Editorial: American carnage, revisited

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

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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.

Editorial: Cardinal Burke is a living symbol of a failed version of church

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U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke waves to the congregation after celebrating Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Cork City, Ireland, July 7. (CNS/Cillian Kelly)

U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke waves to the congregation after celebrating Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Cork City, Ireland, July 7. (CNS/Cillian Kelly)

Catholics, especially those of a traditional bent, love and understand symbols. Someone as traditionalist and as media-savvy as Timothy Busch has to understand that whatever else was said during his Napa Institute’s sprawling conference at the end of July, the most visible symbol was Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the most outspoken critics of Pope Francis.

The five-day conference in Napa, California, at the posh Meritage Resort and Spa, one of Busch’s holdings, was transparently partisan (Republicans Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin were the politicos on hand) and tilted, episcopally and theologically, to the far right.

All of that, of course, is unsurprising. Busch has made no secret of his ambitions or of his spending aimed at influencing the church, its institutions and the narrative that is fed to the wider culture. But symbols are important and Burke is a living symbol, in both thought (amply expressed in rather arrogant terms even when his critique is aimed at the pope) and appearance (often amply adorned in the royal paraphernalia of imagined ages long past).

His thought on this occasion, under the heading “Proclaiming the Truths of the Faith in a Time of Crisis,” was a repeat of an eight-page “declaration” that he signed with four other prelates — a retired cardinal from Latvia and three bishops from Kazakhstan — outlining 40 points of contemporary church teaching about which Burke and his cohort believe “there is much error and confusion.”

Of the points he raised at Napa, addressed early was “confusion” about bringing Jews and Muslims to Christianity. Burke advocates a more aggressive approach to converting those of other religions.

He might reacquaint himself with the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate, which speaks with great regard for other world religions, specifically, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and, particularly, Judaism. “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions,” the document states. “She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”

Burke noted more confusion in the understanding of some (including, increasingly, the U.S. bishops) that the church does not permit civil authorities to exercise capital punishment. This is a direct slap at Francis, who has advanced the growing objection to capital punishment voiced during the two previous papacies, and who recently described the death penalty as “a serious violation of the right to life of every person.”

In Burke’s imagination, the Catholic community is simply riddled through with confused souls, and there is error everywhere. He maintains that significant numbers of Catholics are in “open apostasy.”

He took another direct shot at Francis when he criticized the working document for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, which includes discussion of possible ordination of widely respected married men to assure continued access to the sacraments.

“Celibacy stems from the example of Christ,” said the cardinal. That may be, but it is not the only example provided, given that the chosen Twelve included married men and that the tradition of celibacy is merely a thousand years old, half the life of the church. The tradition has certainly been mutable.

Intentionally or not, the Napa gathering provided us with a full cast of those creating acute strains in the church today. In placing Burke as the keynoter, Busch and the organizers sent a clear signal: The lay leadership they exemplified would take us back to a romanticized church that never existed. It would reconstitute the clericalism that is at the heart of the sex abuse cover-up scandal that continues to undermine the authority of the church, and it would attempt to replace the dynamism of Francis’ model of accompaniment with a return to a statute-bound and static institution in service of itself.

Burke personifies the kind of legal “rigorist” that Francis ardently resists. He is the modern version of that religious leader that drew some of Jesus’ harshest condemnations, those who placed undue burdens on others and pronounced themselves the undisputed bearers of truth.

In an earlier interview with NCR, Busch dismissed the idea that he opposed Francis and brushed off any objections to Burke headlining his conference, stating that he’s “a serious theologian.” Some may consider Burke a theologian, but he made his reputation as a canon lawyer who, by all indications, thinks that Catholic Christianity is primarily a transactional enterprise in which the highest calling is to abide by every detail of every church statute as he interprets them.

It is not overstatement to say that Burke stands as representative, perhaps in the extreme, of a certain version of church and one that we believe has failed miserably. He is a member of a culture that by instinct (and not insignificantly by church statutes of that time) opted to protect those who viciously abused the most vulnerable in the community while ignoring the perpetrators’ victims.

Francis invites us to a far more adventuresome embrace of the faith. For instance, in his address opening the synod on young people, he said, “This Synod has the opportunity, the task and the duty to be a sign of a Church that really listens, that allows herself to be questioned by the experiences of those she meets, and who does not always have a ready-made answer. A Church that does not listen shows herself closed to newness, closed to God’s surprises, and cannot be credible, especially for the young who will inevitably turn away rather than approach.”

Perhaps the tension between the rigid and unyielding boundaries of law and a pastoral approach that invites dialogue, values listening, and encourages questions — characteristics troubling to the legalist — is inevitable and perennial.

However, where Burke and his like see confusion, we see an openness to new ways of expressing the faith; where he claims clarity and precision, we experience the confusion of a community betrayed at the deepest levels by those who were supposed to be examples of Christ’s selfless love.

It is time to give new symbols their place: a community where the poor are invited to the banquet; authority where mercy takes precedent over precepts; accompaniment predicated by love and acceptance, where doubts and questions are not reasons for derision and banishment.

Editorial: With the Earth in peril, we must act on behalf of God’s creation

This article appears in the Our Common Home feature series. View the full series.

One would think that with an overwhelming consensus among scientists on the planet agreeing that the Earth is in peril because of human activity and that the window of time we have to ameliorate the damage is quickly closing, there would be little disagreement about what the top priority should be for the human race.

And yet, as a small but essential conference at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, recently demonstrated, we are still groping for ways to persuade this country’s government and religious officialdom to demonstrate bolder leadership on behalf of a natural world that sustains us all.

Our churches and schools have to become centers of truth-telling about what’s happening to God’s creation, said San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, a keynote speaker at the gathering. We have to face up to the fact “that we have let the United States, which has for so long been the leader in scientific inquiry, countenance the wholesale spread of pseudo-science created by and in service to those industries and economic interests that despoil our planet.”

McElroy is an episcopal outlier on the subject. While others may share his sentiments — and even as the U.S. bishops come to the discussion armed with a detailed and powerfully argued papal encyclical on the issue — they’ve been relatively silent.

Which makes the conference at Creighton, “Laudato Si’ and the U.S. Catholic Church,” a reference to Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, all the more significant. It is impossible to separate the importance of this matter and the lack of attention given it from the current troubles of the Catholic hierarchy, especially in the United States, and the political climate of the country.

The issue resides at the nexus of those prevailing forces, caught in the increasingly strong crosswinds of divisions within the church and those rending our civic culture. It is no small matter that part of the discussion at a far-reaching session on climate change was how to talk about it. Tone it down, taking into account political sensitivities? Choose words carefully so as not to scare off with a kind of fright overload? Or ramp it up — climate emergency, environmental justice and the like — casting aside restraint for language that expresses the severity of the moment? Talk about it as a matter of science or a political challenge?

All of the above, of course. How we talk about it is often a matter of circumstance and tactics. Catholics and other people of faith, however, have an additional contribution to make to the conversation. Our language, incorporating both science and spirituality, can give voice, as Francis did in his encyclical, to the expressions of awe and wonder so eloquently part of his patron’s approach to creation.

“He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself” writes the pope about the saint. “He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”

If, indeed, Christ is in all and informs all we do, the act of creation and the consequences of our actions upon that creation should rivet our attention in this time of crisis.

In an interview some years ago, Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, discussing the erosion of authority in civil and ecclesial realms, was asked where he thought the new authority resided. The question is a perennial, he said, adding that he believes “the new authority is going to come from nature or the cosmos, the natural world. I know when Catholics first hear that, it sounds New Age-y, but it seems to me that’s the primary Bible as Franciscans believed.”

Indeed, the new cosmology, he said, understands that the written Bible was assembled “in the last nanosecond of geological planetary time. … Do you really think God wasn’t talking for the first 14 billion years or whatever it is?”

The squalls and distractions created by our divisions cannot be allowed to knock us off purpose or focus regarding the defining issue of our era. That is why NCR has doubled down on its effort to raise concern about the Earth and the effects of climate to the highest level possible. The evidence of a broad Catholic coalition gathering around the issue, including a robust presence of younger Catholics is apparent in the reporting from the Creighton conference.

The NCR website also contains more, on a continuing basis, than we could ever fit into these pages. What we publish could serve as compelling material for a Catholic discussion group. Our reporting and commentary might also be passed on to pastors and deacons. Those who can take to the pulpit might well be moved if those who sit and listen make a strong enough case about the issues they wish to have addressed. You could also help us frame our climate coverage going forward by taking a brief survey: NCRonline.org/survey.

God has been talking through creation for a very long time. God continues to speak. If we’re listening, no clearer mandate is delivered than to act on behalf of God’s creation, all of its dimensions and creatures.

This story appeared in the paper…

July 26-Aug 8, 2019

God speaks through creation

Editorial: Our children are dying at the border. Bishops, where are you?

The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, are seen June 24, after they drowned in the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, while trying to reach the United States. (CNS/Reuters)

The arresting image of the bodies of Salvadoran migrant Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter Valeria, face down in the shallow waters of the Rio Grande River, was finally enough to elicit an impassioned plea from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: “This image cries to heaven for justice. This image silences politics. Who can look on this picture and not see the results of the failures of all of us to find a humane and just solution for the immigration crisis?”

It took that photo and a statement of lament by Pope Francis about the image to move the bishops to the kind of language that begins to gather in the horror of this national moment along our southern border. It took this moment, a mere dot on a tragedy-riddled timeline, to move the bishops beyond the anodyne and saccharine pronouncements previously pushed out of their headquarters following the evidence of caged children, separated families and manipulations of law by the Trump administration and its operatives, all clearly designed to punish, rather than relieve, desperation.

It might be easier if the image silenced politics and removed it from the calculus of the bishops’ response. But that probably is not the case. Little else but a wish to remain cozy with the Trump administration can explain the hierarchy’s resounding reticence in the current situation.

If the image, as the bishops claim, demonstrates the results of the failures to find a just solution, it also should conjure for them the seemingly endless stacks of images that emanated from Central America, particularly Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, in recent decades. They showed, for those who cared to look, the deplorable consequences of long U.S. involvement in the region, of our complicity with some of the bloodiest thugs in the region. If, as some have stated, we should look at the deeper causes of today’s problem, an honest investigation would be unsettling for North Americans.

Immigration policy is a complex matter. Borders do matter, as does the rule of law. But desperation, the need to seek safety and opportunity for one’s family, reaching a conclusion that no alternatives exist but to flee — these are not the motives of “bad hombres,” to use one of a stream of imbecilic terms the president has ascribed to those seeking refuge. San Pedro Sula, San Salvador, Guatemala City and their vicinities have become unpredictable and extremely violent territories. Much of the violence is due to the power of drug cartels, which feed the insatiable demand for narcotics in the United States.

People showing up at the border are not vacationing. They are frantic and out of alternatives. This is survival, not opportunism.

It is futile to attempt to argue with, much less expect something better, from an administration that has justified separating families and caging children in deplorable conditions — unsanitary, without proper food and crowded to cruel proportions. What can be said in the face of the outrageous reasoning of Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, who couldn’t even drum up a bit of empathy for the dead father and his daughter?

During a recent CNN interview, Cuccinelli said that the drowning was the fault of the father, who should have observed the rules regarding asylum. Notwithstanding that the claim is absurd, and disgusting, on its face, the fact is that even if the anguished father had kept up with the news and the law on the dangerous and difficult trek northward, one might have excused him for becoming confused. The Trump administration plays daily games, at times, shifting the rules. The basic fact is that anyone can seek asylum anywhere along the border. It is not illegal.

It is, however, cruel to contemplate rule changes, as is currently underway in this administration, that would essentially eliminate asylum for Central Americans.

It should not be a futile wish that the Catholic community’s leaders, so insistent on the worth of every human, would be crying out from the tops of their chancery offices over the blatant injustice at the border. There are exceptions. It seems clear that while the conference in its official statements has been mealy-mouthed, bishops along the border have felt free to be more impassioned in their responses.

One of the more notable statements came from Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, who was reacting to a different drowning — this of a 20-year-old Guatemalan mother and her three children, two infants and a toddler — and to the deplorable conditions children were being detained in at the border, as well as to comments that the drowned were not “our children.” On his Twitter account June 25, Flores said, “Any discussion about immigrant children that begins with ‘but they are not our children’ is starting from a position both contrary to natural law and Catholic Faith.”

Flores further argued that national boundaries “are not absolute. To argue that we may defend them by any means deemed effective is statist voluntarism. It manifests at the level of government the false claim of an individual’s right to unconstrained will. Either way, the powerful decide who gets thrown away.”

Bishop Mark Seitz of the border Diocese of El Paso, Texas, has been equally uncompromising in his advocacy for migrants and in his critique of U.S. culture.

“Standing here at the U.S.-Mexico border, how do we begin to diagnose the soul of our country?” he asked in a June 27 statement. “A government and society which view fleeing children and families as threats; a government which treats children in U.S. custody worse than animals; a government and society who turn their backs on pregnant mothers, babies and families and make them wait in Ciudad Juárez without a thought to the crushing consequences on this challenged city. … This government and this society are not well,” he said.

Flores and Seitz are perhaps the most visible signs of an official Catholic voice in this matter, but the people of God are prophetically and powerfully active in helping to ameliorate the worst effects of U.S. policies. In this case the normally led are doing the leading. Catholic groups and individuals on both sides of the borders are doing heroic work to bring some comfort to those in greatest need.

There is no greater example of Catholic action than the Hope Border Institute, a grassroots effort “that seeks to bring the perspective of Catholic social teaching to bear on the social realities unique to our region.” No regional issue is more pressing than the plight of refugees, and the organization does laudable work on both sides of the border.

What’s missing are the connections the U.S. bishops once had with their Central American counterparts. Why haven’t U.S. bishops invited some of the bishops from the most affected countries to address both the conference at their semi-annual meetings, and dioceses around the country, to better explain the reality on the ground and the needs in Central America?

One need not do a great deal of interpreting of our sacred texts to get this one right.

It’s not complicated. The mass of people arriving at our border are mostly escaping desperate and dangerous circumstances, trying to protect their children — our children. Our government is brutalizing them — men, women and children — under the cover of manipulated law and a narrative that raises unjustifiable fear and prejudice.

Bishops, where are you?

A version of this story appeared in the paper…

July 12-25, 2019

Bishops’ leaders late to respond