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

Photo by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Immigration System Continually Violates the Rights of Children. Do We Still Care?

This has been quite a year. A pandemic, raw racial tensions, contentious elections, and the responsibility of homeschooling kids while maintaining careers are among the widespread issues that have exhausted the emotional reserves of many of us. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of newsworthy events occurring daily—and easy to tune out and save energy for more intimate matters (at least for those of us who have the privilege of making that distinction).

And yet—the New York Times recently brought to light some of the darker aspects of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy of 2018, including direct orders from the Department of Justice to “take away children, no matter how young,” and an intransigent determination to criminally (rather than civilly) prosecute all who cross the border without documentation. This applied even to people exercising their right to seek asylum. Though we knew the policy was horrific—“cruelty in the highest form,” according to Pope Francis; rising “to the level of torture,” as concluded by Physicians for Human Rights—these new details demonstrate the intentionality of our government in inflicting this damage. And more than 500 children who were taken from their parents in 2018 still have not been reunited with their families.

This is not just a consequence of former actions, however: it is still happening. It might have gone unnoticed this summer, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has revamped its family separation policy.

In June, a federal judge ordered that all children held in family detention must be released after twenty days because of the threat of Covid-19. The rate of infection for those in ICE custody is nearly three times that of the general U.S. population, due largely to the impossibility of maintaining social distance and the lack of proper sanitation and hygiene supplies in detention facilities. Judge Gee is correct: detention centers are unsafe, and children should not be there.

Then again, neither should their parents. Unfortunately, the order had no jurisdiction over the release of adult prisoners. Though ICE has the discretion to release all family members into alternative methods to detention, parents have been forced to make an impossible choice between signing a waiver to keep their children with them, and relinquishing custody of their children for the duration of their detainment.

Inflicting this cruelty is unnecessary and unconscionable, clearly violating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which maintains that “in all actions concerning children … the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

During this year of crisis, the love of my family is what has sustained me. Now, purportedly in the name of my safety and well-being, our national policies are imposing unimaginable heartbreak upon mothers just like me—families just like mine—compounding the acute stress of the pandemic and the trauma of the dangers that motivated their migration in the first place.

I cannot tune this out.

So, what can I do to be in solidarity with these migrant families? And where can I find the moral energy to do it?

Solidarity is one of the pillars of Catholic social thought (CST), tied closely to the principle of human dignity. Pope Saint John Paul II tells us that solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others. It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.” The common good is based on “the dignity, unity and equality of all people” and is defined as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”

To be in solidarity with migrant families, then, it is important to continue to advocate for policies that create conditions for their fulfillment, such as community-based alternatives to detention; protections against family separation and the detention of children; fair hearings and an expanded definition of asylum; increased oversight of ICE and Border Patrol; and the revocation of 287(G), the policy that reinforces the pipeline between local police and ICE detention and deportation. Voting for leaders who will work to reform the immigration system in just ways will be critical. On a more personal level, one of the most effective acts of solidarity is to assist in meeting the needs of established community-based immigrant justice organizations. Further, detained families need American citizens to serve as sponsors, and they often need shelter or transportation upon their release from detention. When migrant children are separated from their parents, American foster parents can offer shelter and support. Even visiting detention centers or writing letters to the people detained can be a welcome source of encouragement.

The thing about solidarity, though, is that solidarity is not just about promoting the dignity of others—it goes much deeper: our own dignity is bound up in how we treat others; our flourishing tied to the flourishing of our neighbors. As Pope Francis reminds us in Fratelli Tutti, “We cannot be indifferent to suffering; we cannot allow anyone to go through life as an outcast. Instead, we should feel indignant, challenged to emerge from our comfortable isolation and to be changed by our contact with human suffering. That is the meaning of dignity.” Unless we stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed, we do not stand in the fullness of our dignity.

Here, I think, is where we find the strength to work for justice. Our lives cannot be full while others are oppressed in our names, and finding ways—however small—to be in solidarity with our neighbors is a critical piece of our flourishing. This should be a continuous movement, not relegated to brief periods of intense outrage: a steady commitment should characterize our solidarity, for the good of those for whom we seek justice and our own emotional wellbeing. To repurpose the well-known paraphrase of Aristotle: [solidarity] is not an act, but a habit.

When we do begin to feel overwhelmed, like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, we should remember that it is Christ—not us—who bears the weight of the world’s injustice. Like Simon of Cyrene, we are called to help Jesus carry his cross, but we are not to take it from him—it is still his to bear. If we remember this, walking in “meekness and [humbleness] of heart” (Matthew 11), then the burden of solidarity will be light, the yoke easy: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength” (Isaiah 40). And though we must help carry the cross, the weight of the world does not fall on our shoulders: Jesus bore all of it already, and he carries it—and all of us—still.

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

When Voting, Issues Matter But Protecting American Democracy is Essential

When surveying the various Catholic arguments over which presidential candidate deserves the support of American Catholics, a revealing pattern quickly emerges. Catholics write compellingly about the immorality of abortion, racism, family separation at the border, the use of force on peaceful protestors, and the death penalty. Many Catholics clearly understand ourselves within a moral universe, one in which God calls us to live in accordance with His Love and Truth; and consequently, our arguments for Trump or Biden invariably draw on moral frameworks and terminology.

We ask questions like, “Does a vote for Biden constitute immediate, mediate, or proximate support of the material evil of abortion?” and “Does a vote for Trump make me complicit in the federal executions carried out on his watch or in systemic racism?”

A prudent Catholic voter not only can but should ask these questions, and American Catholic scholars and intellectuals have provided helpful resources to navigate the nuanced complexities that such questions warrant. Still, intent–the central axis around which Catholic moral reasoning spins–leaves too much room for motivated reasoning to twist and turn us back to our partisan loyalties when it comes to prudential moral judgments.

For instance, we all know the devout Catholic baby boomer who started off energetically supporting Trump, halfheartedly weighed serious critiques of Trump, and ended up…energetically supporting Trump(!) while minimizing all his morally objectionable policies and rhetoric on racism, children at the border, Covid-19 disinformation, geopolitical adversaries, the environment, the death penalty, refugees, and more.

On the other hand, we all know the Jesuit-educated millennial progressive who enthusiastically embraced Biden after Buttigieg, Harris, and Bernie lost out in the primaries, halfheartedly weighed serious critiques of Biden, and ended up…energetically supporting Biden(!) while minimizing all his morally objectionable policy positions and rhetoric around abortion, religious liberty and rights of conscience, and other social issues.

Overcoming our motivated reasoning by persistently seeking out high-quality opposing viewpoints—a practice I’ve termed “Agere Contra Political Formation”—would help us better weigh competing policies, but it would still be insufficient for our moral responsibility as citizens. That’s because policy debates exist atop another, more foundational concern, one that Catholic moral theology seems ill-equipped to address: the constitutional order and the institutions that sustain it.

With a moral vocabulary so narrowly focused on individual actions and so contingent upon an individual’s intent, Catholics in the public sphere seem unable to grapple with our moral duty to uphold the constitutional order as a good on which all other policies exist. By arguing over whether to prioritize anti-abortion or anti-racism activism, religious liberty or healthcare, we miss the tectonic fractures that threaten the constitutional order undergirding those debates. We need to return to the basics of democratic civics.

Our constitutional system is not a historical inevitability. It is sustained by people with the will to sustain it. This is accomplished by the legitimacy of our elections, the transparency of our leaders, the reliability of our governmental institutions, and the health of our media ecosystem. These foundational goods of our constitutional order are not issues that inflame hearts or provoke probing Catholic moral reasoning, but they should be. They are necessary for human flourishing in America, and today we find them under assault.

With a sitting president falsely and without evidence claiming this election will be the “most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” incentivizing voter intimidation by calling on supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” and telling violent extremists  to “stand back and stand by,” American Catholic thought leaders should be focusing on foundational civic practices as the moral means by which politicians pursue moral ends. Instead they bicker endlessly over how elastic the term “pro-life” is.

With a sitting president who deployed troops to disperse peaceful protestors so that he could use the Bible as a political prop, American Catholic thought leaders should be illuminating the nature of authoritarianism and its incompatibility with a Catholic approach to politics.

With a sitting president elevating fringe Catholic YouTube pharisees to his Catholic Advisory Panel in order to sustain the GOP’s hold on conservative Catholics, American Catholic thought leaders should be educating us on the scandalous history of Catholics, including those in the hierarchy, who have been complicit in authoritarian power grabs.

All three of these are examples of what scholars call “democratic backsliding,” a corrosive phenomenon that is typically seen in unstable democracies led by authoritarian strongmen.

No presidential election in recent history demanded a similar level of attention to such elemental aspects of America’s constitutional order. Bush, Gore, Kerry, Obama, McCain, Romney, and Clinton did not threaten the constitutional order in the way Trump does. For all their faults, they all pledged to accept election results, and the incumbents among them committed to the peaceful transition of power.

In the years to come, American Catholic thought leaders would be wise to reassess the frameworks on which they rely to form Faithful Citizens. If Catholics fail to see healthy democratic civics as the moral means by which we pursue moral ends in politics, it just may be that the American Catholic Church’s attempts to “form consciences for faithful citizenship” are little more than exculpatory exercises for unwitting agents of democratic backsliding.

Michael Jezewak runs “The Catholic Lens,” a nonpartisan weekly newsletter on American politics. You are invited to sign up here

Pope Francis on Universal Fraternity and Social Friendship: We Are Either All Saved Together or No One is Saved

Photo by Vika Chartier on Unsplash

Highlights from Pope Francis in chapter 4 of Fratelli Tutti:

  • Ideally, unnecessary migration ought to be avoided; this entails creating in countries of origin the conditions needed for a dignified life and integral development. Yet until substantial progress is made in achieving this goal, we are obliged to respect the right of all individuals to find a place that meets their basic needs and those of their families, and where they can find personal fulfilment. Our response to the arrival of migrating persons can be summarized by four words: welcome, protect, promote and integrate. (129)
  • This implies taking certain indispensable steps, especially in response to those who are fleeing grave humanitarian crises. As examples, we may cite: increasing and simplifying the granting of visas; adopting programmes of individual and community sponsorship; opening humanitarian corridors for the most vulnerable refugees; providing suitable and dignified housing; guaranteeing personal security and access to basic services; ensuring adequate consular assistance and the right to retain personal identity documents; equitable access to the justice system; the possibility of opening bank accounts and the guarantee of the minimum needed to survive; freedom of movement and the possibility of employment; protecting minors and ensuring their regular access to education; providing for programmes of temporary guardianship or shelter; guaranteeing religious freedom; promoting integration into society; supporting the reuniting of families; and preparing local communities for the process of integration. (130)
  • We need to develop the awareness that nowadays we are either all saved together or no one is saved. Poverty, decadence and suffering in one part of the earth are a silent breeding ground for problems that will end up affecting the entire planet. If we are troubled by the extinction of certain species, we should be all the more troubled that in some parts of our world individuals or peoples are prevented from developing their potential and beauty by poverty or other structural limitations. In the end, this will impoverish us all. (137)
  • We need to attain a global juridical, political and economic order “which can increase and give direction to international cooperation for the development of all peoples in solidarity”. Ultimately, this will benefit the entire world, since “development aid for poor countries” implies “creating wealth for all”. From the standpoint of integral development, this presupposes “giving poorer nations an effective voice in shared decision-making” and the capacity to “facilitate access to the international market on the part of countries suffering from poverty and underdevelopment”. (138)
  • The true worth of the different countries of our world is measured by their ability to think not simply as a country but also as part of the larger human family….Narrow forms of nationalism are an extreme expression of an inability to grasp the meaning of this gratuitousness. They err in thinking that they can develop on their own, heedless of the ruin of others, that by closing their doors to others they will be better protected. (141)
  • Universal fraternity and social friendship are thus two inseparable and equally vital poles in every society. To separate them would be to disfigure each and to create a dangerous polarization. (142)
  • Just as there can be no dialogue with “others” without a sense of our own identity, so there can be no openness between peoples except on the basis of love for one’s own land, one’s own people, one’s own cultural roots. I cannot truly encounter another unless I stand on firm foundations, for it is on the basis of these that I can accept the gift the other brings and in turn offer an authentic gift of my own. I can welcome others who are different, and value the unique contribution they have to make, only if I am firmly rooted in my own people and culture. (143)
  • There is a kind of “local” narcissism unrelated to a healthy love of one’s own people and culture. It is born of a certain insecurity and fear of the other that leads to rejection and the desire to erect walls for self-defence. Yet it is impossible to be “local” in a healthy way without being sincerely open to the universal, without feeling challenged by what is happening in other places, without openness to enrichment by other cultures, and without solidarity and concern for the tragedies affecting other peoples. A “local narcissism” instead frets over a limited number of ideas, customs and forms of security; incapable of admiring the vast potential and beauty offered by the larger world, it lacks an authentic and generous spirit of solidarity. (146)
  • Other cultures are not “enemies” from which we need to protect ourselves, but differing reflections of the inexhaustible richness of human life. Seeing ourselves from the perspective of another, of one who is different, we can better recognize our own unique features and those of our culture: its richness, its possibilities and its limitations. (147)

Fratelli Tutti: A Call To Love and Accept All

In his newest encyclical, Pope Francis calls on Catholics and people of good will to “dream together” (no. 8) as members of a “single family dwelling in a common home” (no. 17) in order to build a “community of belonging and solidarity” (no. 36). Fratelli Tutti reinforces themes Francis has stressed throughout his pontificate: the primacy of mercy, the need for solidarity, and the earnestness of living with hope. This encyclical reads like a summary and synthesis of what Francis has been trying to express over the last seven-and-a-half years, like a love letter from a loving parent and pastor who is distressed by the wounds he sees—and feels—in the global community.

If Fratelli Tutti repeats so many familiar concerns and commitments, what does it add to the canon of papal teaching and Catholic social thought?

First, it continues to stress the urgency of solidarity in a time of rising distrust and division. In church teaching, the focus on the dual command to love God and neighbor has been expressed mostly by charity, or self-giving love. While this has prioritized generosity and selflessness, it has eclipsed emphasis on confronting unjust inequalities by striving for structural justice in social, economic, political, and ecological arenas. Rather than repeat what has been said by previous pontiffs about the complementary nature between charity and justice (see Deus Caritas Est, nos. 26-29, and Caritas In Veritate, nos. 6-7, for example), Francis concentrates on solidarity as a virtue and moral principle rooted in dignity, freedom, and creating the conditions for all to flourish (nos. 114-117). (As an aside, it’s problematic that the word for love in Latin, caritas, is most often translated as ‘charity’ because in English this word often connotes pity, unilateral aid, or making a financial donation; Francis highlights solidarity as inclusive belonging produced through closeness (no. 30) that opens pathways for encounters marked by mutual respect, concern, and responsibility.)

Francis’ appeal to solidarity urges us to believe in our inherent goodness and in our shared belonging. When solidarity is defined in CST, it is usually in reference to Pope John Paul II’s line in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (no. 38). But aside from this commitment to the common good (it seems strange to explain one tenet of Catholic social teaching with another), solidarity is usually invoked to describe a posture of “social charity” or friendship. But what is lost in the typical definition of solidarity as “social charity” is the stress on inclusive fidelity and interdependence that spans the personal, interpersonal, and institutional levels of human community. Francis reaffirms a vision of solidarity as universal love expressed through communion; it is the habit of loving God by loving our neighbors both near and far. Solidarity also demands that we combat the beliefs and practices that degrade, exclude, or oppress any member of God’s family.

Second, Fratelli Tutti elaborates Pope Francis’ vision for building the “culture of encounter” that he’s championed over the last few years. This call to encounter others across difference provides a framework for putting into practice the principles of Catholic social teaching. He repeats his critique of “globalized indifference” (no. 30) and “throwaway culture” (no. 188) that trains us to look away from others in need (no. 64). Referencing the COVID-19 pandemic, Francis insists, “no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together” (no. 32, 54, 137). Death, poverty, and violence inflict suffering on so many, a heavy burden on God and God’s creation. But the answer lies not in condemnation, coercion, or collectivism; instead, Francis encourages us to celebrate the many gifts of life manifest in the richness and beauty of diverse perspectives and experiences. He invokes the Spanish term mestizaje (“mixing”) to embrace our roots while also committing ourselves to dialogue in the spirit of openness to others, to be enriched by blending together “a new synthesis that is ultimately beneficial to all” (no. 148).

Returning to a familiar story, he dedicates the second chapter of the encyclical to the parable of the Good Samaritan, reflecting that “All of us have in ourselves something of the wounded man, something of the robber, something of the passers-by, and something of the Good Samaritan” (no. 69). Through his extended exegesis of this passage, Pope Francis insists,

In the face of so much pain and suffering, our only course is to imitate the Good Samaritan. Any other decision would make us either one of the robbers or one of those who walked by without showing compassion for the sufferings of the man on the roadside. The parable shows us how a community can be rebuilt by men and women who identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbors, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good (67).

Every encounter is a choice: to hide or reveal our true self, to engage or ignore the other. Francis’ vision for the “culture of encounter” is one that realizes the vision of Catholic social teaching rooted in universal inherent dignity, rights and responsibilities, participation in social, economic, and political arenas, and harnessing solidarity and sustainability for the global common good. He urges us to start afresh each day, “from below and case by case, act at the most concrete and local levels and then expand to the farthest reaches of our countries and our world, with the same care and concern that the Samaritan showed for each of the wounded man’s injuries” (no. 78). At the same time, elected officials and other leaders need to build a “new network of international relations” to combat “inequality and lack of integral human development [which] make peace impossible” (nos. 126, 235). In the face of so many reasons to be cynical or fatalistic, Fratelli Tutti is an appeal to exercise fortitude, tenderness, and generosity in the choices we make, the relationships we nurture, the places we inhabit, and the politics we pursue (no. 194). It invites us to live with open hearts by appropriating hospitality to extend God’s delight for everyone to everyone.

Third, Fratelli Tutti weaves together key tasks of discipleship that are often divided into various specialties or disciplines. This is a document that seeks to integrate wisdom, inspire courage, and pursue collaboration. Much like Laudato Si’, this encyclical envisions a global common good that connects economic policies with environmental impact and sustainability (nos. 29, 122, 125). It shines a light on many examples of abuse and trauma, ranging from human trafficking and sexual exploitation to terrorism and organized crime (no. 188), focusing especially on the injustice of war (nos. 256-262) and the need to resist violence (no. 270) as artisans of peace (no. 284), but regretfully without exploring what practicing nonviolence can make possible on the individual and collective levels. It incorporates the revised teaching in the Catechism that condemns the death penalty as “inadmissible” and reinforces the church’s call for its worldwide abolition (nos. 263-269). By dedicating the eighth chapter to interreligious dialogue and friendship—citing his collaboration with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb—Francis appeals to his reader to join in preventing cycles of judgment, misunderstanding, resentment, conflict, and violence. (However, this was a missed opportunity to explicitly endorse interfaith solidarity with followers of Islam and Judaism, especially given the rise of Islamophobia and Antisemitism.) It provides the fullest treatment of the perils of discipleship in a digital age as source of deception, manipulation, and loss of privacy and source of addiction and isolation (nos. 42-43) as well as the dangers for how it can be used to “exploit our weaknesses and bring out the worst in people” (no. 205). It’s too bad that more attention wasn’t given to the ways these digital tools and networks can be sources of support, empowerment, and accountability.

Fratelli Tutti offers a clear-eyed look at obstacles to solidarity rooted in “reductive anthropological visions” (no. 22) expressed by racism (no. 20), exclusion, mistreatment, and violence against women (no. 23), xenophobia (no. 39), and “narrow and violent nationalism” (no. 86). Francis laments the “insecurity and fear” (no. 146) as well as the “anxiety that prevents us from thinking of others” (no. 224). He also dedicates several paragraphs to problematic social, political, and economic trends—like populism and liberalism—that keep us from directing our vision toward a “universal horizon” (no. 146-150). Instead, Francis encourages us to adopt beliefs and policies rooted in humility and openness, a desire to listen and learn from the other, and embrace our shared source and destiny in God as motivation for “loving and accepting all our brothers and sisters” (no. 86). If we dare to dream together of such a world, then we should refuse to settle for anything less than what God makes possible through us as siblings who belong to each other.

This is a rich and moving document. But it is not perfect. Invoking the image of family gives rise to recognizing one another as siblings in God’s family, but does not adequately address the ways that power can be asymmetrical and sometimes abusive within and between families. Paternalism, patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny all go unmentioned in this encyclical, just like clericalism, which is yet another obstacle to solidarity, since exclusion can undermine full dignity and equal agency. It is unfortunate that Fratelli Tutti relies on the gendered term “fraternity” to communicate both inclusion and intimacy. For example, early in the document, Pope Francis urges us to cultivate a sense of “brotherhood between all men and women” (no. 8). Gendered terms like “fraternity,” “fraternal love,” and “fellowship” detract from acknowledging, welcoming, and affirming everyone in their unique identity and equal dignity. This reminds us that while the church has much to teach us, we still have more to learn about what universal love and solidarity require of us.

Reopening Schools is Immoral and Undermines Educational Values

I have spent most of my life in school. From preschool, elementary, middle, high school, and college to high school once again (this time as a teacher) to full-time graduate school where I now live in a first-year residence, nearly every waking year of my life has been spent in a school building. Despite my comfort and familiarity with being in school, I believe returning to in-person learning at this time is immoral.

In March, when schools closed, there were only a few thousand reported cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States. Now, months later, just as some schools have begun welcoming students back into their buildings, the United States still reports over 50,000 new cases on some days. If it was not safe with a few thousand total cases, how is it safe with a few million total cases?

In the past few months, we have seen how quickly COVID-19 can spread, especially in places like nursing homes and prisons, where people live in close quarters and frequently congregate for meals and social gatherings. Living on a college campus is not much different in this sense. Students live in small shared rooms, share common restrooms and showers, have limited and crowded dining facilities, and attend regular gatherings (classes, clubs, bars, parties, etc.). If the virus can spread quickly in nursing homes and prisons where mobility and activities are limited, imagine how quickly the virus might spread where people are less restricted in their actions and encountering more people in outside communities.

I understand the desire to return to school. The transition to online education is a difficult one, and it is not comparable to in-person learning. Yet, online school is working, it is effective, and people are adapting. (See: Sharon Jeffcoat Bartley, and Jennifer H. Golek. “Evaluating the Cost Effectiveness of Online and Face-to-Face Instruction.” Journal of Educational Technology & Society 7, no. 4 (2004): 167-75. and Ni, Anna Ya. “Comparing the Effectiveness of Classroom and Online Learning: Teaching Research Methods.” Journal of Public Affairs Education 19, no. 2 (2013): 199-215.

Schools are much more than learning institutions. Schools are capable of teaching civility; instilling values; establishing community bonds and fostering friendships; and providing a safe environment for those who might not always have one. The value that schools provide would be hard to overstate.  Schools must continue to be mission-driven institutions that create welcoming environments for all people to grow, develop lasting relationships, and have a passion for learning.

By opening schools during a global pandemic, institutions are unraveling the fabric of schools. It is clear that some figures in our society, including those who run schools, are placing profits over people. By opening schools in areas where there is a clear risk to public health, institutions are contradicting their own values. By opening schools, institutions are creating unsafe working, learning, and living conditions. By opening schools, institutions are undermining their mission-driven charisms. And this includes Catholic schools.

Institutions of learning that pride themselves on “caring for the whole person” are failing to consider the safety of the whole person over the safety of their endowments. Institutions that believe in an option for the poor and vulnerable are jeopardizing the lives of the vulnerable in their communities.

For institutions that pride themselves on the quality of their liberal arts education, what philosophical or ethical system is being used to determine the decision to reopen? The greatest good for the greatest number of people? Nope, not utilitarian ethics. Is there a categorical imperative for reopening everything? Nope, not deontological ethics. If these schools cannot justify the greatest good, nor recognize a categorical imperative, how can they justify reopening schools?

For institutions that pride themselves on “community first,” what does one say when their school opens before others in the area, jeopardizing members of the school community and the local community?

For Catholic institutions that pride themselves on human dignity and respect for life, how does risking the health and safety of the students, faculty, and staff align with their understanding of Catholic Social Teaching?

As both a teacher and student, the idea of returning to on-campus learning is, in short, terrifying. For far too long, education has been placed on the national backburner. For far too long, schools have received limited resources: education budgets have been cut for other projects, teachers have worked exceptionally long hours with little compensation, and students have paid exorbitant tuition costs that never seem to stop rising. To expect students and teachers to be guinea pigs in uncharted and unsafe territory is reckless, craven, and asinine. And it shows a lack of respect for the dignity and worth of the human beings who are likely to suffer as a result.

Other options exist that do not involve bringing the entire student body to campus. Those options require creative and potentially uncomfortable solutions. However, by welcoming back the entire student body to campuses mid-pandemic, schools are clearly revealing that the only solutions they are willing to find are those that immorally put profits above people.

Bobby Nichols is a former high school theology teacher and campus minister from Louisville, Kentucky, currently pursuing a full-time Masters of Ministry and Theology from Villanova University. 

Even During a Pandemic, We Can Serve Others in Our Communities

When the threat of COVID is behind us and we’re allowed to meet new people again, I know one of the first topics of conversations will be: “What happened to you during the pandemic?”  So far, I have heard a range of life experiences, from the challenging to the traumatic, everything from getting laid off from work to having a loved one die from the virus.  No one has escaped the impacts of this pandemic.  It has been a solidarity-building experience for people everywhere, while also challenging our faith in ourselves and the direction to which God leads us. It has illuminated the greater need for collective responses to threats that transcend any divisions in our society. It has also called us all to service.

As a city councilmember of Burien, WA, about 15 minutes south of Seattle, I have seen how the public health crisis has directly impacted our local government and social service network.  Within the city government, we have lost out on expected annual revenue due to the decrease in economic activity, we have had to lay off employees, and we worry that the federal government will not supply us with the additional monies needed to fill the gap.  Additionally, the social service networks that provide the majority of the community work within localities have a shortage of volunteers and donations. Usually, the majority of volunteers for these kinds of programs (like St. Vincent de Paul or Salvation Army) are of the vulnerable age for exposure to the virus. No one was prepared for this kind of impact.

Marginalized communities are being hit the hardest, having trouble paying rent, not knowing where their next bag of groceries will come from, and worrying about getting COVID while at work.  According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 11.1% of the American population was food insecure prior to COVID, which is close to 38 million people.  Feeding America projects that the number could rise to 54 million, or 1 in 6 Americans, by the end of 2020.  We know these problems will continue throughout the period of the pandemic.

I struggled at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, feeling powerless to make change in my community at a time when I knew people needed support the most. How are Catholics able to serve the margins during a pandemic? Where can Catholics find outlets to support and encounter neighbors in need? Scripture calls us to provide this support and encounter in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” As Catholics, as millennials, and as community-minded individuals, it is our Christ-inspired duty to serve.  I grow more and more irritable with every news story of millennials seeking the beach or going to parties instead of working toward eradicating the social and economic inequalities exacerbated by COVID.

My personal saving grace from the feeling of powerlessness came in the form of a volunteer opportunity through AmeriCorps VISTA, delivering meals to families and youth who are food insecure. Every day, I took meals directly to the door of families so that their kids could eat breakfast and lunch and so they had access to fresh groceries.  Every delivery I made, I knew I was working to feed the hungry who are made in the image and likeness of God.  Whenever there were days where I didn’t want to leave the house, it didn’t matter.  Someone else’s hunger outweighed my disinterest in leaving my own comfort. As a Catholic called intto the service of my community, there is never an excuse to not help others who are less fortunate.

Catholic Social Teaching is not only a driving force for me as an elected official, but it challenges me to serve others in every element of my life.  It calls us to live out our values in the world, on the streets, in the lives of others; to live in radical solidarity with them.  You can’t live in solidarity with others if you’re choosing to not wear masks and ignoring social distancing guidelines. You can’t respect life and creation if you don’t work to ensure its protection.  And you can’t heed the call to service if you don’t listen to what God is asking you to do through prayer and reflection.  This service during COVID can renew a relationship with God through the charitable fruit of the Holy Spirit.  That spiritual connection creates a sense of purpose for us in our community, making new connections with those less fortunate.

Responding to the impacts of COVID reminded me of Christ’s goodness by working alongside partners at public housing authorities and nonprofits serving communities, but more importantly, through the people I served.  I struggled with the feeling of being unhelpful, locked in my apartment for months.  But through this response experience, I’m encouraging you to take actions that further your faith in Christ, further your faith in your community, and reestablish a hope in humanity—that we will get through this if we all act collectively with charity to be kind, overflowing with love to support our  neighbors.  At a time when many of us feel isolated and powerless, we should navigate our way through this imperfect time with the God-given abilities we have to make a difference.

Kevin Schilling is a millennial city councilmember of Burien, WA.