Sacred Cosmopolitanism

Christ: the Light of the American Nation

[talk before Transfiguration Vespers]

Christ is the light of all nations. Hence this most sacred Synod…eagerly desires to shed on all men that radiance of His which brightens the countenance of the Church. This it will do by proclaiming the gospel to every creature…

By an utterly free and mysterious decree of His own wisdom and goodness, the eternal Father created the whole world. His plan was to dignify men with a participation in His own divine life. He did not abandon men after they had fallen in Adam, but ceaselessly offered them helps to salvation, in anticipation of Christ the Redeemer, ‘who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.’ All the elect, before time began, the Father ‘foreknew and predestined to become conformed to the image of His son, that He should be the firstborn among many brethren.’ He planned to assemble in the Holy Church all those who would believe in Christ…

The mystery of the Holy Church is manifest in her very foundation, for the Lord Jesus inaugurated her by preaching the good news, that is, the coming of God’s kingdom…

When Jesus rose up again after suffering death on the cross for mankind, He manifested that he had been appointed Lord, Messiah, and Priest forever, and He poured out on His disciples the Spirit promised by the Father. The Church, consequently, equipped with the gifts of her founder and faithfully guarding his precepts of charity, humility, and self-sacrifice, receives the mission to proclaim and establish among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God.

“This sacred Synod” eagerly desires to shed on all men that radiance of Christ which brightens the countenance of the Church–the radiance that shone on Mount Tabor, at the Transfiguration. What is “this sacred Synod?’ Correct! The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium 1-5). In other words, the successors of the Apostles and teachers of the Church, gathered to declare to us solemnly the doctrine we need to keep in mind.

Vatican II stallsChrist the light of the Church, the light of all nations.

Now, Christ enlightening the nations involves fundamentally supernatural realities. As we just heard, the Holy Spirit operates, and He does the enlightening. His work transcends our human understanding. But we can also consider the business from the natural point-of-view. We can consider “Christian culture” on the purely practical, human level.

What does the Church do? First and foremost, the Church prays–she celebrates the Sacred Liturgy. And what does that involve? It involves supernatural things, to be sure, the operation of divine grace–but, like I said, let’s leave the supernatural aspect alone for the moment. From the natural point-of-view, the Sacred Liturgy of the Church involves a group of people reading and reflecting on the Word of God, in a disciplined manner, over a sustained period of time.

By “Word of God” here, we mean: the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God. Also, the Bible is a collection of books about people, all of them non-white, none of whom ever spoke English. God wrote the Bible. Also, non-whites who never spoke English wrote the Bible, to tell the story of a lot of non-whites who never spoke English.

These are just simple, straightforward historical facts. Of course, the fact that everything about the Bible involves non-whites who never spoke English takes nothing at all away from its holiness as the Divine Word. Abraham, Moses, King David, Elijah, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Lord Jesus–not a white person among them. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, St. Paul–not an English speaker among them. Tons of holiness, yes. But nothing “American”–if by ‘American’ we mean English-speaking.

Now, these foreigners–whose lives and writings we study in the Bible–we interact with them in church. The Sacred Liturgy of the Church involves our constant interaction with a lot of foreigners. Also, they themselves teach us, by their own example, this whole important lesson of interacting in an open, friendly manner with foreigners. During their lives on earth, the heroes of the Bible made it their business to interact with people they thought of as foreigners–Egyptians, Ethiopians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans. The Israelites we read about in the Bible opened themselves up to the world, for a reason. They believed that God deserved to be glorified in Jerusalem by all the nations, not just their own nation.

Here’s one little example of the cosmopolitanism of the Israelites. Perhaps we devoted Bible readers never thought twice about it. When King David fell into his great sin, he committed adultery with the wife of an elite member of his own army, named Uriah. Uriah the…Hittite. Hittite, as opposed to Israelite. In other words, this close neighbor of King David was not a Hebrew, but must have become part of King David’s people by accepting the religion.

king davidSo ancient Israel had a cosmopolitan culture. Jesus of Nazareth grew up, and then exercised his ministry as a rabbi, at a crossroads of civilizations. He received the Jewish culture from his parents and from the synagogue in Nazareth. And that culture involved associating with non-Jews. This association with non-Jews served a particular purpose, namely to further the glory of God. And, of course, this interaction with foreigners became especially urgent once Christ commissioned His apostles to preach the gospel to all nations, as the passage from Vatican II we read earlier reiterated.

Let’s pause and give “cosmopolitanism” a definition and then distinguish two kinds of cosmopolitanism. “Cosmopolitan,” if we judge by the magazine of that name, can mean a lot of objectionable things. But, for the sake of what I’m trying to say here, can we agree that cosmopolitanism simply means a state of peace among people speaking different languages in the same territory? When peoples speaking different languages share life together in one place, seeking friendship and interchange, instead of hostilities, a “cosmopolis” exists.

Now the two kinds. What we can call “secular cosmpolitanism” reigns supreme in international institutions and in the world of globalized commerce. The shallow, materialistic “culture” of secular cosmpolitanism regards the revelation of Jesus Christ as a matter of indifference. Maybe it’s true; maybe it’s not. The Bible and the Sacred Liturgy don’t demand submission and obedience; they are merely interesting artifacts of human history.

On the other hand, let’s go ahead and call the gregarious openness of the Israelites and the Apostles “sacred cosmopolitanism.” The very truthfulness of the Bible, the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the inevitability of Judgment Day–adherence to the truth of these realities demands that Christians cultivate the virtue of cosmopolitanism, precisely to serve the cause of God’s glory. The urgency of evangelization requires that we engage in friendly relations with our neighbors, no matter who they are or what language they speak, in order to build up the kingdom of Christ.

Our culture, therefore–the Christian culture of all the people who spend time every week studying the Bible–it involves sacred cosmopolitanism. By coming to understand ourselves through reading the Bible, we understand ourselves as citizens of the one, big world, the world that extends way beyond the boundaries of Martinsville, or Virginia, or the USA.

We encounter all of this, in fact, just in the first two words of the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father.” A Christian knows, having interacted in a cosmopolitan manner with the cosmopolitan saints of the Bible, that the us of the Our Father includes all the citizens of…planet earth. To any Christian, the idea that the ‘our’ of Our Father means any group smaller than everybody–that the ‘our’ means just good golfers, or people with I.Q.’s over 110, or just Hopi Indians, or just Dallas-Cowboys fans, or even just Christians–such an idea would be patently absurd. Yes, there are distinct identities in this world, distinct “cultures,” Jews and Greeks, different races and language groups. But there’s only one God, and He loves everyone with His fatherly love. That’s the Gospel. So we must practice a cosmopolitan way of life to extend that Gospel. Just like our heroes, the non-American, non-white, non-English-speaking cosmopolites we read about in the Bible.

So far, so good? Now we come to “the controversy.”

When I was in the seminary at Catholic University, I had a theology professor named Peter Casarella, who has since moved to Notre Dame. Also when I was in the seminary, I religiously read a monthly magazine called First Things, which was edited at that time by Father R.J. Neuhaus, who has since died. First Things is now edited by… Rusty Reno.

Anyway, Dr. Casarella and Mr. Reno met at Notre Dame recently to debate immigration. What does the Church teach about it? In the debate, Dr. Casarella reviewed the episodes and teachings in the Scriptures which demonstrate our responsibility to welcome the alien. Then he reviewed the teachings of the popes and bishops, which have emphasized the right that people have to migrate and the responsibility that host nations have to protect the human dignity of immigrants.

Reno then responded to Dr. Casarella with some captivating arguments. Reno conceded the basic concepts of a Christian’s duty to help those in need. But he accused the magisterium of the Church of a fundamental incoherence on the subject of immigration. He leveled an accusation that I myself had to take to heart. It’s what moved me to want to give this little talk. Let me quote exactly what Reno said:

The Church rightly sees its own mission as borderless. The Church is a supernatural society that transcends ethnic and national boundaries. However, precisely because of our Church’s universal mission, bishops and other Christian leaders often misjudge the finite and natural reality of a political community, which is not universal. So the Church is Israel, not the United States of America. And so the Sermon on the Mount applies to the Christian community and not to a political community–at least not, certainly, directly. And a functioning society requires social unity. This is especially true for democratic nations, which depend upon a high degree of civic friendship to undergird the sometimes-bitter give-and-take of political struggles for power… Newly arrived immigrants usually form their own communities, which is entirely understandable. But this does not reinforce social solidarity.

First let’s pause and contemplate the abstract concepts here for a moment. The Church of Christ and our nation are not the same thing. Religion and politics are not the same thing. Obvious truths. Reno stands with St. Paul on this one–the St. Paul who had to contend with the “Judaizers.” The Judaizers of the early Church could only understand religion as a national pursuit, the work of the chosen nation. Maybe we could go so far as to say that the sacred Israelite cosmopolitanism which the Judaizers had inherited could not overcome their particular ethnic insistence on the outward sign of circumcision of the penis. Yes, ok, the Church must admit foreigners, in obedience to the command of Christ. But no uncircumcised foreigners! But St. Paul taught us that the distinctive mark of the nation of Israel did not have to apply to the entire Church of Christ. It was Abraham’s faith, not his circumcised penis, that pleased God. Good news, to this day, for adult men who embrace Christianity.

So Reno makes a critical point. Christianity is not identical with national identity; it neither prescribes nor subsumes national cultures. By celebrating the Sacred Liturgy, English-speaking Americans interact in a cosmopolitan manner with the non-Americans of the Bible, just like every people that celebrates the liturgy interacts with them. But we English-speaking Americans continue to have our English-speaking identity, just like every other people that has embraced the Gospel and the life of the Church continues to have a distinct identity–a homeland, a language, a way of life.

So let’s get into this question: Who are we, we Americans? For myself, I’m proud to be an American, and I love our national history. If we start at the beginning of it, I have to admit that, had I lived in the 1770’s, I would have sided with the Tories. I would have been a Loyalist who did not want to break with England.

The colonial governor of Massachusetts then, Thomas Hutchinson, addressed the general assembly of the colony in 1773. He responded to the objections that many colonists had to being ruled by the British parliament. Hutchinson pointed-out that the colonists had means of redress for their grievances other than taking up arms. The movement in favor of independence, Hutchinson said, “must be considered more as an objection against a state of government rather than against any particular form.” I could not have disagreed with that.

But my affinity for the Tories, had I lived in the 1770’s, would have proceeded from more than just politics and economics. What really would have moved me was the idea of losing William Shakespeare as a countryman. If I had faced the choice the colonists faced in the 1770’s, I would have thought that I owed my allegiance to mother England for having given me my mother tongue.

Mark TwainBut that was a long time ago. None of us have had to face the choice that Virginians and the other colonists had to face in the 1770’s. We have almost two-and-a-half centuries of American history behind us now.

Speaking for myself, as a 21st-century American, I take great pride in having Mark Twain for a compatriot. If there’s an answer to the question, Who are we, we Americans? it must involve Huckleberry Finn. Huck, of course, became best friends with a black man. Huck had been taught that God stood behind the laws of slavery, so he feared hell for flouting them. But, in the end, Huck decided he would prefer to go to hell, rather than turn Jim in, as an escaped slave.

So, when we think about things like Mark Twain and the original thirteen colonies and their eminent statesmen, we recognize that Reno has a very-important point about national identity. But: Reno’s abstract distinction between the universal Church and the particular nation runs onto rocky ground as soon as we apply it to our specific case as Americans.

We American Christians know that we cannot completely isolate our “religious identity” from our “political identity.” We know that we owe our fundamental allegiance to God. We strive to serve Him in everything. Meanwhile, we owe it to the Lord to accept the secular and short-term reality of politics for what it is. We know from our experience in the first half of the 20th century that few things make more mischief in this world than the “sacralization” of politics, the idea that the nation has a religious identity, a divine destiny. We fought in World War II against the sacralization of the German, and the Japanese, national identities. The fascists made national identity a religion. Americans, on the other hand, recognize that politics are inherently mundane, inherently un-sacred.

So Rusty Reno accused Church leaders of wrongly applying the laws that govern the Church to the nation, in such a way that we potentially do harm to the great good of our national identity. I myself stand accused by this insightful and penetrating charge. I have insisted that we ought to welcome immigrants with minimal restrictions, and offer an easy path to citizenship for undocumented residents, on the grounds that we have a duty to do so, as Christians. But Reno corners me: Okay, Father. We have our duties as Christians. But don’t we also have duties as Americans? Don’t we have a patriotic duty to control our borders and insist on the rule of law?

Okay. Let’s apply Reno’s objections to our specific situation, to the identity of this particular nation, the USA. We understand politics as the mundane business it is, and we reject the idea that some kind of supposed divine mandate can indicate the pursuit of particular policies, without any reasonable argument. We have to deal with our political questions according to humble common sense and the basic principles of justice, as in: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Frederick DouglassThe Vatican has a semi-official intellectual magazine called “Catholic Civilization.” It recently included an article attacking the strain of American thinking that sees our nation as having a unique role in history, a “mission from God” to extend our way of life–by military force, if necessary.

So we have to go back 170 years, to the origins of this sacralization of the American body politic. We have to analyze the idea of Manifest Destiny. During the Polk administration, the idea that we have a “Manifest Destiny” to rule from sea to sea led to a sequence of events that, if we want to have clear consciences as Americans, we must humbly confront.

During the early 1830’s, Texas faced a illegal-immigration problem. These illegal immigrants spoke English and had snow-white skin. At the time, Tejas belonged to the newly independent United States…of Mexico.

During the 1840’s, Texans asserted their independence as a sovereign nation. Mexico did not recognize this assertion. Then Texas asked to join the USA. One question remained in dispute through all of this: where did Texas end and the Mexican state of Coahuila begin? At the Nueces River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico at Corpus Christ? Or at the Rio Grande?

US President James Polk proceeded to exploit this relatively small territorial discrepancy as a pretext for a continental war. In his essay “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau called Polk’s war with Mexico, “the work of comparatively few individuals using the standing government as their tool, abusing and perverting it.”

American hero Frederick Douglass wrote of President Polk’s war:

Fire and sword are now the choice of our young republic [the USA]. The loss of thousands of the sons and daughters of Mexico have rather given edge than dullness to our appetite for fiery conflict and plunder…But, humble as we are, and unavailing as our voice may be, we wish to warn our fellow countrymen that they may follow the course which they have marked out for themselves; no barrier may be sufficient to obstruct them; they may accomplish all their desire; Mexico may fall before them; she may be conquered and subdued; her rights and powers usurped…but as sure as there is a God of justice, we shall not go unpunished.

The US Congress never considered whether a just reason existed for a war with Mexico. Abraham Lincoln entered the House of Representatives while the war was underway. He then said in a speech on the floor:

I carefully examined [President Polk’s] messages to ascertain what he himself had said and proved on the point of the justice of the war. The result of this examination was to make the impression that, taking for true all that the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the President would have gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter that the truth would not permit him… [I suspect] he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong; that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying out to heaven against him; that he ordered General [Zachary] Taylor into the midst of a peaceful Mexican settlement, purposely to bring on a war.

My point here is this: Rusty Reno accuses Church leaders, like my humble self, of confusing religion with politics when we insist on liberality when it comes to immigration and undocumented Mexicans resident in the USA. It’s more Christian, he suggests, to leave the universal ideals of the Church at the door, when it comes to building up a country’s identity. But: when we soberly consider the history of our own beloved USA, we find that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, we wound up with the entire southwest portion of our country solely because of a catastrophic confusion of religion with politics, which produced a grave injustice that cries to heaven. Confusion of religion with politics, not on the part of church leaders, but on the part of President James Polk. President Polk insisted on war, not because the circumstances justified it, but because of the widespread quasi-religious belief that the USA had a divine mandate to rule from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

We could spend a few more hours studying the political realities of our North-American continent in the middle of the nineteenth century. No one can pretend that the Mexican government of the time ruled its territories well, any more so than it rules its territories well now. Back then, the Mexican government did nothing to protect its people from the Comanches. Now it does nothing to protect its people from organized crime. We could also consider how the doctrine of Manifest Destiny served the cause of expanding the slave-holding territory of the USA. The Mexican government, for all its faults, had already outlawed slavery, a quarter-century before the USA did.

We could also consider the admirable cosmoplitanism of the Mexican nation. As we know, a million Irish people left home between 1845 and 1852, because of the Great Famine in Ireland. This emigration brought the shamrock to Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, all of which became one-quarter Irish by 1850. But the famous St. Patrick Brigade of the Mexican-American War fought on the Mexican side. As one of the San Patricios, John Kelly, put it in a letter back home, “A more hospitable and friendly people than the Mexican there exists not on the face of the earth, especially to an Irishman and a Catholic.”

But, since we don’t have hours to spend here, let’s just consider these two maps:

Mexcio in 1845

undocumented immigrant pop by state

Rusty Reno made another interesting point in the debate on immigration, a point which Dr. Casarella conceded. National identity preserves Christian heritage in a way that the secular cosmopolitanism of the contemporary international commercial system does not. We have touched on this when we distinguished sacred vs. secular cosmopolitanism. Reno argued that we Christians need to fight to preserve national identity in order to thwart the corrosion of culture that globalized commerce inevitably causes.

Again, in theory, this is an excellent point, one with which I wholeheartedly agree. But, once again, we run onto rocky ground when we apply this to the USA. If it is the case that our identity as Americans involves the preservation of Christian culture, we have to confront these two maps with Christian humility and honesty. According to the testimony of the 19th-century Americans we most admire, the white, English-speaking USA unjustly and unlawfully took the states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah from the Spanish-speaking United Mexican States. About half of the undocumented immigrants in the USA right now live in that territory. And one-quarter of the entire population of the USA lives in that unlawfully acquired territory.

Who are we, we Americans? When we know the history of our land, we know that Spanish-speaking people share that history. Spanish-speaking people have a just claim to this land. In answer to the charge that undocumented immigrants from Mexico have “broken the law” by coming here, they have every right to respond that the USA broke the law to take control of California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah in the first place.

Church leaders like myself hold that the Christian solution to the problem of undocumented residents of our country is to grant citizenship to all those not guily of any felonies. And it seems to me like any honest American, taking pride in our true American identity, would come, in the name of true patriotism, to the same conclusion.

I actually have some more to say about the ways in which our identity as Christian Americans overlaps with the national heritage of Mexico, but I will have to save that for another occasion.

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The 21st-Century Commandment Crisis

This week at daily Mass, we read from Exodus about the Israelites leaving Egypt and coming to Mount Sinai. To show them that they could always trust Him, the Lord fed the wanderers with manna from heaven. He ordered them to gather an adequate portion every day—except on the sixth day, when they gathered double.

el_greco-sinaiNow, why was that? Why double on the sixth day?

Can’t figure it out, because your mind is too distracted by the cares and anxieties of daily life? We’ll come back to it.

As we read at Holy Mass today, Moses led Israel to Mount Sinai. Why? For the view? Reminds me of one summer day when some friends and I climbed Moore’s Knob in Hanging Rock State Park in NC. A large church group of boys, with men chaperoning, climbed when we did. At the summit, some of the boys tossed a few stones off the edge. One of the chaperones bellowed: “We did not climb this mountain to throw rocks!”

The Israelites did not go to Mount Sinai to throw rocks.

Now, many good Christians these days think that the commandment most ignored, most flouted, most desecrated is: the sixth. And certainly the sixth commandment suffers from grave neglect.

But if I can claim to have an over-arching theory guiding my ministry these 14 years and counting, it is this: Our real contemporary crisis has to do with the third commandment.

See? You’re not 100% sure what the third commandment even is.

Now: Yes, a lot of Catholics fail to get themselves to church for Sunday Mass. That’s a big problem. But I don’t think that’s the heart of the matter, the heart of the Twenty-First-Century Third-Commandment Crisis.

The Catechism has an electric sentence in the article on the third commandment:

The sabbath is a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money.

A day of protest. Better than a march on Washington, in fact. Like the Polish workers shouting, with Bishop Wojtyla, on the plot of land where the Communists refused to build the parish church: ‘We want God!’

The Lord Himself spoke very forcefully to Moses on this subject:

You must tell the Israelites: take care to keep my sabbaths, for that is to be the token between you and me throughout the generations, to show that it is I, the Lord, who make you holy…

Six days there are for doing work, but the seventh is the sabbath of complete rest, sacred to the Lord…

So shall the Israelites observe the sabbath, keeping it throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. Between me and the Israelites it is to be an everlasting token: for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day he rested at his ease. [Exodus 31:13-17]

Yes, modern man has profound, and cruelly destructive, sexual problems, which arise from sixth-commandment breaking. But I think 21st-century man’s far-deeper problem is: The servitude of work and not knowing how to rest at his ease.

More on this tomorrow.

Sermon-on-the-Mount Sentence

Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. (Matthew 5:25)

Sobering thought: all of us are on our way to the Judge. And not just any judge, but the One Who sees all, knows all, and judges with perfect righteousness. Unlike us, who tend to see only what we want to see. And to judge rashly and blindly, because we care, above all, about: me, me, me.

scales_of_justiceNot that we never have a right to get angry or to judge anything. Injustice will anger us. Someone punches you in the face, you get angry. And if someone does you wrong, and a remedy for the wrong stands available for you to pursue, you pursue it. Calmly, according to law.

But sometimes there’s no remedy. And even if there is one, it won’t touch the heart of the matter anyway. Because the heart of the matter is this: We all have something in common. All of us—the good, the bad, and the ugly. We all have this in common: We can make no claims on God Almighty.

Almighty God gives out of love, not out of indebtedness; not because some law of justice governs Him. So: if someone wrongs me, okay. I have been wronged. But I still have much more than I could ever claim to deserve, because God gave me everything I have in the first place, without me “deserving” it at all.

I think it’s easier to make peace with our neighbors on the way to altar when we remember this. Yes, maybe I have a right to be mad at so-and-so, because of such-and-such. But I have no right to imagine that such-and-such amounts to a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. Plus, there are plenty of people out there who have a right to be mad at me, about far-more-serious matters.

The world abounds with little tribunals seeking justice, with varying degrees of success. But, in the end, every human being will face the same tribunal of justice. And at that ultimate and definitive judge’s bench, we all have only one real hope. Namely, that the Judge will look upon us with mercy.

The same mercy that moved Him to make the sun rise this morning, even though the human race hardly deserves such a favor. Our hope for Judgment Day is: that Jesus Christ, with His Heart wounded for us, will be the One sitting behind the judge’s bench.

Jesus: The all-knowing, perfectly righteous Judge. Who has shown Himself to be the infinite goodness and kindness and mercy of God.

Georgetown-Jesuit Apology, and Mine

Matthew Quallen at the GU teach-in on slavery
Mr. Matthew Quallen at the Georgetown University “Teach-In” on slavery

I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation. Deuteronomy 5:9 (See also Exodus 20, 34:7, Numbers 14:18.)

In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are on edge.’ Jeremiah 31:29. The son shall not suffer the iniquity of the father. Ezekiel 18:19

Last week, Georgetown University and the Jesuits apologized for participating in slavery.

The apology happened in the same beautiful hall where my dear historian mom delivered the commencement address, and then I received my high-school diploma. Footsteps away: the office in which, a couple years later, I first spoke with a Catholic priest. Across the courtyard: the chapel where I received Confirmation and First Holy Communion.

And GU/Jesuit history is our Richmond-diocese history, too. The same slave-selling Jesuit whose name they just stripped off one of GU’s oldest buildings also gave the Vespers sermon at the dedication of St. Peter’s parish church in downtown Richmond.

The Catholic Church in the U.S. has an antebellum past. Before the mass migration from Europe that made us an overwhelmingly poor and urban people, we had an earlier chapter–which unfolded primarily in the south, with black slaves.

When I first began the path to the priesthood, I spent ten months in the novitiate of the Maryland province of the Jesuits. One of my brother novices wound up serving on the committee that prepared GU’s apology of last week. Here he is, reflecting on the committee’s work:

A young man named Matthew Quallen wrote a series of articles for the GU newspaper, The Hoya, skewering the university for having benefited from one of the largest slave sales in US history, in 1838. Maryland-province Jesuits had studied the business for years, and had tried to make some amends. Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic certainly helped precipitate GU’s decision to address this issue in this way at this time.

In other words, Georgetown University has certainly achieved a great victory in political correctness. But: The way GU and the Jesuits have done it also rings with real, inspiring Christian integrity.

I think US Jesuit superior Fr. Tim Kesicki overstated himself a little bit, apologizing so profusely that his words manage to emphasize the us/them division that Christ came to overcome. Addressing the descendants of the slaves the Jesuits sold, Fr. Kesicki said:

…even with your great grief and right rage, with our sin and sorrow, all will be well…

But we must a. hand it to GU and the Jesuits for having the sobriety, learning, and guts to do this, and b. take up the matter ourselves, for the good of our souls…

Why exactly do we say that slavery is wrong? The Catechism puts it briefly:

The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold, or exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. (para. 2414)

The dignity of the person–revealed by Christ–provides the key concept. We cannot romanticize an abstract dream of absolute freedom, which no human being has ever actually enjoyed in this limited, creaturely life we live in the fallen world. But neither can we underestimate the genuine incompatibility between slavery and the Christian concept of man.

German bishop Johann Salier put it like this in his 1830 handbook of Christian morality:

The state of slavery, and any treatment of human beings as slaves, turns people who are persons into mere things, turns people who are ends in themselves into mere means, and does not allow the responsibility of people for what they do, or do not do, to develop properly, and in this way cripples them in their very humanity; hence it is contrary to the basic principle of all morality.

Helpful clarity: slavery is immoral because it destroys the moral independence of a human being. Our moral freedom is our distinctly human treasure.

Commonwealth Catholicism FogartyWhen, in the period of American history before the Civil War, Georgetown University, and the Maryland province of the Jesuits, found themselves on the altogether-wrong side of this moral analysis, we found ourselves there, too.

It wasn’t just GU; it wasn’t just the Jesuits, who have now apologized so profusely. It was us.

When I say “us,” I mean the Catholic clergy of the United States.

We had a duty to guide souls to the correct moral analysis of slavery as it was practiced in our lands. And we did not do that.

In the first part of the nineteenth century, we studiously misunderstood and misinterpreted the guidance given by the Apostolic See of Rome. Popes didn’t write encyclicals then, and priests and bishops around the world did not expect Roman guidance the way we do now. But the popes had written and taught a correct moral analysis of slavery.

In 1814 and 1815, Pope Pius VII wrote the leaders of Europe insisting on the unconditional abolition of slavery. He prohibited the clergy from making the claim that the slave trade was permitted.

In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI wrote, in an apostolic letter to all Catholics:

We consider it our pastoral duty to make every effort to turn the faithful away from the inhuman traffic in negroes, or any other class of men. We vehemently admonish and abjure all believers in Christ, of whatever condition, that no one hereafter may dare unjustly to molest Indians, negroes, or other man of this sort; or to spoil them of their goods; or to reduce them to slavery; or to extend help or favor to others who perpetuate such things against them. No Catholic can defend such practices, under any pretext or excuse. (In Supremo Apostolatus)

But we American priests (and bishops) did not make the pope’s pastoral zeal on this matter our own.

Pius VII
Pope Pius VII

Now, we did, in fact, find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. No one can hold the Catholic clergy responsible for setting up the chattel-slavery system in America in the first place. The first bishop in the US, John Carroll, freed the slaves he had inherited from his family.

And, when the American bishops began meeting regularly to discuss things in the Baltimore basilica (built by the same architect who gave us the US Capitol)–the series of meetings which eventually gave rise to the greatest book ever written in English, the Baltimore Catechism; when the bishops met in Baltimore, they had some pretty tricky things to discuss, like: how to defend ourselves from the widespread belief that all Catholic priests secretly conspired in a plot for the pope to take over the country.

As Robert Emmett Curran put it in “Rome, the American Church, and Slavery:”

The nativism of the 1830’s through the 1850’s made the American Church all-too-conscious of its status as an alien minority in America. By 1850 Catholics were still less than nine percent of the population, but, having become the largest denomination in the country, were under stronger attacks than ever. Self-preservation became the priority. The bishops as a group concentrated on private behavior rather than social ethics. Except for the area of public education, the bishops foreswore any activity that could be deemed political.

We cannot, however, proffer any of this as a reasonable excuse. Because, in striving to protect our fledgling institutions, we missed the issue. Anti-Catholic bigotry in antebellum America did indeed cause us some problems. But the major problem for everyone in the United States was patently obvious: slavery. Slavery was simultaneously the great moral problem and the great political problem.

We were silent. Former-President, and Virginian, John Tyler wrote to his son in 1854, defending the Catholic clergy from the charges leveled by Know-Nothings. He damned us with this praise:

The Catholic priests have set an example of non-interference in politics which furnishes an example most worthy of imitation on the part of the clergy of the other sects at the North.

…Now, let’s not oversimplify. The North had racism every bit as vicious as the South. Many northern abolitionists insisted both that the Southerners must free their slaves and that those slaves should, under no circumstances whatsoever, come north.

Solving the great moral and political problem required more than slogans and self-righteousness. And the problem deserved a better solution than it got. If we think that the process of brutal Civil War-Reconstruction-Jim Crow-Civil Rights Movement-what we have now illustrates the MLK/Obama principle that “the arc of history always bends toward justice,” then we kid ourselves. Sin doesn’t go away on its own; racism gets born anew in every generation. We need heavenly medicine.

latrobe-basilica
Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s plan for the Baltimore Basilica

But how can we Catholic clergy not acknowledge that we failed in the early nineteenth century? We failed to apply the principles of Christian morality properly, and we isolated ourselves by our obtuseness. Priests came from Ireland to the U.S. during that period, and they were appalled. Appalled that their brother priests in America tolerated slavery as practiced in the South, without a peep.

Roman authorities had tried to enlighten our consciences, but we knew better. We didn’t like slavery, but we did not regard it as our task to confront its evil.

What task, then, other than confronting such un-Christian evil, could we have claimed to have had? Or what task, other than that, do we have now?

We priests stand at the altar, and we read, and we pray. We must also apply all that we read and pray to the lives of our people, who do their daily business on the little stretches of earth that make up our humble parishes. We must know intimately the physical reality of those stretches of earth.

In one of his articles for The Hoya, Quallen described the lot of a slave that the Jesuits had sold down the river. Cornelius Hawkins wound up working the “fetid, unforgiving fields” of Iberville parish, Louisiana.

Quallen knows how to write. “Fetid, unforgiving fields.”

In the first part of the 19th century, we lost sight of that particular physical reality, and the moral evil attendant to it. It was an evil we had the duty to confront.

The question for us now is: What evils have we lost sight of in the early 21st century? What campus building somewhere will someday have to be renamed, because the honoree wouldn’t focus his or her mind on what an abortionist’s knife actually does? Or on what it’s like to wind up in an ICE detention center?

I am sorry that we failed so miserably in antebellum America. Please God we learn something from the mistake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death on the Sixth Commandment

We read at Holy Mass: A man shall cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh…No human being must separate what God has joined. (Mark 10:7-9)

Such ringing clarity about marriage comes as a wonderful antidote to news reports about transgender bathrooms. Economic and social revolutionaries can and do find inspirations in the words of Christ. But sexual revolutionaries run into a brick wall. Because Jesus of Nazareth was death on the sixth commandment.

marriage_sacramentBetter to pluck out your eye than look at a woman lustfully. Better to cut off your hand than use it to sin. Lord Jesus revealed that when God spoke from Mount Sinai condemning adultery, He condemned every sexual thing—except the one, honest act that makes marriage marriage, through a lifetime of fidelity.

Now, we would be fools to think ill of sex. Our churches would be empty without it. The Lord’s severity hardly proceeded from fussy prudishness on His part. He was celibate, but no prude. To the contrary, when He spoke about sex, He evoked the Garden of Eden, where the original divine command resounded: Be fruitful and multiply!

But when it comes to the union of man and woman as one flesh, the holiness of Christ utterly prohibits anything cheap, anything fleeting or libidinously selfish. He chose us for ecstasy and communion that lasts forever; He offered His celibate body on the cross to consummate our everlasting marriage with God. There’s no room at the foot of His cross for anything other than chastity.

Doesn’t mean He won’t forgive our falls. He knows what Adam’s sin has done to our human powers of self-control. When we succumb to temptation, He picks us up and gives us a fresh start, helping us to pursue again the serenity of perfect sexual honesty. Christ never gets tired of pardoning us weak sinners when we repent.

But the idea that any fruitless, short-term sexuality could peacefully co-exist with the holiness of Christ? His own words utterly anathematize this. Following Jesus means believing wholeheartedly that sex is only for marriage, and marriage is for life.

Amoris Laetitia Catena, Part II

amoris-laetitia-coverChapter 4 of Pope Francis’ letter on family love explains the phrases in St. Paul’s famous I Corinthians 13. Three selections, dripping with wisdom…

Love bears all things and hopes all things…

Married couples joined by love speak well of each other; they try to show their spouse’s good side, not their weakness and faults. In any event, they keep silent rather than speak ill of them. This is not merely a way of acting in front of others; it springs from an interior attitude. Far from ingenuously claiming not to see the problems and weaknesses of others, it sees those weaknesses and faults in a wider context. It recognizes that these failings are a part of a bigger picture. We have to realize that all of us are a complex mixture of light and shadows. The other person is much more than the sum of the little things that annoy me. Love does not have to be perfect for us to value it. The other person loves me as best they can, with all their limits, but the fact that love is imperfect does not mean that it is untrue or unreal. It is real, albeit limited and earthly. If I expect too much, the other person will let me know, for he or she can neither play God nor serve all my needs. Love coexists with imperfection. It “bears all things” and can hold its peace before the limitations of the loved one. (para. 113)

Each person, with all his or her failings, is called to the fullness of life in heaven. There, fully transformed by Christ’s resurrection, every weakness, darkness and infirmity will pass away. There the person’s true being will shine forth in all its goodness and beauty. This realization helps us, amid the aggravations of this present life, to see each person from a supernatural perspective, in the light of hope, and await the fullness that he or she will receive in the heavenly kingdom, even if it is not yet visible. (para.117)

Love believes all things…

This trust enables a relationship to be free. It means we do not have to control the other person, to follow their every step lest they escape our grip. Love trusts, it sets free, it does not try to control, possess and dominate everything. This freedom, which fosters independence, an openness to the world around us and to new experiences, can only enrich and expand relationships. The spouses then share with one another the joy of all they have received and learned outside the family circle. At the same time, this freedom makes for sincerity and transparency, for those who know that they are trusted and appreciated can be open and hide nothing. Those who know that their spouse is always suspicious, judgmental and lacking unconditional love, will tend to keep secrets, conceal their failings and weaknesses, and pretend to be someone other than who they are. On the other hand, a family marked by loving trust, come what may, helps its members to be themselves and spontaneously to reject deceit, falsehood, and lies. (para. 115)

Love endures all things…

Dr. Martin Luther KingHere the pope quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at length:

The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God’, you begin to love him in spite of [everything]. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never slough off… Another way that you love your enemy is this: when the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it… Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and so on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil… Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.

[Click HERE for Part I of the Amoris Laetitia catena]

More Hebrews 2 + Our-Father Question

He is able to help those who are being tested. (Hebrews 2:18)

Every day we beg our heavenly Father, “lead us not into temptation.” Thoughtful Christians rightly wonder sometimes about this petition. Would our good God lead us toward evil? This prayer doesn’t really make sense!

dog-cuffsThe problem here comes from translating Greek into English. To us, “lead” sounds like what a dog-owner does when taking Fido out for a walk. Fido prays, “Don’t lead me down the street with the mean Doberman! Lead me to the fire hydrants instead.”

But the Greek doesn’t imply this. It implies that God possesses the power both to protect us from temptation and to help us resist it when it comes.  God Himself wills no evil and tempts no one. He has made nothing that is evil in itself. In fact, within ourselves, in the depths of our souls, He has endowed us with powers of goodness that we don’t even know about yet.

That’s why our pilgrim lives involve ‘tests.’ If instinct alone guided us, we wouldn’t confront any tests. We would just chase squirrels and never become any better or worse.

But we have more than instincts inside us to guide us. We have the power to discern. We can strive and struggle to overcome every destructive impulse, and thereby blossom as the good people God made us to be.

Temptations come because we are actually better than we think we are. With God’s help, we can resist, and that brings out the hidden good person within. Being tempted is not a sin; the sin is to give in.

So let’s fight. Let’s hold our tongues instead of carping and gossiping. Let’s try to see the good in others, instead of judging them harshly. Let’s possess ourselves in patience, instead of flying off the handle. Let’s exercise our bodies and minds in prayer and wholesome enterprises, instead of letting ourselves grow dim-witted and lazy.

Yes, our pilgrim lives involves tests. We must pray daily for the grace both to avoid them, if it’s best for us to avoid them, or endure them, if it’s best for us to fight and win.

With God’s help we can pass the tests we have to take. We can earn A’s. Because “He is able to help those who are being tested.”

Pawns of the Force

From our first reading at today’s Holy Mass, taken from St. John’s first letter: The one who acts in righteousness is righteous, just as he is righteous.

Now, who is this ‘he?’ He is the incarnate Son, the eternal Word made flesh, the revelation of the triune love of God, Jesus of Nazareth.

We go on to read: Whoever sins belongs to the devil…the Son of God was revealed to destroy the works of the devil.

Luke on approachTwo points.

1. St. John’s fundamental message in his letter is: God is light and love; hatred and darkness come from the devil.

There really is a Force, and it really has a dark side. And the dark side really has exercised destructive power over the human race from the original Fall of man.

But God came in the flesh to do battle with the devil and defeat him. So light and love have triumphed and are triumphing.

2. These fundamental underpinnings of moral reality give us the humility we need to achieve true happiness. We human beings do not possess the greatest intelligence, nor the most-powerful wills, in the cosmos. God and the devil both have more smarts and more power than we do.

So human freedom doesn’t mean you or me acting independently. It means you and me co-operating with the divine grace of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus. And His grace is: Love. Selfless love. The love He showed on the cross.

Yes, morals involve making personal, independent decisions. We don’t obey like dogs or donkeys. We can sin, or we can act righteously, and it lies in the power of our knowledge and freedom to choose one or the other.

But our personal, independent moral decisions take place in this far-greater context: the cosmos-sized battle between good and evil, in which God is conquering the devil, by the power of Jesus Christ’s love, for the salvation of the world.

When we recognize that we are, so to speak, little players in the much larger game of good vs. evil; when we perceive that the drama of history is in fact God playing chess with the devil, then we can peacefully and happily take our place as pawns.

Let me allow the good Lord to use me for good. I can trust that all will be well. I don’t need to see the grand scheme; that is for God alone to see. I just need to love my neighbor with Christian love right here and now.

The Ecclesiastical Controversy (Compendium Included)

rogue-one-storm-troopers

[SPOILER ALERT]

Why do they call Rogue One a “stand-alone” movie? Well….How do I put this delicately, without spoiling the movie for you, if you haven’t seen it?

The likable male and female leads, apparently in love, share an embrace at the movie’s end. Perhaps they whisper to each other “till death do us part.” But at that point in the great Star-Wars narrative, the Death Star exercises its power, and, well…let’s put it this way: “till death” ain’t very long in this case, and dead people generally don’t appear in sequels. Ergo, this film stands alone.

Also: Dead people don’t have sex. Maybe that sounds morbid. But our Lord Jesus made a point of highlighting that fact (Matthew 22:30) And I believe the inevitable celibacy of the dead can put a lot of things into proper perspective…

…Now, most people do not find Roman Synods particularly interesting. And even fewer people have the patience to read ecclesiastical documents of over 250 pages.

amoris-laetitia-coverI daresay most Catholics don’t even know that we have a Church “controversy” going on right now. But, in point of fact, we do.

Of what do we dispute in this ecclesiastical controversy? you ask.

A group of cardinals expressed doubts about the meaning of our Holy Father’s latest formal teaching document, the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation called Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love.”

Actually these Eminences expressed doubts about just a few paragraphs. Like this one:

It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. (Amoris Laetitia 304)

The Cardinals express their doubt about how to interpret this:

Does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts? …For those proposing the creative idea of conscience, the precepts of God’s law and the norm of the individual conscience can be in tension or even in opposition… (Doubt #5, and Explanatory Note. )

The cardinals raise a pertinent question. And I find Fr.Antonio Livi’s ambivalence about Amoris Laetitia even more penetrating, because it takes into account the distinction between external law and internal conscience in the life of the pilgrim Church:

Here [in paragraph 304] the discourse [of Amoris Laetitia] is even more ambiguous, because it voluntarily confuses the “external” evaluation of the moral situation of the conscience of the faithful with their “internal” situation before God: the condition of the individual’s conscience flees the human eye, even that of the spiritual director or confessor, and the authority of the Church is not called to give judgment on the conscience (“de internis neque Ecclesia iudicat” — the Church does not judge what is internal). Therefore the evaluation of the external, that which remains evident to the eyes of men, is what is enough for a merely prudential judgment which does not pretend to be absolute and definitive but concerns the duty of the ecclesiastic authority of recognizing the external behavior of men conformed to the verbal law as just and to sanction the unjust ones.

If you’ve read this weblog for a while, you know that these questions have pre-occupied me for some time. So I present to you a little compendium of my writings over the past 2 1/2 years on the great “communion-for-the-divorced” controversy. Consider it a Solstice-Day gift.

Click the links and dive in, as you like. I think you might find the the Cardinals’ dubia, and the questions raised by the venerable doctors Grisez and Finnis (which you can read by clicking here) hidden in my musings. But I have tried to tackle things from my own ponderous, even lugubrious, goofball-existentialist perspective…

 

First, the historical context in which I, for one, see the Synod on the Family, and its aftermath. I called it “the Synod of Tweets” because the Catholic-press news coverage rarely penetrated beyond the 140-keystroke limit, and because many Synod Fathers tweeted their way through the whole thing, leaving us wondering how they possibly could have listened to all the speeches. Also: I tried to present the recent-historical context, which involves the early career of a great hero.

In the fall of 2014, I wanted to give a speech on honesty, if only I could have had the Synod floor myself.

Next, I raised some questions I have about the holy-communion controversy…

  1. Does the distinction ‘law vs. mercy’ really makes sense? (Also, divine laws against whitened sepulchers).
  2. Does giving yourself an annulment make sense? PS. Alanis Morrisette sings the rationale for marriage law.
  3. Does it make sense for Germans to try to turn the Catechism into bilge-water? With a good answer from Nova et Vetera

I tried to coach everyone through any confusion they experienced following the Synod. I heartily advised walks.

How about a spiritual context? I gave a homily on mercy and promises, and a homily on loving prudently.

princeThen our Holy Father gave us his very, very long Apostolic Exhortation. It has a lot in it, but not everything. It has the teaching of St. ThereseAmerica magazine made a super-lame video about it, and Prince unwittingly sang about it.

Now we find ourselves ready for Christmas 2016, and many internet enthusiasts see this as a moment of great crisis in the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, most Catholics hardly know anything about any of this; the Redskins’ crisis impinges more directly on our daily lives.

I will certainly have much more to say. (For instance, CLICK HERE for a sermon on “pastoral accompaniment”. Or HERE for one about erring on the side of obedience.) I believe that carefully reading Amoris Laetitia will inspire and inform us. I intend to lead an adult-ed adult-ed study, here at St. Andrew’s in Roanoke, early in AD 2017.

I think studying the Catechism also will help us. And studying the Holy Bible. Studying the teaching we have received from our loving God.

IMHO, this controversy is actually not much of an ecclesiastical controversy for the 21st century. After all, I think it comes down to is this: Do we human beings need to submit our minds to God’s teaching? Do we receive the teaching of the Church for what it truly is? Namely, God’s kind, thorough, and wise instruction of His beloved children?

This was a controversy within the Church for our parents and grandparents. Catholics questioning Church teaching is a 20th century thing. Catholics did that, I guess, because 20th-century man rejected Divine Revelation, on the grounds that submitting to it meant humiliating one’s great human self beneath one’s dignity. But then St. John Paul II came along and pointed out to everyone that no one can achieve greater dignity than: sonship in the Son, Jesus Christ, God made man.

We still need time, of course, to reflect more deeply on the mystery of the Incarnation, and the Church’s communion with God Incarnate. But I think the 20th-century controversy about humble, obedient faith demeaning the human soul has long since fallen by the wayside, at least among Catholics. We know perfectly well that we do not have God’s intelligence.

In the 21st century, we Catholics do not expect the Church as a human institution to be perfect. We perceive that God reveals Himself through Her, in spite of Her limitations on the human level. So any “tension” between the Church’s rules and my supposedly liberated conscience? It really just doesn’t exist. To the contrary, I know that my adherence to the Church’s clear guidance is what allows me to live a genuinely free life–free of all the other nonsense that this world throws at me to try to entrap me in its misery.

In other words, my obedience within the great family that is the Catholic Church ensures my freedom from all pagan slaveries–especially the cruel slavery of imagining that I’m utterly on my own when it comes to having a relationship with God. After all, I will face Him in death sooner or later. And the Church has laws precisely to help me prepare for that inevitable day.

 

 

 

 

A Motto Worth Trying to Live By + “Transgender”

Our prayers should not be long and tedious but short, earnest, and frequent. –St. Ambrose

…The other day, someone asked our Holy Father this question:

I would like to ask you, what would you say to someone who has struggled with their sexuality for years and feels that there is truly a problem of biology, that his aspect doesn’t correspond to what he or she feels is their sexual identity?

Can’t say I fully understand the question.  Not sure what “aspect” means here.

human_male_karyotpe_high_resolution_-_xy_chromosome_croppedBut I would like to point out: the Catholic position is that doctors should not lie to people. Medical science does not have the power to control everything.  When surgeons and biochemists get delusions of grandeur, it only confuses and misleads people who already have a lot to suffer.

Can an abortion make it like there never was a baby?  No.

Can artificial contraception completely remove the fact that sex is for making babies?  No.

Can any medical intervention render homosexual acts fruitful?  No.

Can surgeries and pills change a man or boy, whose every cell has XY chromosomes, into a woman or a girlOr a woman or girl, whose every cell has XX chromosomes, into a man or a boy? No.

People who struggle need friends who won’t tell them lies, especially lies about what doctors can really accomplish with the limited tools at their disposal.

“Being healthy” has to start with the truth.  The truth is that there is much more to us human beings than meets the eye, much more about us that science doesn’t understand (as opposed to the little bit that it does understand).  All the so-called “medical” procedures listed above actually involve grotesque acts of violence–profoundly unhealthy acts of violence.

Better to go to church and pray to the good God Who made us the men and women that we are.