I’ve been trying for several days to find the entry point to reflect on the first section of Fratelli Tutti’s Chapter One. Like many papal encyclicals, FT begins by laying out the problem. It seemed, Pope Francis says, that for a few decades the world was heading in a positive direction–greater peace and international cooperation; an understanding of where we’d been and why we didn’t want to go there again. But it’s been shifting in recent years. He calls out “myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism” and individualist ideologies that shred the idea of “social sense.”
This whole section is rich with resonance to me: consumerism, corporations that succeed by feeding individualistic priorities, leading to a loss of the sense of human interconnectivity and even an understanding of history. (This is my best attempt to sum it up. Really, you just need to read it.) In such an environment, high ideals such as democracy, freedom, justice, unity, etc., become meaningless catchwords that can be abused by anyone. Hence, the quote above.
Pope Francis catches a lot of flak in some quarters for being “liberal;” as far as I’m concerned, passages like this disprove that. To me, this sounds like the same conservative rallying cry that permeated my childhood. For decades, popes have been warning that when big conglomerates control the narrative of the world, it’s bad for us. Certainly, in my conservative Catholic upbringing, Hollywood and the music industry were the focus of this criticism.
I think we’re getting ready to hear that those targets aren’t the only ones–just the easiest to call out.
This past summer, I was honored to be invited to speak at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians national convention. Among the presentations I gave was this one, “Being Catholic in a Messy World.” I was asked to give a fifteen-minute reflection on what I mean by “Intentional Catholic.”
I have so many thoughts, I never imagined it would be a difficult talk to write, but it was–because the topic is so huge. The through-line that eventually emerged was how I wrestled with being “pro-life” in the wake of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome. I’ve often said that my daughter’s birth was the earthquake that changed everything for me, though I didn’t know it at the time. This is that story. It encapsulates many of the difficult issues we’re wrestling as a nation (badly). I hope you’ll set aside a quarter hour to listen!
I have begun reading Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” and thought it might be worth simply sharing as I read, since it’s new to all of us.
The topic seems like a timely reminder, given the state of the world right now. I can’t quote it all, but Pope Francis sets the tone in the introduction by pointing to St. Francis of Assisi’s trip to visit the Sultan Malik-el-Kamil. He went during the Crusades–a time when the goal of Christianity was to conquer and convert the Muslims–and instead modeled peaceful conversation with no agenda at all.
Two things strike me here: one is that with this trip, St. Francis, quietly and without making a production of it, issued a sharp rebuke to the entire goal of the Crusades. A rebuke that, with the benefit of hindsight, was well deserved.
The other is that Pope Francis is setting the stage to remind us that our worldwide politics of division (because it’s not just an American thing) is directly counter to holy living.
And I suppose there’s a third thing, which is that there’s more than one way to interpret “far away” and “near.” In St. Francis’ case, it was both physical and philosophical difference. My guess is that Pope Francis is gearing up to admonish us to be “brothers” in both those spheres in modern life, as well.
In light of the discussions taking place online these days, it seems like a good time to revisit what the US Bishops have to say about racism, and in particular institutional racism, in our country, and what that reality means for us as faithful Catholics. There’s a lot of anger going around these days on both sides of every issue, and we ramp each other up. Extremism on one side begets extremism on the other. Neither of which are justified, but people only want to point the finger at the other side rather than acknowledge extremism on their own.
Too many Christians seem eager to write off the entire question of civil rights and institutional racism because of violence in some protests. Of course, horrific things like people shouting “let them die” outside a hospital where police are fighting for their lives are equally indefensible.
It’s so tempting to take the extremes, because the extremes are easier. It’s really messy in the middle, where we have to call out both “let them die” and the institutional racism that has sparked the protests which, in some cases, have turned violent. It’s easier to blame one or the other and act like the problem is ONLY one thing.
The reality is, whenever we paint things in absolutes–whenever we write off one point of view because of the faults of some among them–we are part of the problem. That messy place in the middle is exactly where we must be as Christians.
Our bishops are telling us in the clearest possible way that race matters, that racism is real, that we are part of it whether we mean to be or not, and that we thus have a responsibility to act for change.
I cannot say it strongly enough: read this letter in its entirety.
I’ve been at this Intentional Catholic business officially for 18 months right now, but in reality for much longer. One does not come to such a pithy, focused phrase “just like that.” It develops over time.
One thing I’ve learned is that living the faith intentionally always, ALWAYS involves a lot wrestling. In fact, I would argue that a faith that is complacent, that thinks it has simple answers, is not intentional at all. The world is too messy for complacency. We are too small for the problems we face. When we think the answer is simple and obvious, it’s a good sign that we’re missing a LOT of context.
I’ve been wrestling hard with what being “intentionally Catholic” means when people are saying horrible things online. Self-righteous memes so badly stripped of context, they cross into falsehood; distortions; statements by Christians that do not reflect Christ.
Today I’d like to reflect on a handful of influences I’ve been wrestling lately, surrounding this conundrum.
#1: my husband saying, “You may need to stay off Facebook this fall.” I recognize the wisdom of this advice, but I struggle because my ministry is precisely to address the messiness of the issues where real life intersects with faith–issues we address via the political process. And also, Facebook is my professional networking avenue.
But as my husband constantly points out, no one ever changes their mind. So when is it worth wading in? When I do, how do I respond in a way that respects the human dignity of the person on the other end of the e-connection, when such egregious errors are on display?
#2: A friend of mine shared Bishop Barron’s podcast for yesterday’s readings with me, in which he tied together the call from Ezekiel–yes, in fact we ARE supposed to correct our fellow Christians–and the “how do we do that?” outlined in the Gospel. Bishop Barron focused narrowly on how to respond when one has been personally wounded. Truthfully, it felt insufficient. It’s not personal offenses that I feel so compelled to respond to on social media. It’s public statements by religious people who do not see the inherent conflict between their statements and the faith that is so precious to them. Jesus’ guidance, applied in this situation, seems… insufficient. Sure, I could message a person privately, but if that person is making public statements, he or she is leading others into error. Speaking to them privately seems–well, not to be repetitive, but “insufficient.”
I’ve spent a lot of time praying: “Should I ignore this, Lord? Or speak?” I responded in passion a couple times and felt that I, too, wasn’t representing my faith authentically. Another time, I walked away and found a calm, sincere response bubbling up. I thought I recognized the voice of the Spirit in that, so I went back to share, only to be publicly (and passive-aggressively, i.e. in detail but not by name) excoriated. I came away feeling that I really have no idea what the heck God is asking me to do about all this.
Which brings me to Influence #3: a story told by Steve Angrisano in a breakout session on chant that I listened to this weekend. (While pulling crabgrass in my back yard, if you want to know.) He talked about a priest who had two best friends stand at opposite ends of the room. He surrounded one of them with other girls of similar age, and had them all call out a number between 1 and 100. No one in the room could pick out the number from the original girl–except her best friend, who had spent so much time listening to her friend, she knew the voice and could pick it out of the cacophony.
I am trying to spend enough time with God to do that, but I feel no confidence in my ability to pick out God’s voice right now.
Actually, that’s not true. I feel great confidence that I can see God’s will in the issues themselves. But in how and when to speak, I have no earthly idea.
I have no answers today. Only thoughts. Wrestling. Because that’s what it means to be intentionally Catholic.
We’ve all heard the Gospel passage a million times: Jesus, talking about the importance and permanence of marriage.
My whole life, I have focused on the obvious teaching here: that marriage is forever, and divorce = bad.
But there’s a lot to unpack in the unspoken questions of justice that lie behind this teaching. Women didn’t get to file for divorce in ancient Israel. Only men. And when women got cast aside, they didn’t have many options–and no good ones at all.
So this teaching protects women, who were among the most powerless in society in his time. This says a lot about the sanctity of marriage, of course–but it also says a lot about what Jesus thought about the pursuit of justice in the temporal world.
Because really, that’s what the disciples were all bent out of shape about in the later part of this Gospel passage, when they protested to Jesus: the limits on their power. They’re just baffled by Jesus saying this. “If we can’t divorce a wife whenever we want,” they say, “then it’s be better not to get married at all!” Jesus just cut the legs out from under their absolute power in relationship. Of course they found it threatening.
To those who think we shouldn’t worry about working toward justice in the real world–who think none of that matters because we should only focus on the world beyond–this Gospel passage is a rebuke. Justice DOES matter.
I have been struggling the last couple weeks with #seethegood posts. It’s not that I’m lacking in goodness to see around me–it’s just that too much of it is too specific to my own situation, involving things and people that aren’t appropriate to share publicly.
But this morning, it occurs to me that I can share this pearl of wisdom from my husband. For several years, he’s wanted to use his birthday as an opportunity to serve rather than be celebrated. It doesn’t always work out, but this year he did.
He asked people on Facebook to give him a gift: to only be nice to each other–to focus on family and fun, and if they had to go political–well, you can read his words below. I share them today because of something we all know, but often forget: that whatever we look for, whatever we cultivate in the garden of our hearts, is what we get more of. If we look for things to be angry about, we’ll find things to be angry about everywhere, in everything. If we look for reasons to judge, the reasons will not only present themselves, they will multiply exponentially, until we are incapable of accepting–we have trained ourselves to judgment.
I figured this #seethegood moment could be a really beautiful leaven for the coming fall of pandemic and politics.
Enough from me. Here’s my husband:
OK folks — my birthday is TUESDAY, as in ELECTION DAY (for several states). Kate always asks what I want on my birthday, and this year, I landed on something — I’m fatigued as I’m sure we all are. So this year, if you so desire — for my birthday — I’m asking that you do one of two things (or both):
1.) Not post anything that rings of politics or seeks to judge others for a problem. Instead, focus on the kids, pets, sunsets, soft rain, flowers, awesome food, etc. in your life and give us a post about that. OR……..
2.) Look at a post that would normally evoke a visceral reaction from you and find ONE GOOD THING in the argument. You don’t have to agree with the point, but you have to acknowledge that it is a GOOD POINT. And I don’t mean some dumbass platitude. Honestly look for something that forces you to go beyond your comfort zone or your political leaning and see that someone, somewhere who thinks completely differently from you has a good point in an argument.And then, tell me about in a post. Tell me what you posted instead of a political meme or rant or judgement OR tell me about what you found in someone’s post that you initially disagreed with.And THAT, THAT folks is what I would like on my birthday.
It has not been pretty in my house, these last 125 days. Have you intuited that from my posts? It seems all I do these days is fret, gnash my teeth, and talk about the lack of peace in my house–the strain of kinda-sorta-not-exactly-quarantine, the lack of structure, the endless snipping and sometimes screaming, the teenage hormones and the childhood overreactions.
The other day I had my youngest two children working on dishes. In their resentment at being forced to work (not that they had anything else to do; they were totally bored), they instantly fell to squabbling. “You can’t use the spray hose that way,” “you’re taking too much space at the sink.” That kind of nonsense.
I turned to them and said, “That’s enough! I don’t want you two to say anything to each other you wouldn’t say to ME if you were working with ME.” Because they are kind to me, if not to each other.
It was a stroke of brilliance–the Holy Spirit’s, not mine, just to be totally clear. They are accustomed to being horrible to each other. To be told to treat each other as they treat the person they trust the most required a hard reset. They didn’t like it, but for one of them, the tone of voice changed instantly. In the other it happened after I said, “Would you use that tone of voice talking to me?”
Yesterday’s readings struck a chord so deep, it resonated in my whole being. Our new associate’s homily tied together the various parables brilliantly. It can be much harder than we realize to judge between good and evil, he said. Which is why it’s not our job to rip out the “weeds,” but instead to be leaven–to live the faith in a way that causes the whole culture to “rise.”
But the words that stay with me the most were those from the book of Wisdom. “You taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind.”
In these heavy, momentous days of pandemic and communal examination of conscience, there are many of us concerned with justice. There’s a lot of righteous indignation, a lot of holy anger at the way huge sections of the Catholic faith have been lopped off, cafeteria-Catholic style, to force them into a political box.
People are speaking up for justice, but too often there’s no kindness involved. I fear that the pursuit of justice will fail, because of the way the campaign is pursued. Without kindness, calls for justice often come across as bullying. Nobody’s heart is being changed when they feel they’re being bullied.
None of which changes the fact that the world is crying out for God’s justice. I want to be clear on that, lest anyone read this post as a justification for dismissing calls for justice. Or for resisting guidelines put in place to protect the life and health of all God’s children. The right has plenty to answer for. Blistering the “mainstream media” for liberal bias makes no sense when one eagerly and uncritically gobbles up sources whose violations of journalistic integrity are far more heinous, if in the opposite direction.
For right and left alike, what we choose to do now–whether we are willing to examine our hearts and work to overcome our biases–this is truly a question of following God versus making an idol of self. Calls for justice, specific to this time and place, are necessary. In fact, they’re an imperative of discipleship. These things need to be said.
But the way we say them matters.
Maybe, in the days and weeks to come, “justice = kindness” can be our guiding principle, the standard by which we measure our online presence. We want justice. But are we actually modeling Godly justice–by our kindness?
What if we all vowed to say nothing we wouldn’t say to the person we respect and honor most in the world? How much more calm, measured, and productive might our national discourse be?
“Trample my courts no more! To bring offerings is useless; incense is an abomination to me.” (Is. 10:13)
Isaiah really didn’t mess around, did he? Most of the time we focus in on the feel-good prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.
But in yesterday’s first reading, Isaiah says, “Guys, seriously. God’s not interested in what you’re bringing to the altar. You’re trying to substitute ritual for meaningful action in your real life. Your worship is useless. What gives worship meaning is what you do outside these walls, and you’re not doing it.”
This reminded me powerfully of a lengthy reflection I read a few weeks ago. The context is race, but the part that struck me most profoundly was about the way we interpret various passages in Scripture. When we hear passages like today’s, we shake our heads at those poor blind, hard-hearted Israelites. But when the readings of comfort come, we think they’re meant for us.
Today I just want to share a couple of paragraphs from that article, which was an uncomfortable but eye-opening read. In fact, the article is one of many in a magazine issue devoted to forgiveness; the whole issue this came from is on my to-read list. I encourage you to click through.
There’s a lot on my mind these days that speaks to how we live the faith in the real world—a world that, at the moment, is defined by crises and division. More now than ever. I didn’t think that was possible.
It seems there is no safe subject; even small talk leads to conflict. This morning on a bike ride, I encountered my kids’ former bus driver, and stopped to chat (from across the street). I asked about coming back in the fall. The answer was a hard pushback on the forthcoming citywide masking requirement—a requirement that makes a lot of sense given that during the first wave, we had practically zero cases, and now we are averaging 30+ per day. “I’m VERY strongly anti-mask,” she said. ”I think it’s a personal choice.”
How does one respond to such vehemence? I know what I WANT to say. I WANT to say that as Christians, our world view is supposed to reflect a Gospel that tells us self-emptying, treating the other’s needs as equal to our own, is the way of discipleship. A Gospel that we believe tell us life is precious, and the right to life far outweighs personal “choice.”
I WANT to say, “Can’t you see that you’re setting aside your prolife convictions? That you’re using the exact same language used by the pro-choice movement for decades?”
But how do you communicate any of that without sounding holier-than-thou, preachy, and generally self-righteous?
It didn’t matter, because all I got out was, “Oh, I’m not.” Then she was pouring out her grievances, and thirty seconds in, I thought, I’m supposed to be home in 40 minutes. I just need to politely say “good luck” and move on.
So I did.
I spent the rest of my ride pondering this exchange and others. So many things have become wedge political issues that have no business being so. A pandemic should NOT be a political wedge issue. Racial justice should NOT be a political issue. Supporting women who have experienced harassment, abuse, or assault should NOT be a political issue. These are things people of faith should be unified on. Certainly the Catholic Church, flawed as it has been in practice, has spoken clearly on them all. How on earth has politics become more important in forming our world view than our faith?
But I realize that a lot of the refusal to budge on these issues is a reaction to scrupulousness–a scrupulousness that leads to making assumptions about people. From there, it’s a short skip to judgment.
There’s a lot of judgment on social media these days.
*I’m* judging a lot. Most of the time I don’t post my judgy thoughts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
I think those of us who believe we have a societal responsibility to public health, who care passionately about racial justice and victims’ rights–those of us who care about these issues are so angry, we don’t always recognize that our words and our tone can do more harm than good. That sometimes, in our passion for justice, we cross the boundaries of Christian charity.
I know, that sounds like “tone policing.” I get it. But tone DOES matter, because when we make assumptions about what people are or aren’t doing; when we pass judgment; when we belittle and dismiss and make sweeping generalizations about everyone who (fill-in-the-blank)—
When we do these things, we make everything worse. We aren’t bringing people to a greater understanding of the truth. In fact, all we’re accomplishing is hardening people in their perception of persecution. They become less open to hearing, less open to examining the conflict between their worldly perspective and the Gospel.
Below (in the comments, on Facebook), I am sharing an op-ed that really hit me hard. I don’t often share (or read, for that matter) from the New York Times, because to so many people, it epitomizes the “liberal media.” But I think people across political spectrums will be surprised by what this man has to say.