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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Catholics and Immigration: Kneading the Dough with Pope Francis

global-migration-2INTRODUCTION

Few topics have so occupied the fears and attention of so many in recent months than the issue of immigration.  I almost wrote “in the United States” but caught myself in time: this is a global phenomenon, which some observers state is at its worst since 1945 and the end of the Second World War.  The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that there are 21.3 million refugees in the world, of which 10 million are reported as “stateless”; only 107,100 were resettled in 2015.  Almost 34,000 people PER DAY are forced to leave their homes, and of those 21.3 million refugees, more than half are under the age of 18.  Check out some additional statistics here.

Yesterday, Pope Francis addressed the International Forum on “Migration and Peace.”  You can — and should! — read the whole text here.  Immigration has been a constant concern for this Holy Father since his election (all you have to do is Google “Pope Francis and Immigration” to see his many statements on the subject), but it is also a concern he’s shared with his predecessors and, indeed, the papal magisterium is reflecting longstanding principles of Catholic social teaching.  In short, the pope’s concerns are migrants-and-pope-francis-2nothing new, although he has been particularly passionate in reminding the world of the moral principles involved.

In my last blog post, I repeated the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that we are supposed to be “a leaven and kind of soul” for society.  This means that we are immersed in the messy dough of human existence, helping each other find God in the rising.  In this post, I want to summarize and review the pope’s most recent teaching with a view toward how we might implement its provisions in our own concrete circumstances, our own doughy mess.

I should also point out that the pope has repeatedly re-affirmed the right, duty and obligation that countries have to protect their citizens.  Nothing he promotes would ever deny that, although some commentators have suggested this.  However, as we will see, legitimate measures to protect society at large must still take into account the moral obligations we have to all people and not simply our own citizens.

Finally, we realize that whenever any pope teaches on a volatile subject, such as immigration, reactions range from enthusiastic support to enthusiastic disagreement.  This instance is no different, which critics opining that the pope has no business talking about these things.  On the contrary, the pope has every obligation to address matters of faith and morals, perhaps most especially because people need to hear it even when they don’t want to, or when it makes them feel uncomfortable.  Just as parents must speak truth to their children even when the children don’t like it, so too religious leaders (not only the pope!) must be prophetic even when unpopular.

migrants-and-pope-francisTHE ADDRESS OF POPE FRANCIS

The outline of the pope’s address yesterday is a powerful statement in itself.  With seven major points, the pope offers an outline for pastoral action.  The pope observes:

Migration, in its various forms, is not a new phenomenon in humanity’s history. It has left its mark on every age, encouraging encounter between peoples and the birth of new civilizations. In its essence, to migrate is the expression of that inherent desire for the happiness proper to every human being, a happiness that is to be sought and pursued. For us Christians, all human life is an itinerant journey towards our heavenly homeland. . . .  Contemporary movements of migration represent the largest movement of individuals, if not of peoples, in history.”

Francis therefore speaks of an “urgency for a coordinated and effective response to these challenges,” a response marked by four verbs: to welcome, to protect, to promote and integrate.  After he discusses each them, he continues that we need to “conjugate these four verbs in the first person singular [‘I welcome, I protect, I promote, I integrate’] and in the first person plural [‘We welcome, we protect, we promote, we integrate’].  In this way we discover our own responsibility, our own duty, “a duty we have towards our brothers and sisters who, for various reasons, have been forced to leave their homeland: a duty of justice, of civility and of solidarity.”

Let’s take a closer look at each of these four responses with their related duties.

Pope Francis greets immigrants as he arrives at port in LampedusaTo Welcome

Francis pulls no punches, speaking of a rejection of others that is “rooted ultimately in self-centeredness and amplified by populist rhetoric.”  What is needed, he says, is a change of attitude which overcomes indifference and counters fears.  A changed attitude will be generous in welcoming those “who knock at our doors.”

For those who flee conflicts and terrible persecutions, often trapped within the grip of criminal organisations who have no scruples, we need to open accessible and secure humanitarian channels. A responsible and dignified welcome of our brothers and sisters begins by offering them decent and appropriate shelter. The enormous gathering together of persons seeking asylum and of refugees has not produced positive results. Instead these gatherings have created new situations of vulnerability and hardship. More widespread programs of welcome, already initiated in different places, seem to favor a personal encounter and allow for greater quality of service and increased guarantees of success.

In the first person singular, then, how am I welcoming the stranger?  Not in some general, theoretical and antiseptic way, but in a concrete, leaven-in-the-dough way.  In the first person plural, how do we join together in groups, parishes, and communities (and not simply in governmental ways) to initiate, support and sustain “more widespread programs of welcome”?

To Protect

Pope Francis cites his predecessor, Pope Benedict, who stressed that migration makes people “more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and violence.”  Pope Francis builds on this teaching by referring to our need to protect the dispossessed:

Defending their inalienable rights, ensuring their fundamental freedoms and respecting their dignity are duties from which no one can be exempted. Protecting these brothers and sisters is a moral imperative which translates into

— adopting juridical instruments, both international and national, that must be clear and relevant;

— implementing just and far reaching political choices;

— prioritizing constructive processes, which perhaps are slower, over immediate results of consensus;

— implementing timely and humane programs in the fight against “the trafficking of human flesh” which profits off others’ misfortune;

— coordinating the efforts of all actors, among which, you may be assured will always be the Church.

Turning again to my/our personal responsibility: in what specific ways can I help in any or all of these areas of protection?  Perhaps I can’t do much alone, but I can at least join my efforts with those of others.  And, if there is nothing in our community, perhaps I can initiate something.

Repairers of the BreachTo Promote

To welcome and to protect is not sufficient, according to Pope Francis, who turns to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which describes human development as “an undeniable right of every human being.”  This is not a right granted by a government or an agency, but by God.

As such, it must be guaranteed by ensuring the necessary conditions for its exercise, both in the individual and social context, providing fair access to fundamental goods for all people and offering the possibility of choice and growth. Also here a coordinated effort is needed, one which envisages all the parties involved: from the political community to civil society, from international organizations to religious institutions. . . .  Efforts must be encouraged that lead to the implementation of programs of international cooperation, free from partisan interests, and programs of transnational development which involve migrants as active protagonists.

The Holy Father stresses that such rights ought first to be guaranteed in a person’s place of origin, but if they are not, people must be free it emigrate to places where they will find this opportunity.  How do I work now to guarantee to rights of all persons who are here, both citizens and non-citizens alike, but all human persons created in the image and likeness of God, and all endowed with the same human rights?  What could I be doing that I’m not?  What could we do together, perhaps as a parish community, to contribute to this effort?

people-out-perspTo Integrate

The pope teaches that integration is a two-way process “rooted essentially in the joint recognition of the other’s cultural richness: it is not the superimposing of one culture over another, nor mutual isolation, with the insidious and dangerous risk of creating ghettoes.” Those who come to a new country must be open to the culture of the new country, “respecting above all its laws.”

Citing Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis highlights the responsibility toward the family in the process of integration, citing John Paul’s message that policies must be developed that “favor and benefit the reunion of families.”  In addition, again citing John Paul II, proper integration “requires specific programs which foster significant encounters with others. Furthermore: for Christians:

The peaceful integration of persons of various cultures is, in some way, a reflection of its catholicity, since unity, which does not nullify ethnic and cultural diversity, constitutes a part of the life of the Church, who in the Spirit of Pentecost is open to all and desires to embrace all.

Perhaps these last two areas are the more challenging of the four in practical application.  So often, our policies regarding displaced persons involve screening and “vetting” and are less concerned (if at all) in how we might “promote and integrate” our sisters and brothers.  In what concrete ways can I serve to help with this integration?  Perhaps I can help with the process of reuniting families; perhaps our parish might sponsor families who have been apart, and help bring them together again.

Here is where Pope Francis challenges us all further, speaking of three duties or obligations related to welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating.  These are the duty of JUSTICE, the duty of CIVILITY, and the duty of SOLIDARITY.

  1. Justice

The pope points out:

We can no longer sustain unacceptable economic inequality. . . .We are all called to undertake processes of apportionment which are respectful, responsible and inspired by the precepts of distributive justice. . . .  One group of individuals cannot control half of the world’s resources. We cannot allow for persons and entire peoples to have a right only to gather the remaining crumbs.

Justice demands that we see with God’s eyes: how does God see his children who are homeless and searching?  We can do no less.  How would we feel if we found our own children abandoned, abused, homeless and hungry?  Suddenly those verbs of welcome, protection, promotion and integration become very personal.  They are just as “personal” for God!

Furthermore, popes Francis and Benedict teach that justice challenges us to break down stereotypes:

Ensuring justice means also reconciling history with our present globalized situation, without perpetuating mind-sets which exploit people and places, a consequence of the most cynical use of the market in order to increase the well-being of the few. As Pope Benedict affirmed, the process of decolonization was delayed “both because of new forms of colonialism and continued dependence on old and new foreign powers, and because of grave irresponsibility within the very countries that have achieved independence.”

2. Civility

Civility means so much more than simply being “polite”!  Francis again cites St. John Paul II: “an irregular legal status cannot allow the migrant to lose his dignity, since he is endowed with inalienable rights, which can neither be violated nor ignored.”  Civility helps us to appreciate the value of the very relational nature of the human person in which every person is “a true sister and brother; without fraternity it is impossible to build a just society and a solid and lasting peace.”

biblical-justice3. Solidarity

Evoking the book of Genesis, the pope reminds us of God’s question of Cain: “Where is your brother?”  We are one with our sisters and brothers, and what affects her or him, affects me.

Solidarity is born precisely from the capacity to understand the needs of our brothers and sisters who are in difficulty and to take responsibility for these needs. Upon this, in short, is based the sacred value of hospitality, present in religious traditions. For us Christians, hospitality offered to the weary traveler is offered to Jesus Christ himself, through the newcomer: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).

Finally, in language easily recognizable in our contemporary Western culture, the teaches:

The duty of solidarity is to counter the throwaway culture and give greater attention to those who are weakest, poorest and most vulnerable. Thus “a change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world” (Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 5 August 2013).

CONCLUSION

So, I suggest we prayerfully consider what the pope has to say as we Americans confront the challenges of immigration policies under the current administration.  In particular, how can each and every one of us — individually and communally — tale on the responsibility to welcome, to protect, to promote, and to integrate?  How well can we respond to these initiatives from a sense of justice, civility, and solidarity?

Here’s the dough: let’s get our hands messy.

kneading-dough

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.

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Coming Up for Air: Returning to the Blogosphere

It’s been an absolutely crazy time on many levels since my last blog posting.  I have officially “retired”, although I’m teaching more courses than ever at several universities, traveling to speak with groups of priests, of deacons and their wives, and directing retreats.  We have moved back to our home in Florida, saying farewell to family, friends and co-workers in California, and saying “we’re back!” to old friends and co-workers down here.  In ministry I have left a wonderful, extraordinary parish and returned to another where I served before heading out to California.

And, of course, since my last blog post, Donald John Trump has transitioned from being President-elect to being President of the United States.

I’ll be returning to active blogging shortly.

Happy Sunday!

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

 

Deacons: Myths and Misperceptions

reeseHeadshotWebJesuit Father Thomas Reese has published an interesting piece over at NCRonline entitled “Women Deacons? Yes.  Deacons?  Maybe.”  I have a lot of respect for Fr. Tom, and I thank him for taking the time to highlight the diaconate at this most interesting time.  As the apostolic Commission prepares to assemble to discuss the question of the history of women in diaconal ministry, it is good for all to remember that none of this is happening in a vacuum.  IF women are eventually ordained as deacons in the contemporary Church, then they will be joining an Order of ministry that has developed much over the last fifty years.  Consider one simple fact: In January 1967 there were zero (0) “permanent” deacons in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (the last two lived and died in the 19th Century).  Today there are well over 40,000 deacons serving worldwide.  By any numerical measure, this has to be seen as one of the great success stories of the Second Vatican Council.  Over the last fifty years, then, the Church has learned much about the nature of this renewed order, its exercise, formation, assignment and utilization.  The current question, therefore, rests upon a foundation of considerable depth, while admitting that much more needs to be done.

However, Father Reese’s column rests on some commonly-held misperceptions and errors of fact regarding the renewal of the diaconate.  Since these errors are often repeated without challenge or correction, I think we need to make sure this foundation is solid lest we build a building that is doomed to fall down.  So, I will address some of these fault lines in the order presented:

  1.  The“Disappearance” of Male Deacons  

exsultet1Father states that “[Women deacons] disappeared in the West around the same time as male deacons.”  On the contrary, male deacons remained a distinct order of ministry (and one not automatically destined for the presbyterate) until at least the 9th Century in the West.  This is attested to by a variety of sources.  Certainly, throughout these centuries, many deacons — the prime assistants to bishops — were elected to succeed their bishops.  Later in this period, as the Roman cursus honorum took hold more definitively, deacons were often ordained to the presbyterate, leading to what is incorrectly referred to as the “transitional” diaconate.  However, both in a “permanent” sense and a “transitional” sense, male deacons never disappeared.

  1.  The Renewal of Diaconate as Third World Proposal

1115_p12b500Father Tom writes that his hesitancy concerning the diaconate itself “is not with women deacons, but with the whole idea of deacons as currently practiced in the United States.” (I would suggest that this narrow focus misses the richness of the diaconate worldwide.)  He then turns to the Council to provide a foundation for what follows.  He writes, “The renewal of the diaconate was proposed at the Second Vatican Council as a solution to the shortage of native priests in missionary territories. In fact, the bishops of Africa said, no thank you. They preferred to use lay catechists rather than deacons.”  This statement simply is not true and does not reflect the history leading up to the Council or the discussions that took place during the Council on the question of the diaconate.

LocalsRebuildDresdenAs I and others have written extensively, the origins of the contemporary diaconate lie in the early 19th Century, especially in Germany and France.  In fact there is considerable linkage between the early liturgical movement (such as the Benedictine liturgical reforms at Solesmes) and the early discussions about a renewed diaconate: both stemmed from a desire to increase participation of the faithful in the life of the Church, both at liturgy and in life.  In Germany, frequent allusion was made to the gulf that existed between priests and bishops and their people.  Deacons were discussed as early as 1840 as a possible way to reconnect people with their pastoral leadership.  This discussion continued throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th.  It became a common topic of the Deutschercaritasberband (the German Caritas organization) before and during the early years of the Nazi regime, and it would recur in the conversations held by priest-prisoners in Dachau.  Following the war, these survivors wrote articles and books on the need for a renewed diaconate — NOT because of a priest shortage, but because of a desire to present a more complete image of Christ to the world: not only Christ the High Priest, but the kenotic Christ the Servant as well.  As Father Joseph Komonchak famously quipped, “Vatican II did not restore the diaconate because of a shortage of priests but because of a shortage of deacons.”

Vatican IICertainly, there was some modest interest in this question by missionary bishops before the Council.  But it remained largely a European proposal.  Consider some statistics.  During the antepreparatory stage leading up to the Council (1960-1961), during which time close to 9,000 proposals were presented from the world’s bishops, deans of schools of theology, and heads of men’s religious congregations, 101 proposals concerned the possible renewal of the diaconate.  Eleven of these proposals were against the idea of having the diaconate (either as a transitional or as a permanent order), while 90 were in favor of a renewed, stable (“permanent”) diaconate.  Nearly 500 bishops from around the world supported some form of these 90 proposals, with only about 100 of them from Latin America and Africa.  Nearly 400 bishops, almost entirely from both Western and Eastern Europe, were the principal proponents of a renewed diaconate (by the way, the bishops of the United States, who had not had the benefit of the century-long conversation about the diaconate, were largely silent on the matter, and the handful who spoke were generally against the idea).  Notice how these statistics relate to Father Tom’s observation.  First, the renewed diaconate was largely a European proposal, not surprising given the history I’ve outlined above.  Second, notice that despite this fact, it is also wrong to say that “the African bishops said no thank you” to the idea.  Large numbers of them wanted a renewed diaconate, and even today, the diaconate has been renewed in a growing number of African dioceses.

One other observation on this point needs to be made.  No bishop whose diocese is suffering from a shortage of priests would suggest that deacons would be a suitable strategy.  After all, as we all know, deacons do not celebrate Mass, hear confessions or anoint the sick.  If a diocese needed more priests, they would not have turned to the diaconate.  Yes, there was some discussion at the Council that deacons could be of assistance to priests, but the presumption was that there were already priests to hand.

In short, the myth that “the diaconate was a third world initiative due to a shortage of priests” simply has never held up, despite its longstanding popularity.

  1.  Deacons as Part-Time Ministers

Father cites national statistics that point out that deacons are largely unpaid, “most of whom make a living doing secular work.”  “Why,” he asks, “are we ordaining part-time ministers and not full-time ministers?”

shutterstock_137696915-660x350Let’s break this down.  First, there never has been, nor will there ever be, a “part-time deacon.”  We’re all full-time ministers.  Here’s the problem: Because the Catholic Church did not have the advantage of the extensive conversation on diaconate that was held in other parts of the world, we have not fully accepted the notion that ministry extends BEYOND the boundaries of the institutional church itself.  Some of the rationale behind the renewal of the diaconate in the 19th Century and forward has been to place the Church’s sacred ministers in places where the clergy had previously not been able to go!  Consider the “worker-priest” movement in France.  This was based on a similar desire to extend the reach of the Church’s official ministry outside of the parish and outside of the sanctuary.  However, if we can only envision “ministry” as something that takes place within the sanctuary or within the parish, then we miss a huge point of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and, I would suggest, the papal magisterium of Pope Francis.  The point of the diaconate is to extend the reach of the bishop into places the bishop can’t normally be present.  That means that no matter what the deacon is doing, no matter where the deacon is working or serving, the deacon is ministering to those around him.

We seem to understand this when we speak about priests, but not about deacons.  When a priest is serving in some specialized work such as president of a university, or teaching history or social studies or science at a high school, we would never suggest that he is a “part-time” minister.  Rather, we would correctly say that it is ALL ministry.  Deacons take that even further, ministering in our various workplaces and professions.  It was exactly this kind of societal and cultural leavening that the Council desired with regard to the laity and to the ordained ministry of the deacon.  The bottom line is that we have to expand our view of what we mean by the term “ministry”!

  1.  “Laypersons can do everything a deacon can do

Father writes, “But the truth is that a layperson can do everything that a deacon can do.”  He then offers some examples.  Not so fast.

ANSA-John23Hospital-255x318Not unlike the previous point, this is a common misperception.  However, it is only made if one reduces “being a deacon” to the functions one performs.  Let’s ponder that a moment.  We live in a sacramental Church.  This means that there’s more to things than outward appearances.  Consider the sacrament of matrimony.  Those of us who are married know that there is much, much more to “being married” than simply the sum of the functions associated with marriage.  Those who are priests or bishops know that there is more to who they are as priests and bishops than simply the sum of what they do.  So, why can’t they see that about deacons?  There is more to “being deacon” than simply the sum of what we do.  And, frankly, do we want priests to stop visiting the sick in hospitals or the incarcerated in prisons simply because a lay person can (and should!) be doing that?  Shall we have Father stop being a college professor because now we have lay people who can do that?  Shall we simply reduce Father to the sacraments over which he presides?  What a sacramentally arid Church we would become!

The fact is, there IS a difference when a person does something as an ordained person.  Thomas Aquinas observed that an ordained person acts in persona Christi et in nomine Ecclesiae — in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church.  There is a public and permanent dimension to all ordained ministry that provides the sacramental foundation for all that we try to do in the name of the Church.  We are more than the sum of our parts, we are more than the sum of our functions.

  1.  “We have deacons. . . because they get more respect”

francis-washing-feetWith all respect to a man I deeply admire, I expect that most deacons who read this part of the column are still chuckling.  Yes, I have been treated with great respect by most of the people with whom I’ve served, including laity, religious, priests and bishops.  On the other hand, the experience of most deacons does not sustain Father’s observation.  The fact is, most people, especially if they’re not used to the ministry of deacons, don’t associate deacons with ordination.  I can’t tell the number of times that I’ve been asked by someone, “When will you be ordained?” — meaning ordination to the priesthood.  They know I am a deacon, but, as some people will say, “but that one really doesn’t count, does it?”  I had another priest once tell me, “Being a deacon isn’t a real vocation like the priesthood.”  If it’s respect a person is after “beyond their competence” (to quote Father Reese), then it’s best to avoid the diaconate.

No, the truth is that we have deacons because the Church herself is called to be deacon to the world (cf. Paul VI).  Just as we are a priestly people who nonetheless have ministerial priests to help us actualize our priestly identity, so too we have ministerial deacons to help us actualize our ecclesial identity as servants to and in the world.  To suggest that we have deacons simply because of issues of “respect” simply misses the point of 150 years of theological and pastoral reflection on the nature of the Church and on the diaconate.

In all sincerity, I thank Father Reese for his column on the diaconate, and I look forward to the ongoing conversation about this exciting renewed order of ministry of our Church.

 

 

 

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

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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