The year was 258 A.D. It was a difficult beginning for what would become the First Christian Millennium. Hostility against …
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.
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.