Power and Wealth Matter, But So Does Human Flourishing

Photo by Cody Pulliam on Unsplash

Political power matters. Economic security matters. Any worldview totally divorced from material reality is one bound to perpetuate injustice, needless suffering, and further division. Humans do not live by bread alone, but we also need bread.

In a true, genuine democracy with authentic freedom, political participation cannot be reserved for the few. Government of, by, and for the rich is plutocracy, not democracy. Government designed to perpetuate white supremacy or racial hierarchies cannot be reconciled with democracy or freedom. Those working to establish free democracy and liberate people from hunger and desperate poverty must pay close attention to material conditions and the distribution of power.

But we run the risk of dehumanizing—or, more precisely, depersonalizing—others when we view them exclusively through the prism of how much power or money they have. When we think of ourselves this way, we can easily slip into a radical individualism that ignores the plight of the vulnerable and the common good. When we think of society through this lens, we can easily fall prey to collectivist ideologies that treat individual persons as cogs in a machine rather than as unique persons with innate worth and dignity. In many ways, collectivism and extreme individualism are two sides of the same coin.

Power and material security matter for human flourishing, but they certainly are not the only things that matter. Human worth is not based on how much money a person has or how much they contribute to society through their work or how many consumer goods they purchase. It is innate and immeasurable. And it is rooted in our nature as not just physical, but also emotional, intellectual, and spiritual beings.

When we understand the nature and worth of the person, it transforms how we view ourselves and others. Acts of generosity are not a foolish waste of our hard-earned money but expressions of love for those we value. People who run into burning buildings to save people they have never met are not throwing their lives away, but may very well be pressing the limits of human potential with their courage and selflessness. The Black Christians who forgave the Charleston church shooter who massacred their loved ones were not afraid of demanding justice and equality, but were instead motivated by a sense of integrity and living out the radical faith, hope, and love that they believe endures all things and can transform all things. The parent who turns down a promotion at work that would involve far more travel in order to spend more time with their children is perhaps not sacrificing their potential but fully realizing it.

The reality is that we only truly flourish in community with others. The pandemic has made this vividly clear. Even introverts (like me) that do not mind a great deal of solitude understood that something important was missing during these lockdowns and quarantines. We need community. We are drawn toward communion. To resist this in order to maximize our individual or collective power or wealth is to betray our true nature.

In communities where relationships are rightly ordered, we do not become means to an end. We are not reduced to one of our characteristics. We do not discard those who seemingly lack utility. We are recognized as whole persons—and as entirely unique and irreplaceable.

How unique? Think of a child cradled in the warmth of a parent’s embrace. How irreplaceable is that child to the parent—and the parent to the child? Think of your dearest friend. What makes them so dear to you? Is it their style or your shared interests—or who they are at their absolute core? It is easy to understand the infinite worth of each person when we consider how irreplaceable they are to those who love them most.

If we start from a belief in the worth and dignity of each person and a commitment to creating a society where each person can truly flourish and reach their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual potential—a vision shared by personalists from Emmanuel Mounier to Martin Luther King Jr. to Pope Francis—the struggle for justice will neither ignore power dynamics and material conditions nor stop there.

We can fight against systemic racism—and for universal brotherhood and sisterhood. We can work to build a more equitable, sustainable economy that benefits all, rather than simply giving more people the resources to pursue happiness down the false path of consumerism, where the next thing you buy is always supposed to fill the hole in your heart or eliminate the insecurities gnawing at you. To build a just society, we must tackle unjust inequities and tyrannies, but we must also construct a future that allows true, integral flourishing—for all.


Millennial of the Year 2020: Loujain Al-Hathloul

For her commitment to women’s rights and equality and her bravery in protesting for these in Saudi Arabia, where a brutal regime engages in harsh crackdowns on human rights activists, our 2020 Millennial of the Year is Loujain al-Hathloul.

Loujain al-Hathloul openly protested Saudi Arabia’s ban on female drivers, posting videos of herself driving and attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates. This led to her initial arrest in 2014. She also protested Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, which placed heavy restrictions on women’s freedom of movement and actions. She has also spoken out on domestic violence. She attempted to run for office in 2015, the first time women were allowed to vote and stand for election, but she was excluded from the ballot.

She was arrested again in 2018. This was part of the regime’s crackdown on women’s rights activists, and she has described the torture, physical abuse, and sexual harassment she has received while detained. While the regime cracked down on activists, it reformed some of the very laws that these activists had challenged.

It took tremendous courage and sacrifice for Loujain Al-Hathloul to resist these unjust violations of universal human rights in Saudi Arabia and protest for greater equality for women. And she has never backed down. For her principles and persistence in the face of violence and oppression, she is our 2020 Millennial of the Year.


‘Universal’ Appeal: Catholicism Offers Democrats, Biden the Moral Framework They Need

Photo by Tabrez Syed on Unsplash

For being a political party rather than a church, the Democratic Party is still quite capable of channeling the adage that a group can be looking for heretics or converts, but never both at once. Following the down-ballot disappointments of 2020, many Democrats lapsed into heretic hunting mode, even as they sought to broaden their appeal. In the House, both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), leader of the progressive Squad, and Conor Lamb (PA-17), the veteran and moderate from Trump country, vented to the New York Times about whether it was the party’s failure to center progressive ideas or the perceived radicality of those ideas (e.g. “defund the police,” “socialism”) that most harmed the party.

Party isn’t the only affiliation these two emerging voices, both in their 30s, share. Like a full one third of Congress and Joe Biden himself, both are Catholic. This is not some trivial demographic detail. It’s a shared frame of reference for engaging the world, complete with a well-developed — and progressive by U.S. standards — view for reimagining society’s structures, one that is at least vaguely familiar to 70 million Americans. This could offer Democrats a path to deliver substantive change, heal their party, and build a durable coalition.

As we inaugurate the second Catholic US president, it’s worth noting that candidate Biden spoke insistently of “a battle for the soul” of the country to describe the current moment, recognizing the religious lens through which many Americans view their values. In his recent encyclical, Pope Francis called the current moment “a great opportunity to express our innate sense of fraternity, to be Good Samaritans who bear the pain of other people’s troubles rather than fomenting greater hatred and resentment.”

If the Catholicism of AOC, Lamb, and Biden can help accomplish this, it wouldn’t be the first time. A century ago, the “Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction,” formulated in the wake of World War I and the influenza pandemic, outlined vital reforms including senior pensions and unemployment insurance. The document found an outlet when a new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, embraced it to address the crises of his day. The resulting New Deal radically transformed America and forged a coalition that lasted half a century.

AOC is upfront about her desire to affect New Deal levels of reform, even appropriating the label. If that’s the ambition, then it behooves everyone to recognize the bones of the actual New Deal and the happy fact that Catholic social teaching has kept developing through the years — on the dignity of work, racial justice, economic inequality, and even climate change. In just the last year, Francis has endorsed universal basic income (which by itself would make a Biden administration epoch-defining in its domestic policy), urged all Catholics to work to end the death penalty, and called attention to the need that tech developments “always be joined to the common good.” It’s no wonder that none other than Bernie Sanders has repeatedly praised Pope Francis.

Discussions of internal tensions among the Democrats suffer from an unfortunate flattening, with progressives pitted against an “establishment” described as both moderate and centrist. This fails to capture the full reality and the needed realignment. The term “centrist” is associated with Bill Clinton’s acknowledgement that Reagan had changed how Americans think and that Democrats needed to work within that new reality. A centrist hasn’t necessarily moved to the center on social issues but is wonkier and less ideological. A moderate, by contrast, is someone like Conor Lamb: a Catholic veteran in a Republican-leaning district who doesn’t drive wedges on social issues or buy into the neoliberal hubris that fueled the inequality that led to Trump.

If that last part sounds progressive, it’s because Lamb and AOC may be at opposite ends of their party’s spectrum, but the spectrum itself isn’t a straight line; it’s a horseshoe whose ends are closer to one another than they are to the centrists back in the bend. The challenge of a Biden presidency will be to move him out from centrism to a place of tension between moderate and progressive ends. It’s time for Joe Biden’s Catholicism and working-class roots alike to shine. The GOP are already speaking of a “multicultural working class” rebrand of their party. It would be a tragedy for them to continue making inroads with Latinos and Black men, policy merits be damned, because Democrats failed to be authentically present to the needs of various communities.

Impediments to this path would include not only a strident secular streak on the left but also reluctance among faith leaders to view the Biden presidency as a chance to make progress. Both the Democratic Party and the Catholic hierarchy cling to a misbegotten overemphasis on abortion in how they relate to the rest of the world. But when even the pope is on the record in favor of same-sex civil unions, we’ve reached a moment of rare potential in terms of alignment. Organizations like Catholic Charities USA and the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice could be conduits for building coalitions around a moral framework. Progressives should recognize the value of working with them.

This will require being gentle as doves and clever as serpents, to recognize the admonition that all are different parts of the same body: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you.’” (1 Cor 12:21) In this case, AOC might be the lungs, breathing fresh ideas into a tired body, and Lamb might be the circulatory system, ensuring that the life-giving oxygen reaches the farthest extremities. Truth and love need to be connected. Lamb loves his neighbors, but in order to do right by them, he needs to deliver structural change. AOC needs moderate allies connected with constituencies like Lamb’s to affect widespread buy-in for change.

A decade ago, the Tea Party, rooted in shallow soil, sprang up quickly and withered in the heat of Trumpism. The caucus accreting around AOC, by contrast, has a shot at tapping into something real and lasting. Young progressives point us toward a better future that will require putting the dignity of the human person at the center of politics and transcending cultural divisions. Catholic social teaching is tethered to people’s lived reality but at the same time casts the loftiest possible vision. Biden must be held accountable. He should resist the temptation to cut corners for powerful interests. He should be faithful, to what he believes and to the people who entrusted him with this mission.

Don Clemmer is a former USCCB communications staffer and editor of the Lexington diocese’s Cross Roads magazine.


Defending the Pope from Relentless Right-Wing Dissent and Attacks: An Interview with Mike Lewis

Mike Lewis is the founding editor of Where Peter Is, a site dedicated to defending Catholic teaching and the pope from the myriad attacks launched by Pope Francis’ fiercest critics. Millennial editor Robert Christian recently interviewed him on the site, its aims, and the nature and prevalence of right-wing dissent in the US Church.

Why did you create Where Peter Is?

We started WPI because we saw a gap in Catholic media coverage and commentary of Pope Francis in the English-speaking world. Many conservative Catholic media outlets were regularly criticizing Pope Francis, his priorities, and his teachings. They were stoking all kinds of controversies and creating scandal among ordinary Catholics, including many of my friends and family members. The outlets that supported Francis were largely ignoring these issues. Hardly anyone was addressing the growing opposition to the pope, and the reactionary narrative was starting to take hold, because no one was offering the other side of the story on a consistent basis.

By the time we launched the site in early 2018, battle lines had already been drawn: Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitia in April 2016, and four opposing cardinals published their dubia against the document later that year. When all that unfolded, I imagined that this would certainly draw the attention of our Catholic leaders. Here we had four cardinals of the Catholic Church—including an extremely outspoken American with a large following, Cardinal Raymond Burke—insinuating that the Successor of Peter had promulgated a heretical document.

At the same time, at the ground level—particularly in the English-speaking world—there was this narrative developing in Catholic media: Pope Francis was destroying the Church, he was teaching heresy, he was undermining the truth of Catholicism. And every single day, conservative Catholic media would challenge something the pope said or did. Yet hardly anyone in Catholic leadership ever stepped in to respond on Pope Francis’s behalf or to defend him against this criticism.

After Amoris, we had prominent and popular voices of Catholic “orthodoxy”—people like Archbishop Charles Chaput, the writers for First Things, George Weigel, Phil Lawler, Ross Douthat, talking heads for EWTN and Catholic Answers—who were saying the document didn’t say what it said, if they weren’t challenging it outright. One after another, respected theologians such as Fr. Thomas Weinandy, the folks with the John Paul II Institute, Fr. James Schall, Germain Grisez, Robert Spaemann, Fr. Aidan Nichols, and others would go more or less into open revolt against the pope and add more fuel to this narrative.

That doesn’t even begin to address the more reactionary anti-Francis media. LifeSiteNews, Church Militant, Crisis Magazine, and the Wanderer all abandoned any pretense of support for the pope. Obscure radical traditionalist outlets like the Remnant and Catholic Family News found new life, fueled by Catholics who previously would have been turned off by their antipathy towards the post-Vatican II Church. At the same time, people like Taylor Marshall and Steve Skojec were making a huge splash in the Catholic media world.

Other than maybe an occasional essay from Austen Ivereigh, Massimo Faggioli, or Michael Sean Winters, very few Catholic media voices were challenging this narrative. It seemed that the only person out there consistently defending and explaining Amoris Laetitia was Stephen Walford, a Catholic author in England whose day job is teaching piano. He mounted a heroic effort, and he was attacked mercilessly by the pope’s opposition.

So I watched all this unfold over the early years of Francis’s papacy. I watched my own Catholic circle succumb to this narrative, but not many supporters of Pope Francis seemed to notice or care. Like I said, there was hardly any response to it from Catholic leadership. Moderate and progressive Catholic media seemed to have an attitude of, “Ignore them, it’s just the fringe.”

Frankly, although I didn’t know how big it was, I believed that this phenomenon went far beyond the fringe. At the very least, the small group of us who started WPI did know was that even if it was “just the fringe,” it was our fringe. These were the writers we’d read, the media outlets and publishing houses that had helped form us. And the people who fell into the anti-Francis worldview were the same people with whom we’d gone on retreat, with whom we’d praised John Paul and Benedict, with whom we’d shared our faith and our struggles, with whom we’d served the poor or with whom we’d walked with side-by-side at the March for Life.

Why do you think the site has been able to gain a foothold in the US Catholic media? What is it providing that other outlets generally have not?

Because we tapped into something that is both widespread and rarely addressed in the public forum. The reactionary Catholic media outlets are covering a completely different universe than mainstream outlets. The reactionaries construct a narrative about something and feed it over and over.

If you take the story of the dubia, for example, that is still an active story in that universe. For them, it was a serious theological inquiry made by four highly respected, holy, and orthodox cardinals. In their telling, the fact that Pope Francis didn’t dignify it with a response is further proof that he is a nefarious figure who is undermining the faith. They are still writing and blogging about it. It was featured prominently just a few weeks ago in Catholic News Agency’s article about the upcoming Year of the Family, not to mention countless blog posts in the last year.

To most people in the mainstream Catholic media, the dubia is an old story about how four old cranky cardinals who no one listens to (and two of whom are already dead) had the audacity to write a letter accusing the pope of heresy. It’s, at most, a minor annoyance that’s still brought up occasionally by marginal reactionary figures.

While I agree that the latter point of view should be the story, that’s simply not the reality. You can’t underestimate the effects on ordinary Catholics when the largest Catholic media outlet in the world is pumping the reactionary narrative into millions of homes; when the Catholic websites that continue to address the issue are all pushing the same point of view; when this phenomenon is ignored by 99% of the bishops and non-reactionary Catholic media; and when their most respected bishops and priests are repeating the same refrain.

Committed Catholics who haven’t been pulled into this ideology feel very alone and abandoned. When people discover that someone is addressing this disaster that they’ve witnessed firsthand, they are extremely grateful. These are devout, orthodox Catholics who love the Holy Father, and they’re horrified by what they see around them. Our audience also includes some Catholics who were a part of the anti-Francis movement for a while, but something along the way helped them realize how barren and hopeless that mentality is.

We’ve received countless emails and messages from people all over the world. One of the most common words in these emails is “oasis.” Our work has been translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Arabic, Vietnamese, Hungarian, Polish, and Malayalam. I think it’s largely a US problem, but like so many other things, we’ve exported it.

I’ve seen you getting into these drag out debates with media figures and others on the right on social media, yet you yourself seem like a temperamentally conservative guy and you never identified as a political progressive in the past. What does this tell us about the state of American Catholicism or maybe the nature of Catholic Twitter? Do you think social media offers a good window into American Catholicism or do you worry it presents a distorted picture?

This specific problem is particular to the right. And I think it takes a conservative Catholic (or I guess ex-conservative in my case, because I’ve been kicked out of the club) to accurately diagnose the problem and to address it head-on. Most of our contributors, including myself, were “JP2 Catholics” or “Ratzingerians” who were shocked to realize that for many self-professed orthodox Catholics, fidelity and support for the Vicar of Christ was totally contingent on whether they liked what he had to say.

I think social media offers a good window into the variety of perspectives that exist in American Catholicism, but I wouldn’t say that it’s an accurate picture of the US Church, if that makes sense. Most Catholics aren’t Vatican news junkies, nor are they paying attention to the latest apostolic exhortations. Nor is it necessary, really. The problem is that those Catholics who do take an interest in something that happens in the Church, or get emails about news from the Vatican from a fellow parishioner, or who happen to be watching EWTN, are hearing only one side of the story.

There’s a trickle-down effect. I find that among white Catholics in the US who are very committed and devout, whether they spend a lot of time following this stuff or not, have adopted the basic idea that Pope Francis is not orthodox, isn’t a good pope, and teaches a lot of erroneous stuff. Something to keep in mind, however, is that for many young priests and seminarians—people who do tend to follow the Church more closely online—these ideas have sadly become entrenched and distorted their worldview.

You have taken on many right-wing dissenters who claim to be orthodox (often more orthodox than the pope!). Why do you think this group is more influential in the US than the rest of the world? How would you assess their overall impact on US Catholicism?

My understanding is that for all its problems, the Church in the US is more active and engaged than in other parts of the world. Compared to other Western nations, we are a very religious people. We are also a very politically engaged people. I think people tend to overestimate the influence of the intellectual and rational in both religion and politics. We follow the leadership of those we trust. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this religious polarization increased as the election approached. There are certainly politically-motivated people trying to influence Catholics that it is “orthodox” to oppose the pope and march in lockstep with Trump. That said, I believe they are exploiting the genuine religious fervor of our people.

As the US faces the issue of combatting racism, how important is it to confront alt-Catholicism, which shares ideas with the alt-right? Who are some individuals and sites that have substituted bigotry or populist nationalism for Catholic values but try to cloak this under a pseudo-Catholic facade?

First of all, the degree of racism and bigotry that this movement has shown has been astonishing to me. I realize now that it was already present and I was mostly blind to it. It’s been relentless in the past year, obviously, but the real wake-up call for me was the Amazon Synod. That people like Taylor Marshall, Tim Gordon, Michael Voris, Fr. Mitch Pacwa, Raymond Arroyo, Cardinal Burke, Fr. Gerald Murray, and so many others could callously and heartlessly accuse indigenous Catholics from the Amazon—people who have been marginalized and abused by so-called Catholics for centuries—of idolatry or “demon worship” for glorifying God according to their own Christian tradition was infuriating and heartbreaking. They denigrated an entire group of marginalized Catholic people so they could score points against the pope.

Since then my awareness of the self-absorption and self-righteousness (which is at the heart of all racist and nationalist sentiments) of this movement has grown. From the attacks by people like Austin Ruse against those who stood up for racial justice over the summer (while praising the Proud Boys), to the firing of Gloria Purvis by EWTN for speaking about race, to the extremely cruel bigotry that many—notably Michael Voris—showed toward Cardinal William Gregory last year, there are no words for the evil on display here.

I know I am late to the game. I don’t deserve any awards for being outspoken against the evil of systematic racism. But I am committed to doing everything I can to promote the voices of Catholic people of color and those from marginalized cultures. In the last year I’ve learned a lot about the heritage of Black Catholics in the United States, especially. One of our contributors, Nate-Tinner Williams, has launched an online publication of his own, the Black Catholic Messenger. I want to continue to support his work, and to encourage other Catholics to promote the apostolates of Catholic people of color. In all honesty, the way many marginalized peoples have been treated by the Church, we should be on our knees thanking them and thanking God for their faith and perseverance despite what we’ve put them through.

Beyond addressing various attacks on the pope and the magisterium, what is the vision for the Church that animates the site and your work? What should the US and global church look like in 2021?

The vision for the Church that animates the site is a global Church that is united through fidelity to the pope and in fraternity and familial love with one another. In 2021 and beyond, the US and global Church need to turn towards healing the wounds that we’ve inflicted. This will require growth, listening, and accompaniment. I don’t think it’s a one-year process, or even a 100-year process. But I firmly believe that we won’t get there at all unless we follow Pope Francis’s lead.


Ariana Grande Explores the Existential Highs and Lows of Being a Millennial in positions

Ariana Grande’s Nickelodeon days are long over. Her sixth studio album positions proves that she is a grown woman who has come into her own, in case any Victorious fans were still nostalgic for the old red-haired, baby-voiced Cat Valentine days. Both thematically and sonically more mature, positions is a soundtrack for millennials who are getting settled into their adulthood. Surely many of us will be able to relate to the experiences and emotions she covers throughout the album’s songs. But what’s most interesting here is not Ari’s capacity to relate, but to shed light on the deeper existential undercurrents within the millennial experience.

Grande’s rise to pop stardom has been bolstered by her successful music sales and captivating persona. All of her albums since her 2013 debut Yours Truly have gone platinum, and she’s sold out four international tours, not to mention having the second most followed Instagram account (after Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo).

Her successes have been peppered with hardships and tragedies: in 2017, her concert in Manchester, England was bombed by terrorists; then the next year she lost her ex-boyfriend, the rapper Mac Miller, to an overdose and went through a fast-paced and highly publicized engagement and breakup with comedian Pete Davidson (which she poked fun at in her number one hit “7 rings”).

These dramatic events seemed to parallel a darker, more adult turn in her music and persona. Her songs became more sexual and featured explicit lyrics, and her videos, dress, and dance moves became noticeably more provocative.

Parents of tweens will probably not find positions much more suitable for their kids than her last few albums. But despite its explicit nature, the album does take a step toward greater maturity. Ari demonstrates that she has grown in self-consciousness and has developed the ability to think more reflectively about who she is as a woman.

Sonically, positions hearkens back to her debut album, employing soulful sounds reminiscent of 90s R&B with a pop sensibility, adding tinges of trap, doo wop, and house. The production richly layers live instrumentation and breathy vocal arrangements, evoking a sense of floating amidst the clouds.

Grande “shuts up” her naysayers in the album’s opener, bragging about her “diamonds” and her successful career. The production of the song “34+35” sounded so “Disney and orchestral and full and pure,” to Grande that when composing the lyrics, she asked herself, “What is the dirtiest possible most opposing lyrics we could write to this?” Full of innuendos and graphic imagery, the song will likely leave younger fans wondering what she’s talking about. In “just like magic,” she hints at her belief in how New Age ideas like the Law of Attraction, karma, and Manifestation Techniques help her maintain her mental stability and moral groundedness.

Her playfulness and brazen demeanor are tempered by moments of vulnerability and self-doubt. In “off the table,” a duet with R&B singer The Weeknd, she wonders if she can be healed of wounds from past relationships and stop seeking to fill the void with promiscuity. “I just want to know is love completely off the table?” she wonders to herself. She further expresses her desire for a committed, lasting love that embraces her brokenness in “six thirty.” “I know I be on some BS, know I be driving your crazy…I just wonder baby if you’re gonna stay.” Grande knows that to surpass the momentary pleasure in the sexual act and reach genuine love requires the willingness to risk losing her control of things. In “safety net” she sings, “I came to peace with my path, now you got me off track. I’ve never been this scared before, feelings I just can’t ignore. Don’t know if I should fight or fly.” She hints at how the recent trauma she’s dealt with makes her doubt whether she can maintain a lasting relationship in “obvious”: “[You] make me wanna believe in love. I love the thought of us in the evening, crave the feeling. The way you feel, somethin’ ’bout it’s healing. I’m praying we don’t f this up.”

The album’s most profound moment comes at the end in “pov.” “It’s like you got superpowers…You got more than 20/20…the way you see through me you know me better than I do. Can’t seem to keep nothing from you. How you touch my soul from the outside, permeate my ego and my pride.” Ari cries out for a seemingly supernatural lover who can teach her how to love herself. “I wanna love me the way that you love me, for all of my pretty and all of my ugly too. I’d love to see me from your point of view.”

Ari oscillates between being a self-sufficient, independent careerist who likes to live in the heat of the moment, and a vulnerable, self-doubting human, longing for unconditional love and lasting meaning. This tension reflects the lived reality of many other millennials and speaks to the values and worldview handed to us as we’ve come of age.

Many of us have been taught, whether implicitly or explicitly, that we’ll find happiness only through being true to ourselves and forging our own destiny. Values like authority and tradition tend to be downplayed in the name of self-expression. Reliance on external realities like God and religion or family and tradition is becoming more and more obsolete. Real happiness starts with being authentic to oneself, establishing oneself in their field of work and striving to leave an impact on the world, and making the most of the moment (as the rapper Drake reminds us, “you only live once”).

This message of fulfillment has been fed to us since our early youth through Disney movies about princes and princesses flouting social expectations in order to “follow their heart” and seek real love. Those who sacrifice what they want for the sake of obeying norms imposed by others will be stuck living lives of repression and disappointment. It shouldn’t be surprising that Pew Forum reports that 34% of millennials consider religion not very or totally unimportant to their lives (as compared with 23% of Gen Xers and 18% of Boomers).

While millennials’ life goals and standards of morality vastly differ from those of their parents and grandparents, philosopher Charles Taylor warns us not to dismiss these changes as signs of moral decay. Instead, he indicates that as Western societies further secularize, their moral basis has shifted from the value of faith in a transcendent reality to the value of authenticity—a shift he posits ought to be taken seriously on its own terms.

This turn toward the self(ie) often gives rise, as Ariana suggests in several of her songs, to the question of whether there’s anything of which we can truly be certain. Our recognition of our own moral and emotional fragility, bouts with “imposter syndrome,” and need for lasting love and meaning can leave us feeling vulnerable and insecure. Is it possible to be loved for who we are—flaws and all—and not for what we accomplish, look like, or what our social media profile displays? Is anything, or anyone, capable of healing our wounds, redeeming our fragility? In a “liquid” world where technology changes at a rapid pace, political polarization intensifies, and senseless violence seems uncontrollable, we can easily find ourselves plagued with our existential poverty. We may dabble with different spiritualities and philosophies, but many of us feel that we lack a worldview that can adequately imbue our existence with a totalizing meaning.

As much as Ariana Grande may brag about her success and revel in her sexual inhibition, she recognizes that none of this can totally fill the void…the Augustinian restlessness at the bottom of her being. She longs to see herself through the gaze of someone who “loves all of her pretty, and all of her ugly too,” and who has the capacity to penetrate her “ego and pride.” Though she may not have encountered someone who fits this description perfectly, the album’s closing note reminds us that no matter how much we achieve or obtain, we all long for this type of penetrating gaze that can reach all the way to the depths of our heart.

Aside from the masterful production quality, this is perhaps the album’s greatest feature.

Ari demonstrates that no matter how much values and social norms may change, the one thing that remains constant is the infinite desire contained in every human heart. Millennials may lack the language to make sense of it. The more traditional frameworks that accounted for this desire for the Infinite weren’t always presented to us in ways that made it relevant to our actual lived experience, thus our tendency to eschew those traditional frameworks and experiment with new ones. But as Ariana Grande proves in positions, those who can learn to be transparent with themselves and honest with their experiences are never far from the answers.

Stephen G. Adubato teaches religion and philosophy to high school students in New Jersey and writes at Cracks in Postmodernity for the Patheos Catholic Channel.


Where Do We Go From Here? My Post-Election Confessions.

The 2020 presidential election reached far beyond political boundaries to challenge fundamental moral values, and the resolution of the electoral contest will not mitigate the moral discord that has destabilized the political sphere and disrupted our personal relationships. The emotional toll is heavy for those on both sides of the aisle.

At the risk of alienating some readers, I will admit that I resent the decision of Trump voters—especially those who share my faith—to empower a leader because he advances a certain political agenda, though he uses his power personally to harm others. In my view, intentional and unremorseful violations of human rights and dignity should disqualify one from leadership; support for those who impose such harms amounts to complicity in their wrongdoing.

When the McCarrick report was released, Anna Bonta Moreland wrote in First Things that she “will never trust the clergy as a corporate body again” because “the Church has broken that relationship—not really because of the rotten apples themselves, but rather because of a system of protection and power that enabled someone like McCarrick to ascend in the ranks while fondling young men.” I submit that a similar system of protection and power has enabled President Trump to ascend in the ranks while fondling women without their consent, authorizing what amounted to the kidnapping of children, targeting people of color with racially problematic language and policy, and undermining public trust in democratic institutions.

Whatever goods might come from leaders like McCarrick or the current president—and whatever dangers we may sense in the other side’s agenda—there is insufficient justification for tolerating such direct and egregious wrongs.

There are plenty of people who disagree with me, however. Nearly fifty percent of the country, in fact—including friends, family, and presumably many of you, dear readers. The vote was split fairly equally and familiarly along party lines, exacerbating the tension between the factions.

It is easy for me to think that their position is due to ignorance or malice, or even, as many people of color suspect, racial resentment. This perception has been reinforced in this post-election season as they have tolerated or promoted unfounded claims of election fraud and the shameless attempts to disenfranchise millions of voters, especially in areas where people of color make up a substantial proportion of the population.

However, those on the other side likely will accuse me of similar shortcomings, or worse.

It seems we have developed a deep distrust toward the other’s commitment to the common good—perhaps because we emphasize different components of it, though I suspect the rift goes much deeper. Seeking unity has thus become tantamount to compromising our moral values. I fear that, in general, we have failed to heed Reinhold Niebuhr’s warning: “The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry.”

We cannot continue at this level of hostility, and it is clear that there is no silver bullet argument that will get us all to agree. I cannot convince “the other side” to care about human rights violations any more than they can convince me that a leader’s direct participation in such violations is preferable to his or her indirect involvement with that of abortion; I cannot convince them that character matters any more than they can convince me that the U.S.A. will look like the U.S.S.R after four years of Democratic leadership. I guess both of us must wait patiently for the conversion of the other.

So where do we go from here? Is it possible (or even desirable) to reach across this divide—to look beyond the wrongs “the other side” has enabled so that we might rebuild our broken relationships? I think it is, but we have to start with ourselves.

Saint Augustine is a helpful guide.

In his Confessions, Augustine acknowledges his own shortcomings and his need for conversion, praying, “Make perfect what is still imperfect in me.” Recognizing that humility is the beginning of wisdom, he confesses: “There is joy in my heart when I confess to you, yet there is fear as well; there is sorrow, and yet hope. But I confess not only to you but also to … all who accompany me on this pilgrimage.”

And so, following his example, I confess that at times my anger over actions has morphed into disrespect of persons. I confess that I don’t always know how to maintain that distinction, and I have likely hurt people because of it. I confess that in my zeal for justice, I sometimes have failed to stay charitable toward opponents, or to be fully present and open to those in my intimate circle. I confess that my sense of justice is partial, as it must be on this earth, though I can be quick to maintain its completeness. And finally, I confess that in my efforts to be the hands and feet of Christ, I have neglected at times to reflect Christ’s heart—a heart that is always open to encounter.

This openness to encounter can move us forward. Indeed, Pope Francis has envisioned this in Fratelli Tutti: “The process of building fraternity, be it local or universal, can only be undertaken by spirits that are free and open to authentic encounters.” By engaging humbly and truthfully with those who do not share our values, we demonstrate a commitment to restoring right relationships (the aim of justice) that lends authenticity to our affirmations of human dignity. When we are aggressive or condescending, our hopes of moral persuasion dim. Even if neither side ever becomes convinced of the other’s rightness, however, maintaining this open posture will invite dialogue rather than attempt to coerce moral transformation. This can only be a good thing. As Saint Paul urges, let us “live in a manner worthy of the call [we] have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).

Importantly, part of “bearing with others through love” means grieving over the other’s moral failings, as well as our own. Again, we can take our cue from Augustine, who writes, “My true [brothers and sisters] are those who rejoice for me in their hearts when they find good in me, and grieve for me when the find sin. Whether they see good in me or evil, they love me still.” It is appropriate to experience emotions of grief during this time, and if these emotions are rooted in our love for the other—in the desire to see our brothers and sisters live up to the fullness of their dignity—we can pray, with Augustine: “Let hymns of thanksgiving and cries of sorrow rise together from [our] hearts, as though [we] were vessels burning with incense before you.” We can offer up the emotions that arise in us as prayers of intercession that can move us toward hope and healing.

While we must continue to pursue justice as our conscience prods, let us do so with grace, with love for the other, and with the hope that all will know the justice of God as closely as possible on this earth. As Pope Francis exhorts us, “Let us begin anew from here; let us look at the Church with the eyes of the Spirit and not as the world does. The world sees us only as on the right or left, with this ideology, with that one; the Spirit sees us as sons and daughters of [God] and brothers and sisters of Jesus. … By loving humbly, serving freely and joyfully, we will offer to the world the true image of God.”

Kathleen Bonnette, Th.D., is the assistant director of the Office of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Atlantic-Midwest Province.


John of the Cross, Romeo Santos, and Awakening the Heart’s Desire

Photo by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

Human desire never seems to cease. We are confronted with this inconvenient truth whenever we realize that something we want is totally out of reach.

Some of us try (in vain) to “stuff away” our desires in an attempt to bypass that sense of dissatisfaction. But repression often turns into all kinds of tricky complexes and neuroses. Desire is simply part of the human experience. The more you try to ignore it or stuff it into a box, the more it will fester and seek release. We have an infinite longing to be loved-this is the foundation of our identity as human beings.

This longing often arises in our relationships with others. I could spend all weekend with my friends and still feel like it was not enough. This “problem” goes beyond just being overly emotionally attached, it’s a matter of being human. This sense of emptiness is something that needs to be fully embraced, rather than ignored. This emptiness fans the flames of our desires, forcing us to recognize that the other person in themselves is not enough to put out those flames. Only then can we come to the realization that Christ, the Infinite Himself, is the one who will bring our “restless hearts” to peace.

As much as we may try in vain to distract ourselves from it, that deep abyss of longing is not there to be ignored. It’s a gift that propels us to seek the ultimate Truth. So whenever I catch myself trying to escape from it, I turn to my two friends Romeo Santos and St. John of the Cross.

Romeo Santos, the former frontman of the group Aventura and self-proclaimed “KOB” (King of Bachata), is known for his whiney vocals and sentimental lyrics about heartbreak and pain. Romeo’s not afraid of letting out that cry and expressing his longing to be loved. When I’m feeling pissed off at a friend for not responding to me, or when I find myself falling for someone that I know will never feel the same way about me, I just pop in one of his CDs (yes, those still exist) and share in his cry of longing and dissatisfaction. Listening to his music brings me back to my humanity and gives me a sense of solidarity. “I’m not the only one who is whiney and needy!”

While some criticize his lyrics for being too sappy, I beg to differ. Take this verse from Aventura’s 2009 hit Por Un Segundo.

Y ahora por un segundo me ahogo en los mares de la realidad/por un segundo acepto mi derrota, te perdí de verdad/y por un segundo enfrento mi duelo, ya no estás conmigo.

(And now for a second I’m drowning in the sea of reality/for a second I accept my loss, you’re gone for real/and for a second I face my pain, you’re no longer with me.)

Or take this verse from Hilito, from his 2014 sophomore album:

Yo le dije al corazón que te olvidara, rudamente me grito que me callara…Le ordené a mi alma que borrara, que no te amara y se río en mi cara.

(I told my heart to forget you, it rudely told me to shut up…I told my soul to erase you, to say I didn’t love you, and it laughed in my face.) Hilito, 2014

Romeo’s “whining” captures that deep and desperate longing…that intuition that eros, worldly love, never seems to take you far enough and always ends in tragedy. No matter how good that love may feel, he knows he’ll end up heartbroken in some way or another. And yet he doesn’t give up. The song goes on. He doesn’t deny his heart’s cry for more. His music is a testament to the human’s heart unwillingness to accept the defeat of sadness. The more I listen to him, the more I feel free to let the flames of my longing run rampant. And the more the flames grow, they reach higher and higher past the boundaries of this temporal existence, seeking He who transcends all earthly pleasures and goods. That’s where my other friend, St. John of the Cross comes into play.

John struggled not so much with heartbreak, but with physical brokenness…he spent a nice chunk of time locked in prison by his Carmelite confreres, being beaten and starved. But it was while he was in prison that he began to experience the mystery of God’s intense and passionate love for him. This experience eventually materialized into some of the greatest mystical Christian poetry in all of history.

His poetry makes use of erotic imagery as a means to communicate John’s deep sense of intimacy and unity with Christ. He begins perhaps his most famous poem Noche Oscura by describing his longing. Notice how he juxtaposes the darkness and brightness of human longing:

One dark night/fired with love’s urgent longings/ah, the sheer grace!/I went out unseen/my house being now all stilled.

It’s as if the darkness propels him out of his house to seek the true Light, Christ, his Beloved. The poem closes with the image of the passionate embrace between the soul and Christ:

Upon my flowering breast/which I kept wholly for him alone/there he lay sleeping/and I caressing him/there in a breeze from the fanning cedars…I abandoned and forgot myself/laying my face on my Beloved/all things ceased/I went out from myself/leaving my cares/forgotten among the lilies.

He again juxtaposes the experience of longing and fulfillment in the Cantico Espiritual, which borrows heavily from the Song of Solomon:

Quench my troubles/For no one else can soothe them/And let my eyes behold You/For You are their light/And I will keep them for You alone/Reveal Your presence/And let the vision and Your beauty kill me/Behold the malady/Of love is incurable/Except in Your presence and before Your face.

Talk about being overdramatic! Don’t worry. The bride finally ends up with her Lover toward the last few stanzas:

There you will show me/That which my soul desired/And there You will give at once/O You, my life/that which You gave me the other day./The breathing of the air/The song of the sweet nightingale/The grove and its beauty/In the serene night/With the flame that consumes/and gives no pains.

It was precisely his agony and longing for escape that fanned the flames of his desire for Christ, which eventually went on to inspire these deeply intimate and seemingly romantic images we find in his poetry.

This type of beauty and satisfaction about which John writes seems miles apart from the dissatisfaction of feeling lonely and rejected. But if embracing it is the key to getting to that point, then let’s turn on the ignition and get driving…and blast some Romeo until we get there.

Stephen G. Adubato teaches religion and philosophy to high school students in New Jersey and writes at Cracks in Postmodernity for the Patheos Catholic Channel.