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

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

Why did you create Where Peter Is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping Catholics Lead the Way on Hunger: An Interview with Sean Callahan of Catholic Relief Services

Sean Callahan, holds 11 month old Siad from Syria, as he and his family cross the border from Serbia into Croatia during the European migrant crisis of 2015.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Andrew McConnell for Catholic Relief Services

Sean Callahan is the President & CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. Millennial editor Robert Christian recently interviewed him on his background, CRS, and the impact of the novel coronavirus on their work:

Could you talk a little about your background—growing up, your career, etc—and how you have ended up doing the type of work you do today?

My Aunt and Uncle were both Maryknoll Missionaries; so I grew up hearing about their Gospel work and adventures in the Philippines, Tanzania, Bolivia, Mexico, and Formosa (now Taiwan).  It also meant that missionaries would regularly drop by our home in Massachusetts for late night slideshows of their work in isolated locations.  I was always impressed by the selflessness of these missionaries and their zeal for working to “right” injustices.

I grew up in a family of six children, and my mom and dad were both health professionals.  We always had room for another plate at our table, and we loved people to stay over at our home. My parents were both hard workers, and they instilled that “rigor” in all of us.

During college I did fundraising one summer for cancer research and treatment in children, and I was incredibly impressed by the children I met and how they protected their parents from their suffering.  It was amazing to see the sensitivity and courage of these young children.

When I was finishing my graduate work in 1988, I met a gentleman who worked for CRS who asked me if I was “ready” to give “something back”.  I decided that I did need to “give something back”: so I accepted a one year internship with CRS to work in Nicaragua during the war there (1988-1992).  That one year turned into thirty years working in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Were there other people in your life that led you down this path? Are there saints or thinkers, theologians or philosophers or whomever, who have inspired you along the way and shaped your thinking?

I have been blessed with a supportive and faithful family, an opportunity for a great education, and the most impressive colleagues. I have also been blessed to work beside Mother (Saint) Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, to share several audiences with the Holy Father, and to have dinner with Saint John Paul II in his apartment.  The selflessness of these holy people and the joy and love they each radiated during these interactions made me simply “happy and joyful”.  It confirmed to me that the work the Church is doing, that CRS is doing, is a call for celebration.  It is also an opportunity we need to share, so that others can be inspired by that same love and joy.  When someone asks me, “Well, what can one person do?”  I simply mention the names of these saints and holy people and smile.

What is your vision for CRS?

To ensure the human dignity of our sisters and brothers around the world is a bold proclamation, and we work to do just that. It is also bold for a Catholic organization to work in countries where there are no Catholics or very few.  We are not a stealth organization. Our name proclaims who we are, and our ethos is putting the Gospel into action. This is an advantage for us as everyone knows why we have this mission, and we are able to work with other faiths that share this vision. It also calls us to be humble as we are lucky to be the hands of God.  We know it is not us who fill the “nets with fish”, but it is our hands and those of the people we work with that pull the nets in.  My vision is also one of subsidiarity.  We work shoulder to shoulder with our local partners, and our goal is to cede the leadership role to them.

What would you say to frustrated young Catholics who want to make a difference in promoting social justice and the common good but have had trouble establishing service-oriented careers because it can be hard to land that first job or to make enough to manage the high costs of raising a family?

Never give up!  And, build a vocation not a career.  It is unfortunate in our culture that we often miss the first steps of our children or the smile of a new acquaintance or the thrill a person gets from a surprise accomplishment.  We miss these occasions and, sometimes, our vocation, because we are too busy, too hurried, and too preoccupied.  We must take the time to recognize that our lives are an accumulation of experiences and those experiences prepare us for that next phase of life.  We need to always be building community, and that community will help us achieve much more then we can achieve alone.  We need to be open to these experiences, recognize the learnings, and confident enough to take the risk and put ourselves in God’s hands.  Trust me, he won’t let us fall or, if he does, he will at least help us back up again.

How has the novel coronavirus affected the work that CRS is doing?

The coronavirus has presented a significant challenge to CRS, and it has tested our agility both domestically and globally. The safety of our team and those we collaborate with on the ground has been paramount, and equally pressing have been the shadow pandemics of hunger (food insecurity), a reduction in family healthcare (immunizations, prenatal, postnatal, and birthing, malaria prevention, HIV/AIDS treatment), family violence, and unemployment experienced by those we serve.  As the Church never closes, neither did CRS. We responded to the crisis by establishing protocols in all our programs (distancing, masks, hand washing), operating virtually when possible, minimizing direct contact, and sharing key health concepts/messages.  Sadly, we have lost one colleague to COVID-19. We’ve also had staff lose family and friends. As this pandemic continues, we’ll likely experience additional loss. But, overall, we have been successful in reorienting our operations to virtual engagement in the USA and limited interaction overseas.  We continue to engage our partners on the ground and we are striving to raise additional resources to address the new dire effects of COVID-19 and the shadow pandemics.

What is the new “Lead the Way on Hunger” campaign, and why is this an important focus right now?

The Lead the Way on Hunger campaign is in response to the Holy Father’s call for all of us to act to ensure no one suffers from hunger.  Inspired by the Holy Father’s message, we initiated the campaign as the coronavirus began to spread.  The campaign calls for Catholics in the USA to join together in solidarity groups, to learn about the issue of hunger, to advocate for assistance to those suffering, and to give as generously as possible.  It is actually fortuitous that we launched the campaign as acute hunger is expected to double in 2020 due to the effects of COVID-19 – illness, mobility restrictions, supply chain disruptions – as well as drought and locust infestations.  We are hopeful that despite the difficulties Americans are facing, they will continue to demonstrate generosity to their sisters and brothers in need.

Drawing Near to Others: An Interview with Marcus Mescher on the “Ethics of Encounter”

At a recent national conference for ministry professionals, the emcee invited attendees to walk through a maze of advertising booths during an upcoming break in the schedule, telling them, “This morning, you heard about a theology of encounter. Now head over to the booths and encounter your publishing companies!”

The comment is revealing for two reasons. First, it suggests that Pope Francis’s steady invocation of “encounter” throughout his papacy is beginning to lodge the word in the vocabulary of U.S. Catholics. Second, it shows how easily “encounter” can be emptied of its prophetic force, especially in the United States’ culture of consumption.

In a new book, The Ethics of Encounter: Christian Neighbor Love as a Practice of Solidarity, Marcus Mescher, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University, lays out a hopeful vision for constructing cultures of encounter capable of healing a broken, polarized Church and world. What follows are excerpts from my conversation with Mescher about both the transformative power and inherent fragility of encounter.

Early in your book, you point out that the root of the word encounter is actually “meet as an adversary,” which I found surprising. Can you unpack that?

In any encounter, there is an otherness that we cannot master, that we cannot fully comprehend, that we cannot always make reconcilable to our own worldview or reducible to another me. The book starts with a note of humility, acknowledging the reality that when it comes to encounter, we’re meeting the Other in a capital “O” sense: an Other we cannot fully understand. We have to be gentle with ourselves and with each other, because encounter is hard work. God is inexhaustible mystery, and because we’re made in the image and likeness of that inexhaustible mystery, there’s endless mystery in us, too. That’s what makes encounter such a rich concept—and practice—in my view.

Encounter, you argue, is more about “drawing near” to others than it is “making room” for them. Why is this distinction important?

I wanted to distinguish this ethic of encounter from the virtue of hospitality, which scholars like Jessica Wrobleski and Christine Pohl have done good work on already. When a host makes room for a guest, there’s often an inequality there: the host provides, the guest receives. The asymmetry between host and guest can beget a kind of dependence or resentment. While perfect equality or mutuality is idyllic, to draw near others to share life with them is a crucial first step to encounter and the vision of solidarity that I build in the book. We have to honor the biblical mandates to be a people of hospitality, but another problem with making room for the other is that it can be too much like tolerance: I make space for you, but there’s not necessarily a reciprocity or anything more asked of me. To draw near the other is to adopt an others-centeredness that reflects agapic love that Paul argues is central to Christian discipleship (Philippians 2:3). To take up the vantage point of the other helps me grasp a fuller view of reality than I had before. We have a lot to learn from each other, but without drawing near to others across difference, we can get stuck in our own perspectives and priorities.

You present your “ethics of encounter” as an antidote to the “amoral familism” that’s been poisoning our social imagination in the United States for some time now. Can you explain what this means?

“Amoral familism” diagnoses a symptom of American life, especially over the last seventy years or so, rather accurately. The basic idea is that families look after their own and assume that other families are doing the same thing. This withdrawal into the nuclear family prioritizes the success and security of one’s family members at the expense of the common good.

In an American context, many of us have a lot of things that we assume are needs when in fact they’re luxuries. Alternatively, there’s a rising number of families who are struggling to survive but we don’t recognize any obligation to them because they’re not kin. Put another way, I worry that some families are fighting more for the superfluous goods of their own children than being outraged at the deprivation of basic goods for other people’s children.

A goal of this book is to incorporate a preferential option for the poor and a more robust ethic of social and ecological duty into our preexisting relationships and responsibilities. I present the ethics of encounter to recognize harsh distinctions between kin and others are part of the us-versus-them tribalism that we have to overcome if we’re going to live up to the command to love your neighbor as yourself that we receive in the Gospels.

I think most people would agree that personal encounters can be transformative (for better or for worse), but you’re arguing that we need more than just sporadic personal encounters, we need robust cultures of encounter. At the same time, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to do this. Can you say a bit about this?

Pope Francis has been calling us to build a “culture of encounter” for several years. In Evangelii Guadium he states that “the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their please, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.” This leads, as he sees it, to being part of a “revolution of tenderness,” the work of mercy and solidarity that he has been stressing throughout his pontificate (no. 88). That strikes me as inspiring, but it raises the question of how do we realize this vision on the personal, relational, and institutional levels of our Church and society?

When we talk about virtues, or practicing the corporal works of mercy, or being part of the “culture of encounter” that Pope Francis has been describing, there’s a temptation to see this as a box to check. I did my good deed for the day. I helped this person or gave that person the benefit of the doubt. I decided to listen rather than tune out. This is a good start, but it’s just a first step in a lifelong journey of becoming the kind of person or church or community we most deeply desire.

We have to integrate this kind of doing into our very way of being. To do this, the virtue of prudence helps us discern what is most fitting for our own abilities, needs, and opportunities. Our conscience can help us know and choose what is good, but it’s worth noting that “conscience” means “to know together.” This is not a private project. It’s a shared task. No person is formed in a vacuum; we are formed in our relationships and the rituals we share, so the ethics of encounter has to be incorporated into families and friend groups, schools and churches, neighborhoods and places of business, healthcare facilitates and government offices.

Encounter is not just two individuals meeting as a dyad; our encounters overlap with others and impact people long after the encounter is over. Encounter is just the beginning to the kind of accompaniment, exchange, and inclusive belonging that can break through ignorance, apathy, and injustice. In my view, Greg Boyle and the members of the Homeboy Industries community model this beautifully, which is why I feature them as a case study for the kind of encounters that produce personal and communal transformation. Their efforts to encounter and empower former gang members can stretch our imagination so we can be more open to others, practice greater compassion and resilience, and witness the kinds of relationships that promote freedom to flourish individually and collectively.

After your manuscript had already been finalized, revelations about Jean Vanier sent shockwaves around the world. Your book contains lines from Vanier about vulnerability, interdependence, and love that read very differently now than when you wrote them. What do you think this teaches us about encounter?

It has been very painful to reread those passages and think about what he did to people who trusted him. And to think about all the people who looked the other way or otherwise enabled his abuse and discouraged survivors from coming forward to give voice to their experience. His story points to the prevalence of sin and how encounter can be manipulated. We have to be a people who are constantly vigilant about listening to the voices of the marginalized and excluded. We have to draw near and listen to survivors of abuse. And we can’t be tempted to move on like “business as usual.” There is still so much lamentation and atonement to be done.

That said, the potential for encounter to be manipulated should not be a reason for people to refuse encounter altogether. Vulnerability is an important part of the ethics of encounter because it’s how we grow into our humanity. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me or think that we should get hurt or to accept that others get hurt. But, I think it’s a myth to think that we can wholly protect ourselves from harm. Part of what it means to love is to trust, and sometimes people take advantage and betray our trust. Trust is an ongoing process, a collective task to build conditions for mutual respect and responsibility that encourages both authenticity and accountability. There are a lot of wounds that need healing in our Church and world. In my view, the ethics of encounter is how we begin the work of mending what’s been broken between us.

Finally, you argue that constructing cultures of encounter within your ethical framework is a practice of hope?

One of the most compelling lines I’ve read is from Jon Sobrino – he’s quoting his slain Jesuit brother Ignacio Ellacuría – who says that we should live already as risen beings. Sobrino explains that the resurrection is not merely a historical event, it’s a cosmic event that changes creation. This reflects, I think, what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20: that we should live as a “new creation” in Christ. The resurrection makes new life and new community possible, thanks to Jesus conquering sin and death. The encounter with the Risen Christ emboldened the first disciples to continue Jesus’ mission by cultivating communities of inclusion and co-responsibility. They crossed boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, and religion. They saw a world saddled with unjust inequality and chose to struggle for new possibilities.

In a time of so much despair, distrust, and division, we need that same commitment today. Dan Berrigan used to say, “the best way to be hopeful is to do hopeful things.” Encounters can be anxiety-producing and difficult but if people can summon the courage to risk some encounters that they wouldn’t normally try to initiate, they’ll see the fruit for themselves in having their horizons widened, their self-knowledge deepened, and their understanding of others broadened.

Encounter is how we become more fully human, and as the Incarnation shows us, humanization and divinization are directly proportionate, so the more fully human we become, the more we become like God. That’s the hope: that we see an ethics of encounter as a pathway to both wholeness and holiness, a way to reclaim the truth that we belong to each other.

Nick Mayrand is a PhD candidate in Theology at the University of Dayton.

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.”

Young Adults, Identity, Community, and Purpose: An Interview with Elise Italiano

In the days leading up to the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed Elise Italiano, the founding executive director of the GIVEN Institute, on young adults and the Church:

You and Christopher White have a series at Catholic News Service that provides a forum for young adult Catholics to write about millennials and the Church. Do you see certain threads running through these articles, in terms of some shared goals and experiences? Have you learned anything or has anything surprised you in developing and editing this series?

We initiated the series with the hope of providing another opportunity for young adults to be heard by the U.S. Bishops ahead of the Synod. Many American dioceses encouraged young people within their jurisdiction to respond to the Vatican’s online surveys. We hoped that these columns would bring those responses to life through first-person testimonies.

After reviewing the contributions from our columnists for more than a year, I’d say that while young adults closely watch how their bishops respond to significant cultural, political, and ecclesial developments—and we’ve certainly had our fair share of them since the column started —they are primarily concerned with experiencing closeness, compassion, and concern from their shepherds. They want to know if bishops and Church leaders understand the circumstances in which they are coming of age, with all of the opportunities and challenges they face.

Our columnists shared pretty significant anxieties related to everything from financial burdens to loneliness to raising young children. At the same time, they generally seemed to hold out hope for a more promising future. By and large they crave an experience of authentic community and the support of mentors. They want to find both of these things in the Church, and they are ready to take on leadership roles alongside of bishops and pastors to make sure future generations have them.

At the Georgetown conference on polarization in June, you talked about the way that polarization and internal squabbling are distracting from the grave situation that the Church faces when it comes to young adults and the culture that is shaping their lives. Why are our peers being “carried out in spiritual body bags,” as you say?

I spent six years teaching high school theology to young women and spent several years interacting with college students through my work in public relations at a university.  From what I’ve witnessed, young people today have more choice and possibility, greater access to information and opportunity to connect with people than ever before.

Yet many of them are sad. They report feeling lonely and isolated. Suicide rates and addictions are at an all-time high. Young people are hungry for authentic connection, but there seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities to experience real community in the flesh. They know that consumerism and instant gratification don’t satisfy, but they can’t quite put their finger on what will.

Our Church leaders and commentators spend an enormous amount of time engaged in inside-baseball ecclesial battles.  When the Church looks inward for such a sustained period of time, it risks failing to take note of the people it’s supposed to be serving and to understand their reality.

For example, there has been a sustained, ongoing dispute amongst theologians and commentators about Chapter 8 in Amoris Laetitia.  Getting theology right certainly matters. But it can’t be all-consuming, especially because a generation of young adults is delaying or foregoing marriage altogether.  When we stay focused on the footnote alone, we risk putting energies into the necessary work of re-proposing marriage as a good to a generation which is highly skeptical of its possibility in the first place.

Many people in the Church still employ an evangelical strategy that presumes a certain level of catechesis, or acceptance of anthropological claims, or an understanding of theological vocabulary. I think it’s time to evaluate those presumptions and opt for a new strategy.

How can the Church—its leaders and everyday Catholics—slow or reverse this trend?

Today’s young people need a Church that is going to set aside the ecclesial divisions and help them learn what it means to be human. They need to know that there’s a God who loves them.  I think there’s a fear that if the Church were to get back to the basics of the Gospel, that we’d be forfeiting important theological nuances or points of emphasis that need to be worked out. But I think a return to the sources is a good idea. A culture that’s saturated by secularism is a culture that will eventually begin to crave something more. We need to approach our neighbors as if anything we tell them about the Gospel is their first encounter with its message.

What would you like to see coming out of the Synod on Young People?

I hope the Synod Fathers focus on three themes: identity, community, and purpose. Every young person is searching for the answers to the following questions: Who am I? Who do I belong to? Do I have something to contribute? The Church proposes that Jesus Christ is the answer to every human life. I’d like to see those present examine how well we are helping people know their identity in Christ; how well our parishes, campus ministries, and diocesan offices are fostering real community in which people feel that they are cared for; how well we are doing with helping people to discover that they have a unique, God-given mission that no one else can fulfill. I hope it’s an honest, humble, and hopeful assessment of how we’re doing.

How does the renewed focus on sexual abuse and cover-ups by the Church’s hierarchy affect the Church’s mission here in the US?

This summer pulled back the curtain on a great deal of darkness that was and is lurking in the Church.  In one sense, it has shed further light on the fact that the Church must be a “field hospital” to a critical, vulnerable population – persons who have been abused by clergy. The difficulty is that the Church was complicit in their vulnerability, and so the work of healing must be careful, steady, and thorough.  As our time and attention is rightfully drawn to serving them, our attention to other urgent matters will be divided. This will affect the populations the Church was serving this summer – migrant families at the U.S. Mexico-Border, young adults ahead of the Synod, and the on-going work to protect the unborn and support their mothers. My hope is that instead of giving into despair, Catholics will find renewed conviction and a sense of urgency and take up the task of protecting life and dignity in whatever corner God has called them to work in.

What is GIVEN and why is it needed? 

The GIVEN Institute (“GIVEN”) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to activating the gifts of young adult women for the Church and the world. We inspire and equip the next generation of female leaders to “receive the gift that they are; realize the gifts they’ve been given; and respond with the gift that only they can give.”  Through leadership training, faith formation, and dedicated mentoring, GIVEN forms women for mission and for life.

The flagship event of the GIVEN Institute is the Catholic Young Women’s Leadership Forum. The event (to take place every 2 years) will bring together a diverse group of young adult women from across the country for a multi-day forum. It is designed for young adult Catholic women seeking leadership training, faith formation, and support to better understand and pursue their particular mission and/or vocation. Emerging leaders will have the opportunity to hear from and be mentored by leading Catholic women in both ecclesial and secular fields.

GIVEN was formed to serve young adult Catholic women, who are an underserved though critical demographic marked by a search for identity, community, and purpose. GIVEN’s programming is designed for women between the ages of 21-30, who are navigating a period of time between college graduation and vocational commitment or professional clarity.

There is a growing number of highly educated, talented young adult women who are looking to make this period of their lives fruitful and purposeful, who want to know that their gifts are needed.  GIVEN will identify, equip, and position these women to find a meaningful path for this period, one which also opens up possibilities for their future and enables them to find ways to put their gifts in service to the Church and the common good.

Many excellent corporate leadership development programs do exist; however, growth in leadership is often framed as something in tension or at odds with other vocational responsibilities. There are many Catholic ministries and apostolates which provide faith formation to women, but few, if any, explicitly invest in their leadership development.

GIVEN will bring together these elements of leadership development, faith formation, and mentorship to provide a comprehensive and transformative personal investment in the lives of future Catholic women leaders.

By investing in this demographic, the Church is also making an investment in its future. Throughout the course of this summer, many commentators noted that an incisive presence of faithful, skilled women would help the Church in its renewal and reform. But it’s also a matter of urgency for the life and mission of the Church.

The distinct phenomena of the disaffiliation of young adult women, an aging population of religious sisters, and a culture which undervalues marriage and family life will soon converge. From its earliest days, women have been the backbone of the life and mission of the Church. This is a critical time for the Church to inspire and equip the next generation of Catholic women leaders to put their gifts in service of the Gospel.

The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe and Its Lessons for Today: An Interview with Daniel K. Williams

What was the pro-life movement like before Roe v. Wade? In Defenders of the Unborn, Daniel K. Williams, history professor at the University of West Georgia, provides an essential overview of the pro-life movement in this period. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed Williams on his groundbreaking book and its implications:

The pro-life movement is often associated with conservatism, but could you talk a little bit about the roots of the movement?

The modern American pro-life movement, which originated in the mid-twentieth century, was the creation of Catholic Democrats, most of whom subscribed to the social ethic and liberal political philosophy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.  They believed that the government had a responsibility to protect the rights of minorities and provide a social safety net for the poor.  They viewed the unborn as a minority deserving of legal protection, but many of them also believed that the federal government had a responsibility to provide maternity health care for women facing crisis pregnancies.  In their view, the pro-life movement was a social justice and human rights cause. Read More

Building an Economy that Serves and Uplifts the Vulnerable: An Interview with Eric LeCompte

Eric LeCompte is the executive director of Jubilee USA. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed him on his work to address global inequality and build an economy that serves all persons, particularly the poor and vulnerable.

What does Jubilee USA do?

Ahead of the Jubilee Year, when Christian churches were preparing to celebrate the 2000th Anniversary of Christ’s birth, global religious leaders called us to celebrate by tackling the root causes of poverty. Pope John Paul ll encouraged us to reflect on the true scriptural meaning of Jubilee during the Church’s Jubilee 2000 celebration. Jubilee is a central them in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Jubilee story starts in Genesis. God loves us so much that God created a resource rich world for us to share in seven days. We are closest to the Creator when we are sharing those resources amongst us. Then we have the early law books of scripture that attempt to legislate how we live according to Jubilee laws. Deuteronomy and Leviticus lay out how we can be in right relationship with one another and our God. They dictate that every seven years we should forgive debts, let the land rest, and set free slaves. They establish a set of laws that protect all of us from having too little or too much. Then the prophets come to remind the people they are no longer living according to the laws of Jubilee. And then in Luke, in the first public act of our Lord, He reads from Isaiah ‎about setting captives free and proclaiming the Year of the Lord’s Favor or the great Jubilee year. This is seven times seven years where there is a restoration of equality among all of God’s people.

From the call of Pope John Paul ll and other faith leaders, the Catholic Church took on an incredible leadership role to win debt relief for the world’s poorest countries and move forward greater protections for some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

That’s the story of how Jubilee USA started as an interfaith coalition of Jews, Muslims, and Christians to address the structures that cause poverty and inequality. To this day, we take on US and global policies on debt, tax, trade, and transparency issues. When we address these issues, we impact millions of people living in poverty in the US and across our world. From resolving Puerto Rico’s financial crisis to corporate transparency to student debt, Jubilee USA wins solutions that impact our global community. Ultimately, we are building an economy that serves, protects, and promotes participation of the most vulnerable.

Congressional Quarterly cites our interfaith efforts as the last successful bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill.

What are some of the accomplishments that Jubilee USA has achieved?

We’ve won more than $130 billion in debt relief for the world’s poorest economies. Because of the US and global agreements we’ve won, that $130 billion is invested in schools, hospitals, and other social infrastructure. In Sub Saharan Africa alone, 54 million kids have gone to‎ school who never would have seen the inside of a classroom. Recently, Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank President, cited Jubilee’s efforts as the reason for economic growth in parts of Africa.

Debt and financial crises‎ often affect the most vulnerable in the most extreme ways. It’s tragic that the global financial crisis punished those who had nothing to do with creating the crisis. Nearly 100 million people, mostly women and children, were cast into extreme poverty because of the crisis. Beyond debt relief, Jubilee USA transforms the debt, tax, and trade policies that cause poverty and inequality. For every 10 dollars in aid developing economies receive, they lose more than150 dollars from debt payments, tax evasion, and corruption.

In the last few years, here are some of the strategic campaigns we’ve won:‎ debt relief in Haiti and the 3 Ebola-impacted West Africa countries, a new International Monetary Fund trust fund to aid poor countries struck by disasters, multiple anti-corruption measures impacting low income countries, ‎super bankruptcy legislation for Puerto Rico‎, three international agreements to promote responsible lending and stop predatory lending, two victories to keep student loan interest rates low, G7 and G20 agreements to curb tax evasion and corruption, pushing trade agreements‎ that help end poverty, and securing zero interest loans for poor communities. Read More