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‘We Seek to Open the Eyes of Our Friends’: Daniel Berrigan in the Pages of Commonweal

The funeral Mass for Daniel Berrigan, SJ, will be celebrated Friday morning at St. Francis Xavier Church in New York. Over the course of several years in the 1960s and early ‘70s, Commonweal featured a number of pieces both by and about the noted peace activist and poet. Here we present a selection of articles from our archives, with excerpts.

From “How to Make a Difference,” by Daniel Berrigan, August 7, 1970:

What we seek, acting coolly, politically, out of the truth of our lives and tradition is to pull the mask of legitimacy from the inhuman and blind face of power. We seek at the same time, to open the eyes of more and more of our friends, to bring a larger community of resistance into being. We seek moreover to awaken to the facts of life, those Americans who continue to grasp at the straws of this or that political promise; and so put off, day after day, year after year, the saving act of resistance, allow innocent men to be imprisoned, guiltless men to be kicked out of America, good men to die.

But if even a few men say no, courageously, constantly, clear-sightedly, more men will be drawn to say no; fewer men likewise will continue to say yes, and so to lose their manhood, their soul, their brothers.

From “Selma and Sharpeville,” by Daniel Berrigan, April 9, 1965:

The Gospel of Saint John, in the Zulu tongue, so strange to American ears; sibilants and the clicking of tongues, with only the names Jesus, Mary, Peter, John, coming through. And about the third hour, they crucified Him . . . . A white priest, in the pulpit of the black church; my fellow Christians. He can hardly remember what he had to say to them. But at the end, the veneration of the Cross. A, great wave starts forward: mothers with children, young men, the very old. Three priests move among them, holding the crucifix to their lips.

And spontaneously, as is the way with Africans, the chant starts; first, as one voice, hardly rising above the sough of bare feet, that sound which above all sounds is like the sea, on a mild evening. The song is the Zulu dirge for a fallen warrior. They are bearing Him homeward to his village after battle. His name is Jesus, great King, black Warrior. Easily, with infinite delicacy and naturalness, the song breaks into harmony; two parts, then four, then eight, as a yolk divides, or a cell . . . Jesus, great Warrior, we mourn you. O the beauty, the youth, the empty place. Who shall plead for us, who shall lift our faces, who shall speak wisdom?

The Zulus have a saying: he who is behind must run faster than he who is in front. Even to the Cross. Even when the Cross is held in white hands. Shall the white man time us, even to the Cross? Does he any longer even know the way?

From “Notes from the Underground, or, I Was a Fugitive from the FBI,” by Daniel Berrigan, May 29, 1970:

May 7 marks exactly a month since I packed the small red bag I had bought in Hanoi, and set out from Cornell, looking for America. So far, it has been a tougher and longer voyage than the one which set me down in North Vietnam some two years before.

In the course of that month, I have changed domicile some six times; this in strict accord with a rule of the Jesuit Order, making us, at least in principle, vagabonds on mission; 'It is our vocation to travel to any place in the world where the greater glory of God and the need of the neighbor shall impel us.' Amen, brothers.

It may be time for a modest stock-taking. The gains sought by such felonious vagrancy as mine, are in the nature of things, modest to the point of imposing silence on the wise. The 'nature of things' being defined simply as: power. It is entirely possible that any hour of any day may bring an end to the game; the wrong chance meeting, a thoughtless word of a friend, a phone tip the possibilities are without end. But one takes this for granted, and goes on, knowing that practically all of us are powerless, that the line dividing the worth of one's work from inertia and discouragement is thin indeed. (What manner of man today exudes confidence, moral spleen, righteousness, sense of messiahship at once cocksure, and dead serious? God, who grants us very little these days, at least keeps us from that.)

From “My Brother the Witness,” by Daniel Berrigan, April 26, 1968:

[I]n general, the bishops have played the war straight American. And the war's end will probably find few of them in any way interiorly changed in their understanding of the Church, of the meaning of violence, or indeed of their own office.

Which is not to say that the Church has felt no tremors. It is only to suggest that in the Catholic instance, the power structure has followed the culture, its sedulous ape. Still, in an exciting and even unique way, the war has altered the face of the Church as no former American war has done. For the first time in our national history, significant numbers of Catholics, including a few priests, are in trouble.

The war has also seriously thrown into disarray the timetable of renewal which the Church had set for itself. That schedule included beyond doubt the building of strong, open and affectionate relationships between the bishops and their communities. Alas, alas. The war has deepened and widened a tragic cleavage which issues like birth control, school systems, speech and its freedoms and unfreedoms, control of properties and income, had already opened.

From “Taking Fr. Berrigan Seriously,” by the Editors, August 7, 1970:

There are various ways of not taking Daniel Berrigan seriously. The easiest is to dismiss him, his brother and the other destroyers of draft files at Baltimore, Catonsville, Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, as "kooks" or "romantics" … There is, however, another, more sophisticated way of not taking Daniel Berrigan seriously. Which is to follow his exploits vicariously while avoiding one's own responsibilities, to nod admiringly at his words, and then to return him to that corner niche conveniently reserved for plaster saints. …

Father Berrigan is far too significant a figure to be dismissed in either of these ways without risking great loss. He, and his brother Philip, are calling for a moral revolution, a regeneration that is based on the personal conversion of individuals through acts which break them off from established powers of the world and which link them, through suffering and the fate of being outcast, with the poor and the oppressed. Now that message is not exactly "political," as we have come to understand politics in the age when ideologies are supposedly outdated. The Berrigans' message is sometimes mysterious, incomplete, paradoxical; and we confess to suffering something of a "metaphor gap" with Daniel Berrigan when he writes of future political change as putting on a "new garment," creating "a new mankind." Their message, to the scandalizing of some and the embarrassment of many, is however very much the message of the Gospel; and the problems they present, mystery and metaphors and all, are precisely the problems the Gospel presents.

From the Archives: The Radical Lives & Times of Daniel & Philip Berrigan

Amid the many remembrances of Daniel Berrigan, I want to highlight a biography of him and his brother Philip that was reviewed in Commonweal by David O'Brien in 1997. The review itself paints a fuller picture of the "life and times" in which the Berrigan brothers were shaped, and describes the significance of how they went on to shape the lives and times of many others—particularly American Catholics.

We get a glimpse of the Berrigans' family life in upstate New York. They grew up in the Depression with a father who "brooded over his failures," whose "anger overwhelmed the love of their mother, and who made leaving home easier." Yet "Dado" left copies of the Catholic Worker around the house and helped set up a Catholic Interracial Council in Syracuse, exposing his sons to Catholic social teaching. The brothers began creating discomfort "amid the conformist self-congratulations of fifties' Catholicism":

 It began as fairly modest efforts to awaken the lay apostolate and challenge the church's own racism, then to respond to Pope John XXIII and the council, then to confront their country's bloody war in Vietnam.

By then, O'Brien summarizes, a Catholic peace movement was capturing national attention, and it seemed the church at all levels began to face the problems that had long troubled them. "But it was never enough," O'Brien writes, "less because [the Berrigans] were radicals, which they were, than that the nation's capacity for violence, and self-deception, was far greater than anyone suspected."

The biographers make clear the difficulties Daniel and Philip each faced as priests and laity: "Both loved being part of the church, and were hurt that some Catholics seemed more angry at them than at the warmakers."

On nuclear weapons, "the most important issue of their time," O'Brien concludes:

[T]hey faced the truth while far too many spent their talents seeking ways to justify the unjustifiable. The gifted moderates now seem convinced that they helped 'our' side 'win' the cold war, while the Berrigans still prefer, in Dan's words, 'to be as marginal as possible to madness.' It is possible that only on those margins, with people like these that alternatives to madness can be imagined, a necessary step to the much desired renewal of our country and our church.

You can read the full review here.

An Interview with Elizabeth McAlister (1971)

In 1971, Commonweal published an interview with Sr. Elizabeth McAlister, co-founder of Jonah House in Baltimore and member of the "Harrisburg Seven" group of anti-war activists and clergy. She was a sister-in-law of the recently deceased Fr. Daniel Berrigan. This interview may now be of interest to those curious about how Berrigan and his companions understood their actions at the time.

Harry J. Cargas: Who are you, who do you see yourself as being, particularly in reference to the Catholic Church?

Sister Elizabeth McAlister: Our effort, and specifically in answer to your question on my effort, has been really to deemphasize personalities. I would only be interested in answering that question from the basis of how the Gospels have formed my life or how I'm trying to allow them to form it or how we must respond to men in the way that Christ wanted us, really commanded us to respond to men.

HC: Which is consistent with your notion of viewing the war in human terms?

EM: That's right, in terms of men. But this is something all of us are obliged to do. At the same time we must seek to live in such a way that life itself be­comes attractive to others, which I think is what the Gospels ask us to do, too. The Christian communities grew because people were amazed that Christians loved one another that they could manifest things like joy and hope at a time when joy and hope seemed to be totally unjustified. And that's our obligation now, too. They could live with a lot of simplicity and put value on the things that arc most valuable which I would say are human relationships, community, friendship which of course can only be preserved in the Lord.

HC: And yet, judging from something else I heard you say, you’re saying the way we live the Gospels is through crisis.

EM: This is something I'm still trying to work out . . . it’s been my experience that a friend in risk draws me into a situation of deeper risk and by my own risk others are drawn into it. But as I said, I didn't understand why that must be until someone pointed out to me the principle behind it. When you begin living this way, you begin to constitute a threat. It's really very strange, but you do. The early Christians constituted a threat to the powers, although they had nothing in terms of guns, position or the things that the world calls power. But there was something about the way they lived and the values that they tried to make live that threatened the existing structure, because the existing structure was based on the use of human beings rather than respect for human beings.

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What Does the Sanders 'Invitation' Say About the Vatican, and Sanders?

The Vatican’s “invitation” to Bernie Sanders to speak at a conference of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences (PASS) on Friday has sparked a range of reactions. There are those who say it’s irresponsible for Sanders to travel right after his Thursday night debate with Hillary Clinton to give a ten-minute talk in Rome, just four days before the New York primary. There are those who see in it an attempt by the (male) Catholic establishment to block the election of a woman to the White House. Some see it as an endorsement of “the Jewish progressive agenda,” others as a direct attempt by Francis to advance a leftist agenda in U.S. politics.

None of this is true, so it’s not worth the time to dispute the accusations (except the one about Francis meddling in U.S. politics; we’ll get to that). But this comedy of errors does reveal something interesting about Francis’s Vatican and its politics.

It’s clear by now that the invitation, word of which emerged April 8, didn’t come from Pope Francis, or from the Secretariat of State, or from anyone who usually invites political leaders or accepts requests for audiences. It came instead from Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo (originally from Argentina), chancellor of PASS. He bypassed Margaret Archer, its president, who was not shy in making public her surprise, saying it was a “monumental discourtesy” for Sanders to ask for an invitation without going through her office. Bishop Sorondo responded that Archer was aware of the invitation, in effect accusing her of lying.  

At some point over the weekend of April 8, somebody in the Vatican who is close to Pope Francis was told of the potential negative consequences of letting an American presidential candidate speak at the conference–a candidate who by that time had claimed on MSNBC that the invitation had come “from the Vatican” and who on ABC’s “The View” confirmed that the invitation had come from Francis, and that he would be meeting with the pope. 

It is highly unlikely that the Vatican would have issued such an invitation just as Amoris Laetitia was being released; also unlikely is that it would risk a Sanders visit distracting from Francis’s meeting with refugees and the Patriarch of Constantinople in Lesbos, Greece, on April 16. But at this point it was too late for the Vatican to disinvite him; Sanders had announced his visit publicly.

What is not unimaginable is that the Vatican did its best to dissuade Sanders from coming by scheduling him to speak at 4 p.m. Rome time (10 a.m. Eastern) on Friday, which would be just hours after the end of his Thursday night debate in Brooklyn. If it was meant as a signal—“please don’t come”—it either wasn’t received by the Sanders team, or wasn’t interpreted as such. Next, the Vatican tried to ignore Sanders and downplayed the pending visit; over the course of several press conferences, Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, never once mentioned Sanders. Only today (April 14) did he do so, officially announcing that Francis would not be meeting with the candidate.

We will see what actually happens in Rome on Friday. But for now, it’s worth considering the following.

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What Is Francis Saying with 'Amoris Laetitia'?

Amoris Laetitia, the fruit of the long “synodal process” that unfolded between 2014 and 2015, is in keeping with what we’ve come to understand as Pope Francis’s pastoral and nonacademic style. The exhortation draws from his previous catechesis and that of John Paul II, as well as from the documents of bishops’ conferences around the world. And, at 52,500 words, it is very long. But how does the document actually address the at-times contentiously debated issues that arose in the course of the two synod gatherings in Rome?

If there’s an interpretative key, it’s this statement that appears early on in the text: “I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.” Yet Amoris Laetitia is a carefully constructed document that will give none of the most vocal factions on opposing sides of an issue any reason to claim “victory” or “defeat.” Pope Francis has issued an exhortation that represents the first attempt by a pope to demonstrate how the episcopal collegiality of Vatican II is supposed to work. Relying heavily on the final synod reports of 2014 and 2015, the document takes into account the real and divisive debates that took place at the synod on the issues of family, marriage and divorce, and homosexuality. In its section on the pastoral accompaniment of difficult situations, for example, Francis quotes extensively from the three paragraphs of the synod’s final 2015 report that  received the highest number of negative votes: Paragraph 84 (seventy-two “no” votes); 85 (eighty “no” votes); and 86 (sixty-four “no” votes).  

Amoris Laetitia is generally characterized by three identifiable types of text. The first type draws from Francis’s previous teaching to help illustrate his intentions and where he wants to lead the Church; another seems to strive for compromise between the orientations that became evident in the course of synodal debate. The third touches on gender, on the masculine and the feminine, and on education in the family; it is the weakest part of the document.

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The Exhortation Expectations Game

Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s post-synod apostolic exhortation, will be released this Friday, and the secrecy surrounding it is greater than usual. No doubt this is partly because of the sensitiveness of the issues involved, but it's also likely because the Vatican wants to guard against a leak like the one that allowed early publication of Laudato si' last June. Still, this hasn’t discouraged a pre-publication exercise in managing (or spinning) expectations.

Amoris Laetitia will plainly be a hugely important document on family and marriage, a substantial update of John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (1981). And that explains the interest and commentary preceding it. Consider interviews given this week to Crux’s John Allen by two of the most visible prelates in the United States, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C. Each reveals something about the relationship between the American church and this pontificate.

Cardinal Dolan’s comments on the exhortation are illustrative of the worries some have about the “Francis effect” on American Catholicism. He sounds in some ways like the successor to the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago in how he expresses surprise and qualms at just what Pope Francis is doing. He gives the pontiff the benefit of the doubt perhaps—but little else. “There’s a clarity and precision in the message of Jesus that we can’t tamper with, and that I don’t want to tamper with, nor do I believe Pope Francis wants to,” Dolan says, reporting on what he has heard from a fellow Catholic about the “confusion” caused by Francis without really disputing it: “Some wag said to me, and I think he was onto something, ‘Probably what we’ll get after the apostolic exhortation is some confusion, which would not be new, because that’s what we’ve got now.’” It’s clear where Dolan stands from how he answers a question about the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics: “Of course, there’s a conservative approach to the internal forum solution that the most conservative canonists and theologians have defended forever,” Dolan says. “I think the fear among many of us, however, is that if anything, things have become a little bit too lax.” This is actually the opposite of Francis’s take on the role of the law in the church (here's just one of the many possible examples). Surprisingly, Dolan seems to approach the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics in terms of their numbers, characterizing those who want to come back to full Eucharistic communion with the church as “a very distinct minority.” “I wish there were more,” he tells Allen. “Most people have said, ‘I didn’t know that’s what the church teaches,’ or 'They have no right to teach that, so I’m not going to obey them,’ or, ‘Who cares, I don’t go [to Mass] anyway.’ And the last group is the largest one.” The issue of inclusivity in the church, whether it’s through restoration of Eucharistic communion or some other way of welcoming back those who’ve left it, seems to be absent from Dolan’s pre-publication comments about Amoris Laetitia.

Meanwhile, in an interview that appeared twenty-four hours later, Cardinal Wuerl reminds Catholics (and his fellow bishops, as he did during the Synod last October) that Francis is the pope and that you don’t get to pick and choose among popes.

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From the Archives: A Review of Raymond Arroyo's Mother Angelica Biography

The death on Easter Sunday of Mother Angelica, founder of Eternal Word Television Network, has received coverage both in the United States and abroad, with obituaries both brief and lengthy, along with remembrances, accounts of her last days, and articles on everything from her legacy as a “female broadcasting titan” to her impact on tourism in Alabama, where EWTN is headquartered.

In 2005, Michael O. Garvey reviewed Raymond Arroyo's biography of Mother Angelica for Commonweal. Some excerpts follow.

The most conspicuous concern of Arroyo’s narrative is what he describes as Mother Angelica’s “public and private war for the future of the Catholic Church.” [His] reconnaissance of the battlefield is as predictable and prepackaged as anything else on big network news: on one side are Our Lord, Mother Angelica, and EWTN. On the other are “recreant bishops and theologians” and the “liberal church in America,” an amorphous conspiracy promoting eucharistic irreverence, gender-inclusive liturgical language, and altar girls. ... What readers make of the story will likely depend on which side they choose to take in this war, or whether they believe such a war is going on to begin with. ...

[Mother Angelica’s] relations with other sisters were, as her relations with so many of her coreligionists are now, tumultuous and overly susceptible to what she describes as “my Italian temper.” … [T]his shrewd woman with a sense of divine mission [had] an eye for the main chance. She had a quick wit, a gregarious manner, and an evangelical bent. Calling herself “a conservative liberal who happens to be charismatic,” she had become a popular speaker on prayer and the spiritual life. ...

The rags-to-riches growth of EWTN composes the background of the rest of the story, while the foreground concerns Mother Angelica’s ongoing battle against the encroachments of (American) ecclesial bureaucrats, her enlistment of more highly ranked (Vatican) bureaucrats, and her jeremiads against the dreaded “liberal church in America.” Nobody in these pages comes off very well. If Mother Angelica occasionally seems little more than a foul-tempered old harridan who confuses the promptings of her ego with the imperatives of the Holy Spirit, her opponents just as often seem little more than disingenuous defenders of their own institutional prestige.

You can read Garvey’s full review here. On Friday, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will preside over the funeral Mass for Mother Angelica; it will be broadcast live from the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, on EWTN.

Aristocrat or Zealot? Another Way to Think about Bishops

One of Pope Francis’s biggest challenges is how to contend with the character of the current episcopate. Over the last few decades, the culture and the temperament of Catholic bishops have changed, and not just in the United States. But rather than viewing this in terms of the usual “liberal” vs. “conservative” dichotomy, there may be another way to look at the situation.

I recently discovered a brilliant article from 1982 by French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Monique de Saint Martin, titled “La Sainte Famille” (“The Holy Family”), which examines the relationship between the French episcopate and clerical power in the 20th century. The authors argued that in 20th-century France there were basically two kinds of bishops. One type, “les héritiers,” came from the Catholic “aristocracy,” not in the sense of being descended from earls or counts but in the sense of being sure of their inherited Catholic identity, able to wear it comfortably while mediating between modern theology and modern culture. Les héritiers typically studied “secular” disciplines in secular or non-Catholic institutions and didn’t feel compelled to over-emphasize their Catholicism to affirm themselves in their social network, in their cultural environs, or in the Church. They didn’t worry too much about having a good career in the Church because their social capital, their intellectual formation, and their emotional investment were not tied to the Church alone.

The second type of bishop—whom the authors refer to as “les oblats”—came from more humble backgrounds. Less confident of their Catholic identity and their role in society, they thus dedicated themselves to the institution of the Church, studying theology only, and only in an ecclesiastical setting. They were prone to making statements not only vis-à-vis modernity but also vis-à-vis the Church establishment. With Catholicism providing entry into a new social realm, les oblats became, according to the authors, “zealots” and administrators whose deep care for the institutional Church sprang from the fact that the institutional Church was almost all they had.

Bourdieu and Saint Martin detected a rapid change in the French episcopate between the 1930s and the 1970s, with social background shaping its culture, even if not in a determining way. It is a fact that the 20th century was the first century in modern Church history in which members of the European aristocracy (in the traditional sense of the term) no longer had privileged access to the episcopacy. Yet some remained, and some still do: Cardinal Christoph von Schoenborn of Vienna (one of the most prominent students of Joseph Ratzinger, a fine theologian, and now a backer of Pope Francis) is the descendant of one of the most prominent families in European Church history. His complete name is Christoph Maria Michael Hugo Damian Peter Adalbert Graf von Schönborn-Wiesentheid.

How to apply the analysis of Bourdieu and Saint Martin to the episcopate of today?

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The Fall of the House of Neuhaus

Back in 1991, the late Richard John Neuhaus penned a now-famous op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, in which he argued that Pope John Paul II’s latest social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, represented a decisive break with the past—a development of doctrine, even. The new encyclical, proclaimed Neuhaus, was nothing less than a “ringing endorsement of the market economy.” He went on to argue that Catholics who defended democratic socialism or a “third way” between capitalism and socialism were in “serious error.” He then wagged his finger at the US bishops’ pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, proclaiming it “unrepresentative of the Church’s authorative teaching.”

With the instincts of a seasoned politician, Neuhaus understood the importance of defining the narrative from the outset. He actually broke the encyclical’s embargo to do this, a serious ethical breach.

In this, Neuhaus had a team of supporters. George Weigel, for instance, echoed Neuhaus’s claim that this encyclical was part of a hermeneutic of discontinuity. “Centesimus Annus thus marks a decisive break with the curious materialism that has characterized aspects of modern Catholic social teaching since Leo XIII,” he opined back in 1992. There was no ambiguity: the encyclical marked a “new departure in Catholic social thought.” Ten years later, Weigel was still proclaiming that Centesimus Annus “set the social doctrine of the Church on a new path by its endorsement of the free economy.”

Michael Novak also joined the chorus at the time: “The encyclical Centesimus Annus does what many of us had long hoped some church authority would do: it captures the spirit and essence of the American experiment in political economy,” he proclaimed. “Thus Pope John Paul II has brought economic liberty…into Catholic social teaching.”

And Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute weighed in too: “Centesimus Annus represents the beginnings of a shift away from the static zero-sum economic world view that led the Church to be suspicious of capitalism and to argue for wealth redistribution as the only moral response to poverty.”

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'Prophecy Without Contempt': Watch Cathleen Kaveny, Peter Steinfels & Bishop Robert McElroy in Conversation

On Monday night in New York, Commonweal hosted “Prophecy Without Contempt,” a panel on religious discourse in the public square. Commonweal columnist Cathleen Kaveny, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, and former Commonweal editor and longtime contributor Peter Steinfels took up the question: Can religious speech bring dialogue and reconciliation, instead of division and resentment? Many people joined us in person for the lively and informative discussion that unfolded, and many more streamed the event live. If you weren’t able to be with us, or if you want to watch the discussion again, you can do so here. And feel free to keep the conversation going in comments.

In the Borough of Former Churches

Walk down almost any block in the part of Brooklyn where I live and it’s possible to see a building that once had a religious connection now being used for something else. Arches and spires are obvious indications of former houses of worship, but sometimes a Latin inscription above the lintel or a stone cross on the roof are the only evidence of original purpose. One statistic says twenty Brooklyn churches have been converted into condominiums over the past twenty years, but the scope and pace of redevelopment makes that count seem conservative, or outdated. In the few square blocks around me there are at least five such conversions, of varying degrees of luxury. Some years ago an acquaintance of mine, much bolder than I, confronted a resident leaving one of these buildings. “So how does it feel living in a deconsecrated church?” she demanded. No response was forthcoming—an exhibit of self-restraint, I think now.

I’ve officially lived just over half my life in what is still called the borough of churches, and, full disclosure, my wife and I even once looked at an apartment cantilevered into the sanctuary of a stately stone structure on what realtors still call “a lovely tree-lined street.” We’d just had our first child; we liked the neighborhood; we didn’t want to move to New Jersey. If the place was overpriced then, there’s no way to describe it now. And anyway, how would it have felt to live in a deconsecrated church?

Conversion and reuse is nothing new, obviously, and it’s not just churches—the structure too expensive to maintain, the lot too valuable to hold onto—that have come to function as something else. Parish schools and rectories, convents and hospitals: these also succumb to prevailing demographic and economic pressures, or, depending on your outlook, are made monetizable. People with ties to the community once defined by such places will naturally feel different about this than those who are seeking a home in a coveted neighborhood with good schools; both see it differently from the developer who’s swooped in to tap the financial exponentialities.

Novelist Colm Tóibín has said it was the very sense of the Irish having disappeared from these streets that helped him render so indelibly the environs of 2009’s Brooklyn (the film version of which was released last year)—that and having made himself a regular at a nearby church's 9 a.m. Sunday Mass. Just over a century ago the immediate neighborhood held the largest single concentration of Italians in the country, but by 1998, in the phrasing of the official history of the local parish, “many had left the railroad apartments of South Brooklyn for the lawns and pitched roofs in Long Island, Staten Island, [and] New Jersey.”

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The Road to Rome, by Way of Macedonia

Referring to the Vatican, English Catholic apologist Rev. Ronald Knox reputedly offered this caution: “Better not look too closely into the engine room.” In other words, best to behold the majestic barque of Peter from some distance, rather than exposing oneself to how the leaky vessel actually operates, for that way lies disillusionment and the road to apostasy. Sound advice, it would seem, and I’ve followed it religiously for nearly sixty-five years, visiting Italy twice but somehow managing to avoid Rome. (Like every literary wannabe, I’m a fool for Venice.)

That came to an end in December, thanks to an invitation to a conference on the persecution of Christians held at the Pontifical Urban University just outside the Vatican. I hope to write more on that important topic in the future. But first an initial report on some encounters during my travels.

At the very start, a certain missionary zeal marked my pilgrimage, though I personally could not lay claim to any such enthusiasm. Standing in line at JFK to board our Alitalia flight, I couldn’t help but notice an especially clean-cut young man in the line next to me. He was very carefully put together, wearing a sweater and neatly knotted tie under a smart-looking gray sports coat. His slacks were dark and his shoes polished; his jaw square and his brow unfurrowed. Pinned to his sports coat was a plastic badge, the sort a doctor might wear. I was intrigued, but could not make out the writing. The mystery was soon solved. Unprompted, the young man began a conversation with an older gentleman, an Italian, in front of him in line. “This is my first trip abroad,” the young man said in a clear voice. “I’m eighteen years old. I just graduated from high school. I’m going to Macedonia.” Needless to say, this caught my attention, since Macedonia had been in the news for having closed its borders to refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq. Was the kid serious, or merely oblivious? It seemed unlikely that he had relatives in Macedonia.

“Excuse me sir,” the young man continued, the Italian gentleman now somewhat perplexed. “Have you heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? You know, the Mormons? I’m from Utah, and I’m going to Macedonia as a missionary. Would you like to know more about my church?”

The old man, as well as others within earshot, smiled with benevolent amusement, but none took up the young man on his offer. I assume that when boarding a jet for a four-thousand-mile trip over a vast ocean, one’s most atavistic religious instincts take hold. I certainly reach for my rosary. Do young Mormons immediately start honing their missionary pitch? Still, I was fascinated and even impressed with the teenager’s forthrightness. He seemed guileless, as eager to get down to business as St. Paul was to convert the uncircumcised. At eighteen I was barely able to tie my own shoes.

I was also humbled. About the last thing I imagine myself doing is offering a brief for the glories of Roman Catholic Church to a perfect stranger.

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Trump, Berlusconi & the Church

The rise of Donald Trump among Republican presidential candidates has led many to compare him with my fellow Italian Silvio Berlusconi (see Frank Bruni and others). There are indeed similarities between the two. But a big difference is that Berlusconi had no real opponents within the center-right in Italy in the first decisive elections after the end of the Cold War, in March 1994, which he won after a blitzkrieg campaign that lasted only about ten weeks (but which he had prepared in secret for a few months). The Christian-Democratic party had since the momentous election of 1948 come to dominate the political system that pivoted around a Catholic political elite until the early 1990s, and Berlusconi came to dominate the Italian political system (as prime minister and then as leader of the opposition) for the following twenty years.

But more relevant than the similarities and differences between Trump and Berlusconi is the importance of the Church’s attitude regarding the rise of these populist, demagogic financiers in democratic elections.

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Martin Sheen's Spiritual Activism

I was a student at Fordham when Martin Sheen came to screen 1983’s In the King of Prussia, a hastily and inexpensively produced “film” shot on video about the Ploughshares Eight. A friend active in social-justice issues, knowing I was a fan of Sheen for his performances in Badlands and Apocalypse Now, encouraged me to attend the daytime event. Certainly the organizers must have been counting at least a little bit on Sheen’s celebrity appeal, but as I recall the screening was lightly attended. As for the film—well, Sheen’s performance as a judge in the re-enacted trial of the group that entered a General Electric plant in 1980 and damaged nosecones designed for nuclear warheads doesn’t quite match the work he did for Terrence Malick or Francis Ford Coppola. That said, the appearances in the film of Molly Rush, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and the rest of the Ploughshares Eight did leave an impression. So did Sheen’s evident interest in social justice and other issues—which my mere fandom at the time had not previously admitted the possibility of.

Though still more partial to Sheen as Kit Caruthers and Capt. Benjamin Willard than as Jed (The West Wing) Bartlet or Thomas (The Way) Avery, I’ve since continued to follow his faith-driven activism. It’s what prompted me to catch up with his appearance last week on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast. Now, I’m not much for Tippet’s style of interviewing, but this wasn’t such a problem with the garrulous Sheen on hand.

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Family Meals

In yesterday’s audience Pope Francis continued his catechesis on the family by talking about family meals where, he said, people share not only food but affection, stories, events. He regards this element of life-together as a reliable thermometer by which to measure the health of relationships: if something’s going wrong, if there’s some hidden wound, this is quickly recognized at the table. “A family that hardly ever eats together, or in which people don’t talk but watch television or a smartphone, is not much of a family.” We are in danger of losing an important Christian symbol. 

"Christianity has a special vocation to life-together, everybody knows that. The Lord Jesus liked to teach at table, and he sometimes represented the Kingdom of God as a festive banquet. He also chose the table to leave the disciples his spiritual testament–he did this at supper–concentrated in the memorial of his Sacrifice, the gift of his Body and his Blood as the food and drink of salvation, which nourish true and lasting love.

"In this perspective we can say that the family is “at home” at Mass, precisely because it brings its own experience of life-together and opens it up to the grace of a universal life-together, of God’s love for the world. Sharing in the Eucharist, the family is purified of the temptation to close in upon itself; strengthened in love and fidelity, it broadens the boundaries of its own fellowship according to the heart of Christ."

It is hard today to recover the value of family meals. “People talk at table; people listen at table.” There’s no egoistic silence–everybody doing his own thing, watching TV or on the computer, and people aren’t talking.

I grew up in a large family, and it was rare when there were fewer than ten people around our dining room table. And, God knows, we talked!

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The Question of the Synod’s ‘Reception’

The “synodal process” as defined by Francis has become one of the markers of his pontificate. Until now, the concept of “reception” of the synod was not applied to synods, but mostly reserved for Vatican II and for the ecumenical councils—an ongoing process that is measured in decades and generations, not in months or years. But in fact it’s appropriate to talk about the “reception” of the synod recently concluded, which had something of a conciliar feel: free and honest debates, no scripted talking points, and no pre-cooked final report.

The Synod of Bishops as an institution is just fifty years old, and there is no track record of the reception of synods (the first one was celebrated in 1967), except maybe the Extraordinary Synod of 1985 on the reception of Vatican II. For all the other synods we can talk only of the reception of the apostolic exhortations that followed—documents that were not necessarily the fruit of synodal discussions, and certainly not the fruit of a two-year long synodal process like the one most recently concluded. The reception of synods before Francis was in the hands of an episcopate largely shaped—that is, appointed—by the pope who wrote the exhortation. The situation today is quite different.

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Bishop Barron's Evolving Tolerance

Intervening on the Douthat controversy, Bishop Robert Barron has urged his fellow Catholics to recognize that the Church has always been a place of great controversy--and pleads with us all for more engagement with and tolerance of each other's ideas. In an essay entitled, "Ross Douthat and the Catholic Academy," he writes: "The letter to the Times is indicative indeed of a much wider problem in our intellectual culture, namely, the tendency to avoid real argument and to censor what makes us, for whatever reason, uncomfortable."  Nice.  Broad-minded. 

Mmm. Just for kicks, I googled "Barron" and "Dowd." And the google was not disappointed. It highlighted an essay entitled "Why It's Okay to Be Against Heresy and For Imposing One's Views on Others"--right next to a picture of Maureen Dowd. While many columnists don't write their own column titles, I think it is safe to attribute this title to Bishop Barron, since it's on his own website.

His view toward open-minded discussion is not quite the same in the older essay, at least on the surface. Barron writes: "The Catholic Church is not a Voltairean debating society; it is a community that stands for some very definite things, which implies, necessarily, that it sets its back against very definite things."

What's changed? I like to think it's the grace of office. 

Ross Douthat, Vatican II Catholic

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is both a political conservative and a self-described “orthodox” Catholic. Very orthodox. Really, really, orthodox. At least in the abstract. Less so, he winningly admits, in temperament. Nevertheless, he has taken great exception to the direction in which Pope Francis, that wily Jesuit, is taking the church. Douthat is especially distressed over the Synod on the Family and the pope’s advocacy for some reform that would allow divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received an annulment to receive Communion. He thinks making accommodations to the “sexual revolution” will more or less destroy the church. He goes further, suggesting that those in favor of such reforms are flirting with…well, heresy. He’s coy about employing the term, but his meaning is clear.

His October 18 column, “The Plot to Change Catholicism,” went so far as to cast doubt on Pope Francis’s and Cardinal Walter Kasper’s fidelity to church teaching. Douthat is certain that what Jesus said about divorce requires little interpretation, and that the church’s teaching in this area is unchanging, unambiguous, and absolute. In making that case, Douthat seems willfully blind to the accommodations the church has made for marital failure with both the Petrine and Pauline privileges and in the annulment process. If Jesus’s teaching on marriage is so obvious, one could add, why did it take the church a thousand years to conclude that marriage was a sacrament? Finally, if the church over time came to embrace that development of doctrine, why is any further development out of bounds?

Douthat’s unfortunate column has prompted some prominent Catholic theologians and scholars to issue a statement questioning his “professional qualifications” for writing about such technical doctrinal and theological questions. Several of the authors and signatories to the statement are valued contributors to Commonweal. We sympathize with their exasperation with how Douthat presents the conservative take on these questions as the only “orthodox” position. The Catholic tradition is larger and more multifarious than Douthat imagines, or wishes to imagine. His suggestion that those who favor reform are simply betraying the tradition and Protestantizing the church is especially troubling.

But we must disagree with Douthat’s critics on whether he has standing to comment on these controversies or advocate forcefully for his view. Since the Second Vatican Council, it has been the right of lay Catholics to make their voices heard even on doctrinal and theological controversies. Indeed, it must be said that Douthat’s engagement with Catholicism is far more nuanced and better informed than that of Frank Bruni or Maureen Dowd, two more liberal Catholics who often comment on Catholicism for the Times.   

In a recent lecture on the crisis of conservative Catholicism brought on by this papacy, Douthat pronounced the Second Vatican Council a failure. Yet it was that “failed” gathering of bishops that urged Catholic laypersons such as Douthat to take active responsibility for the church. Douthat is more of a Vatican II Catholic than he suspects. In that same talk, Douthat admitted that conservative Catholics need a more robust theory of the development of doctrine. At the very least, he said, there needs to be a conservative answer to John Noonan’s A Church That Can and Cannot Change. Not really. Judge Noonan’s book is a conservative case for doctrinal development.

Paul Ryan, the Right's Kind of Family Man

Mark Shields, appearing on PBS Newshour Friday night , expressed genuine respect for Paul Ryan’s desire to preserve the time he has with his family should he become, as seems likely, House speaker next week. “Admirably,” Shields said, “he wants to spend time with his children, who are in their formative and teen years.” Sympathies dispensed with, he then made the obvious observation, with a dose of sarcasm for good measure. “Would that he would extend this to all parents. And I’m sure he will, now that he’s about to be speaker.”

Paid family and parental leave, as many know, is something the Republican Party has consistently opposed. When President Obama appealed for family-leave legislation in his 2015 State of the Union address, the GOP either laughed it off with ignorant jokes about “European economies” or made their familiar noises about “over-regulation” and “federal mandates” suffocating American businesses. That line of thinking stretches back pretty far. For illustrative purposes, let’s look only to 1993, when the Family Medical and Leave Act–which mandated twelve weeks leave, unpaid, for illness and a new child–became law under the Clinton administration. “America’s business owners are a resilient bunch, but let there be no doubt, [this legislation] will be the demise of some,” predicted one lawmaker. “And as that occurs, the light of freedom will grow dimmer.” That was Republican Representative John Boehner of Ohio, whom Ryan is about to replace as speaker. If nothing else, the consistency of the messaging across the decades can be appreciated.

Ryan has not only internalized that messaging, of course, but owing to acknowledged policy prowess has perhaps more than any GOP lawmaker worked to enshrine such miserliness.

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Dorothy Day & the Gravediggers vs. Cardinal Spellman

Over at the New York Times's Taking Notes blog, Teresa Tritch has retold a fascinating episode in American Catholic history involving one of the four Americans Pope Francis upheld as examples to follow in his speech to Congress, Dorothy Day.

In the winter of 1949 some 250 gravediggers who were employed by the Archdiocese at Calvary Cemetery went on strike, demanding a forty-hour work week (they'd been working forty-eight hours) and an increase in hourly wages. Cardinal Francis Spellman repeatedly denied their requests and work stopped for months as "strikers picketed at the cemetery gates" and "unburied coffins were placed in temporary graves under tarpaulins."

The archdiocese initially responded by disparaging the union leaders and threatening to fire striking workers. Several weeks into the strike — with nearly 1,200 coffins unburied — it resorted to strike-breaking by bringing in seminarians to bury the dead. The New York Times reported that the cardinal said that the union was communist-dominated and that the strikes were “unjustified and immoral” and an affront to the “innocent dead and their bereaved families.” He said he was “proud” to be a strikebreaker because the duty to bury the dead outweighed laws against strikebreaking.

Enter Dorothy Day, who not only advocated for a raise in the gravediggers' wages but questioned the cardinal's moral judgment.

In a letter on March 4, 1949, [Day] said the strike was about the workers’ “dignity as men, their dignity as workers, and the right to have a union of their own, and a right to talk over their grievances.” She endorsed a wage high enough to help the gravediggers raise their families and meet “high prices and exorbitant rents.” She asked the cardinal to go to the union leaders, “meet their demands, be their servant as Christ was the servant of his disciples, washing their feet.”

Only after the stikers dropped their affiliation with the "communist" union (United Cemetery Workers of the Congress of Industrial Organizations) and joined the American Federation of Labor was the strike settled, with the archdiocese increasing a 3 percent raise in wages to 8 percent, and the gravediggers continuing to work forty-eight hours a week. As Tritch concludes:

An editorial in the Catholic Worker in April 1949 said that from the start, the paper had said “the strike was justified” and, despite the outcome, “we say it still.” It also noted that the strike could have been avoided if the workers had been treated “as human beings and brothers.”

The same could be said of strikers today, including the employees of federal contractors and fast food workers in the Fight for $15, who want decent pay from powerful employers and bargaining power in their dealings with them.

It is right and just for Pope Francis to urge Americans to recognize the greatness of Dorothy Day. By elevating her, he elevates her cause: dignity for working men and working women.

The whole thing is worth a read.