Building a Culture That Values Families, Rest, and Human Flourishing: An Interview with Rachel Anderson

Rachel Anderson is an attorney, mother of two, and Fellow at the Center for Public Justice, advocating for fair and family-supportive work. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed her on pro-family policies, rest, the pandemic, and meritocracy.

You’ve spent a great deal of time advocating for paid leave and other pro-family policies, but it seems like the cancer diagnosis you received last year, which you discuss in a recent Sojourners cover story, still transformed not just your life, but how you think about rest, human flourishing, and how policy fits in with some of these big questions. How has that experience reshaped your thinking?

The experience that propelled me into pro-family policy was maternity and motherhood. I read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s widely circulated Atlantic piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” early in the morning after putting an infant to sleep for the second or third time, bleary-eyed yet still needing to get up for work the next day.

From the vantage of parenting, it seemed necessary to expand the timescope during which one’s job training or career unfolds so as to anticipate childbearing and childrearing as seasons within a whole working life. Establishing universal paid family leave advances this goal well. Were paid parental leave benefits and job protections universally available, it would provide parents with the resources they need to be present with their children and it would also help transform the template of an “ideal worker.” Rather than the unencumbered person who shows up the same way each day of their career, an ideal worker should be understood as one whose life includes seasons of time away from work in order to have children, raise a family, and take care of others periodically.

In some ways, experiencing cancer reinforced my views about work and care. At a minimum, having come to accept the value of caregiving through motherhood (contrary to the countervailing social pressure to value work over care), I have been more willing than I might otherwise have been to accept care and rest for myself. But, having recently completed the now-common battery of cancer treatments—surgery, chemotherapy, radiation –I’ve entered into a new, ill-defined state of convalescence about which my views are changing and, truly, are in formation. There is no “What to Expect When You’re Recovering” handbook…Some days, I can peer over the edge of illness into the world of health and vitality; others, I’m firmly planted in the place of exhaustion and fatigue. In other places and eras, I think, convalescence was a more capacious social category.  The role of convalescence seems to have shrunk as modern medicine’s capacity to treat illness has expanded. But the line between illness and wellness remains indefinite. I am not certain how to formulate policies that account for this. Should paid sick and medical leave be widely available? Absolutely. How it should be accumulated and allocated is not as clear. What is clear is that so many of us are in this liminal state of convalescence right now, recovering from COVID-19 itself or the sacrifices and solitude the pandemic imposed. I’m hopeful that, over the coming months and years, we can pay gracious attention to our own and our neighbors’ healing processes, offering each what’s needed in the moment and perceiving patterns that might ground just social norms and legal policies going forward.

How should Christians think about rest?

Culture often treats rest as an instrument or even an “achievable luxury.”  Rest enables our productivity. In the Christian tradition, however, rest is fundamentally a divine gift. As such, it is something stranger and much less within my control than I might wish it to be. When I have entered into the kind of rest that involves stilling my mind and orienting toward God in worship, the outcome is not always peaceful. Sometimes, lament or grief emerges in rest in ways that the opposing state—action—tends to suppress. I think of the gospel account of Jesus sleeping in a boat while a gale arises, stirring up waves that crash over the side of the boat (Mark 4:35-41). Perhaps rest is not incidental to the storm but entwined in it. As such, what is offered in the gift of rest is not the silencing of the storm—at least not at first—but rather an awareness of the wind and waves and, then, more deeply of the accompaniment of God’s presence in and through the gale.

During the pandemic, many students and workers who may have felt pressure to go to work or school sick have stayed home to recover (there are, of course, some who do not really have that option). Some problematic old norms have therefore been disrupted. Do you think we will learn anything from the pandemic and establish better norms in some of these areas or that we will return to the old way of doing business the first chance we get?

In 2008, the journalist George Packer wrote that the inequities and abuses of power revealed by a shocking financial crisis might lead to a fairer, more just America in which (to paraphrase) the pie would be smaller but more equitably shared. His expectation, though elegantly stated, has not come to pass. The aftershocks of the Great Recession have been far less predictable, less linear, and more subterranean than most would have predicted in 2008. So I am incredibly reluctant to judge the results of COVID-19 on our long-term ways of doing business. For those who work in white collar settings, there are new norms and new tools arising that might enable more remote work. And there is evidence that fathers in white collar, remote-accessible work took on a greater share of parenting responsibility during the pandemic—a trend that could, among other things, shift assumptions among employers, schools, and other family-adjacent institutions about the identity of the “go-to” parent in a household. But a more troubling consequence of the pandemic seems to be a sense of alienation and even anger with each other and with the institutions around us. In such a context, it will take a great deal of work to sustain workplace norms—such as workplace flexibility—that require a great deal of interpersonal trust. I would love to see workplaces dedicate a significant degree of intentionality to workplace systems and norms of all types, including accommodating those who have long shouldered the work of family care as well as all of us who are in some phase of convalescence or reconnection to work post-COVID.

You talk a little bit about the meritocracy and the ideology it generates and that sustains it. What role does this play in shaping how Americans live—both for highly educated workers and working class people? How does it shape our values, how we spend our time, how we see ourselves, and our family relationships?  And with structural factors playing a big role in the precarity and insecurity that so many families and individual people face today, is there a way for a person or family to successfully resist the norms and structural pressures that arise from meritocracy? I often think about this when reflecting upon the extreme individualism that shapes our society. Even those of us who are consciously trying to resist it and have many countercultural values probably live much more individualistic lives than we would in a society that truly valued community and solidarity. Is there a way out?

The problem is an ideology that hierarchically ranks our roles in society, assigning fundamental dignity and worth along a gradient. On a social level, we can reassert the fundamental, equal dignity of all persons by establishing a more robust social foundation for all—through access to a decent income, health care, and protected time for rest, recovery, and care.

On a personal level, one way out of “the meritocracy trap,” as the author Daniel Markovitz describes it, is to prioritize a quest for excellence over the pursuit of status. Likewise, I find it helpful to view work as a cultivation of craft rather than competition for position. Finally, your suggestion that family and community could be a way out is a beautiful one. Within families as well as within friendships, we can appreciate each other’s different quests for and ways of being excellent without ranking them. Ideally, this is a practice that inclines us to honor the equal dignity of all persons—in those outside of our families and friend circles and in ourselves as well.


Why Moundsville Matters: An Interview with John W. Miller

John W. Miller is a journalist and the co-director of the PBS film Moundsville. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed him on the film, Moundsville, and social and economic changes across the country.

Why did you decide to make a film about Moundsville?

After the 2016 election, I thought: What could I write or create that would be a narrative all Americans would agree was true and would tell a deeper story about America than the daily journalism I had been doing my whole career? Immediately, Moundsville, WV, came to mind as a place to do this. In 2013, I had written a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal about the town’s ghost tourism industry. Moundsville is one of the few places in industrial America that has so many layers of history. The 69-foot-high Native American mound in the middle of town is a window to the prehistoric pre-Columbian past. Moundsville experienced white settlement in the 18th century. It had a glorious industrial era as a manufacturing center on the Ohio River, including the world’s biggest toy factory. And now, it’s a service economy based on a Walmart, a main street, a hospital, and a prison. What could be more archetypical? I thought about moving there and writing a book. But when I met filmmaker David Bernabo I proposed a film and he said yes. We got a $4,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Arts Council and made the film in 2018. One thing that’s important about the Moundsville project is that we decided not to cover Trump or opioids. I think these are really important topics that deserve attention but they’re not the only topics, and they’re also momentary. I wanted to offer some deeper answers.

The film shows the movement from an industrial economy with a lot of good middle-class jobs to a post-industrial economy, where these types of jobs are often replaced by lower paying jobs in the service sector. How much of that shift do you think is driven by decisions made by national and local public officials versus larger structural forces?

I think it’s really complicated, and there are a lot of different reasons. It’s true that work has been devalued in the last 40 years in the name of profit. The Reagan Revolution in the 1980s gave companies license to pay as little as they could and move factories to countries where they could pay even less.  Factory owners in place like Moundsville often took the bait and made a killing selling to private equity and Wall Street investors. They bear a lot of responsibility. But another reason for decline in Moundsville is simply the nature of capitalism, which is a great system for creating new businesses but doesn’t have a lot of answers for when those businesses die. And inevitably many businesses die because, simply, people have moved on to consuming something other than the things they were making. For example, Marx Toys in the Moundsville area made Rock’em Sock’em Robots, Big Wheels and all these other iconic toys. In the 1970s, kids started playing video games and physical toys became less popular. That contributed to the factory closing. I don’t think that was anybody’s fault. It’s true that trade deals in the 1980s and 1990s opened the door for cheaper products from Asia and Mexico that killed a lot of American factories. But American citizens and consumers, I think, endorsed that by endorsing a consumer society. “We the American people did this,” a retired boiler operator named Les Barker says in our film. “We wanted everything cheaper.” I think one of the lessons of Moundsville is we should all learn to live with less and prioritize community instead of consumption. 

One person in the film bluntly says that young people with college degrees should leave. Do you agree? And do you think there is anything a place like Moundsville can and should do to attract or keep young people with higher education degrees?

One of the things I love about the movie is that it shows there’s no easy answers. Life is complicated. I think some people probably should leave, but some shouldn’t. Some young people have chosen to make their lives there. Life in Moundsville isn’t hell. As our characters show, there’re still lots of people finding meaning and fulfillment Moundsville. Some depopulation is inevitable. I think the answer in places like this is smaller populations, tourism, and niche business and industries. And maybe some remote work thanks to technology and the work-from-home revolution.

Another theme that came up was the way the loss of industrial jobs seemed to erode a broader sense of community. Do you think the changing economy has undermined community there and increased things like a greater sense of alienation or isolation?

Absolutely. There’s an interesting debate that Tim Carney brings up in his book Alienated America about what comes first: industry or community? My answer is that the jobs have to be there to support a good life for people. It’s a principle of Catholic Social Teaching that for a strong community, you need work that pays a living wage and offers a good standard of life. I think if you don’t have a bunch of decent jobs in a place, you’re going to have isolation and alienation.

In Chris Arnade’s book Dignity, one of the big themes seems to be how people find meaning in a post-industrial economy where middle class work once gave people stability and a sense of purpose. Where do you think people in Moundsville find meaning? Do they still look to their work to provide that meaning, like so many ambitious college grads (imbued with a meritocratic ideology) do when they head to big cities for jobs?

I think people in Moundsville still love their community. It’s incredibly safe. It’s between an iconic river and beautiful mountains. They find meaning in that beauty, and in that closeness to each other. They’re very loyal to each other. They also find meaning in the hope that things might improve in the future. I think one thing the pandemic has taught people is that they can find good lives away from New York and San Francisco. The brain drain to those cities is an undercovered story, and one thing that needs to happen in this country is a rebalancing toward the middle. A lot of people still leave places like Moundsville, and almost always it’s to get a better job.

Do you think people in places like Moundsville have the sense that you can have a stronger local economy or diligently protect the environment—but probably not both? 

That’s a good question. I think people in Moundsville are very aware of that tradeoff. In a perfect world, they’d have industrial jobs with some environmental cost (because every industry has some cost) but not a poisonous or dangerous one. In some towns, people miss the smell of stinky air because that was the smell of really good jobs.

Do you think there are policy changes that can be made to strengthen the middle class in Moundsville and similar places all across the country? 

I think there are two things that really hold people back in Moundsville and around the country. The first is that wages need to go up. Even in Moundsville, $10 an hour isn’t enough to have a decent life. I don’t love the minimum wage rules because they do limit what businesses can do, but I think they’re probably necessary when companies have so much power and pay so little. I’m glad companies are now hiking wages in response to all these people quitting their jobs. The second is that we need to figure out a way to make health care and college affordable. Their excessive cost is brutally unfair and really punishes people in places where wages are too low. Americans tend to hate this idea but I think we should have a health care system with private insurers but regulations that limit prices. But the truth is that there are no easy policy answers, and if I had them, I’d be running for office. Whatever policies are prescribed, what I wanted to show with Moundsville is that we need to do a better job of listening to the people policies are affecting.


Young Catholics and Climate Action: An Interview with Anna Robertson

Anna Robertson is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Mobilization for Catholic Climate Covenant. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed her on her work, young people in the Church, and the role of lay Catholics in promoting climate action and social justice .

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up doing this type of work?

I’m originally from Nashville, Tennessee, where I lived until the age of 18, when I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio for college at Xavier University. I graduated with a B.A. in theology and went on to complete my Master of Theological Studies degree from Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Laudato Si was published when I was in the middle of my graduate program, and I remember being captivated by so much of what Pope Francis had to say. The way that he talks about mercy, a culture of encounter, integral ecology, and ecological conversion all continue to shape my understanding of the world, of what it means to be human, what it means to be creature, and how we might approach the question of right relationship. After finishing grad school, I took a job as a campus minister at Seattle University, and there’s a lot of that pastoral formation that informs the way I show up in this work now. I’m very curious about how we develop resilience in the face of the climate crisis, both as individuals and as communities. I’m interested in the ways we can evolve our movements toward relationship.

What are your goals as Director of Youth and Young Adult Mobilization for the Covenant?

I really believe that young people have a particular power in this historical moment, both within the Catholic Church specifically and within the world more broadly. I couldn’t say it better than Cardinal Blase Cupich said it during the Q&A following his keynote address at this past summer’s Laudato Si’ and the U.S. Catholic Church Conference: “You have more power than you think, young people.” In the Catholic Church we are seeing this move toward synodality, toward drawing out and listening to the “joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties” of the Body of Christ as genuine sources of theological authority, to borrow that brilliant phrase from Gaudium et Spes over half a century ago. Meanwhile, it’s no secret that young people are no longer embracing the paths of organized religion in the same ways that previous generations did. There is something about the joys, hopes, griefs, and anxieties of young people that we have failed to hear as a Church—if that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t see the rates of disaffiliation that we’re seeing. And yet, now with the Synod on Synodality, with the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, we are seeing these opportunities to speak and to listen as a family of God. As Director of Youth and Young Adult Mobilization at Catholic Climate Covenant, I want to create a platform and community for young Catholics across the country to come together and amplify the call to care for creation, both within the society and within the Church, especially at this crucial moment in history—with, on the one hand, the urgency of the climate crisis and, on the other, a church freshly committed to listening, especially at its own margins, which include young people.

What are the biggest challenges you are facing?

I think one of the biggest challenges to working with young people in a religious context is young people’s shifting relationship to organized religion. People have so many diverse ways of relating to Catholicism. There are cultural Catholics, devout Catholics, former Catholics, ambivalent Catholics, Catholic-adjacent people (e.g., non-Catholic students at Catholic institutions)—and within each of those groups there will be people who resonate more and less with creation care. This is true across age groups, but really seems to be amplified among young people. It’s been an adventure trying to wade into that ambiguity and diversity and to devise strategies for community organizing within it, but it’s a worthwhile adventure, and I wouldn’t trade the beautiful diversity of thought and expression that I get to encounter among the people I work alongside.

At past gatherings of the US Bishops (USCCB), we have seen efforts to mobilize the conference behind Pope Francis’ agenda and priorities of taking on the throwaway culture in all its aspects and expanding what it means to protect the sanctity of life (among other things) continually fail. What would you say to lay Catholics who are disappointed by this—who feel like the bishops are undermining the pope and refusing to treat climate change with the urgency and focus that it demands? 

Something I’ve been working on myself recently is trying to catch when I am thinking of “Church” as primarily the church hierarchy rather than the people of God, the body of Christ. I think that we the laity in the Church have power that we don’t always embrace because of the ways that we’ve perhaps internalized the very culture of clericalism that so many of us push back against. It can be really liberating to look honestly at where we have more—and less—power and to make choices informed by that analysis. We can approach Church leaders using the very same tried and true methods of advocacy and community organizing that we use with lawmakers and other secular decision-makers. Are we listening for shared values we can lean into in our conversations? Are we building a diverse and powerful base of allies? If you’ve, for example, been trying for years to get the same parish priest to, I don’t know, be more vocal on care for creation, are there other approaches you can try that would achieve the same outcome? Feeling like Church leaders are out-of-step with something as urgent as climate change can feel very disempowering; stepping into our power can be an important antidote that frees us and energizes our Church. This isn’t to dismiss those feelings of frustration and disappointment but to seek to locate our agency in the midst of them as members of God’s family.

I think part of your job is to help young Catholics care about protecting God’s creation and be more active in protecting the environment. But do you also think that by connecting the desire and efforts to protect the environment with faith that this can bring young people into the Church or help those who have felt alienated and isolated to stay in the Church?

Absolutely. To be a young person today for so many people is to be awash in constant and cascading crises, to constantly perform life under the exposure of social media, to be oversaturated with connection but parched for relationship. Studies from the Springtide Institute have shown just how important relationships with trusting adults can be for young people’s mental well-being, and yet those same studies show that young people are relatively infrequently turning to ministers or other folks they associate with religion for this relationship. I believe—and whenever I say this I always say that I’m sure someone else said this first but haven’t been able to find the quote—that the Church should offer its people a credible hope, and I don’t think it’s been doing that for a lot of young people, partly because so many young people have experienced leaders in the Church remaining silent on issues they care about, or even directly opposite them on those issues. Climate is certainly one of these issues, and I do believe that when church leaders speak out on climate, it makes a difference for young people who might be on their way out the door. I know, as someone who, due to my role as a leader at a major Catholic organization, represents “Church” in the minds of some people, that it can be so important and life-giving for people to hear me speaking up on issues they care about. I know this because people have expressed it to me. Many young people, however, are also leaving the Church because they have been hurt within it, and so it behooves those of us who remain to work very hard to make sure that the space we want these young people to return to is one in which they will be welcomed and celebrated as they arrive, as God would and does welcome and celebrate any of us. If people’s genuine and authentic needs are not being met within the Church, we must take that seriously and ask from a place of deep humility and pastoral sensibility how we might better meet those needs.

How can young Catholics make a difference in their communities?

Young Catholics certainly already are making a difference in our communities! I was on a call last week with Washingtonians in attendance at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, and there were so many of us on that call who fell into the category of ‘young adult.’ Back in October, hundreds of Catholics across the country followed the leadership of Catholic young adults fasting in solidarity with the five youth hunger strikers calling for just and expansive climate legislation in Washington, D.C. Those are just a couple of countless. Within the Church these days, there’s a real hunger on the part of older generations for intergenerational community—or at least that’s something I hear expressed very frequently. I think there’s an opportunity here for young people to elevate their concerns within their faith communities. If climate change is something that you care about, let people know. Better yet, get some friends together, and then let people know. Maybe plan an event. Invite the broader community. Find out about local environmental justice groups organizing around issues impacting their community—maybe impacting your community, too. Ask how you can support their efforts. And consider along the way how all of this work is part of the journey of faith and relationship-building. The ecological conversion that Pope Francis calls for and that this historical moment demands of us is one made of millions of relationships orienting themselves more toward love. At every step, how are we creating the community we want to be a part of, the kind of community that can sustain life on earth?


The Vision and Mission of the Black Catholic Messenger: An Interview with Nate Tinner-Williams

Nate Tinner-Williams is a co-founder and editor of the Black Catholic Messenger. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed him on the publication, its mission, and the work they are doing.

Why did you start the Black Catholic Messenger? What motivated you and your fellow co-founders? 

I — and the team (initially, Alessandra Harris, Preslaysa Williams, and a small group of collaborators) — started BCM to fill a void in Catholic media that has existed mostly unaddressed for the past century. Despite the strong presence of the Black Press in the story of the Black experience in the US (especially in the 20th century), Black Catholic publications—that is, journalism by and for African American Catholics—have been almost non-existent during that period and since. We decided to change that.

What is the guiding vision for the publication, or what are the principles that animate it?

Our guiding vision is that of Daniel Rudd, our patron. He sought, in the late 19th century, to give the Catholic Church a hearing in the minds of African Americans via a Black Catholic newspaper. His aim was to present Catholic teaching exactly as it is: hope for a sin-sick world. He felt authentic Catholic witness could be a salve for the ills facing African Americans in his day, and we feel the same now. In that sense, we are an orthodox Catholic outlet. At the same time, Rudd recognized that he needed to address racism and anti-life witness head-on, as best he knew how, flaws and all. That’s us too. In that sense, we are a Black publication in the justice tradition of social thought, informed heavily by Catholic Social Teaching as well as the Black Freedom and Black Radical Movements.

Could you talk about your background and how it led you to this work? 

I am a journalist by training, as well as an amateur theologian. I started doing journalism in high school and kept it up through most of college (where I switched from studying journalism to studying theology). I was also a Protestant until 2019. That year, I was in a weird place spiritually as well as in my career, and it ended up that I converted to Catholicism by way of Eastern Christianity. I also dug into Black Catholic history, wherein I discovered Rudd and began to think of what might be missing in Catholic media. Soon enough, I realized that I had to put up or shut up. So shortly after converting to what was a brand-new expression of Christianity for me, I returned to an old line of work as an amateur journalist, helping to start BCM. Whether I’m a professional now, I don’t know, but I love what I’m doing and hope it will be a lifelong endeavor.

Who are some of the publications’ key contributors? 

I think everyone who has contributed is key. Alessandra has put out a number of powerful op-eds, including a recent one on her son’s experience of discrimination during a Catholic Mass. Stephen Staten, a close friend of mine, beautifully related his experience as a celibate gay Catholic in a piece put out in June. Gunnar Gundersen has done wonders with his incisive takes on history, philosophy, and race relations. Harlan McCarthy consistently gets the absolute best interviews. I could go on and on. Dr. Ansel Augustine in New Orleans, Efran Menny in Houston, Jenario Morgan in South Bend, etc. We also have a few non-Black contributors who have contributed as well, including D. Brendan Johnson, Jeffrey Wald, and Will F. Peterson.

What are some of the articles you are most proud of having at the site?

I’m pretty sure we were the first to report on Amanda Gorman being Catholic, so I will probably cherish that story forever. Stephen’s story on the Sacred Heart and LGBT Catholics was also a stunner. Gunnar Gundersen did a few responses to Bishop Robert Barron that were also really powerful. I also really love the poems we’ve published, from Jenario; Fr Joseph Brown, SJ; John S. Taylor; Melissa Menny; Nancy Saro; and Louis Jones. (More coming on that front, too!)


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.