Millennial Catholics and the Fight against Extremism

Young, motivated believers find themselves in a precarious position, balancing between the extreme tendencies of any faith and the secular millennial world of material idolization, substance abuse, and mutual sexual objectification. Examining how different people and groups become radicalized provides a lens into this special position, how orthodox Catholicism in particular, but any faithful traditionally-rooted religious tradition, can testify to a more loving, more peaceful, and more fulfilling life. In other words, although our religions are different, millennial Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, and other traditionally-rooted religious groups are in a unique position to simultaneously combat the excesses of Western secular life and the violent religious and ideological radicalization rising across the West and Middle East.

Secular depictions of radicalization are often confused and find the roots of violent discontent solely in racism, sexism, or xenophobia. These issues are undoubtedly factors, but are not the complete picture. If we want to combat radicalism and propose healthy alternatives to contemporary cultural discontent, we must understand why people turn to violence. A recent New York Times piece addresses the xenophobia supposedly experienced by three British teenagers who fled to join ISIS: “A lot of young Muslims…feel that Islamophobia is a very prevalent thing…And then a group comes to them and says, like, ‘This is where you come,’ this is where they will be complete. ‘It’s a home for you.’ That appeals to them.” Feelings of alienation cut across religious, political, and racial lines, so that some ex-neo-Nazis report feeling their culture under attack. As another Times article notes of Swedish ex-radical Robert Orell, “The immigrants who had bullied him at his school were now, in his view, bullying his culture as liberal politicians stood by.” Clearly, a feeling of persecution or “otherness” motivates a retreat into religious or ideological seclusion, often culminating in a desire to do violence to one’s persecutors. Read More

Is The ‘Francis Effect’ Overcoming American Indifference to Climate Change?

Last week, Yale University released a study, The Francis Effect: How Pope Francis Changed the Conversation About Global Warming. The report aims to measure the impact of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, released in June. The media buzz surrounding this document produced more than 3,000 news stories, and parishes organized hundreds of reflection and discussion sessions. In this way, Pope Francis has been relying on others to respond to his “urgent appeal” to address ecological degradation, the impact this has had on the lives and livelihoods of our brothers and sisters, and enter into “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet” (#14).

Interestingly enough, however, even with all the attention given to this document, Yale’s study found that only 28% of Americans – and 36% of U.S. Catholics – heard “a lot” or “some” media coverage on Pope Francis’ views on the environment. Only a quarter of American Catholics said they were aware that Pope Francis had released Laudato Si’ and only 10% reported hearing “some” or “a lot” about Francis’ environmental encyclical at Mass.

Still, Yale’s report finds that more Americans – and even more Catholics – have heard more frequent media coverage about global warming since Laudato Si’ was released and are more likely to discuss this issue with friends or family. The study found that 6% more Americans and 13% more Catholics grew certain that global warming is real and 12% more Americans and 20% more Catholics acknowledge that the world’s poor will be harmed by climate change. Even though there is a wider sense that this is a moral issue (6% more Americans, 8% more U.S. Catholics) and a religious issue (4% more Americans, 7% more U.S. Catholics), this hasn’t translated into broader support for policy changes, aside from the reduction of greenhouse gasses on a national level. Only 2% more Americans support funding research into renewable energy sources, and there was actually a 3% decline for restricting CO2 emissions on coal-fired power plants. Read More

Confusion Within the Church: Satan’s Work or God’s?

Last week, the National Catholic Reporter ran a story about the upcoming elections for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The author of the story paints a picture of the elections as presenting a choice between “Francis bishops” and bishops who might be seen as being more at odds with the pastoral inclinations and priorities of the current Pontiff. As an example of the latter, the article mentions Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., of Philadelphia, who publicly stated he was “very disturbed” by the debate over Church teachings on gay people and remarried Catholics at the 2014 Synod on the Family. In his opinion, the Synod sent a confusing message, and “confusion is of the devil.”

These are indeed confusing times for many, and many people share Archbishop Chaput’s frustration. Recent years have seen a major shift in public opinion (including the opinion of large numbers of Catholics) on the matter of same-sex marriage. Until recently, not only Catholic teaching but also the majority Catholic opinion was firmly against such unions. Now more than half of US Catholics favor same-sex marriage. Another divisive issue, admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion, took center stage in last month’s Synod on the Family. Many Catholics were hoping that the Synod would produce a clear response to this question, but the resulting documents essentially left it an open issue. Meanwhile the fight over Obamacare-mandated contraception rages on in the US court system. These are topics of passionate concern for a great many Catholics, and at present it is anything but clear how the Church as a whole will respond going forward.

Some, like Chaput and Cardinal Raymond Burke, clearly favor policies that hold to traditional Church teaching and view the present debates around these issues as seeds of discord planted by Satan, “the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). There is no doubt that confusion can be an evil, destructive force, at least in some situations. When Peter misunderstood Jesus’ mission, Jesus strongly rebuked him, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me” (Mt 16:23). The intentions of Church leaders like Chaput and Burke would seem to be consistent with Jesus’ intentions to the extent that they are acting out of a desire to preserve the unity of the Church and reassure members of the faithful. (And only God and these individuals know the true intentions in their hearts.) Such intentions reflect the instincts of a pastor concerned for his flock.

However, Chaput, Burke, and all of us must also acknowledge that, at least in some situations, Jesus himself was the source of confusion. For example, biblical scholars tell us that Jesus told parables, those enigmatic and sometimes disturbing stories, with the express purpose of challenging what people thought they knew. At one point Jesus tells his apostles that he speaks in parables “in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand’” (Mk 4:12; cf. Mt 13:14; Lk 8:10). It is difficult to maintain the assertion that all confusion is from the devil in light of passages such as these. Read More

In Defense of the Human Rights of Emigration and Asylum

When the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed ashore near a Turkish resort, the world was horrified.  The image sparked a debate worldwide about countries’ immigration policies and led to a swelling demand to accept Syrian refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War.  The sentiment is clear: Alan should have been allowed to go somewhere safe, in a safe vessel – not in the vain hope of reaching Greece and, eventually, Canada, in a flimsy, inflatable raft that capsized five minutes after leaving shore.

Alan’s body reflected the gruesome reality of the global refugee crisis.  The number of displaced persons is at the highest level ever recorded by the United Nations, a staggering 59.5 million as of June 2015. To cope with the growing number of families fleeing to Europe, the international community has called for a reform in asylum practices.  Pope Francis called on European families to accept Syrian refugees into their homes.  His words, consistent with his pastoral approach of acceptance and kindness, were a loving implementation of a longstanding social and pastoral tradition of the Church. Read More

You Can’t Defend Religious Freedom and Ignore Injustice toward Muslims

In the past few years, there have been a number of high-profile conflicts and debates surrounding religious freedom in the US. Specifically, Americans have debated the proper scope of what that freedom entails and whether or not our government has been trampling upon that right. Catholics have often been at the center of these debates. And one can’t help but notice that these have been primarily focused on particular cases that affect Christians—over conscientious objections to things like the HHS contraception mandate and same-sex marriage. Yet recent anti-Islamic actions and statements should cause these advocates of religious freedom, if their convictions are sincere and universal, to address Islamophobia in their advocacy.

Leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has spoken about his willingness to close down mosques that he evidently deems anti-American or somehow linked to an enemy of the United States. Even congressman Peter King from New York, often seen as a hardliner on such matters, refused to go as far as Trump, but argued that what is said and what happens inside Mosques need to be monitored by the United States government. Presidential candidate Ben Carson, meanwhile, has argued that Muslims who refuse to renounce the “tenets” of their faith should be ineligible for the presidency and that the principles of Islam are incompatible with America.

We are also seeing it in callous responses to the refugee crisis, one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades. People fleeing ISIS terrorists and Assad’s barrel bombs have been denounced as invaders, terrorists, jihadists, and diseased. Trump said these refugees could be a “trojan horse” for ISIS.

This anti-Muslim sentiment is not, however, only an American problem. Great Britain’s David Cameron has also indicated his willingness to close mosques. According to Trump, this is what inspired him to make the statement that the United States should be investigating and forcefully closing places of worship. Read More

The Whole Life Pope: Francis Has the Right Approach to Abortion

In his historic speech to a joint session of the US Congress, Pope Francis said that the Golden Rule “reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” This statement was clearly meant to include the lives of unborn children yet a number of conservatives in the pro-life movement expressed disappointment that the pope did not take a more confrontational approach.

Personally, I would have been fine with the pope taking Congress to task for its unwillingness to defend unborn life, its inaction on climate change, and its indifference to the poor. Given Congress’ deep unpopularity, most Americans probably would not have minded either if Francis mentioned some of Congress’ many shortcomings. But the pope chose a different approach, a more generous approach that reminded the members of Congress and the American people of our highest aspirations and encouraged us to fulfill those, advancing the cause of justice for all. The speech was not as radical and challenging as his brilliant speech at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia this summer, but it reflected his approach of dialogue and encounter. Read More

A Church for the Broken

After Mass last Sunday, I saw a young man praying on his knees with his hands clasped tightly and his eyes closed. Even the presence of a typically loud toddler did nothing to break his intense focus. There is an otherworldliness to this type of prayer. And it is not uncommon. I’ve seen it at masses across the country.

In these pews, people are pleading with God to give them hope, bring them comfort, or help them to repair the brokenness in their lives. Some are praying for a sick child, parent, spouse, or grandparent. Others are praying that the hole in their heart might heal just a little bit after the death of a loved one. Some are praying to escape the loneliness and despair of being abandoned by those they love; others are dealing with the guilt and grief that comes from afflicting that pain on others or other decisions they have made that were marred by selfishness and indifference. Some are praying for a glimmer of light as they walk through a dark night of the soul, hobbled by a sense of spiritual emptiness and detachment from the divine. Others are immersed in peace, a brief respite from an otherwise chaotic life. Some are looking for direction in lives that feel lost or even meaningless, disappointed by unrealized dreams or material success that has delivered neither peace nor joy. These broken people are God’s people.

It is not a surprise that this type of intense prayer so often takes place shortly after the person has received the Eucharist. The divine presence sweeps away the ephemeral. It tears down impediments to God’s love. It draws us away from the emptiness of individualism to the wholeness of communion. It is God’s gift to the broken people of the world. If we suffer, Christ suffered first. If we seek to walk the right path, Christ walks with us. And at no time is that more deeply felt than when we received the Eucharist.

Pope Francis has said that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. It is essential, transformative, and lifesaving.

Through this prism, to politicize the Eucharist is scandalous. To treat the Eucharist as a tool for partisan or ideological gambits is disgraceful.

If you are not worthy to receive the Eucharist, then you are human. This is the nature of this gift and God’s grace. We recognize this together at each mass.

When we consider our own brokenness and the impact of the Eucharist on the lives of real people, we recognize the gravity of denying a seat at the table of the Lord to any member of the Church who has sought forgiveness for past sins and is desperate for the Eucharist. This is why bishops are currently engaged in serious discussions about whether or not there should be a penitential path back to communion for some divorced and remarried Catholics who wish to receive the Eucharist once again, as is the case in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The seriousness of these discussions by responsible figures at the Synod stands in stark contrast to the irresponsible, self-righteous rhetoric of those who enthusiastically support the denial of communion to others, while relying on the type of legalism and selective literalism that Christ denounces over and over again in the gospels.

Any regulations on receiving the Eucharist should start from a recognition of the universal brokenness that exists in the Church, from our best understanding of Christ’s intentions (rather than a selectively literalist reading of one or two passages of the Bible), from a holy reverence for the transformative power of the Eucharist, and from a firm commitment to the law of love.

As Cardinal Wuerl recently stated, “It’s God’s love that saves, not the Code of Canon Law.” Law that does not reflect love is unjust. The Church’s law, more than any other form of law, should reflect the mercy of God, and its pastoral practices should be based on drawing in all of the broken people of God—welcoming them, accompanying them, and helping them to experience the limitless love of God.

This approach does not preclude disagreements on difficult pastoral challenges, as prudence is needed to find the best path for being merciful while still bearing witness to the truth, such as the nature of one-flesh marriage and its relationship to God’s will and human flourishing. But it would end talk of a special elect group of pure, faithful Catholics (those presumed not to be committing any sexual sins). It would stop the demonization of those bishops who favor revisions in these pastoral practices. And it would lead to the complete rejection of paranoid, hyperbolic claims that discussing these topics threatens the unity of the Church or integrity of its teachings.