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Editorial: There's no national emergency except for US injustices


Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America, trying to reach the United States, walk next to the border wall Dec. 8, 2018, as they try to cross into the U.S from Tijuana, Mexico. (CNS/Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

The narrative constructed by President Donald Trump about our southern border is crude and incorrect, elaborate in its ignorance and enticing to those who need the comfort of someone other to fear and to blame for life's difficulties.

There is no national emergency on this side of the border, except that caused by caging children and separating families.

There is no emergency on this side of the border except in the ongoing illusion that the parents and children seeking asylum are terrorists and drug dealers.

The real emergency on this side of the border is our refusal to square up with the truth of the displacement of thousands so desperate to survive and to seek a better life for their families they are willing to risk the dangers of the long trek from Central America.

"It is imperative that we focus on human rights violations as a cause and not just a consequence of migration," writes Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas in his reflection "To honor Jakelin and Felipe, we must have justice at the border," in memory of two Guatemalan children who died while in U.S. detention.

Bañuelas, a theologian, pastor of St. Mark's Parish in the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, and chair of the Hope Border Institute, understands a dramatically different narrative, grounded in reality, one that begins to peel away the layers of falsehood and leads inevitably to a deeper look into the actual causes of the migration.

He traveled to Guatemala recently with a delegation from the Hope Border Institute to meet with the families of Jakelin and Felipe, promising that their deaths had inspired him to greater work for human rights of refugees, "especially the vulnerable young."

While there he also "encountered the conditions that drive people" to seek survival elsewhere. "I saw firsthand," he writes, "the impacts of climate change, of the palm oil industry on indigenous land rights, and of the lingering trauma of Central American conflicts."

That last one is of special importance, because Guatemala owns the distinction of having suffered one of the most extreme cases in this hemisphere of U.S. interference. It's long period of trauma extended from the overthrow of a duly elected government in the mid-1950s to years of interference by U.S. security apparatus in league with that country's generals and oligarchy to training in the U.S. of its armed forces, which committed ongoing and unspeakable atrocities against civilians, particularly the indigenous population. Today, it is a place easily exploited for its bountiful riches, such as lumber and minerals.

Can we face the fact that some of the worst of the exploitation occurred during the term of President Ronald Reagan — so often depicted as that sunny extension of American optimism — who found a way around U.S. law restricting military aid to that country and befriended as a champion Guatemalan Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, one of the bloodiest in a string of brutal dictator generals? Ríos Montt was convicted in 2013 of conducting a genocide against his country's indigenous people.

The real tragedy on this side of the border is that the administration, locked into its fantasy of danger at the border, has remained silent about the current Guatemalan government's plan to pass a bill that, as The New York Times reports, would "grant amnesty for war crimes committed during the country's brutal 36-year civil war." Guatemala's trauma has a long trail and profoundly disturbing effects.

In this time of turmoil in the church, witnesses like Bañuelas demonstrate its strength: advocating for the poor, those oppressed and without hope, while understanding the signs of the times. It is a supreme irony, of course, that we possess here what people so longingly seek while having so much to do with making conditions impossible elsewhere.

We join Bañuelas in his closing plea: "No more deaths. More justice."

This story appeared in the paper... March 22-April 4, 2019 There's no national emergency except for US injustices

Editorial: Banning a child from school is the real inconsistency


Debra Garza leads pre-kindergarten students on the first day of school Aug. 8, 2017, at St. Helen Catholic School in Pearland, Texas. (CNS/James Ramos)

Somewhere in Prairie Village in eastern Kansas is a youngster of kindergarten age whose first experience of Roman Catholicism was one of rejection. The child recently was refused admission to a Catholic school because the leader of that archdiocese holds that something is so wrong with the child's parents that the church is compelled to turn the child away.

Immediately it will be justly pointed out that that is but one way to view things, and that the church's decision could also be seen not as a rejection of the child, but of the parents and their insistence on remaining a couple — as well as the child's parents — even though they are of the same sex.

The Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, under Archbishop Joseph Naumann, has a very clear and understandable policy about it. In a statement issued to media, the archdiocese says it views every child as a gift from God and that its schools teach the "inherent dignity of every person," while also holding that not "every choice or behavior is consistent with our God-given dignity."

Civil law or not, says the statement, same-sex marriage is not consistent with the Catholic view of marriage. "Our schools exist to pass on the Catholic faith. Incorporated into our academic instruction and spiritual formation at every grade level," reads the statement, "are the teachings of the Catholic Church. It is important for children to experience consistency between what they are taught in school and what they see lived at home." In that logic, the children of same-sex couples — even those who agree to raise the children in the faith, take them to Mass and help them prepare for sacraments and volunteer at the school and so on — must be excluded.

"The challenge regarding same sex couples and our Catholic schools," the statement goes on, "is that same sex parents cannot model behaviors and attitudes regarding marriage and sexual morality consistent with essential components of the Church's teachings. This creates a conflict for their children between what they are taught in school and what is experienced at home. It also becomes a source of confusion for the other school children."

And that about ties things up. It is clear, logical, well thought out, consistent and leaves behind no trail of ambiguity, only a child who is told he or she, for reasons beyond their control, is not acceptable

Such a rejection may not loom large in the imagination of a kindergarten-aged child. He or she may not even know what happened. But what about us? The community? Are we OK with it? We, who have LGBT sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, friends, nieces, nephews?

St. Ann Catholic Church, at the epicenter of the controversy, seems an open and welcoming community with a significant number of members who want to see the archbishop's decision overturned. A petition being circulated — and signed by more than 1,000 people — raises essential issues: "Respectfully, we believe that the decision to deny a child of God access to such a wonderful community and education, based on the notion that his or her parent's union is not in accordance with the Church's teaching in Sacramental marriage, lacks the compassion and mercy of Christ's message."

That is not an idle claim. Can one imagine the circumstance where Jesus, who makes such elaborate claims about children, would first seek to make sure the documentation and protocol for their parents is all in proper order before summoning the little ones to approach him?

Indeed, does the archdiocese require a similar moral inventory of all other parents? Do they check to make sure that the behavior of each is consistent and in alignment with Catholic teaching? Do they inquire, since the fascination seems to be with sexual orientation (and no equivalence is intended here between sexual orientation and moral failure) and sexual ethics, of a couple's use of artificial birth control? Pills? IUDs? Condoms? Tubal ligations? Vasectomies? Do they require a sworn affidavit about marital fidelity?

Certainly any financial advisors among the parents will have been told that they can't recommend investments in any companies that in any way manufacture or promote contraceptives or abortifacients. And certainly the archdiocese has prohibited the children of parents who work at the weapons plant, the one that provides all the non-nuclear parts for nuclear weapons. Surely, they've been handed the stacks of papal documents condemning the manufacture and existence of such weapons.

What about the children of Protestant parents who, doctrinally, would be out of step with Catholic teaching on a number of scores?

Ah, say some of the monitors of orthodoxy, but those things are not immediately visible. They won't be discerned by elementary school children, they won't cause confusion.

But two dads? Two moms? That's visible and disruptive.

Perhaps to some. If that is a reason for opposition, then one must ask if the school might prohibit the children of the Muslim mother who wears a hijab or the Orthodox Jewish father who wears a yarmulke, symbols of fervent religious belief that would not permit of consistency with Catholic teaching. Wouldn't their children and others in the school be terribly confused? Or when it becomes widely known that a parent is a non-believer, maybe an ardent atheist, is his or her child sent packing?

Life for the purist, who hangs his faith on the faux orthodoxy that has sprung up as a peculiarity of U.S. Catholicism during the past 35 years, quickly gets messy and complicated. In this case, however, we have seen that sending children away from our schools is not the only alternative.

Life for the purist, who hangs his faith on the faux orthodoxy that has sprung up as a peculiarity of U.S. Catholicism during the past 35 years, quickly gets messy and complicated. 

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In 2010, there were nearly identical circumstances within months of each other in the Archdiocese of Denver and the Archdiocese of Boston. In Denver, Archbishop Charles Chaput, a noted culture warrior now of Philadelphia, stood stoutly behind the pastor who banned a child of same-sex parents, citing much the same rationale as Naumann.

In Boston, Cardinal Sean O'Malley had a quite different response. There a pastor's decision to bar a child of gay parents was reversed. "We believe that every parent who wishes to send their child to a Catholic school should have the opportunity to pursue that dream," said the superintendent of Catholic schools in Boston. "The archdiocese does not prohibit children of same sex parents from attending Catholic schools."

One view rests on two presumptions: First, that the leader of a small archdiocese in mid-America is so absolutely certain of the mind of God on this issue that he knows God would be forced to ban one of his most innocent from the community; and, second, that the Catholic community there is so fragile it is highly vulnerable to being knocked off course by life's inconsistencies.

The other view allows God some room for divine judgment in good time, doesn't put limits on God's graciousness or mercy and can't imagine Jesus ever turning a child away from the community because of his or her parents. The approach demonstrates a confidence that the community today can tolerate not having all of the answers absolutely and that a child's contact with it is far less threatening to its life and character than turning a child away.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... March 22-April 4, 2019 Bannign child from school is inconsistent

Pietà offers meaning amid the betrayal of the abuse crisis


(Wikimedia Commons/Stanislav Traykov)

Just inside St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, to the right, is Michelangelo's arresting sculpture, the Pietà. Layers upon layers present themselves for pondering. The wonder, initially, is that a piece of Carrara marble could yield such a luminous rendering of maternal agony. The young woman is resolute. She appears utterly exhausted in this moment of dismal uncertainty. The bloodied head of a son whose unpredictable, itinerant life ended on a hill of horrors, droops beyond her right arm. Her worry and anxiety are spent. Her burden now is death, a moment of emptiness. 

It is from this raw instant of humiliation, of futility and apparent abandonment — the joke in the legend proclaiming "King of the Jews" — that our hope springs. No Resurrection occurs without it.

Throughout the church in the United States, in varying degrees, people are wondering some version of: "What do we do next? What can we do?"

It is a question that often arises out of a place of agony, a disposition of futility. We all know the phrase, "people of God." And we mouth the familiar, "We are the church." But in this instance, in our moment of dismal uncertainty, what does that mean?

The questions arise, of course, in the wake of the latest round of sex abuse revelations, new disclosures of mostly old patterns of criminal behaviors and the cover-up of those crimes by men called our bishops, men we trusted implicitly.

In a half turn away from the Pietà toward the front of the massive basilica, a sense of displacement takes hold. Without oversimplifying or reducing a complex reality to caricature, the fact is that at one level the edifice contains a telling narrative.

From the enormous and ornate baldachin, the canopy above the papal altar, with its four "colossal, twisted columns, splendidly fluted" in the Vatican's explanation, to the equestrian statue of Emperor Charlemagne and a statue of Constantine at the rear of the church, to the 26 monuments to popes, a dissonance sets in. The floor contains markings showing how much larger the basilica is than the largest churches in the world. The Vatican description boasts that the vault is equivalent to a 15-story building.

How did we get from the Pietà to the rest of it? What Gospel was followed to move from the abject and dispossessed alienation of a first-century execution to the excesses of a Renaissance court?

No matter how well-intended and how sincerely devoted to God's purposes the grandeur attempts to express, it is also apparent that the embellishments of some 500 years have created a memorial to papal and clerical culture that make the Pietà an outlier.

There is a wonderful line in Pope Benedict XVI's second volume on Jesus: "This reversal of proportions is one of God's mysteries. The great — the mighty — is ultimately the small."

The church is being made small in this current, major humiliation. The bishops themselves are no longer hedging, acknowledging publicly that they've lost their moral credibility. In many ways the Catholic community has become a point of ridicule, living proof for some that faith is an absurdity and that religious practice is tantamount to engaging in a fraud that ultimately is dangerous to children.

The grandeur — the gold and silk and remnants of royal culture and behavior that have woven themselves into our practice — now feels cheap and tawdry, excess horribly out of place in this moment of humiliation.

What can we do? Having been humiliated, how do we now live in authentic humility?

We can construct our own new laments. No permission needed. We need only know how to pray, how to read the Psalms, how to understand that nugget of Pauline insight: "Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more." While the bishops continue to negotiate their way to some settlement with this awful scandal, our work may be to find the path from transaction to transformation.

We need new prayers of grieving, new liturgical symbols that express the community's distress at this moment.

Perhaps we should regularly pray Mary's stirring Magnificat, particularly the lines: "He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty." The prayer, so often viewed as a prophetic cry relating to those outside the fold, is apt today as an ad intra assessment.

In that prayer we can imagine, with priests who care to join us, a new way of being church, new ways to express our faith that have to do with lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things. Becoming, as Francis has said, a church of the poor and the marginalized, of those who are the pietà of this era, provides a path beyond the monumental betrayal of the abuse crisis.

We are a community shaped by and responsive to symbols. The bishops, at a global level, might do well to have the papal chair in St. Peter's moved to the chapel at the right rear of the basilica and the Pietà moved in its place, front and center, our new focus of meditation.

Vatican's summit on abuse gets a mixed verdict

This article appears in the Vatican Abuse Summit feature series. View the full series.

CNS-summit 3 c.jpg

Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, Pope Francis, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and television reporter Valentina Alazraki of Televisa are pictured during the third-day of a meeting on the protection of minors in the church at the Vatican Feb. 23. (CNS/Vatican Media)

The recently completed meeting at the Vatican of heads of bishops' conferences from around the globe was the latest and most elaborate of the hierarchy's transactions with members of their own church and with the wider culture over clergy sex abuse. 

For a church that proclaims Jesus, this has been a long, slow slog toward truth-telling and accountability. The transactions — from denial to reluctant reform — have been going on since the scandal was first reported nearly 34 years ago.

The recent meeting has the potential to mark a large step forward in the church's efforts to deal with the scandal and regain the trust of Catholics and others. It is essential, however, to note two factors that significantly qualify the meeting's success.

First, the gathering itself, extraordinary as it may have been, was, like most other advances in dealing with the crisis, forced by outside circumstances. The bishops were not called to Rome because it was the right thing to do. They were summoned, in part, because of extreme pressure that had built up behind ongoing revelations in a grand jury report of hierarchical malfeasance and because of the abuse of a child and seminarians by a well-known cardinal.

Second, the bishops returned home having yet to answer that ancient question, a line from the poet Juvenal, "Who will guard the guards?"

At the same time, the meeting was meaningful for a number of reasons, not least of which:

  • It was finally an admission that the dual scandal of sexual abuse of children and minors by priests and the concomitant cover-up of the crimes by members of the hierarchy is a global phenomenon and requires radical rearrangement of church priorities if the behavior is to be stemmed and children protected.
  • It contained a stunning admission by German Cardinal Reinhard Marx that he was certain that documents relating to abuse had been destroyed in Germany. If the promises of transparency and accountability that permeated the meeting have any real meaning, leaders of this summit, the pope in particular, will be calling for an immediate and robust independent investigation of the issue. Who destroyed the documents? When? What period of time did they cover? How many cases were involved? Who in the Vatican was notified? If not, why not? A separate inquiry should be launched immediately to determine if other conferences around the world have destroyed documents.
  • It was a distinctive meeting not only because it was a first to gather the world's bishops to discuss this awful crisis but also because it included searing testimony by victims, a rousing declaration by a journalist and a pointed challenge to the hierarchy (with direct remarks to the pope) by a woman religious.
  • The bishops went home with marching orders, though sadly lacking in specifics, to devise plans for handling cases, including charges against bishops. The resulting plans are to be sent back and approved by the Vatican. The Vatican, for its part, promised a papal document laying out specific rules for how bishops are to handle abuse cases.

The verdict on the meeting, then, is mixed. It is simple justice to note that Pope Francis inherited a monumental mess and has done far more than either of his predecessors — and notably more than Pope John Paul II, during whose long reign the scandal emerged — to begin to change the clergy culture and hold bishops accountable.

At the same time, his strong words of resolve during the meeting were weirdly blunted by a long introductory segment in his closing speech, going through reams of data establishing that sex abuse occurs everywhere, not just inside the church. That is a fact undisputed but not the least bit exculpatory in the case of the church, where ministers of the Gospel committed heinous crimes against children and then were protected by a secretive episcopal culture.

The meeting made clear on a global scale that there is no more room for denial or equivocating or trying to place blame elsewhere. The voices heard during this unusual gathering all seemed to have come to the same conclusion: The clerical culture must change and bishops must become accountable.

 Anne Barrett Doyle of gave expression to the mixed verdict. She regretted the failure of the meeting to come up with concrete internal reforms. "But in a larger sense, it achieved a great deal," she said. It became a place where connections occurred "between journalists and survivors from many countries. This was public education on a massive scale," she said.

No doubt for some of the bishops, too.

This story appeared in the paper... March 8-21, 2019 Vatican’s summit on abuse gets a mixed verdict

Editorial: Systemic malady has deep roots in clerical culture

Reasons immediate and remote have merged to force a first meeting of its kind — the gathering in Rome in February of the heads of bishops' conferences around the world to discuss the global clergy sex abuse scandal.

John Carr, who directs the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University and who has spent most of his life working for bishops, had an apt characterization of the Feb. 21-24 event: It should have happened a long time ago, and it's a miracle it's happening.

Indeed, the scandal has been around a long time and, in hindsight, perhaps a progression can be detected as hierarchy and people moved through stages of denial to realization and accountability.

It has become clear during the past half-year that two occurrences caused the scandal to take hold of people's imagination in an entirely new way. The first was the revelation that the highly regarded former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had acted inappropriately with seminarians and was credibly accused of sexually abusing a child. The second was graphic accounts of abuse in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, including details of episcopal cover-up.

These were old incidents newly revealed, but they served to finally raise awareness that this was not a problem isolated in a dark corner of the church or the problem of "a few bad apples," or even the result of misunderstanding and mistakes.

It was instead, and remains, a systemic malady with its roots deep in a clerical culture that valued secrecy, privilege and power over the welfare of child victims and their families.

Something has definitely changed since last summer. Theologian and lawyer Cathleen Kaveny of Boston College, during a panel discussion last November, said, "I think that this iteration of the crisis has marked a turning point in how Catholics, especially American Catholics, are perceiving the church. … Many people now are not seeing the sex abuse crisis as an aberration within the system, but they're seeing it as something that runs throughout the system. That it is enabled by the system."

The disturbing question that follows, she said, is: "What would have to be true of the church and its culture for sex abuse like this not to be an aberration but to be something that's running through it?"

She went even deeper, saying we need "theological language" in discussing the scandal and a way "of reimagining our common life."

Such steps are for farther down the road. For the moment, it will be enough that the global church square up with the truth.

No four-day meeting in Rome could deal adequately with decades of crime and cover-up, much yet to be revealed in parts of the globe.

Some concrete measures must be taken, however, if the church is to find the path to healing and credibility and if trust between hierarchy and the rest of the community is ever to be restored. Those measures must include a firm, clear, global definition of zero tolerance and what happens when a member of the clergy is accused. Leaders must define clearly, for the worldwide church, what happens should an accusation be found credible. They must also include a new mechanism that is continually examining bishops worldwide and then holding them accountable when they do not handle an accusation appropriately.

The U.S. delegation takes a lot of hard-earned experience to the Rome conference. They should also carry another of Carr's messages that would be affirmed by a lot of Catholics: "The patience of the people of God is exhausted with the episcopal and clerical culture that puts itself first."

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Feb 22-March 7, 2019 Systemic malady has deep roots in clerical culture

Editorial: Is John Paul II the model for abortion debate?


New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is seen during a Midnight Mass at St Patrick's Cathedral Dec. 25, 2014, in the Manhattan borough of New York City. (CNS/Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

As the 2020 presidential campaign season begins to roll out and abortion remains singular in its ability to divide the electorate and swamp all other political issues, a bit of not-too-distant papal history may be instructive.

In 2001, in a public Mass in Rome marking the end of the church's jubilee year, Pope John Paul II, since sainted, distributed Communion to Rome's mayor, Francesco Rutelli, a high-profile Catholic and politician who earlier had led his party's campaign for liberalized abortion laws.

That fact was noted by conservative Vatican writer Sandro Magister weighing in during the flap over the presidential candidacy of John Kerry, a Catholic, in 2004. Magister at the time was commenting on a note by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the subject of abortion, politicians and Communion, as well as discussion among U.S. bishops about whether the then-senator should be refused Communion because of his permissive views on abortion.

Though Magister concluded that Ratzinger's directive would have come down on the side of refusing Communion — the U.S. bishops voted to leave it up to individual bishops — he made special note of the fact that "the rigorism of Ratzinger and the Holy See have for years lived side by side, in Italy and the rest of Europe, with a more flexible praxis, even at the highest levels of the Church." He recalled, specifically, the incident in which Rutelli received Communion from John Paul II. Further, Magister noted: "In Italy during the 1970's, other left-wing politicians even more closely connected than Rutelli with the Catholic sector, such as Piero Pratesi and Raniero La Valle, had given strong support to the introduction of the abortion law. But they were never denied communion. It was never even discussed."

Two years after that public Mass, John Paul, in a private Mass in the pope's apartment, distributed Communion to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom. Blair at the time was both a pro-choice politician and an Anglican. Perhaps John Paul was making a point for tolerance for political realities as well as for daring ecumenism.

Whatever the case, John Paul's example might provide a good model for U.S. bishops as some of those more inclined to be culture warriors seem eager to pick fights with politicians. There are also rumblings of threats to excommunicate New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for signing (and rather distastefully celebrating) the state's recent liberalized abortion law, which drops restriction to abortions after 24 weeks if the woman's life or health is at risk. To his credit, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who rightly points out the violence of late-term abortions in opposing the state law, also quickly stated that excommunication should not be used as a weapon or out of frustration.

New York is not the first to liberalize its abortion laws, and it is expected that others will follow with the growing possibility that the Supreme Court would reverse Roe v. Wade.

At the same time, if the bishops were to honestly assess what they've accomplished after more than 40 years of single-minded, single-issue politics, they might reconsider. Given that they've had more than four decades to persuade both Catholics and the wider culture of the wisdom of church teaching, any reasonable measure would term the effort a monumental failure.

A study last year by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life concluded: "Though abortion is a divisive issue, more than half of U.S. adults take a non-absolutist position, saying that in most — but not all — cases, abortion should be legal (34%) or illegal (22%). Fewer take the position that in all cases abortion should be either legal (25%) or illegal (15%)."

The only religious group registering a majority (61 percent) who think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases was white evangelical Protestants.

"By contrast, 74% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (67%)," the study concluded. Perhaps most surprising is that among Catholics, 51 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases while 42 percent say it should be illegal.

In other words, while politics has resulted in a packed Supreme Court that might well overturn Roe v. Wade in the not-too-distant future, the needle hasn't moved much in terms of the general culture. The figures have not changed a great deal over the decades. Extremes all along have determined the terms of debate. The broad middle, which would have a largely moderating influence, remains mostly unheard and irrelevant.

Perhaps passage of the New York law will foster a backlash, as some have predicted. More likely, should Roe be overturned, is that the extremes will then have dozens of states over which to continue a fight that appears to have no satisfactory end.

In the Catholic world, the primary debate is not over church teaching, though there are moralists and legalists and certainly women within the tradition but outside the power structure who raise demanding questions. The more immediate debate is over tactics in the real world. How best to raise the seriousness of the issue? To combat the need for it? To combat laws that allow it without limit? To persuade others — Catholics included, if the surveys are to be believed — to a point of view?

The bishops, unfortunately, have helped fuel one of the extremes. They've had 46 years with endless bulletin inserts, Washington rallies, threats against politicians, the harshest words for women who would even consider abortion, and political alliances that have jeopardized other compelling portions of the church's social teaching. All to accommodate this single issue.

They've won political battles, for certain, but at the cost of most of their political capital. In the doing, they've failed to persuade very many in any convincing pastoral sense.

The bishops had 46 years with endless bulletin inserts, Washington rallies, threats against politicians, the harshest words for women who would even consider abortion, and political alliances that have jeopardized other compelling portions of the church's social teaching.

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They've succeeded, instead, in hardening opinions and positions. In more recent years, they have set themselves up to be roundly criticized as hypocritical. They are members of a culture complicit in rationalizing the cover-up of what some have accurately called the "soul murder" of abused children while railing against the assault of children in the womb. They deemed it the expedient way to handle that problem.

The bishops may get to cheer the overthrow of Roe, but they will have done little to thwart the forces that gloat over having been able to successfully minimize the seriousness of abortion. The hierarchy's tactics in the public square never allowed the unconvinced to consider deeper truths about life and the need to protect it. Technology has certainly allowed us to understand fetal development in a more intimate way and with stunning clarity. That itself has convinced some to moderate their views. But countervailing advances in science increasingly allow much earlier detection of pregnancy and much easier access to pharmaceutical abortion performed in private.

If respect for life in all of its phases is the ultimate good, some political wins or victory at the Supreme Court will likely fall far short of that end. Maybe John Paul had a bigger picture in mind.

This story appeared in the paper... Feb 22-March 7, 2019 JP II: Model for abortion debate?

Editorial: Trump's false crisis adds to growing national unease

U.S. immigration policy is now reduced to a binary choice: money for a wall (that will never be built) or a government shutdown.

Riveting theater, with a first round to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Who will get round two? And what will it be like when President Donald Trump finally gives his State of the Union speech in the well of the House with cameras trained on Pelosi for her every reaction?

What legislative sleight of hand will she use to keep Trump, the president innocent of any governmental know-how, off balance?

We are becoming used to seeing significant issues reduced to a series of zero-sum episodes or presidential tweets that contain absurd assertions and simply incorrect information.

As put so well by Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson regarding the "crisis" at the border:

So far: President Trump has announced a crisis that isn't actually a crisis — requiring a wall that is not really a wall, funded by Mexican pesos that are really U.S. tax dollars — to keep out murderous migrants who are (as a whole) less violent than native-born Americans, leading to congressional negotiations that involve no actual negotiations, resulting in a government shutdown undertaken on the advice of radio personalities, defended in an Oval Office address that consisted of alarmism, prejudice, falsehood and other material caught in the P-trap of senior policy adviser Stephen Miller's mind.

Simply put, it is fraudulent, a made-up crisis. Call it government by shiny object, or by unmanageable impulse.

No sooner had the president lost that first round to Pelosi's superior understanding of both the law and public attitudes than Trump took to tweeting incendiary remarks Jan. 30 about his intelligence establishment. "The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!"

Intelligence officials the day before had briefed members of Congress on Iran, painting a far different picture of the country than that held by the president. In their assessment, Iran is in compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord and is not in the process of building a bomb.

Their report to Congress also contradicted Trump's assertions that the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will be destroyed and that there is a good chance that North Korea will denuclearize.

Such claims by a president in almost any earlier era would have been breathtaking, enough on their own to bring the government to a near stop. But this is Trump, and once again the complexities of a situation — even those that point to international progress — will be buried beneath the clatter of a winner-loser scenario. Who is right, Trump or the intelligence community?

What matters, of course, is not the truth and certainly not the complexity of the matter.

The debate over the border has produced mountains of evidence that Trump's once-wished-for "beautiful wall" along the entire expanse of the U.S.-Mexico border is, first, an impossibility and, second, not wanted by a lot of officials and people who live in the towns and cities along the border.

As NCR Bertelsen intern Maria Benevento reported several months ago from El Paso, Texas, the people in this sister city to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, don't recognize their home in the descriptions from afar.

El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz said that for those at a distance, the border can seem "a place where one reality ends and another begins. ... For us it's a place of passage, it's a place of encounter, it's a place you cross in order to join your family; it's not this place of armies confronting one another."

What actually is happening in Iraq and Syria, not to mention North Korea, is lost in the blizzard of assertions based on a preconceived narrative that has little to do with reality.

The question that lies beneath the growing burden of the alarmism, fear-mongering and sheer fiction dispensed by this administration is: Will the institutions that mold democracy and hold it together survive?

The fraudulence and deception reached a critical mass in the standoff that led to a government shutdown. Even some among his vaunted base began to see the truth of the matter. Trump had to be persuaded by some of his staunchest loyalists in the House and Senate to quit the face-off.

All of it, however, ignites a growing unease, even among Republicans, as the negative results of Trump's foreign policy, fiscal policy and trade policy begin to take hold at the moment the country's attention begins to turn to the 2020 elections and the unknowns yet to be revealed in the special prosecutor's report.

This story appeared in the paper... Feb 8-21, 2019

When Twitter drums out both sound and silence


Nick Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., and others students from the school stand in front of Native American Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips Jan. 18 near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in this still image from video. An exchange between the students and Phillips Jan. 18 was vilified on social media the following day, but the immediate accusations the students showed racist behavior were stepped back as more details of the entire situation emerged. (CNS photo/Social media via Reuters/Kaya Taitano)

To twitter. It once was but an intransitive verb that meant, according to Webster's, "to utter successive chirping noises" or "to talk in a chattering fashion." As a noun, it meant "a small tremulous intermittent sound" or a "light silly laugh."

Once upon a time, it was an onomatopoeic rendering of sounds of rather little consequence that, as quickly as one could say twitter, disappeared, swept away by the thinnest air.

Maybe we'd be best served by returning to those definitions as a way of understanding the twitter and tweets of social media that today can send the political and religious universes spinning out of orbit for days over an encounter in front of the Lincoln Memorial between a 16-year-old, MAGA hat-wearing, Catholic school kid in Washington for the Right to Life March and Nathan Phillips, a Native American who was attending the Indigenous Peoples March. The scene of the face-off between the drumming Phillips and the slightly smiling student went viral.

There was sound in that scene. And silence. After minutes upon minutes of video from multiple angles were layered onto the original, what the silence and the sound meant then and might mean now is still inconclusive. 

Was the sound, in this case, of consequence? Or was it of the sort that should have rapidly dissipated? Was this encounter one of intent? Was it symbolic? Was it teenage arrogance? Ignorance? Curiosity? A mix? Was it misunderstanding on Phillips' part? Or a wish for an encounter based on presumptions of what the Trump hat might imply? Or was it a sincere wish to calm things, to have some manner of dialogue? Were the other extreme antagonists at the scene, the Black Israelites, integral or a sideshow to the scene that went viral? 

Just what was in the minds of the two, who met after a fashion, but not really, who each likely knew nothing of the other. What would have been a reasonable expectation of this odd encounter — the MAGA hat-wearing kid and this native American beating a drum and intoning a chant?

The twitterverse is certainly of some value for the dissemination of information. But otherwise in that world there is not only no space for meaningful quiet — and certainly not for questions — there is, moreover, an antipathy toward such luxury. The world of instant reaction, instant judgment doesn't tolerate introspection.

It is a world of ceaseless stimulation, an endless showering of nerve-jangling bomblets that leads to a kind of addictive enervation. 

We've seen its corrosive effects on the national level with a president who has degraded political discourse to the level of daily-governance-by-tweet. In this world insults flourish, truth becomes an accident.

In the incident at the memorial, the Native American left the scene, he said in subsequent interviews, with wishes for a more congenial world and for a meeting with the boy.

The youth, whose family had the means to hire a high-profile PR firm, appeared on national television with a finely scripted version of things, a tale of noble intent. He stated his wish, too, to meet with Phillips.

All around lay the detritus of the viral video. Apologies by church officials; assurances of an investigation, even the possibility of expulsions from the Catholic school; a bishop pronouncing on MAGA hats and their incongruity with Catholic teaching; a resolve by Catholic teachers to use the incident as teachable moment, apparently to get across the lesson in respect for basic humanity that had somehow not yet caught on.

But enough. There are tweets to be posted and twitter feeds to be checked and outrages that are nearing expiration.


A version of this story appeared in the paper... Feb 8-21, 2019 When Twitter drums out both sound and silence

Editorial: Reality check was missing at US bishops' retreat

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U.S. bishops listen to the homily at Mass Jan. 3 in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception during their Jan. 2-8 retreat at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois, near Chicago. (CNS/Bob Roller)

It was a highly unusual event when most of the bishops in the United States gathered for a weeklong retreat earlier in January at Mundelein Seminary outside of Chicago. The event was driven by a most unusual and debilitating problem, the clergy sex abuse crisis, which has bedeviled the church in the United States for nearly 34 years.

The event itself may have been the primary goal — gathering a group of men publicly divided over a host of issues for prayer and meditation away from daily pressures. Only time will tell if there are long-term benefits.

More immediately, however, the point of the gathering as it relates to the abuse scandal remains quite puzzling, particularly in light of the 11 talks delivered by Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, official preacher of the papal household.

He began by announcing that the charge he received from Pope Francis was that he "lead a week of spiritual exercises for the bishop conference so that the bishops, far from their daily commitments, in a climate of prayer and silence and in a personal encounter with the Lord, may receive the strength and light of the Holy Spirit to find the right solution for the problems that afflict the church of the United States today."

In that regard, he said, "I am not going to talk about pedophilia or give advice about eventual solutions. That is not my task and I would not have the competence to do it."

It is beyond our competence and the space here to deal authoritatively with Cantalamessa's outpouring of erudition, a river of words that took bishops through discourses on the kerygma, Christian asceticism, prayer, spirituality, conversion, the centrality of the person of Jesus, all laced through with biblical scholarship, modern-era theologians, the work of Francis, references to pop culture, and an unremittingly bleak analysis of contemporary culture.

But it is not beyond our competence to ask questions. And there are questions aplenty, especially heading into the meeting in February in Rome of presidents of bishops' conferences from around the world.

First, why, if the sex abuse crisis and the bishops' mishandling of it was the impetus for the retreat, was it taken off the agenda as a topic to be dealt with? Why couldn't the spiritual exercises involve leading the bishops corporately to the basic requirements of the tradition — telling the truth, repenting, seeking forgiveness — necessary for reconciliation and rebuilding trust with the community?

It appears to us that most of Cantalamessa's oratory presumes that there is not much wrong with the status quo. He seems oblivious to the depth of the problem or how disruptive it's been to the victims, their families and, by extension, the wider Catholic community.

In fact, at the start of things, the pope's preacher, quoting from The Cloud of Unknowing on contemplation, urges the bishops to put "a cloud of forgetting beneath" them, leaving behind "every problem, project or anxiety we may have at the moment." If only the rest of the church had such luxury available.

Cantalamessa sees the possibility that the scandal has led to a "much more Gospel-like and humble" church "more free from worldly power."

The church certainly has been humbled, but that is mostly the result of outside forces. Whether it can actually embrace the humility called for is yet to be seen.

In one section that we find especially unfortunate, Cantalamessa reflects on Christ's agony in the garden.

"Due to the scandals of pedophilia, many bishops in the Catholic Church, starting with the bishop of Rome, are experiencing right now exactly what Jesus experienced in Gethsemane. As we have seen the ultimate cause of his suffering … consisted in taking upon himself sins that he had not committed himself and in bearing responsibility for them in front of the Father."

We leave it to scholars to tussle with that interpretation, but it doesn't take an expert to know that the comparison is woefully out of whack. It might work better had the preacher placed the victims in the garden. The bishops were driven to making a retreat not because they were taking on the sins of others but because of what they and their brothers either did or failed to do over decades. In this instance, they don't compare very favorably with Jesus.

We hope the February gathering delivers a more bracing reality check on the need for deep reform of church structures and clerical culture.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Jan 25-Feb 7, 2019 Reality check missing at bishops’ retreat

Editorial: The lesson of Opus Dei Fr. McCloskey's downfall

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(CNS/The Catholic Spirit/Dave Hrbacek)
(CNS/The Catholic Spirit/Dave Hrbacek)

It is time for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a standard sign to be posted in every chancery office in the country, just outside the bishop's door, reading:


It is time to be done with the breathless wonderment at whatever new revelations show one more holy and wonderful priest has been, in a hidden life, abusive of children, or women, or seminarians, or just a liar about what he knew or didn't know, did or didn't do.

Opus Dei priest Fr. C. John McCloskey III, for whom the prelature paid a $977,000 settlement to a woman who accused him of sexual misconduct, is the latest to cause former associates and friends to go all aflutter with "How could he have?" And "How did we not know?" And "Why didn't those who did know speak up?" And "How could someone like that also do so much good?"

He could do such things, first of all, because he is human, all that nonsense about ontological differences to the side. Human frailty is not a function of theological or political ideology. Archbishop Rembert Weakland and Trappist Fr. Thomas Merton, luminaries of the Catholic left, for instance, were also examples of lives that combined great goodness with sexual indiscretions profoundly contradictory to their station in life. We are all capable of good and evil. That's the easy part.

The answers to the other questions reside primarily in understanding the culture in which all of those actors, McCloskey included, operated: the Catholic clerical culture. It is highly secretive, highly privileged, believed to be distinctive from the rest of human kind, allegedly celibate and, until recently, enjoying from members of the Catholic community as well as from civil authority in this country a level of deference that is normally reserved for the highly privileged. It is not without consequence that for too long that kind of deference extended to most of the media.

The old culture dies slowly and unevenly. McCloskey's manipulative behavior with vulnerable women was certainly, in hindsight, telegraphed in things he wrote and in a series of interviews done for an ultraconservative presentation on marriage preparation for Catholics. For the discerning, red flags were popping everywhere (and YouTube provides abundant examples), but the sirens are blaring and lights are flashing in one particularly weird segment that can be found here:

Fr. C. John McCloskey - Seeking A Woman Who Wants To Be a Wife

McCloskey is explaining to the unseen interviewer his understanding of why "Catholic men, truly Catholic men" take off for places like Latin America and the Philippines, "where you can find, fairly easily, wonderful women who are — pardon the expression — submissive in a healthy sense, and that just love being women and just love being mothers and love being spouses. Not that they're unintelligent or unattractive or even have a good education. But they recognize that as women they have gifts that men don't have, above all that possibility of conceiving and nurturing children that is the most important function in any family."

You see, he explains, in those regions of the world, while feminism has made "inroads," it is nothing like it is here in the United States. So that's why these truly Catholic men who "cannot find a good Catholic American woman who they would feel comfortable with" go searching for properly submissive women elsewhere. While those same men may not have looked hard enough around the home turf, often American women they find attractive are interested in careers, he asserts, not staying home and raising children.

That is the language and thinking of someone who became the face of one of Pope John Paul II's favorite organizations. McCloskey was a perfect model of what the late and hastily sainted pope saw as "heroic priesthood."

So was Thomas Williams, the face of the utterly corrupt Legionaries of Christ, another favorite organization of John Paul, who fathered a child and eventually left the priesthood after the reports became public in 2012. The problem for the community is not so much broken vows, but that the culture hid that reality for years. The organization and its very visible spokesman continued asserting a spirituality of absolutes and superiority as if nothing was amiss. That was the fraud perpetrated on the community.

The disgraced and disgraceful Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a serial pedophile who abused his own young seminarians and who also fathered two children, is in a category all to himself. Yet the culture not only tolerated him but advanced his demented ideas about leadership and priesthood until the dimensions of his fraud and corruption could no longer be hidden.

McCloskey and Williams were out front, absolutely certain, media-savvy Catholic TV personalities and possessed of all the answers one might need. They were the charm and the smilingly urbane face of the new evangelization. They were thoroughly indoctrinated with John Paul's ideas about the meaning of ordination and the pope's strange and strained insights into women expressed in his personal writings and a series of sermons that he delivered on his "theology of the body."

McCloskey for a few years personified that muscular priesthood. Characterized in a New York Times headline as "An Opus Dei Priest With a Magnetic Touch," the people he drew into the community were high-profile conservatives, politically and economically well-placed and powerful. There was a genuine appeal for many in his highly dualistic and rigorist, not to mention antifeminist, approach to the faith.

We are paying dearly for all of that right now. The peculiarities that came with John Paul's notions of priesthood — his insistence on rebuilding a cult separate and apart from ordinary people and the utter lack of judgment he showed in choosing his models for that project — became deeply woven into the fabric of an already corrupted clerical culture. What he advanced actually reinforced the worst characteristics of the culture.

It is not the sins of the individuals that should now be the focus. All humans fail; we are all capable of deception and worse. It is the institutional corruption that they came to represent. The failings hidden for years by the institution, in the case of McCloskey, Williams, Maciel and others. The power of money, in the case of Maciel and, more recently, of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, to buy them cover in the Vatican. The refusal on John Paul II's part, time and again, to listen to serious and credible allegations against Maciel and other abusers. He set the template in this era of scandal for how church leaders should proceed.

It is, indeed, the clergy culture that is at the heart of the church's problems. It is in dire need of radical reform.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Jan 25-Feb 7, 2019 The lesson of McCloskey’s downfall