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Editorial: Catholics and Trump, a reckoning

This article appears in the Coronavirus feature series. View the full series.

Several significant questions emerge, entwined, from the chaos of the moment. One is about Catholicism and its public expression, the other about our civic/political life and, in each instance, how they might be transformed in the post-pandemic era.

In the civil realm, the question is whether truth, or the pursuit of it, and competence will ever be foundational again to the way we conduct our public affairs. Or will we continue to require that truth bowl us over — actually threaten every area of life — before we believe it?

The question for the church in the United States is whether we will come out of this austere moment able to admit the role Catholics and their leaders played in electing and enabling a man who, far from being pro-life, has proven himself a distinct danger to life on several levels.

It is neither coincidence nor surprising that those who engage in fevered distortions of the truth in the political realm would have companions in the religion realm.

The combination is dangerous, and just how potentially destructive — not only of democratic processes and institutions but now of the body politic itself — is becoming all too clear. Are those bishops who reduced Catholic participation in the political process to a single issue, who tacitly approved when their culture-warrior minions delivered that message from countless pulpits, willing to take responsibility now for the sheer incompetence they helped put in place? If it profits not a man to give his soul for the world, how much worse for the church to hand over its integrity for a few conservative justices.

The consequences are enormous and have to do with much more than policy differences or even single-issue politics. As The Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, recounting how Trump bragged about the ratings for his embarrassing afternoon "briefings," so aptly put it recently:

Exploiting this type of tragedy in the cause of personal vanity reveals Trump's spirit to be a vast, trackless wasteland. Trump seems incapable of imagining and reflecting the fears, suffering and grief of his fellow citizens. We have witnessed the total failure of empathy in presidential leadership.

There is a Catholic reckoning at hand. Catholics and their leaders who bought the single-issue strategy find themselves stuck in what once was a fun house now turned house of horrors, incongruously lashed to President Donald Trump, a tawdry community of mutual desperation. This place where the feints and mirrors were once enough in the dim light to convince the band of jesters that they were in control is becoming, in the cold light of truth, a national graveyard. The daily reality is a grim report of the spiraling number of sick and dying.

Behind Trump on the national stage these days are not members of his base inoculated against truth but people of sober accomplishment who find themselves having to work in a universe of sycophants. Trump has been forced in recent weeks to confront realities that until now he has been able to avoid or banish from his crimped universe: people of deep empathy and superior competence, forces he can't control, and bluster that is not only transparently silly but also dangerous.

Assertions no longer will suffice. The record is there for posterity. The man who ignored the experts, who took it on himself to label a deadly pandemic a "hoax," who said it would miraculously disappear, whose administration has yet to coordinate desperately needed supplies to states where governors keep telling the awful truth about what they face, that man keeps insisting he's done "a great job." The tough guy faces tough questions by screaming mindless insults at reporters and jumping in front of medical experts, preventing them from answering, knowing that they'll offer a correction to his inane narrative.

This awful moment has laid bare the high cost to the U.S. church of 30 years or more of accommodation to a culture of political expediency and an attempt to diminish the community of faith's responsibility to the common good. Single-issue voting relieved too many of us of the responsibility to engage deeper political and historical realities. The questions we're left with are urgent.

The reckoning is upon us.

Editorial: In his human 'evolution,' Romero is a saint for our time

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St. Archbishop Óscar Romero greets worshipers in San Salvador, El Salvador, in an undated photo. (CNS/Octavio Duran)
St. Archbishop Óscar Romero greets worshipers in San Salvador, El Salvador, in an undated photo. (CNS/Octavio Duran)

The problem with being canonized is that the saintly designation tends to immediately obscure the saint's humanity, that ordinary flesh-and-blood reality that answered the call to extraordinary acts of love.

It is a tendency to resist at all costs when commemorating the 40th anniversary of the assassination of St. Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador. It wasn't the moment of death that established him as saintly — scores of priests and religious, we know, died at the hands of murderous death squads in El Salvador — but rather it was the life and witness that placed him, while celebrating Mass, in the crosshairs of an assassin's aim.

Chris Herlinger, international correspondent for Global Sisters Report, asks the compelling questions in his recent report from El Salvador: "Which Oscar Romero is being honored? The Saint? The humble priest? The martyred Catholic? A man entombed in history at a particular time and place, or a living example for a country still struggling with the legacy and after-effects of a decade-long civil war?"

The answer, of course, is all of the above. Romero is not divisible by theme or role or a single period of life. It was the humble — and according to those who knew him, the sometimes not-so-humble and demanding — young priest, already an accomplished preacher, who became the bishop and then archbishop.

It was the gradually awakened conscience of a cleric — operating in a deeply divided ecclesial culture within a deeply divided country — that fueled his sharp analysis and resistance to the status quo.

As longtime El Salvador resident and journalist Gene Palumbo wrote in 2018, Romero's transformation wasn't, as often depicted, a sudden reaction to the murder of a priest friend, Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande. Rather, it occurred over his time as bishop in a rural area far from the capital city, years before Grande was murdered.

Unknown to many, even those who knew him, wrote Palumbo, "Romero had changed during an extended stay, in the mid-'70s, far from the capital city. In the early '70s, as an auxiliary bishop in San Salvador, he was seen as highly conservative; that was the period when he drew the ire of the priests who were so upset by the news of his appointment as archbishop. But in 1974, he was named bishop of the rural diocese of Santiago de María. There, he drew close to farmworkers and catechists who were targeted by the military. What he saw led him to a major shift in outlook."

Romero himself described the transformation as an "evolution."

Imagine the belly-tightening fear Romero lived with for years as he addressed the murderous activity on both sides of the military and political divides as the Salvadoran civil war progressed. Imagine the terror he had to overcome daily and with each decision to confront the insidious government oppression and the activity of the notorious death squads.

The record of his sermons and the courageous radio broadcasts decrying the violence and repression is well-known. But he was, first and foremost, a pastor.

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The press in his own country labeled him a communist. The powerful U.S. government to the north was supplying the military with equipment and was training troops that ultimately would be charged with gross human rights violations, often against the civilian population.

The record of his sermons and the courageous radio broadcasts decrying the violence and repression is well-known, particularly the broadcast addressed to the country's security forces the day before he was assassinated. But he was, first and foremost, a pastor.

The prophet, in this case, was also dedicated to the institution. A diary that he kept for two of his three years as archbishop is a record of the extraordinary woven as but one thread through the ordinary. His last diary entry, March 20, 1980, four days before he was killed, was an account of a day of meetings over budgetary and personnel matters, a clergy senate meeting and elections, discussions of issues involving diocesan bureaucracy with a wish for greater church unity running through it all.

Toward the end of the nearly two pages of recorded dictation, his thoughts returned again to "this situation that has me worried with regard to the financial situation and administration of our archdiocese."

Long before he was canonized, Romero was for many a saint by acclamation. He was a saint not because of some supernatural connection or by claims of miracles, nor even by martyrdom, though that was the reality.

He was a saint for raising the Gospel as a basis for opposing the activity of an overwhelmingly Catholic state. He rescued Catholicism from its role as a prop conferring respectability on power and wealth. He returned it to its proper role as an expression of faith in a God of mercy and a Christ who resides with the lowly. A proper saint, in all of his human "evolution," for our time.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... April 3-16, 2020 In his human 'evolution,' Romero is a saint for our time

Editorial: May the lesson be indelibly inscribed — we need one another

This article appears in the Coronavirus feature series. View the full series.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, speaks during a coronavirus briefing March 16 at the White House. (Official White House Photo/D. Myles Cullen)
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, speaks during a coronavirus briefing March 16 at the White House. (Official White House Photo/D. Myles Cullen)

We've reached the point in the fight against coronavirus, this awful and unseen enemy, that lays bare the truth that the evangelists of self-sufficiency and libertarian excess bow before a false god. May the lesson be indelibly inscribed on the minds of the generations soon to move into positions of leadership. We need one another.

We're learning a lot in this time of deep trial. We're coming fast on an understanding anew that facts matter, as does character and empathy in our leaders. Government, it became clear in a few short weeks, is the only entity capable of responding to a nationwide threat. And the success of that response depends on respect for the everyday functions of government, for essential bureaucracies that are easy targets for mockery until it is clear they are key to fighting a threat such as the coronavirus pandemic.

A series of sermons developed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. contains the line: "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." We've recently been served an enormous helping of each, except that in this case the stupidity can't even be categorized as conscientious. It is wanton.

We're learning how dangerous it is when clueless leaders alienate and demean expertise and dedicated service. That President Donald Trump insists on labeling the pandemic the "Chinese virus" merely wraps ignorance in racism.

The curtain's been pulled back and what's revealed is not a wizard but a doddering old man who has run through his supply of bombast and disguises. Trump's mishandling of the coronavirus crisis to this point is more than bumbling. From his earlier dismantling of the White House global health team to the dismissal of early warnings from experts, to the persistent — and completely false — assurances that the virus would miraculously disappear, the mindlessness of this administration is astounding. It constitutes an arrogant and callous disregard for the welfare of others and a deep breach of public trust.

The daily briefings from the White House have become a kind of cringe-worthy performance art, with experts having to awkwardly dispute untruths and fantasies that Trump perpetuates. It led Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (hat tip to Jesuit education from Regis High School in New York through College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts) to finally acknowledge the frustration in hearing the president deliver incorrect information. "But I can't jump in front of the microphone and push him down," he told an interviewer

Ignorance and stupidity are not solely the province of civil leaders. They exist in abundance in religious circles, for instance, among evangelical extremists ignoring expertly detailed evidence to the contrary and inviting congregations to gather. The two characteristics were also exhibited to breathtaking degree in the Catholic community by First Things editor R.R. Reno and by the irrepressible Cardinal Raymond Burke.

Who can guess Reno's motivation for taking the holier-than-thou contrarian route and urging that churches remain open and conduct services? On the other hand, we're accustomed to the good cardinal's eccentricities, most of which, given his current removal from any perch of power, can be ignored. But his encouragement to his determined base of admirers and others who find some solace in his traditionalist formulations is downright dangerous in the current moment.

The recent Sunday Gospel reading about the healing of a blind man is apt to our circumstance today. The takeaway rests not on the legalists of the day who would have prevented the healing on the Sabbath but on Jesus' disregard for the rigors of law when it came to helping the other. That's the mandate for this day, and if our faith can't recognize that or is not up to that task, then perhaps something's been missing in all those times we were gathered in church.

It is no small irony that as Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign appears headed toward the exit, the party that loves to mock his social and economic vision is becoming socialist to a degree that would make a Marxist blush. As the potential consequences of the pandemic became clearer, Congress quickly passed two bills designed to alleviate the effects. The first provides $8.3 billion for measures to fight the virus. The second bill is a $100 billion measure that expands paid sick and medical leave for some workers, provides free testing for the virus for anyone, and extends unemployment insurance and food assistance programs.

At this writing, a third bill, and the most ambitious, a nearly $2 trillion package, is stalled in the Senate as Democrats seek greater guarantees of accountability over how billions are spent and argue for conditions on bailing out corporations, as well as consideration of workers before businesses. The package would include direct payments to most Americans as well as help for small businesses.

In the aftermath of 9/11, we often said to one another that the world had changed. In the worst ways, it actually had not changed much. Not when we answered violence with even more violence; not when what we were told we could do was to go shopping.

This is an even more widespread and potentially devastating threat. It has stopped us in our tracks and is forcing far more fundamental questions about who we are and what we will become, about what it means to believe and what our communities of faith mean in a time of extended lockdown and quarantine.

How we answer them will determine our direction in the future. If we are divested enough of our differences by the time fear no longer governs our approaches to one another, perhaps we can muster the humility that is alien to the religion of self-sufficiency. That will be essential if we wish to make deeper investments in the common humanity we're being forced to acknowledge.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... April 3-16, 2020 The lockdown lesson: We need one another

Editorial: How do women convince a male clerical culture to change?

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Several of the signatories of the petition to Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, stand together in front of a statue of Pope John Paul II near Mumbai's Holy Name Cathedral March 8. (Courtesy of Astrid Lobo Gajiwala)
Several of the signatories of the petition to Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, stand together in front of a statue of Pope John Paul II near Mumbai's Holy Name Cathedral March 8. (Courtesy of Astrid Lobo Gajiwala)

Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias had to know when he declared that he had undergone a conversion and was now an advocate for women seeking leadership roles in the global church that those words would not be the last on the subject.

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Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, at the Vatican in 2014 (CNS/Paul Haring)
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, at the Vatican in 2014 (CNS/Paul Haring)

Gracias made his comments during a Feb. 21 interview with NCR's Vatican correspondent, Joshua McElwee. Gracias is not just any cardinal. The archbishop of Mumbai, he is also president of the Indian bishops' conference and a member of Pope Francis' Council of Cardinals.

One might reasonably conclude that his conversion to the cause is one more step in the often painfully slow walk toward the inevitability that women in the Catholic world may at some point be restored to the status appropriate to those who were first to witness the empty tomb.

But the daunting question — how to get from here to there? — hangs over the best intentions.

And there is much to overcome. After all, from the imagination of an all-male, celibate, secretive culture have come such ideas about women as malformed males, seductresses, the equivalent of fertile containers, walking incubators, the frail and witless inferior sex. Women were once defined by an ancient male clerical motto: "aut maritus, aut murus" (either a husband or a cloister wall).

More recent attempts at understanding have found male celibates swooning over the splendors of virginity, expounding tortuous theories about "feminine genius," and mansplaining, in the sincerest tones they can muster, how ordination has nothing to do, really, with power, but everything to do with service.

The reality, easily observable, is that most of the service in the church, especially in the form of ministry and teaching, is done by women. The power to decide resides almost exclusively (rare exceptions exist) with ordained men.

Lay leaders in the church, the majority of whom are women, have taken on abundant responsibility yet have little authority to decide how to exercise that responsibility.

Gracias was speaking primarily about giving recognition to women who have taken on the bulk of leadership in parishes and dioceses. He admitted that the church hierarchy has a bias against giving women leadership roles in the church and said he and others must "shed this prejudice."

"I am now an advocate for women's rights in the church," he said. "I empathize with why women are asking for greater rights."

It didn't take long for women in India to take up the cardinal and offer to help him in his new cause. He was delivered a three-page memorandum signed by about 150 Catholic women in India, a church that in 2010 passed a gender policy, thought to be the first of its kind in the global church, that "rejects all types of discrimination against women as being contrary to God's intent and purpose."

The women's memorandum asks for "changes in the policies, practices and structures of the Church so that women can participate fully in … leadership."

The heavy lift, of course, will be finding like-minded advocates in the all-male clerical culture who will acknowledge that "discrimination" is the term that describes treatment of women in the church.

It is the fundamental premise of the memo: "Women continue to be discriminated against by keeping them out of decision-making bodies of the Church, which are controlled by clerics. Women have no say in the policy-making that shapes the liturgy, worship, theology and practices of the church, including those that affect their own lives."

That is as clear a description of the essential disagreement as one might find. And the ages-old conundrum remains: How do women convince a clerical culture whose members claim that their ordination, available only to men, grants them a status apart from other humans, to enact reforms that would diminish that status and end exclusivity?

Gracias has set himself a formidable task.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... March 20-April 2, 2020 Women do the work of the church but have little authority

Editorial: Coronavirus, uncertainty and the unseen put world on hold

This article appears in the Coronavirus feature series. View the full series.

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A man wearing a mask for protection from the coronavirus carries groceries in Rome March 10. Italy is in a state of lockdown with extreme measures imposed on the entire country to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (CNS/Paul Haring)

All of Italy is in lockdown. The streets of Rome are empty. The pope is saying private Masses and giving virtual, disembodied blessings via big screen in St. Peter's Square.

The cup is gone from most churches. Communion in the hand is for some a cause of great fear. Elbow bumps replace handshakes. Smiles acknowledge, at a distance, that they will have to suffice for embraces.

Cancellations are filling the calendar. Hand washing and alcohol wipes have become as much a part of daily routine as cell phones. Beware everything you touch.

March 2020 may eventually go down as the month that turned our world on its head, or slowed it to a crawl, or at least made us, more than usual, think about the precariousness of the ordinary and the power of the unseen.

The coronavirus has leaped from a Chinese seafood and poultry market late in 2019 to become a "global health emergency," according to the World Health Organization, spread at this writing to more than 70 countries, making tens of thousands ill and killing more than 3,000.

Most of us, the experts say, won't die. Most of us, they tell us, won't even get ill, or at least not seriously. But the uncertainty, the unknowing, is what most disrupts routine, wreaks havoc with everyday confidence.

Where is it? Who might have it? How, exactly, do you get it? What should we stay away from? Where might we go without too much fear?

Indeed, what do we make of all of this from a foundation of faith? Can we use the moment to see beyond the threat?

Trials, we know from our history and sacred texts, can bring clarity and deeper understanding.

The frightening clarity revealed in the United States is that shredding the truth and denigrating scientists and other experts has consequences when crisis strikes. Whom to believe? President Donald Trump when he is declaring before experts during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control that he is some manner of medical genius who understands all about the virus because of a gene pool that includes an unidentified uncle who graduated from MIT?

Do we believe him when he contradicts the experts?

Can we believe the experts who have seen other longtime colleagues in similar circumstances fired for telling the truth or leaving their posts because they've had it with the assaults on essential bureaucracies? Are the experts ushered to the podium beside the president telling us all they can or are they hedging, fearful that they'll be the next to go if they challenge Trump's alternate universe? Might they be hedging knowing that there's no one behind them to tell even a bit of the truth?

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President Donald J. Trump tours the viral pathogenesis laboratory March 3 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

The president boasts that we have done "great" because we closed borders. He likes to brag about that, but it's barely partially true. Our preparedness otherwise is woefully deficient. We've been way behind other countries in our testing procedures.

And when tests are finally available, big questions remain: Who gets tested? Where? How much will it cost? Does insurance cover it? Will extra help be hired to administer the tests? Can we imitate other countries that have drive-through testing?

The handoff to Vice President Mike Pence in recent days has brought a modicum of sobriety and professionalism to the response. But way behind the curve, the country is still in the planning and getting-it-together stage with nothing yet in place.

If the tragedy of this administration's assaults on truth and competence are painfully revealed, also bared is our long descent as a culture into a kind of socialized cruelty.

The roller coaster stock market reaction to the coronavirus is worrisome to a certain level of American society. At the other end of the spectrum, however, people have entered survival mode in terror of contracting the disease for a host of reasons, not least that getting to a low-wage job each day is essential to putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads.

As The Washington Post reported March 9, businesses are putting out lots of hand sanitizer, but when it comes to workers, there's no guarantee of sick leave.

"Although most Americans say businesses should offer sick pay, at least a dozen states, including Florida and much of the Southeast, have passed legislation since 2011 to block efforts to require medical leave," according to the report. And even in more liberal states that require sick leave, companies get around it by listing their workers as "contractors."

Rick Scott, former Florida governor and now a Republican senator from the state, stated the bare-knuckle rationale when he said as governor that stopping an initiative in Orlando to require sick leave was "essential to ensuring a business-friendly environment."

In a statement to the Post on March 9, Scott said about sick leave in light of the coronavirus, "businesses should have the ability to make the best decisions for their employees."

Perhaps they have that ability. The question, though, is whether business, at its paternalistic best, would choose to do what's best for their employees. Not much of a record exists to suggest that's normally the case.

It is no small irony that in a moment when we most need the assurance and support of community, we are advised to avoid others. While we wait, perhaps we can use the down time to consider with gratitude those who labor when there is no crisis, in hidden and unheralded ways, to keep us safe.

Perhaps our brush with uncertainty can also serve as entryway to solidarity with those who live regularly in uncertain and precarious circumstances. Some of us may have to contend with closed schools, altered liturgies, cancelled conferences and vacations and working from home. Consider those who, even when there is no crisis, live on the edge, in the low-wage sector, without voice and dependent on what business might think is best for them.

At a time when the common good becomes paramount and the only entity large enough to accommodate that good is government, we are left to the bumbling of an administration committed to crude diminishment of institutions and to demeaning the role of government.

The contrasts and the deficiencies which might nag around the edges in normal times become glaring in a crisis.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... March 20-April 2, 2020 Coronavirus is uncertainty

Editorial: The pope is NOT upset with Fr. James Martin

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Pope Francis, right, during a private meeting with Jesuit Fr. James Martin, author and editor at large of America magazine, at the Vatican Sept. 30, 2019 (CNS/Vatican media)

A sequence of events unfolded in recent days — a "What did the pope really say?" intrigue — that might have the quality of a Molière comedy, except that, in the end, the hidden whisper campaign misrepresented the pope and was aimed at destroying a good priest's reputation. Worse, it further fueled the most extreme fringe of the Catholic right and its insane fixation on homosexuality.

The plot had its beginnings in the recent ad limina visit to the Vatican of bishops from Region XIII, an area covering Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The visit included a conversation with Pope Francis.

On their return, Catholic News Agency announced to the world that "several" bishops, who remain anonymous, told them that the pope was quite upset, even angry, with Jesuit Fr. James Martin, who has a noted ministry to the Catholic LGBT community. The object of the pope's concern, said the anonymous several bishops, was the way Martin was characterizing his celebrated meeting with the pope last September. They also said that his Jesuit superiors had called him to task about his ministry and that the pope had actually given him a "talking to."

Some clarity is necessary here. Do not mistake Catholic News Agency (CNA) for Catholic News Service (CNS). The former, which posted the anonymously source drubbing of Martin, is affiliated with EWTN, which we've previously profiled in our series on the far-right Catholic money and entities attempting to fashion a narrow Catholic narrative for the wider culture. It is a narrative that can't imagine a church that would embrace and celebrate its LGBT members with the same warmth and enthusiasm as it welcomes others.

CNS, on the other hand, is the official news service of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. While it might not engage in reporting that would rock the institutional barque, it is honest and professional in what it does and would never trade in this sort of transparently shoddy attempt to smear.

The tale took a remarkable turn, however, when Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, decided to go public to refute the CNA account.

"Our meeting with the Pope lasted almost two hours and forty-five minutes, so it is difficult for anyone to remember with precision anything that was said," he wrote. "However, the general tone of the Pope's responses to issues raised with him was never angry, nor do I remember the Pope saying or implying that he was unhappy with Father Martin or his ministry."

He also said that while Martin and his ministry were discussed, it was not the pope who raised it but rather some bishops.

Following Wester's Feb. 21 account, Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming, stepped up to say publicly that Wester's response "accurately describes the tone and substance of the short dialogue regarding Fr. James Martin."

Martin himself, thanking Wester on social media, said he's never had a "talking to" and "never heard anything negative from Jesuit superiors."

It is important to understand some of the back story contained in the reporting of NCR national correspondent Heidi Schlumpf about the incident. The author of the "report" was J.D. Flynn, CNA's editor in chief who previously worked in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, and the Denver Archdiocese, at the latter under Archbishop Charles Chaput, a noted Francis critic. Days before the CNA article appeared, Flynn had authored a piece critical of Martin in the conservative publication First Things.

It is enough to say here that websites labeling themselves Catholic have engaged in absolutely unhinged homophobia and made Martin a primary target. That bishops — dare we point out that they are fellow priests — should provide even the slightest legitimacy to such dangerous thinking is horrifying.

In the current atmosphere, and given the traditional standards of secrecy and silence among the episcopal culture, the church owes a deep debt of gratitude to Wester and Biegler for their courage in supporting a good priest and setting the record straight on their conversation with Francis.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... March 6-19, 2020 The pope is not upset with Fr. James Martin

Editorial: 'Querida Amazonia' has flaws of omission but gives us plenty to act on

This article appears in the Synod for the Amazon feature series. View the full series.

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Pope Francis is pictured with Cardinal Pedro Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo, Peru, during a procession at the start of the first session Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 7, 2019. (CNS/Vatican Media)

Querida Amazonia, the document containing Pope Francis' thoughts on the recently concluded synod on the Amazon, is a profoundly loving and detailed embrace of an endangered segment of the globe and of its indigenous cultures.

That embrace is only possible because of the searing critique it also contains of the rapacious nature of dominant economies, originating largely in what previous popes have termed "the rich North," that savage the land and destroy culture. This current apostolic exhortation is not an expression of blind love but rather a love tested by enormous risk. Placing the church on the side of the powerless inhabitants of the Amazon region and squarely in the path of those, many Catholics included, who live well at the expense of that region, is not a route to easy popularity.

While the exhortation keys primarily on the effects of powerful forces that marginalize huge numbers of people and mindlessly exploit the planet, it also confronts the reality of sacramental poverty that endangers the very soul of communities throughout the Amazon region. Given that context, the undertaking was daunting from the start and disappointing in some respects at the end.

If there is consensus in the wide-ranging analysis of Francis' "synodal process" it would be that it is different from the past. And it certainly is.

Where once synods constituted a kind of papal performance art, discrete events well-choreographed, with clean lines, dull scripts and predictable outcomes, Francis from the outset raised new expectations. He drained the process of the fear of being wrong or of offending prevailing certitudes. He consistently invites the kind of "messiness" that can be disconcerting to some but is a result of a community that is not static and self-satisfied.

Francis has requested robust discussion, specifically encouraged those who disagreed to speak up and repeatedly said no topics are off the table. It is very clear he has sidelined those who loved to throw about anathemas. He has closed off the inbound lane once filled with the traffic of theologians and other thinkers who kept some offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith busy finding ways to silence them. Not even his severest critics, who range wildly into fantasies of papal heresy, are called before the court.

All of that unprecedented openness understandably sets up unprecedented expectations. Can substantial change be far behind?

The tension between such reasonable expectations and what in actuality can happen is evident in the pages of the document itself. Its soaring rhetoric, which inexorably bends toward poetry as the only adequate expression of certain themes, its boundless, cosmic portrayal of Christ in time and nature, all of it comes squarely against a stifling conformity. The expansive and generous depictions of inculturation — in symbol, practice, ministry — come hard against a seemingly ossified understanding of community.

A considerable gap exists between the vision that sacred imagination can provide and the rigidity of our laws and customs. The document can rebuke those who think the only way to evangelize is the imposition of Western traditions on Amazonian culture, but in the end, dealing with the most essential spiritual needs of the community, that is precisely what happens. Our laws have not yet caught up with our imagination. We remain stuck thinking that unity is synonymous with uniformity.

Another significant difference in Francis' approach to synods is his understanding of these meetings as part of a far more extensive process than previously imagined. He has taken steps to decentralize the church and to divest the clerical and especially hierarchical culture of its privilege and isolation from ordinary believers. He apparently sees the gatherings in Rome as special moments, but only moments on a continuum along which synodality — a kind of collegial approach to making decisions about the life of the community, from the local to global levels — is a guiding practice.

It is a magnificent vision, inherently trusting of God's activity in ordinary lives and places. But it also, in practice, requires skills alien to bishops who have risen through a culture hostile to unsettling questions. It is disorienting for those hierarchs who served under previous popes when power was highly centralized and adherence to law and dogma was paramount. It requires acceptance of change and ambiguity. It requires entering deeply into the life of the community.

We're obviously not there.

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Indigenous people stand on the banks of the Xingu River during a media event in Brazil's Xingu Indigenous Park Jan. 15, 2020. (CNS/Reuters/Ricardo Moraes)

Another major shortcoming in the synodal process as envisioned by Francis is a lack of method for getting from one point to the next. The flaw is evident in his exhortation. It is small consolation to women to have a pope advocate for inculturation and to speak glowingly of women's role in preserving the church but refuse to budge on the question of ordaining women deacons. What precisely does it mean to allow women "access to positions … that better signify the role that is theirs" and that "reflects their womanhood"? Little but dissonance is generated by that last phrase when employed with certainty out of an all-male, secretive culture that has, for centuries, demonstrated how ill-informed it is about women.

And what happened to the request for ordaining respected and elder lay men in the community? Why did that disappear from Francis' consideration? It is a puzzling omission, particularly given the fact that bishops from the region requested such consideration and that exceptions to the celibacy rule are abundantly evident in the developed world and Eastern rite churches in union with Rome.

It is further confounding because bishops who spent an enormous amount of time preparing for and participating in the synod overwhelmingly asked for the exception only to find it completely ignored in the pope's reflections. What expectation can Francis have of the good faith of other bishops when they know that their work and requests can be simply disregarded?

Synodality, if it is to be a process, is in need of more predictability and accountability.

And so, perhaps, we just add to the messiness. It is not an idle observation, however, to say that compared to what went before, we prefer the new pathway that Francis has opened, as well as the language he has given the community. Those of us in the rich north, discouraged as some might be by the lack of movement on certain issues, have more than enough to ponder and to act on, given our participation in a global economy at the heart of the problem. As the document states: "The interest of a few powerful industries should not be considered more important than the good of the Amazon region and of humanity as a whole."

The charge to all of us is implicit in Francis' appeal that we "sit around the common table, a place of conversation and of shared hopes."

A version of this story appeared in the paper... March 6-19, 2020 'Querida Amazonia' gives plenty to act on

Editorial: Hypocrisy on display in Duquesne's religious liberty win

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A crucifix created by Austrian artist Jos Pirkner is seen on the campus of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. (Wikimedia Commons/Alekjds)
A crucifix created by Austrian artist Jos Pirkner is seen on the campus of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. (Wikimedia Commons/Alekjds)

The First Amendment enshrines principles that our nation needs to uphold even when we deplore the outcome. The protections of speech and of the press allow Fox News or talk radio hosts to say deplorable things. The right to assembly extends to the Ku Klux Klan, and the right to petition the government can result in lobbyists seeking preferential treatment for their clients that hurts the common good.

No rights are absolute, however. The people's right to life limits anyone's right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded auditorium when there is no fire. The KKK can gather, but their gatherings cannot incite violence. A lobbyist can seek to persuade a public official, but cannot offer a bribe. When rights conflict with one another, the courts must step in to adjudicate.

In recent weeks, the courts rendered decisions in two cases involving First Amendment guarantees of the free exercise of religion. We agree with both decisions, but we deplore one of the outcomes.

In Arizona, four activists who belong to the group "No More Deaths/No Más Muertes," an official ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, were charged with breaking the law when they placed water and food for migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona's Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

The plaintiffs argued that they could not be prosecuted because the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act bars the federal government from placing a substantial burden on their exercise of their religion in the absence of a compelling state interest. What is more, the government must pursue that compelling interest in a manner that least burdens the religious exercise in question.

The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are exceedingly clear on the moral necessity of caring for the migrant. Matthew 25 — "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink ... a stranger and you welcomed me" — is presented by Jesus as the measure by which we shall be judged. There is no more central ethical command than this.

The government failed to provide any good, let alone compelling, rationale for its action against the activists. At one point in the case, the government argued it had a compelling interest in preventing littering in the refuge. U.S. District Judge Rosemary Marquez was not buying it: "The Court finds that Defendants demonstrated that their prosecution for this conduct substantially burdens their exercise of sincerely held religious beliefs, and that the Government failed to demonstrate that prosecuting Defendants is the least restrictive means of furthering any compelling governmental interest."

The other case started in 2012, when adjunct faculty of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh voted to form a union, and the local labor relations board certified the election. In 2018, a panel at the National Labor Relations Board agreed with the local decision, and the university sued, citing its First Amendment right to freely exercise religion without government interference, also appealing to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Earlier this month, the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia sided with the university, citing multiple precedents denying the NLRB jurisdiction over religious institutions.

We appreciate the constitutional rationale for keeping the government out of religious institutions' business, but unlike the activists in Arizona, Duquesne University was not exercising the Catholic faith, nor acting in accord with a sincerely held religious tenet, when it refused to allow its workers to unionize.

In fact, Duquesne and other Catholic schools that have fought adjunct unions are opposing a long-held tenet of Catholic social teaching: that workers have a right to form unions and bargain collectively for a just wage, as Pope Leo XIII wrote in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. Pope John Paul II called unions "indispensable" and dedicated his first social encyclical to the dignity of work. Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate wrote:

The repeated calls issued within the Church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.

The lack of a "deeply held belief" is one of the requirements to defeat a claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. There is no "deeply held belief" that is also Catholic that justifies Duquesne's stance. The courts should be skeptical when a religious organization fails to live up to the standards set by its own most obvious teachers.

The last thing we want is for the federal government to begin deciding what is and is not an orthodox belief in our church or in any other. But it is well past time that the myriad organizations of the Catholic Church — most especially schools and hospitals — stop providing a counterwitness to the teachings of the church by blocking workers' attempts to organize.

This is especially acute, given that the workers in this case are among some of the most mistreated in what some call the "gig academy." Contingent faculty — including part-time adjuncts paid by the course and graduate students who teach — make up 70% of all higher education faculty, according to data shared at a 2018 meeting of the College Theology Society.

The average adjunct in the U.S. earns less than $3,000 per class and receives no benefits. If they are able to patch together a full course load, adjuncts still make only $25,000 a year or less. Nearly a third of part-time faculty live near or below the poverty line, and a quarter receive Medicaid or food stamps, according to the 2018 College Theology Society presentation.

The U.S. bishops have made the protection and promotion of religious liberty a central concern in the past decade. When their pursuit of that principle leads them to look the other way when their organizations run roughshod over their own social teachings, something is awry.

If they want the social teachings of the church to be taken seriously, they should begin practicing what they preach. The protection of religious liberty they claim to want is surely most endangered by the kind of rank hypocrisy on display at Duquesne University.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Feb 21-March 5, 2020 Hypocrisy on display in Duquesne's religious liberty win

Editorial: Heroes of the impeachment imbroglio


A political protester is seen Feb. 5 on Capitol Hill in Washington. President Donald Trump was later acquitted by the U.S. Senate on two articles of impeachment that same day. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

It's reasonable to feel that the U.S. Senate's failure to convict President Donald Trump, or even hear needed testimony, is cause for despair about the future of the country.

Yet there were bright spots in the process, heroes who stepped up and recognized truth at a time when falsehood is the coin of the political realm.

The highest profile among them belongs to Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the only Republican to vote to convict Trump. He spoke in the Senate chamber and righteously declared he was inspired by religious faith to take seriously his oath to God. Romney, of course, is the nation's most famous Mormon. His brief but powerful explanation of his vote on the Senate floor was a lesson for all in engaging principle and conscience. His speech only made more apparent the absence of an appeal to conscience among other Republican politicians, Catholics and others, or discussion of moral obligations. We heard lots about what a political mistake impeachment was.

Less recognized were the Democrats holding tenuous seats, who were willing to do the right thing and vote to convict this president. They include senators from slightly red leaning states such as Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and those representing bold red states, such as Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — two places where Trump garnered more than 62 and 68% of the vote, respectively, in 2016. It is hard to see anything but an exercise of conscience in service of principle, especially for Jones and Manchin, given the fact that they knew ahead of time that their votes would have no effect at all on the outcome, and could only present them with political jeopardy.

Others, on the periphery of the process, stepped forward. Among them was Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who, after Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky sneakily slipped him a question intended to divulge the name of the civil servant who blew the whistle on the Ukraine escapade, declined to play along.

George Conway, a Federalist Society conservative lawyer, has been zealous in calling out the crimes of the Trump Administration, clearly risking his Republican bonafides in the process, and, perhaps, disturbing the domestic tranquility of family life with wife Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump.

Special attention belongs to those of lower rank, laborers in the vast federal bureaucracy, who when called upon, simply told the truth of what they saw and heard. These heroes included Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, who compellingly testified to the harassment she experienced from the Trump outlaws while doing her job in a sensitive and unglamorous diplomatic outpost.

Fiona Hill, the former White House Russia expert and aide to John Bolton, said what her boss didn't. She has a lot to lose as part of the Republican apparatus and will be left adrift, still representing a bygone era when Republicans could be counted upon to warn about Russia.

William Taylor Jr., career diplomat, came out of retirement to serve as ambassador to Ukraine, and questioned the quid pro quo the Trump team was promoting.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated war veteran, now attacked by the acolytes of the draft dodger president who, as a young man confronted with the Vietnam-era draft, conveniently suffered from mysterious bone spurs. Vidman questioned the notorious call to Ukraine early on, and was transferred out of the White House as a result.

Unsung hero Jennifer Williams, aide to Vice President Mike Pence, apparently told the truth about Pence's communications with Rudolph Giuliani, and the discussions about the machinations around her boss avoiding the Ukraine presidential inauguration. Her career is still young, and she is likely not feeling welcome around the White House these days.

It took Gordon Sondland a while, and he is not all that sympathetic as a million dollar fat cat donor to Trump, but he did testify truthfully, in his role as ambassador to the European Union, that Trump's expectation of a quid pro quo was beyond doubt.

So, take heart, not everyone failed. Many provided inspiration in this imbroglio, heroes who stepped up and did the right thing. But there were enough goats as well, those who failed miserably, making it easy to question the state of the nation in this Age of Trump. There remains reason to fear that more heroes may be required before this national nightmare is over.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Feb 21-March 5, 2020 Heroes of the impeachment imbroglio

Editorial: Reaping what we sow in the impeachment trial

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The U.S. Capitol in Washington is seen at night Jan. 21. The Senate debated the rules for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump that same night. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)
The U.S. Capitol in Washington is seen at night Jan. 21. The Senate debated the rules for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump that same night. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

As President Donald Trump was ready for acquittal in his Senate impeachment trial, a brief discussion of the role of Christian faith emerged amid the chaos.

For those believers who never bought into the Trump cult, even when he has dangled tax cuts and Supreme Court appointments, the Scriptures offered some solace.

Senate Chaplain Barry Black provided pertinent words in his opening prayer for the trial session Jan. 31. Those who listened carefully to Black over the trial noticed how he was offering, not just prayers, but some heavenly counsel to the gathered Senate jurors. He didn't disappoint those seeking hope amid the political orgy of dishonesty offered by the president's defenders. Every day, Black would plead to the heavens for courage and integrity.

Alas, he got little of both.

While Trump slipped through the Senate trial, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), while saying he would vote to acquit the president*, at least provided a rationale that acknowledged truth.

That is a low bar. But the fever that afflicts the former Party of Lincoln, now largely consigned to a cult around the man who dominates the political landscape, caused most Republican Senators to abandon even that pitiful standard.

Alexander, who is soon to retire, was able to say what the long-televised trial, which at times had the numbing impact of watching a croquet tournament, undoubtedly proved. Trump had in fact called for the announcement of an investigation into a domestic political rival in exchange for the promise of aid for Ukraine. Yes, there was a quid pro quo.

It happened, but we'll just look the other way this time, Alexander proclaimed, ending a distinguished career, not as a profile in courage but landing in midair.

Give Alexander some credit, however. He was willing to jump off the flat earth caucus among his fellow Republicans, acknowledging what was clear.

"The question then is not whether the president did it, but whether the United States Senate or the American people should decide what to do about what he did. I believe that the Constitution provides that the people should make that decision in the presidential election," said Alexander, who added, "Let the people decide."

That was at least better than formerly prestigious Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. In his defense of Trump, Dershowitz said that Congress should not convict Trump if the president’s actions in pursuit of re-election were motivated by a belief that his reelection would further the greater interests of the nation.

Some worried that the Senate had conferred kingly power on to the president. Hail the Great Leader! We have just nudged a bit closer to North Korea.

Wannabe witness John Bolton will now testify, not in a Senate trial, but on his book tour, offering nuggets of revelations of skullduggery and cover-up, while Republican senators try to explain why they didn't want to hear from a prime witness.

It was left to Black to summarize the proceedings with his Jan. 31 prayer.

"Remind our senators that they alone are accountable to you for their conduct," Black said. "Lord, help them to remember that they can't ignore you and get away with it. For we always reap what we sow."

Amen, brother.

*This article has been edited to clarify Alexander's stance.