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Editorial: Thanks, Francis, but please say more about 'just war'

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Image from the video game "Valiant Hearts: The Great War" (CNS/Ubisoft)
Image from the video game "Valiant Hearts: The Great War" (CNS/Ubisoft)

It is rare to witness the Catholic Church fundamentally change one of its long-held teachings. It is, after all, an institution that still prohibits use of birth control and continues to ban women from serving in ordained ministry.

All the more reason, then, to applaud Pope Francis for coming so close to tossing aside the just war theory.

First outlined by fourth-century bishop St. Augustine of Hippo as essentially a means of Christian defense of those under unwarranted attack, the theory has been coopted more and more in recent decades by military and political leaders seeking to rationalize increasingly amoral and brutal conflicts.

The George W. Bush administration even stretched it so far as to encompass the idea of a "preemptive war" — arguing it was better to cause violence because of an alleged threat of other violence that had not yet happened. (Some 17 years since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Iraq Body Count project estimates around 200,000 civilian deaths. Credit to Pope John Paul II for trying to talk Bush out of that invasion.)

As Francis says in his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti: "We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits."

Further, the pontiff argues, the possibility of wanton destruction offered by nuclear, chemical, biological and new technological combat systems make it "very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a 'just war.' "

"Very difficult" may be a step away from "impossible," but it's only a small step.

In evaluating the pope's new teaching, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy said that "it is hard not to conclude that the church is abandoning the just war framework and seeking to construct a new moral framework that has not yet emerged."

The question, as McElroy indicates, is what comes next. Francis unfortunately did not use his encyclical to elaborate a positive vision for a new ethic of church teaching with regard to the use (or non-use) of violence. Meanwhile, the just war theory remains part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, offering bellicose political leaders cover from the church when they see an occasion for "legitimate defense by military force."

We hope Francis might turn now to elaborating that positive vision. He could certainly ask for help from groups like Pax Christi International, which has co-hosted two important Vatican conferences in recent years on developing a Catholic ethic of nonviolence and just peace.

The issue, of course, is complex. The pontiff will need to consider difficult issues like the responsibility to protect vulnerable communities from aggression, and how to make nonviolent resistance an effective method in various situations.

But Fr. Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan theologian who took part one of the Pax Christi events, suggested afterwards that an encyclical by Francis laying out a new Catholic ethic of nonviolence could "set a tone for the church" that would "free our imagination from the inevitability of war and violence."

"It will be really an encyclical about hope," said Katongole. "I think Pope Francis more than any pope ... is more in a position to make this clarion call."

We agree, wholeheartedly. It certainly sounds like a task for the pope with the name of the saint from Assisi.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Oct 30-Nov 12, 2020 Thanks, Francis, but please say more about 'just war'

Editorial: Barrett's moral relativism is cause for rejection from the bench

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Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, President Donald Trump's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, attends the third day of her Senate confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington Oct. 14. (CN
Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, President Donald Trump's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, attends the third day of her Senate confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington Oct. 14. (CNS/Reuters/Demetrius Freeman)

The United States Senate should reject the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

We believed it was wrong for the Senate to consider this nomination in the first place given the precedent set four years ago when Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, nine months before the election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to even hold hearings on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland, saying repeatedly that the American people should have a say in the matter. This year, when the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg created a vacancy less than nine weeks before Election Day, McConnell has seen fit to ram through the nomination.

The hypocrisy is rank, and it is impossible to see how rushing this nomination will be good for our democracy. The enmity caused by the Republicans' shameful double standard will not soon dissipate, not when lifetime appointments are at stake.

Barrett is not responsible for McConnell's behavior, but she has allowed herself to be a vehicle for his agenda and that of President Donald Trump. She could have phoned the White House and asked not to be considered for the nomination: Barrett is only 48 years old and there will be other vacancies.

"Many on the faculty are strongly opposed to the process by which Judge Barrett is being pushed through by the president and the GOP, especially on the eve of this presidential election," stated an open letter signed by over 100 faculty at the University of Notre Dame, where Barrett attended and taught at the law school.

Her willingness to become a collaborator, complete with the required adoring look at the president at the super-spreader event at which she was nominated, is not enough to justify a negative vote, but it set the table.

What disqualifies Barrett is the extreme moral relativism she displayed in her confirmation hearing. Not so long ago, moral relativism was the war cry of cultural conservatives, at least since then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger enounced the "dictatorship of relativism" at the last Mass before the cardinals entered the conclave of 2005 from which Ratzinger emerged as Pope Benedict XVI.

For example, after acknowledging that COVID-19 is contagious and that smoking causes cancer, she declined to affirm that climate change is happening, Barrett called the issue of climate change "a very contentious matter of public debate." Is that true? It is certainly the case that Trump is not sure what, if anything, he makes of climate change.

But let's be clear: Denying climate change is not that far from QAnon conspiracy theories. If Barrett really has doubts on the subject, she is not intellectually qualified to serve on the bench, and we suspect she knows that. She was simply willing to embrace moral relativism rather than risk a nasty tweet from the man who nominated her.

When Sen. Kamala Harris asked her a direct question — "Prior to your nomination, were you aware of President Trump's statement committing to nominate judges who will strike down the Affordable Care Act? And I'd appreciate a yes or no answer" — Barrett said she could not recall.

Really? You would think that in the days leading up to her nomination, Barrett would have followed closely, or been briefed upon, what the president did and did not say about his criteria in selecting a judge.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar asked Barrett if she thought it was against the law to intimidate voters at the polls and, even more strangely, Barrett refused to affirm that it was. Originalists like to claim that their method of interpreting the Constitution is the only method that genuinely honors democracy, but how is that possible if intimidation of voters is permitted?

This leads to the most repugnant realization about Barrett's relativism: In her commitment to originalism and textualism, she claims not to be interpreting the law or the Constitution at all. In her worldview, the Constitution is virtually a self-interpreting text. If that were so, why would we need judges?

In fact, in claiming that the meaning of the Constitution is fixed, and she can discern it, Barrett is actually doing exactly what she said she would never do. "As I said before, it is not the law of Amy, it is the law of the American people," she said.

But, unlike the brilliant scholar Barrett will replace when confirmed, who accepted other ways of interpreting the Constitution, the logic of Barrett's originalism is that Ginsburg's legal theories were not just different but were illegitimate. Barrett's relativism, like the man who nominated her, is on steroids.

We are glad that most commentators and virtually every question in the formal hearing avoided discussing Barrett's religion, even if her membership in a patriarchal covenanted community raises some legitimate concerns.

We at NCR do not like the prospect of five of the six conservative justices being Catholic and worry what that says about our church. In America, however, there are no religious tests for office and no senator should oppose Barrett on account of her religion.

It is her bad faith in discussing the law that warrants disqualifying her. About the evils of climate change, access to health care and voter intimidation, Americans deserve better than a relativist dressed in originalist drag. The Senate should vote no on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Oct 30-Nov 12, 2020 Barrett's nomination should be rejected

Editorial: Let's not return to policing theologians

If fidelity oaths seem like something out of the Crusades, contemporary Catholics might be surprised to hear that the Vatican is still requiring some theologians and pastors to sign them.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has said that Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery must affirm the church's official positions on male-only priesthood, LGBTQ relationships, civil unions and gender identity. If the Irish priest does not sign the four fidelity oaths, his suspension from the priesthood will remain indefinite, according to a letter from the doctrinal congregation. If he does sign the oaths, he also will be required to not speak publicly about matters in the oaths.

Flannery, a popular Irish writer and retreat giver, was removed from public ministry in 2012 primarily over his support for women's ordination. He told NCR that he cannot in good conscience sign the oaths, and expects this may be "the end of the road" for him in terms of public ministry.

Can we say: We've seen this movie before, and we didn't like it the first time?

In previous decades, under Pope John Paul II, a number of theologians, writers and teachers found themselves on the receiving end of investigations of their work under then-head of the doctrinal congregation, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI — a process that was too often mimicked by bishops on the national level.

In the 1980s, theologians were so concerned about academic freedom and unfair treatment by church leaders that the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Canon Law Society came together to create "Doctrinal Responsibilities: Procedures for Promoting Cooperation and Resolving Disputes Between Bishops and Theologians," which emphasized dialogue that respected the rights and responsibilities of both bishops and theologians.

This latest move against Flannery has some theologians worried the church may be returning to a "law enforcement paradigm" that they had assumed had ended under the Francis papacy.

One called it an "ominous sign," and others worried that such policing could lead to theological silencing.

While the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is charged with defending Catholic doctrine, it seems more than coincidental that Flannery's fidelity oaths involve "culture war" issues like gay marriage and "gender theory" — the latter about which Flannery said he had never written.

Especially troubling is the secrecy of the process of such investigations, which are often prompted by anonymous complaints.

CDF head Cardinal Luis Ladaria claimed that the Vatican congregation had tried to dialogue with Flannery, a fact the priest disputes, since all communication from the doctrinal congregation went through the superior of his religious order.

Even if the doctrinal congregation feels the need to define certain positions as out of bounds for someone entrusted with teaching the Catholic faith, the current processes, cloaked in secrecy, are a counter-witness to the very human dignity the church so rightly defends in other regards. One of the glories of modernity is the belief that the accused have rights.

We thought the pontificate of Francis, who has emphasized dialogue and openness, would have a different, more positive vision for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Let's not return to the last century — or the 16th.

This story appeared in the paper... Oct 16-29, 2020

Editorial: Americans need to heed pope's countercultural message on the common good

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Rep. James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, subcommittee chairman, listens as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Oct. 2, to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. Photos of people who
Rep. James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, subcommittee chairman, listens as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Oct. 2, to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. Photos of people who died after contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, are displayed on either side of the congressman. (CNS/Reuters/Michael A. McCoy)

Much of the coverage of Pope Francis' expansive encyclical Fratelli Tutti, released Oct. 4, focused on its feel-good themes of unity, dialogue and peace. Who can argue against the notion that we are "brothers and sisters all?"

But this document, the pope's third encyclical and clearly a summary of his papacy so far, is no rote call for prayers and best wishes in the face of the pandemic. It is, foundationally, a pointed critique of nationalistic populism, of economic systems that exploit the poor, and indeed, of democracy itself, at least as it seems to be evolving at the beginning of the 21st century.

We agree, and appreciate the pontiff's bold condemnations of neofascist ideas about nation and race, trickle-down economics, unbridled free-market capitalism, income and wealth inequality, and a libertarianism that merely dresses up selfishness for more palatable consumption.

These — along with an excessive individualism and "feverish consumerism" — prevent a "better kind of politics, one truly at the service of the common good," the pope says.

There can be no mistaking the pope's words: The neoliberal establishment is not compatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

"The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith," Pope Francis writes. "Whatever the challenge, this impoverished and repetitive school of thought always offers the same recipes."

"Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of 'spillover' or 'trickle,' " he continues. "There is little appreciation of the fact that the alleged 'spillover' does not resolve the inequality that gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society."

Instead, the pope urges, we must follow the model of the good Samaritan, not only as individuals but as societies, paying attention to the suffering around us rather than looking away.

This requires a change of heart. "Otherwise, political propaganda, the media and the shapers of public opinion will continue to promote an individualistic and uncritical culture subservient to unregulated economic interests and societal institutions at the service of those who already enjoy too much power," Francis writes.

The document is not perfect. Its gender-exclusive title and lack of female voices, even in the citations, is a serious problem. But his words about the economics and politics of today are strong, countercultural words. And the pope's timing couldn't be better, as the United States moves into the last weeks before what is being called the most consequential election since the Civil War.

While he doesn't mention President Donald Trump directly, Francis' reference to populist leaders who "are able to exploit politically a people's culture, under whatever ideological banner, for their own personal advantage or continuing grip on power" can't help but bring to mind the current president.

Fratelli Tutti warns against demagoguery "for its own purposes," with no concern for the vulnerable — an especially apt description of Trump, given his apparent disregard for the health of others as the coronavirus continues to spread through the White House.

While no pope should tell Americans how to vote — and Francis is clearly not doing so here — it's also true that this encyclical gives U.S. Catholics much to think about as they consider their choice in the presidential election.

In contrast to too many U.S. bishops who insist that the criminalization of abortion or so-called "religious liberty" issues are the only ones Catholics should consider, Francis puts economic issues (not to mention the death penalty and war and peace) front and center.

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A woman in sunglasses holds several shopping bags (Unsplash/Freestock)
A woman in sunglasses holds several shopping bags (Unsplash/Freestock)

And it is the economic common good — not one's individual economic concerns — that must be considered, according to the pope.

After reading this encyclical, no Catholic should feel any qualms about voting for Joe Biden. Heck, they could vote for Bernie Sanders, had he been nominated, given the pontiff's strong condemnation of the unfair distribution of wealth.

We can already hear the retort: "But … socialism!" The "S" word has become a dirty word in the United States, in part due to a misinformation campaign by Republican candidates. At a recent webinar hosted by Boston College, Trinity College and St. Anselm College, former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu called Francis an "Argentine socialist."

It's important to be clear what democratic socialism is not: It is not synonymous with Marxism, nor is it the socialism of authoritarian regimes like China or the former Soviet Union, which were not democracies.

Democratic socialist policies call for the government to provide basic services, such as health care and education, for all its citizens — not necessarily that the government need own or control all aspects of such services.

Although antithetical to the rugged individualism upon which the mythology of the United States was built, democratic socialism's concern for the common good is not antithetical to our Christian and Catholic faith. It was part of the way Jesus' disciples and the early church lived, as described in the Act of the Apostles; it was and is part of how religious communities of men and women have operated; and it is the motivation of some current religious communities, such as — in an ironic twist — the "covenanted community" of the Republican-nominated prospective Supreme Court justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

The Christian tradition "has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable." That's Pope John Paul II, in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, which Francis quotes in Fratelli Tutti.

Francis also notes that the right to private property is a "secondary natural right," derived from the "universal destination of created goods," a principle in Catholic social teaching that says the goods of creation belong to the whole human race.

While this may sound extreme to individualistic American ears, it is the countercultural Gospel message that we must all listen to, especially when so many lives — of the poor, the unemployed, the sick — are literally on the line.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Oct 16-29, 2020 Listen to Francis on common good

Editorial: Catholics must vote their conscience this election

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Election yard signs are seen outside of an early voting site Sept. 18 in Fairfax, Virginia. (CNS/Al Drago, Reuters)

There is much Americans can disagree about, but one thing is clear: In the past three and a half years, many people have been suffering.

First and foremost, 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and we continue to get sick from the virus in numbers that surpass nearly all other countries in the world, except for India. People of color and the elderly are more likely to die from the disease, but as we climb what appears to be a long second wave of the pandemic, those infected — and spreading — the coronavirus increasingly are young people. And the virus' long-term health effects could become the next deniable preexisting condition, if the Affordable Care Act is overturned, as Republicans promise.

Thanks to the pandemic, economic gains made since the 2008 recession have been lost: Unemployment has skyrocketed, evictions are moving forward despite a national moratorium, and requests for government assistance are spiking, even as the party in power plans to cut such benefits. While the top 1 percent have seen their stock portfolios increase and their tax bills lowered, it has come at the expense of not only working-class but a growing number of middle-class Americans.

Because the United States did not have a strong, nationally coordinated response to the virus from the beginning (even though, as we now know, the president was aware of its seriousness while downplaying it in public), closures and other piecemeal efforts to control COVID-19 have hurt businesses, including small businesses, nonprofits and educational institutions, which are now struggling to survive. Entire industries may not survive.

Meanwhile, the effects of global warming are here and visible in raging wildfires on the West Coast, the increasing number and strength of hurricanes and tropical storms, and drought. The people of Puerto Rico, still suffering after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, still do not have an accurate count of the dead. And the administration is just now, three years later, releasing federal relief funds.

Around the world, climate change threatens to displace millions. But those who set their sights on America as a welcoming respite for refugees, asylum-seekers and other immigrants now find the door slammed in their faces. Muslims have been singled out, thanks to a travel ban on Muslim-majority countries. The U.S. has so lowered its allowances for those fleeing persecution that many refugee settlement agencies — including church ones — have closed their doors.

Families escaping violence or extreme poverty in their home countries who arrive at our borders have been promptly separated, their children placed in institutions around the country, perhaps never to be seen again by their parents. Adults, too, are crowded in unsanitary detention centers, where several people have died and where the coronavirus and other diseases are rampant.

While the federal government wastes millions of dollars on an ineffective border wall that nonetheless stands as a monument to anti-immigrant fervor, those immigrants of color who are already here face discrimination and even violence, such as the Latinos targeted in the Walmart shooting in El Paso last year that left 23 dead.

America's "original sin" of racism is now socially acceptable to publicly tout, whether by a white dog owner in Central Park or by white nationalists who are taking up arms, and in some cases, killing those protesting for justice for people of color. Meanwhile, Black people face a higher likelihood of being killed by law enforcement.

And what is the response of Catholics in what some are calling the most consequential election in our nation's history since the Civil War? It would seem that an administration of such wanton cruelty is not one Catholics can easily support.

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People in Fairfax, Virginia, wait in line Sept. 18 to cast their ballots at a polling site set up for early voting. (CNS/Al Drago)

Instead, a large number of our fellow believers support the status quo. Although a recent EWTN News/RealClear Opinion Research poll shows Catholics generally favoring Joe Biden by 12 points, a significant number, 41%, plan to vote for the reelection of Donald Trump. Those Trump supporters are more likely to be regular Massgoers — and white.

Perhaps decades of church leaders insinuating that "Catholic = Republican," and that voting for a Democrat is a sin, has sunk in. Or "law and order" rhetoric has stoked deep-seated fears in suburbanites and rural folks who thought they were immune to violence. Or, more likely, white Catholics have joined white evangelicals in holding their noses in voting for a morally reprehensible candidate in an effort to "save" the American culture they fear is subsiding — a 1950s, "Leave it to Beaver" nostalgia, which wasn't all that great for large classes of people, even then.

Whatever the reason, we urge Catholics to look around at the suffering in our country and vote your conscience this election.

This story appeared in the paper... Oct 2-15, 2020 Catholics must vote their conscience

Editorial: It's too early to require Mass attendance during a pandemic

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People spend time in conversation following the outdoor Mass at the home of Larry and Diane Kahlscheuer on Washington Island, Wisconsin, Sept. 6. (CNS/The Compass/Sam Lucero)
People spend time in conversation following the outdoor Mass at the home of Larry and Diane Kahlscheuer on Washington Island, Wisconsin, Sept. 6. (CNS/The Compass/Sam Lucero)

On Aug. 31, the Catholic bishops of Wisconsin announced an end to the dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, issued in March because of safety concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

But before the lifting of the dispensation could be implemented, the number of cases skyrocketed to the state's highest rates since the pandemic began. On Sept. 19, Wisconsin reported a 19.4% positivity rate. (A positivity rate of 5% is considered a threshold for safe reopening.) A few days earlier, the University of Wisconsin at Madison announced it was cancelling spring break in an effort to curb spread of the virus.

On Sept. 16, data listing the top 20 U.S. cities with the fastest growing number of COVID-19 cases featured eight Wisconsin ones: 40% of the country's hotspots were in one state. (That number has since decreased to five cities out of 20, as rates grow in other places).

While we understand the strong desire of Catholics to return to their faith communities, church leaders must listen to the scientific and medical data. It's too early to lift the Mass dispensation and encourage more people to return to in-person services.

We all want to get back to normal, and that includes a more normal participation in the sacraments. Being unable to receive the Eucharist is particularly painful since it is the "source and summit" of the Christian life.

And, as a recent poll indicates, having a high percentage of Catholics — especially young people, at 36% — who plan to attend Mass less frequently after the pandemic will clearly hurt parishes with already declining participation and financial giving.

But, as NCR has editorialized throughout the pandemic, resumption of religious services cannot come with such a risk to people's health, and indeed their lives, especially as the country moves into winter and fall, when experts predict the spread of the virus will increase.

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki said as much in his letter detailing the lifting of the ban in that archdiocese.

Listecki said Catholics could continue to miss in-person church services if they are at risk because of age, underlying medical conditions or a compromised immune system, or to care for a sick person.

But, according to the archbishop, general fear of getting sick was no longer an acceptable reason to miss Mass. Catholics who "deliberately fail to attend Sunday Mass commit a grave sin,” he said.

This language — unpersuasive to many, even before the pandemic — will nonetheless pressure some Catholics to take unnecessary risks.

Even more alarming is a report that in at least one Wisconsin diocese, the Green Bay Diocese, churches also will no longer have to restrict the number of people who can come to services, as long as church-goers can maintain proper social distancing.

Most Catholic churches have taken appropriate precautions to make in-person services as safe as possible, including requiring masks, banning singing and limiting the number of attendees. Backtracking on those precautions before rates stop climbing is irresponsible.

Churches that do follow strict safety protocols should not be unfairly penalized, however. In San Francisco, other establishments — including indoor malls and museums, and, as potentially as of Oct. 1, indoor-dining at restaurants — are allowed up to 25% capacity. (Admittedly, a brief visit to a mall or a museum, where patrons are less likely spend prolonged time in close proximity to other people is less risky.)

Churches in San Francisco have been limited to outdoor services, with buildings only open for individual prayer. The mayor's plan to re-open churches as of Oct. 1 has a cap of 25 persons — likely less than 25% capacity for most church buildings in the archdiocese. While San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone may be overstating the level of conspiracy on the part of the government, churches need to be treated fairly in reopening plans.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves and completely lift Mass dispensation orders, especially in states where cases are still dangerously high.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Oct 2-15, 2020 It's too early to require Mass attendance

Editorial: Former West Virginia bishop should reexamine his conscience

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In this 2017 file photo, Bishop Michael Bransfield, then head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, is seen at Wheeling Hospital. (CNS/Colleen Rowan, The Catholic Spirit)

Repentance is something that Catholics usually understand.

That is one reason why former Bishop Michael Bransfield's response to the charges leveled against him is so egregious.

Bransfield formerly led the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia. There he proceeded to, according to a church investigation, embezzle $792,000 while sexually harassing seminarians.

Bransfield, according to the diocese, has paid back $441,000, and will retire with benefits, including a $2,250 monthly pension. That's far less than the normal $6,200 for a retired bishop, but not a bad deal for Bransfield considering the circumstances.

"I am writing to apologize for any scandal or wonderment caused by words or actions attributed to me during my tenure," Bransfield wrote in an Aug. 15 letter of apology to his former diocese.

Note the tortured prose. "Any scandal or wonderment" that were "attributed to me during my tenure."

The way Bransfield describes it, it was all a misunderstanding.

But the investigation tells another story.

There was the money. In the course of running a diocese in what is one of the nation's poorest regions, Bransfield pilfered an ungodly sum, much of it spent on luxury trips and liquor, including spreading largesse around to prominent church officials in Rome and in the American hierarchy.

And then there were the accusations of sexual abuse. In a world where corporate chieftains are now banished for taking liberties with their underlings, Bransfield escaped with little accountability for what the church investigation describes as routine harassment of seminarians. A seminarian is, in the church system, at the total mercy of his bishop, who can throw out years of study and the dream of priesthood on a whim, making them, as a class, more vulnerable than nearly any employee.

In 2019, the diocese announced it had settled a lawsuit by a former altar server. The accusation was that Bransfield molested boys and men, including priests, often after consuming large amounts of expensive liqueur.

In his letter, Bransfield responded: "There have been allegations that by certain words and actions I have caused certain priests and seminarians to feel sexually harassed. Although that was never my intent, if anything that I said or did caused others to feel that way, then I am profoundly sorry."

Note to the former bishop: They didn't just feel harassed, they were actually harassed, according to the church investigation.

As we reported on last year, a number of West Virginia Catholics saw what was going on and pleaded for help for years, only to be ignored until news reports circulated about the scandals. Now those beleaguered Catholics confront the non-apology apology from their tormentor.

There is so much to be done in healing the wounds of the church in West Virginia. A good start would be a full-throated act of contrition. Catholics know that we are all sinners and fail to live up to the Gospel. Still change begins with acknowledgement of wrongs.

The people of God in West Virginia are right to demand more than rationalizations and defense of the indefensible. Former Bishop Bransfield, please reexamine your conscience, so the Catholics of your former diocese can have a chance to emerge with some hope of moving beyond your sordid tenure.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Sept 18-Oct 1, 2020 West Virginia bishop should reexamine his conscience

Editorial: Bishops should follow sisters' lead in dismantling racism

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A Dominican sister protests racial injustice June 2 in Washington, D.C. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)
A Dominican sister protests racial injustice June 2 in Washington, D.C. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

On the last day of the 2020 assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, its members were invited to participate in a "five-year commitment to work on dismantling racism … in LCWR's efforts to name and eradicate racism within themselves, their congregations, their ministries, and LCWR as an organization."

Details of this commitment are being developed. It had been announced in June to the membership of the country's largest organization of leaders of women religious congregations.

Throughout the 2020 assembly, held virtually Aug. 12-14, speakers emphasized the need for racial justice in their addresses, prayers and reflections.

The commitment to dismantling racism was the first of three initiatives underscored by LCWR officers in a summary of their members-only Aug. 14 session. The summary said religious orders and the wider world are facing a "crucible moment," in which "the pandemic, racism, climate change, and concern for the future of religious congregations, have converged to create a period of 'daunting challenge.' "

The other two initiatives would seem more integral to women religious: A designated fund to support the future of religious life in the U.S., seeded by LCWR, and a "national conversation" on the emerging future of religious life.

That the resolution on dismantling racism was listed first among the three initiatives is indicative of the leadership role that women religious are playing in the Catholic Church in confronting and trying to excise the roots of racism within their congregations and themselves.

Moreover, it demonstrates that this is not an ancillary exercise, but rather an integral responsibility that LCWR leadership believes is crucial to religious life. This stands in contrast to the U.S. bishops, who — as we have pointed out before — have been largely silent about denouncing racism, acknowledging the church's historical role in promulgating slavery, and promoting racial justice.

Yes, the bishops' conference issued a statement as protests mounted against the tragic killing of George Floyd, following an earlier statement by seven bishops who are chairmen of various committees. (Women religious congregations also spoke out against the brutal killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others.)

But the actions by LCWR and its membership congregations speak to a deep recognition of the need to stay focused on the issues of racism and racial injustice. It is a commitment that the bishops and the larger U.S. church would be wise to emulate.

This latest initiative by LCWR builds on a painful process that began at its 2016 assembly, when Shannen Dee Williams, a historian at Villanova University, presented painstaking research of how women religious congregations had discriminated against Black women, barring them from entering their communities.

The examples were in jarring juxtaposition to the oft-recounted efforts by Catholic sisters who had marched in Selma and worked to dismantle some racial barriers. Williams' session rocked many members, who invited her to address their own congregations and opened their archives to her.

The session also provided a foundation for the assembly's resolution that year, which committed LCWR members to "examine the root causes of injustice, particularly racism, and our own complicity as congregations and to work to effect systemic change."

The focus on reckoning with racial injustice within women religious congregations continued at the 2018 assembly, with a recommitment to the assembly's 2016 resolution "to go deeper" into the critical work of examining the root causes of injustice and sisters' historic complicity with racism.

Some congregations had done their own homework, prompted by Williams' research, finding women who had been rebuffed in efforts to join their orders, and offered apologies. Others had also begun to research and start to atone for their congregations' complicity with slavery. Still others conducted monthslong study sessions into structural racism and white privilege still ingrained in themselves, their congregations and society.

It is against this backdrop that the statements of women religious resonate and become more than statements. Bishops should make a full examination of racism and racial injustice a priority for their dioceses and parishes — yes, even amid this most challenging pandemic, which has laid bare the inequities in health care and economic parity.

The National Black Sisters' Conference issued a powerful statement in June, offering a challenge to the bishops: "If the most recent pastoral letter on racism, 'Open Wide Our Hearts,' written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is to have any moral legitimacy, then our episcopal leaders must give more than lip-service to addressing the sin of racism that is destroying communities of color around this nation."

We echo this call for a concerted and focused attention on these issues by our bishops.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Sept 4-17, 2020 Bishops should follow sisters' lead in dismantling racism

Editorial: Catholic colleges, learn from Notre Dame about pandemic reality

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The University of Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Indiana, is seen March 19. (CNS/USA TODAY NETWORK NCAA via Reuters/Matt Cashore)
The University of Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Indiana, is seen March 19. (CNS/USA TODAY NETWORK NCAA via Reuters/Matt Cashore)

Those looking for hope about the safety of in-person education during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic surely won't find it in the alarming reports coming from colleges across the country in recent days.

One by one, institutions that brought students back to campus are preparing to send them home again after experiencing extreme COVID-19 outbreaks.

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill moved all classes online Aug. 19, only a week after they had begun, following at least 324 cases. About 160 people have tested positive at the University of Kentucky. In Mississippi, state health officials are investigating outbreaks at two universities.

We would need to write at great length to detail every institution impacted. Reading the signs of the times, Michigan State University scrapped its plans for students to come back, announcing that classes will now only take place virtually when they recommence Sept. 2.

But the news from the University of Notre Dame, whose very name has long been synonymous with the gold standard in Catholic higher education, is particularly disturbing.

Eight days after classes began Aug. 10, university president Holy Cross Fr. John Jenkins announced Aug. 18 that students would be remaining on campus but moving to online classes for at least a two-week period, following a sharp and drastic uptick in COVID cases.

The university reported 222 confirmed cases Aug. 20. Of the 355 tests conducted Aug. 18, 73 came back positive — representing an astonishing 20.56% positivity rate among those tested that day.

Reports from students on campus who have tested positive will cut at the heart of any parent. Local CBS affiliate WSBT 22 spoke to one young woman, who said after waking up with a 101-degree fever one day she had to repeatedly call the campus hotline for hours before being able to schedule a COVID-19 test.

After testing positive, the woman said she was placed in a special quarantined apartment complex — where she waited six more hours for food to be delivered to her.

The South Bend Tribune reported Aug. 18 that Notre Dame had issued a statement to the paper acknowledging that it had not been prepared for the spike in cases and that some students in quarantine "were not cared for as promptly or as thoroughly as we would have hoped."

Nearly 700 Notre Dame faculty, former faculty, students and alumni have now signed a petition calling on Jenkins to allow students to go home and finish the semester virtually. They say care for those sick on campus is "severely lacking," and testing procedures are "woefully inadequate."

Jenkins, who has led Notre Dame since 2004, was in the vanguard of college presidents who decided to reopen their campuses during the pandemic. In a May New York Times op-ed explaining his decision, the Holy Cross priest framed it as a risk-reward scenario.

After promising that the university would "institute extensive protocols for testing; contact tracing and quarantining," Jenkins said: "We believe the good of educating students and continuing vital research is very much worth the remaining risk."

Inherent at the heart of the strategy was a gamble, with the highest of stakes.

As we said a few weeks ago, Catholic schools should be modeling pro-life values that put people's health, safety and lives first as they discuss whether and how to reopen.

While we do not pretend to have all the answers for how institutions of higher learning should act in this unprecedented time, especially when financial challenges may threaten some schools' very existence, we continue to worry about putting teachers, staff and students on the pandemic's front lines.

The some 260 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S might well look at Notre Dame's example, along with the others now re-closing their campuses, and proceed with due caution.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Sept 4-17, 2020 Learn from Notre Dame about pandemic reality

Editorial: Don't play politics with people's lives during a pandemic


The line outside of the Fr. English Food Pantry in Paterson, New Jersey, stretches through several city blocks June 8 for people seeking food assistance from the program run by Catholic Charities of the Paterson Diocese. (CNS)
The line outside of the Fr. English Food Pantry in Paterson, New Jersey, stretches through several city blocks June 8 for people seeking food assistance from the program run by Catholic Charities of the Paterson Diocese. (CNS/Courtesy of Catholic Charities Paterson)

At the end of last week, President Donald Trump retreated to his private golf club in New Jersey, where on Saturday he signed four executive actions — of dubious legality and effectiveness — intended to address the economic calamity caused by the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 164,000 Americans and cost tens of millions their jobs.

Club members in polo shirts and golf cleats were hastily assembled as a press conference audience. Most were not wearing masks or socially distanced during the gathering, according to reports.

Meanwhile, in cities around the country, Americans wearing masks are standing 6 feet apart — in lines at food pantries. In in Dale City, Virginia, the number of families receiving meat, milk and fresh produce from the food pantry at Holy Family Parish had already more than doubled from March to June. The Arlington Diocese's Catholic Charities programs had seen a 154% increase in food aid and a 288% increase in rental aid since the coronavirus pandemic hit.

And that was before the federal $600 a week in additional unemployment insurance benefits expired on July 31.

Many of those seeking help are first-time clients, folks who already lived paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic. With unemployment over 10% — and projected to stay at record highs until next year — tens of millions of Americans are in danger of being evicted and joining the 200,000 people in America who were homeless even when the economy was booming.

On Aug. 1, the rent was due.

Some renters had been protected by their states' or a federal moratorium on evictions, and the federal stimulus payments and unemployment insurance had been helping people stay current on their bills. Thankfully, too, some generous landlords have restructured rent payments to avoid evictions.

But social service agencies working on the ground are sounding the alarm about an impending eviction crisis, as well as about the numbers and types of people seeking assistance. They are formerly employed, working- and middle-class families, requesting assistance for the first time in their lives. The images are reminiscent of the bread lines during the Great Depression.

Emergency measures to counteract the economic upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic — such as the eviction moratorium and the additional unemployment assistance — were part of the original CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill that passed with bipartisan support in March.

That legislation optimistically hoped that we might be moving into a recovery by late summer. Sadly, lack of leadership in addressing the pandemic has led to an explosion in the number of COVID-19 cases. That, in turn, has necessitated a second relief package.

But this time, the politics are anything but bipartisan.

Back in mid-May, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, which would provide $3 trillion in aid, plus extend and expand the eviction moratoriums to cover nearly all rental properties in the United States.

The $1 trillion HEALS Act — introduced in the GOP-led Senate in July — does not address eviction protection. The two bills also differ over the issue of state aid, with the GOP bill not including additional aid to states.

Network, the Catholic social justice lobbying group, called the GOP proposal "woefully inadequate," predicting it would lead to a housing crisis, the collapse of Medicaid and a second Great Depression.

"The plan agreed to by Senate Republicans and the White House would take money away from unemployed people in the middle of the worst recession since World War II," a late July statement from Network said. "It would leave Medicaid without needed funding, even though over 70,000 new COVID-19 cases are being diagnosed every day."

Trump's executive actions would postpone payment of the federal payroll tax, offer new unemployment benefits, seek to protect renters and homeowners from eviction, and extend the deferral of payment on federal (but not privately issued) student loans.

Experts interviewed by Catholic News Service said Trump's relief measures are not expected to provide significant relief to people most in need of assistance. In addition, they are limited in scope and may face court challenges.

Meanwhile, most of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' lobbying has been around the issue of including aid for Catholic schools in any new stimulus bill. Catholic leaders made three pleas in 10 days, encouraging lawmakers to include money for emergency tuition scholarships for low-income families who attend nonpublic schools in any stimulus legislation.

What are Catholics to do?

We get our instructions from Jesus in Matthew 25: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick. The church's charitable organizations have already amped up their services, but private charity cannot handle an economic catastrophe of this level.

Catholic social teaching recognizes that personal charity is not enough, that just societies must be measured by the degree to which they ameliorate the conditions faced by the poor — not by the amount of money they bestow upon the wealthy. Under the leadership of Trump and the inaction of Senate Republicans, our nation is failing the basic standards of justice.

Social safety nets are the concrete embodiment of the moral vision of Matthew 25. Without work, people cannot pay their rent. When they don't pay rent, they end up out on the street. Without shelter, the spiral into deep poverty accelerates.

Even if moral considerations were not part of the equation, basic economics recommend avoiding the falling dominos the Senate and the president are inviting by failing to accede to the more generous provisions in the House-passed bill.

We can't waste time with extraneous debate and partisan politicking. People's lives are at stake.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Aug 21-Sept 3, 2020 Don't play politics with people's lives