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Diving into a Painful Past

In 1858, the Vatican kidnapped a Jewish boy.

In 1998, scholar David Kertzer wrote an account of the incident.

This month, Romanus Cessario, O.P., reviewed Kertzer’s book, arguing for the correctness of the Vatican’s actions.

This week, I jumped in.


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Border Crossings

People say we have a right to protect our borders.

They say that we have worked hard for what we have, and that we cannot risk losing that. They helpfully point out that there are some very difficult, concrete questions—economic, cultural, etc.—to be faced. There is a way in which an influx of newcomers can change the life we know. And once they arrive, after all, people do need health care, education, and lots of other things that require significant investment of money and other resources. Somebody has to provide those. The extreme version of this, of course, is the claim that we simply should provide no help, no accommodation at all, to those who have crossed our borders without permission. In this debate, it’s important to begin by saying that it’s not only “understandable,” but, in a basic sense, right and good. Borders do matter, and stability does matter.

I worry, though, about the way “protecting borders” seems to become a bone-deep need to control, to keep out the “other,” whatever the expense. I worry that a focus only on this question of control can eclipse some profoundly important questions of larger, human good. And, even if we are completely pragmatic about our own good, it’s worth it to note that most people, if they have access to simple things like health care and education, become productive themselves—and enrich us all with their hard work and contribution to the common good. I believe that if we we step back and consider a larger horizon, that—even with those, difficult, concrete questions—we will actually find that welcoming in the stranger leaves us richer in countless ways.

Now, it’s important not to be utopian or naive about this. As I often point out in these conversations, some people experience the complications of border-crossings much more immediately than others. I worry when I see those whose lives are little touched by these realities criticizing those who are patrolling their borders. It is too easy to look, at a distance, and ask why these silly people can’t just be a little more generous. Pontificating doesn’t help. What will help is something more complex: all of us, together, educating ourselves on the demands involved in this issue. There are, of course, some stereotypes to overcome about “dangerous” strangers, but let’s be practical. A big part of what would really make a difference to those patrolling their borders vigilantly is knowing that they will be supported in bearing the costs involved.

Finally, though, I think we have to move beyond a simple comparison of “costs” and “benefits,” to address a more basic claim: these people are people. In fact, there is an important sense in which these folks are the people that we ourselves were. Virtually all of us were “strangers” at some point, but we were given the opportunity to have a place, to find a voice, and to belong. How can we deny that possibility to those who come after us?

We do have a right to protect our borders. That right, however, has to be weighed against other rights and other goods, against obligations to other human beings as human beings. If we talk about control in isolation, we go very wrong.

All of this is why I consider myself to be fundamentally “pro-immigrant,” and why I hope for substantive reform of immigration law in the U.S.

All of this is also why I consider myself to be fundamentally “pro-life,” and why I hope for substantive reform of abortion law in the U.S.

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The Feast of St. Gamaliel

In the Acts of the Apostles, Christians learn the name of the renowned teacher of the Law, Gamaliel, a leader in the Sanhedrin, grandson of the great Hillel, “a man respected by all the people”—and also one who knew both St. Peter and St. Paul. Paul, according to Acts 22:3, was himself tutored in the law at Gamaliel’s feet; Peter met him under more unsettling circumstances, when he and the other apostle were brought before the Sanhedrin to answer for their stubborn insistence of preaching the gospel even after the Sanhedrin had forbidden it. Some would have had them executed, but Gamaliel counseled otherwise:


“So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:38-39, NAB).

If that last conditional statement seems to suggest not only pragmatism, but possibly also sympathy for the Christian cause, well… it may have. The Christian tradition has long held that Gamaliel was himself converted to Christianity and was then baptized by none other than St. Peter (as well as St. John).

Gamaliel, I must admit, is just the sort of figure, learned and wise, who made me want to become a teacher myself. I did not just want to think about ideas or to interact with people. I did not just want the activity of instruction; I wanted to become the sort of person who could be a reliable guide. I wanted to be wise. Now, almost thirty years after I first stepped to the front of a classroom, I feel as if I’ve walked some way down that path, and also as if the goal is farther away than ever. Classes begin again in just three weeks. So, what should I do?

Gamaliel, as it turns out, has some advice. In Pirkei Avot, a part of Jewish teaching called the Mishna, a number of the sayings of this great teacher are preserved. One phrase, long taken to heart in the Jewish tradition, is a very simple one: משנה טז רבן. Get yourself a teacher.

When I first read these words years ago, I heard them as a student. Yes, I thought. I need a teacher. How else will I become a teacher myself? How else will I become wise? Now, though, I hear them as directed to teachers, too. “Lifelong learning,” or some such thing, is an ideal that all of us have heard extolled. But this is a little different and little more personal. Get a teacher. Find and sit at the feet of those who have things to teach you. Make yourself their student.

Rabban Gamaliel, grandson of Hillel, would have had the chance to learn from many great teachers. As a saint, he got himself a teacher in Jesus. And thirty years on, I am still about the task of getting a teacher for myself, too. How about you? Happy feast.

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“Erroneous Autonomy” and the Family

I am at the Catholic University of America—just for the day!—to take part in this conference on “erroneous autonomy,” talking about the family.

In the brief panel presentation I will give, I end up here:

screenshot2017-01-10at8-41-33am“In the end, family is not just one topic to be discussed. It is indispensable, in so far as the family is the chief school of interdependence. The family is the place that human persons are apprenticed in relationship and interconnection—or not. It is the place that this vision is established, and the place that all the necessary related skills—attending, responding, asking for help, sacrificing for others, etc.—are nurtured.

It is deeply unfortunate that attention to Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Amoris Laetitia, has focused almost exclusively on the question of communion for the divorced-and-remarried, since there are much more fundamental issues at stake. If we want to address erroneous autonomy at the root, and look constructive and fruitful ways forward, this topic and this encyclical demand our further attention.”

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Empathizing with our “Enemies”

A guest post from Rebekah Grace Potts, to respond to a friend, asking about white working class folks, shifting demographics, and how large changes in the US over the last 30-50 years have cost that demographic dearly. The author indicates that you are welcome to share, with attribution, for non-commercial purposes.
Please correct me if I’m mis-remembering your question, but I think it was something like: “I’m not exactly disappointed by them losing privilege in this country, how am I suppose to empathize with and mourn that?” Well, the short answer, from one Catholic to another, is that we are to love our enemies. Full stop. Whomever they are, whyever they have come to be enemies, we are called first to love. Now empathy- if Jesus is our example- is at the heart of loving. That’s what love is about, that and desiring- more than anything else- the Good for another. And so that’s simple, but not easy, and as is often the case (at least for me) it’s not entirely clear what that even means. I’m reminded of a friend asking, “So how, exactly, do I get parenting guidance from the Virgin Mary? Is there a decoder ring for this?”
       So let’s start with something I think most of us know, and contrast it with what we say now, and the shift in meaning. Privilege means: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. The word comes from the Latin, meaning private-law. Now we’ve come to only embrace the negative implications of that meaning- that is to say, the notion of ‘white privilege’, or privileges associated with nobility and aristocracy. Those privileges are often understood to mean exemption from the public law, and impunity to harm others- the privilege to lynch, for example, or the privilege to rape one’s wife (a crime in all 50 states just for the last 23 years), or still, the privilege to commit war crimes without censure- but likely praise- a traditional long-standing privilege of the aristocracy. Now to be certain, if that was the only meaning and implication of the word, it would be an awful thing and we should be working to eradicate it. Post haste. But that isn’t the only meaning the word carries. It is actually, in and of itself, a neutral term. There are a great many privileges that are unassailably good. I consider it my privilege to raise my children. It was a remarkable privilege to be my parents’ child. I’ve always bristled at the notion of ‘white privilege’ because it belies the reality that there are special rights, advantages, and immunity granted to members of the Black community *by the Black community*- and I’m not talking about affirmative action here. I’m talking about the way, as a bi-racial person, I am all too clear that I’m not a member of the community, and not welcome to the special rights and advantages, and not a trusted part of the group. That insider status is clearly a privilege. [as an aside, I think the white privilege conversation has a place in the white community, for their own edification. but non-whites don’t need to spend their energy and time explaining white supremacy to white people, as if they weren’t here, living with it like the rest of us. and reinforcing the idea that non-whites are powerless and gain nothing of value from their own communities that no one else has access to… but I digress.] It is also a privilege- and few know it- to belong to a place, and have that place belong to you. You really can’t even extend that privilege- you just have to be of a place, and that place has to embrace you- the privilege just comes with the territory.
       So first of all- we have to understand- we’re not just talking about working class whites losing the privilege to lynch (or any of the socially toxic side of privileges). We’re talking about all of it fading out of reach- the good and the bad- to the point where we’re not even talking about privileges any more, but basic human dignity. Consider- didn’t your heart break just a little, at the very news of Bill Cosby’s serial rapes? It certainly broke in two and bled nearly out for the women he raped- but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the way in which he belonged to American Blacks and we don’t get to have that anymore, there’s just no redeeming him. Remember how he always had those HBCU sweatshirts on, on the show, you know; and how while the show was for everybody, part of it was for Black America, and just Black America. Now the fact is, the man’s a rapist, a peddler of respectability politics, and many other things I’ll not bring up. I wouldn’t want to pretend that he wasn’t those things to preserve his image for the Black community- but I’m not going to lie: his public downfall carried a real sense of loss [so much loss, that some are unable to countenance the mountain of evidence against him]. Or consider the deaf community and their very real fears about the erasure of the deaf community itself as medicine slowly cures deafness… I could go on. But I submit that it is uncharitable to assume, that the only thing at stake for working class whites is the freedom to lynch (et al). There is clearly a contingent that openly mourns that- but there’s so much more to the story than that.
       Speaking of the openly mourning contingent- this brings me to point two. Even the openly mourning folks are human beings and worthy of compassion, especially the openly mourning folks. They have been broken, and broken in an awful way- robbed of key parts of their very humanity. Now, they may have left the door unlocked when these parts of their humanity were stolen- but I don’t really want to get into victim-blaming here. Mostly, I just want to affirm them as human beings, loved by G*d just like me.
       And now that I’ve spoken of this robbery- let me get to the heart of the matter- point three. For American whites, and working class whites *in particular* there was a bargain reached with the Devil, or rather the ruling class. It’s very simple, they won’t get any *real* advantages in society- things like ownership and autonomy- but in return for not getting any of the pie, they can mercilessly vent their legitimate rage onto a designated underclass, while the ruling class looks the other way, even enshrining those ‘rights’ into law for a while. How is it said? “I might be nuthin’ but at least I’m not a nigger.” It’s a potent salve for the disaffected. Now you could say that working class whites could have simply refused the bargain- but the alternative was… unsavory. The alternative was to become a member of that designated underclass. Consider, during the lynching era- many logical allies to American Blacks immigrated here- Italians, Chinese, Indians, and Mexicans; and Natives already here. But those alliances never materialized as the racial terror also functioned to send a message to those that might forge cross-racial alliances, that if they wanted to integrate with blacks, they could get lynched like them too. So Italians in particular, assimilated into whiteness- but all of those groups have historically engaged some degree of assimilation to whiteness, along with performing the required rejection of Black America, that purchased a modicum of insulation from racialized terror. Consider also during the colonial era, the gradual distinction drawn between indentured servants by what was then a new category of ‘race’. Failure to respect and endorse the racial line in the sand was punishable by extreme violence. And the point here, in its entirely, is to leave folks fractured along racial lines- so much so that folks will perform these dynamics without even being told to- so that no one can mount a credible challenge to the ruling class. So now, in the 21st century, working class whites find themselves not only with none of the pie- but also the thing they were supposed get in return, and the whole culture that’s grown around it (good, bad, and gruesome) are fading inescapably from reach. It’s just painful to lose cultural ground like that- even if the ground was rotten all the way through and irredeemable. There’s a contingent of folks that will reach and scrape and fight to get it back- a little bit like the folks insisting on Cosby’s innocence in the face of everything that’s come to light. But back to Jesus, and his example. With regards to the depredations of the ruling class- this is where Jesus started flipping tables and throwing chairs. So we owe it to ourselves, and to Jesus, to find the compassion we need to connect across class and racial lines and form healthy alliances that allow us to call the ruling class to account. Our failure to do so, is a failure to love.
Solidarity Forever ❤

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Acting Like King

In this moment, one of the things to which we must attend is the relationship of ends and means. Those of us who see a culture marked by division and hatred, and who long to contribute to healing, can’t think only about our final goals, but also the strategies we take up to achieve them.

In my own world of Catholic faith and education, then, I’m looking not only toward the renewal of truth pursued in love, but also considering carefully the question of what qualifies as fully Catholic strategies to get there.

kingIn this long and tumultuous week just past, my attention was turned again to the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Next week, my students and I will read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and yesterday, I spent an hour with a hundred or so of them, talking about his commitment to nonviolent resistance. I couldn’t help thinking of the way that King’s Christian grounding included the fact that he, like Jesus himself, saw “the means” as an indispensable part of “the goal.” And I couldn’t help thinking of our own situation.

Six principles can be discerned in King’s work of nonviolence (and are especially clear in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom).

  1. Nonviolence is not simply a strategy to be used occasionally, but a way of life. 
  2. The ultimate goal of nonviolence is friendship. This goal must be kept in mind.         
  3. It seeks to defeat injustice, not people. Nonviolence insists that those who do wrong are human beings, for whose redemption we hope.
  4. Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. It accepts suffering without retaliation.     
  5. It chooses love over hate. There is nothing sentimental about this form of love. It is a joyful, creative, stubborn commitment to the good. 
  6. Nonviolence believes that the ultimate reality is one of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that God is a God of justice.    

In these difficult and confused days, what would our life together look like if it were shaped by these commitments? Would be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments below.

See for more information on nonviolence resistance, and if you have a few minutes, take a look at King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Well worth reading—or rereading.

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What Now?

As you may already know, I’m not shy about giving advice. I wrote this short piece a couple weeks ago for Catholic Catalogue, when, one bleak morning, all question regarding the Republican nominee for the U.S. president suddenly disappeared. Since nothing looks any better today, and since there’s lots of work to do, I’m re-posting. Friday, after all, is a day for sorrow–and a day for mercy. It’s also an excellent day for pizza, wine, and holy conspiracy.

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