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.

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.

Editorial: Those who dismiss Pell verdict ignore integrity of legal process

CNS-pell truck c.jpg

Australian Cardinal George Pell departs in a van from the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne Aug. 21. An Australian appeals court upheld the conviction of Cardinal Pell on five counts of sexually assaulting two choirboys more than two decades ago. (CNS/AAP Images/Reuters/Stefan Postles)

The response in certain circles to the Aug. 21 court decision upholding Cardinal George Pell’s conviction for sexually assaulting two choirboys in the 1990s was as swift as it was irrational.

Edward Peters, a canon lawyer who teaches at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary, claimed in a tweet some 40 minutes after the verdict that “the testimony used to convict Thomas More was more plausible.”

Embedded rich media on Twitter

Tweet from Edward Peters

Hours later, John Paul II biographer George Weigel questioned at First Things whether people would want to travel to Australia anymore because of “mob hysteria.” First Things editor Matthew Schmitz likened an aggrieved Pell to the suffering Christ.

In following days, Crux’s John Allen said the odds against Pell being guilty are “awfully long.” And the editor of Crisis Magazine, Michael Warren Davis, claimed it is “literally impossible” that Pell is guilty.

Even a cardinal joined in, with South Africa’s Wilfrid Napier taking to Twitter to characterize Weigel’s analysis as “daring,” although the cardinal later said he did not mean to praise the biographer’s point of view. (Nota bene, the Oxford English dictionary defines “daring” as “adventurous or audaciously bold.”)

Forgive the graphic nature of the following, but it serves to indicate the seriousness of what these men dismiss.

According to 12 members of a jury of his peers, and to two appeals judges who just upheld their verdict, Pell, as archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, orally raped one 13-year-old boy and indecently assaulted another. Later, he sought the same boys out again to grab at their genitals at church.

Excuse us — perhaps it comes from 35 years’ experience investigating such monstrous predators as Legionaries of Christ founder Marcial Maciel Degollado, who First Things defended for years, once calling him an “innocent and indeed holy person” — but we have some rather firm ideas about the consideration that should be accorded survivors of such despicable and cruel abuse.

In the interest of helping others care for victims — assuming, of course, that those defending the convicted cardinal have such intention — it seems only reasonable that basic courtesy is a minimum. When a person comes forward alleging that they have been abused by a minister in the Catholic Church — be it a priest, bishop, sister, teacher, parish worker or otherwise — they should be listened to, treated with respect, and presented with avenues for justice.

The primary responsibility for assessing the truth of the alleged victim’s claim falls to those taking part in the court proceedings, and unless something’s gone strangely awry, we still trust that the court systems of major advanced democracies, such as Australia, are reliable arbiters of justice.

CNS-pell court cc.jpg

Australian Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne Aug. 21. (CNS/AAP Images/Reuters/Erik Anderson)

Jesuit Fr. Michael Kelly wrote in a recent edition of La Croix International, “As an Australian priest, I am acutely aware of the fallout from this whole affair for the faithful. I have come to the conclusion that the best help I can be is help them to accept reality.”

And that reality, he writes, is that George Pell is a convicted criminal. “The bottom line is that Pell was convicted of crimes unanimously by a trial jury. You either accept that this is the best our legal system can offer or you throw out trial by jury. And that’s not going to happen.”

Nor should it.

The Jesuit, a long-time journalist and founder of Eureka Street magazine, based in Melbourne, described the rationale for the loud and often anguished denial of the verdict unbalanced and exaggerated.

That certainly is the case in the examples cited above.

Weigel’s take on the sex abuse scandal seems to wind through time like an out-of-tempo sine wave, its undulations dependent on whether friend or foe is in the dock and which pope happens to be in place. He was one of the original and loudest (with the rest of the crew at First Things) to deny the scandal altogether, then just as loudly tout the virtue of Maciel and the impossibility that this good and holy man could be accused of such vile activity.

When the evidence became overwhelming, his analysis became that Maciel and his minions duped the world and his favorite pope. His position required ignoring years of revealing work by reporters, exhausting attempts to get the pope’s attention from eight or nine quite credible victims, and warnings from one or two bishops, all of whom weren’t duped.

Pell’s an old Weigel friend, and so the pundit’s denial has expanded to indict the good people of an entire country along with its justice system.

As we understand it, Pell has opportunity for another appeal. Meanwhile, the church will continue to face a reckoning around the world with old sins newly revealed. Hysteria serves no purpose. An ongoing, sober accounting of what happened and an unblinking search for why and how it happened are the questions and answers that will best serve the people of God.

Editorial: ‘The 1619 Project’ is landmark truth telling

Ghana c.jpg

Shackles used during the slave trade are displayed at the Cape Coast Castle Museum in Cape Coast, Ghana, Aug. 28, 2010. Established as a fortress for the trade of gold and other valuable resources, the castle was later used as a dungeon for holding slaves before their transfer to the Americas. It is estimated that around 1 million slaves were transported from what is now Ghana to the Americas between the 1600s and the middle of the 19th century. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

“Ultimately, my goal is to subvert the common perception of ‘black history’ as somehow separate from American history and to reinstate it as indivisible from the totality of past social, political and economic occurrences that make up contemporary American culture.”

The words are displayed by Hank Willis Thomas, one of the artists whose work appears in “30 Americans,” an art exhibition from the Rubell Family Collection that debuted in December 2008 and has been making its way around the country since 2011. “30 Americans” was recently on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, a few blocks from NCR’s headquarters.

Thomas’ goal is certainly an uphill struggle.

It is, however, an idea that moved well beyond the bounds of a museum description with “The 1619 Project,” an undertaking of The New York Times that might well go down as a publishing landmark under the heading of bold truth-telling.

The title itself requires a reconsideration of American history, of the founding era, of the presumptions that undergird how we think of ourselves as individuals and as a nation.

The project bares a history, the beginnings of which is marked by the sale 400 years ago of the first Africans into slavery in the new world, thus 1619. It is a history that has been horribly distorted and purposely hidden and ignored but one that keeps poking through the national façade of tranquility.

The tranquility, of course, has been shattered repeatedly in recent years with racist language from a president who manages to see “good people” among white supremacists and who has been unrestrained in his use of vile descriptions, wholly unsupported by actual evidence, of masses of immigrants.

One can only imagine that the façade has been so ripped apart that we’re now able to see the extent of the danger should we approach the logical conclusion of the Trumpian/far right ambition. Perhaps we’ve gone so far down that dangerous path that the emergence of soul-searched truth is inevitable. Perhaps the torrent of presidential lying, the level of which suggests some much deeper disturbance than a wish for political advantage, has created a counter-reaction, an unprecedented appetite for the truth.

PpGJClzQ cc.jpg

March through Chapel Hill, July 4, 1964 (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of James H. Wallace Jr. © Jim Wallace)

Whatever the forces propelling it, “The 1619 Project” leaps light years ahead of the normal considerations of race in the United States, not through analysis or speculation about causes or wishes about what might be, or considerations of white privilege. Rather it deals unflinchingly and in minutely researched detail, with what was, and that becomes integral to consideration of what we’ve become. Slavery is in almost every detail of who we are — accounting systems,Wall Street; sugar and pecans; voter suppression and traffic jams in Atlanta.

The fundamental declaration of the underlying reality proceeds in in-your-face big, bold letters, the primary essay in the magazine: “Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written. Black Americans fought to make them true. Without this struggle, America would have no democracy at all.”

In other words, if you start the history lesson on the founding of the country at 1776, you’ve already got it wrong. Start with 1619. That sale represented “the beginning of American slavery. The first humans sold into bondage here were among “the 21.5 million Africans who would be kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean in the largest forced migration in human history until the Second World War. Almost two million did not survive the grueling journey, known as the Middle Passage.”

Those first 20 to 30 slaves would be followed by 400,000 others sold into bondage in the United States before the abolition of the international slave trade. It is persuasively argued — not for the first time in this magazine, but gathered altogether in a compact accounting, with unusual force — that that sale represented the foundational act that would eventually enable a feeble new nation to become an economic marvel. Without slavery, our history would have been dramatically different.

It might be further extrapolated for mainline religious groups that without the later civil rights movement, an incremental step toward truth, this country would not have its most resounding example of religious nonviolence and civil disobedience in the pursuit of justice.

The New York Times, of course, doesn’t need our support. It is the behemoth of publications with unparalleled resources. It has also been a very white organization, reflective of the presumptions of white privilege and power that its August 18, 2019, magazine examines as cause and residual effects of slavery.

Thus it is no small matter that it would turn over an entire magazine to the searing reality — the history of brutality and exploitation so often glossed over and romanticized — that have deeper roots in the American reality than our founding documents.

Nikole Hanna-Jones, a magazine staff writer and 2017 MacArthur Fellowship grant winner who pitched the idea and wrote the lead essay, had this to say about the undertaking: “I have spent every moment of this project aware of what it means to be doing this in The New York Times. It’s very powerful, and it’s very fraught at the same time.”

20090713cnsph0155 cc7.jpg

President Barack Obama speaks to the media following his tour of the Cape Coast Castle, a former slave holding facility, in the town of Cape Coast, Ghana, July 11, 2009. (CNS/Reuters/Jason Reed)

And it is timely, the kind of truth-telling essential at a moment when facts and fantasy have become fungible. The bottom line: These are ugly realities that have resonance in nearly every corner of contemporary life in the United States. They need to be taught as an irreducible element of our history. To that end, The Times has printed hundreds of thousands of extra copies distributed free to libraries, museums and schools. Additional materials are available, including podcasts and a broadsheet page by Hanna-Jones on the subject for kids. The publication has also produced, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, a curriculum to be distributed in schools across the country.

Demand that your school — public, private, Catholic or other religious institution, charter or home — include the curriculum as a required course of study.

“Almost every work on display is in some ways an argument with the basic organizing principle of the exhibition,” wrote culture critic Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post when the traveling exhibit by African American artists opened in the nation’s capital in 2011. “Far from being simple exemplars of African American art, the works in ’30 Americans’ range from parodies of that idea to direct confrontations with efforts to categorize, define and contain racial identity.”

The review went on in an almost agonized questioning of intent and motive and how art deals with race “when everyone acknowledges that there is no agreement about what race means, or should mean, [that what matters] is the work that resists to the very end, that refuses to participate, that bears some final trace of something elementally human, whatever that means.”

The questions seem almost quaint given what has occurred in the eight years since. They were, perhaps, questions that made sense as we lived through two terms of a black president. But we’re seeing how quickly things can unravel in just two years of a White House engaged in race baiting. We’re well beyond the time for delicate questions and academic hair-splitting. It is time for bold truths.

Editorial: American carnage, revisited

This article appears in the Gun Violence feature series. View the full series.

CNS-ohio c.jpg

Family and friends of Derek Fudge, who was killed in a mass shooting early Aug. 4 in Dayton, Ohio, embrace during an Aug. 5 memorial service in Springfield. In response to the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton Aug. 3 and 4, several U.S. bishops expressed their support and prayers for victims while also expressing outrage that these tragedies continue to occur. (CNS/Reuters/Bryan Woolston)

President Donald Trump’s inauguration included an angry tirade about American urban crime, even as most U.S. cities experienced a sharp drop in murders and violence over the past two decades.

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he said. That was in January 2017.

Now that carnage has returned with a vengeance.

Some argue that Americans are numb to mass shootings since Columbine back in 1999. The onslaught — Las Vegas, Parkland, Gilroy — they say, has begun to merge in our collective heads and lose particular significance.

Some look to generalized moralizing for an explanation. The problem, they say, are video games. Yet Japanese and South Korean young people love video games as much as their American counterparts, but these kinds of attacks rarely happen in either of those countries. Or it’s encroaching secularism. But Northern Europe is perhaps the most secular region on Earth, and they rarely suffer such horrors. Or it’s mental health. But are Americans really more prone to serious mental disorders than other people?

There is one big difference: Young Americans, almost always male, can find the kind of firepower that expresses deadly rage.

The issue of easy access to weapons of war is a common denominator from Columbine on. But last weekend’s American carnage in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, is different. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama saw their roles as national preachers of grief and solace in times of crisis. Clinton after Oklahoma City, Bush after 9/11 and Obama after the Charleston church massacre, rose to the occasions with words of comfort in the most eloquent ways that these three men could muster.

This time is different. Never have we experienced political leadership where mass murderers could quote the very rhetoric emanating from the White House to justify their evil.

Ever since Donald Trump and his immigrant wife came down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his presidential bid in June 2015, the country has been barraged with an onslaught of hate speech emanating from this president.

At that campaign announcement, lest we forget, candidate Trump declared Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, with a snarky aside that maybe some are good people. Shall we go on? The litany is too familiar: the calling out for four Congresswomen to go back where they came from. One was born in Cincinnati, which the last time we checked is in the United States; another in the Bronx, not too far from the president’s birthplace.

Most grotesquely, when a goon at one of his Florida rallies echoed a lynch mob, calling out that immigrants should be shot, Trump could only make light of the remark. Just weeks later, an angry young man took up that demonic spirit and traveled hundreds of miles to a place where he knew there would be many Mexicans.

That was El Paso. The situation in Dayton remains murkier. Whether that horror will be consigned to the actions of yet another mentally deranged individual, or whether it was part of a wider picture of hatred, has yet to be determined at this writing.

The double dose of atrocity this past weekend was different, particularly what we know about El Paso. When a mass murderer uses the same language as the president, it becomes a moral issue. It is now imperative to call out those who have for too long ignored or defended the indefensible. Those Catholics who have nurtured this evil need to be called to account.

We don’t call for forbidding Communion. As Pope Francis says, Eucharist is not a reward for the holy but a help for sinners. But these times call for a massive examination of conscience for those who have fostered this kind of leadership. That includes bishops and priests, as well as lay Catholics, particularly those who are part of this administration, and those churchgoers who feel no shame in these incessant attacks on migrants and others, most of whom are fellow Catholics.

This time is different, and church leaders should recognize it. No more generalizing indictments of society and its excesses. No more lukewarm criticisms of the administration’s immigration policies from the bishops’ national conference, spelled out in sanitized press releases where the name Trump never appears, as if this peculiar evil is some kind of disembodied mass.

We have a morally bankrupt leader. We will need to find our leaders in other, sometimes unexpected, places.

One such opportunity was at the Football Hall of Fame ceremonies in Canton, Ohio, last weekend. There Champ Bailey, one of the honorees, spoke in a serious tone at what is usually a more jocular jock fest.

“We say this to all of our white friends: When we tell you about our fears, please listen,” Bailey said. “When we tell you we are afraid for our kids, please listen. And when we tell you there are many challenges we face because of the color of our skin, please listen.”

Listening is a start for all of white America, particularly those churchgoers who for some perverse reason have reveled in the bigotry of this peculiar administration while listening to the message of the Gospel every Sunday. Only then can true repentance follow, offering hope that this American carnage stops right here, and right now.