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. 

 


Highlights from the First Half of Christus Vivit

Here are some highlights from the first half of Christus Vivit, Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation:

  • The very first words, then, that I would like to say to every young Christian are these: Christ is alive and he wants you to be alive! (1)
  • He is in you, he is with you and he never abandons you.  However far you may wander, he is always there, the Risen One.  He calls you and he waits for you to return to him and start over again.  When you feel you are growing old out of sorrow, resentment or fear, doubt or failure, he will always be there to restore your strength and your hope. (2)
  • Jesus, himself eternally young, wants to give us hearts that are ever young. God’s word asks us to “cast out the old leaven that you may be fresh dough” (1 Cor 5:7).  Saint Paul invites us to strip ourselves of the “old self” and to put on a “young” self (Col 3:9.10).[1] In explaining what it means to put on that youthfulness “which is being renewed” (v. 10), he mentions “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving each other if anyone has a complaint against another” (Col 3:12-13).  In a word, true youth means having a heart capable of loving, whereas everything that separates us from others makes the soul grow old.  And so he concludes: “above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14). (13)
  • Young people are not meant to become discouraged; they are meant to dream great things, to seek vast horizons, to aim higher, to take on the world, to accept challenges and to offer the best of themselves to the building of something better.  (15)
  • A wise young person is open to the future, yet still capable of learning something from the experience of others. (16)
  • We can, in fact, spend our youth being distracted, skimming the surface of life, half-asleep, incapable of cultivating meaningful relationships or experiencing the deeper things in life.   In this way, we can store up a paltry and unsubstantial future.  Or we can spend our youth aspiring to beautiful and great things, and thus store up a future full of life and interior richness. (19)
  • If you have lost your inner vitality, your dreams, your enthusiasm, your optimism and your generosity, Jesus stands before you as once he stood before the dead son of the widow, and with all the power of his resurrection he urges you: “Young man, I say to you, arise!” (Lk 7:14). (20)
  • Let us ask the Lord to free the Church from those who would make her grow old, encase her in the past, hold her back or keep her at a standstill.  But let us also ask him to free her from another temptation: that of thinking she is young because she accepts everything the world offers her, thinking that she is renewed because she sets her message aside and acts like everybody else.  No!  The Church is young when she is herself, when she receives ever anew the strength born of God’s word, the Eucharist, and the daily presence of Christ and the power of his Spirit in our lives.  The Church is young when she shows herself capable of constantly returning to her source. (35)
  • we must dare to be different, to point to ideals other than those of this world, testifying to the beauty of generosity, service, purity, perseverance, forgiveness, fidelity to our personal vocation, prayer, the pursuit of justice and the common good, love for the poor, and social friendship. (36)
  • Young people can help keep (the Church) young.  They can stop her from becoming corrupt; they can keep her moving forward, prevent her from being proud and sectarian, help her to be poorer and to bear better witness, to take the side of the poor and the outcast, to fight for justice and humbly to let herself be challenged. (37)
  • The Synod recognized that “a substantial number of young people, for all sorts of reasons, do not ask the Church for anything because they do not see her as significant for their lives.  Some even ask expressly to be left alone, as they find the presence of the Church a nuisance, even an irritant.  This request does not always stem from uncritical or impulsive contempt.  It can also have serious and understandable reasons: sexual and financial scandals; a clergy ill-prepared to engage effectively with the sensitivities of the young; lack of care in homily preparation and the presentation of the word of God; the passive role assigned to the young within the Christian community; the Church’s difficulty in explaining her doctrine and ethical positions to contemporary society”. (40)
  • A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum. (41)
  • a living Church can react by being attentive to the legitimate claims of those women who seek greater justice and equality.  A living Church can look back on history and acknowledge a fair share of male authoritarianism, domination, various forms of enslavement, abuse and sexist violence.  With this outlook, she can support the call to respect women’s rights, and offer convinced support for greater reciprocity between males and females, while not agreeing with everything some feminist groups propose.  Along these lines, the Synod sought to renew the Church’s commitment “against all discrimination and violence on sexual grounds”.[17] (42)
  • After this brief look at the word of God, we cannot just say that young people are the future of our world.  They are its present; even now, they are helping to enrich it. (64)
  • Anyone called to be a parent, pastor or guide to young people must have the farsightedness to appreciate the little flame that continues to burn, the fragile reed that is shaken but not broken (cf. Is 42:3).  The ability to discern pathways where others only see walls, to recognize potential where others see only peril.  That is how God the Father see things; he knows how to cherish and nurture the seeds of goodness sown in the hearts of the young. (67)
  • In some young people, we can see a desire for God, albeit still vague and far from knowledge of the God of revelation.  In others, we can glimpse an ideal of human fraternity, which is no small thing.  Many have a genuine desire to develop their talents in order to offer something to our world.  In some, we see a special artistic sensitivity, or a yearning for harmony with nature.  In others, perhaps, a great need to communicate.  In many of them, we encounter a deep desire to live life differently.  In all of this, we can find real starting points, inner resources open to a word of incentive, wisdom and encouragement. (84)
  • For many people, immersion in the virtual world has brought about a kind of “digital migration”, involving withdrawal from their families and their cultural and religious values, and entrance into a world of loneliness and of self-invention, with the result that they feel rootless even while remaining physically in one place.(90)
  • Don’t let them rob you of hope and joy, or drug you into becoming a slave to their interests.  Dare to be more, because who you are is more important than any possession.  What good are possessions or appearances?  You can become what God your Creator knows you are, if only you realize that you are called to something greater.  Ask the help of the Holy Spirit and confidently aim for the great goal of holiness.  In this way, you will not be a photocopy.  You will be fully yourself. (107)
  • you need to realize one basic truth: being young is not only about pursuing fleeting pleasures and superficial achievements.  If the years of your youth are to serve their purpose in life, they must be a time of generous commitment, whole-hearted dedication, and sacrifices that are difficult but ultimately fruitful. (108)
  • If you are young in years, but feel weak, weary or disillusioned, ask Jesus to renew you.  With him, hope never fails. You can do the same if you feel overwhelmed by vices, bad habits, selfishness or unhealthy pastimes.  Jesus, brimming with life, wants to help you make your youth worthwhile.  In this way, you will not deprive the world of the contribution that you alone can make, in all your uniqueness and originality. (109)
  • God loves you.  Never doubt this, whatever may happen to you in life.  At every moment, you are infinitely loved. (112)
  • For him, you have worth; you are not insignificant.  You are important to him, for you are the work of his hands.  That is why he is concerned about you and looks to you with affection….He does not keep track of your failings and he always helps you learn something even from your mistakes.  Because he loves you.  Try to keep still for a moment and let yourself feel his love.  Try to silence all the noise within, and rest for a second in his loving embrace. (115)
  • The one who fills us with his grace, the one who liberates us, transforms us, heals and consoles us is someone fully alive.  He is the Christ, risen from the dead, filled with supernatural life and energy, and robed in boundless light.  That is why Saint Paul could say: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile” (1 Cor 15:7).(124)
  • Alive, he can be present in your life at every moment, to fill it with light and to take away all sorrow and solitude.  Even if all others depart, he will remain, as he promised: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).  He fills your life with his unseen presence; wherever you go, he will be waiting there for you. (125)
  • He takes nothing away from you, but instead helps you to find all that you need, and in the best possible way.  Do you need love?  You will not find it in dissipation, using other people, or trying to be possessive or domineering.  You will find it in a way that will make you genuinely happy.  Are you seeking powerful emotions?  You will not experience them by accumulating material objects, spending money, chasing desperately after the things of this world.  They will come, and in a much more beautiful and meaningful way, if you let yourself be prompted by the Holy Spirit. (131)

We Can’t Let Outrage and Distrust Dominate Our National Discourse

Over the MLK holiday weekend, as I watched my Twitter feed slowly implode into a confused chaos of rage about yet another incident with a vague but obviously unpleasant narrative, I buckled up for another roller coaster surge of rage, confusion, refinement of rage, apologies, recasting of narratives, and the final digging in of heels into already confirmed worldviews.

As I navigated through waterfalls of tweeted ire, I found myself nodding my head with the professional empathy of my therapist. As I read varying convoluted takes with justifications and finger-pointing following the holiday weekend, I recognized myself in the tortured op-eds.

Our national discourse resembles the dialogues of my worst breakups.

I do not have extensive experience with the politics of the sovereign state, but, at the age of twenty-seven, I do have a healthy amount of experience with the politics of relationships: the platonic, familial, and romantic varieties. So let’s examine the state of our civic union.

Some breakups are triggered because of trauma: domestic violence, infidelity, a grave violation of the emotional or physical health of one of the members—breakups caused by an abuse of power—which reveals the relationship as inherently compromised and needing to be severed. The partners may indeed love each other and continue to see each other as good, but one or both of the parties have betrayed the truth of the relationship to the point that there is no other choice than to draw the curtain on that play.

These traumatic breaks are not the sort of breakups I have experienced. The breakups I am familiar with are the type that both originate and bear fruit in a distorted vision between the lover and beloved. These breakups are caused by a slow breakdown of trust: one party’s action—perhaps fearful, misguided, or thoughtless—is met with pain, judgment, anger, or perhaps a mirroring sense of self-preservation. Miscommunication occurs; plans misfire; misunderstandings compound upon one another. Offenses aggregate until the two persons in the relationship devolve into living in a truly partisan narrative—a she said/he said story where each person is living a radically different version of reality.

At this point, it is nearly impossible to regain a shared narrative. My communication with a partner at this point looks more like shouting at each other across a chasm than inviting each other into a shared reality. Any protest of the narratives we present to one another are simply transformed into further evidence for our own version of the events.

You say that I’m being possessive and needy—well, that’s exactly what an emotionally aloof control freak would say. 

You say I’m being an emotionally distant iceberg? Well you’re a neurotic, distrusting nag.

Once each of us has siloed the other into the role we have chosen for him or her—a role that may, indeed, be based on occasional or frequently-manifested qualities and personality traits—then we both can cement this relationship into a soothing narrative of self-delusion: you are categorically, pathologically wrong, and I am right.

We reframe each interaction between us in this selective new light, locating all the problems in our shared life within the other person, for him or her to fix:

You are only with me to assuage your insecurities.

You are a control freak who wants to micromanage my existence.

You are a person interested only in yourself and not truly in me.

Oh, we are now very far removed from the realm of actual, dynamic human relationship.

Instead of the dynamic relationship between two growing, living persons, we have calcified this relationship into an ideology—a rigid system of fantasy that absolves me of any need for conversion and locates within you a totalizing depravity. You must change; your ego, immaturity, and utterly absent self-awareness are the obstacles between us and happiness.

The question to be asked in the midst of both a relationship careening into a train wreck and in a society that is splitting itself in two with outrage is the same: how do we regain each other’s trust?

The distrust arises first and foremost out of fear: the fear that we, ourselves, are not good. The fear that we are not, pace Thomas Merton, shining like the sun. We are afraid that we will be found wanting, and that we, unlike our more successful and blessed compatriots in the human race, are doomed to failure, to disgrace—to being unloved.

So we take this fear and place it on someone else (passing off blame for biting the apple is the oldest trick in the book). You are the problem—I am not less than lovable, you are less-than-loving.

If there is anything harder than accepting, with full-throated faith, that we are good, it is accepting that we are good and still have much improvement left to do. It is much easier to settle for quick categorization and stereotypes that permit no change, conversion, or grace.

It is difficult to permit our fearful brains to cultivate this attitude towards ourselves: that we are shining like the sun and are called to grow brighter still.

Yes, I am a good writer, but I am not yet the best I can be.

Yes, I am kind, but I can still become less judgmental and abrasive.

Yes, I am lovable and I do love—but there is still plenty of fear in my heart which perfect love has not yet cast out.

It is hard enough to believe this of ourselves. It is mighty difficult to bring ourselves to believe this of others who have hurt us. And it is nearly impossible to cultivate this vision of ourselves and others when we are placed in the collision course of a breakup, when battle lines have been drawn, when we pit ourselves against one another and when we are sure that our victory, our claim to lovability, goodness, or righteousness can only be won by vanquishing the other, by proving them unworthy, disgusting, and unrighteous.

If you are not seeing your neighbor or your relationship through the lens of charity, said a wise priest once, then you are not seeing the truth. To see the truth takes trust.

It is easier to dismiss someone than to listen to them, for we may have to heed them. Their words may place a claim on us and call us to change. But if we read our Gospels, then we will discover that is exactly what discipleship is: the voice of a stranger addresses us while we tend our nets and says: you must change your life.

Perhaps a Native American elder, a teenage boy, or an ex-boyfriend are not Christ speaking to us.

Or perhaps they are.

Perhaps the Christ who “is lovely in eyes not his” can be found by listening to our neighbor with kind ears and approaching them with loving eyes.

For once we are in a true relationship, once we have accepted together that we are in a common project together, then we can begin to trust—to trust that this other person, underneath their own ideologies, also wants the good life—a polis of happiness and justice—and love.

I in no way make light of those differing visions of building life together in a just society, even as I know how fragile the task is of building a common life together in a relationship. But the core, essential glue of both is trust: faith that this person loves me and wants my happiness and flourishing. Only then we can listen to them—accept feedback, take seriously their counsel, disagree with them and offer our own clear-sighted critiques. Our communication can be truly constructive instead of a state of war.

We are not at peace with others, wrote Thomas Merton, because we are not at peace with ourselves. Those who are at peace with themselves, Merton continues, are only so because they are at peace with God. Because they know that, ultimately, they are loved in their imperfections, in their goodness-but-not-perfection. To be at peace with myself and with God means that I have begun the hard journey of responsibility: of accepting that I am good and have more goodness yet to become, of accepting that not only do I shine like the sun, but so does my neighbor.

Renée Darline Roden, a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s Master of Theological Studies program, is as an editor and playwright in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Howlround Theatre CommonsAmerica, and Dappled Things.


We Need a Whole Life Response to Extreme Access-to-Abortion Laws

My son Theodore was born when he was 36 weeks and 2 days old. Together, his body and mine decided that that was the time his life would transition from one lived inside the womb to one lived outside of it. His birth day was not the day that his life began, it was the day it changed from depending upon an umbilical cord for nutrition to depending on breasts, from being swaddled in amniotic fluid to being swaddled in arms, from sleeping on my bladder to sleeping on my chest. Many things changed the day Theo was born, the value of his life was not one of them.

I write today in response to the extreme access-to-abortion bills being passed, proposed, and considered in several states across the country. My current home state, Vermont, has proposed one of the most severe, calling for unrestricted abortion access for anyone at any time for any reason.

The emergence of these extreme access-to-abortion bills in several states during a time of intense polarization in our country presents a unique opportunity for those who value life at all stages—who often straddle political party lines—to unify. If the pro-life movement acts and reacts in meaningful and intentional ways at this particular moment in history, it has the potential to definitively gain momentum.

The proposed Vermont bill highlights and systematizes values (or the absence of values) in a way that has roused many dormant pro-lifers, and even thoughtful pro-choicers, to speak out against it.

I use the word “dormant” to describe those who, like myself, consider themselves decisively pro-life, but typically disagree with the narrow focus of much of the popular pro-life movement and therefore tend to stay on the sideline when it comes to publicly advocating against abortion. “Thoughtful pro-choicers” refers to those who, while holding positions (contrary to Church teaching) that allow for abortion to be considered in the early weeks of pregnancy or in regulated, informed, medical settings, feel that the proposed bill goes too far in its allowances.

Broadening the scope of the anti-abortion argument to embrace and promote a “whole life” perspective could be the most effective way to protect the specific life of the unborn child.

While often the whole life movement is found calling for those who value the lives of unborn babies to equally value the lives of immigrants, women, non-Christians, those with black and brown skin, prisoners, the ill, elderly, and disabled, among others, now is the time for us to vociferously persuade those who value the lives of many marginalized and vulnerable people that the unborn baby does, indeed, fall into that category. Comparatively, it seems to me that this should be a much easier task.

The pro-choice movement has successfully and effectively framed the abortion conversation as one of women’s rights, ignoring the life and vulnerability of the child. But in what other situation does pitting one group’s rights against another’s result in justice? Creating such stark divisions has often been used to preserve oppression, while justice has been achieved by greater solidarity among the vulnerable and a both/and approach.

Rather than argue for the rights of the women or the rights of their children, we must emphatically reframe the conversation as one of wholistic human rights. Let us not be tricked into the lie of binary thinking just because it is presented as progressive. There is nothing progressive about discounting the humanity of one group of people for the benefit of another. That is a practice that has been used for centuries to preserve the power of the elite.

Whole life proponents have argued that tying legal restrictions on abortion to support for parental leave and protections against pregnancy discrimination could attract a much wider base of support. Promoting and supporting legislation that both restricts abortion access and offers concrete alternatives helps change the question from “Who gets to flourish?” to “How can we ensure mutual flourishing?”

The original version of the Vermont bill stated that “a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus shall not have independent rights under Vermont law.” After a public hearing on the bill at the Vermont State House and a committee debate about “how far the bill should go in codifying the definition of personhood under Vermont law” the next morning, the House Committee removed this particularly troubling sentence from the bill before passing it out of committee. While changing nothing in practice, this small measure gives me hope that some of the testimonies delivered at the public hearing did reach the ears and hearts of our lawmakers.

The Vermont bill, as it currently stands, is still upsetting in that it allows for unrestricted abortion for anyone at any time for any reason. However, something stopped the representatives in that committee from definitively claiming that the baby in the womb was not a person. Maybe we can still convince them that it definitely is a person, and that person, like all others, has human rights.

These extreme access-to-abortion bills appearing across the country do not represent who we are as Americans seeking just and humane policies of inclusion that value women, families, the marginalized, and the vulnerable. We can, and must, do better.

Stephanie Clary serves as the Manager of Mission Outreach and Communication for the Diocese of Burlington and the Assistant Editor of Vermont Catholic.


In the Wake of Another Crisis, Remembering Who the Church is

“I love the Church.”

This is the answer I give when people ask me why I’m on my seventh year of school working on yet another theological degree, or when DC Uber drivers ask why I moved to the district.

I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school from kindergarten through eighth grade and Catholic universities from my undergraduate years to my current pursuit of a PhD in Catechetics. My mom brought me along to daily masses before I was old enough to go to school, and my grandmother taught me the Hail Mary and how to pray to my guardian angel. My favorite classes in elementary and middle school were always religion, and one of the best days of my life was when I stepped into St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time when I studied abroad in Rome during my sophomore year at the University of Dallas. Since my senior year of college, I have been involved in some form of lay ecclesial ministry, and I am preparing to continue catechetical ministry upon the completion of my degree in Catechetics. For most of my life, my love of the Church has remained untested. “Catholic” was the most important part of my identity and the way I’d immediately describe myself to anyone who asked.

Last summer, the sexual abuse crisis challenged this core component of my life and identity. I spent the summer interning at the Archdiocese of Washington, so when the news about Archbishop McCarrick began breaking, I felt like the crisis was unfolding immediately around me. When Cardinal Wuerl, someone who I had long admired for his contributions to the Church and the field of catechetics, started to come under fire for the way he handled reports of McCarrick’s behavior and abuse cases, I was geographically in the eye of the storm. One day soon after the news of the crisis had broken, I distinctly remember leaving my internship one day to see Cardinal Wuerl getting into a car in the parking lot at the archdiocesan pastoral center. At first, my immediate reaction was to be “star-struck” because of how much I admired him; but when I observed myself in this feeling and remembered what was going on in the Church around me, I felt betrayal and sadness—things I had never before felt about my own Catholic identity.

When the details of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report came to light later in the summer, I was shocked and in pain; the Church that had become the core part of my identity was being destroyed. While the events of the report happened years ago, it still angered me that they not only had taken place, but that this was also the Church I had inherited as a future catechetical leader and theologian. It was impossible not to question my own future as a theologian, member of the faithful, and lay ecclesial minister. As more and more reports, stories, and accounts surfaced, the things I loved about the Church were challenged. My anger and disgust only increased as the letter of Archbishop Vigano was released in August, due both to the thought of Pope Francis mishandling reports of abuse and the blatant attempt to use the crisis as an attack on Vigano’s ideological enemies. Not only were cardinals, bishops, and priests refusing to take responsibility for the pain they were continuing to cause, but many also tried to shift the blame onto marginalized Catholics and hijack any discussion of the crisis with their own agendas. My Church was self-destructing.

As the summer months ended, the local Church of Washington, DC was left trying to cope with the Vigano letter, credible accusations of sexual abuse by McCarrick, and the mishandling of cases by various clerics. Through the months of August to December, I attended panels and round-table discussions held by my university, and also spent time processing the events of the crisis with friends, colleagues in ministry, and professors. While it helped to acknowledge my own anger and know that I was not isolated in my emotions about the crisis, these conversations often made it harder for me to find any peace in the midst of the crisis. I heard others blame “the gays” for the crisis, priests who expressed confusion at the anger of the laity, and priests and laity accuse Satan of attacking the Church through the accounts of sexual abuse survivors. Frequently, I had conversations with people who tried to reassure me, by appealing to the embattled history of the Church, that the crisis would pass. Online processing of the crisis also increased my anger; entire organizations and websites declared war on their ideological enemies in the name of “saving the Church,” while bishops and priests continued to fan the flames by taking sides on the Vigano letter.

During this time, my love for the Church had morphed into anger and confusion. I wrestled with the idea that, as a future catechetical leader and theologian, my task would be to form individuals to be more engaged, more bound up with this deteriorating Church. At best, I would be responsible for finding ways to help heal a wounded Church for many years to come. But at worst, I might be involved in engaging others in a Church so systematically broken that my own future ministry might cause more pain. Struggling to hold the tension of my vocation to catechetics and my strained relationship with the Church, I reached out to a former colleague and mentor in ministry. In our conversation, she did not appeal to Church history or blame a certain “side” of the Church; rather, she challenged me to remember Who the Church is, rather than what the Church is.

In my own processing of the abuse crisis, many people have reminded me of this line in the Gospel of Matthew: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).  However, because of the conversation with my former mentor, my own healing and peace have started to come from Jesus’ question to Simon Peter and the disciples from the preceding few lines: “He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Jesus establishes the Church on the shoulders of Simon Peter after his recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. A question of who, rather than what.

As the stories and reports of the crisis continue to flood Catholic consciousness in the United States even today, I hold the tension of my love for the Church and my pain at her discord by rooting myself in Who the Church is: Jesus Christ. In order to remain, although with difficulty, faithful to the Church, I have to allow my love for her to be shaped by who rather than what. The Church is Jesus Christ, but it is also my grandmother who taught me my prayers, my parents who raised me in the faith, the Dominican sister who fostered my love for the Church in middle school, the wonderful pastor and lay women I worked alongside in a parish in graduate school, my friends and colleagues in ministry, the Jesuit and diocesan priests in my doctoral cohort, and the Carmelite community here in DC who have embraced me. Though the entire Church has been ravaged by individuals who have perpetuated a systematic problem of power in the sex abuse crisis, I return to my own experience of Who the Church is to gain strength and continue living out my own vocation.

Colleen Campbell holds a BA in Pastoral Ministry from the University of Dallas, an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame, and is currently a second year PhD student studying Catechetics at the Catholic University of America.