Mercy for the Outcast: The Story God Wants Told

Mere moments on Twitter are enough to alert us that our culture is plagued with demons.  We live in a culture that responds to polarized politics and social values with contempt and hateful accusations that serve only to drive us further from one another, rather than seeking common ground.  Even voices claiming to speak for our good God are raised in accusation and derision.  Amongst so many voices and so much anger, through all the noise, how do we hear a God who whispers?  Why doesn’t God speak more loudly, to be heard above the hate, or better still – to silence it forever?

There is divine precedent for keeping things hidden.  In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus repeatedly instructs his followers, those whom he heals, and even the demons he exorcizes to conceal his identity.  Commentators call this motif the “Messianic Secret,” positing many theories about why Jesus wants to stay hidden.  It may be to prevent people from following Jesus for the wrong reasons or to subvert existing Messianic expectations.  In the midst of a Gospel full of Jesus’s commands to keep quiet, there is one man whom Jesus commissions to preach.  It isn’t Peter or another one of the Apostles.  He isn’t even a Jew.  The man Jesus enlists to tell his story is a foreigner known as the Gerasene demoniac.

In Mark 5, we meet Jesus and the disciples just after he has calmed the storm.  Across the sea, they find themselves in the region of the Gerasenes.  There, Jesus speaks with a tormented man, a man filled with demons.  He has no one and is utterly forgotten, living among the tombs. Following their conversation, Jesus casts the demons out of the man into a herd of pigs.  Driven mad by this legion of demons, the pigs throw themselves into the sea.  Seeing the demoniac healed at the cost of 2,000 pigs, the Gerasenes beg Jesus to leave the region.  Whatever healing Jesus might offer them, it is not worth the cost of their livelihood.

Now free, the man intends to follow Jesus back across the sea.  Instead, Jesus asks him to stay, giving him the incredible command: “Go home to your own people and tell them what the Lord, in his mercy, has done for you,” (Mk 5:19).  In a Gospel known for Jesus’ requests to hide his identity, Jesus commissions this man to preach.  Among so many stories of healing, we have to ask ourselves: why is this the story God wants told?

The other stories in this chapter are stories in which faith heals.  The bleeding woman reaches out to touch Jesus and is healed.  “Your faith has saved you,” Jesus tells her (Mark 5:34).  He continues on his way to heal Jairus’ daughter, telling the crowd, “Do not be afraid; just have faith,” (Mark 5:36).  When the little girl rises, Jesus gives strict orders that no one should know.  The healing of the Gerasene demoniac is unlike these stories. The demoniac is not healed by faith, but by God’s mercy.  The Greek is eleison, the same mercy we ask of Jesus in the Mass. The outcast lives as one among the dead, with no one to speak for him or bring him to Jesus.  He is trapped inside of himself, across the sea, the outcast of the foreigners.

This is the story God wants told.  Not the story of the great faith of his followers, but the story of his mercy, of mercy so great that it crosses the sea to rescue us from ourselves.  God’s heart is one moved by the outcast, the one who lives among the dead.  As we pray in the Liturgy of the Hours, “You will not leave my soul among the dead, not let your beloved know decay,” (Psalm 16:10).  God’s heart is with the outcast of the foreigners, and this is what moves Jesus to be with him.

Mark vividly describes the violence this man committed against himself and the ways in which he resisted the attempts of the community to help him.  They, in turn, abandon him for dead.  Even once he is made whole again, his community does not see him as worth the cost; the pigs are worth more than his life restored.  When we count the cost of love, we are the Gerasenes, lamenting the loss of their herd – no doubt a devastating economic blow.  They push Jesus away for fear of what it will cost them.  They cling so tightly to security that they cannot receive Jesus’ healing and mercy.

And yet, this is the community to whom Jesus sends this man.  He wants to leave them behind, but Jesus asks him to stay, as if to say, These people that reject you, they are your community.  It is to them you must speak about the great mercy of God.  This man’s healing is not for him alone, but for his community, the ones who have cast him out.

We are not to regard our faith primarily as a path towards our own edification or liberation.  This liberation is offered in service of a greater call.  We cannot turn our backs on the outcast, nor on those who cast them out.  When we do either, we demonize where there are no demons, only ones like us—ones in need of healing.  Our pain is not only ours to harbor; we must offer it to Jesus who asks us not to sit in it or lash out in anger, but to channel it into love.  We are to tell others what God in his mercy has done for us, to share it even with those who have turned their backs on us and thought us unworthy.

If we hope to imitate Jesus, we need to listen to the story he wants told.  Mercy crosses oceans to rescue the outcast of the foreigners.  Mercy asks the outcast to evangelize the hateful.  There is no one so “other” that we are not called to love them.

God, in his mercy, saves. He rescues. He crosses the sea and braves the storm. This is where God’s heart is—with the foreigners. This is who God chooses as custodian of his message.  This is why we are invited to the margins—because this is where God’s heart is.  And this is who God asks to speak to us, because the face of mercy is the face of those whom we have demonized.  Mercy is for the wounded and for those who wound.  Each of them is in each of us.  Mercy lifts the veil to show us the truth: in God there can be no other.  There is only us.

How do we hear God in the midst of all the anger and noise of our culture?  The only way we can, as St. Teresa of Avila tells us: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  God has spoken, and his voice is mercy.  He asks us to speak it, too.

Samantha Stephenson is a wife and mother, lover of books and coffee, and editor of spiritualityoftheordinary.com


When Opposing the President Isn’t Political, But About Survival

President Trump will visit El Paso today.

Following the recent shooting in El Paso, Americans and the media are rightly focused on the overdue reform of gun laws. But while the attack in El Paso was surely enabled by the failure of politicians to enact even a modicum of reform, it is categorically different. For El Pasoans, this killer’s bullets were aimed at a whole community, a way of life, and our values.

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, Latinos and communities like El Paso have experienced life under an ever-present pall of low-grade fear.

As a border community, El Paso has lived in a unique way at the intersection of the President’s politics of xenophobia and policies which dehumanize migrants at the border. Race baiting, zero tolerance, threats of deportation, and an increasingly militarized border are the stuff of everyday life. After the El Paso shooting, ICE and Border Patrol announced a suspension of enforcement activities around the mall, hospitals, and family reunification centers, a temporary reprieve to fear and the exception that proves the rule.

In this midst of all this, El Paso has shown the country that another way is possible in addressing the so-called crisis at the border: with compassion, generosity, and humanity. Even as the President builds walls and separates families, thousands have migrants have found shelter, relief, warm meals, and open doors in El Paso after the traumatizing experience of immigrant detention. In a vigil the day following the shooting, thousands of El Pasoans came together both to mourn the dead and to celebrate this community’s resilience.

President Trump reflexively trades in racism, nationalism, and sardonic put-downs. Now his poisonous rhetoric and kid gloves approach to white supremacy have inspired a manifesto of murder and terror. President Trump supplied the ideological ammunition to an assassin who violated our community and our values and killed our family members and neighbors.

This past weekend, hate came to the Cielo Vista Mall and El Paso. Latino blood was spilt in sacrifice to the ancient demons of political and racial terrorism. Now before brazenly trampling the scene of the crime, the President must atone for his misdeeds.

Until then, the President is not welcome here.

Dylan Corbett is the founding director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, Texas and has worked in global development in Central America and South Asia, as well as on domestic poverty programs with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


4 Suggestions for Restoring Adventure to Your Daily Life

From the first time we step into our kindergarten classroom, inspirational messages abound from our parents, teachers, and mentors: You can be anything you want to be.  You’re going to change the world.  God has great plans for you.

Similarly, at my Jesuit undergraduate institution, St. Ignatius of Loyola’s quote formed the basis of our instruction: Ite inflammate omnia, or Go forth and set the world on fire.  Now, as a recent graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Classical Languages, I have the swirling thoughts of many who are about to enter the “real” world: Is this it?

Fire combusts in a matter of seconds.  To change the world requires the patience of months, years, lifetimes.  The truth is, few of us will achieve work similar to St. Ignatius that dares to incite a new global change.  This reality can drain the fervor of youthful ambition.  In a society that idolizes young success as the ultimate dream, approaching this blank unknown can seem daunting.

How can recent graduates carry the passion of intellect and social change into a world that demands compliance and normalcy?  How can I do what St. Ignatius instructs when my spark may never manifest itself into a flame?

It is the very thing which strives to dim our dreams – coming to terms with reality – that we must use to propel us forward. Graduate school and the eventual job search may be my impending reality, but I can still embark on a spiritual and invigorating journey within this context.  Many go through life with a realistic mindset left wondering if there is something more beyond bills, television, and obligations.  Why can’t reality itself be more?  We must find adventure in the mundane and embrace the marvel of our own realities.  The bleakness of a lifetime of normalcy will no longer intimidate because it is the reality we wish to live – it is unique.

With this mindset, the flames of change become a part of our realities in ways that our kindergarten minds could not comprehend.  Engaging regularly with spirituality, social justice issues, and personal passions become routine but not repetitive.  We cannot use our education for its true purpose without exciting ourselves about the beautiful life God has provided.

Tangible practices must fortify an altered mindset.  Below are my suggestions for restoring adventure to your lived reality:

1) Pray.  Try a new prayer practice.  Imaginative prayer, journaling, walking outside, and listening to music can all be forms of meaningful prayer.

2) Create.  Art, cooking, music, writing, and other creative pursuits remind us of the universe enveloped within each of us.

3) Engage.  Having intentional conversations with others allows us to experience the unique personhood of ourselves and others.

4) Learn.  Keeping up with current events, visiting a new place, and reading about your passions will serve to expand our vision.

Grace Spiewak has a B.A. in Classical Languages from Creighton University and plans to pursue an M.S. in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.


How to Really Understand the Parable of the Good Samaritan

This Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 10:25-37) might be Jesus’ best-known story. How many times have you heard the phrase, “Good Samaritan”? Even non-Christians know the term suggests someone who is kind, generous, or brave. But few of us fully understand – much less live up to – the demands of Jesus’ teaching. Here are 10 things we too often miss in this story:

  • This is no ordinary story: A lawyer asks Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” There is no question more important for a Jewish person to ask. This story is not just one among others; it stands with Matthew 25:31-46 as essential for salvation. As Jesus makes clear in this story, when it comes to eternal life, what matters isn’t what one knows or believes, but what one does or fails to do.
  • Love God by loving your neighbor: The lawyer answers his own question: the way to eternal life is loving God and our neighbors (Luke 10:27). Or, another way of saying this is: we love God by loving our neighbors. Dorothy Day puts a finer point on this: “You love God as much as the one you love the least.” Jesus responds to the lawyer, “Do this and you will live” (Lk 10:28). It’s not enough to know this; you have to do it.
  • Who is my neighbor? is the wrong question: The lawyer pushes further. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” a question that we might take for granted. But this is a limit-seeking question. It aims to identify the non-neighbor, the one beyond my moral obligation. In other words, the lawyer wants to know: who are the ones I’m not expected to love like I love God? Jesus takes this question and turns it on its head. He does this in two ways: first, by using a Samaritan in the story (see #6) and second, by changing the question around: “Who was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” (Lk 10:36). The lawyer views neighbor as an object, the recipient of duty. Jesus views neighbor as a proactively loving subject. Who is my neighbor? is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should ask: What kind of neighbor am I? or To whom am I a neighbor?
  • Move from judgment to compassion: Jesus tells the story of a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, the only parable with a specific geographic location. Why? Because the road to Jericho was notoriously unsafe. It descended from the heights of Jerusalem via switchback curves, ideal for ambush. In other words, Jesus’ audience had no sympathy for the man who was beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead. He was a fool to travel the road alone; he got what was coming to him. Jesus tells the story banking on his audience’s contempt for the robbers’ victim, seeking to replace that judgment with compassion.
  • Confront the sin of indifference: Jesus says a priest and Levite see the robbers’ victim but “pass by on the opposite side” of the road. In other words, they create more distance between themselves and the man left for dead. These religious leaders were charged with loving their neighbor (Leviticus 19:18, which the lawyer cites in Luke 10:27) but fail. Maybe they were running late, thinking about their to-do list, or more concerned about remaining pure for their ritual tasks. Whatever the case, nothing should come before showing concern for someone left for dead. Pope Francis cites the priest and Levite as examples of the “globalization of indifference.” Whenever we think “that’s not my problem” or “they don’t belong to me,” we’re acting more like the priest and Levite than the Samaritan.
  • “Good Samaritan” makes no sense: We know this story so well that once we hear the word “Samaritan,” we know the hero arrives on the scene. But for Jesus’ audience, a Samaritan was the most despised outcast they could imagine. It’s hard to come up with a contemporary analogy, but a modern-day Samaritan would have to be the kind of person who would make your stomach turn and your skin crawl. This is the last person on earth you would imagine Jesus to endorse.
  • These kinds of actions matter: The Samaritan’s actions receive more detailed description than anyone else in the gospels, aside from Jesus. Why? Because Jesus is describing what it means to be a neighbor: to act with courage (going into the ditch, where the Samaritan could’ve been ambushed), compassion (this is what moves the Samaritan to offer assistance – a visceral reaction to another who is suffering), generosity (the oil and wine to heal his wounds and the payment for his recovery at the inn), and boundary-breaking solidarity (enlisting others in his care, showing that we’re in this together, even though the Samaritan would’ve been received with suspicion if not hostility at the inn).
  • Do what you can, where you are: The Samaritan wasn’t out looking for people to help. And he doesn’t quit his job or abandon his family in order to make the road to Jericho safe for other travelers. He saw someone in need, went out of his way and into the ditch to ease his suffering, and went on his way. This isn’t a story about a superhero; it’s a story about doing what you can – no more and no less. Everyone can and should be like the Samaritan.
  • Mercy is who God is and what God wants: When Jesus turns the question around, asking the lawyer, “Who was neighbor to the robber’s victim?” the lawyer is so embarrassed that he can’t bring himself to say “Samaritan.” So instead, the lawyer responds, “The one who treated him with mercy” (Luke 10:37). This reflects a central theme in Scripture: mercy is who God is (Exodus 34:6) and what God wants (Luke 6:36). Put differently: our piety or holiness is measured by our mercifulness.
  • Do likewise: Jesus ends the story by saying, “Go and do likewise.” He doesn’t say, “Go and do exactly the same thing” or “go and do this once in a while.” Too many people think that being a “Good Samaritan” means volunteering, doing random acts of kindness, or helping strangers in an emergency. This is not why Jesus tells this story (especially not a story framed by inheriting eternal life). Rather, Jesus teaches his followers to apply the Samaritan’s courage, compassion, generosity, and boundary-breaking solidarity in their everyday life. What would the world be like if we thought the state of our soul were determined by our consistent emulation of the Samaritan?

With this story, Jesus issues a radical challenge to his followers: there are no non-neighbors. There is no one you can write off as “other” or “outsider” or “outcast.” We have to shatter the illusion that keeps us from seeing that we belong to each other. As Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ reminds us, “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ – only ‘us.’”

This is a tall order. Especially in a time of hyperpartisanship where winning is seen as more important than a shared commitment to the common good. Political polarization reinforces an “us versus them” tribalism that has nine in ten Americans saying the nation is more divided now than at any point in their lifetime. In a 2018 poll, roughly half of Democrats described Republicans as ignorant (54%) and spiteful (44%) while a similar proportion of Republicans described Democrats as ignorant (49%) and spiteful (54%). 61% of Democrats labeled Republicans racist, sexist, or bigoted while 31% of Republicans applied these terms to Democrats. Perhaps most concerning of all, more than twenty percent of Republicans (23%) and Democrats (21%) called members of the other party “evil.” Only four percent of both parties think the other side is fair and even fewer describe them as thoughtful or kind. We have normalized the demonization of people on the other side of the party aisle, making it harder to recognize that we belong to each other, rely on each other, and will ultimately be judged by how we treat each other.

Social fragmentation and fragility continues: by sex, gender, and sexual orientation; by class and creed; by ethnicity and race; by nationality and legal status; by age and ability, etc. A few examples: Christians are more than twice as likely as non-Christians to blame the poor for their financial struggles, a judgment that creates distance from them. Half of Catholics say the U.S. does not have a responsibility to welcome refugees (despite Pope Francis’ global “Share the Journey” campaign). Only 31% of Republicans say that migrants from Central America should be able to seek asylum in the U.S. (which is a legal right) and 62% of Republicans approve the way that migrants are being treated at the border, even though conditions are so gruesome that 24 people have died in the custody of immigration officials. Manufactured fear ascribes disease, crime, and violence to migrants without basis in fact. It is used to justify cruelty in separating families, indefinitely detaining children in cages, and threatening deportation raids that inflict terror and trauma on countless people seeking the same things we want: peace and security.

Dehumanizing rhetoric and shrinking understandings of what we owe each other contribute to what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture.” We disregard those we see as different, as other, as not belonging to us. But the example of the Samaritan resists throwaway culture; instead of discarding others in need, he draws near them. The Samaritan replaces judgment with compassion, fear with courage, self-interest with generosity, and separation with solidarity.

What keeps us from going out of our way and into the ditch, to care for those who have been beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead? What keeps us from speaking up for the poor and marginalized, being their advocate and ally? What keeps us from drawing near those we consider “other” or outside our network of belonging?

If we call ourselves Christians, then we have to evaluate the depth of our commitment to “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Not just once in a while or in an emergency, but wherever we are, however we can – no more and no less. Because how we treat others (including those we might dislike or even despise) is how we treat God.


Promoting the Common Good and Option for the Poor in the Trump Era: An Interview with Stephen Schneck

Dr. Stephen Schneck is one of the country’s premier Catholic intellectuals—an advocate for Catholic social teaching in public life, lecturer, writer, and activist. He recently retired as the Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies (IPR) at the Catholic University of America, where he was also an award-winning professor in the politics department. In 2015, President Obama appointed Schneck to the White House Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Millennial editor Robert Christian, who was a graduate fellow under Schneck at IPR, recently interviewed him about his experiences as a pro-life Democrat, politics in the Trump Era, their shared work, and other subjects related to Catholicism and politics.

As a pro-life Democrat who believes in the preferential option for the poor, how would you evaluate recent trends in American politics and within the Democratic Party?

The measure of civilization, to my mind, is how the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the most vulnerable among us fare. This is the measure for justice that’s at the heart of the Christian social justice mission. It’s also the criterion for discerning the common good. And, who are the poor? Think about the homeless trans kid panhandling outside the Metro, the disabled single parent on the next block who depends on Medicaid and food stamps, a migrant mother and her child separated and locked up on our southern border, the opioid-addicted former truck driver in Appalachia, and, yes, by poor we must also mean unborn children at risk to be aborted. For Christians, every law, every policy, and every candidacy for public office should be assessed with the question: What does this mean for these poor? That’s putting Catholic teaching’s preference for the poor into practice.

Neither political party looks great from this vantage point. Both parties are currently dominated by elite activists motivated by what seem to me to be exclusionary, fractional interests – at the expense of the common good, and especially at the expense of the poor. Fortunately, there are some exceptions to this generalization on both sides of the aisle. But, the trends and larger picture are worrisome, with sharper and more militant fractional politics and an “us versus them” ethic more akin to Carl Schmitt’s than Christianity’s “all are welcome” worldview. Thank God for the few remaining compassionate conservatives and for pro-life progressives.

How would you assess Donald Trump’s presidency so far? And do you think his approach will define the future of conservatism in the US?

As I mentioned, both political parties are caught up in the divisive logic of an exaggerated “us versus them” identity politics. Trump’s is a particularly crude and odious appeal to Make America “White” Again. Before Trump, conservatism in America was about the rule of law, small government, higher morality, and deference to the time-hallowed norms and tradition, all of which were perceived to constrain or modulate arbitrary power by government and other sources of power in society. Trumpism disdains limits on their president’s power, so much so that the old conservative ideals are at best seen as quaint and more often than not seen as pointy-headed fluff to be ignored. What then does it mean to be conservative now? Frankly, it’s little more than white nationalism. To be sure, the race card was played by fringe elements of the conservative movement in the past. With Trump, though, white nationalism has become the defining heart of conservatism and it’s hard to see how that will change anytime soon.

We’ve both seen pro-life Democrats who abandoned their sincere pro-life commitments to advance their political careers and subsequently increased their influence. We’ve seen pro-life Democrats who switched parties and over time abandoned their commitment to social justice, in favor of faith in an unfettered free market—and some have gone on to become very prominent figures. Why do you remain a pro-life Democrat? What would you say to young people who are pro-life progressives but worried that their views will limit their ability to rise in politics or diminish their ability to make a concrete difference in people’s lives through politics or policy?

Ha! You’re catching me at a moment when I am questioning my place in the Democratic Party. I have long been an ardent supporter of the party because of its commitment to social justice and its suspicion of the undemocratic power of economic and cultural elites. I support it as well for its history of solidarity with the working class. As a Catholic, a mix of social justice, solidarity, and preference for those among us who are least empowered accords with what I understand to be the mission of Christianity in our world below. Being pro-life for me is about that mission. So, of course, I am a Democrat.

Many activist interest groups currently in control of the Democratic Party, however, seem more inclined toward libertarian individualism than toward social justice, solidarity, and a preference for the disempowered. Pro-abortion interest groups like NARAL are examples of that, and these groups have a de facto veto over which candidates are supported or who can rise within the party.  So, if a Democratic candidate opposes late-term abortions, then she can forget about support from the DNC, DSCC, DCCC, or even her state’s party organizations.

What’s a pro-life Democrat to do? First, I think today’s pro-life message must be presented as something much more encompassing and more integral than opposition to abortion. To be pro-life is to promote care for creation like the Green New Deal, comprehensive healthcare like Medicare for All, justice for immigrants, an economy for the 90%, ending the death penalty, a living wage, and so on. Second, I think being a pro-life Democrat requires directly challenging the libertarian ideology of groups like NARAL by reminding Democrats that their party historically is the party of solidarity, social justice, and a preference for the least empowered. Finally, it can only help to remind the party that alienating pro-life voters only narrows the range of Americans who would vote for its candidates – and, pro-life Democrats and independents are over-represented in states and districts that saw voters switch from Obama to Trump in 2016.

You have a background in the study of personalism. How has it shaped Catholic social teaching? What is its relevance for today?

What I like about a personalist theology is that it presents faith as seeing the face of God in real people as we encounter them in their real lives. Personalism rejects formalisms that present faith largely as rules for judgment or as principles to know. Indeed, I love the humility of personalism. The self is decentered and humbled in openness and hope for a glimpse of God’s face in our encounter with and service to others.

If you were to set up a reading list for those interested in Catholic social teaching and the philosophy behind it (for beginners, those at an intermediate level, and those who are more advanced), what would that reading list look like? Who are the essential authors to read to truly grasp the nature of the Catholic political worldview?

I’m not good at listing books, but off the top of my head… Jacques Maritain’s The Person and Common Good, Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World, encyclicals like Caritas in veritate, Sollicitudo rei socialis, Laudato si’, Emmanuel Mounier’s Personalism, Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society. A deeper dive would include selected works by Paul Ricouer, Hans Georg Gadamer, Max Scheler, Charles Taylor, and the like. I’m sure I’m stupidly forgetting many obvious important works. Also don’t forget novels, like Albert Camus’ The Plague or Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.

Pope Francis has emphasized taking on the throwaway culture, going to the margins, and being a poor church for the poor. How would you assess the impact of this agenda on the Church in the US and global Catholicism?

Pope Francis calls us to live our faith in the model of Jesus, by which I mean bringing good news to the poor, reaching out with open arms to those on the margins, and humbly looking to discern the face of God in genuine encounter with those who have been objectified or “thrown away” by the faceless processes and structural evils of our world. This profound call, were it broadly heard within the Church, would be transformative. The agenda that His Holiness has pursued, both in the world and institutionally within the Church, reflect his call to live such a faith – and I am personally inspired by his efforts.

The impact of his efforts is obvious and welcome. Yet, those efforts have also met passive and now frequently active resistance. Not too surprisingly, this opposition to Pope Francis aligns with interests that are privileged by the processes and structures of the status quo. Let’s be clear; Pope Francis is not changing the message of the Church. Pope St. John Paul II also called us to live our faith in the model of Jesus, for example, with a very similar theology of encounter with real personhood. Francis, however, is positioning that theology to address a broader range of structures in the world and within the Church itself.

You have been outspoken about the rise in extremism. We see it in the US, Europe, and even in the US Church with the rise of alt-Catholics. You have suggested that the pope should address this pestilence in his next encyclical. Why do you think this should be a top priority—and what would you hope to hear from the pope on the subject in an encyclical?

Rome has been slow to recognize that the ideology of the new ethnic nationalism movements is heretically corrosive to faith. These alt-movements, to one degree or another, are all about the myth of purity for a race or nation. It’s all-too-apparent how powerful the appeal has been for some Christian populations in Europe and the United States that feel beleaguered and alienated by accelerating social and cultural change. In Catholic circles now, some leaders of these groups even claim theological legitimacy by asserting that they are defending the faith. To make matters worse, the ideology can easily hijack elements of those theologies that advocate a defensive approach to the modern world.

It goes without saying that the ideology is diametrically opposed to the message of the Gospels. But, we’re past the time where it’s enough for His Holiness to point to the parable of the Good Samaritan or to contrast preference for the nation or race with the Church’s teaching of preference for the poor. This extremist ideology is winning converts among Catholics, even among the clergy. The Church needs a thoroughgoing examination of the ideology’s errors that can only be done in something like an encyclical, making it clear that no Catholic can subscribe to these dangerous ideas or endorse those who do.

At the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, the Erroneous Autonomy event series on libertarianism seemed to me to be one of the Institute’s most vital efforts and accomplishments. Would you agree with that, and are there other events that stand out to you as particularly noteworthy and valuable?

Our critical examination of libertarianism within the context of Catholic teachings in the Erroneous Autonomy series changed minds. Hosting that series is the most important thing the Institute ever did. It’s our legacy, Robert.

Some on the Catholic left seem unwilling to consider the importance of subsidiarity. But you have taken the time to clarify the concept at a time when many intentionally distort it to weaken the federal social safety net or advance similar objectives. How should we understand subsidiarity? And at a time when democratic norms are collapsing, union membership is at low levels, and radical individualism remains ascendant, can the concept offer anything unique and helpful to those who care about the common good? 

Subsidiarity is about the prudential organization of solidarity for the common good. It cannot be conceived apart from its role within solidarity or its end in the common good. It’s just wrong to imagine it as federalism. Most appalling are those who portray it as a version of competitive individualism. Moreover, subsidiarity is not properly understood if it is only seen as a limit on the power of the state. Subsidiarity is an organizing of solidarity to disrupt hierarchical concentrations of power. A workers’ union is an example of subsidiarity that disrupts the hierarchical power of faceless economic forces. A Latino cultural club is an example of subsidiarity that disrupts the hierarchical power of mass society. Even within the Church, think about how subsidiarity challenges the hierarchical power of clericalism.

You mention individualism. We’re all aware how the economic market, modern technologies, and a prevalent morality and politics that radicalizes the value of individual choice all work to isolate each of us from a sense of belonging to something beyond the self. Far from empowering us as rugged individuals, that isolation leaves us alone against the overweening forces of the economy, technology, society, and the state. Subsidiarity is about the empowering of little communities around us that, on one hand, lend greater capacity to resist the many mass forces of modern life and, on the other hand, help us find our place and responsibilities in light of the common good of all.

Some anti-Vatican II “trads” in the US have endorsed a revival of integralism and declared that Catholiclism and liberal democracy are incompatible (while often showing a great affinity for 20th century dictators or kings from centuries ago). How would you respond to such claims? Is there a distinction that can be drawn between democracy, liberal democracy, and philosophical liberalism—or are they too intertwined? What would the authentic participation the Church has endorsed, particularly in recent papacies, look like in the 21st century in a country like the United States or Hungary?

Democracy is difficult to reconcile with our faith only in political forms that eschew solidarity and the common good. The “trads” are right to notice this, but they err by adopting a top-down integralism as a remedy. Our mission in this world, as Christians, must always begin with preference for the “bottom,” not the top. Political authority should begin with those Christ in Matthew 25 calls “the least” among us. For this reason, it’s clear to me that only democracy conforms with the spirit of the Gospels.

Liberalism, by which I mean a polity organized around individual liberty and rights, is a much more complex topic for consideration vis-à-vis Catholic moral and social teachings. The liberal understanding of individual rights and liberties is utterly integral with many of history’s greatest achievements for the human spirit. I admire and endorse the work of historians and philosophers who have labored to highlight the origin in and continuing dependency of liberal political philosophy on Christian theology. I am also inspired by the philosophers who are rethinking liberalism in regard to responsibilities beyond the self that is being done in light of common good concerns such as climate change and social justice. All that said, while Christianity must always recognize that rights and liberty are critical components of a just political order, I have not in my own mind resolved how flexible the term “liberalism” can be. Not sure about the best label…. As Christians we must humble our “self.”


Will the Trump Era Lead to the Rise and Triumph of Illiberal Catholic Conservatism? Don’t Count On It

Over at First Things, a manifesto was recently published that proclaimed that the old “conservative consensus” was dead and that space has been created by Donald Trump’s victory for a better form of conservatism.  The authors of the manifesto are right about the demise of the old conservative consensus; there are many studies and public opinion polls that demonstrate that the political right in the United States now embraces many of the policy positions of President Donald Trump.  However, while they are right about this change in the values of this newly emerging conservatism in the United States they—surprisingly and rather disturbingly—appear to believe these changes may very well be positive!

On the matter of nationalism, the manifesto works hard to blend Trumpian ideals with the aims of a certain illiberal conservative Catholic political mindset. Ultimately, this approach is morally objectionable and stands in conflict with Catholic social teaching.  Meanwhile, their assumptions about Trump’s policies or the space he has created through his election are disconnected from reality. President Trump’s administration is not a true ally of Catholics—neither those with a reasonable understanding of Catholic social teaching nor even those trying to create a more reactionary alternative understanding.

In the manifesto, the signatories praise what they call the “new nationalism” that opposes “open borders.” They maintain that Americans ought to show allegiance and devotion to Americans above all others. There is a palpable anti-immigrant mentality behind these appeals and the simplistic dualities they set up. Their nationalistic desires have certainly been aided by the rise of Trump’s nationalism.

Of course, it flies in the face of the Church’s commitment to global and international solidarity and institutions. And it comes at a time when US Bishops from across the political spectrum have acted in unison against Trump’s xenophobic, grossly immoral immigration policies. The Trumpian pseudo-Catholic conservatism of these “new nationalists” (who do not signify any way they are different from the other ‘America First’ nationalists of today or last century) stands in opposition to the Christian call to universal brotherhood and sisterhood.  The social teachings of the Catholic Church teach us that governance, citizenship, and political life should always be directed toward the common good. We are obligated to put the common good above our selfish interests and stand with the most vulnerable in society because of our principle of solidarity.  As Catholics, we have an obligation towards the poor, the vulnerable, the disabled, and religious and ethnic minorities. And we have a responsibility to welcome the stranger, including vulnerable migrants who are fleeing abject poverty and violence.

Catholic social teaching emphasizes the importance of strong community. Solidarity is the name we give for what weaves us together in community.  This community, however, does not stop at the borders.  We are not defined by where we were born or where we live—the principle of solidarity transcends boundaries. As Saint Pope John Paul II wrote: “We are all one family in the world” (Sollicitudo rei socialis).  Pope Emeritus Benedict also argued that people must go beyond seeing people in other countries as mere neighbors—that we must be united in fraternity. This is not the globalism of elites on private jets but the globalism of a religion that is catholic (universal). And the Church’s teaching is not optional, something to grab or ignore in line at the cafeteria.

Yet the authors of the manifesto clearly reject the call to solidarity and concern for the global common good.  They embrace a worldview where only the people who live within our politically-drawn boundaries are part of our extended family.  They see the international community as dangerous to the American way of life. The pope speaks from the heart of the faith when he encourages us to build bridges instead of walls, but they want walls. The negative reference to multiculturalism may point to a Steve Bannon-style culture warrior stance of opposing “the other” because they might destroy the fabric of the American way of life.

Beyond this clear rejection of Catholic teaching, it is not clear why they think many of the other ideals they advocate can be better served in this new Trump Era than by past conservatives. Will President Trump’s administration produce a conservatism with a much greater commitment to defending human dignity? Do Trump’s policies really help American workers who have been neglected, helping to foster a conservatism focused on such folks?  They also desire a conservatism that challenges “the soulless society of individual affluence” and believe that:

Our society must not prioritize the needs of the childless, the healthy, and the intellectually competitive. Our policy must accommodate the messy demands of authentic human attachments: family, faith, and the political community. We welcome allies who oppose dehumanizing attempts at “liberation” such as pornography, “designer babies,” wombs for rent, and the severing of the link between sex and gender.

Does that sound like the conservatism arising from Trump’s victory? Trump is obsessed with money and power. He has mocked those with disabilities. He tried to strip tens of millions of Americans of their health insurance.

Is he strengthening our political community? He has downplayed Russia’s repeated attacks on American democracy and backed voter suppression efforts. Is he a friend of religion? The Trump administration is definitely no friend to religious freedom or diverse political communities.  As a candidate, and as President, he called for a Muslim Ban.  He raised the specter of a Muslim registry. He has proposed gross violations of religious liberty for religious minorities by using the power of the United States government to close down mosques and places of worship that he deems “un-American.”

How about opposing pornography and the culture that makes it so popular? I’m not sure how a man who is caught on tape admitting to sexual assault, who dehumanizes women by publicly rating them on a 1-10 hotness scale, and has had affairs with porn stars can be seen as an ally of people who want to eradicate pornography. They claim to “reject attempts to compromise on human dignity.” It is not clear how Trump’s presidency will help conservatism be more focused on promoting human dignity—assuming that one regards women as human beings with dignity.

Is Trump really turning away from investors and “job creators” and making it easier to create a conservatism that benefits workers? He has passed regressive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and the largest corporations, while undoing critical economic regulations and safeguards. These policies are designed to help those at the very top while abandoning normal American workers, the vulnerable, and the needy. His administration has done everything it could to empower corporate greed and exacerbate inequality.

Beyond this inability to explain how the Trump administration is creating space for the various principles they favor (besides their nationalism), an even greater failure may be their inability to recognize that the election of Donald Trump and his administration’s corruption and incompetence are a clear distress signal.  The election of President Trump should signal to all political observers that there is dysfunction at the heart of American politics. The American political system is spiraling downward not turning a corner.

The election of Donald Trump was an attempted firebombing of the American political system by those who felt that today’s diverse, multicultural, and globalized world is hostile to their preferred way of life—one tainted by sexism, racism, and xenophobia (not merely economic anxiety). This is not the time to rejoice at the possibilities of how conservative Catholics can use the Trumpian conservative movement to advance their causes; this is the time for deep introspection and self-examination. How might each of us have contributed to the election of an incompetent, immoral, egotistical political neophyte whose core supporters seem to nihilistically relish nothing more than “triggering the libs”? Before exploring a better way forward, these conservatives must realize the gravity of our current situation and how we got here. Otherwise, they may continue to entertain the delusion that the Trump Era is opening the door to a better conservatism.


Unchecked Boxes and Encountering God and Holiness in Lent

I was never really a big Lent guy.  Advent was more my season.  Who wouldn’t prefer a decorated Christmas tree to a stringy palm branch, or singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as the snow falls outside the church to signing “Dust and Ashes” on a cold and wet March Wednesday, or a crèche with angels, stars, and barnyard animals to the Stations of the Cross with Roman soldiers, thorny crowns, and lots of weeping people?  Waiting for Santa Claus or waiting for a giant bunny?  Yeah, Lent was just never really all that appealing to me.

And then there was this whole practice of giving something up.  No chocolate.  No TV.  No beer! (Not sure what I was thinking that year).  Meanwhile during Advent it’s all that and more—Christmas movies, Christmas cookies, and Christmas presents.

Who could possibly prefer Lent?

I do now.  But it took the worst time of my life to get there.

On March 3, 2015, my alarm went off twenty minutes before it normally would.  I poured a cup of tea, grabbed my Lent 2015 Prayer Book, and opened up to the daily readings.  Lent was now in its second week and the rituals were in full swing.  Twenty minutes of extra prayer in the morning, one or two daily masses during the week, and an extra stop at St. Anthony’s for confession.  Of course, no pepperoni on my Friday night pizza, and there was the fasting when required.  It was all set up for me to get to Easter, look back, and say, “Well another Lent in the books. I checked all the boxes, so time to indulge in chocolate, TV, and beer.”  But is that what Lent is all about—checking the boxes?  Trying to live this pristine life of following all the rules for the sake of following all the rules?

That afternoon my Dad called and told me it would be best if I came home.  Mom was in the emergency room.  For the next three days, I did not leave the hospital.  What we thought was an innocent fainting spell was actually terminal brain cancer.  Six months later, my Mom was gone.

The three days at the hospital all merged into one continuous, out-of-body experience—like those dreams where you are half-aware that you are dreaming, except I couldn’t trick my brain to change the sequence of events.  By day three, I was exhausted and grabbed some shut-eye on a bench in the ICU lobby.  I was still wearing the same clothes I put on for work that March 3rd morning when I opened the Lent 2015 Prayer Book.  I hadn’t read it in three days, I hadn’t gone to mass, and I had been eating the same assortment of pre-made deli meat sandwiches from the hospital cafeteria, even on Friday. I hadn’t even prayed.  So much for Lent.  All the boxes were left unchecked.

What came next was a feeling of utter desperation.  Not only was it Lent, but my family was in crisis.  Shouldn’t I be in prayer overload?  I felt completely overwhelmed spiritually.  I felt this need to go on a rosary binge to save my mom.  Here she was facing death and it was up to me to pray seventy times times seven.  I kept replaying Matthew in my head, “Ask and it will be given to you.”  I was faced with this monumental task—to pray my mom back to health.  How?  Ten Our Fathers every hour?  100 Hail Marys a day?  Shouldn’t I leave the hospital immediately and go sit in a church and light a million candles?

My thoughts were interrupted when my sister came out to the lobby.  It was my turn to go sit with Mom.

Fr. Michael Himes, a theology professor at Boston College, emphasizes the importance of remembering that we are made “like God,” but we are not God.  It is not up to us to decide life and death.  And that is not only ok, but dignified in God’s eyes.  God so loved the idea of being human that God became one.  In Himes’ opinion, there is no more radical ratification of the dignity of being human than the concept of the Incarnation. Himes calls our attention to the fact that “the Christian tradition does not say human beings are of such immense dignity that God really loves them.  It does not say that human beings are of such dignity that God has a magnificent destiny in store for them . . . No the Christian tradition says something far more radical: human beings are of such dignity that God has chosen to be one.”

Himes encourages us to keep going.  So what, God became human?  What does that mean?  It means that it is in the human life of Jesus, a human life marked by the pain and suffering of a crucifixion, where we learn who God really is.  He explains, “The Christian tradition claims that absolute agape (which is the least wrong way to think about the Mystery that we name God) is fully, perfectly expressed in human terms in the life, death, and destiny of one particular person, Jesus of Nazareth.”  Himes finishes the equation with this—if God is agape, and God became human in Jesus, then the life and death of Jesus teaches us who God is and how to experience God’s presence.

And that is what Lent is all about—experiencing God in newer and deeper ways than we have before.  How do we do it?  By being authentically human, even when that means confronting brokenness.

Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries, challenges us to re-envision how we encounter God:  “We tend to think the sacred has to look a certain way . . . cathedral spires, incense, jewel-encrusted chalices, angelic choirs.  When imagining the sacred, we think of church sanctuary rather than living room; chalice instead of cup; ordained male priest instead of, well, ourselves.  But lo—which is to say, look—right before your eyes, the holy is happening. . .”

I slumped into the metal chair next to my Mom’s hospital bed.  She was fast asleep, recovering from brain surgery, with a dozen tubes and wires connected to machines.  The room was peacefully quiet, filled only with the white noise of the ventilator humming in the background.  She looked so frail.

There was only one thing to do—I gently placed my hand over hers and squeezed softly.  It was that simple.  God did not want me sitting vigil somewhere in a church, fasting from meat, with a sack cloth of ashesGod wanted me HERE.  Right in that hospital chair.  Doing nothing more than holding my mother’s hand.  Because lo—right before my eyes the holy was happening.

It was not up to me to save her.  It was up to me to embrace her pain and suffering, embrace the limitations of humanness, and to say “I’m not here to cure, I’m here to hold it with you.”  It is in these moments when we find God and encounter the holy.  Because, as Boyle reminds us, “in Bethlehem, the words are printed in stone on the ground: ‘And the word became flesh . . . HERE.’”

In His final moments, Jesus embraced not only His own pain and suffering and limitations as a human, but embraced the pain and suffering of those around Him.  In one of His final lessons, Jesus reminded His disciples—and us—what was most important: finding God on the margins of human limitation by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and accompanying the sick.  Not only did Jesus preach it, but He lived it.  During His final meal, amongst the chaos and uncertainty, He knelt before His disciples and washed their feet.  The next day, in the midst of His own suffering, He offered His comfort to the prisoner crucified next to Him.

Lent is winding down. Holy Week is here.  Let us remember that to understand who God is, to find God, to encounter the holy, is to follow the life and death of Jesus—who took on humanity.  All of it.  Even its pain and suffering.  Let us focus on encountering God this Holy Week.

How?  Try finding God and holiness outside the church, don’t worry about that turkey sandwich you made for lunch on a Friday, and hold the hand of someone who needs you.  Maybe it’s taking a walk with your spouse after a tough day at work.  Maybe it’s buying a coffee for the man who sits outside your office wrapped in a blanket.  Maybe it’s stopping by your grandparents’ house just to say hi.  Maybe it’s picking up the phone and calling that friend who really needs that phone call.

Lent is not about trying to be perfect.  It’s not about checking the boxes.  It’s about being authentically human.  Don’t run away from the brokenness, the pain, and the imperfections, because in those moments we encounter God.  As the women along the climb to Calvary learned, when we wipe the face of those in need, those suffering, those in pain, we see the face of God.

And that is why I love Lent.  It’s the perfect time to be human…together.

Patrick Nevins, J.D. (a graduate of Boston College and Suffolk University Law School) works for the Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts and resides in Natick, MA with his wife Jennie.