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Why “What are the Bishops Doing About it?” is the Wrong Question

Recently, the bishops of California made a statement regarding the attacks on the statues of St. Junipero Serra in San Francisco, Ventura, and Los Angeles. While acknowledging that there are legitimate concerns about racism both historical and contemporary, we insisted that the characterization of Serra as the moral equivalent of Hitler and the missions he founded as tantamount to death camps is simply unconscionable. I put a link to this statement on my own Word on Fire social media accounts and was gratified to see that many people read it and commented upon it. My purpose in this article is not to examine the specific issues surrounding Padre Serra but rather to respond to a number of remarks in the comboxes that point to what I think is a real failure to understand a key teaching of Vatican II. Over and again, perhaps a hundred times, commentators said some…

Heart of Jesus, Holy Temple of God

I’ve been reading, recently, a good deal of the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand—perhaps not a household name, but in fact one of the greatest Catholic philosophers of the last century. An inspiration to both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, von Hildebrand was designated by the Nazis themselves as their number one enemy in the 1930s—pretty high praise, that. Hildebrand developed a number path-breaking ideas, including the distinction, foundational for ethics, between the merely subjectively satisfying and the objectively valuable. And he was, perhaps more than any other figure in the twentieth century, the philosopher of the heart. He contended that, though the Western anthropological tradition has placed a great deal of stress on the intellect and the will as spiritual powers, it has, for the most part, ignored or relegated to secondary status the heart, which Hildebrand characterizes as the seat or center of the affective life. Typically,…

Pentecost and the Fires in Our Cities

It is in a way providential that the Feast of Pentecost arrives this year just as our country is going through a convulsive social crisis. For the Holy Spirit, whose coming we celebrate on Pentecost, is a power meant to transform the world, or in the language of Psalm 104, “to renew the face of the earth.” Pentecost, accordingly, is never simply for the Church; it is for the world by means of the Church. One of the principal biblical metaphors for the Spirit is the wind, and indeed, on Pentecost morning, the Apostles heard what sounded like a strong driving wind as the Spirit arrived. But the wind, elusive and unpredictable, is never really known in itself, but only through its effects. On the scriptural reading, the first effect of the Holy Spirit is the formation of an ekklesia (a church), which in turn is designed to transform the…

“Unorthodox” and the Modern Myth of Origins

Unorthodox, a mini-series that debuted on Netflix a few weeks ago, is the story of a young woman who escapes from her oppressive Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and finds freedom with a group of welcoming friends in Berlin. I offer this description with tongue pretty firmly in cheek, because, though it represents a fairly accurate summary of the narrative, it also hints at the oversimplification that makes this admittedly compelling and well-acted drama more than a little problematic. The drama of Unorthodox centers around Esty (played by the astonishing Shira Haas, who deserves every acting award there is), a nineteen-year-old who has spent her entire life within a Hasidic enclave. Her education, her friendships, her marriage, her sense of self—all of it has been thoroughly shaped by the rigorous traditions of her religious community. Her marriage to a young man named Yanky proves to be unhappy, and when, at…

“Laudato Si” Athwart Modernity

In preparation for my participation in a USCCB sponsored symposium for the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si, I reread the famous and controversial document with some care. Many of the themes that struck me five years ago stood out again, but on this reading I was particularly impressed by the pope’s sharply critical assessment of modernity. I think it’s fair to say that the Church has had a complex relationship with the modern, coming out strongly against it at the First Vatican Council and in a plethora of statements throughout much of the twentieth century, but affirming many elements of it very enthusiastically at the Second Vatican Council. One has only to consider here Vatican II’s document on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, or of its magisterial document on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, to see the Council’s favorable assessment of many key…

Why We Can’t Do Evil Even If Good May Come

There is a curious and intriguing passage in the third chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, which in the context of the missive seems almost tossed-off, but which has proven to be a cornerstone of Catholic moral theology for the past two thousand years. Responding to some of his critics, Paul says, “And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come?’ Their condemnation is deserved” (Rom. 3:8)! One might formulate Paul’s somewhat convoluted statement as follows: we should never do evil that good might come of it. There are indeed truly wicked people who seem to take delight in doing evil for its own sake. Aristotle called them vicious, or in extreme cases, “beast-like.” But most of us who do bad things typically can find a justification for our behavior through appealing to a good…

The Quarantine’s Three Lessons About the Church

One silver lining for me during this weird coronavirus shutdown has been the opportunity to return to some writing projects that I had left on the back-burner. One of these is a book on the Nicene Creed, which I had commenced many months ago and on which I was making only very slow progress, given my various pastoral and administrative responsibilities. The last several weeks, I have been working in a rather concentrated way on the Creed book, and I find myself currently in the midst of the section on the Church: “I believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.” I will confess that the peculiar way that we have been forced to express the life of the Church during this quarantine period has influenced my ecclesiological reflection. A first insight is this: we are an intensely, inescapably Eucharistic church. One of the most difficult moments that I’ve had…

Governor Cuomo and God’s Noncompetitive Transcendence

Last week, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, made a rather interesting theological observation. Commenting on the progress that his state has made in fighting the coronavirus, and praising the concrete efforts of medical personnel and ordinary citizens, he said, “The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that.” I won’t waste a lot of time exploring the hubris of that remark, which should be obvious to anyone. I might recommend, out of pastoral concern, that the governor read the first part of Genesis chapter eleven. What I will do instead is explain the basic intellectual confusion that undergirds Cuomo’s assertion, one that, I fear, is shared even by many believers. The condition for the possibility of the governor’s declaration is the assumption that God is one competitive cause among many, one actor jostling for position and time…

Tragedy, Contingency, and a Deeper Sense of God

I have lived in Santa Barbara, California for the past four years. In that brief time, my neighbors and I have experienced a number of real tragedies. Just over two years ago, the terrible Thomas Fire broke out in my pastoral region, in the vicinity of Thomas Aquinas College (hence the name). For a frightening month it made its devastating way from Santa Paula through Ventura, Carpenteria, Montecito, and eventually commenced to devour the foliage on the hills just north of my home. As I was standing one Saturday morning on my front lawn, staring uneasily at the flames, a retired fire captain stopped his car and yelled out the window, “Bishop, what are you still doing here? Embers are flying everywhere; this whole neighborhood could go up.” We were all relieved when, just days later, rains finally came and doused the flames. But that welcome rain became, in short…

La tragedia, la contingencia y un sentido más profundo de Dios

He vivido en Santa Bárbara, California, durante los últimos cuatro años. En ese breve tiempo, mis vecinos y yo hemos experimentado una serie de tragedias reales. Hace poco más de dos años, el terrible incendio Thomas estalló en mi región pastoral, en las cercanías del Colegio Santo Tomás de Aquino (en inglés Thomas Aquinas College, de ahí el nombre). Durante un mes espantoso hizo su devastador camino desde Santa Paula a través de Ventura, Carpenteria, Montecito, y finalmente comenzó a devorar el follaje de las colinas justo al norte de mi casa. Un sábado por la mañana, mientras estaba de pie en mi jardín delantero, mirando fijamente las llamas, un capitán de bomberos retirado detuvo su coche y gritó por la ventana: “Monseñor, ¿qué hace todavía aquí? las brasas están volando por todas partes; todo el vecindario podría incendiarse”. Todos nos sentimos aliviados cuando, unos días después, las lluvias finalmente…