This morning’s reading presents a real challenge. “Stop judging and you will not be judged.” (Luke 6:37). I know very well that judginess is a great fault of mine (and a great many others in these polarized times, across the spectrum of disagreements). It twinges my conscience.
I was roundly scolded a few weeks ago for being judgy about people who wouldn’t wear masks (one of whom threw around the word “communism” to justify it).
But at that time, COVID cases were still quite high, and people refusing to wear masks were willfully putting others at risk. There’s an injustice being perpetrated there, and while we’re not supposed to judge others, God is also all about justice. Where does discipleship lie in that situation?
That gets me thinking about other big disagreements. To me, it seems patently obvious that some attitudes and behaviors NEED to be judged and called out by faithful Christians, because they are violations of Godly justice. For instance: the refusal to acknowledge that racism still impacts the world in institutional ways.
Where is the line between calling out injustice and, well, judgment?
All this illustrates that the seemingly straightforward sound bytes of the Gospel are a whole lot more complicated to apply in the real world. Maybe that’s why we so often give up and go for the over-simplistic view. (Hence, the Chesterton quote.)
I don’t pretend to have the answer to the conundrum. I only wrestle with it with as much integrity as I can.
We had two altercations with people over masks last weekend.
First of all, let me say that I try very hard not to go out at high traffic times. But when one’s husband works full time and you have things you need to do together, sometimes there are only high traffic times.
I’ll just describe one of our interactions. I asked one man who had his gaiter hanging around his neck to please put on his mask. He responded by rolling his eyes. Let me tell you, it’s quite something, seeing a 60-something white man roll his eyes like a teenager. He muttered something about not living in a communist country, or something equally (pardon my bluntness) idiotic and totally at odds with both Christianity and reality.
It’s mind boggling, how wearing a mask to protect the health of others got twisted into a political wedge. A few months ago a fellow Catholic on Facebook posted that it really bothered her that the Church had “bought into” the narrative that brotherly love required us to mask and distance.
I was dumbfounded.
So I’m here today to put a face on “brotherly love.”
This is my daughter. She is charming. She loves to sing. She loves to dance. She loves babies and ice cream and pasta. Since she was a toddler, she has had an uncanny ability to enter a room and instantly zero in on the one person who most needs the love of God. She goes to them and loves them.
Wherever she goes, she brings joy and love. She brings God, in other words, without ever speaking a word about it.
She also has Down syndrome.
When she was six weeks old, she contracted RSV. She had floppy airways and a heart defect that caused her blood to spin instead of properly oxygenating. She spent more than a week on a ventilator. For children that age, 93% oxygen saturation is the threshold for hospitalization. Hers dipped to the 40s every time she had a coughing fit. The doctors told my husband to “prepare himself.”
At 6.5 months, she had heart surgery to repair her heart. They stopped her heart. Put her on a heart-lung bypass. And she was on a ventilator again.
We thought that would be the end of respiratory issues, but it wasn’t. At 2.25 years, she developed pneumonia and was in the ICU, on a ventilator, yet again.
Since then, she’s been very healthy. My rational mind tells me she’d probably be fine if she got COVID, but the fact is that her airways are naturally floppy, and now they’re scarred from multiple trips down ventilator lane.
My daughter puts a face on the reason for masking. We make this sacrifice in order to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Nobody likes masking. Nobody likes being forced to hold loved ones at a physical distance. Nobody likes any of this. But if that’s what it takes to protect the life and health of others, then that is the Christian call.
As I continue praying “Advent With Oscar Romero,” I find that so much of what he says resonates. In recent months, I’ve encountered a perspective that baffles me–one that argues we shouldn’t work for justice in the here and now, because the only thing that matters is Heaven. St. Oscar Romero’s words speak to this beautifully. He says, “In preaching the gospel I do not speak about a non-incarnated gospel, but one that is incarnated and that enlightens the realities of our time.”
And then, farther down, he summarizes the “virtues that the Word of God highlights: first, poverty and hunger for God; second, vigilance and faith; third, Christian presence and action in the world.”
What I read in this is a reminder that God came among us in bodily form for a reason–to demonstrate that what happens in the physical world matters to God. (Poverty, racism, injustices of all kinds.) And therefore, it should matter to us, too.
Every time I sit down to break open another section of Fratelli Tutti, I’m blown away all over again. I know the amount of Stuff we have to wade through in modern life is punishing, even within the writings and teachings available to Catholics by Catholics. There is value in reading the words of past popes.
But we also need to listen to THIS Pope. Reading Fratelli Tutti makes it crystal clear why the Holy Spirit chose him to lead the Church at this point in human history. He doesn’t get fancy, he doesn’t spend time being brainy. He’s right in the thick of it, speaking words we understand, pointing out all the things we already know, and drawing the connection between “the way we do things” and “how we got where we are.”
The section from #42-50 deals with the way we use social media. Being friends online has its uses, but he’s pointing out truths. You can make true friends on social media, and I have. But most of our contacts there are shallow and social, not full of depth. Social media is all about the next big thing, so building the “consensus that matures over time” is not its strength. Of course online disagreements fall to toxicity. Our goal in social media is to get likes, to spark a reaction, so really, Pope Francis points out, the fundamental purpose is to feed individuality, not community.
As someone who is trying to build a following for Intentional Catholic and for my secular fiction, this strikes very true. I got on social media specifically to network with Catholic musicians and fiction authors, and it serves its purpose well. I greatly value the relationships I’ve built here. Social media is great for helping us forge connections. And I can say honestly that there are people I consider friends now whom I’ve never met in person.
But in this year when conventions, conferences, and retreats are canceled, we’re all deeply mourning the loss of the in-person gatherings, because those are where we most often make the lasting connections.
Anyway, I’m getting pretty far afield in my stream-of consciousness reflection. Pope Francis’ point is that social media is structured to encourage us to try to stand out (an individualistic endeavor), and the algorithms are built to show us more of what we already like (or hate), as measured by what we like or comment on. So we end up getting shoved into those echo chambers, or into toxic environments—and very often both at the same time.
And because we’re a step removed from a lot of the people we’re interacting with, it’s easy to get ramped up into “remarkable hostility, insults, abuse, defamation and verbal violence destructive of others, and this with a lack of restraint that could not exist in physical contact without tearing us all apart.”
That last phrase is important. We all say things on social media we would NEVER say to another person’s face. And unfortunately we’ve started calling it “telling the truth in love,” and justifying it by saying that sometimes love hurts.
Which is true, but we’re ramping ourselves up and then deciding that our own “wisdom” is sufficient to discern what is the “truth.”
So when he says, “This has now given free rein to ideologies,” I think, YES. That’s exactly right!
And when he says, “Halfway through, we interrupt him and want to contradict what he has not even finished saying,” I think of all the careful, thoughtful attempts I’ve made to engage with people, and how they react to one phrase they think they can attack, and ignore all the rest.
And then I try to check my own conscience, because the ability to recognize it in others does not mean I am immune myself.
I know I say this every time, but please read this document. God gave us Pope Francis right now for a reason.
Returning to Fratelli Tutti today. This comes from a section subtitled “An Absence of Human Dignity on the Borders,” calls out conflicts around immigration as a violation of Christian brotherhood. “They,” in this case, refers to migrants.
This quote struck me with particular force because it encapsulates what I’ve been struggling with in arguments over race and immigration. In the abstract, we all agree that racism is bad and immigrants have human dignity, but whenever discussions of particulars arise, an almighty outcry rises in protest, saying such and such a thing is not racist, that of course they have human dignity BUT (fill in the blank). Here, Pope Francis calls that out.
One thing I found particularly interesting: the assertion that communities whose people flee are losing “their most vigorous and enterprising elements” (#38). I’d never thought about that. His point is that in addition to the right to immigrate, there’s also the right to be able to stay where you are. People flee when that right is violated. So in addition to justice for immigrants seeking new homes, responsibility also rests on those who create the dire situations that force people to flee.
As tempting as it is to read this section in light of U.S. immigration battles, we have to remember we aren’t the only ones dealing with conflicts over migration. #40 actually names Europe as particularly at risk of prioritizing its own citizens so high, it sets aside the rights of migrants.
This section ends with a heartfelt acknowledgment of the fears that cause people’s reaction to immigration, and begs us to face those fears and move beyond them, because they cause us to act in ways that are “intolerant, closed and perhaps even–without realizing it–racist.” The closing statement is just beautiful: “Fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other.”
This week, a group one of my kids is involved in pretty much gave up on pandemic-mitigating strategies. Because now the weather is cold and it’s, y’know, hard, because you can’t be outside anymore.
And for this reason, we’re going to have to say no to at least one major event this child really wanted to attend.
I had a conversation with the leadership, asking if the group would consider voluntarily taking on masking. I explained the medical history that makes our caution necessary: a child with naturally floppy airways who nearly died of RSV as a newborn, had open heart surgery at 7 months, and was intubated again at age 2 for pneumonia.
I got about the response I expected. The burden is on us to just abstain.
I expected it, but it made me angry. In fact, my reaction bordered on rage.
I totally get being tired of COVID limits. Me too, people. Me too. But masking is such a small sacrifice to make for the good of others. We want America to be a Christian nation, but when the rubber meets the road, what does that mean?
Well, Jesus was clear that the most vulnerable among us are supposed to be our priority.
To say, “Hey, if you think you’re at risk, just stay home” places the entire burden on those who already bear the heaviest burden–and to those who love them. (Like my kid.) It forces them into isolation that erodes their mental health, all so the strongest people don’t have to be bothered with small sacrifices like wearing a mask that would reduce spread and make the world safer for more vulnerable people.
Where is Jesus in that world view?
But what was most significant last night was what I learned from that hard spark of outrage: helpless, choking, impotent rage. I felt powerless against an inexorable machine that was perpetrating an injustice that stands in direct opposition to Christian values–but which the perpetrators do not recognize as such.
And for the first time, I really “got”—even if only the barest, palest shade of an echo–what it must feel like to be a person of color in the United States.
I understood why the Black community is angry. I understood at some speck of a level what it might feel like from the inside of a system that thinks itself righteous while imposing unjust burdens on entire communities. And which, when challenged, blames the victims.
The offense against me (really, my child) is ludicrously small. It barely registers on the scale. But it really clarified for me how a lifetime of micro-aggressions would cause exactly the kinds of reactions we’ve seen across the country this year in response to police violence against unarmed black men. I can’t even imagine living every day with the kind of righteous anger I was feeling last night. Let alone multiplying it exponentially.
I can’t walk a mile in the shoes of a person of color, but last night, for the first time, I felt like I kind of understood.
I’ve been involved in liturgical music since junior high, when my 7th grade teacher invited me to join the parish “folk group.” I also played flute with my parents, who were song leaders, and with the parish choir on holidays.
That involvement deepened as I studied music in college and grad school, and of course, now I write and publish music for the Church.
So this past spring’s news about David Haas was particularly horrifying to me. I had idolized David for years and I knew (know?) him, though not as well as some in my community of liturgical composers.
We spent time this fall coming together for webinars, trying to form our understanding and see how we, as composers for the Church, can make a difference.
The presentation that stayed with me most was given by Dr. Hilary Scarsella, who works with Into Account and the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. She talked about approaching discussions of abuse with an attitude of “survivor-centered response.” Too often, the response to allegations of assault, harassment and abuse is to alienate the accuser and make her experience secondary to preserving the man’s reputation.
What if she’s making it up? Innocent until proven guilty!
How dare we ruin this man’s life?
What about forgiveness? Second chances? We’re Christians!
Lots of guys through history have done bad things, and we still listen to their music. Why can’t we separate the man from his music?
All of these arguments, highlighted in the presentation, are reactions I’ve heard within my own communities. In fact, let’s be honest. They’re all things I thought or expressed myself in earlier accusations of abuse and assault that didn’t hit quite so close to home.
When you recognize yourself in something you now recognize as morally problematic, it also makes you recognize your responsibility to speak up.
The thing is, what do all those arguments tell survivors of abuse? When we say, “What if it isn’t true?” we call them liars. And THAT is how we’ve managed to have generations of dysfunction around this subject. Why would women come forward if they know they’re only going to be shamed, disbelieved, and silenced?
And then, if they’ve remained silent for years *because* they know they’ll be shamed, disbelieved, and silenced, but then they finally decide to do so because, say, someone is about to be put into a position of great influence? Well, then they’re shamed, disbelieved, and silenced *again*, because if they really had this experience, why didn’t they come forward years ago?
Women always bear the burden. The culture and the system are rigged in favor of the abusers.
But as for truth versus lies: in the case of David Haas, more than forty women have come forward at this point. To cling to the “what if it’s not true?” argument is to defy our God-given reason.
All of the argument listed above tell the victims, “My comfort is more important than your trauma.” Because that, after all, is why we don’t want to confront the hard questions. If we have to give up singing David Haas’ music, it will be uncomfortable. We’ll be sad.
But if we DO keep singing them, what does that do to the victims? It means their own churches and liturgies are minefields of trauma, week in, week out. The community that should support them, the liturgy that should help heal and sustain them, is instead re-traumatizing them. EVERY. WEEK.
Is our comfort really more important than that?
As for forgiveness–sure, forgiveness is critical to Christian living. But what does that mean? Does that mean the perpetrator gets a pass and the victims–once again–have to bear the burden? There’s no way that’s what God means by “forgiveness.” It’s got to be our understanding of forgiveness that has to grow. Maybe it’s time we do the hard work of figuring THAT out.
Finally: yes, there is a loss of a beloved repertoire. But who’s to blame for that? Not the victims. We need to put the responsibility where it belongs–on the perpetrator–and stop asking the victims to bear it instead.
These are the questions Dr. Scarsella posed (and which now are filtered through my own experiences). I share them now because there’s no doubt in my mind that some of those who read this are wrestling with some of the same questions and the same resistance.
It’s really hard to overcome a lifetime of cultural conditioning, but we as a Church have lost so much moral credibility since the sex abuse scandal came to light. The Haas situation is yet another black eye in the same area. We, as Church, have GOT to learn to confront these hard, uncomfortable issues so that we can fix them. First, because victims of abuse are God’s beloved, and they deserve to be treated as such. And second, because our dysfunction is getting in the way of our credibility to spread the Gospel.
The problem with being the center of world culture is that we tend to be really myopic–so focused on ourselves, we tune out the rest of the world. Every time I’m out and about at 2p.m., I butt up against this reality in myself. While I really enjoy listening to NPR news programs, to dig deeper into big questions, it’s excruciating to listen to the BBC News Hour. Unless, of course, they’re talking about the USA.
Three quarters of what is talked about on that program is talking about situations that are so off my radar, I can’t summon any desire to pay attention.
This is what comes to mind while reading today’s section of Fratelli Tutti (#22-28). Pope Francis points out in reality, all human rights are NOT given equal time. Some of us live in opulence and others’ rights are totally discarded. We pay lip service to women having equal dignity to men, but reality paints a different picture. Human trafficking, organ harvesting, etc. further illustrate the divide.
Where he really hits his stride, though, is in #25, where he skewers the habit of defending or dismissing assaults on human dignity, “depending on how convenient it proves.”
This feels very, very familiar. The difference in how we perceive the dignity of the unborn versus that of the refugee fleeing Central America (with or without going through “proper channels”) springs instantly to mind. If it doesn’t cost ME anything, of course I’m going to uphold human dignity. But if it has the potential, however remote, to inconvenience ME, well, then I can find all kinds of reasons why it’s not my problem, it’s theirs.
Next, he points out the tendency to build walls, both figurative and literal, separating humanity into “us” and “them.” It’s so beautiful, it’s nearly poetry. Just go read #27. And he rounds out this section by pointing out that the disenfranchisement caused by these sinful behaviors is precisely what leads to “mafias,” which I would suggest is a blanket term that includes terrorism.
So many Christian teachings have an incredibly practical element. Yes, we should treat each other as “brothers” (in the non-gender-specific meaning of the word) just because that’s God’s will. But the reality is that the failure to follow that teaching has all kinds of real-world ripple effects.
The way those ripple effects bang into each other and intensify is what made me start Intentional Catholic in the first place. Because I think an awful lot of us spend our lives totally unaware of them. That certainly was true of me until the arrival of my daughter set me on a small boat in the middle of all those ripples, and I had no choice but to recognize them because of the bumpiness of the ride.
Until then, I had compartmentalized life, thinking, “Sure, THESE issues are connected to my faith, but all THESE have nothing to do with it.” I was totally wrong. All issues are connected to faith.
Reflecting the other day on Pope Francis’ blistering critique of American politics got me pretty riled up. I keep thinking about the lack of honesty and integrity in the political process. We seem to have different standards for politics than we do in real life, and that’s just bizarre. Especially for Christians.
Judging by the way we conduct our politics, truth and integrity no longer matter. We can stretch the truth of any narrative so much, it’s no longer recognizable as truth–and as long as we think it will help us achieve our end goal, that’s A-OK.
I avoid the air waves as much as possible in the pre-election weeks, but you can’t escape it all. A political ad comes up, and I think, “What the actual heck? You have a family. You put your tiny kids on all your direct mail pieces to show what a great, upstanding, moral Christian you are. And then you say things like THAT? You take your opponent’s words out of context so you can change what they mean. You exaggerate their beliefs so profoundly that there’s more falsehood than truth in your statement! How in the world do you do this and then expect your kids to grow up valuing honesty and integrity and respect for others? What example are you giving them?”
How did we reach the point where we think it’s OK to pick and choose what facts to share so that we can pretend the more inconvenient truths don’t exist at all? (”La la la, I can’t hear you!” How childish. How unworthy of Christ.)
I think the problem is, we’ve allowed politics to get so extreme that people actually think the hyperbole is reality. They have stopped seeing the difference. Stopped recognizing that context matters. Stopped recognizing nuance. Why paint with a detail brush when we can use a fire hose?
Once we do that, it’s inevitable that we’ll start swallowing extreme narratives whole, without even bothering to think critically, without bothering to do a 30-second bias check on a place like mediabiasfactcheck.com. (I mean, it’s such a low bar. It takes no time at all.)
For instance, here are a couple sites that conservative Catholics like to share.
And lest you think I only bias-check the right, here’s a site that gets shared a lot by social justice Catholics:
The unintended consequence of all this is that no one trusts anyone to tell the truth anymore. Leaders (unless they’re MY political color), media (unless it’s MY media). People are picking and choosing their own facts, their own realities. Which gives them blanket permission to ignore and dismiss anything that would cause them to question said facts and realities. If you don’t like it, call it fake news.
(All those years we spent bemoaning relativism, and now the entire culture, including the right, has not only embraced it but is rabidly, passionately devoted to it!)
What’s become excruciatingly clear, in all this, is that religious teachings—like, oh, let’s say honesty & integrity–are not given just to slap us with strictures to chafe and annoy us. They are necessary for the functioning of society. If no one can trust anyone else to tell the truth, well, you’ve got a problem, folks. Your society is going to be a mess.
If we would just take a deep breath and turn back to honesty and integrity, and condemn hyperbole, America would be a much better place. We all know it. We all believe it. Why don’t we demand it? Why won’t we do what’s necessary to make it happen?
So there’s an election next week. Let’s talk politics? (Yippee!)
Because I feel pretty certain that the timing of the release of the encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” was not accidental. Pope Francis released it right before the US elections for a reason.
Over the course of my life, papal documents have generally been pointed at someone else. At least, that’s how it felt. Like America was the good guy–not that we were perfect, but generally we were on the right side of the Gospel–and all those other countries were the ones getting their body parts handed to them by popes.
Fratelli Tutti doesn’t feel that way. In fact, it feels the opposite.
#15 begins a section subtitled “lacking a plan for everyone,” and ouch! does it ever capture modern American life. He calls out politics that make use of hyperbole, extremism and polarization. He talks about strategies of ridicule, suspicion and criticism. About political life being focused on marketing techniques rather than long-term efforts to better the plight of humanity. I mean, that’s a mirror for all of us, whatever our political persuasion, if I ever saw one!
In #18-21 he returns to a familiar topic of the “throwaway culture,” naming the unborn and elderly, and expanding the circle to recognize that wastefulness (like food waste) is also a symptom of the throwaway culture, one that harms the most vulnerable. Discarding people also comes in forms like corporate cost-cutting and racism, and even the declining birth rate.
This is the part where I pivot from “Here’s what the pope says” to “here’s my reflection on it.”
This list of modern problems echoes the questions that preoccupy me, the ones I gnaw over, day in and day out. Trying to understand how good people can fail to recognize bad things, and end up embracing them instead. The frustration that people will always point these kinds of examens at others, refusing to examine our own consciences for times when we, too, participate in or enable evil.
This concept of universal brotherhood is the central problem of our time. Well. Of all human history, but it seems particularly apt in this day and age.
We deal with problems in our families in a far different way than we do in matters of policy. In a family, we have our own concerns, but we also recognize the rights and needs of others, and we know we must look for solutions that serve everyone’s interest.
If we truly regarded everyone in America as members of our family, how would that change the way we look for national solutions? I think we’d have to move beyond “how does this affect ME and MY rights” and add, “How can I balance my needs against the valid needs ofthis other person with a conflicting interest?”
We need both right and left in order to keep us in balance. What we don’t need is the villifying, the mocking, the “contrast ads” and editorials and memes whose “truths” are stretched so far, they’re actually falsehoods. We wouldn’t treat our families this way. How can we, as Christians, think it’s justified in politics?