Editorial: Founding documents aren’t ‘perfect,’ but they’re our best hope

20190806T1431-29346-CNS-BUDGET-DEAL c.jpg

The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen as the sun sets July 26 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (CNS/Erin Scott, Reuters)

President Donald Trump’s incessant repetition of the word “perfect” to describe his phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky might, at first glance, appear a minor irritant, a narcissist’s tic. More likely, however, it is a marketer’s ploy, an example of how quickly the huckster is able to render language useless.

How is a phone call perfect?

Of course, it’s utter nonsense as a description. But perfect, repeated often enough about anything, conveys that something good is afoot and something good is, well, good.

And when perfect is mixed in with the rest of his word salad about Ukraine and all of it is caught up in the swirl of headlines about the White House refusing to cooperate with a congressional inquiry; about State Department officials who feel their boss is compromised; or about Trump who, in an another ad hoc bit of foreign policy, decides to abandon an ally and open the Kurds in Syria to an onslaught from Turkey, one sees how the marketer might succeed. Who can sort it all out? Make sense of it? And somewhere in the dim past is that puny, if understandable, point of reference: perfect.

It is saying something about how far down an unrecognizable track the republic has traveled when “Orwellian” has lost any pungency it might once have delivered. The word works when what is Orwellian is so different from the norm that we understand the distortion described. But Orwellian today exhausts itself from overuse. The United States has entered a new norm. The question, relevant since the first days of the Trump administration and increasingly important with each passing month, is: “Can the institutions hold?”

It has taken far more than Trump to arrive at this point, where every corner of the public weal is charged with lethal levels of partisan voltage.

But Trump was there at the right moment, understood the way to exploit political and social divisions. Central to that effort was his dismissal of norms and disdain for public service and the institutions of democratic governance.

That disdain was evident in the language of the call to Zelensky, memorialized in a transcript, in a whistleblower’s account, in the understanding of a growing number of unnamed government officials. Whether those words, seeking “a favor” and soliciting the help of a foreign government to smear a political opponent, are able to resist being rendered useless could be the key to our future.

We are a nation that came into existence by way of words in documents that are experiencing some of the most strenuous tests in our history.

Can the White House simply refuse to cooperate with the constitutionally granted investigative powers of a coequal branch of government?

Who throws the flag and enforces the penalty when the attorney general advocates for the political interests of the president?

Who puts the brakes on Rudolph Giuliani, globetrotting as the president’s personal attorney, seeking foreign advocates to spread wild theories that undermine the conclusions reached by months of research by special prosecutor Robert Mueller and some of the country’s finest legal minds?

Who tells Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that undermining professionals in his own department can have dangerous consequences not just for morale at home, but for our relationships and standing in the rest of the world?

There is evidence that the public is wearying of Trump’s brand of governance. Polls are showing that increasing numbers of Americans are in favor of the House impeachment investigation with a surprising number in favor of removal of the president from office.

But reaching for a quick and definitive solution because of weariness may not serve the truth, and that is a far greater concern at the moment. It is easy to forget that the administration has been successful so far in delaying the release of stashes of documents, including grand jury testimony, that was central to the Mueller report.

While that report is seen as ineffective as a tool leading to impeachment because of its complexity, it could prove the far more important record of the degree to which Trump was willing to undermine the fundamentals of the justice system. Recall Mueller’s chilling words as the task of determining the truth moved from his purview to Congress: “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”

Keeping track of the unending flood of new turns and twists, of breaches of ethics and norms by this administration is an enormous challenge. It makes unusual demands not only on our time but on the very idea of citizenship.

It ultimately, however, is a citizen’s obligation to press elected representatives to pursue the truth, to let them know — easy as a phone call or an email to readily available addresses and numbers — that despite all the clatter, we understand there are important principles that must be preserved and that deserve our focus.

Our founding documents are worth the effort. Not all of their words are perfect, but they’re the best hope we’ve got.

This story appeared in the paper…

Oct 18-31, 2019


Our founding documents are our best hope

Editorial: Despite moments of welcome, LGBTQ Catholics still on the margins

20190701T1124-0167-CNS-NY-PRIDE-MASS resize.jpg

Altar server Angelo Alcasabas prepares the altar during an annual “Pre-Pride Festive Mass” at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City June 29. Jesuit Fr. James Martin presided at the liturgy, which is hosted by the parish’s LGBT outreach ministry. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Popes, even the comparatively freewheeling Francis, don’t cram into an already jammed calendar a half-hour, announced, private meeting in a formal setting with a U.S. priest who has been the cause of ecclesial apoplexy in some church quarters, unless the papal intent is to send a very clear message.

And at least one unmistakable message in the Sept. 30 meeting between Francis and Jesuit Fr. James Martin was, if not in so many words: “This priest is okay, so stop messing with him.” It was an unambiguous point aimed clearly at some U.S. bishops and others on the right who had spoken out against Martin, his book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, and the speeches he’s been delivering since its publication in June 2017.

As remarkable as the meeting and the message are — who could have dreamed of such 10 years ago? — in their wake are as many questions as answers.

Martin has become a target for those who think homosexuality should be condemned, that the church should draw severe lines around questions of sexuality, that gays should be kept from seminaries, that partners in same-sex marriages are automatically disqualified from taking up positions of service in the church, and even that homosexuals can be changed. He has been disinvited from speaking engagements and subjected to unspeakable ugliness online.

Most recently, he was singled out by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput who, in gracious if quite pointed prose, stated: “Due to the confusion caused by his statements and activities regarding same-sex related (LGBT) issues, I find it necessary to emphasize that Father Martin does not speak with authority on behalf of the Church, and to caution the faithful about some of his claims.” Chaput received some public support among other bishops who are similarly identified as culture warriors.

If he doesn’t speak with the authority of the church, Martin certainly, since Sept. 30, speaks with the approval of the pope.

But if the pope is signaling a new attitude in the church regarding the LGBTQ community, what, exactly, does it mean? Further, is it even fair to expect exactitude in an area that for so long has been deeply fraught with contention that can extend to hatred?

Clearly, the meeting was a friendly one. Martin was not chastised. He tweeted that it was “one of the highlights of my life. I felt encouraged, consoled and inspired by the Holy Father. … And his time with me, in the middle of a busy day and a busy life, seems a clear sign of his deep pastoral care for LGBT Catholics and LGBT people worldwide.”

That seems an indisputable claim.  

And it is certainly backed up by others, most enthusiastically by New Ways Ministry, which has long advocated for and ministered to LGBTQ Catholics in the church. The New Ways statement described the event as reason for “a day of celebration for LGBTQ Catholics who have longed for an outstretched hand of welcome from the church that they love.”

Certainly, Francis’s outstretched hand is far more welcoming than the “intrinsically disordered” (yes, we know, it was referring only to orientation) judgment that gays and lesbians previously encountered. But how much of the LGBTQ experience is welcome? Martin has been cautious to maintain he stays within the bounds of church teachings. But do members of the LGBTQ community who are also Catholic also obey such proscriptions?

NCR columnist Jamie Manson, who writes often about the struggles an openly lesbian woman faces in trying to stay in the church, has been clear in the past in pointing up Francis’ inconsistencies in dealing with gays, lesbians and transgender persons.

While he’s met with Martin and apparently restored to ministry another priest who had been ousted for disagreeing with church teaching on same-sex marriage, the pope has also publicly worried about homosexuals in the priesthood and signed a Vatican document that stated the church “cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’ ”

On the Society of Jesus’ official Twitter account, the Jesuits said of Francis and Martin’s meeting: “No Politics. No strategies. No hidden agendas. Just two brothers in the Lord in an honest conversation about how best to reach those who feel as if they are on the margins. This is the Gospel at work in our Church today.”

That is a lovely sentiment. But they have to know — as the pope certainly did — that the politics in the meeting is inherent. If there was strategy, it was discussed during the conversation, the contents of which were not revealed.

And what it all means in terms of acceptance of LGBTQ Catholics and their families — the degree to which they are accepted — will likely unravel over time.

We don’t want to spoil the moment, but we feel compelled to say big as it was, it was but a moment. This pope has certainly extended a more welcoming hand to the LGBTQ community than any previous. We certainly take hope from the string of increments extending that welcome that in this papacy have mixed with the teachings and attitudes that have caused LGBTQ Catholics to remain on the margins.

We’ll rejoice in the increments, but only with the sober understanding that as long as LGBTQ Catholics are on the margins, and as long as popes can change while church teaching on sexuality in so many areas remains unchanged, there’s a lot more work to be done.

Editorial: The status quo won’t save the planet or the Catholic Church

20190708T1522-28625-CNS-AMAZON-OVERVIEW c.jpg

A girl holding a candle prays during Mass in St. Ignatius, Guyana. (CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

A sense of urgency, quite unusual and perhaps unprecedented in degree, hangs over the upcoming Synod of Bishops for the Amazon region. It is a peculiarly 21st century phenomenon that bishops from a wide swath of the earth meet with such high stakes in the balance: the survival of the planet and the survival of the life of faith among Catholics in an area in extreme need of sacramental ministers.

Those needs, and the inherent consequences of ignoring them, may be as obvious to some as a time lapse display of melting arctic ice. However, amid increasing storms, disappearing glaciers, receding coastlines, the shifting of flora and fauna to match the new weather patterns, and a global supermajority of scientists informing us of imminent peril in unequivocal terms, there exist still, in high places, deniers of climate change.

An eerie parallel exists within the Catholic world. The clerical culture is crumbling. The old model of church — a well-staffed rectory and a convent full of sisters — still resident in the Catholic psyche as the ideal to be pursued, is long gone. It won’t return. In fact, it was, given the church’s timeline, a blip of a 20th century anomaly that existed, actually, in very few places. And given the legacy of scandal that followed in its wake, perhaps not an exemplary model after all.

It was high-consumption Catholicism, often ostentatious, meant to impress and to project an air of superiority. It has been excruciatingly humbled.

The equivalent of climate deniers in the Catholic world are those who refuse to acknowledge the melting credibility of the clerical and hierarchical structures, the extinction of a certain sense of superiority, the disappearance of young people, the diminishment of the life of faith absent the leadership of married people and, especially, women.

The local church reality in much of the world has been quite different from that of the Catholic heyday in, say, Boston or Philadelphia or Chicago. The Amazon synod brings that reality to the fore in concentrated form.

If the needs giving rise to the synod are unusual, the pushback against it is unprecedented. On the matter of climate science, the bishops will be pushing into gale force objections of international movers and shakers engaged in such activities as exploitative mining practices and illegal deforestation for agricultural purposes. They inflict incalculable damage to invaluable ecosystems and to the people who live there.

In the synod, formally titled “The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for Integral Ecology,” the church will listen to the earth with a heightened sense of connection to it. It will acknowledge accountability for what is happening to, in the words of Pope Francis, our common home.

In that same setting, leaders will listen to the people of the church with a degree of openness to the needs discovered in local circumstances that is inspiring, if disconcerting to some.

Mauricio López Oropeza, a leader of the consultative process that involved some 90,000 people in the Amazon region, said “We were trying to transform the way the church participates in the different territories in the Amazon region, and trying to come to listen.”

Regarding critics of the working document for the synod, López told Vatican correspondent Joshua J. McElwee, “They have not even tried to go to the territory and experience the reality there.”

Among the loudest critics, not surprisingly, is U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, joined by Bishop Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan. How much credence one should give to a two-person campaign against the pope is an open question, but they’ve attracted a great deal of attention in certain circles with their rather extensive charges — spoken, of course, in “love” for the pope and unspecified “souls” — against Francis. One paragraph of their screed is sufficient to get the gist:

No honest person can anymore deny the almost general doctrinal confusion which is reigning in the life of the Church in our days. This is particularly due to ambiguities regarding the indissolubility of marriage, which is being relativized through the practice of the admittance of persons cohabitating in irregular unions to Holy Communion, due to the increasing approval of homosexual acts, which are intrinsically contrary to nature and contrary to the revealed will of God, due to errors regarding the uniqueness of the Our Lord Jesus Christ and His redemptive work, which is being relativized through erroneous affirmations on the diversity of religions, and especially due to the recognition of diverse forms of paganism and their ritual practices through the Instrumentum Laboris for the coming Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon.

Enough said.

The instrumentum laboris, the working document, by the way, can be found here. It isn’t confusing. It is rather straightforward and, in places, powerfully rendered.

It is valuable to read for its own sake and to take in the magnificence of a global church confronting, from the point of view of universal vastness to the particulars of daily lives and species unaccounted for, existential issues of this era. It is valuable, too, should you require a measure for the degree of quackery and self-indulgence baked into Burke’s two-man campaign.

Like a climate denier, he would have us maintain the status quo or yearn for some non-existent golden era, no matter how damaging to the life of a faith community today. He frets elsewhere about the “practical abolition of priestly celibacy,” because of the suggestion that ordination of proven, older married men might provide a solution to the lack of priests throughout the Amazon. Does he forget that it was Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI who allowed the ordination of married men transferring from other denominations?

The synod on the Amazon, perhaps inadvertently, brings to a concentrated point a necessary discussion of the survival of the planet and the survival of a church undergoing unprecedented change. In either realm, survival does not lie in the status quo or returning to the way things were done in the past.

Editorial: Impeachment inquiry against Trump is well worth the effort

20190206T0839-24284-CNS-ABORTION-SURVIVORS-ACT.jpg

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., look on as President Donald Trump delivers his second State of the Union address Feb. 5, at the Capitol in Washington. (CNS/Doug Mills, pool via Reuters)

The weight of one too many outrageous assaults on our democratic institutions has finally tipped the scales. Formal impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump are underway. 

In announcing the proceedings, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., stated, “The actions of the Trump presidency revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.”

What tipped the scales was Trump’s acknowledgement that, in a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he had sought the assistance of that foreign power in damaging his principal political opponent in the 2020 presidential race, former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Formal impeachment was a line that had split the ranks of Democrats. Pelosi herself has for months been reluctant to entertain the idea, calculating that it would backfire politically and that the focus, while investigations of Trump continued in multiple directions, should be on removing the president through election next year.

Her original position, which antagonized those farther left in the party, was bolstered by moderate Democrats from conservative districts worried about what endorsing impeachment would mean for their reelection prospects.

The irony, of course, is that it was those same moderate Democrats who jumped on the impeachment side of the scales when the news first hit about a whistleblower who has been prohibited by the administration and in violation of federal law from sharing his formal complaint with Congress. According to reports, the nature of the alleged offense involving national security issues and an apparently bold invitation to a foreign power to interfere in a U.S. presidential election was enough to push many moderate Democrats over the edge.

Reporting on the issue by The Washington Post shows that while the proximate causes of the impeachment action — Trump’s phone call and the administration’s stonewalling of the whistleblower account — have turned minds, the story is far more complex. Those events are embedded in extended attempts over months by Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to manipulate the Ukrainian government for political ends beneficial to his client.

That reporting depicts deep rifts within the White House over secrecy that prevailed in Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, his sidelining of experts, including then-national security adviser John Bolton, and the involvement of Giuliani in scheming a strategy that remained out of sight of most normal foreign policy experts’ decision-making processes.

Impeachment is an imprecise exercise. Pelosi provided no details regarding how the process would move forward, its scope, or how long it would take.

Only two presidents have been impeached, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998, and each was acquitted and completed their terms.

If the initial work of an impeachment investigation is less than clear, the Senate’s role, should it reach that level, is a completely make-it-up-as-you-go-along enterprise, if precedent is any indication. And the Republican-controlled Senate can simply end the process before it begins, avoiding the task of even coming up with rules for a trial.

To see value in this undertaking requires looking beyond the politics, a thick part of any impeachment process, to principle. Early on, the calculation was that impeachment would backfire on Democrats at the ballot box next year. That’s allowing Trump to run the table without any hope of holding him accountable.

It may be of little consolation immediately, but engaging a process that attempts to get at the truth and hold this president — incomparably dismissive of democratic institutions and protocol — accountable for at least some of his destructive behavior is well worth the effort. If for no other reason, then for history’s sake. Our democracy and the integrity of the elections that undergird it deserve our best shot.

The Blessings of Middle Age

I’ve been noticing more and more the things that used to upset, bother, rile me up or even piss me off no longer have a draconian and sin inducing effect on me anymore. I’m getting old.  It’s not an accomplishment that I’ve earned its one that comes with breathing.  In my 20’s and 30’s other drivers gave me deep insight into the mindset of mass murders.  My lack of patience and frequent cursing was an almost weekly conversation at Confession with my Priest.  At some point venial sins commited over and over begin to resemble family members more than behavior to be restrained.  Now that I am well into my 50’s I’m Blessed in so many more ways than I was as a youth.  It’s interesting to see how frequently the Bible talks about the folly of youth and how with age comes wisdom and understanding.  Grace is a gift we are given almost continuously it is strength unmerited and freedom unearned.

When I first noticed this I began to become concerned that I was not being compassionate, empathetic anti-social.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I care more deeply as I get older but not in the way I did when I was younger.  I look to the longer term.  if you’re making choices that aren’t healthy I’m less inclined at this point to correct you directly and more inclined to suggest, pray and trust.  My Will imposed on you is of no use to the lesson God is trying to teach you. I have learned God knows better how, when and where.  He doesn’t need my help getting you to a closer relationship with Him.

These are just some of the thoughts playing around in my head tonight. I wanted to get them online to see what You (dear reader) have noticed in your lives and walks with God about getting older.   Please comment and share, lets have a conversation.

Editorial: Bishop’s blackmailing of immigrant deserves special dose of outrage

St._Joseph_Cathedral_Interior_-_Buffalo,_NY crop.jpg

The interior of St. Joseph Cathedral in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York (Wikimedia Commons/Jfvoll)

An immigrant is sexually assaulted by a work supervisor. He goes to a higher authority to complain, but is told to shut up or he can expect to be deported.

A tale from a sleazy slaughterhouse? The underbelly of existence for undocumented restaurant workers in any big American city?

No, it happened in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, New York, if Fr. Ryszard Biernat’s story is to be believed.

Considering the cascade of tales that are bewildering and disgusting Catholics from the Niagara Falls region, Biernat’s story retains at least some credibility, considering the woeful succession of reports of coverups, including incomplete lists of clerical wrongdoers issued by Bishop Richard Malone.

In the ugliness coming out of Buffalo, Biernat’s story calls for a special dose of outrage, unless Catholics have become so numb that this will be just another story in an ugly catalogue.

“If you don’t stop talking about this, you will not become a priest,” Biernat said he was told by Buffalo Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz in 2004, after he told the bishop he was assaulted by Fr. Arthur Smith in a parish rectory. The quote is from the Buffalo News, part of a local media that has been all over this story. Grosz has denied any blackmail threat. Biernat said the threat of forbidding ordination was also a threat to deport him.

Questions remain: Much of the anger has focused on Malone, but Biernat’s account points to a deeper rot in the diocese that precedes Malone, the current bishop who was appointed to Buffalo in 2012.

Church law mandates that such blatant corruption should be investigated by the metropolitan of the region, in this case Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. At their last national meeting, bishops agreed that that they should be the ones ultimately placed in charge of disciplining their fellow church leaders who go astray.

We lack confidence in the model. First, the right questions need to be asked. Can they be asked by investigators beholden to church authority (that would include priests and lay employees)? Is Biernat’s charge evidence of a criminal matter? Is there something corrupt in the current system of bringing seminarians from overseas, spiking enrollment numbers for institutions in desperate need of students? Is Buffalo part of a wider pattern, or is there something peculiar about it that brings forth this sordid tale?

Questions need to be raised about the circumstances of seminarians from overseas. The Buffalo case suggests the worst — vulnerable new arrivals subjected to threats and intimidation. But it also raises concerns about numbers: How many are there? Where do they come from? Why are they planning to minister here instead of in their home countries? Do they expect to be incardinated into a diocese or are their stays temporary? What do bishops in their home countries have to say?

Biernat’s case argues that at least some bishops have abdicated their authority by looking the other way and engaging in aggressive coverups. This Buffalo case cries out for an independent authority to investigate alleged crimes of sexual assault against adults, particularly the vulnerable. Seminarians, so dependent upon the good will of their bishop leaders, are particularly endangered by clerical corruption, even more so if their very existence in the country is dependent on maintaining their vocation status.

Biernat, who served as priest secretary to Malone, said he felt finally free to talk about his ordeal after becoming a U.S. citizen in July. “I feel so liberated. Now I can speak,” he told the Buffalo News. American Catholics are not so encumbered. May their outrage be heard, as we watch if the processes the bishops have embraced are up to the realities of dealing with this continuing crisis.

Editorial: Bishop’s alleged blackmailing of immigrant deserves special dose of outrage

St._Joseph_Cathedral_Interior_-_Buffalo,_NY crop.jpg

The interior of St. Joseph Cathedral in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York (Wikimedia Commons/Jfvoll)

An immigrant is sexually assaulted by a work supervisor. He goes to a higher authority to complain, but is told to shut up or he can expect to be deported.

A tale from a sleazy slaughterhouse? The underbelly of existence for undocumented restaurant workers in any big American city?

No, it happened in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, New York, if Fr. Ryszard Biernat’s story is to be believed.

Considering the cascade of tales that are bewildering and disgusting Catholics from the Niagara Falls region, Biernat’s story retains at least some credibility, considering the woeful succession of reports of coverups, including incomplete lists of clerical wrongdoers issued by Bishop Richard Malone.

In the ugliness coming out of Buffalo, Biernat’s story calls for a special dose of outrage, unless Catholics have become so numb that this will be just another story in an ugly catalogue.

“If you don’t stop talking about this, you will not become a priest,” Biernat said he was told by Buffalo Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz in 2004, after he told the bishop he was assaulted by Fr. Arthur Smith in a parish rectory. The quote is from the Buffalo News, part of a local media that has been all over this story. Grosz has denied any blackmail threat. Biernat said the threat of forbidding ordination was also a threat to deport him.

Questions remain: Much of the anger has focused on Malone, but Biernat’s account points to a deeper rot in the diocese that precedes Malone, the current bishop who was appointed to Buffalo in 2012.

Church law mandates that such blatant corruption should be investigated by the metropolitan of the region, in this case Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. At their last national meeting, bishops agreed that that they should be the ones ultimately placed in charge of disciplining their fellow church leaders who go astray.

We lack confidence in the model. First, the right questions need to be asked. Can they be asked by investigators beholden to church authority (that would include priests and lay employees)? Is Biernat’s charge evidence of a criminal matter? Is there something corrupt in the current system of bringing seminarians from overseas, spiking enrollment numbers for institutions in desperate need of students? Is Buffalo part of a wider pattern, or is there something peculiar about it that brings forth this sordid tale?

Questions need to be raised about the circumstances of seminarians from overseas. The Buffalo case suggests the worst — vulnerable new arrivals subjected to threats and intimidation. But it also raises concerns about numbers: How many are there? Where do they come from? Why are they planning to minister here instead of in their home countries? Do they expect to be incardinated into a diocese or are their stays temporary? What do bishops in their home countries have to say?

Biernat’s case argues that at least some bishops have abdicated their authority by looking the other way and engaging in aggressive coverups. This Buffalo case cries out for an independent authority to investigate alleged crimes of sexual assault against adults, particularly the vulnerable. Seminarians, so dependent upon the good will of their bishop leaders, are particularly endangered by clerical corruption, even more so if their very existence in the country is dependent on maintaining their vocation status.

Biernat, who served as priest secretary to Malone, said he felt finally free to talk about his ordeal after becoming a U.S. citizen in July. “I feel so liberated. Now I can speak,” he told the Buffalo News. American Catholics are not so encumbered. May their outrage be heard, as we watch if the processes the bishops have embraced are up to the realities of dealing with this continuing crisis.

Editorial: Don’t ignore prophets who call out against nuclear weapons

CNS-protest c.jpg

Demonstrators pray outside the federal courthouse in Tacoma, Wash., March 29, 2011, during the sentencing of five anti-war activists found guilty on charges related to cutting through fences at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor to protest submarine nuclear weapons. The five include 82-year-old Jesuit Fr. Bill Bichsel of Tacoma, another Jesuit priest, a woman religious, a retired teacher and a social worker. (CNS/Mike Penney)

Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, one of the originators of the Plowshares movement, was once asked by NCR if “all of the courtroom-as-social-theater” had not become outdated and ineffective.

“Well, we hear that all the time about this repetition, let’s say, of the Plowshares actions all over the place — and I don’t know,” replied Berrigan, who died in 2016. “The only answer I can muster is, ‘You know, if you have a better way, I wish you’d tell us and I wish you’d help us find that better way.’ But, of course, no one does. So there we are, generally speaking. But I think behind a lot of it is the fear of that thing. It inspires a lot of dread of consequences and shakes people where they would like not to be shaken.”

The name Plowshares refers, of course, to the lines in Isaiah where the prophet speaks of a world in which swords are turned into plowshares. The first Plowshares action targeting nuclear weapons was a celebrated protest at a General Electric facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, in 1980.

CNS-berr cc.jpg

A mourner carries signs as she participates in a peace march May 6, 2016, prior to the funeral Mass of Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The latest action, of more than 100 in the intervening four decades, occurred in April 2018. It involved seven Catholic peace activists who broke into a nuclear submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia, where six Trident submarines, each designed to carry nearly 200 nuclear warheads, are based.

The group of seven, mostly middle-aged or elderly, will stand trial Oct. 21, each on charges of three felonies and one misdemeanor. One of them, Elizabeth McAlister, wife of the late Philip Berrigan, brother of Daniel, embodies the legacy of the movement seen by some as a quixotic and absurd tilting at a gargantuan windmill and by others as an authentically prophetic witness in the nuclear era.

The Plowshares movement — spilled blood, spray painted slogans and banging on implements of war with carpenters’ hammers — is a non-violent movement of both symbol and personal jeopardy. No act is going to stop the development and production of nuclear weapons, but the fact of them indeed shakes us where we would like not to be shaken. McAlister and others have been disturbing the peace and questioning the presumptions of the nuclear-armed state for decades.

CNS-kingsbay c.jpg

Kings Bay Plowshares, April 4, 2018, from left: Clare Grady, Patrick O’Neill, Elizabeth McAlister, Jesuit Fr. Steve Kelly, Martha Hennessy, Mark Colville and Carmen Trotta (CNS /Kings Bay Plowshares)

Courts often don’t know what to do with such witness. Federal Judge Lisa Godbey Wood of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, considered the defendants’ novel approach — they tried to use the 1993 Religion Freedom Restoration Act, arguing that they had been led by deeply held religious beliefs that were, in turn, unduly burdened by the government’s action in arresting them. The judge was convinced of the sincerity of their faith and that the government had burdened that faith, but also that the arrests were justified because of the state’s compelling interests in the security of nuclear weapons and protection of federal property.

Certainly compelling questions arise for the government and the military in how a ragtag band of middle aged and older protesters managed to cut through several layers of perimeter of a nuclear installation before waiting to be apprehended.

If the law can’t bend in certain circumstances, judges certainly can exercise discretion in applying consequences. In this case, it appears an act of unnecessary cruelty that the judge refuses to change conditions of bond — $50,000 and an ankle monitor — that would allow the 79-year-old McAlister to leave prison.

CNS-ricemont cc.jpg

Society of the Sacred Heart Sr. Anne Montgomery, left, who participated in six Plowshares actions to protest nuclear weapons 1980-2009, is pictured with Society of the Holy Child Jesus Sr. Megan Rice, who has been arrested about 40 times for nuclear activism, in a 2010 photo (CNS/Courtesy of Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action)

She is, demonstrably, a threat to no one except those whose consciences take in the truth of her witness; nor is she a threat to disappear. She’s been at this with other members of the broad Catholic Worker community for a long time. NCR agrees with McAlister’s fellow activist Patrick O’Neill when he points out: “Despite her legacy as a Catholic leader of the peace movement for almost 60 years, Ms. McAlister has now spent more than 500 days and nights in jail in relative obscurity; her sacrifice for nuclear disarmament unknown to most Americans.” It is an amount of time that those who have seen such actions and their legal consequences over the years say is longer than time spent in prison by most who are convicted of such charges.

The church has long condemned nuclear weapons and the annihilative threat they pose. Pope Francis, in a Nov. 10, 2017, talk, said: “International relations cannot be held captive to military force, mutual intimidation, and the parading of stockpiles of arms. Weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, create nothing but a false sense of security. They cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence between members of the human family.”

In her most recent book, The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage, Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister says prophecy “has ragged edges. It sets out to deconstruct the present situation. It critiques social structures to which many have given their lives or in which they have status. … the ring of real prophecy lies in its uncommon courage.”

This is, indeed, prophecy — real, ragged, discomfiting, and not to be ignored.