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What's the Point of It All?

It's been a tough week. Based on my facebook feed, I think if all my friends got togther, a bar brawl would break out. Meanwhile, I am subjected to truly appalling displays of Catholic "patriotism" like this one of Mary wrapped in an American flag. Amidst all the ongoing political debate, I am looking forward to the encyclical on faith to remind us of the point of it all, and am happy to be reading an advance copy of Gary Anderson’s new book, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition.

A follow-up to his invaluable book on the evolution of the concept of sin in the biblical tradition, Anderson shows how Second Temple Judaism evolved a concept of a “treasury in heaven” that is the fruit of almsgiving, which is vividly adopted in the New Testament.

Anderson’s book is meant to allay the (understandable) concerns about such language that have been raised since the Reformation. His crucial claim is that the notion of a “treasury in heaven” is not supposed to be about doing good deeds for a reward, but rather is “a declaration of belief about the world and the God who created it.” That is, in Anderson’s words, “the important point was not so much what they would gain from charity but what acts of charity say about the character of the world God has created.” At its heart, almsgiving is “a sacramental act” which promises that we actually “meet God in the face of the poor.” The sacramental ontology of the poor is meant explicitly to be a complement to the Eucharist, and it is constantly presented as an antidote to the “false promises” that come from storing up wealth and possessions for oneself, under the illusion that one will then have security. Security comes instead from faith in God and solidarity with the poor.

Anderson’s book wonderfully manifests a reminder of the sacramental ontology, the flowing together and reconciling of heaven and earth, that lies at the heart of Catholicism, and which is supposed to link liturgical and moral practice. So in reading Michael Sean Winters’ review of a new book on the decline of religion, I was provoked by a quote from the book where its author says directly and without apparent concern, “The point of being a Christian is to save one’s soul and to get to heaven. Many tests and requirements might be involved along one’s earthly path to that ultimate goal – good works, attendance in church, the practicing of virtues and the resisting of vices.”

Ugh. The view that Christians act out of a motivation to save one’s personal soul for the afterlife somewhere else is not a sacramental ontology, but its opposite. We could have wished that such a view would have been decisively set aside among Catholics in light of Henri de Lubac’s anti-individualist masterpiece, Catholicism, and its profound endorsement in Benedict XVI’s (overlooked) encyclical Spe Salvi. With the promised appearance of Francis’ largely-Benedict-written encyclical on faith this Friday, it is worth recalling the central claims made in Spe Salvi about what the Christian hope is. Benedict writes, in response to criticisms of Christian hope as “individualistic”:

Drawing upon the vast range of patristic theology, de Lubac was able to demonstrate that salvation has always been considered a “social” reality. Indeed, the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of a “city” (cf. 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14) and therefore of communal salvation. Consistently with this view, sin is understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division. Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is. Hence “redemption” appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers…. This real life, towards which we try to reach out again and again, is linked to a lived union with a “people”, and for each individual it can only be attained within this “we”. It presupposes that we escape from the prison of our “I”, because only in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself—to God.

Benedict goes on to offer his own diagnosis of why Christian hope has been so overshadowed by secular progress:

How could the idea have developed that Jesus's message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?.... we must also acknowledge that modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task—even if it has continued to achieve great things in the formation of man and in care for the weak and the suffering. It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love. This applies even in terms of this present world. …

Neither Benedict nor I am interested in denying the resurrection. The point is rather to deny that Christianity is somehow an individual project directed at some kind of achievement of “salvation” in the future. Christianity is about love – what the New Testament displays to us over and over again is the claim: Christianity is about God reconciling the world to Himself in Christ. This reconciliation is both a future promise and an already-realized possibility, and it is not one that happens simply internally in individual souls. In both present and future forms, it is a social reality. It happens importantly when we both sign and effect this solidarity in the Eucharist and in generosity to the poor. If Christianity is simply an individual soul-saving operation, it is no wonder that generosity to the poor is neglected or (perhaps even worse) made contingent on some kind of judgment about the poor’s “worthiness.” As Anderson’s book shows, the whole point of the enterprise of generosity in biblical texts is that it is risky. It doesn’t come with a guaranteed outcome. It is animated by faith and hope, not by what is seen empirically.

The depiction of the essence of Christianity as a self-centered project of maintaining “afterlife insurance” is not only biblically implausible, but theologically disastrous. It embroils us in endless, unsolvable problems about supposed conflicts between God’s mercy and God’s justice, between “works” and “faith,” and (as Anderson explains) between eudaimonistic, teleological ethics and disinterested Kantian duty. It makes the Christian God come off as a surly grade-school teacher “testing” his/her students and, when necessary, threatening to fail them. This is a great way for Christianity to lose even more credibility.

Elsewhere, Joseph Ratzinger quite strikingly suggests that Christianity can misunderstand itself from two ends – it can understand itself purely in worldly-instrumental terms, all about pragma, or it can mimic ancient religious cults, and descend into mythos. It can, in short, be reduced either to ethics or to mystical fantasies. I sometimes think/worry that our debates in Catholicism tend in these two directions, even if they try not to arrive there. But the alternative is not some kind of a mix of mythos and pragma; rather it is faith in what Ratzinger calls logos, evidenced in the early Christian move to ally with the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition as an alternative to both these tendencies. It is a confession that the world is fundamentally sacramental, and that religion is neither simply pragmatic ethics nor gnostic fantasy. It is concerned with manifesting genuine reality, which is love. The logos is love, and God is acting through Christ to bring about this reconciliation, even when death threatens love, for love is stronger than death. This is our faith; if we don't see that, we'll just all keep arguing.


About the Author

David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of He is the author of The Vice of Luxury (2015), Walking God's Earth: The Environment and Christian Ethics (2014), and Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008). In fall 2016, he is starting a position at the Catholic University of America.



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What a marvelous post - thank you.  It reminds me that the parable of the sheep and goats is popularly understood as an allegory of individual judgment, but the text indicates that it is nations, not individuals, who stand before the throne. Entire peoples must love.

I agree with Jim Pauwels. An excellent, thought-provoking post. And it dovetails very nicely with Fr. Imbelli's post on the Pope's admonition to touch the wounds of Christ in the world's poor and suffering.

I'm going to read the book, but I'm a little puzzled by this post. After all, there can't be a "we" unless there's a "Thou" and an "I," and one would like to think that the "we" is not purchased at the price of individual selves. "I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in." That states it nicely, I think.  The goal is a communal enjoyment when all the saints have marched in, but I'm the one who decides whether I'm in their number. In that sense aspiring to salvation within that great "communion of holy ones" is definitely "an individual project."  I think the contrast is overdrawn here. Christianity is inescapably communal both now and, as we hope, in the future. But community and person are not antithetical. 

Do the metaphors of "treasury in heaven" and "afterlife insurance" differ so greatly that the one may be praised and the other dismissed? 

And Jim Pauwels:  What are nations except collectivities of individuals?  How could it be that "it is nations, not individuals, who stand before the throne"? 

Fr. Komonchak-- I appreciate the comment, and wouldn't want to saddle Anderson with the contrast I go on to suggest in the post. Certainly it's true that community shouldn't be stressed to the extent of rejecting any sense of individual call and response. (One can think of the rich young man story, for example.) But I do think we have a tendency to misunderstand identity in primarily individual terms, such that our choice to belong somehow happens in a logically prior way to the community itself. There is a proper way in which the community makes the individual, even if the individual also ultimately can choose separation from the community. De Lubac contrasts the Church understood as convocatio and as congregatio - the former suggests the priority of the community's call, whereas the latter suggests an assembling of a group who have individually come to some kind of decision. I become an "I" by the participation in the "we" - an image that is probably strengthed by the death/new life dynamics of baptism. The "we" makes the "I," and it is difficult to know how that understanding can be maintained if the "we" is something that is only achieved in the future, if "I" do the right things.

At its heart, almsgiving is “a sacramental act” which promises that we actually “meet God in the face of the poor.” 

Agree, but the notion of what is appropriate almsgiving changes with the times and the places.  E.g., my Ancestors may have stood at the rich man's gate hoping for donations of his trenchers and undrunk wine, but no one stands at my gate waiting for the almoner and the butler.  So I have to find another way to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty.  In Russia, after a disaster, those who wish to help the afflicted go to the hospitals and give them money directly.  (Not relying on organized charities.)

Peter Brown, in his fabulous new book, Through the Eye of a Needle:  Wealth, the Fall of Rome and the Making of Christianity in the West, explains how the idea of charity changed radically in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries.  E.g., instead of sponsoring games for the delight of the citizenry, a rich Catholic would be exhorted by Augustine (et al.) to give to the poor.  (Search term "charity.")

Dr. Cloutier,

I think it would be good form to site the name of the book and the author whose quote you are using as the counerpoint for your main argument.  Linking to Mr. Winter's review of said book doesn't quite make it, at least for me.


What are nations except collectivities of individuals?  How could it be that "it is nations, not individuals, who stand before the throne"? 

Fr. K - I'm just summarizing the scene-setting of the passage, which is given in Matthew 25:31-32:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats."

The only possible antecedents of "them", it seems to me, are "nations"  or "angels", and surely the latter isn't intended.

I agree that nations are collectives of individuals, as are a number of other collectives: families, clans, tribes, and so on.  But "nations" are what is named in the passage.

Here is how the NAB footnotes this passage, which it entitles, "The Judgment of the Nations":

"The conclusion of the discourse, which is peculiar to Matthew, portrays the final judgment that will accompany the parousia. Although often called a “parable,” it is not really such, for the only parabolic elements are the depiction of the Son of Man as a shepherd and of the righteous and the wicked as sheep and goats respectively (Mt 25:3233). The criterion of judgment will be the deeds of mercy that have been done for the least of Jesus’ brothers (Mt 25:40). A difficult and important question is the identification of these least brothers. Are they all people who have suffered hunger, thirst, etc. (Mt 25:3536) or a particular group of such sufferers? Scholars are divided in their response and arguments can be made for either side. But leaving aside the problem of what the traditional material that Matthew edited may have meant, it seems that a stronger case can be made for the view that in the evangelist’s sense the sufferers are Christians, probably Christian missionaries whose sufferings were brought upon them by their preaching of the gospel. The criterion of judgment for all the nations is their treatment of those who have borne to the world the message of Jesus, and this means ultimately their acceptance or rejection of Jesus himself; cf. Mt 10:40, “Whoever receives you, receives me.”"

Nations, as collectivities of individuals, are more than the sum of those individuals; nations have a social, collective identity that is expressed in culture, law, government, economic activity and so on and that transcends what single individuals do as individuals.  

I take the point of your comment to David to be that there is a critical personal and individual aspect to discipleship, and I don't disagree with that.  It is as individuals that we accept the call to discipleship - and enter ever more deeiply into the collectivity we call the church.  There are a couple of erroneous interpretatations to this dynamic: that the collectivity is responsible for almost everything, and the individual for almost nothing; or that the individual is responsible for almost everything, and the collectivity for almost nothing.  Of these two possibilities, the latter would seem to be more prevalent today and pose the greater pastoral problem for modern believers.  Or so it seems to me.


That "Mary in the Flag" thing is too awesome. It should be distributed again the feastday of St. Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Hooooo!

Prof. Cloutier:  

I think that, existentially, the community comes first, the "we" before the "I'; in fact, the "I" emerges from within a prior "we," that is, in response and reaction to the parents, families, communities, etc. within which we are born and reared. I agree, therefore, that "the community makes the individual." But there is also such a thing as what Bernard Lonergan called an existential moment in which one discovers for oneself that it is up to oneself to decide for oneself what to make of oneself, and part of that self-constitution could very well be deciding which communtiies one will belong to. Among them there may be the Christian Church which, in the persons of some of its members, inviites one to enter its communion. But that Church (Lubac's convocatio), concretely, consists of the men and women who constitute an assembly of believers (Lubac's congregati), that is, of people who have each come to make the commitment of faith that constitutes the Church. (I think that de Lubac overlooked the fact that any convocatio is the congregatio made possible by an earlier convocatio.)  It is not by just "some kind of decision" that I become a member of the Church, but by the decision of faith and by all the other decisions by which I try to live a life of Christian hope and love. Both now and in the future, whether I am part of the "We" certainly does depend on whether or not "I do the right things," that is, believe, hope. and love.

Jim: Certainly there is such a thing as a "collective identity," but it is also very difficult to describe and define much less to convert or to change except by addressing individuals.  Explain to me how a nation  would stand under the last judgment and suffer one or two of the fates described in the parable.  "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire," Czechs will hear, while their former fellow nationals, the Slovaks, will hear, "Come, ye blessed of my Father: possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." My saintly grandmother would probably have agreed with this scenrio, but I have some problems with it. 

There are good philosophical reasons to resist assigning unqualified priority to either the individual person or to the human communities into which he or she is incorporated by birth. We rightly say that one person is, at bottom, unsubstitutible for by another person. Eachis unique. But we rightly also say, that I can make sense of any paarticular person and what he or she does by recognizing that he or she is essentially a member of a community or society. For, example, Robinson Crusoe is unique, but he is a unique member of a group. Or in other terms, Adam without Eve could not have made any sense of himself or of anything else.

I have to leave to others of you the work of saying how either an individual  or a community is related to God or to the Church.

Just as focusing on one's self can result in the prideful isolation of, say, the Quietists  -- "pure as angels, proud as devils", so focusing on the community can result in the pride and failure of tribalism of all sorts.  I think the latter is perhaps the more dangerous focus because individuals who identify themselves with their groups often claim the virtues of the group's heros when the individuals are in fact just passive by-standers or cheer leaders to whatever virtues the leaders might posses.   Consider, for instance, the triumphalism of Catholics --  "WE don't behave like that!".  Sure, there were many great Catholic saints, but their sanctity and wisdom doesn't  sanctify me or make me wise, even if I'd like to pretend to myself that it does. 

Further, self-criticism is a necessity whether it be criticism of the individual or of one's own group.  Unfortunately, it's easier to criticizee the *others* in our own group while neglecting our own particular sins and mistakes. 

I think JAk is right about the priority of the individual at least in time.  Reflection on the family shows us most clearly that the very existence of the whole is dependent on the existence of the members.  So I say  we need to begin by focusing on our own spiritual status and then move on to practices which encourage us to participate wisely and virtuously in the group.  

Fr. K - beats me; it's been a problem passage for me for a long time.  I admit I may be the only one :-)

Here is the only way I can make sense of it.  To put a negative cast on it: my rule of thumb regarding social sin is that 'collective guilt' must somehow translate to one or more instances of individual guilt, with individual culpability being proportional to the responsibility that an individual has to influence or direct the actions of the collectivity.  Thus, in assessing guilt for the firebombing of Dresden, Eisenhower and Marshall and Roosevelt are more culpable than my parents and grandparents, who were living American citizens then but were nowhere near Dresden and were in no position to stop it or influence it (and in my grandparents' case may not even have voted for Roosevelt, although certainly they supported the war effort); in assessing guilt for the abuse of children by clergy, the abusing clergy and diocesan officials who countenanced and enabled it are more culpable than the people in the pews of my parish; and so on.

I think we're individuals first - when we die, we die alone and the relationship we have with Jesus/God is between two "individuals", so to speak.  As for almsgiving being some kind of sacramental act, I can speak only for myself, but I give money to charity because I feel empathy for those who need help.  What will Catholicism ever do if eventually the world is able to do away with poverty?

sacramental act

In Scripture did Jesus send groups or individuals to Heaven and Hell?  I was taught that individuals, not groups, would be judged in the end.  

I'm afraid I think this modern notion of "group guilt" is nonsense.  Yes, the dogma of Original Sin (which belongs to all individuals) presents some theological problems, but what does "Original Sin" really mean?    

What will Catholicism ever do if eventually the world is able to do away with poverty?

Jesus said that the poor we will always have with us.  

And, at the risk of sounding as though I am blaming the victim, some causes of poverty are self-inflicted (as human beings are fallen and so some of them make mistakes and commit sins which impoverish them and/or others), and so poverty may be partly impervious to whatever fixes the world is able to cook up.  Which doesn't mean we should not do our best to alleviate it.

Or maybe, when poverty ends, the world will end and Jesus will come back.  Who knows?


Good essay. I am, among those, who see that the role of the individual in the Catholic tradition seems to be minimized in favour of emphasizing the communal dimension.

I think that it is true that there can be such a privatizing of faith that one sees one's responsibilty to only oneself and not in being open to others. At the same time, as has been mentioned, just participating in the body of believers is not guarantee of salvation. Nor is simply supporting foundations and groups. One does need to take an individual, personal responsibility towards others. Pope Francis alluded to this in a sermon posted here just the other day:

And Jesus asks us to take a leap of faith, towards Him, but through these His wounds. 'Oh, great! Let's set up a foundation to help everyone and do so many good things to help '. That's important, but if we remain on this level, we will only be philanthropic. We need to touch the wounds of Jesus, we must caress the wounds of Jesus, we need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness, we have to kiss the wounds of Jesus, and this literally. Just think of what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed

I think when he says "we", implied in that "we", is the individual person. I won't reiterate all that has been said and I agree with much of it. I do think that the Catholic tradition contained within itself a strong monastic thrust which was, without question, highly individualistic. Afterall the etymology of monk is "single, solitary".

"The poor will always be with us."

I have to wonder if that's not the way some Catholics want it to be.: the foot dragging by conservative Catholics on social programs that would help insure economic justice and  erradicate poverty and instead the promotion of private charity that keeps the "almsgivers" in their place of power, and according to some of you guys, gets them into heaven as well ... yuck.

William Byron, S.J., used to say that he'd like to write a book about things that Jesus wishes he hadn't said, and one of them was, "The poor you will always have with you."

Speaking of Pope Benedict's Spe Salvi, there is this statement, somewhat blunter than the point is usually made but definitely not evasive: "No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone." (§48) I have found that useful. It seems to me to be almost as distinctively Catholic as the Real Presence.

Taking a slightly different angle, it seems in recent years that homilists who used to dread to get tangled in the theology of the Trinity have found a friendly harbor in the concept of God as community.

Does an era get the theology that is implicit in its own thinking?  When I was in grad school in the mid 60's I was older than most of the young women in the graduate women's dorm.  I was  impressed even then at how different those young ones were from me.  They seemed to need to act as groups.  Individual action just seemed foreign to their thinking, and group action (think Woodstock?) was the paradigm.  Example:  one night some crazy or drunk or stoned young men very loudly kept trying to break in to the dorm.  Somebody called campus security, but couldn't get through.  So what did the young ones do?  They kept debating among themselves what to do, then finally as a group decided to call the police.  The police didn't come, while the yowling boys continued to try to break down a door.  I finally decided to call a Dean myself hoping to get some action, though it was the middle of the night, and I did.  The young ones were surprised that I'd do something outside of the group's deliberations.  Another indication of their group thinking was, I think, their very attractive appreciation of friendship. I think people of that generation have more close friends than mine did and they seem to try to keep up the group-friendships they form when young.  Anyway, that was my experience.

Maybe the current emphasis on the communal aspects of the Church might be due to the outlook of the younger generation which values group action and group friendship so highly.  





Mr. Blackburn:  How does "the concept of God as community" escape tri-theism?

Let me try once more to say why giving unqualified priority to either the individual or the "we" is a mistake.

On the one hand, it's true that there are no "higier order "agents. Individuals are the only properly so called agents. On the other hand, there is, from a philosophical standpoint, no basis for talking about "the first human action" or the first "human word." Every particular action or word that we can make any sense of has antecedent words or actions. I can conceive of the possibility of some first human motion or performance, but not the first meaningful human action. But if an action properly so callled is necessarily a meaningful performance, then the only actions we can rightly conceive of are actions that fint into a context of prrvious, contemporary or subsequent actions. I.e., every action is part of some human history. Similarly, every human action is part of an interaction. Its intelligibility presupposes the existence of other actors, again, predecessors, contemporaries or successors.

On the question of collective guilt, we can talk about institutioonalized sins that benefit us and that, if we do not do what we can to root them out, then we bear some responsibility for the harms they continue to inflict. Karl Jaspers developed this notion in his "The Question of German Guilt," a reflection on Germany's role in World War II. One can speak of this as "collective guilt" inasmuchas if other people have not yet rooted it out, then I and the rest of us have a responsibility to do so, a responsibility that each of us may shirk.

In other terms, to be a human individual is always to be involved with others in a human history. There is no ahistorical individual.

Every particular action or word that we can make any sense of has antecedent words or actions. I can conceive of the possibility of some first human motion or performance, but not the first meaningful human action. But if an action properly so callled is necessarily a meaningful performance, then the only actions we can rightly conceive of are actions that fint into a context of prrvious, contemporary or subsequent actions. I.e., every action is part of some human history. Similarly, every human action is part of an interaction. Its intelligibility presupposes the existence of other actors, again, predecessors, contemporaries or successors. 

From the point of view of human psychology, I am certain this is true; we interpret an action by categorizing it according to previously-known patterns of behavior.  This is why, when outlier actions is shown to us, we frequently don't know how to interpret it correctly.  For example, many Americans were not only shocked and horrified in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, they were also puzzled: who would want to fly airliners into prominent buildings, and why?  Its full meaning was not readily apparent.   Another example that perhaps is more dramatic is when the space shuttle Challenger exploded; after the midair disintigration, it was not immediately apprehended what had happened, as this CNN newsfeed illustrates.


When Lyndon Johnson announced his War on Poverty, I was astounded at the many people who quoted Jesus's "the poor will always be with you" as if they sincerely believed that trying to alleviate poverty was blasphemous.  

Fr. Komonchak, how does God-as-community escape tri-theism? Well, do we ever escape tri-theism in this life? Do we ever get both God-and-man exactly right for longer than it takes to express the idea? We are dealing with mystery, but we figure out ways to talk about it, whether it's Augustine's kid trying to pour the ocean into a hole in the sand or St. Patrick with the shamrock.

What seems to be floating around in some popular hints for homilists (I am guessing) is an arrangement of some of the sayings of Jesus, mostly from John ("who sees me sees the Father," "I am in the Father, and the Father is in me"), and the picture/concept/idea of the Spirit as the overflowing of the love between the Father and the Son. I've been hearing variations of this on occasions like Trinity Sunday for, I'd say, eight to ten years now. That leaves us with one monotheistic will and three persons packed together so tightly the eye can't separate them. Which, as explanations go, isn't much worse than the others.

One of St. Augustine's metaphors for the Church: 

"Brothers and sisters, think of some feast of the martyrs and of some shrine where crowds flock on certain days for a celebration. Think of those crowds and of how they stir each other up and exhort one another and say, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” And some ask, “Where are we to go?” and they’re told, “To that place, to that shrine.” They talk to one another, and it’s as if, individually on fire, they make a single flame, and that single flame, kindled as their conversation sets them on fire, hurries them toward the shrine, and their holy thoughts make them holy."

Individually on fire, but by their conversation and common purpose they make a single flame. 

What were these bishops thinking distributing that pic?

Let the bishops send that pic to what's left of Catholic countries.

Let the bishops send that pic to what's left of Catholic countries.

Let the bishops send that pic to what's left of Catholic countries.

I'm glad that the link to the photo was giving.  Lately I have been wondering whether my gag reflex is still working.

It is.

Ed Gleason:  What pic? What pic? What pic? What pic?

This picture linked from the Brooklyn Tablet in the original post

Apparently Bishop DiMarzio thought it appropriate to distribute to every parish in the Brooklyn Diocese.

A poor Jewish woman from 1st Century Palestine, made to look like 1940s Hollywood starlet and then wrapped in an American flag. 

Happy Fortnight for Freedom.  Ugh.



Lovely lady dressed in red, white and blue,

Teach us what to pray for:

Lots of dough and lots of stuff

And victory when we go to war?


Was that atrocious photo distributed elsewhere than in Brooklyn and Queens?  Ed Gleason refers to bishops in the plural.  I would like to think that there are not many with such poor aesthetic and theological taste.  But, then again, it is hard to think of any depths of bathos to which devotion to Our Lady will not stoop. Back in the 1970's the Magnificat was being trumpeted in some Latin American quarters as the battle-cry of a first-century revolutionary woman. 

Somehow it reminds me that when Novak, Neuhaus and Weigel were thought to be flying high, unimpressed Romans referred to them as "the star-spangled Trinity." 

Fr J K

my multiple posts are to be blamed on the 'new' Commonweal format and not the bishops. (-:

also the new format has disabled my spell check so now I will appear dumber then usual..

It seems to me a person totally alone cannot sin.  Gladly it is not possible but were it possible for a human being from the moment of birth to the moment of death at an old age to live completely without contact of another living creature I do not know how that person could sin.  Nor do I know how that greatfully theoretical person could love. From my limited view of the world it seems to me love and sin are both intrinsically communal affairs as is God.

Fr. Komonchak-

Scattering the proud in their conceit, casting the mighty from their thrones, lifting up the lowly. filling the hungry with good things,  sending the rich away empty..

Maybe not a "battle cry" in the sense of taking up arms, but words that  come directly from a revolutionary prophetic Jewish tradition, words which announce that the child to be born to this poor woman in occupied Palestine is the incarnation of a God with a preferential option for the poor and the marginalized.  Sounds revolutionary  to me.


The parish where my mother grew up, St. Mary Star of the Sea in Jackson, MI, includes this stained glass window.

It's difficult to see details from the angle at which this picture is taken, but the image is of a queenly Mary.  Grouped about her feet are American soldiers (in doughboy uniforms) on the left, and American Navy sailors and, I think, marines, on the right.  They are bringing wounded men to her.  A religious sister nurse is tending one of them.  One of the soldiers is bearing an American flag.  

The church dates, I think, from the 1920s.  I expect that the image was created in earnest faith.  I find it nearly impossible to believe that such a stained glass window would go into a newly constructed church today - either the artist wouldn't execute it, or the pastor or the diocesan art and environment committee wouldn't approve it.  I can say with certainty, though (as these are my stomping grounds, too), that it reflects a certain stream of popular faith and devotion that persists today.  



Oh, sure, Jim, that stream of popular faith still exists today. And I am old enough to remember when it was stronger and more widespread. But, like that famous painting of George Washington unusually on his knee, at Valley Forge getting advice from God on how to defeat King George IVG, isn't it technically idolatry?

Tom - I'd say that wrapping the Blessed Virgin in the American flag(!) is, if not positively idolatrous, at least really, really off-base.  I'd say that putting an American flag in a sanctuary - a pretty popular thing among a lot of people here in the upper Midwest - may well be an example of idolatry.  This particular stained glass window - I'm not sure.  If it showed Mary overlooking our soldiers mowing down the Germans on the battlefield or some such, that would be a problem.  In this case, these soldiers seem to be kneeling in supplication, and  bringing wounded comrades to her to intercede (that's my take on it, anyway).  Maybe not so bad?


I visited my family in Iowa over the 4th.  We went to mass on the Sunday before and the church was festooned with American flags, including about 30 completely surrounding the base of the altar.

It is one of those old churches with the high altar in the background, and it was awash in flags as well.

When I expressed amazement to my sister and brother-in-law, they looked at me as if to say, "what's the problem?"

Isn't the Brooklyn Diocese, which generated  Patriotic Mary, laso the source of the  "Hipster Jesus" picture that Paul Moses posted about?   

I wonder who does their PR?  And who signs off on it at the Diocese?

I recall the same outrage in here at the appalling and atrocious picture of the crucifix in urine.   Oh, wait.

Mark, your memory would work better if it could tell the difference between a Catholic diocese and an artist trying to be avant garde.

Though I do really like Boy Scout Jesus & Girl Scout Mary. (if you scroll down the link, you can see the holy cards)

These are in my top 3 holy cards; my very favorite is the Guardian Angel watching over the children crossing the rickety bridge. (I think I had the Guardian Angel picture in my room when I was a little girl). 

And maybe wrapping Mary in a flag isn't all that different. She looks kind of like Columbia.


I had noticed that subtext of far too many threads  and comments on this blog was that only the heirarchy is to be blamed, but basedon your comment it seems like you believe it's an unquestioned premise.

Mr. Proska -- interesting juxtaposition of "Starlet Mary Wrapped in a US Flag" and "Piss Christ".  To me they are each provactive and controversial.  Starlet Mary appears to be promoting a nationalist civil religion, American exceptionalism with the blessing of the Blessed Mother.  I find that deeply offensive and in direct contradiction to the univeral "catholicism" of the gospel message.  Maybe there is some other deeper message in that art, but I don't see it.  I'm open to be educated

Many folks like Bill Donohue looked at Piss Christ and immediately (superficially, I submit) thought the only point was to offend believers.  But others (art critic, Sister Wendy, for example) saw a provactive statement about how we treat Christ in our midst today.  Others saw a provactive  view of the incarnation, the kenosis, God becoming human -- willing to enter in the muck, "the piss" of the human condition .

The irony to me is, I find it much easier to place Piss Christ within an orthodox theological tradition than Starlet Mary.



Mark, I would put it differently, of course :-). I have no particular interest in Andres Serrano. I do care about the hierarchy. Serrano can maka a fool of himself any way he wishes. But I get upset when a bishop (or any public Catholic) does a riff on what I once heard from a (slightly deranged) minister who was fighting the godless government (ours), viz., that the middle three letters of JerUSAlem are U.S.A.!

The irony to me is, I find it much easier to place Piss Christ within an orthodox theological tradition than Starlet Mary. 

Jack - "The Book of Mormon" has a big, joyful musical number called, I think, "F*** You, God".  (If you've ever seen the show, this is far from the most outrageously provocative thing in it).  After seeing it, my wife and I agreed that, in fact, there is an orthodox theological tradition in which a believer can rail at God in this way.




Mr. Marth--

Since you're open, my guess is the picture is merely the product of an overly enthusiastic patriotic Catholic, nothing more.    I find it misguided, but hardly "appalling" or "atricious."  So when the congregation sings:

America, America, God shed his grace on thee

And crowned thy good in brotherhood

From sea to shinging sea.

Do we thank God that he did not make us as ignorant as these yahoos among us who actually believe that crap?


I can understand that and would get miffed at that too.   But I also get miffed when people who get miffed at that don’t get miffed at the desecration of a crucifix...even if for the sake of "art."

Mr. Proska-

If you look up the actual lyrics to America the Beautiful you won't find an "ed" on the word crown.

The song is actually admitting the US needs to be crowned with brotherhood (and sisterhood).

It is interesting you assume the word is  "crowned" -- I think many people actually do the same thing and think the song is more triumphalistic than it actually is.

In general song is beseeching God's grace, asking God to mend our country's every flaw, not truimphantly proclaiming our country is some kind of exceptional a priori recipient of God's grace.

While some lines do not ring true for me personally (I tend to be less hagiographic towards the pilgrims and their "freedom beat", for example) -- but generally speaking, the sentiment of the song is one I endorse.  I want God to help my country be better and live up to its noblest ideals.  So count me as one of the yahoos who actually believes the general themes of the song as written.

Regarding the Starlet Mary Wrapped in the Flag painting -- I endorse your assessment.  I may use the stronger words you reject.  But we agree it is misguided.  It was particularly misguided, and I would say, it promoted a really bad theology, when the Bishop of Brooklyn sent it to every parish in his diocese.

I just noticed that David Gibson has a great blog posting on what he calls the "Star-Spangled Virgin"

One of the commenters even tracked down the artist's website:

Star Spangled Virgin may not be the most problematic work of hers.

Spiderman Jesus with US flags shooting out of his stigmata?

A lamb carrying the papal flag across a backdrop of the US flag?

Mr. Marth—

Thanks for the correction.   I agree with you that the “crown” is more hymn-worthy than crowned, being more of a prayer than a boast.   It can’t be gainsaid, however, that the preceding line is a declaratory statement, one that I feels nicely captures, not triumphalism, but gratitude for, and dependence on, God’s grace.   I will enjoy the hymn even more now with your insight, and sing it even more robustly!

For what it’s worth, I found the Tablet’s sourcing of the picture of Mary extremely thin.   Based on all my years in journalism, I would have expected more from a publication of that stature.

Mark Proska:

"God shed his grace on thee" is also a petition, not a declaration. Such petitions are found in every verse of "America the Beautiful." With one exception they all (shed, crown, mend, confirm) are in an implicit form. The only explicit petition is "May God thy gold refine," found in verse three. None is a statement of what God has already done.

Are you confusing The Tablet, the Brooklyn diocesan paper, with The Tablet, the international weekly, published in London?

The Brooklyn Tablet was a paper of stature, certainly under the leadership of Don Zirkel and Ed Wilkinson.  Today, not so much.  When you don't have a bishop who believes in giving a diocesan paper a great deal of editorial freedom, a paper quickly loses stature.

Jim P. --

I can't imagine how the title of that song could be anything other than offensive, even blasphemous. Maybe in context it doesn't have the obvious meaning that the title alone has, but still, even Job with all his sorrows wouldn't talk like that to God.

Ann - there are many things about "The Book of Mormon" that would make your hair stand on end.  It does help to see that particular number in the context of the show, but it may only help a little. :-)

The play pulls no punches in its hooting derision of Mormons and Mormonism - and, in many ways, by extension, of any believing religious person.  I came away very troubled, and also very impressed - it's got all the elements of a great Broadway show, but it adds up to something that is, in some ways, profoundly unAmerican, or at least it is emblematic of one of the very worst aspects of the American national character: our propensity for religious intolerance.  Having the advantage (for purposes of seeing the musical) of not being Mormon myself, I laughed along with the audience at the things about LDS that seem laugh-worthy to the writers, and then was mad at myself for doing so.

This song, "I Believe", mixes together a number of these disparate elements.  A video of the wonderful Andrew Rannels singing it is here.  Ann, I think you've shared with us in the past that you're hearing-impaired, am I remembering that rightly?  The lyrics are here.

It turns out, btw, that the name of the song I referenced in my earlier comment is "Hasa diga Eebowai".  I won't provide a Youtube link to it, but it's easily searchable in Youtube, including at least one version that has the lyrics printed.  Not for the easily-upset - you've been warned.  Ann, I doubt it would do anything except reinforce your intuition that it's blasphemous.  

I don't think Commonweal has ever reviewed "The Book of Mormon", is that right?  If so, it's surprising.  I can't be the only theater-goer who had kind of, if not love/hate, then love/queasy reaction.  Mollie, are you out there? :-)




But I get upset when a bishop (or any public Catholic) does a riff on what I once heard from a (slightly deranged) minister who was fighting the godless government (ours), viz., that the middle three letters of JerUSAlem are U.S.A.!

Quite right, Tom B.! That's just not excUSAble.


John P--

I can't take your first point, since it directly contradicts the plain words you quote.    If the line were, "May God shed his grace on thee" then I would agree with you.    If it makes you feel more comfortable with the line, I read an implicit injunction in the words (to whom much is given, much is expected).

You are right, though, I was confusing the 2 Tablets.

Jim P.,

I haven't seen "Book of Mormon", and I don't know if Commonweal has reviewed it, but here's a link to a review by someone who reviews Broadway shows, primarly from an artistic point of view, but with religion sensibilities in her reviews.  I think you'll find some parallels to your take......

Mark P.

I read it: (may) "God shed his grace" and (may he) "crown thy good." The whole song is a series of petitions to God, not statements. It's poetry; words meant to fit a melody.


Or rather, the verses are declarative, but the refrains, supplicatory.

Bob Kelly, I appreciate you providing the link to the "Book of Mormon" review, but when I clicked on it, my browser told me that the page is infected by malware.  I just want to let you know that you should probably stay away from that page.  Too bad - I would like to read it.

Mark Proska (sorry for the formality of addressing you by both your names, but there is at least one other Mark P that comments here from time to time) - I agree with John Page's take (there is more than one John P, too :-)).  The "May" is implicit.  The line also is a little ambiguous because "shed' is one of those verbs that is the same in both present tense and past tense.

I believe an implied "may" is also found in some of the petitions of Lord's Prayer: "(May) thy kingdom come / (May) thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  

In the case of "America the Beautiful", it's kind of a consciously obsolete locution, I guess - sort of like  a 19th-century lyricist using "thee"  :-).


The English subjunctive—God bless it!—may be more modest than many of its pushy cousins in other languages, but it isn't obsolete. Heaven forfend!


Jim P. ==

Sorry to take so long replying, but I had to think about it.  The issue of blasphemy is one that I see both clearly and unclearly -- it's like pornography which I also can't define but which I know when I see it.

When talking about blasphemy I think we have to first distinguish our subjective reaction (shock or anger) from the content of what is being communicated.  Shock, as I never cease saying, is not a moral category -- it's only a subjective reaction to something appalling or essentially improper or whatever, and so is the anger that is a common reaction to blasphemy.

So why is blasphemy shocking and/or infuriating and *why* should it not be tolerated or should at least called down as appalling.  It certainly doesn't injure God Himself.  So what's the problem?  I think the answer has to do with impropriety, an impropriety that is so deep that it's sinful.  (Yes, impropriety can be sinful.)  It's obviously true, I think, that saying that an expression such as "God" is (obscenity of your choice)" attempts to link what cannot be linked into a true proposition, but the falseness of the proposition is not what is shocking or angering.   So why is such an insult morally wrong?  Why  are all insults offensive?  (I can't define insult, but I know those too when I find them).  

So their offensiveness is not the root problem, but, I suspect,  their *destructiveness* is.  But what is it that the speaker is trying to destroy?  (I read a bit about the authors of TBofM, and they say explicitly that their aim was to destroy institutions.)  That's about as far as I can go with this one.

We need a thread or two on obscenity and impropriety.

Ann - among the things we know about God is that he is holy, and we should acquit ourselves in a way that acknowledges his holiness. Also, we are specifically instructed not to take the name of the Lord in vain.  For those who take seriously their belief in God, these things are important.  I think this is why blasphemy summons such a visceral reaction.

That this particular song is set in the context of a drama - a fictional story - makes the evaluation much more complicated.  To what extent is the blasphemous material a function of the requirements of story-telling - propelling the plot forward, animating a character, entertaining the audience, etc. - and to what extent are the authors saying what they really think in their own hearts?



Jim P—

No problem re the formality, I certainly know you’re not doing it to be mischievous in any way. ;-)    I think you and others have an arguable point, but I’d rather take the other side:

First, the fact that there’s a subject in the sentence (God) argues against it being simply a petition.   Also, God is referred to in the 3rd person (His), not the second.   The analog to “Thy kingdom come” would be “Thy grace shed on us.”

Second, let’s not forget the title of the hymn.   It’s not, “America, the would be Beautiful if only…”

Third, and I hate to pull out the big guns, but everyone is familiar, I’m sure, with the following:

America, sweet America,

You know, God done shed his grace on thee,

He crowned thy good, yes he did, in a brotherhood,

From sea to shining sea.

Do y’all really want to take sides against Ray Charles?

Thanks, Jim, for the heads up on malware on the 'Reflections' blog!  My Norton's says it's ok, but I don't know if it can vouch for all the ads and stuff on the side.  I'll try to get the review another way.

Jim P. --

Sorry, I seem to have misunderstood your post -- the one that said the song was "a big, joyful musical number".  I took that to mean that the authors approved of the sentiment.

I wouldn't object to their including the song if they were just showing what the characters thought. But if they intended to present such thoughts as justified that would be blasphemous too.

I wouldn't object to their including the song if they were just showing what the characters thought. But if they intended to present such thoughts as justified that would be blasphemous too.

Ann - right.  But these things can be multi-layered, don't you think?  I.e. the authors have their characters sing the song as a vehicle for making the statement themselves. 

In "South Pacific", Lt. Cable sings a famous song about racial prejudice, "You've Got to be Carefully Taught".  The song is very much 'in charcter' in the context of the show, but also stands on its own as a denunciation of racism.  I don't doubt that it reflected Oscar Hammerstein's views (although I don't know anything about his life history as it pertains to racism or prejudice).

In the case of "The Book of Mormon", the authors have achieved a sort of rock-star status, and I think everyone understands (or makes the assumption) that the play makes a case on behalf of its authors.  The case being made by this particular song may not be a case for blasphemy per se.  It may be a shock-value broadside against the developed world's ignorance and apathy about the dreadful plight of the people of sub-Saharan Africa.  The Book of Mormon" makes extreme poverty, AIDS, warlords, corruption etc. the grist for comedy, and it is very funny, if you have a taste for crude and shocking humor.  It's pretty audacious.


"The case being made by this particular song may not be a case for blasphemy per se.  It may be a shock-value broadside against the developed world's ignorance and apathy about the dreadful plight of the people of sub-Saharan Africa."

Jim P. ==

I don't think that risking blasphemous thoughts in others (i.e., encouraging others to blaspheme with the character who says it)  is justified to make a point that could be made in some other way.

The very first Commandment is about blasphemy.  It is not a minor sin!  Humour is hardly a justification for it. 


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