Ecclesia docens, Ecclesia discens

st paul preaching to the bereans
Mosaic of St. Paul Preaching

The Church teaching, the Church learning.

I had a few moments to read the transcripts of two lectures–one by a Cardinal, the other by a prominent theologian. Both deserve a reading.

The Cardinal argues that Pope Francis has brought about a “revolutionary” change. God reveals Himself in family life. The teaching Church must learn from today’s families. Doctrine and rules don’t always apply. Ministry = accompaniment.

The theologian insists that Pope Francis has endangered the unity of the Church by teaching ambiguously. And this also endangers the Church’s holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.

The four marks. Not St. Mark, Mark Wahlberg, Mark Cuban, and Mark White. One, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The celebration of Holy Mass expresses the marks of the Church: united with the local bishop and the Pope, with the Apostles of old, with all the other local churches throughout the Catholic world, professing our faith in the Christ, Who unites Himself with us in the Most Holy Sacrament.

It’s hierarchical–not for the sake of anyone lording it over anyone. Hierarchical in order to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The Church is hierarchical in order to be Herself.

In the authors’ introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne laments how his becoming an official of Uncle Sam nearly cost him his independence of mind, his imagination, his interior life. But I can’t say the same about becoming an official of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. At the center of Her life we find the endless mystery, the source of all interiority: divine Beauty, Creativity, boundless Freedom.

The theologian, Father Weinandy, thinks we have a crisis because some priests and bishops say, “The Sixth Commandment doesn’t always apply.” Or: They just say nothing whatsoever about how to have sex without committing sins.

Cardinal Cupich thinks contemporary family life can teach us new things about God. Maybe he should read a few John Updike novels before getting too excited.

God became man, and He became a humble man. He submitted Himself to the authority of Pontius Pilate. The Church of Christ always proposes; She never imposes. What wins souls? Kindness, gentleness.

But: Did God reveal Himself by declaring, “I’m nice. Just you be nice now, too?”

No. The ecclesia docens began teaching, ruling, and sanctifying when the Lord commanded Her: Go, baptize all nations, teaching them to observe all the I have taught you.

Because the Apostles listened to that command, we ourselves do not wonder aimlessly, like orphans, through life. We have our sacred patrimony: the Church’s Liturgy, Her books, Her immeasurably rich wisdom. How do we acquire this wisdom? Mustn’t we ceaselessly pray, study, and meditate, with girded loins?

The people wandering the highways and byways of this world seek instruction from their priests. The “democratization” of the modern world hasn’t ended the priest business. Far from it. We priests must be more prepared to instruct and advise then ever. After all, what other sources of information do our people have–about how to live a good life with a tranquil conscience?

What kind of teaching and advice would we priests give if we didn’t listen to our people? Unhelpful teaching and bad advice. Everyone has to wake up every day as a card-carrying member of the ecclesia discens.

But what kind of teaching and advice would we give, if we didn’t base it all on the Gold Standard: The Catechism of the Catholic Church? Is that book not a reliable compendium of apostolic doctrine, normative and hugely enlightening?

If we blow off the Catechism (and all the sources that constitute it), our teaching and advice won’t be worth a damn. Kinda like the advice of priests who suggest, by word or by cowardly silence, that the Sixth Commandment doesn’t always apply.





Catechists Exhortation

el greco st matthew
St. Matthew

Today we keep the feastday of the catechist who wrote the book that teaches us about: the wise men, St. Joseph, the Sermon on the Mount, St. Peter receiving the keys, the king separating the sheep and the goats, and the risen Jesus sending the Apostles to teach and baptize all nations in the name of the Blessed Trinity, among other things.

And soon our humble parishes will begin our annual educational enterprise. We will begin classes–for adults interested in joining our Church, and for our young ones.

In these classes, we will teach sacred doctrine. We do not teach our own personal opinions about anything. What purpose would that serve? We catechists ourselves don’t have more insight into anything than anyone else does. In our classes, we simply minister to the one Teacher, the Christ.

So: Sacred doctrine…  Let’s meditate a moment. What is it?

First: It’s sacred. The world isn’t everything. We human beings need a temple, where we meet God. And we need to learn something there, about Him–so that we can have a friendship with Him.

The world–lovely as it may appear at times, dangerous as it appears at others–the world becomes a desperately unhappy prison house for us, unless we become friends with the One who made it all, and Who guides it all towards fulfillment, according to His mysterious plan.

earthsunWe must learn something about our ineffably mysterious Maker, then, we human beings. And: because He dwells in such unapproachable mystery, the doctrine we learn about Him can come from only one source: He Himself.

What do we learn first? That, in the beginning–a beginning so total and so absolute that our minds cannot conceive it–in the beginning, God arrayed the stars and galaxies and trees and hills and fields, and formed man and woman from the clay. And He did it all for His reason. He made the cosmos for a reason.

The reason. The reason why there is something, rather than nothing. Something–teeth, sheep, rocks, pine cones, human imaginations, fish in the sea, hemispheres of the globe–why there is anything at all, rather than an endless, silent, unpaintable darkness.

The basic question of life: What is God’s reason for all this? And we catechists must face this fact, and start from it: We would have no answer to this question, no answer at all–had something unexpected not happened.

Okay, yes. Some people did expect it, back in ancient Israel. Kind-of. The Almighty had taken some significant steps. He had spoken to Abraham and promised that old Mesopotamian man descendants as numerous as the beach sands or the night stars. The Almighty had spoken to Moses. The Lord had, indeed, consecrated many prophets. So our ancient forefathers knew God and expected something.

But still–it came as a surprise. The Annunciation came as a surprise. Mary believed, but she did not understand. St. Joseph believed, but he did not understand. Bethlehem came as a surprise. Jesus’ miracles and teachings and triumph over death–it all came as quite a surprise. All the faithful disciples believed, but they did not understand.

What happened was this: Turns out the one, true God–indivisible, uncomplicated, pure like nothing we know–infinitely more pure than Ivory soap–turns out that He, the One, is three: Father, Son and Spirit of infinite love.

El Greco Christ blessing croppedAnd the second divine Person, the Son, became flesh. Man. Incarnate. He dwelt among us. He spoke. He did stuff. In Palestine.

Now, we human beings need to learn many things. For instance, it really helps to know how to drive. And how to cook–at least how to cook spaghetti. And most of us need to learn how to do something useful, to participate in the ‘economy.’ (Those who don’t just run for public office 🙂

But all other knowledge pales in significance compared to: knowing about Jesus Christ, the Son of the eternal Father. When we learn about Him, we learn the great reason of God. The Why. Why do I wake up in the morning, rather than not? What is God’s point, with all this? With these 24-hour intervals of life, which He doles out to me with such stubborn regularity? –To know Christ is to know the answer.

Lovely, Father! you say. Lovely. We ❤ Jesus 2. But, you add: People like St. Matthew, all the Apostles, St. Thomas Aquinas, all the wise popes and theologians–they spent their lifetimes trying to learn about Christ. But in Religious Ed., we only have like an hour a week.

“Sacred doctrine.” How vast! The whole Bible, the traditions we have which go back to Christ Himself, the writings of all the holy men and women of the ages… Father, we’re just volunteers here. How do we even begin?

Catechism-of-the-Catholic-CHurchLet’s look at it like this. There are two kinds of people. On the one hand, people who know the Four Pillars of the Catholic faith by heart. On the other hand, the poor, uninformed people who don’t.

The people in the first group have everything they need to spend the rest of their lives growing in friendship with God. They have the interior foundation. They know the essential basics of the religion of Christ.

The people in the second group do not.

So we catechists have a simple-enough task: Move people from the second group into the first.

Adults can and must memorize all four pillars between now and Easter. Not hard, if you go to Mass every Sunday.

How about our youth? Memorizing?

Little ones can memorize the Our Father. Next: the Ten Commandments. Once you’re ten or eleven, you should have memorized the seven sacraments. By Confirmation day: the Creed.

Not hard, if you go to Mass every Sunday.

In my youth, I had coaches who made us run suicides. Up and down the basketball court, until we almost puked. Over and over again. Every practice. Every day. They drilled us.

At the time, I thought these coaches were crazy, killer tyrants. Cruel, heartless Nazis. Some days I had to choke back tears of exhaustion and shame. I wanted to quit with every fiber of every muscle of my being.

But now I venerate these men as loving gods. They loved us enough to whip us into something, something worth getting whipped into. And that had to do with just this mortal body–this body that will soon lie in a coffin.

Which is more important? Having what you need to play basketball, or having what you need to get to heaven?

Catechists, drill your students on the Four Pillars. Drill them without mercy. Because nothing could be kinder and more merciful than helping someone memorize the things we need to know in order to have a friendship with God. Drill them, and don’t apologize. Drill them until they know it.

The world needs hardass catechists. Let’s do it.





RIP, Big Frank

DiLorenzoThe man kept Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop on his desk for years. So you figure he was ready.

For all of bishop’s many kindnesses to me, I give thanks. For his few injustices against me, I right readily forgive him. May the blame not attach itself to him. I refuse to press charges.

May he forgive me for all the ways I have failed him–all of which he sees with perfect clarity now. He has much more to forgive me than I him.

He knew how to have fun. He and I had fun in his office, over straw hats, and with a desk calculator (trying to figure out how many hundreds of thousands of dollars it would take to rebuild all the Church property within 300 yards of Orange Avenue in Roanoke). And I basically laughed in his 300-pound face when he lectured me about keeping fit.

I pray with all my heart that we will dine together in the life to come, a proper southside-Philly Italian meal, without him having to worry about his tricky digestion or his sugars. My dear departed dad was 100% clueless, and that often left me in difficult situations. But I always knew he loved me, with the desperate love of a father who wished he could guide his son, but just didn’t know how. I’m weeping right now, because I saw the same in Bishop DiLo. Resquiecant in pace, both of you, dear fathers. I owe you both.

…Richmond sede vacante is weird. For us parish priests of the diocese, I think it’s even weirder and more doleful than Roma sede vacante. May the good Lord comfort us and help us.

Little World

downtown Charlottesville mall

The other night, I reached the end of an era in my little life. I read the final words of Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset. Sweet sadness overwhelmed me.

Six Barsetshire novels–all of them about the country clergy, their families, their interactions with their neighbors and doctors and benefactors. About how young people move from the county into London, and their city lives. About the scramble for suitable marriages and adequate incomes.

Trollope concludes the series with a seriously wise reflection on the clerical life, which I would like to quote at length. But I will save that for an appendix to this post.

…For five years, from 2011 to 2016, I lived in greater Roanoke, while my dear mommy lived in Washington D.C. She hasn’t driven a car in decades, but she loves to ride the train. It doesn’t take a geographical genius to figure out the perfect place for the two of us to meet for a couple days during those years: Charlottesville.

Airbnb provided us with small downtown apartments. We ate at The Nook, or Citizen Burger, or Downtown Thai. My mom shopped at Caspari while I took my daily run up the hill and around the University Rotunda.

So my first reaction to the big news of the weekend involved intimate geographic familiarity. “Emancipation Park” is not a place I read about in the news; it is where I have done cool-down stretches at the end of numerous runs.

So I have experienced an enormous amount of frustration in trying to find a straightforward and clear report of what exactly happened on Saturday and where–by which I mean: at the corners of which streets (because I know them all).

I weep because downtown Charlottesville does not in any way deserve this crushing disturbance. Downtown Charlottesville deserves to have its own quiet life, and not be the object of a news-camera spectacle.

In August of 2015, the peaceful carp pools of Bridgewater Plaza, Franklin County, Va., also became the focus of the insatiable media spectacle, because of arbitrary and cruel death. I wept then, for the same reason.

I refuse to do any grandstanding for an end to racism here on my blog, at least not today. What I want to do is: pray that downtown Charlottesville gets to return to normal life, with people eating al fresco of a summer evening, sipping Budweisers, and leaving the moral absolutes alone.

Appendix. From the final paragraphs of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series:

Before I take my leave of the diocese of Barchester for ever, which I purpose to do in the succeeding paragraph, I desire to be allowed to say one word of apology for myself, in answer to those who have accused me–always without bitterness, and generally with tenderness–of having forgotten, in writing of clergymen, the first and most prominent characteristic of the ordinary English clergyman’s life.

I have described many clergymen, they say, but have spoken of them all as though their professional duties, their high calling, their daily workings for the good of those around them, were matters of no moment, either to me, or in my opinion, to themselves…

There are those who have told me that I have made all my clergymen bad, and none good. I must venture to hint to such judges that they have taught their eyes to love a colouring higher than nature justifies.

We are, most of us, apt to love Raphael’s madonnas better than Rembrandt’s matrons. But, though we do so, we know that Rembrandt’s matrons existed; but we have a strong belief that no such woman as Raphael painted ever did exist. In that he painted, as he may be surmised to have done, for pious purposes–at least for Church purposes–Raphael was justified; but had he painted so for family portraiture he would have been false.

Had I written an epic about clergymen, I would have taken St Paul for my model; but describing, as I have endeavoured to do, such clergymen as I see around me, I could not venture to be transcendental.

Abram and Lot Part

Abram and Lot part mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore
Genesis 13 mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

We read at Holy Mass today from Genesis, about how a separation occurred. Lot went one way, to the Jordan Plain. Then God made a prodigious promise to Abram.

Today, we, too, say farewell to each other, dear Roanoke–like Lot and Abram. The Lord has apportioned to me the fruitful plains to the south. Actually, they are hilly piedmont counties, on the far side of Cahas Mountain.

But the promise to Abraham holds good for all us sons and daughters of the Church, in whatever lush county the Lord gives us to inhabit. We will bear immeasurable fruit. The good that can come from even one single Christian walking the narrow way behind our Lord—that good trumps all the dust of the whole earth, if all that sand and soil could get measured in a scale.

…Now, some of us make it a habit of calling our Lady the “Mother of God” quite often. Like at least fifty-three times a day. We have St. Cyril of Alexandria to thank for keeping that phrase in use. He battled the heretics who tried to eliminate “Mother of God” from our Christian lexicon. St. Cyril died 1,573 years ago today.

Hail Mary,…

Eye on the Sparrow


Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. (Matthew 10:29)

Our forefathers of the Old Covenant awaited the coming of the Messiah. They didn’t know what His name would be. They didn’t know what He would look like, or exactly what He would do.

Nonetheless, they believed in the coming Christ, because they knew that God would provide everything necessary for their nation to enjoy true blessedness. He had formed an alliance with them, and He had promised good things; they knew He would fulfill His promises. History would make sense. Life would have meaning. Our natural human desires for justice and truth, for real happiness in an upright, honest life—all these desires would be fulfilled. Somehow.

The ancient Israelites did not know how everything would get resolved. But they believed in the good God, Who knows all and governs all. In other words, they believed in Divine Providence. So they had no doubt in their minds that God would send His Christ to make everything right.

And the Father did send His Christ.

Through Adam sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all… But the gift is not like the transgression. For if, by the transgression of the one, many died, how much more did the grace of God, and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ, overflow. (Romans 5:12,15)

El Greco crucifixion Cristo sulla croce

The ancient Israelites awaited the loving fulfillment of the divine plan. And now we Christians know beyond a shadow of a doubt: God loves us with the love of a kind Father.

Christ crucified has revealed it: our heavenly Father has counted all our hairs, with the same kind of tenderness with which a mother would stroke the peach fuzz on her baby’s head. Christ crucified reveals the full extent of the Providence of God. The Father loves us this much; He loves us with the “amount” of love evident on the cross. And that amount = infinity.

Meanwhile: the cross also teaches us another important thing. If I might, maybe I’ll get a little personal here. I have vivid memories of how my vocation as a Catholic, and as a priest, began. Twenty-five years ago, the Lord helped me see something else in the crucifix: not just the love of the Father, but also the total trust that the incarnate Son had in His Father.

Ever since earliest childhood, I had loved Jesus and believed in Him as the Savior, as the One Who has atoned for sin, Who has revealed the fullness of the Father’s love for mankind. Then, when I was reaching adulthood, the Lord gave me this other gift. I saw how Jesus gave Himself over into the Father’s hands, trusting so absolutely that He died fearlessly, even serenely, on Mt. Calvary. The Lord helped me see how this trust of Christ on the cross could be a way of life—a way of life for all of us, and especially for us men called to be priests and to live a celibate life.

God will provide. I have nothing to fear. I myself may be obtuse and difficult; I may be weak-natured and prone to selfishness. And there are plenty of other people in this world who have the same problems, so we run up against each other in conflicts sometimes. But I can still dive headfirst into the great pool of love that is Christ’s Church, without holding anything back, because I have no evil to fear. Jesus trusted—unto death. And the heavenly Father took care of Him, lifting Him up from the grave, to immortal, heavenly glory. So the Father will take care of me, too.


…Now, when Bilbo Baggins prepared to leave the Shire on his 111th birthday, he declared to his neighbors, “A hundred eleven years is too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable hobbits!”

Two years is too short a time to serve in Roanoke among the excellent and admirable Catholics of St. Andrews and St. Gerard’s. I wish I could have 111 more years, so Catholic Roanoke could really get good and sick of me.

Seriously though, I think we have to exercise a little patience with ourselves, as we gradually try to get over the shock of this pastoral transition. Maybe I could even say: we have to exercise patience with ourselves as we recover from the wound of this mysterious pastoral transition.

God sent His Christ, thus providing everything necessary for us to get to heaven. But it didn’t happen without wounds. As we meditate on God’s fatherly Providence, let’s remember: the two sparrows which got sold for a small coin, which the Lord said our heavenly Father had His eye on—they didn’t sell those sparrows, in the Temple courtyard, for pets. They sold them for… sacrifice.

The workings of Divine Providence don’t involve some happy-happy-joy-joy merry-go-round ride. No. God’s entire plan revolves around one precise center point: Mount Calvary. We have an altar at church for a reason: so that we can offer ourselves in sacrifice–along with the Body, Blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus.

Certainly the transition of pastors in Roanoke spells relief for many people who find me intolerably tedious—whom I cannot blame at all, since I find myself intolerably tedious, too. But for me anyway, and I daresay for some others, this is a painful moment–me having to say goodbye to some dearly beloved hobbits. It is a moment of sacrifice, genuinely wounding sacrifice. Wounds like this don’t heal overnight.

But we trust. God provides. Jesus said: Do not be afraid!

So why should I feel discouraged, or why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely, away from heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion; my constant friend is He.
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

What Will Endure?

If what was to fade was glorious, how much more will what endures be glorious. (II Corinthians 3:11) What does endure? What will endure even beyond the “passing away of heaven and earth?” (Matthew 5:18)

chaliceThe answer resounds right in front of our noses. “The chalice of My Blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant.” We do not go too far when we say: Our religion is the Mass.

Not that we do no other acts of religion. We pray at other times and in other places. And we try to act justly and kindly all the time and everywhere we go, out of duty to God. But none of our prayers or religious acts outside of Mass make any sense at all without the Mass.

We do not go too far when we say: Our religion is Jesus Christ. Jesus, the incarnate Word of the eternal Father, makes Himself our sacrifice and our food in the Holy Mass.

Yes, we sacrifice other things; we strive to sacrifice our whole lives to God. But no sacrifice we can make pleases the Father unless we unite it with Christ’s sacrifice. And, in truth, we need make no sacrifice other than the sacrifice of Jesus—since, in offering Himself, He offered everything good and worthy in us. After all, He made us according to the infinite Wisdom He possesses in His unfathomable mind.

Sometimes non-Catholics try to confuse this issue of the absolute centrality of the Holy Mass and the sacred priesthood in the Catholic Church. They note that the New Testament contains relatively few references to the Mass, or the priesthood, or the Real Presence.

But this criticism actually misses the obvious context of the New Testament itself. What is the New Testament? Is it a collection of moral instructions? If so, it is not a coherent one. Is the New Testament an account of first-century Mediterranean-basin history? If so, it is a terrible, practically unreadable one.

The New Testament makes perfect sense, however, as a collection of documents written by churchmen—men who maintained intimate communion with Christ through the Holy Eucharist. Documents, in other words, written by priests of the new and eternal covenant, for the benefit of their people, namely the people who participated regularly in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

The living, breathing reality of the Church—priests and people celebrating Jesus’ Mass together: that is the gloriously glorious thing that will not pass away. Even on the other side of the final and all-encompassing purification of heaven and earth, we will gather together around the altar to offer Jesus and receive Jesus.


Dear Brothers and Sisters in the Lord in Roanoke:

Bishop DiLorenzo has decided to re-assign me, away from our beloved city. I begged him to reconsider, and I believe some other people did, too. But he has not changed his mind. My new assignment begins July 1.

Over the course of these past two years with you, I have never before felt so much love for my bride, the Church. I’ve had the privilege of trying to help two newly ordained priests come into their own. And I have loved being with you–truly loved being with you.

I will miss you very much. Please pray for me.


I want and choose to be rated as worthless and a fool for Christ, Who first was held as such, rather than wise or prudent in this world.

(St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, third note on Week II: prayer to attain humility)

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Rocky Mount and Martinsville:

Words cannot begin to describe how much I long to gaze out from the altar and behold your beloved faces again.

It doesn’t even bother me that I will never measure up to Fr. Nick. I’m sorry that you will now have a pastor far inferior to the shepherd you have had these past two years. But at least it’s a devil that you know.


Love, Father Mark


PS. Please don’t ask me what I did to piss-off the bishop so much that he has moved me, with no evident rationale, away from my aged mother in a nursing home, so that I won’t be able to visit her daily anymore.

Please don’t ask. If there is an answer, I’m pretty sure that it’s not available in English.


Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ. Now and forever.

Pangs of Strife

When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world. So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you. (John 16:21-22)

I’ve never given birth. I think we men, and everyone who has never borne the pain of childbirth–we have to concede to mothers the definitive interpretation of John 16:21.

Leonardo da Vince Madonna and ChildBut:

What about when the bishop suddenly decides to re-assign you to a place 70 minutes away from your mother, who lives in an assisted-living facility (which right now is across the street)? How about when ecclesiastical authority arbitrarily wounds the heart of the woman who endured the pangs of childbirth so that you could come into the world?

Not to mention tearing you away from the ministry that you feel like you have just begun, and the people whom you feel like you have just gotten to know and love, and the routines that you have just gotten used to?

And all of this for no evident reason?

So I guess we all have our share in the agony which our Lord uses as His metaphor in John 16:21.

Nonetheless, I have it on good authority: the pain of childbirth does end. This bitter strife doesn’t last forever.

Our loving brother Jesus, very much alive and well, ascended somewhere beyond this veil of tears. He dwells in a place where everything makes perfect sense to everybody. And you never have to say goodbye. And your mother never has to suffer just because your bishop is apparently a mean person.

What makes us Christians is that we believe in that place, the place where the Lord Jesus now lives. And we know that, when we cling to Him, we can find our way there.

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.

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.