Back to Basics: Humility and Compassion

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The news about the institutional dimension of the Catholic Church has been persistent and devastating.  Crimes, cover-ups, accusations, bizarre and power-hungry behavior on the part of so many in positions of authority: it’s all been too much for so many.   For people around the world, the Church has lost all credibility and moral authority.  Why should anyone care what we have to say about anything?  As Paulist Father Frank DeSiano observed in a recent column, we still have a mission “to evangelize in difficult times.”  But who will listen?

People are done with words.  Words have too often proven to be false.  Words have too often proven to be hollow.  Words have too often proven to be shadowy caverns of deceit.

It’s past time for action.  Our collective examination of conscience must include thorough investigation, honest analysis, and concrete plans of action and reform.  Pope Francis reminds us that all of our institutions, from parishes through the papacy, need to be reformed constantly so that our mission of spreading the “Joy of the Gospel” may be effective in our own day.  Never has this call for radical reform been more obvious.  Where to start?

Certainly, all of this must be done, and done immediately.  We can’t go on like this.

We must get back to basics.

 1.  “Master, to whom shall we go?”

JoshuaLast weekend’s scriptures focus on the fundamental relationship of the Christian with the Lord God.  Joshua challenges the people to “decide today” which God they will follow, and a forlorn Jesus asks his own followers if they too will walk away from him, joining those who found his teaching on the bread of life “too hard to accept”.  Peter, speaking for the rest of us, responds, “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of everlasting life!”

Today, we must concentrate  on that fundamental relationship.  The Profession of Faith states it unequivocally. “Credo” refers to the giving of one’s heart.  “I give my heart to God, the Father Almighty. . . I give my heart to Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. . . I give my heart to the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life. . . .”   Everything else builds on that; without it nothing else matters.

“Decide today!”

 2.  Build From the Bottom: The View of One Who Serves

140417192103-pope-francis-feet-washing-easter-horizontal-large-galleryWe claim to follow Christ – and Christ emptied himself for others, challenging us to do the same.  If our Lord came “not to be served but to serve” how can we do otherwise?  St. Paul reminds the Philippians that they should “in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) In Jewish theology, “humility” is the opposite of “pride”: the truly humble person would never exert abusive power over another.  The Christian looks up from washing the feet of others into the eyes of Christ on the cross gazing back.

The reforms we need right now start from that perspective of humility, compassion, and service, and the Church must be one which is in a constant state of reform, renewal and conversion.  The world’s bishops assembled at the Second Vatican Council taught:

Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of human beings here on earth. Thus if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated — to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself — these can and should be set right at the opportune moment.

— Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio, #6

Now is the “opportune moment.”  More than that: this is the essential moment.

“Decide today!”

 3.  Religion: Binding Ourselves to God

people-out-perspThe word “religion” refers to binding ourselves to God.  And the letter of James read this weekend should inspire us all in our reform: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  Our religion should be known first and foremost for how we care for those most in need, not by our vestments, our grand churches, our rituals or the brilliance of our teaching.  When people think of Christianity, may they come to think first of the thousands upon thousands of selfless people – laity, religious, and clergy – who pour their lives out in service at home and around the world.  I have a dream that someday when a person googles images of “the Catholic Church” the first pictures shown will not be of St. Peter’s and the Vatican, but of advocates working humbly, tirelessly and fearlessly to meet the needs of others: teachers, medical professionals, volunteers, and yes, spouses and parents giving their all for each other and their children.

Christianity should be about the way we love God and others, about being a “sign and instrument” of intimate communion with God and with the whole human race (Lumen gentium 1). Clergy exist only to support, encourage, and serve the rest in doing that. As Bishop Augustine of Hippo preached so long ago, “For you I am a bishop, with you, after all, I am a Christian.  The first is the name of an office undertaken, the second a name of grace; that one means danger, this one salvation.”

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This is a “crisis” point for our Church: a turning point.  Who are we as the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit?  The choices we make now are as critical as those made by those holy women and men before us who faced their own challenges to reform the Church to respond the needs of their time.

What are you and I prepared to do about all of this?  This isn’t about bishops, cardinals or even the Pope: we the Church are a communion of disciples, and our response must involve all of us.

“Decide today!”

A Shepherd’s Voice: One Diocesan Bishop’s Pastoral Plan for Implementing “Amoris Laetitia”: First Look

 

Wuerl         Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Cardinal-Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC has just released Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family: A Pastoral Plan to Implement Amoris Laetitia.  You may access the full document here.  This may be the first parish-centered pastoral plan on this subject in the United States, and I thank Deacon Greg Kandra for posting about this significant event.  This has personal implications for me,  since I am a deacon of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC so the new document has particular personal and ministerial relevance; Cardinal Wuerl is my bishop!

I think it is important to note from the outset that Cardinal Wuerl is a master teacher and a faithful, precise theologian.  Indeed, long before he became a bishop, he was well-known to be a skilled catechist, gifted teacher and respected author.  This catechetical perspective informs his entire approach to ministry, so it comes as no surprise that he would create a pastoral resource for the clergy, religious and laity of the Archdiocese, and that this resource would be grounded in a faithful presentation of the teaching of the Church on marriage and family life.  He provides clear guidance and direction for all Catholics of the Archdiocese, which should serve to prevent confusion while also serving wuerlsynodas an aid for everyone seeking to strengthen their own marriages and families, and the pastoral ministers who are supporting them.  These initial comments can only skim the surface of what is a much more substantive document, and I encourage everyone to take the time to read the Pastoral Plan in detail.  Let’s take a closer look.

More than fifty pages in length, the Pastoral Plan consists of a preface, some introductory reflections, five “parts”, a conclusion and an executive summary.  The five major sections are: Amoris Laetitia’s Teaching, the Way of Faith and Contemporary Culture, the Way of Accompaniment, the Importance of Parish Life, and finally, In Service of the Ministry of Accompaniment, which consists of an extensive list of resources available to pastoral ministers.

The contributions of the Pastoral Plan revolve around several key themes: context, accompaniment, conscience, and practical care.

CONTEXT

The document’s first significant contribution is context.  In the Preface, Cardinal Wuerl makes clear that the Plan incorporates not only the teaching of Amoris Laetitia itself, but also the two Synods which preceded and inspired it.  For me this is a most important reminder.  Far too frequently, observers have attempted to read and comprehend the pope’s Exhortation without this context, and that, in my opinion, is not only inadequate VaticanSynodofMarriageandFamilybut dangerous.  “Text” always requires “context”, and the Cardinal makes this clear: to understand and to implement Amoris Laetitia, one must situate it within that broader global synodal process.  Amoris Laetitia, precisely as a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, reflects not merely the personal teaching of the Holy Father himself; it is that, certainly, but so much more.  The work of the preceding synods involved representatives of the world’s episcopal conferences, extensive consultation and research over several years, and intense discussions during the synods themselves.  All of this reflected both the importance of the challenges facing contemporary families and the diversity of pastoral responses needed to help them.  As Cardinal Wuerl notes, “Many collaborators have worked to provide elements of a pastoral plan to implement this expression of the Papal Magisterium that follows on two gatherings of bishops, the 2014 Synod on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization and the 2015 Synod on the Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World” (Preface, 3).

There is a sense in which the right understanding of the work of both the 2014 and 2015 synods and their fruit, Amoris Laetitia, depends upon the recognition of this interactive dynamic between teaching, experiencing the teaching, and the living out of the teaching in light of how it is understood and able to be received. This recognition is perhaps the most challenging aspect of Amoris Laetitia. It calls for a conversion of heart. The minister is called to recognize that beyond the assurance of doctrinal statements he has to encounter the people entrusted to his care in the concrete situations they live and to accompany them on a journey of growth in the faith.

VATICAN-POPE-AUDIENCEACCOMPANIMENT

The Cardinal outlines the approach of his Pastoral Plan in terms of accompaniment, which is of course, a major theme of Amoris Laetitia itself.  The theme of pastoral accompaniment is, indeed, the foundation and the goal of the entire Plan.  The Cardinal writes,

Not every marriage, however, goes forward with “they lived happily ever after.”  In fact, for many, in our heavily secular culture today, there is little understanding of the true nature of love, marriage, commitment, and self-giving which are all part of the Catholic vision of love. Yet, while their lives and experiences may have drawn many far away from the Church’s message, we are all the more called to reach out to them, to invite and accompany them on the journey that should help bring them to the joy of love that is also the joy of the Church.

He reminds us that we must approach everyone “with humility and compassion,” remembering that all the baptized are members of Christ’s body, and that we are all brothers and sisters to one another, regardless of circumstance.  He recalls the invitation of Pope Francis “to value the gifts of marriage and family. . .  (and) to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy” (AL, 5).

The Cardinal directs that the implementation of Amoris Laetitia  in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC be based on the following points.

  • First, it must begin with the Church’s teaching on love, marriage, family, faith and mercy. In particular, he points out that a key insight of the pope’s teaching was a proper understanding of the family “as the site of God’s revelation lived out in practice.”  To this end, the Cardinal joins with Pope Francis in exhorting all ministers of the Archdiocese to a deeper knowledge and formation on marriage and family life.  The richness of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family is a gift to be treasured and shared, especially in light of the many challenges faced by people in today’s world which can distract or even alienate people from each other and from loving commitments.  However, the Cardinal points out, “our task is not complete if we only limit ourselves to faith statements. The goal is the salvation of souls and it is a far more complex effort than simply restating Church doctrine.”
  • Therefore, “it is essential to recognize that our teaching is received by individuals according to their own situation, experience and life. Whatever is received is received according to the ability of the receiver, to paraphrase Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas. This is our starting point for pastoral ministry.” The Cardinal points out that this “interation” between the proclamation of the church’s teaching and the lived experience of those who hear that teaching was a critical insight from both of the synods.

There is a sense in which the right understanding of the work of both the 2014 and 2015 synods and their fruit, Amoris Laetitia, depends upon the recognition of this interactive dynamic between teaching, experiencing the teaching, and the living out of the teaching in light of how it is understood and able to be received.  This recognition is perhaps the most challenging aspect of Amoris Laetitia. It calls for a conversion of heart. The minister is called to recognize that beyond the assurance of doctrinal statements he has to encounter the people entrusted to his care in the concrete situations they live and to accompany them on a journey of growth in the faith.

Here we see the master catechist at work.  The Cardinal expresses the Church’s constant tradition that at the heart of our faith lies a relationship with Christ, and that one does not establish or nourish such a relationship without the conversion of the human heart.  Teaching alone, as central as it is, will be heard and received within very different life situations, and he challenges all of us who minister “to encounter and to accompany” the people we serve where they are in their journey.

CONSCIENCE7889200

Central to Amoris Laetitia and to this pastoral plan is the role of conscience.  St. John Paul II referred to the conscience as “the ultimate concrete judgment” in Veritatis Splendor 63, while the Catechism of the Catholic Church (both of which are cited by Cardinal Wuerl) describes conscience as “a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (CCC, 1796).  Therefore, stressing always fidelity to the Church’s teaching on marriage and family along with the pastoral awareness of how that teaching “is being received or even able to be perceived,” there is something more.  “An equally important part of our Catholic faith is the recognition that personal culpability rests with the individual. We have always made the distinction between objective wrong and personal or subjective culpability.”  The Cardinal continues:

          Our personal culpability of any of us does not depend solely on exposure to the teaching. It is not enough simply to hear the teaching. Each of us has to be helped to grasp it and appropriate it.  We have to have “experiential” and not just “objective” moral knowledge, to use the language of Saint John Paul II. . . .  Our consideration of our standing before God recognizes all these elements. We cannot enter the soul of another and make that judgment for someone else. As Pope Francis teaches, “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL, 37).

The Cardinal’s treatment of “conscience” is, for me, a highlight of the pastoral plan, since it is at the level of conscience that our pastoral activity will be centered, and I hope that everyone will study this section reflectively and carefully.

Many will be curious about the question of the possibility of divorced-and-remarried persons receiving Communion, so let me address this in more detail.   This question itself is not specifically addressed in the Plan.  However, much as the treatment of the subject in Amoris Laetitia, I do not find this particularly troubling, for the following reasons.  Traditional Catholic teaching has always stressed a balanced approach between objective moral principles and subjective moral culpability.  There is nothing new in this, and the current Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats it clearly (see, for example, paragraphs 1857-1859).  What prevents us from receiving communion ccc-photois being in a state of mortal sin.  The tradition holds that for a sin to mortal, “three conditions must together be met: grave matter which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” The Catechism continues, “Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: ‘Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and your mother. . . .”  But mortal sin is more than an objectively grave act.  “Mortal sin [also] requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice” (CCC, 1857-1859).

What Cardinal Wuerl has done is to echo this traditional teaching.  How one forms spiritual directionone’s conscience is a complex matrix involving experience, formation, and discernment guided by one’s pastor.  Objective moral principles are one thing, but a person’s moral culpability for those acts or omissions is another, since “full knowledge” and “complete consent” are subjective issues.  The state of one’s soul before God, then, is deeply personal between the person and God, which again is the traditional teaching of the Church.  The decisions a person makes under the guidance of a pastor are matters of a deeply internal spiritual nature and can vary from person to person.  The responsibilities of a pastor in these matters are most crucial and weighty, and the Cardinal stresses all of this in the document.  No one answer will suffice in every case.  He writes, “Here Amoris Laetitia confirms the longstanding teaching of the Church and encourages pastors to see through the lens of Christ’s mercy and compassion rather than through a rigorous legalism.”  He continues:

Pastoral dialogue and accompaniment involve the development of conscience and also the expression of a level of support or confirmation for the judgment the individual is making about the state of his soul or her soul.  That judgment is the act of the individual and is the basis for their accountability before God.

In practice, this means that while some may be secure in their understanding and appropriation of the faith and the call of the Christian way of life, not all of our spiritual family can say the same thing. Even how we receive and understand the faith and its impact on our lives varies according to our situation, circumstances and life experiences.

While some people might prefer that both Amoris Laetitia and this Pastoral Plan might more directly “answer the question” about the reception of communion, such a response would not respect the primacy of the individual conscience under the guidance of the Church’s pastors, and the traditional understanding of moral decision-making in the Catholic Church.

PRACTICAL CAREwuerl3

Finally, as suggested by all that has gone before, the Plan offers very concrete resources for all those in pastoral ministry.  A primary “resource” is, of course, the parish itself.  The Plan suggests myriad ways in which various people within the parish might catechize, encourage, and accompany each other.  The parish is “the home of pastoral accompaniment, where we can all experience the love and healing mercy of Jesus Christ.”  The Cardinal directs that “Our parishes, as the place where people most experience the life of the Church, must be places of welcome, where everyone is invited, particularly anyone who might be disillusioned or disaffected by contemporary society or even by our faith community. The Church assures all that there is a place for everyone here in our spiritual home.”

7-Church-Walk           The section on the parish is extremely practical, with suggestions on how the various members of the parish and pastoral team might create this “culture of accompaniment” for others.  There are paragraphs for pastors and other priests, parish leaders and staffs, youth and young adults, engaged couples, newly married couples, young families, older couples and adults, and families in special circumstances.  It is only here that I would have wished for just one addition to the text.  Deacons are not mentioned in any context, and yet deacons, who are generally married with families of their own, are frequently engaged in ministries to couples preparing for marriage as well as other forms of family-related ministry.  In one sense, of course, the words of encouragement offered by the Plan to pastors, priests and parish staffs can – and do! – apply to the deacons.  Still, it does seem a missed opportunity to develop specific ways in which the diaconate, given its unique features within marriage and family life, might contribute to these ministries.

Finally, the last section of the plan offers a kind of “bibliography” of sources available from a variety of places, including the offices of the archdiocese itself, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and various national and regional groups.  The resources identified cover the waterfront and there is something for everyone, in every kind of need.

          In short, this Pastoral Plan, while prepared for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, is an excellent resource for Catholics everywhere, and I hope that other bishops will follow suit with similar initiatives in their own dioceses.  This Plan reflects significant collaboration on the part of the archdiocesan staff as the Cardinal prepared this multi-layered pastoral response to Amoris Laetitia.  I encourage everyone to read it, study it, and use it!

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Deacons: Bringing it Home

Pope Francis poses with cardinal advisers during meeting at Vatican

In news from the Holy See today, it was announced that the nine special Cardinal-advisers to Pope Francis (known colloquially as the C9) have wrapped up their latest three-day meeting in Rome.  You can read Vatican Radio’s account of the meeting here.  The overall topic is the reform and restructuring of the Vatican bureaucracy itself.  Amid the several major areas discussed, ranging from finances to communications to decentralization, several interesting bits were mentioned which directly concern deacons.

In the news conference reporting on the meeting, Director of the Holy See Press Office, American Greg Burke included:

Among other proposals, the possibility of transferring some functions from the Roman Dicasteries to the local bishops or episcopal councils, in a spirit of healthy decentralization.

For example, the transfer of the Dicastery for the Clergy to the Episcopal Conference for examination and authorization for: the priestly ordination of an unmarried permanent deacon; the passage to new marriage for a widowed permanent deacon; the request for priestly ordination by a widowed permanent deacon.

married deaconMany people might be unaware of the history behind these three items, so let me cover each briefly.  Before doing that, however, we should keep one traditional factor in mind.  Throughout the Catholic tradition, East and West, it has been a well-established principle that “married men may be ordained but ordained men may not marry.”  Following ordination, then, the longstanding norm (until the 1984 Code of Canon Law) was that, once ordained, a man could not marry — or marry again, in the case of a married cleric whose wife has died.  In other words, the very reception of Holy Orders constitutes an impediment to entering a marriage.  The 1984 Code (c. 1078), however, permits a request for a dispensation from the “impediment of order” which would then permit the widowed deacon to re-marry.  More about this below.

USCCBThe three issues mentioned today are all questions that up until now have required a petition from the cleric involved to the Holy See for resolution.  None of them were things that could be decided by the local diocesan bishop or the regional episcopal conference (such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops).  So let’s take a closer look at these three situations.

  1. “Unmarried permanent deacons”: There are some people who wrongly assume that all so-called “permanent” deacons are married men.  This is inaccurate, and international statistics suggest that somewhere between 4-10% of all permanent deacons are, in fact, unmarried.  When an unmarried candidate for the diaconate approaches ordination, he makes the same promise of celibacy made by seminarian candidates for the (improperly called) “transitional” diaconate.  The situation addressed by the C9 concerns these celibate permanent deacons should they later discern a vocation to the presbyterate.  Many Catholics are surprised to learn this, but the Church rightly teaches that each Order is its own vocation: that a call (vocation) to serve as Deacon does not mean that Deacon necessarily has a vocation to the Presbyterate or Episcopate.  Deacon formation programs are not helping men discern a general vocation to the ordained ministry; rather, the focus is on the particular vocation of the diaconate.  So, if a deacon later discerns a possible vocation to the presbyterate, he must enter into a formation process for the priesthood to test this vocation.  In the US, the need for this careful discernment and formation is detailed in the USCCB’s 2005 National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States.  Up until now, the diocesan bishop (or religious superior) had to petition the Holy See to permit the subsequent ordination of that celibate permanent deacon to the presbyterate.  What the C9 is rightly suggesting (in my opinion) is that such decisions might be made at the more appropriate level of the episcopal conference, and not the Holy See. (I would think that should this idea go forward, the decision will ultimately be referred back to each diocesan bishop as the authority best positioned to know the situation and the people involved the best.)  NOTA BENE: This particular situation involves permanent deacons who have never been married before; the situation of a widowed permanent deacon will be covered in the third item below.
  2. US Bishops“The passage to new marriage for a widowed permanent deacon”:  This is a situation which has been faced by many of our deacons over the past decades.  Obviously a married man cannot and does not make the promise of celibacy prior to ordination as a Deacon: we do not promise a hypothetical: “I promise to embrace the celibate life IF my wife predeceases me” is not part of our liturgical and sacramental lexicon.  However, once ordained of course, that married deacon is impeded from entering another marriage.  First, of course, because he is already  married!  But if his wife dies, he is still not free to marry again because he has assumed that “impediment of order” I mentioned above.  St. John Paul II developed three conditions under which a widowed permanent deacon might petition for a dispensation from the impediment of order (notice, by the way, that this is not a “dispensation from celibacy” since the married deacon has never made such a promise from which to be dispensed in the first place).  These three reasons, which need not concern us at the moment, have taken various forms over the years, including some revisions by Cardinal Arinze which made the likelihood of obtaining such a dispensation most highly unlikely.  The petition for this dispensation right now begins with a petition from the widowed deacon to the Holy See, via his diocesan bishop (or religious superior).  What the C9 is suggesting is that in the future, this petition would go from the Deacon to the Episcopal Conference (or, if the Conference develops such procedures) to the diocesan Bishop.
  3. The last reference is to “the request for priestly ordination by a widowed permanent deacon.”  Here we find the widowed deacon discerning a different path.  Rather than discerning a new marriage, he is discerning the possibility of a vocation to the presbyterate.  In a sense, then, he is in the same position as the deacon above who was never married.  In the past, such petitions were handled by the Holy See; if the suggestion of the C9 is accepted and implemented, such decisions would be made at the local (Conference or diocesan) level.

Finally, notice that the C9 specifically mentions the Episcopal Conference as the possible new decision-maker, while I have suggested the possibility of the diocesan bishop in some cases.  What I am envisioning is that the Conference might well develop procedures and policies which might further delegate such matters, under certain circumstances, to the diocesan bishop.  For example, in 1968, it was the Episcopal Conference which received authorization to ordain (permanent) deacons.  The Conference then extended that authorization to each Bishop for his decision on the question.

The question of “healthy decentralization” is a wonderful one, and it is intriguing that the diaconate is part of that conversation!

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The Word Matters: Being Christ-like in the Age of Trump

christ_the_pantocratorINTRODUCTION: “Quod tibi videtur?”

“How does it seem to you?”

It seems to me that since 20 January 2017 everyone is still trying to sort out what exactly has happened.  For people who supported the candidacy and election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States, they are full of hope that he will deliver on his various and varied campaign promises, feeling that they have been overlooked by the “professional politician” class and the “elites” in the media and academia.  Those who opposed his candidacy and election are full of concern that he will cause irreparable damage to the office and the country through ineptitude or worse.  It is quite one thing to run on a platform that is “anti-Washington”; it is quite another to master the inherent complexities of governance.  So it seems to me that everyone is to some degree unsettled about the future.

But for me, of all the claims and counterclaims made over the last month, one that troubles me most deeply is the repeated assertion (made in various words and contexts) that boils down to this.  “We don’t care that the president lies; his words don’t matter; it will be his actions that matter.”  As more than one observer noted, the new president is supposed to be “taken seriously but not literally.”  And, of course, there are all of the “alternative facts” to be considered!

Youth-PossibilityBut words do matter.  Especially for Catholics.  Imagine a baptism celebrated without words, especially the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”!  Imagine an ordination without the prayer of consecration over those being ordained.  Imagine the Eucharist without a Eucharistic Prayer of consecration.  In all of these examples, we would conclude that a sacrament has not taken place.  Words matter to us.  They matter a lot.  And of course, fundamental to all of that is the understanding that the Christ is, in fact, the Word of God!

How, then are we to respond to our current political situation, not simply as citizens, but as Catholics, as Christians?

church-and-stateWhether one supported or opposed the candidacy and election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States is now on a practical level irrelevant.  The overall turmoil it has caused, however, is not.  His supporters fervently believe that he will take significant actions to ameliorate their concerns.  His opponents just as fervently believe that his actions are a danger to the Republic and to our society at large.  The polarity that has afflicted our discourse for so long has, if possible, descended to new levels.

Political campaigns built on fear only serve to increase that fear.  When we are afraid we want to find the cause of that fear and remove it. If social media are any indication, at least some people find it easy to associate other people with their fear, and the vitriol only increases, and the lines keeping us apart become only sharper and more painful.

Take just one example: when protesters took to the streets following this election, they were called “snowflakes” by many commentators on the right.  Why?  Apparently, this was a characterization based on the assumption that these were spoiled, wealthy, pampered “college kids” who were just scared of their own shadows.  Speaking as a professor working with both undergraduate and graduate students at several universities, I can attest that such a characterization is simply untrue.  Some of my students are some of the strongest folks I know, who are hard working (often working several jobs while raising families and still going to school!) and dedicated — and worried.  Words matter.

Similarly, it is unfair to characterize all Trump supporters as being some kind of monolithic group of “deplorables.”  There are many who support the new president because they feel that they have been overlooked in recent years and that their own concerns have not been heard or responded to.  Words matter.

These are our family members.  These are our friends.  These are our parishioners.

altar-at-vatican-ii1BACKGROUND: “Quid nunc?”

“What now?”

This blog is focused on Catholic ministry, especially the ministry of Catholic deacons.  However, I hope that what follows might be helpful not only to brother deacons but to other people of good will as well.  Specifically, it seems to me, the fundamental question remains: “How does a Christian behave?” For those of us who are “Heralds of Christ,” publicly and solemnly charged to “believe what we read, teach what we believe and practice what we teach,” the challenge is particularly acute.

Back in 1965, the world’s bishops gathered in Rome at the Second Vatican Council spoke words of hope and challenge.  In its capstone document, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) the bishops had

this to say (in paragraph #3):

Though humankind is stricken with wonder at its own discoveries and its power, it often raises anxious questions about the current trend of the world, about the place and role of the human person in the universe, about the meaning of its individual and collective striving, and about the ultimate destiny of reality and of humanity. Hence, . . . this council can provide no more eloquent proof of its solidarity with, as well as its respect and love for the entire human family with which it is bound up, than by engaging with it in conversation about these various problems. . . .  For the human person deserves to be preserved; human society deserves to be renewed.

So, the first point for our reflection must be that we have a responsibility to be active participants in the world around us; we cannot allow ourselves the luxury, however tempting, of withdrawing from the world so as to avoid the often unpleasant and distasteful conflicts  which so often permeate contemporary life.  Gaudium et spes famously describes this responsibility when it teaches that the Church “serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God’s family” (#40).  The challenge for us is to figure out how we — individually and collectively — may serve as leaven in the messy dough of today’s world.

Once again we turn to the Council, which speaks of the “single goal” of the People of God:

to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served. To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics. (GS ##3-4)

This paragraph offers so much!

  1. Be involved
  2. Be Christ-like: to be witness, to rescue, to not sit in judgment, to serve
  3. Scrutinize and interpret the signs of the times in light of the Gospel
  4. Find language that is meaningful to each generation (and culture)
  5. Respond to perennial questions asked by ALL people
  6. Recognize and understand our world: explanations, longings, dramatic characteristics.

When we turn to the specific question of our involvement in the political life of the nation, we must remember always the purpose of political life in general. Politics involves “the rights and duties of all in the exercise of civil freedom and in the attainment of the common good” (GS #73).  Specifically, the bishops offer this concise description:

The political community exists, consequently, for the sake of the common good, in which it finds its full justification and significance, and the source of its inherent legitimacy. Indeed, the common good embraces the sum of those conditions of the social life whereby men, families and associations more adequately and readily may attain their own perfection (#74).

The bishops speak of the growing need to give better protection to human rights, including “the right freely to meet and form associations, the right to express one’s own opinion and to profess one’s religion both publicly and privately. The protection of the rights of a person is indeed a necessary condition so that citizens, individually or collectively, can take an active part in the life and government of the state.”  Furthermore:

In the conscience of many arises an increasing concern that the rights of minorities be recognized, without any neglect for their duties toward the political community. In addition, there is a steadily growing respect for men of other opinions or other religions. At the same time, there is wider cooperation to guarantee the actual exercise of personal rights to all citizens, and not only to a few privileged individuals.

The bishops also take to task those who would pervert the political process to their own ends:

However, those political systems. . . are to be reproved which hamper civic or religious freedom, victimize large numbers through avarice and political crimes, and divert the exercise of authority from the service of the common good to the interests of one or another faction or of the rulers themselves (#73).

How do we deal with differing opinions within our societies on how to achieve these goals?

If the political community is not to be torn apart while everyone follows his own opinion, there must be an authority to direct the energies of all citizens toward the common good, not in a mechanical or despotic fashion, but by acting above all as a moral force which appeals to each one’s freedom and sense of responsibility.

It follows also that political authority, both in the community as such and in the representative bodies of the state, must always be exercised within the limits of the moral order and directed toward the common good—with a dynamic concept of that good. . . . But where citizens are oppressed by a public authority overstepping its competence, they should not protest against those things which are objectively required for the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and the rights of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority, while keeping within those limits drawn by the natural law and the Gospels.

Finally, the bishops speak specifically to the role of Christians:

All Christians must be aware of their own specific vocation within the political community. It is for them to give an example by their sense of responsibility and their service of the common good. In this way they are to demonstrate concretely how authority can be compatible with freedom, personal initiative with the solidarity of the whole social organism, and the advantages of unity with fruitful diversity. They must recognize the legitimacy of different opinions with regard to temporal solutions, and respect citizens, who, even as a group, defend their points of view by honest methods.

gaudiumconfweb-171x200MOVING FORWARD: Bringing the Word to the words

  1. Remember our fundamental relationship: with Christ.  That’s the point here.  Christian.  For the moment, not American, not French, not Iranian, not German — and certainly not Republican or Democrat.  For those who claim to be disciples of Christ, the Messiah of the living God, Christianity is a way of life.  It is not simply a collection of teachings, liturgical rites or even a moral code.  It is all of those things, but so much more.  “Being  Christian” means being in a relationship with Christ, and just like any relationship, our lives are to be lived accordingly.
  2. The Word of God, Christ, called us all to serve the common good of all.  He gave his life to that end; it must be our end as well.  How do we constantly and consistently serve the common good of all?
  3. In serving the common good, we must first be involved in the life of our communities.  Just as Christ emptied himself into our human condition, we too should follow the same path, pouring ourselves out for others.  This means we cannot hide away from society, or act as if contemporary issues really don’t matter to us since we’re focused on heaven!  The incarnation of Christ demands that we too are co-responsible for this world and not only the next.
  4. We must be like Christ in other ways, too, as the bishops reminded us decades ago: that we must witness to the Truth always, that we are involved in order to rescue others while not sitting in judgment of them, to serve others where they are and not asking to be served.
  5. We have a responsibility to examine and interpret the signs of our contemporary times in light of the Gospel.  The world of 2017 is a different place than the world of 1965, or the world of 1945 or the world of 325.  The Council reminds us that we must not only critique the times, we must interpret the signs we see in light of the Gospel of God’s love and Truth.
  6. Words matter: we must find “language that is meaningful” to each and every generation and culture.  Do the words we use hurt, demean, insult?  Or do the words we use build up, nurture, heal?  (Do calling fearful people “snowflakes” tear down or build up?)
  7. Before speaking, we should find out what people’s questions are, and attempt to answer them!  As Pope Francis reminds us constantly: answer people’s questions; don’t spend time on questions that have never been asked!
  8. blue-heaven-leaven-bread-dough-e1443546998297We must be engaged and knowledgeable about our world today.  If we are to be the yeast in that messy lump of dough, if we would attempt to make a difference, we have to get ourselves involved with it.  We should be critical of society when necessary, and supportive of reasonable attempts when possible.  The leaven doesn’t take over the dough, it helps it rise!
  9. Focus on your particular community: what are the concerns being raised by all persons in that community?  How do our words and our actions address the needs of all of them, and not merely to one side or another?  We are called to serve them all
  10. Before, during and after each and every thing we say and do, PRAY!  Above all, PRAY!  Remember that Christ, the WORD is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all human longing.  We begin with the Word, we end with the Word.

alpha-omega

Navigating the Scylla and Charybdis: Living, Loving and Leading through the Trump Presidency

GOP 2016-Why So Many

Act I is over.  Remember Act I?  All those presidential candidates sniping and name-calling and down-shouting.  I confess at first I found it rather entertaining, but before too long it became depressing yet mesmerizing, rather like watching a snake  charmer seducing a crowd.  Act I culminated in the national political conventions where the unbelievable happened.  The man most people voted the least likely to succeed in politics walked away with the Republican nomination and the woman with one of the most substantive public service resumes ever earned became the first woman to accept the nomination of a major political party for the office of President.  Those political conventions were the opening scene of Act II.

theaterNow, Act II is over.  The general campaign was brutal, bloody, bizarre, virulent, draining and depressing as two vastly different visions of our nation emerged.  Let’s face it: today as I write these words, no one is completely satisfied with the process or even the outcome. The wounds and the scars are deep.  But now Act II is also completed, with the election of Donald J. Trump as president-elect of the United States of America.  We’re now in the intermission of the transition, and that will end on 20 January 2017 when Mr. Trump places his hand on a Bible and swears the Oath of Office and he becomes President Trump.  At that moment, the curtain will rise on Act III.

trumpThe question for all of us is quite simple: What do we do now?  We are not an audience at a play.  We are not observers, but participants in our public life.  There is a term which became common during the Second Vatican Council: we are “co-responsible” for our lives and the life of our republic.  So where does that lead us today, the first day following the election?  The people who supported and voted for Donald Trump are ecstatic and triumphant; those who supported and voted for Hillary Clinton are reeling and depressed.  Those who supported third party candidates or who chose not to vote for any candidate are, well, I honestly don’t know how they feel.  But the bottom line, in my opinion, is that one feeling is prevalent on both sides of the political divide: almost everyone is feeling cut off and disenfranchised.  That was the stated position of those who supported Mr. Trump; it is also the position of those who supported Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton.  What should we be doing as we prepare for Act III?

scyllaHomer’s Odysseus, navigating his way home after the Trojan War, encounters the twin hazards of the Scylla and Charybdis: steer too close to the “rocks” of the Scylla and six sailors will be taken; steer too close the whirlpool Charybdis and the whole ship and crew will be lost.  It’s the classic conundrum much like our own expression of being “between a rock and a hard place.”  In today’s America, then, do we just proceed as we have over the last year and a half, and keep speaking of the Scylla of “winners” and the Charybdis of “losers”?  Is there a way, perhaps of navigating between these two hazards and overcoming some of the polarities of our national life?  There are people — good people! — who supported and voted for Donald Trump.  There are people — good people! — who supported and voted for Hillary Clinton (and for other candidates).  Caricatures on both sides will not help us move forward.

What I’m proposing below is something that we who are people of faith might do within our various churches and communities to move forward in a positive way, to seek the light and not to descend into darkness.  How might we be, in the famous words of the Second Vatican Council, “a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God”?

I offer four things to consider.  These are clearly suggestive and not exhaustive, but these will help suggest others.

  • We must be active agents of peace and reconciliation. No matter who had won the election, it’s been clear for some time that half of our people are going to feel left out, disappointed, angry and marginalized by the outcome.  We must find a way to take the high ground and model between each other and toward our sisters and brothers who have supported “the other side” the Christian love that is to characterize us all.  How we relate to each other, even privately, can have either a positive or negative effect as we go forward.  For those of us who serve as public ministers of the Gospel, we must guard are tongues and our behaviors – not only for the sake of others but for our own as well.
  • We must move beyond categories of “winners” and “losers”. If we permit this kind distinction to permeate our communities, we enable the very gridlock that has characterized so much of our public discourse for so many years.  I am reminded of the senior Republican leader who, after the first election of President Obama, declared that the agenda of his party would be to make sure nothing of the new President’s agenda was successful.  However, this is certainly not unique to one party; both parties share in this kind of attitude, and their public assertions have affected many in our communities, churches and parishes.  It seems to me that we must find ways to stress those things that bind us together rather than divide us.  As Catholics who share in the sacramental life of the Church, and especially as we gather around the sacrificial altar of the Eucharist in communion, we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy, and we are all God’s children saved by Christ’s saving action and filled with the Spirit of reconciliation and mission.
  • We can offer opportunities for listening and dialogue, with a view toward reconciliation. If it seems appropriate within your parish and community, perhaps we might offer guided listening sessions in which people might share their own pain and concerns.  It will be important that someone skilled in facilitating such sessions be involved so that they do not simply increase the tension.  The purpose is not to exacerbate the problems, or to argue the various issues all over again!  Rather, this would be an attempt to map out how we can all move forward.
  • Finally, how might we all become even more involved in the local political scene? For those of us who are clergy, we are restricted by canon and civil law in the ways we can do so, although deacons in the Catholic Church — with the prior permission of our bishops — can be active to a degree that priests and bishops cannot.  As we have seen in previous columns, our deacons might even serve in public office as long as they get prior written permission from their diocesan bishop. But even more important, how might we continue to encourage even greater participation in the public life of the community?  We all have a responsibility to do something and not just complain about things.

We all need to take a deep breath and  — as we sailors like to say — “take an even strain” on the lines.  If we take the high ground and stay energized and motivated to work for the common good of all, we can indeed move forward.  We can — we MUST — see this new Act as an renewed opportunity to help transform, even if on a small and local scale, public discourse and the political landscape in which the common good of all can be served. I will bring this essay to a close with the words we all learned by heart in elementary school.  May we now live them in a mature and profound way as we move forward.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

preamble

 

Ur-Fascism: A Reflection on Umberto Eco and American Politics

BACKGROUND

Politics-of-natureLet me state from the outset that this essay is not pointed at any particular political party or candidate in the United States.  I write it, not as a political scientist, but as a Catholic deacon who is trying to understand the current state of American political life; consider this a small reflection undertaken as part of my own formation of conscience.

I have written it also as a retired Navy Commander who has had a longstanding interest in the nature of leadership and in the styles of leadership exercised in any human institution.  I have written elsewhere, for example, on authoritarian leadership in religious institutions.  Therefore, I ask that readers not assume

Blurred text with a focus on leadership

or presume anything other than I find it fascinating on its face and that I do believe there are characteristics discussed herein that warrant our reflection during the current election cycle here in the United States (not to mention its possible applicability to other nations as well).

To explain a bit more, my generation was born shortly after the end of World War II.  As a child growing up in the 1950’s, I was always fascinated by the history of that war, especially since most of our parents and their families and friends had gone into the service and fought against the Axis powers or took jobs here at home which supported that effort.  One of our uncles was Uncle Joea paratrooper in the “Band of Brothers” who jumped into France on D-Day, and his letter to his brother following D-Day had a strong impact on all of us. (I’ve blogged about this before.) One of the first term papers I ever wrote in high school was on the history of D-Day itself, with Uncle Joe’s letter contributing significantly to the effort.  The question which fascinated me as a child and continues to haunt me to this day is this: How could an otherwise brilliant people such as the Germans, to take just one example, come under the spell of someone like Adolf Hitler?  Couldn’t they see and understand what seems so obvious to everyone today?  What did they “miss” about him?  More important, if they could “miss” Hitler, what would prevent other intelligent people from missing the boat in the future?  “It could never happen here” just doesn’t seem to cut it, in light of Hitler and the German people; I’m sure they thought the same thing.

umbertoeco-654x404So it was interesting recently to come across a 1995 essay by Umberto Eco, the great Italian author (The Name of the Rose), scholar and philosopher, entitled “Ur-Fascism.” Written for the New York Review of Books (22 June 1995),  it may be read in its entirety here.   It is on the points raised in his article that I want to reflect now.  Eco ends his article by writing,

Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances – every day, in every part of the world. [Emphasis added.]

 

Eco begins his article by recounting his own wartime experience as a boy in Italy during the final years of the war, and his own growing awareness of what was happening around him.  He then writes,

I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.  [Emphasis added.]

So, taking him at his word, let’s consider his fourteen “features” of fundamental (“ur“) fascism.  Notice well his caution that these do not constitute a coherent system of thought and action, but his final caution is apt, that just one of them needs be present to create a bloody (“coagulate”) fascism. Here is his list.  I offer them in his order and with his emphases.  For some of them, I simply report them as written; with others, I offer modest commentary.

CHARACTERISTICS OF UR-FASCISM ACCORDING TO ECO

  1. The Cult of Traditionalism: Don’t Let Reason Get in the Way

anti-intellectualEco points out the first feature of Ur-Fascism is a cult — worship — of tradition.  This of course does not deny the importance of tradition itself, as I read him.  Rather it is a question of emphasis and loss of balance: when this emphasis on tradition is taken to an extreme that it becomes traditionalism, an extremist point of view.  Traditionalism taken to this extreme is found in other times, cultures and systems beside Fascism, of course.  In fascist hands, however, traditionalism becomes focused on past glories, past identities, past expressions of truth understood in radical opposition to various forms of rationalism and rationalistic thought.  Eco points out that such a response is ancient, reflected in various schools of thought that reacted negatively to classical Greek rationalism.  In fact, perhaps the best way to think of this traditionalism that Eco is talking about would be as a kind of Gnosticism.  As a result of this worldview, there is no need for new learning, and it reflects an extreme anti-intellectual stance: “Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message,” Eco writes.  So, Ur-Fascism would contend mightily with those who suggest that there might be other points of view to consider: this would explain frequent criticism of “intellectual elites” and others who not only seek to uncover the Truth that has existed for all time, but who might also suggest that this Truth might be understood in various ways under differing circumstances.  In short, the Fascist says, “We know the Truth, so don’t listen to the ‘intellectual elites’ who will only confuse you.”

2. The Rejection of Rational Modernism: “All that is New is Bad”

For this reason, Eco says that this extreme Traditionalism carries with it a rejection of all that is modern.  Here we Catholics need to be cautious with the terms.  I do not believe that Eco is using the term “modernism” as we sometimes see it used in late 19th and early 20th Century ecclesial discussions of “Americanism” and the like.  Here I believe Eco is speaking far more broadly about anything that is “modern” and at apparent odds with “Tradition.”  Eco explains:

Even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon Blood and Earth (Blut und Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life, but it mainly concerned the rejection of the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course). The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

3.  Irrationalism: Cult of Action for Action’s Sake

fascism1Such irrationalism is based on what Eco calls “the cult of action for action’s sake”. The fascist sees action as good in itself and therefore action is taken “before, or without” any prior reflection.  In the fascist view, thinking is a form of emasculation.

Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.

When we hear candidates today making promises of immediate action upon assuming office, are we listening to echoes from the past?  References in stump speeches to “real Americans” over against those “who live in ivory towers” reflect this kind of radical dichotomy between action and contemplation.  It seems to me that the real indicator of Ur-Fascism here would be the demonizing of the opponent, making “the intellectuals” into an enemy.

4.  Disagreement as Treason

Eco’s words on this point need no explanation:

The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.

Several election cycles ago, someone published a piece — I can’t remember who or where — that pointed out the increasing use of American flags as backdrops to political speeches during rallies.  If one candidate showed up in front of four flags, the other candidate would go to ten, and on and on.  The implication is clear: if you agree with me, you are a patriot “like me,” but if you disagree with me, then you are unpatriotic and probably a traitor.  The more heated the rhetoric and the optics, even if the word “treason” itself isn’t used, the more this association is made.

5.  The Fear of Difference/Racism

feature-sidebar-police-racismYet again, Eco is succinct and on point:

Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.

As we continue  confronting racism in our country (and around the world), fear against “others” whether this is expressed through language about race, immigration, or terrorism.  Fear is a normal enough emotion, but language and policy that “exploits and exacerbates” fear of the other (Eco: “the intruders”) crosses the line into fascism.

6.  Individual or Social Frustration

Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.

In our own day, this would seem to be reflected quite obviously in the growth of certain movements, such as the “Tea Party” and in our ongoing debates about immigration policy, especially in light of a struggling and “frustrated middle class”.  Such groups make the claim that they speak for this angry and disenfranchised middle class.

7.  Nationalism and an Obsession with “Plot”

fascism quote mussoliniCertainly, sometimes people are out to get us!  Terrorists have made that terribly, tragically, and repeatedly obvious.  However, look what Eco points out:

To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. . . .  At the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.

Consider that opening clause: “to people who feel deprived of a clear social identity.”  Do we experience that reality in our society today?  When people feel powerless, forgotten, disenfranchised, it is easy to look for that which will give a sense of power, belonging, and identity.  Therefore, anything or anyone who threatens that identity will become the enemy who is “besieging” us.  Political rhetoric which creates, emphasizes or exaggerates “the plot” against “our people” quickly crosses into fascistic language and behavior.  Here again, we see that fear directed against the “other” which we saw earlier, this time writ large.

8.  Humiliation by Others

The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. . . . However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.

What a fascinating observation!  People are to feel humiliated.  I was particularly struck by the notion of humiliation by the force of enemies.  When we discuss foreign policy today, especially on strategies about how to deal with ISIS and other forms of terrorism, people often complain of being powerless: how can a superpower be apparently powerless in dealing with such a threat?  In the heat of political debate on this issue, we hear echoes of Eco’s “continuous shifting of rhetorical focus” in which the threat is characterized as too strong on the one hand, or too weak on the other.  His conclusion is stunningly apt: a fascist government will always lose because “they are constitutionally incapable” of an objective evaluation of the threat.  After all, if we could evaluate objectively, there would no longer be the humiliation the fascist seeks.

Hitler-Mussolini-Neo-Fascists9.  Life Lived for Struggle

For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such a “final solution” implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war. No fascist leader has ever succeeded in solving this predicament.

Have you ever known a person who is always in some kind of struggle, no matter what is going on in their life?  Some years ago in the cartoon strip Li’l Abner, artist Al Capp introduced a character named Joe Btfsplk who was always down on his luck and with a rain cloud always over his head.  In fundamental Fascism, struggle is not something that is transitory leading to an eventual peace, but rather struggle is the point of life. It is no coincidence that Afolf Hitler’s prison manifesto was titled Mein Kampf: “My Struggle”!

In political rhetoric we hear from many candidates about “war against” this or that: drugs, terrorism, whatever — but the war is never won.  Most people want there to be a victory in these struggles so that we can live in peace; the fascist mindset, however, wants to keep the struggle going.

ubermensch10.  Populist Elitism

Ur-Fascism [advocates] a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. [The fascist leader] also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler.

We have had many political conversations over the last twenty years or so about “American exceptionalism”, which risks easily crossing over into Eco’s notion of belonging “to the best people of the world,” while demonizing opponents (including opposing political parties).  Notice the implied cynicism about the character (“weak”) of the people; only the Leader can save them.  He is their strong-man, their Hero.

11.  Heroism is the Norm

With these ideas of life-as-constant-struggle coupled with populist elitism, it is not surprising that what will be valued most is “heroism”: the people want and need a hero, and they are themselves called to become heroes.  Reading Eco, I was reminded of German philosopher Friedrich Nietsche and his concept of the ubermensch (Super-man); his philosophy had direct influence in Hitler and others.

In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the
hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. . . .  In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

12.  Transference to Sexuality

In light of our highly sexualized society in general, and the often reported sexual improprieties (and sometimes outright crimes) on the part of certain politicians, Eco’s point here is insightful:

Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the UrFascist hero tends to play with weapons – doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

13.  Selective Populism

For Ur-Fascism. . . the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. . . .  There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People. Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments. . . .  Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.

I was immediately struck by Eco’s remark about the internet.  Consider how politicians and political parties today rely on social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like.  This “internet populism” risks becoming taken as the true and proper voice of the all the people.  Couple this with the general frustration and dissatification of most Americans with the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the Congress, we should probably be alert for the odor of fascism (Eco: “we can smell Ur-Facism”).

Bundesarchiv_Bild_2102-09844_Mussolini_in_Mailand-464x26114.  Impoverished Vocabulary and Newspeak

Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. . . .  But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.

American politics has always been jingoistic, using words as slogans representing movements, goals and objectives.  Eco’s point here, though, is well worth considering: when does language become a weapon in the constant war, a weapon designed to control and coerce?  What is the language of our public discourse these days?  I think most of us would agree, regardless of political affiliation, that what passes for cultured discourse today is a far cry from that of our predecessors.

 

CONCLUSION: Where to go from here?

My point, as I stated at the outset, has been to review the characteristics of fascism as presented by the late writer, Umberto Eco.  I do so with no agenda in mind than to offer a cautionary message.  This is not about Republican versus Democrat, liberal or progressive versus conservative, Trump versus Clinton.  It is about a worldview.  There are other worldviews, of course, and as time permits I may attempt similar essays about them.

For deacons, I submit that the next step is to compare and contrast ideas such as these with the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, especially those directly related to political life.  We need that as part of our own formation of conscience but also as we attempt to help others.  That task exceeds the scope of this particular essay, however.  I hope to turn my attention to such an effort in the near future.

I conclude this essay with a final, well-known quote from Umberto Eco.  It seems an appropriate summary statement of his comments on ur-fascism:

“Nothing gives a fearful man more courage than another’s fear.”

Umberto-Eco-009-600x250

 

Terrorism, Dachau and Diaconate: Perspectives and PBS

INTRODUCTION

12172xlAs I write this, reports are coming in from Baton Rouge about yet another attack with multiple casualties.  The world is reeling from the endless chain of violence and death of recent months.  On Friday, the PBS series Religion and Ethics Newsweekly ran a program on the Order of Deacons in the Catholic Church.  Given the state of the world, one might think this an odd or even irrelevant topic.   Upon reflection, however, I believe that there are some important dots to connect.  It is precisely because of the current state of violent death, destruction and havoc that the diaconate — properly understood — might offer a glimmer of hope.  After all, it was precisely because of the “abyss of violence, destruction and death unlike anything previously known” (John Paul II, referring to World Word II) that the Order of Deacons was renewed in the first place; we’re here to help do something about it. So we shall review the PBS story against that critical backdrop.

47e73934-588c-4a95-985f-3ddac791ede4.png.resize.298x135THE PBS PROGRAM: Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

First, watch the program or read the transcript for yourself; you may find both of them here.  The diaconate is not often covered in the media, so this could have been a wonderful opportunity to spread the word about a remarkable ministry.  Unfortunately, despite very obvious good intentions, the program was full of errors ranging from simple errors of fact to more serious, even egregious, errors of history and theology.  Furthermore, a wonderful opportunity was missed to connect the “concrete consequences” which the diaconate might offer a hurting world.

The Mistakes

Why focus on some of the errors made in the program?  First, simply to get them identified and out of the way.  Second and more important, it is crucial to dispel such errors because they can distort the meaning of the diaconate and distract the audience from its proper potential.

  1. “He’s a married layman.” This simple error of fact is made twice at the very beginning of the report.  Of course this is simply not true.  Deacons are clergy and not laymen.  For those of us who live and teach about the diaconate, this is usually the first red flag that the rest of the discussion is not going to go well.  Why is this distinction important?  Back to that in a moment.
  2. “Celebrating Mass is a function reserved only for priests who are considered heirs to the original apostles.” In Catholic theology, of course, the “heirs” or “successors” of the apostles are bishops, not priests.
  3. “[The deacon] did have to step in recently to speak the words of consecration at communion – for Catholics the most sacred part of the Mass. That’s because his pastor is on leave, and the priest filling in doesn’t speak English.” This is terribly wrong on several levels.  First, the deacon can be seen and heard praying part of the Eucharistic Prayer, which is absolutely reserved to priests alone.  The priest in question should have just said the prayer in his native language, whatever it is.  For years, Catholics of the Latin Rite celebrated Mass in Latin: no one stood next to the priest to translate the Latin for us.  Not only did the deacon not “have to step in” to do such a thing, church law expressly forbids it.  Canon 907 states: “In the eucharistic celebration deacons and lay persons are not permitted to offer prayers, especially the eucharistic prayer, or to perform actions which are proper to the celebrating priest.” My guess is that every deacon who saw that part of the segment is still cringing!  (The other cringe-worthy tidbit was seeing the deacon improperly vested, wearing his stole on the outside of his dalmatic. How cringe-worthy ?  Think wearing underclothing over your pants).
  4. VaticanII“In the Middle Ages the role of deacons began to fade as the power of priests and bishops grew. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council restored the role of deacons – but only for men.” The evolving role of deacons throughout history is far more complicated than that, and overlooks the fact that the diaconate never completely disappeared, but became primarily a stepping stone to the priesthood.  I fully acknowledge that the history of the diaconate in all of its complexity goes far beyond what can be covered in such a brief program, but still: the broad brush strokes of the history could have been recognized and acknowledged.  This is also when the program shifts to the question of the possibility of ordaining women as deacons.  I will deal with that question below.
  5. “Until recently, the wives of deacons were required to take the same classes over four years as their husbands did to prepare for the diaconate.” Here the reporter falls victim to a common danger when discussing the diaconate: extrapolation.  There are nearly 200 Catholic dioceses in the United States, and the procedures and processes of formation vary greatly from place to place.  National standards established by the US Bishops do not mandate such a requirement, although wives are definitely encouraged to participate to the extent possible so that the couple grows together throughout the formation process.  Even the “until recently” is confusing: perhaps in that particular diocese something has changed, but not in all.  Not every wife of every deacon candidate is required to write papers or attend classes. Like many things in the renewed diaconate, it varies by location and bishop. But even more important — and completely left out of the piece — is the question of vocation.  Preparing for ordination is far more than taking classes, writing papers, and giving practice homilies.  At the heart of formation is the crucible of discerning God’s will: is God calling a person to ordained ministry?  Becoming a deacon is not simply “signing up”, taking a few courses, and putting on the vestments.  This is a life-altering process which at the moment is only engaged in by men.  Whether that changes in the future remains to be seen.  And, if it does, and women enter formation, they too will then go through that crucible of formation — as well as the papers, the courses and the homilies.
  6. “After increasing for several decades, the number of men entering the permanent diaconate has begun to decline, despite a growing need.”  It is worth noting that the diaconate is the only vocation that is growing in the United States—outpacing the priesthood, sisters and religious life. In my own research on the diaconate, I would question again the extrapolation going on: perhaps in some areas or in some dioceses, the number of deacons is going down, but that is simply not the case throughout the country and the rest of the world.  The diaconate has been growing steadily for decades and continues to do so.  The diaconate worldwide has the potential to be one of the great success stories of the Second Vatican Council.

13-2-600x450Now, on the PLUS side:

One exceptionally brief section of the program was a bright spot, and captured the characteristic identity of the deacon.  Several deacons were shown installing a laundry room in a home for women emerging from crisis.  The reporter describes this group as “a ministry that responds to crises. . . .”  One of the deacons involved points out that “besides doing liturgical functions, we’re also called to serve the poor and serve the people of God.”  There it is: the role of the deacon is to respond to crises, to serve those most in need.  The identity of the deacon is expressed in many ways, but most characteristic is this focus on the needs of others: while we are called to exercise our ministries of Word, Sacrament, and Charity in a balanced way, all of it finds its most significant expression in the servant-leadership of the community in service.  If the program had focused on these dimensions — on the very heart of the diaconate itself — it might have avoided the problematic areas which they got largely wrong.

POPE WAVES AS HE ARRIVES FOR GENERAL AUDIENCE AT VATICAN

Diaconate and Diakonia: An Essential Element of the Church

The entire Church is called to be a servant-church, a diaconal church.  Pope Paul VI repeatedly taught that deacons are to be “the animators of the Church’s service,” and St. John Paul II carried it a step further when he referred to the diaconate as “the Church’s service sacramentalized.”  These popes were echoing the teaching and the decisions of the the bishops of the Second Vatican Council when they determined that the Church’s diakonia should be a permanent part of the sacramental life of the Church.  Being a deacon is not simply some activity which a person takes on themselves, at their own initiative; rather, it is believed to be a call from God as discerned through the help of the broader Church.

Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est, citing St. Luke:

20. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-5). . . .  As the Church grew, this radical form of material communion could not in fact be preserved. But its essential core remained: within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.

21. A decisive step in the difficult search for ways of putting this fundamental ecclesial principle into practice is illustrated in the choice of the seven, which marked the origin of the diaconal office (cf. Acts 6:5-6). . . .  Nor was this group to carry out a purely mechanical work of distribution: they were to be men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (cf. Acts 6:1-6). In other words, the social service which they were meant to provide was absolutely concrete, yet at the same time it was also a spiritual service; theirs was a truly spiritual office which carried out an essential responsibility of the Church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbor. With the formation of this group of seven, “diaconia”—the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way—became part of the fundamental structure of the Church.

It is time now to bring all of this together: in the light of Baton Rouge, Nice, Dallas, “Black Lives Matter,” terrorist acts and wounded communities all around the world: why should we care about an order of ministry within the Church?

THE DIACONATE IN CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT: WHY?

DachauBunkBedsSo, what is the connection?  How can the diaconate be understood against that much larger and violent backdrop?  The most important question of all is perhaps, why do we have deacons in the first place?

  1. We have deacons because the church and the world needed ministers to link the needs of people with the providence, mercy and love of God.  This is why deacons have always been described as being associated with the ministry of the bishop and with having the skills to administer “the goods of the Church” for the good of people.
  2. Deacons have historically not been exclusively associated with parish ministry.  For the bulk of church history, deacons served as the principle assistants to their bishops, often representing them in councils and as legates, in catechesis (consider Deacon Deogratias of Carthage), in homiletics (Deacon Quodvultdeus, also of Carthage) and by extending the reach of their bishops, such as Deacon Lawrence of Rome.  Over time, deacons became subordinate to presbyters as well as bishops, and increasingly involved in what we would recognize as parish ministry.  To this very day, deacons are ordained solely by their bishop, for service to him and under his authority: where the bishop is, so should be his deacon.
  3. dachau_collIn our time, as I’ve written about extensively, the Second Vatican Council decided overwhelmingly that the diaconate should be renewed as a permanent ministry in the church once again, even to the extent of opening ordination to married as well as celibate men.  The bishops in Council did this largely because of the insights gleaned from the priest-survivors of Dachau Concentration Camp.  Following the war, these survivors wrote of how the Church would have to adapt itself to better meet the needs of the contemporary world if the horrors of the first half of the 20th Century were to be avoided in the future.  Deacons were seen as a critical component of that strategy of ecclesial renewal.  Why?  Because deacons were understood as being grounded in their communities in practical and substantial ways, while priests and bishops had gradually become perceived as being too distant and remote from the people they were there to serve.

    In short, the diaconate was renewed in order to deal more effectively with the horrors of the contemporary world, not simply to function as parish ministers.

    As I frequently challenge myself and other deacons: is the energy I’m expending as a deacon helping to create the conditions in the world in which another “Dachau” could not exist?  Or am I involving myself in things that are superficial, contingent, and relatively inconsequential?

  4. light_christThe diaconate today, fifty years after the Council, has matured greatly.  Those who would talk intelligently about the diaconate need to keep that in mind.  Over the past fifty years, formation standards have evolved to better equip deacons for our myriad responsibilities, for example.  The diaconate has, at least in those dioceses which have had deacons for several generations, become part of the ecclesial imagination.  In some dioceses we have brothers who are deacons, fathers-in-law and sons-in-law who are deacons, fathers and sons who are deacons.  In one archdiocese, an auxiliary bishop is the son of that archdiocese’s long-time director of the diaconate.  As I mentioned above, the diaconate looks and feels different from one diocese to another and while it is tempting to generalize whenever possible, it is particularly dangerous.
  5. Let me briefly address the question of women and the diaconate.  This is a question demanding serious conversation, just as the Holy Father has indicated.  He is not alone, nor is he the first pope to think so.  Pope Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict (both before his ascension to the papacy and after), and now Pope Francis have all been interested in the question.  The 2002 study document of the International Theological Commission (ITC), convened by the authority of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, concluded that it remained for the Church’s “ministry of discernment” to work toward a resolution of the question.  But the main thing at this point is to have the conversation.  And that conversation will need to take place within the broader context of the lived diaconate, the diaconate whose pastoral praxis and theological reflection has deepened over the past fifty years.  Many who opine about women and the diaconate do so from a dated or inadequate understanding of the order.  If this conversation is going to be done, it must be done well.  In short, to understand the possibilities of women in diakonia, one must first understand the diaconate itself.

violenceHere is my point: If we deacons were restored in response to Dachau and similar world shattering violence, translate “Dachau” to Baton Rouge.  “Dachau” to Nice.  “Dachau” to “Black Lives Matter”.  “Dachau” to 9/11.  “Dachau” to every act of senseless terror and random  violence.  What are we doing to confront these tragedies?  What are we doing to work toward a world in which THEY can no longer exist?  This is so much more than who gets to exercise “governance” (a technical canonical term) in the Church, or who gets to proclaim the Gospel in the midst of the community of disciples.  Like the bishops of the Second Vatican Council, we must ask ourselves how we must evolve and adapt to the new violent conditions of our own age.  How can they best be addressed in the interest of the millions of suffering people — here at home and abroad — whose needs we are called to serve?  We deacons must, like our “founders” at Vatican II, look beyond the normal categories of parish and issues of “insider baseball.”

Paul-VII hope that there will be more media programs on the diaconate.  I hope that not only will they be done accurately, but that they will also be done with a sense of the vision and potential of the diaconate.

As Pope Paul VI said of us, we are to be “the animators” of the Church’s service: May we give our lives to change the world.