Augustine, Property, and Converting to Catholicism

Millennial writer Elizabeth Bruenig has a new article at America on her conversion to Catholicism:

As a student, I became increasingly aware of the problems these textual knots posed for the way I had been taught to relate to God: How could I read my way to God by the light of my own conscience if I was not even entirely sure of the meaning of what I was reading, much less my ability to read it reliably? And in the course of all that confusion, as if by divine providence, a professor assigned St. Augustine’s Confessions in one of my classes….

Tradition provides a chain of provenance beginning with the original biblical texts and extending down into our present year, with scholars and clerics reading their predecessors and puzzling out how to apply their thinking about God and his people to new questions that arise with time. Instead of leaving a single conscience to the knotty business of making sense of ancient texts, the tradition offers Christians a chorus of helpful coreligionists passing down insight over time. An individual’s conscience plays a role, of course, in her own interpretation of the tradition; but the weight of time and expertise are instructive, and they whisper through space and centuries that you are not alone….

As a Protestant, I had learned that commentaries on Scripture were just that: the ephemeral striving of mere mortals, bereft of meaning in their own right, useful only insofar as they happened to be correct according to one’s own judgment. But more and more I was convinced I could not carry out a Christian life by myself. I did not want to read and draw my own conclusions; I wanted guidance, clarity, authority. God had not seen it fit to leave Adam alone in Eden, nearer to God than we are now. He needed help, and God gave it to him….

Part of the reason I found Catholicism’s challenge to modernity so compelling was that it critiques aspects of our world that mostly go unquestioned, even by those who have disputes with liberalism in sexuality, marriage and so on. For me, the case in point was property ownership, the underlying question beneath all our current debates about poverty and wealth.

Early Christian writers, Augustine among them, thought deeply about the nature of creation. God made our material world, of course, but what for? Knowing what the bounty of the earth was meant to achieve would help them figure out how to use it rightly, that is, in accordance with God’s will for it and for us. In the view of the early church (and indeed, in the view of the church today), the world had been made and given to all people to hold in common to support their flourishing. “God made the rich and poor from the one clay,” Augustine wrote, “and the one earth supports the poor and the rich.”…

And while it is impossible to speak for all Protestants—and important to note there exists a vast array of opinions on property ownership within the Protestant tradition, some hewing close to the Catholic view—the Catholic Church, at least, bases its position on property in a moral universe far more stable than that which has been constructed since the Reformation. And by the time I neared the end of my time in college, I had become convinced it was the only firm ground from which a Christian could fight back against the domination of the poor by the rich, against poverty, against the destruction of families and communities at the hands of businesses and their political lackeys, against a world stripped of meaning.


A Message of Hope in the Desert of Fear

Being a news junkie today is to be hit daily by an avalanche of bad news, a lot of it sensationalistic. News of mass shootings, deportations of the parents of young children, and the rise in hateful speech – so casually spewed – often overwhelm me. That is not to say that I am unaware of the good going on. I just wish there were more of it.

This is why I was refreshed by the tone and message of a pastoral letter issued last week by Bishop Mark Seitz of the diocese of El Paso, Texas. He addresses the situation of migrants and refugees in his border city, separated from its sister city Ciudad Juarez, Mexico by the Rio Grande. Rather than just lament the suffering, poverty, and violence that brings migrants to the USA, or dwell on the ways that fear of round-ups and deportation migrants face in the current political climate, he speaks a word of hope to all people caught up in these realities.

The title of the bishop’s letter, Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away, comes from Isaiah 51:11, which tells of the final joyful entry of the dispossessed and exploited in Jerusalem. It’s a message of God’s promise of salvation being fulfilled for his beloved suffering people. He goes on to connect the literal desert in which El Paso is located—in which many migrants die trying to cross—and the metaphorical desert of fear and marginalization migrants are facing today, with Isaiah 35:7-10, which prophesies that the desert will turn to springs and burning sands to pools of water.

This is not a head-in-the-clouds letter, however. El Paso has a history that resonates with these scriptures and this vision of hope – and the bishop stays grounded in that history. The bishop recounts that the area is the ancient home of several indigenous groups, then a long list of migrants have come in turn—first the Spanish, then from the Republic of Texas, the young United States, Ireland, China, refugees from the Mexican Revolution, escapees of the Cristero War, and now those fleeing Mexican and Central American drug lords and gangs. The city’s ability to welcome and absorb each group has created the integrated shared culture that freely spans the border.

Echoing Pope Francis’ constant exhortation to build bridges, Bishop Seitz blames no particular group for the current mess. Starting from what is common—a shared agreement that our immigration system is broken—he proposes a vision of reform that upholds both national security and the right of people to migrate when life becomes untenable at home. This is not a new message. The US bishops have been advocating comprehensive immigration reform for many years, and Congress has continually failed to act. This pastoral letter, however, takes the matter from the level of policy and principle and roots it in contextual spiritual discernment that is incumbent upon each person and the community at large.

He names three sequential steps: (1) encounter, (2) conversion, and (3) compassion. El Paso has been and continues to be a place of encounter between people of different backgrounds. In an encounter with others, approached with openness and the belief that all people are made in the image and likeness of God, God is revealed. This leads us to conversion, because we encounter God in the other and are challenged and changed. Conversion then motivates us to do things and to do them differently – with Christ-like compassion. More than a pastoral approach to a problem, Bishop Seitz offers a model for unity of the Church, the unity of the Body of Christ, which we manifest and pray for in every Sunday Eucharist.

Bishop Seitz is connecting many dots that we often fail to: linking worship, the web of relationships, Catholic teaching, public policies, and collective action. The message is clearly focused on what can unite rather than divide, build bridges rather than walls, encounter rather than isolation. This message of reconciliation is so unusual and refreshing to me in the United States of 2017.  I’d like to shout it out from the rooftops: Sorrow and Mourning Flee!

This article by Brent Otto, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.



US Bishops: Current Healthcare Proposals are ‘Simply Unacceptable’


via USCCB:

“In the wake of a procedural vote today that opens debate on the amendment process to reform the Affordable Care Act, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) calls on members from both political parties to work together to advance changes that serve the common good. The health care reform proposals currently under consideration would harm millions of struggling Americans by leaving too many at risk of losing adequate health coverage and continue to exclude too many people, including immigrants. We are grateful for the efforts to include protections for the unborn, however, any final bill must include full Hyde Amendment provisions and add much-needed conscience protections. The current proposals are simply unacceptable as written, and any attempts to repeal the ACA without a concurrent replacement is also unacceptable.

As was made clear in the USCCB’s letter of July 20, there is much work to be done to remedy the ACA’s shortcomings. We call on the Senate to make changes in all of the areas mentioned above. In addition, current and impending barriers to access and affordability under the ACA must be removed, particularly for those most in need. Such changes can be made with narrower reforms that do not jeopardize the access to health care that millions currently receive.”


Will the Martyrdom of Jacques Hamel Revive Solidarity in Europe?

Millennial writer Christopher White has a new article at the Wall Street Journal:

In the aftermath of World War II, when nations throughout Europe were on the verge of collapse, the project of European integration was born to ensure that the war’s atrocities could never be repeated. There was a strong sense that those who had died in the war had sacrificed themselves so that others could live in freedom and prosperity. In the new European project, stronger countries would help weaker ones. They had a moral responsibility.

And while the European Union has at times been hostile to religious concerns, it nonetheless has been undergirded by the Catholic doctrine of solidarity. This principle demands shared responsibility and sacrifice in spiritual and physical matters, between nations and peoples, rich and poor. A core commitment to the belief in the dignity of all human beings means that the practice of solidarity isn’t one of mere charity, but one of Christian duty….

In his statement after Hamel’s death, Archbishop Lebrun noted that the attack produced three victims: the priest and his two killers. Hamel’s brutal end personified true sacrifice while his attackers’ deaths perverted it. Perhaps the witness of this modern martyr will lead to an embrace of this traditional teaching of solidarity, and therein shore up the foundation of a country and a continent.

You can read the full article here.


We Need a Revolution in Solidarity

In recent years, we have seen the narrowing of the American middle class and diminished social mobility as economic inequality balloons, the intensification of consumerism, the rise of an opioid crisis, the breakdown of family stability among working class Americans, the resurgence of ugly forms of populism, and the general fraying of communal bonds. Many of these are interconnected. And the personalist communitarianism of the Church offers the best window for understanding what is happening and how we might resist hyperindividualism and the libertarian policies that accompany and drive it (while avoiding alternatives that diminish human dignity).

Chris Arnade, one of the most astute observers of an America that many political and cultural elites cannot or will not see, reflected on some of these developments in a series of tweets earlier today:

What is needed is radical: a revolution in solidarity. We need to reform and re-democratize our political institutions. We need to build an economic system that rebuilds the middle class, increases distributive justice, and promotes more widespread flourishing. We need policies that ensure everyone has access to their most basic needs, including quality healthcare and childcare. People need jobs that reflect their dignity and increased access to treatment for drug abuse, not the legalization and commercialization of additional illicit substances, so that even more corporations get rich preying on the vulnerable. The federal government needs to empower intermediary institutions that strengthen local communities rather than ignoring their responsibilities and forcing these institutions to pick up the government’s slack.

But we also need cultural changes. An obsession with individual autonomy not only harms our communities, it is often a recipe for misery for the person who embraces it. Human beings are social by nature; the pursuit of unlimited, uninhibited choice does not lead to human flourishing. Consumerism will not fill the spiritual void of those who have left religion behind or do not live it out in their daily lives. We need more people to believe in the importance of duty, the value and permanence of marriage, and that morality is more than enlightened self-interest. We need people to resist objectifying others, even in a culture that floods people with the message that it is only natural and human to do so. Though all humans inevitably come up short in our attempts to live morally, we need more people to believe in virtue and order their lives around this commitment.

Pope Francis is calling for radical change. But it’s up to everyday Catholics to promote this revolution by breaking from bourgeois conformity, resisting the currents of individualism and libertarianism, and fighting for the common good in a culture that is often hostile to the demands of human dignity. It’s not an easy road. But Christianity is about following the way of Christ, not a path to comfort and approval.


Pope Urges Governments to Take the Lead in Caring for Creation

via Vatican News:

Respect, responsibility and relationship are the three themes highlighted by Pope Francis in a message addressed to the “Laudato Sì & Big Cities” conference taking place in Rio de Janeiro….

Respecting Creation is one of our “core tasks” Pope Francis writes in his strongly worded message to conference participants, and he reaffirms, as he did in his encyclical – to which the Rio conference is dedicated – that we “cannot just remain on the sidelines when we notice a serious degeneration in the quality of the air or an increase in the production of waste that is not adequately disposed of “.

Situations such as these, the Pope warns, “are the result of an irresponsible form of exploitation of creation and demand that we act responsibly for the good of all”.

Unfortunately, Francis continues, what we continue to see can only be described as “indifference towards the safekeeping of our common home”.