Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Tradition and innovation

I am still working on a short book about hospitality and immigration in the life and teaching of the Fathers of the Church. But I have done enough that I can see where I will end up. I draw three key lessons about hospitality from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

First, all the major Fathers of the Church did indeed take the lessons from Abraham at Mamre and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount very seriously. They were crystal clear that there is a serious obligation to care for those in need, including strangers. They were eloquent about the blessings attached to serving the poor – both the obviously intrinsic blessings and the less obviously attached rewards for obedience. They were forceful about the punishments attached to a failure to serve those in need, including strangers.

On the other hand, the Fathers did not agree about the identity of a “stranger.” St. Jerome’s opinion was emphatic: there is no limitation to this category: person whom you meet whom you don’t know is a stranger, and strangers have a list of needs, some easily identified such as food and water and rest. Other needs are less easily specified: protection, an intent ear, welcome. At the other extreme is St. John Chrysostom, who was equally emphatic: the list of people in need – including the hungry, thirsty, naked, and strangers – is carefully and deliberately limited by Jesus to the least of the “brethren,” which means followers of Jesus.

Second, the sharp and deep disagreement amongst the Fathers was eventually left in the hands of the monks, who provided hospitality in the name of the Church; and their view was clear. St. Benedict and the monastic tradition were unequivocally universal, following the teaching of St. Jerome. At least in theory, monks offered hospitality to all who knocked on their doors. Quite certainly, in practice, there were some limitations on this hospitality, but these limitations were seen as grave failures to fulfill a solemn obligation.

Third, the Fathers carved out a new pattern of hospitality, built explicitly on the model of Abraham, intent explicitly on obedience to the demands in the Sermon on the Mount – and yet significantly different from Mosaic and Apostolic hospitality. The law of Moses addresses a social responsibility: the people of Israel must offer hospitality to other peoples, recalling how the nation of Egypt treated the nation of Israel. The teaching of Jesus emphasizes individual responsibility: when I (singular) was hungry/thirsty/naked/stranger, you (singular) provided food/water/clothing/welcome. But in the life of the Church for over a thousand years, the emphasis is on the duty of the Church, generally monks. Seeing and understanding this third pattern is fundamental to understanding the crisis in our time, for at least two reasons.

For one thing, if religious communities carry out the tasks of hospitality, and then convents and monasteries are suppressed, who assumes the duty? When monasteries are suppressed, the remnants are more likely to focus on the needs of fugitive priests than the neglected duties of the porter. Good people will step forward to act with charity – but what’s the pattern, the model, the prompt and automatic response to the needs of strangers?

But there’s another point to draw from this third pattern of service that the early Church developed. If there’s a third pattern, following the spirit of Moses and Jesus but different in approach, then there can be a fourth pattern, or fifth, or tenth. To insist that everyone must always and everywhere offer hospitality precisely the way Jesus did it – to demand a single pattern of service – is to overlook and set aside the experience of the Church for centuries. So systematic attacks on the new patterns of service set forth by the Second Vatican Council are not just criticisms of modern innovations; they are also attacks on Patristic and medieval teaching, dismissing the universal practice of the Church up to the time of the Reformation.

Even as the Vatican makes peace with Luther, a new force comes forth, insisting that we return to the purity of the Gospel without any taint of monkish aberrations. Perhaps the fight against the Social Gospel – from Leo XIII up to and through Vatican II – somehow misses the point of Tradition. Tradition carves out abundant space for innovation.

Monday, August 7, 2017

re-committed to prayer and writing

August 7, 2017

A few days ago, a national Catholic organization held its annual convention, and issued a revealing and challenging pair of resolutions. (There were a dozen resolutions, actually, but two that belong together.) The group is intelligently and honestly committed to service to the Lord and to the Church, and actually sworn (!) to serve the Pope and bishops. But in a resolution about abortion, the organization reiterated its stance: we will defend children. Faced with a resolution on another issue of grave importance in the eyes of the Church’s leadership – immigration – the organization urged prayer for our country in a time of division and tension.

Prayer. I’m in favor of prayer. But I am wary of a call for prayer when there’s a need for action as well.  Suppose you ask the Lord to do XYZ, and he responds, “Good idea! I give you the power to make it happen!” And then you ask him again to do XYZ. That may not be prayer; it may be simple laziness, or simple disobedience. It could be prayer: maybe we all have to talk to the Lord – and listen! and LISTEN! – for a little longer. So maybe it’s prayer, and maybe it’s not; who am I to judge? For sure, I had better be serious about prayer.

I have tried to pray and listen, regarding welcoming strangers. And once again, before God, I commit myself to explaining carefully what I think the Lord has said.

I went to the Lord with seven questions, in sequence.

First. Jesus said, quite firmly, welcome strangers or make your own arrangements for eternity. Okay, but when Jesus talked about welcoming strangers, what did he mean? Who was he talking about? Who’s supposed to do the work? And who’s a stranger? To get at that, I tried to understand what “stranger” meant in Israel 2,000 years ago. That is, could I figure out what the teaching was about welcoming strangers in the Old Testament?

That was fun! I wrote a couple of short books about it. See “Strangers: 21 Claims from the Old Testament.”

Second. If I understood the shockingly abundant Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) teaching about welcoming strangers correctly, then it must also show up in the New Testament. Is it there?

That was fun too! See “The Persistent Other.”

Third. If it’s true that welcoming strangers is fundamental in the teaching of Moses the Prophets, and is central in the teaching of Jesus, then it must show up in the life and writing of the Church throughout the ages, beginning with the Fathers. Is it there?

And again: what a rich array of delights! The teaching is there, in abundance, and it has a fascinating twist that – I believe – makes it possible to explain the Social Gospel to resistant skeptics. In the Old Testament, the command to “remember that you too were once a stranger in a strange land” is addressed to the Hebrew people. The people, the nation, the society. In the New Testament, the command to welcome strangers (and feed the hungry and clothe the naked, etc) seems to be addressed to individuals. You – and individual, standing alone before the throne of God – must explain what you did. But in the life of the Church for centuries, the responsibility for welcoming strangers was delegated to the clergy – to monks when available, or to pastors. The responsibility was understood to be solemn and urgent, but what most people (the laity) did about it was to support the people who provided hospitality. (Book close to finished.)

Fourth.  If hospitality was key in the Old Testament, and the New Testament, and the life and teaching of the Church for centuries, what did it look like in American history? Another treasure trove! There’s Mary’s work at Guadalupe: she visits to be host, saying simply that she is here among us, praying with us. Her appearance shapes the Church in Latin America; will the norte-americano Catholics pay attention to the Mestiza Virgin? In the USA, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini are remembered as servants of immigrants. Their male counterpart, Fr. Michael J. McGivney, also served immigrants, but his followers are a little unsure what to make of that aspect of his ministry. (Book sketched.)

Fifth. I have a lot to say about welcoming strangers, and about immigration. But, hey, who am I? What does the Church say today about welcoming strangers? The Church has taught about immigration for over a century, with clarity and eloquence, and I embrace every syllable of that teaching. But also, I think I can help “conservative” and “traditional” Catholics who are truly committed to the Lord and his Church, but are nonetheless quite suspicious of Socialists and Commies and leftists who seem to have invaded the Church. To understand the Social Gospel and Vatican II, it might help to back up to the whole body of Patristic thought on welcoming strangers. One simple point: Moses saw hospitality as a social responsibility. Jesus spoke of it as a personal responsibility. The Fathers didn’t reject Moses to embrace Jesus; they were serious about listening to both – and developed a THIRD approach, hospitality as the responsibility of the Church. If there can be a third way, after Moses and Jesus, then there can be a FOURTH. Pope Leo and all the Popes following in his footsteps up through “The Church in the Modern World” developed a new pattern – inspired by Moses, obedient to Jesus, imitating the Fathers – but focusing on GLOBAL responses of GLOBAL challenges. (Book sketched.)

Sixth. Global, schmobal: what about us right here in the USA? What are we supposed to do here in this divided and worried nation? How do we apply the teaching from the Second Vatican Council and from a list of Popes right here? Well, actually, the American bishops cooperated with the bishops of Mexico to answer that question. They say: the right to migrate is a God-given right, but the right to control a border is also a real right, even a duty. These two rights must be balanced – justly. I had an entertaining scrap of a conversation with an educated Catholic who got that far and then almost – almost! – said, “Justice! What is justice?” I was reaching for a bowl of water for him to wash his hands, but he recovered his senses and bit his tongue. Justice is real, objective, achievable – and commanding and indispensable. It may be elusive, and it is often hard to implement. But before God, that’s the task, and we can do it. (Book sketched.)

Seventh and finally: How do we start? This is a workbook, to help people get past the paralysis of analysis. The work that needs to be done is already underway; how do we build? This is a series of essays and exercises – some complete, some roughed out.

God willing, I’ll finish this thing.

I am certain of this: the opposite of xenophobia is not tolerance. Tolerance may be a step up, but it’s not enough. The opposite of xenophobia must be far more robust and pro-active than tolerance. It’s love – if we can find any meaning in that word. If “love” is too over-worked to convey a thought, then try “solidarity.” John Paul II said that the word for love in our time is “solidarity,” a deliberate decision to act for justice. He stated firmly that the route to freedom from a massive social evil is solidarity with the victims of that evil.

Should we pray? Sure! Here’s what I asked, in prayer. And I will explain what I think I heard, in prayer. Real prayer will spill over into action, in due time.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Pro-life nonviolence recalled from afar

The reading at Mass today is – or should be – sobering for pro-life activists. Who’s obnoxious?

The reading is from a book that Catholics consider part of the Bible, but Protestants don’t. It’s from Wisdom, chapter 2.

“The wicked said among themselves, thinking not aright: ‘Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. He professes to have knowledge of God and styles himself a child of the LORD. To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us, because his life is not like that of others, and different are his ways. He judges us debased; he holds aloof from our paths as from things impure. He calls blest the destiny of the just and boasts that God is his Father. Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him. For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes. With revilement and torture let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.’ These were their thoughts, but they erred; for their wickedness blinded them, and they knew not the hidden counsels of God; neither did they count on a recompense of holiness nor discern the innocent souls' reward.”

Oftentimes, the work of a local rescue squad is boring. Boring, boring. It can be like war: months of boredom, punctuated by periods of intense excitement.

It requires preparation. The job itself is pretty simple: park your butt in the way, and don’t move. Other people take over after a while, and they do the heavy lifting. And then you go to trial and jail and all that. But the actual physical task: park your butt. That’s pretty limited. So if you focus on that, you’re a jackass. Preparation: that’s where most of the time and energy goes.

A rescue – whether it’s the fire department or a team of pro-life nonviolent activists – has level after level of engagement. The physical action is exciting, briefly; and it is indispensable. But it is not the whole story.

The heart of the pro-life nonviolence is described in today’s reading. When you park your butt blocking access to an abortion clinic, many people find you obnoxious. This should not be a surprise; they have a point, and they may be right. Whatever you mean to say, they see you and hear you objecting to something they consider necessary and good, and in any case as their business, not yours. So after some thought, they come after you. And you get tested. This is predictable, necessary, and actually a very good thing – because what you want to communicate isn’t clear until you have been pounded for a while.

What we want to say is, this pregnancy thing is about a child. That child is my brother, or sister. I’m not condemning you, or even criticizing. I’m just staying with the child. I know full well that not everyone agrees that there’s a child there. But I think there is, and I have to stay with that child as well as I can. Maybe you will do what you planned to do, and at the end of the day the child will be dead, and the body will be trashed or burned or sent to a lab. But I’m staying here. So before you deport the child, you have to do something about me.

It’s legitimate to test that assertion. What happens if we arrest the fruitcake, and send him or her to jail? Will he shut up and go away? That’s a completely legitimate test. And in fact, it’s a good question, and we should answer it. But the answer, like the original act, should be physical, not verbal – or physical as well as verbal. Get arrested, and go to jail. Then it’s clear, at a minimum, that you might have meant what you said: this is my brother or sister. Or in any case, it’s clear that you meant something serious.

I am intensely grateful to the martyrs of the early Church. The idea that some obscure rabbi rose from the dead is not believable, unless we can test the proposition pretty carefully. But how to test it? No cameras, no forensic teams, no reporters and investigators. It was 2,000 years ago, 6,000 miles away, in a different culture that might use words in ways I don’t understand. What do we have? We have a number of accounts from various eye-witnesses; but I can’t cross-examine them. We also have the reactions of thousands of eye-witnesses, and their followers for several generations, who attested to the truth of their assertions even when their claims cost them their lives. To me, those deaths are convincing, offering more credibility than reporters and cameras would offer. (There’s more: the Gospels with the martyrs find an echo in my heart, or even a “voice,” that I would not interpret aright without the Gospels and martyrs, but which – with Gospels and martyrs – I find compelling.) The claim that Christians make was tested, should be tested, is tested.

And the same is true with our claim about children. It should be tested.

Nonviolence is a claim: we attest to a truth, and ask others to consider it.


With great pain, I have to say: I think that pro-lifers were tested in the 1980s and 1990s, and failed the test. Will we go to jail to clarify an incredible claim (or an unpopular claim, anyway)? Yes, for a while. But then we move on.

Why did we move on? It’s fair for outsiders to look at what we did, and draw conclusions: they didn’t think that unborn children were worth the fuss, and they tested us to see if we really meant it; and having tested us, they conclude that we didn’t mean it either.

Their conclusion is fair. But I think it’s wrong. The rescue movement did not stop because we didn’t mean it. The problem was, we didn’t know what we were doing. We were confused about the differences between a violent struggle, or even a political debate – and a campaign of nonviolence. We reverted to the familiar, and left nonviolence behind.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What's wrong with a merit-based immigration policy?

Among the many (many!) horrors of the revised executive order on demigration is its emphasis on a merit-based system. In this context, “merit” means “money.” The opposite is “family.” Be clear: a merit-based system is a deliberate decision to treat immigrants as economic animals, sources of cash – instead of treating them as members of a family. This is indeed a horror show.

The horror has deep roots. When the USA was building a transcontinental railroad, we imported Chinese workers for the western half. They were not permitted to bring their wives; the racing railroad provided whores instead. And when the work was done, the workers who didn’t run for it were rounded up and sent home. In other words, anti-Chinese sentiment was among the earliest examples of ethnic-specific campaigns of racist exclusion in our history. And note well: this racist policy was explicitly anti-family.

The stance of the Catholic Church is radically opposed to this de-humanization of immigrants. Since Pius XII’s letter on immigration in 1951, the Church has seen the Holy Family in its flight to Egypt as the prototype and patron and protector of all refugees and migrants. The Holy FAMILY. Joseph the Worker was really, truly, emphatically not supposed to move to Egypt without his FAMILY. And so it’s not surprising that when St. John Paul II wrote about the “right to migrate” (in Familiaris Consortio), he listed it among the rights of the FAMILY.

The reason for the current renewal and strengthening of an anti-family policy is explicit: Trump and comp want money, and so they prefer wealth-makers. The choice is deliberate and idolatrous. Further, it is yet another example of the blindly unjust pattern in much American thinking about immigrants. The Church teaches that clear thought about immigration begins with recognizing the right to migrate together with the right to control borders, then balancing them. But treating people as cogs in an economic machine reveals a total lack of interest in any effort to balance competing rights with justice and mercy.

The deep horror of the proposed policy is made even more-heart-breaking by the near-solid support of America’s pro-life / pro-FAMILY organizations. Friends, in the name of God, pay attention! A merit-based policy is a swap: you’re trading in your love of family – for money. It’s despicable, and hypocritical, and idolatrous.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

bright eyes: wise guy, wise man

The reading at Mass today is (in part) about identifying people. Jesus asks for some polling data: who do “people” say I am? Maybe a prophet, or Elijah, or John the Baptist returned from the dead. Okay, forget the polling data; here’s a different question: who do YOU say I am? Peter responds, explaining who he believes Jesus to be. And promptly, Jesus re-names Peter, and clarifies his – Peter’s – identity and role.

We don’t know who we are in a vacuum. We figure out who we are in a context, in some social matrix or other. I would argue that we know ourselves best when we see ourselves in a social context that includes the Person who created all Contexts.

But still – with or without a personal relationship with God, a relationship in which we know somebody and sense that this person knows us – we fill in details about our identity by moving in and out of a variety of social contexts.

Me: I like bright eyes. Bright, lively, dancing. I’m not always able to tell the difference between the brightness of mischief (say, Eddie Murphy) and the brightness of holiness (say, Mother Teresa). I have to watch what people do for a while to distinguish. At first appearance, the delight in their eyes attracts me. I like wise guys and wise men, and I’m slow to figure out which is which. That’s what I see, and I think that that’s a large part of what shapes me.

When we were six or seven, walking along, my friend Grant Mallett got in front of me and stopped to inspect my face. “You have wrinkles already,” he announced. I did. I had lines across my brow. He didn’t. His face was smooth and tranquil. I decided right then that if I was going to get wrinkles, I should get the right wrinkles. I wanted smile lines, out from my eyes, and around my mouth. That was 60 years ago; today, in general, I think I got what I wanted.

During the war in Vietnam, I did alternative service, working in hospitals, and I loved it. I remember going into the room of an old guy with a list of new and dangerous infections. They had put him in solitary confinement, with red warning signs all over the place. You had to put on masks and gloves and gowns and – I don’t recall what all, maybe you had to carry a flame-thrower to purify the air you breathed. I went in there, and the guy looked depressed and lonely. And I said, “God damn, man, there’s a lot of stuff between you and the rest of the world. Are you still a human being over there?” He looked up and met me eye to eye, and half-grinned: “You got that right! Shit!” Score.

In 2000, I went to a party with Pope John Paul II and 2.3 million of his closest friends – World Youth Day in Rome. Many wonderful things happened that week. But a detail from the vigil at a university outside Rome. 2.3 million kids and chaperones were camping all over the rolling hills there, and the Pope flew in by helicopter. We sang a while and prayed a while, then the Pope (his staff) set off fireworks for a while. There were jumbo screens all over the hills, so everyone could see the center stage. And there was this old guy with Parkinson’s, hunched over. When the fireworks were done, he looked up – Parkinson’s freezes your face and you couldn’t read expressions there, but his voice was clear – and he asked, “Vot should ve do now?” Well, 2.3 million kids wanted to laugh and scream and dance, so that’s vot ve did. The old guy didn’t dance, but he knew how to party. He couldn’t dance, but he could create a “ve” who could. Joy is stronger than old age.

I don’t feel good about laughter when others are suffering. Well, so what? Who cares whether John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe “feels good”? Fair question. Maybe not a lot of people, but I care. And I admit freely that that’s a part of the reason I want to visit some of the Syrian refugees who live in Baltimore. I want their permission to laugh. Ammar Jafar, the imam at the Germantown masjid and a friend, has bright bright eyes. Maybe he fasts until he’s crazy with bright eyes. Maybe he’s an accomplished liar with bright eyes. But I think he knows who he is because he knows his relationship with God, and he is happy with radiant bright eyes. His community serves a dozen refugee families. One day, when Ammar goes to Baltimore, I’ll go with, and maybe help a little. Maybe I can bring some bread; my bread is some of the best in the world. These refugees – their lives have encroached on my life; I’m not sure how or why, but I recognize the flat fact. I have tasted their pain, second hand, through Ammar. I need to see their hope and vitality and courage and joy, first hand. I know which is stronger, but I need to see it.

Joy. Find it in God. Find it in friends. And test its limits confidently, because there aren’t any.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Wrestling to adapt and adopt

Wrestling to adapt and adopt

I follow the teaching of the Catholic Church – like Walker Percy, another bad Catholic. I’m working on how to incorporate parts of Muslim prayer into my own prayer. So: thoughts on a phrase and gesture.

The phrase

Allahu Akbar. To the Western ear, that’s a war cry, and in fact it’s usually the violent shriek of a terrorist. But to a Muslim, it’s the most common phrase in prayer, repeated over and over all though all the five prayers of the day.

At Mass in the Maronite Rite (in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church), God is addressed in Arabic, as “Allah.”

So we can (and I do) incorporate the words that are precious to our Muslim brothers and sisters into our Christian prayer. It’s really pretty urgent that Christians stop associating Muslim prayer with terror. So TRY! Consider, for example, the refrain in the great Swedish hymn, “How Great Thou Art:

Then sings my soul, my savior God to Thee,
How great thou art, how great thou art.

“How great thou art” can be translated “Allahu akbar.” If you’re going to replace the line from the Christian hymn with the Arabic words, you have to pay attention to how it scans. The “u” in “Allahu” is not a complete syllable, more like half a syllable. It’s like the “ur” in Saturday: you can make it a separate syllable – SA-TUR-DAY – or not – SAT-[eh]-DAY. Or the “r” in “where” in New England: it can be two syllables if you think that “r” is a vowel – WHAY-UH – or one – WHAIR. ALLAH is two syllables, for sure. AKBAR is two syllables, for sure. But the “u” can be a clear syllable, or a transitional sound more like a “w” attached to “AKBAR.” If you make it a transitional half-syllable, then the hymn scans properly, with four strong syllables in the Arabic line:

Then sings my soul, my savior God to Thee,

The gesture

I was thinking about Muslim gestures over the weekend. I have had a strong negative visceral reaction to a detail in Muslim prayer. I’m troubled by a position in prayer – not quite prostrate, but on my knees with my head on the ground – and with my butt above my head. Parts of it I understand: it is certainly true in both Muslim and Christian prayer and behavior that bowing to God is often tied tightly and causally to a sense of equality in relationships between men – eye to eye with great dignity and calm. Still, the posture bothered me. So I sat there Sunday, fussing at the Lord: “It’s undignified.”  I sat there in church and looked at a crucifix – Jesus scourged, mocked, nailed, crowned. The figure on the cross has spit running down his face, although it’s not obvious because it’s overlaid with sweat and grime and blood. I looked, and thought, “That Muslim position is undignified.” And (it seemed to me, I imagined) Jesus’ grime-encrusted eyes popped open, and he looked at me, and he said … Well, he didn’t say anything, but the expression on his spit-spotted face seemed to say, “You’re kidding me, right?” (Actually, I’m censoring what I thought his face said.)

Got it. I’m still going to tuck my fanny as well as I can. But butt me no buts. When I’m praying with my Muslim brothers, I’m putting my forehead on the floor, regardless.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

actions speak more clearly than words

[Geoff explained difficulties trusting some of the teaching and implementation of Vatican II. I respond at length. Mid conversation ...]

Geoff: the Assisi incident made an impact on you. Truth is, I don’t know anything about it, at all. If you want to send a link or something, I’ll read about it. But off the top of my head, I can’t respond intelligently, although the incident was important to you.

I’d like to describe three incidents, and I’d be interested in your reactions.

The first was decades ago, and involved a gradual change over a couple of years. I read Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Edmund Campion, and was deeply impressed. A detail: when he left his 15-year stint teaching philosophy and rode toward his new assignment in England, the average life expectancy of Catholic priests in England was six weeks. He rode from Prague happily, and was a delight to travel with, his companions said. But also, they said, he dropped back from the group to ride alone to pray the Office with great care. His tranquility and his prayer were linked.

Well, I loved that, and I set out to learn to pray as he prayed. I learned my way around in the old breviary, and brushed up my Latin so I could make my way through the psalms, and visited a monastery to learn psalm tones. But after a year or so, I came to the conclusion that the Latin and the Gregorian chant were eye-opening and glorious, but were nonetheless a distraction. I wanted to focus on the psalms. So I switched to English, with Latin as a backup when I wanted additional insight or clarity. English was my own language, and I wanted to get at the meaning without distraction.

When I switched to English, I read a lot faster, and then read a lot more, and then read the whole Bible … and then made friends with many Protestants who also loved Scripture.

I’ve skipped a lot. But the point is, what brought me into a relationship of love and respect with many Protestants began with a serious effort to follow the path of Edmund Campion, a Counter-Reformation martyr. On the surface, it might seem that where I started and where I ended were diametrically opposed. But I think that times have changed, and the Spirit blows. I am pretty confident that Campion would (did, does) understand and approve. I think he led, and I followed. Catholics and Protestants belong together, not at each other’s throats. The war is over. I am a Catholic, not a Protestant; but the war is over. We have disagreements, but we are brothers and sisters, and the war is over. We are still arguing, like siblings, but we are keenly aware that we agree far more than we disagree. The war is over.

Second. I learned a great deal from a Reformed Presbyterian minister, a genuine Calvinist, who admired Cotton Mather. We had a wonderful discussion one afternoon about idolatry, struggling to understand each other’s views on Mary and on the Bible. He worried that I was worshipping Mary. I said that I thought my relationship with Mary was very much like his relationship with the Bible. Did he worship the Bible? From the outside, it certainly appeared that he was he was confused about the fullness of revelation: is “the Word” Jesus, or is “the Word” a fat book with a black cover? From the outside, he seemed confused; but having gotten to know him, I understood tranquilly that Scripture led him directly to Jesus, and he wasn’t confused or idolatrous. Could he see that a relationship with Mary did the same for me? I’m not confused; I know who she is and who she isn’t; and she has led me to know her son. I do see and understand that from the outside, a relationship on Mary can sometimes look confusing, but let me explain … [extended conversation].

The conversation was enormously fruitful. Because we trusted each other, we got past superficial errors, and got to the heart of the two questions. And we ended convinced: I was not involved in Mariolatry, and he was not involved in bibliolatry.

Third. Much tougher. I attended a conference on bioethics one year. It was a prestigious international conference, with lots of big names. Both major strands of bioethics were represented: (1) bioethics as an ethical system designed to protect the interests of the bios, of Mother Nature (that is, population control); and (2) bioethics as a secular approach to ethical questions about life issues (that is, a search for “neutral” language about abortion and euthanasia and cloning and such). I came as a fierce critic, an outsider, ready to argue. I thought then (and think now) that bioethics often functions as the priesthood of eugenics.

One conferee was a long-haired gentleman who worked in India. He brought four women from Indian villages (who were dressed in saris, and the four of them increased the color and beauty of the conference dramatically). I spoke with them a bit, and at one point I expressed a worry and a caution. I said (approximately, condensing) that the conference was full of intelligent leaders, but I hoped they would not be too impressed; I hoped they would not equate intelligence and sophistication with atheism. One of them lit up, and hastened to re-assure me. Yes, she said, we understand your concern! That’s why we brought our gods with us. Then she reached in her bag and pulled out a small jade elephant. I was totally unprepared for that. Not many of my friends have their gods in their pockets. We laughed and laughed.

Nothing inside me rose up in worry, crying out against paganism and idolatry. At the time, and since, I thought her response was precisely on target (almost precisely). But wait: wasn’t she openly explicitly obviously manifestly idolatrous? No alarm bells went off inside me; why not? Am I stupid, jaded, careless, privately idolatrous? I think not. (But of course, if I were idolatrous, I wouldn’t think so, would I?)

We didn’t settle down to talk about theology, so I don’t really know what that was all about; and I don’t expect I will ever know (this side of the grave). But I am pretty sure that the way she used a word had nothing whatsoever to do with the way I use the same word. I don’t think that she was confused about the power and majesty of her toy elephant, any more than Catholics are confused about the power of relics and statues. I don’t think she thought she was holding God in her hand; I think she showed me an outward manifestation of a belief, that the Creator knows us and responds to us, and that we should turn our minds toward heaven regardless of what others say.

I think idolatry is real. But I don’t think I saw it there.

I think idolatry is real. I know a man who lives in a gold temple, a shrine. The shrine doesn’t seem to have a clear focus at first; there aren’t any altars or icons or indications of who the god is that the temple was built for. Was it a temple to worship gold, to bow down to money? I think not; I think the gold points – as gold should – toward something else, something or someone worthy of golden worship. After a few disoriented moments, I think, it gets clear that the shrine is built for the exaltation of the owner himself. He is the god in the shrine. I don’t think he worships Mammon, although some people who are smarter than I think he does. He would never claim to be a deity, but I think the temple is an expression of self-worship. I could be wrong, but that was my impression.

Sometimes words communicate ideas, and sometimes they are just in the way. Sometimes you have to shut your ears and open your eyes to understand what’s happening. I don’t think the Indian women were idolaters, despite their words; I do suspect that the rich man was an idolater, despite his silence on the subject.


It seems to me that this periodic weakness of words is key to understanding a fundamental teaching of the Lord. In his description of the Last Judgment, Jesus did not talk about creeds or beliefs; he talked about acts. It seems to me that acts reveal the heart much more clearly and reliably than words, and it seems to me that the Lord said the same. It seems to me that Jesus said: if you serve your neighbor with love, it’s because I prompted you to do so, and you heard my voice inside you and you responded to me. You may or may not know me by name, but you know my voice, and you respond to it. And by contrast: if you know my name, but refuse to respond to my words that I speak in the quiet of your heart, then you won’t serve my people with love; and when you say you know me, you are lying.