religion?

And could anyone ever apply such a punishment consistently? Or supply the parental care that such children would need? Hardly.

No, let’s say this: Parents of Catholic children, you owe your children an education in the Catholic religion! If you fail to provide it, you stand guilty of a grave crime, for which God will punish you (not us; we don’t have the authority to mete out punishments for such crimes of negligence). We stand ready to help you avoid such a punishment.

Second mistake of Mortara’s: A Christian cannot regard the culture and society of Jews as equally spiritually dangerous as the culture and society of pagans. I’m not saying that Mortara was “brainwashed” to think that way. But we can’t regard his prediction as infallible, that he would have wound-up damned if he had been forced to return home. He might yet have found the way to heaven.

So, to conclude:

Mortara’s memoirs reward the reader. The book leaves you admiring the author’s earnestness, his intelligence, his narrative skill, his theological insight, and his holiness.

Pope Pius IX enjoys heaven–of that we can be sure, because Pope St. John Paul II beatified him in the year 2000.

Saints can and do make blameworthy mistakes. In my book, the holy pope made a blindly stubborn mistake in 1858–a mistake with excruciatingly painful consequences for a Jewish family that did not deserve such pain.

Their pain, however, is not the whole story. The parents and siblings came to love and admire their priest son and brother (not without some misgivings, to be sure). God had a plan. Mortara’s book shows us how beautiful that plan was, in spite of everything.



To Change the Church

Holy Father had his name day yesterday (se llama Jorge). Mine comes tomorrow. So, to celebrate, I present my review of Ross Douthat’s new book…

Ross Douthat To Change the Church

Douthat sees a profound conflict in the Catholic Church. On one side, “conservatives,” who believe that the gospels give us the words of Christ the Lord, including, What God has joined together, let no man put asunder… Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. On the other side, “liberals,” who think that the Church must change with modern times in order to survive.

At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholic conservatives and liberals struggled for… hmm…struggled for what, exactly? control?… The struggle continued for a decade under Pope Paul VI. Then the “conservative” post-Vatican-II popes, John Paul II and Benedict, reigned for over three decades, supposedly stabilizing everything by giving Vatican II a traditionalist interpretation. But the struggle never really abated; the liberal side did not exit holy Mother Church, as many expected. Pope Benedict’s resignation in 2013 led to a surprising re-eruption of the year 1968.

Douthat marshals many illuminating details of Church history in order to lay out this narrative–details which I myself have lived through in my own little life. My fellow seventies’ child lays out so many accurate observations, and interprets them so well, in fact, that I could easily let myself follow him to his doleful conclusion.

Namely, that either 1) Catholicism as we know it is on the way out, or 2) the Church will trudge on, as a house deeply divided, until schism erupts, or 3) by some miracle, God will soon give us a Pope Pius XIII. Then we will give up on trying to win-over our contemporaries and simply retrench. Thoroughly retrench.

But I can’t follow Douthat the whole way to his conclusion, for all his mesmerizing eloquence. For one thing, Douthat falls into one of the traps dug by the EWTN commentators who endlessly fuss about Pope Francis’ supposed misdeeds.

Mark 10 and Matthew 19 recount a conversation between Christ and some contemporary Jews. Lord Jesus said that divorce became legal for the ancient People of God “because of your hardness of heart. In the beginning God made them male and female, and the two become one flesh in marriage.”

As Douthat rightly points out, “only a professional theologian” could miss the meaning here. Christians cannot divorce. But, by the same token, this conversation of Christ’s evidently does not stand on its own. The Lord refers to the original creation, to Adam and Eve, and to the act of marriage. The act of marriage–vows and consummation–lies at the center of the contemporary ecclesiastical controversy, not chapter 19 of St. Matthew’s gospel, or chapter ten of St. Mark’s.

G.K. Chesteron explained how true love always makes a lifetime vow, in “In Defense of Rash Vows,” published in The Defendant.

It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.

The Holy Bible doesn’t prescribe the text of marriage vows, because it doesn’t have to. What the Lord said about divorce in the conversation recorded in Mt 19 and Mk 10 gets proved at practically every wedding. A lifetime commitment, sex, and forming a family with all its attendant duties and privileges–at a wedding, these are not distinct realities. They are one reality: marriage.

And, in this case, the sacramental grace does not come through the ministry of an ordained priest. A man and woman do this; a man and a woman minister the sacrament of marriage to each other. They make their life together an image of God’s love for mankind, an image of Jesus the Bridegroom’s faithful love for His Church, by taking vows and having sex.

marriage_sacramentWhat Jesus said in Mark 10 bears witness to, and confirms, the underlying reality of what marriage is. But marriage itself, which a man and a woman do (as God’s ministers): that’s the thing that lies at the heart of the controversy that occupies good Mr. Douthat.

I would say that both sides of the controversy miss what to me is this all-important distinction: the difference between a. ecclesiastical authority imposing itself or refraining from doing so, and b. the vows taken by lay people who marry. In other words, both sides want to put the pope and the clergy in a role which we do not in fact possess. That leads to unfocused and unhelpful rhetoric.

As I have tried to explain here before: According to the rhetoric, the controversy has to do with people being “barred from Holy Communion” vs. “admitted to Holy Communion.” But priests, deacons, and extraordinary ministers do not bar people from Holy Communion. It simply doesn’t happen. I’ve never denied Holy Communion to any adult who approached the altar looking like he or she knew what she was doing, and wasn’t chewing gum. Everyone in the church is always “admitted” to Holy Communion. The decision lies with the individual: Should I approach the altar to receive, or not?

So the whole controversy gets out of focus from the outset, when people start talking about denying/admitting to Holy Communion. The real disputed point is this: What should a parish priest (or anyone else, for that matter) say to someone who asks for guidance about whether or not to go to Holy Communion? This is something that actually does happen on a regular basis.

I, for one, almost always respond to such requests for guidance with some questions of my own, to gather facts and try to clarify the matter. Like:

Well, did you make marriage vows to someone else? Including a vow of sexual fidelity until death? Is that person still alive?

So, let’s concede that we have a genuine controversy regarding what priests outght to say to people. Douthat plumbs the depths of this controversy with both penetrating insight and stunning blindness.

I. Douthat’s Insights

The Pope and his ”Twitter apologists” won’t answer questions. Not just the semi-famous “dubia.” But simple, honest questions that Catholics can and should expect their priests to help them answer, by providing authoritative criteria for judgment.

Let’s take two examples. The first comes from Martin Scorsese’s movie “Silence.” (I have not seen the movie, nor could I ever manage to get through the joyless novel. But Douthat helpfully outlines the plot.)

The main character faces a crushing choice. The local Japanese shogun will stop at nothing to stamp out Christianity. He tortures fellow Christians in front of the hero. “All you have to do is put your foot on this image of Christ, and deny Him. That way, you can save the lives of your friends.”

amoris-laetitia-coverThe hero’s priest mentor also tries to convince him to step on the image of Jesus. “These people’s Buddhism has the same ethical teaching as our Christianity. This is a dispute over supernatural things that the Japanese will never understand. Your stepping on the image won’t cost anyone anything.”

Fr. James Martin, SJ, the leading American Pope-Francis apologist, wrote about this. Douthat recounts what the Jesuit had to say. According to Father Martin, “Silence’s” hero faced “an almost impossible choice,” a discernment “in a complicated situation where there are no clear answers.”

Exhibit A of Jesuit sophistry. Who can fault Douthat for pinning it to the mat? Father Martin’s refusal to confront the moral facts: colossally obtuse. The “moral dilemma” here is actually not hard. How about this:

“Sir,” the hero says to the shogun, “I am not torturing and killing anyone. You are. Stop it. You send them to heaven by martyring them, but you do irreparable harm to yourself. For your own sake, stop this cruel nonsense.”

Then the hero adds, “Now, you think that I am going to step on the image of the one hope for heaven that we have, and deny Him? Deny the God-man, for Whose Holy Name countless of my smarter and more subtle-minded ancestors in the faith have gone to their deaths singing? If you think there’s any chance I will do that, forget it. May He have mercy on us all.”

Yes, it would require supernatural strength. (The sacrament of Confirmation promises precisely such grace.) But, at the same time, it would be the only moral option available. A difficult act, heroic martyrdom–but not a difficult decision, as far as right and wrong go. Apostasy is a sin that no situation can ever justify.

Now to the second example of a question which the “new paradigm” of pastoring doesn’t answer. This doesn’t spring directly from Douthat’s pages, like the “Silence” example. But it is the question upon which the entire controversy turns. Douthat regrettably never quite manages to lay it squarely on the table, but everything that he writes circles around it. It is the question which Pope Francis and his allies so studiously refuse to answer.

When should a person have sex?

Again, not a difficult question, when it comes to figuring out right and wrong. (It may be  difficult to act in accord with the right answer, but that doesn’t change the answer.)

When should a person have sex? When you’re trying to have a baby with your spouse.

Like I said, not a hard one. To borrow Douthat’s trenchant insight, and apply it here: It would take a professional theologian to get that one wrong. Sex is for making babies: Human Anatomy 101.

But let me address the reasonable, well-founded objection you, dear reader, might make. Father, can’t I have sex–even when I’m not trying to have a child with my spouse–just for the sake of love?

To answer that one, I think we have to say this:

If marriage means something like finding a “soul-mate”–that is, a companion with whom I will truly share my entire life; with whom I will become the person God made me to be; without whom, when everything is said and done, I will never understand myself as a person, since my self will become part of a marriage and a family– In other words, if marriage is what God originally gave Adam and Eve, and which a man and a woman establish by taking vows at the altar and making love in private, to start a family– If that is what we’re talking about here, and it is: Then no one can doubt that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. No one gets two chances at it. It is a beautiful mystery of God, having to do with getting people to heaven.

So: people involved in such a holy communion with each other–they don’t exactly have the freedom to make their own rules, but: who could say they should refrain from love-making simply because they know that conception at this moment likely will not occur? Not me. Couples having sex for the sake of love during infertile periods is no sin.

john paul ii loggia be not afraidNor would I tell a widower and a widow beyond child-bearing age not to marry. Though I would say: Pray in solitude awhile first, calling to mind that death and judgment draw nigh.

Anyway: Douthat hits the nail on the head when he calls the bluff of the “discernment’ rhetoric on the controversy’s liberal side. Their presumption is: Man must have sex. But that presumption is false. To have sex is a choice. Every individual soul must wisely make that choice–with a partner likewise making a wise, informed choice–or not. And we must make such choices according to sound criteria of judgment. Where do we start, in formulating criteria for such a judgment? The Nicene Creed. Life on earth is short; Christ gives us heaven; the Church guides us with the truth; etc.

All this is Christianity 101. Priests who won’t help their people make wise choices about having sex? Those priests suck. They suck as priests, at least. Douthat skewers that nonsense with aplomb. But…

II. Douthat’s Blind Spots

To Change the Church misses some extremely important facts of recent history. Douthat sees everything through the lens of political tribalism, so he does not understand the enduring significance of Pope St. John Paul II’s pontificate. Douthat calls JPII a “conservative.” He’s not alone in calling the saint that, of course. But calling Pope St. John Paul II “conservative” is like calling Michelangelo “talented.”

Seeing everything through the lens of politics, Douthat looks only for “the center” which can hold a political group together. St. John Paul II, on the other hand, lived and died for the Truth–which is what holds the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church together.

Douthat imagines that the “damage” done by Pope Francis has already undone the work of Pope St. John Paul II. The least convincing part of To Change the Church involves Douthat trying to explain why so few people seem to recognize this deep structural damage. It’s all happening silently because Christianity has lost its political and cultural power, Douthat argues. Therefore, only a few ardent Twitter users really know how big a problem we Catholics have on our hands.

But a reasonable appraisal of the current state of the Church would recognize: The influence of Pope St. John Paul II endures. Pope Francis himself cites JPII’s Catechism not infrequently. The Novus Ordo of the Holy Mass, which grew to “adulthood,” so to speak, under JPII–it gets prayed by validly ordained priests and their people all over the world, with sincere devotion and spiritual profit for countless souls, continually. In other words the Church continues to live Her life, largely unaware of the current “controversy”–and not the worse off, for not knowing about it.

Ok, yes: JPII had a way of not answering questions, too, when he didn’t want to. He did not answer the question of whether Latin-rite priests might be able to marry. He made it more of a question than it was before, in fact, by authorizing the ordination of quite a few married men–men who entered the Catholic Church in the middle of a career as Protestant clergymen. I remember serving Cardinal Hickey at the ordination of a married Methodist-minister-convert while I was a seminarian in the late 1990’s. I wondered to myself, Why don’t any of our spiritual fathers talk to us celibate seminarians about how to deal with this–watching a married man get ordained in front of our eyes? No one ever had that talk with us.

But, that said, the consummate priest of the 20th century did turn his prodigious mind to numerous crucial questions, like: Are there some things that we simply cannot do? Why is abortion wrong? How do we know the Holy Spirit? Is capitalism Christian? Why do we evangelize? How can all Christians re-unite in one Church? How should priests understand themselves? And bishops? And women? And college professors/intellectuals? Was Freud right? If so, how?

I still cannot forgive Pope Benedict for abdicating. But 2013 did not leave us in a re-booted 1968. In 1978, Karol Wojtyla inherited a papacy struggling to find its center of gravity again. That giant of a man proceeded to spend all his energies finding it. He gave the clergy and the whole Church their center of gravity back. Namely Jesus Christ. That center holds and will hold.

Douthat opines that Vatican II did not resolve the central modernism-vs.-tradition question of “religious freedom.” Again, let’s take a supposedly “difficult” moral case to try and get to the heart of the matter.

In 1858 papal gendarmes took Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish parents. The boy was Catholic, having been baptized by the maid when he was in danger of death. The Mortaras had hired this maid in violation of Papal-State law, which forbad Jews to hire Catholic household servants. The law stood on the books not out of bigotry toward Jews, but precisely to avoid such situations.

At that time, Pope Pius IX ruled not only the Church, but also a large part of Italy. So he had not only Cardinals and monsignori at his command, but also police officers with weapons. When the Pope learned that young Edgardo Mortara was Catholic, he insisted that the boy’s parents offer their child a Catholic education. When the parents refused, the Pope sent the police.

Pius IX
Blessed Pio Nono

Now, Edgardo grew up happy and became a priest. He loved Pope Pius and insisted that the man was a saint.

But: be all that as it may, the question is, Should the Pope have sent armed men to take the boy away from his parents?

Moderns howl, “of course not!” On the other hand, conservatives say, “Well, it’s complicated. He was baptized, after all, and we have a supernatural understanding of the effects of baptism.”

In fact, however, it is not complicated. Yes, we of course have a supernatural understanding of the effects of Holy Baptism. Edgardo was a Catholic, with a right to a Catholic education. All true. But do we Catholics with a supernatural understanding of things claim that the Pope has a right to employ armed men to remove a child from his parents? We most assuredly do not.

Pio Nono had gendarmes not as the Vicar of the Prince of Peace, but as the head of the Papal States. The pope wrongly held such a temporal office. Religous freedom does not mean that Catholicism isn’t always true, for everyone. It is. What religious freedom means is: The Church of Jesus Christ does not employ force to win souls for Christ. Because force cannot win souls for Him. Or, to put it better: No force can win a soul for Christ, other than the all-conquering power of His Truth.

Pius IX rightly insisted that Edgardo had a right to a Christian education. But the pope wrongly sent armed men to vindicate Edgardo’s Christian right. That doesn’t seem like a difficult distinction to make.

The rhetoric of “modern vs. traditional” clouds minds. It doesn’t really help anyone resolve his or her moral problems. We Christians hold fast to the Sacred Tradition, and we deal with the times we live in, as they are. I wouldn’t call our times “modern.” I would call them pagan. The useless modern vs. traditional-Catholic distinction is a trap into which Pope Francis’ liberal advocates, his conservative enemies, and Ross Douthat all fall.

Pope John Paul II refused to fall into that trap. He lived his twentieth-century life ready to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but always as a loyal son of Pope St. Pius X. Pius X settled the Modernism controversy well over a century ago, with the encyclical Pascendi. (I summarized the encyclical here.)

JPII left us a Church very much alive and well, and equipped to march into the future with confidence. We will all die before the resources he left us run out. Pope Francis and his friends may decline to answer questions about sexual morality, and God will judge them. But we can still find the answers we need easily enough. They are all there, in beautiful black and white, in JPII’s Catechism.

Crying and Laughing: Dreamers

Just as you cannot understand Christ apart from the kingdom he came to bring, so too your personal mission is inseparable from the building of…that kingdom of love, justice and universal peace…A person who sees things as they truly are and sympathizes with pain and sorrow is capable of touching life’s depths…unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations. They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief. They sense that the other is flesh of our flesh, and are not afraid to draw near, even to touch their wounds. They feel compassion for others in such a way that all distance vanishes.  (Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate 25, 76)

Christian joy is usually accompanied by a sense of humor…Ill humor is no sign of holiness. “Remove vexation from your mind” (Ecclesiastes 11:10). We receive so much from the Lord “for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17), that sadness can be a sign of ingratitude. (Gaud et Exul., 126)

Dates and an RIP


God rest Stephen Hawking.

Of course that gets us thinking about the science called Computus, the determination of the date of Easter. As we all know by now (I hope), Easter falls on the _________ after the __________ after the _______________.*

That’s not so hard. You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to get that, God rest him. But what about finding a repeating cycle for Easter dates? Over what period of years do the dates of Easter form a repeating pattern?

Two years ago, Easter fell on March 27. That also happened in 2005. I remember because: If Easter is March 27, then Good Friday and Annunciation Day are the same, March 25.

Ancient tradition holds that the Lord Jesus suffered and died on the same date when He was conceived in the Blessed Mother’s womb. So when Easter falls on March 27, that means the lunar calendar coincides with the solar calendar.

Now we’re getting closer to Stephen-Hawking-type territory. So how about this: Who remembers a year with dates like this year, 2018? Namely, an Ash-Wednesday Valentine’s, a Palm-Sunday Annunciation Day, and an April-Fool’s Easter? Not too many of us remember–since it hasn’t happened since 1956.

sacredheartFor my grandparents, a year like this would have seemed familiar, since they had Ash-Wednesday Valentines and April-Fool Easters in 1923, 1934, 1945, and then in 1956. And for our children, it will seem like a somewhat familiar thing: It will happen again in 2029 and then again in 2040. But then two generations will pass before it ever happens again. The next April-Fools Easter after 2040 will be 2108.

Stephen Hawking knows more about all this now than he did yesterday. He probably already knew the period of years over which the dates of Easter repeat in a cycle. 5,700,000 years. After 5,700,000 years, the dates of Easter will start up again and repeat exactly as they did over the course of the previous 5,700,000 years. For God, of course, 5,700,000 years is like a passing day.

Hawking wrote in 1988 that if we knew why the universe exists, then we would know the mind of God. Now–March 14, 2018–Mr. Hawking does know why.

He could have known sooner, by seeking the answer from Jesus Christ, crucified for love. The reason why the universe exists can be found. Not by science, nor by any exercise of human reasoning. But in the Heart of Christ.


* first Sunday, first full moon, vernal equinox

Demon Emetic

gadarene demoniac

We read narratives in the four gospels about five instances when the Lord Jesus cast demons out of people. The gospels also refer to other cases, without narrating them.

Now, I’m no art historian. But in my limited study of illuminated gospel manuscripts, I have noticed an interesting style in drawings of Jesus casting out demons. Many medieval artists show the demons exiting through the mouths of the possessed people.

There’s a drawing of Christ on the hillside, with the Gadarene demoniac, with a demon emerging from the possessed man’s mouth. And pictures of a demon exiting the mouth of the man in the synagogue in Capernaum.

gerasene demoniac bas relief

blue field demoniac

Royal 19 CI f.165v

Forgive me; I don’t mean to get gross. But these pictures suggest vomiting. It’s like Christ’s power acts as an emetic, driving the power of evil out of the system in a violent convulsion. Hurry, get the bucket! Then: relief. A moment of peace and quiet. Followed by the resumption of normal, healthy bodily operations.

The Catechism says that Jesus’ exorcisms anticipate His great victory over the “ruler of the world”—the victory He won on the cross. The coming of God’s Kingdom means the defeat of Satan’s.

A great convulsion of evil, of undeserved suffering—of genuine ugliness; a moment of terrifying grotesqueness—the innocent Lamb, lacerated, bruised, bloodied to the bone, stretched out under the cruel sky. Who could stand to watch it? They cried and hid their eyes.

But then: the peace of Christ. The world made right and whole again. Healthy life resuming—undying life, which nothing can crush.

The End of Star-Wars History, and St. Joseph


The Millennium Falcon did the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs.

Now, we know perfectly well that neither the Kessel Run, nor the Millennium Falcon, actually exist. But when Harrison Ford expressed his surprise that Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill did not know about his ship’s twelve-parsec run, we breathed in some air from a believably unified galaxy, a place that felt like real human beings lived there—with funny droids to help them, and lots of other intelligent species to deal with, like jawas and wookies.

And: something was afoot. The history of the galaxy moved forward, towards something—either a dreadful, or a hopeful, outcome. The choices that the characters sitting at the table talking about the Kessel Run would make: those choices would affect the unfolding of history.

Not to spoil anything for anyone who still intends to try to enjoy the new movie. But the 2017 movie doesn’t have a single line that comes within a hundred miles of the believability of Han Solo’s 1977 Kessel-Run line. And at the end of “The Last Jedi,” we have no choice but to face the unhappy truth: Star Wars has become just another superhero-movie series. It will now go around in circles forever, and none of it will ever mean anything. The history of the Star-Wars galaxy has stopped moving forward at all.

Now, why do I bring this up on the day when, at Holy Mass, we read about St. Joseph learning about, and accepting, God’s plan for his beautiful fiancée? Because St. Joseph had a Christian sense of history, as opposed to a pagan sense of endless, meaningless repetition.

darth_vaderIt’s not just that the Holy Bible reads like 1,200 pages of Kessel-Run lines. No one ever claimed that the Sacred Scriptures make for easy readying. But they are utterly believable. Dilettante intellectuals who have never actually read a single full page of the Bible love to lump it among the pagan myths. But nothing could be further from the truth. The pagan myths are enchanting, mindless popcorn flicks like “The Last Jedi.” The Bible drags the reader through the tortured reality of 2,000 years of real human experience on this actual planet.

But my main point is this: When the angel visited St. Joseph, the humble carpenter already knew something very important about what the passing of time means. He knew the Scriptures of Israel and believed in God, so St. Joseph was fully aware that the history of the world is not going in a circle. Time moves forward. Everything that happens has consequences—meaningful consequences. Everything that is now—all of it has a history. And that history explains why it is the way it is now. Time will have a final resolution; it will come to an end—an end that will make perfect sense, when we reach it.

And that end will either be utterly dreadful or perfectly wonderful. It will either be a million times worse than if Luke never had the courage to leave Tatooine at all, and Darth Vader ruled the galaxy with a functioning Death Star. Or it will be like Han and Leia reigning as benign, humane monarchs over an everlasting Ewok party.

These are the two options for the history of the human beings in this world. And the difference between the one and the other is the Babe of Bethlehem.