Monday, November 28, 2016

The Lord comes -- at an hour and in a way we don't expect

The First Sunday of Advent, 2016
“Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” (Mt 24: 43-44)

Today’s Gospel is somber, a warning. It’s part of a long discourse on the end of time. In some ways, that’s a very strange way to start the Advent season: we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Lord by focusing on the end of time. Is this a happy event, or a calamity? What’s up?

The “coming of the Lord” refers to at least three different things. First, of course it refers to Christmas – 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem and also this year in our lives. Second, more obvious in today’s reading, it refers to the coming of the Son of Man at the end of time, when we will be judged. The approach of the end should sober us up a bit, but it’s not necessarily a calamity. Read C. S. Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles, and in particular The Last Battle; Lewis’s picture of the end of time is deeply delightful! But third, when Jesus describes his coming as judge, he describes the many ways he comes to us throughout our lives.

When I was hungry, when I was thirsty, when I was a stranger, when I was naked, when I was sick, when I was in prison – you cared for me. When Jesus says that, we respond that we don’t remember it at all. He clarifies: whatever you did for the least of my people, you did for me. So that’s a source of deep joy – if indeed we did serve his people when they showed up in our lives.

In today’s reading, Jesus say we must be prepared, because he will come at an hour we do not expect. In that same discourse, a little farther on (Matthew 25:31 ff), he adds that he will come – not just at an hour we don’t expect, but also in a way we do not expect.

So be ready! Hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, imprisoned: he comes! Make him welcome!


[meditation on immigration in the light of the Gospel, Year A]

Monday, November 21, 2016

Thanks

Three things you can never repay:
the love of a woman,
the loyalty of a warrior,

the generosity of the poor.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Nightmare: getting what we ask for

Dear Lord, what will happen if this new xenophobia really flourishes?

If you decide that sex is a toy and babies are a totally separate event, the outcome of a choice, what happens? Suppose you just get a quick little snip, a simple vasectomy. Maybe God gets really annoyed and piles fire and brimstone on you. But I think it’s simpler: if you get a vasectomy, you don’t have any babies. Sterility is a curse. The “punishment” for this curse is … well, this curse.

If you choose abortion, then you have a dead baby. I can’t imagine trying to figure out how to punish a woman for having an abortion. Abortion is mind-boggling and wrapped in fuzz, but it seems clear to me that the outcome of an abortion is a dead child. What lunatic wants to pile on more pain?

For years, it has seemed to me that the mark of an immigrant is hope, innocent and unquenchable hope – or sometimes just a child-like naivety, a transparent and unshakable belief that things will get better if you work. It’s a mistake to call this child-like optimism mere naivety; this thing survives shipwreck and desert crossings. It’s tough, like Emily Dickinson’s generous little bird. I think it is truly hope. And this hope was, once upon a time, the mark of an American. Now most Americans are pretty jaded, like Europeans; but we have a flood of immigrants pouring in, marked by hope, and fanning ancestral dreams back into flames.

We can cut it off, close down the fountain of hope. Do you know what happens if you let the isolationists close the borders? The punishment is severe indeed: you don’t have new strangers in the country.


Barren, haunted, and isolated. I hope we get stupid too, or these curses will be too much to bear.           

Friday, November 18, 2016

A dozen dubia for the gloomy rebel Cardinal

Cardinal Burke has nailed his five arrogant dubia to the door of St. Peter’s. Answer, Francis, he demands, or the Cardinals will have to correct you. (Dubia is plural for dubium. A dubium is an item of doubt, something you're dubious about; it's jack-Latin for a question that you intend to use as a trap.)

Wow. It seems obvious to me that the key change that Pope Francis made was a change in tone. It is pretty odd that experts in Rome would gather to examine the entrails of a broken marriage, and think that they have something valuable to offer. The Pope apparently thinks so too, and so he made a strenuous effort to change the tone. Marriage is about joy. It is not a contagion that must be scrutinized and tamed; it’s a joy.

The bottom line in the dubia is simple. Pope Francis has said things that different people interpret different ways. Cardinal Burke insists that the job of the Pope is to unify -- meaning draw into uniformity. So different interpretations are a threat to Burke, especially since Burke's job used to be to make wandering bishops with varying interpretations get back in line.

So when Burke demanded that the Pope get back to work and be joyless, Francis refused. Burke listed his complaints, in a pseudo-legal document, accompanied by a press release and a threat.

Before the synod on marriage and the Pope’s exhortation on the joy of love, I had a dozen questions. I think the Pope addressed them, but Cardinal Burke did not. So I post them again, after two years. My questions include:

1.       What did Jesus say, and what did he mean (in Matthew and Mark)?  He said: whatever Moses said, the ideas of marriage were clear from the beginning of human history: two become one.  So if you divorce your wife and re-marry, that’s adultery.  I don’t mean to equivocate with the Lord, but I do think that good people heard different things.  If you see an attractive new potential partner, but you are married, can you marry and mate if you divorce first?  Jesus says that the quickie divorce-so-we-can-marry package is a crock; adultery is adultery, and you can’t make it good by abusing the divorce laws that Moses tolerated (with a clothes pin on his nose).  Got it.  But there’s a different case that may or may not be described by the words in Mark’s Gospel.  Did Jesus also mean that if your marriage falls apart, and then ten years later you marry again, that’s adultery?  It could be, but I don’t think that the text, by itself, says that clearly.  I accept wholeheartedly that two become one.  And I accept wholeheartedly that Jesus desires this unity.  But I don’t think the text, by itself, justifies the conclusions drawn (and the penalties imposed) by Roman Catholic canon law.

2.       Are the words of Jesus here among the “counsels of perfection”?  That is, there is a body of teaching that many Christians accept respectfully, but apply haphazardly – without getting too excited about the gaps between the explicit and clear teaching of Jesus and the standard practice of his followers.  “Turn the other cheek,” for example.  The teaching is clear, but few people wonder if they will go to hell in a handbasket if they hit back sometimes.  In general, Catholics understand the just war theory to be universally applicable, even when it conflicts with Jesus’ words.  You can’t enforce perfection by law.  This attitude toward the teaching of Jesus has problems, of course.  But: is the Lord’s teaching about divorce and remarriage in the same category?  Why not?

3.       With regard to Jewish teaching about marriage, and especially the appeal to the patriarchs who practiced polygamy, I am inclined to set them aside wholesale.  It seems to me that Jesus explicitly distinguished between his teaching and the teaching of Moses.  I would add that if you look at Abraham (one example), it seems that God tried to teach him about chastity (don’t ask your wife to sleep with the pharaoh), but Abraham quite clearly did not absorb the lesson (Hey, Abe!  Not with the king either!).  But there is a colossal amount of teaching about marriage, separate from the confusion that patriarchal abuses might have caused: two become one, covenant, marriage as an image of God’s love for us …  I want to set aside the example of the patriarchs, but hold fast to other abundant teaching. 

4.       As I understand it, Patristic literature (specifically, the Fathers in the first five centuries after Pentecost) is pretty solidly supportive of the Roman Catholic position, that there is no excuse a second “marriage” after a divorce.  Still, there are exceptions; at least two (just two?) Fathers did admit of exceptions.  One is a guy I never heard of.  The other is St. Basil – a single disputed line.

5.       The Orthodox churches, the eastern half of Church before the schism, hold fast to the authority of the teaching of Jesus on marriage.  And, of course, they read the Fathers more than Roman Catholics.  Nonetheless, they do not have anything like the penalties of the West.  The attitude of the writers in the “Remaining in the Truth of Christ” book (Cardinal Burke et al, arguing at the recent pre-synod gathering) seemed to me to be extraordinarily cavalier: “Sheesh!  What is wrong with those slobs!”  I saw zero effort to understand their view respectfully.  Reading the book on marriage, I wondered if I was seeing the basis for the Eastern anger at the West – seeing it and understanding, for my first time.  The Orthodox leave the matter in the hands of bishops, with varying results – and maybe that’s a deliberate and defensible decision!  In any case, it is simply not obvious to me that a serious Christian can adopt the views of Patristic thinkers without careful reference – without any reference! – to the way the Orthodox churches build on Patristic thought.

6.       Why do we have a tribunal at all?

a.       I am a little puzzled about why the Catholic Church has a tribunal.  Is it a relic of ages past, or is it really something that a church should have?  Is it one of the few remaining scraps of the Inquisition?  I am quite ignorant here, and just wondering.
b.      There are other parts of Catholic life that look like treasured antiques, and they raise different questions.  It might be confusing and pointless to pile them all together, since they raise a list of different issues.  But still, I wonder about the Congregation for the Defense of Faith, and its work to defend orthodox teaching: Is it true that you can get in trouble in the Church and end up facing trial (of some sort) in two ways: by writing books or having sex?  Is that weird?
c.       The Church has a trial-like arrangement for dealing with pedophile priests.  The system has been reformed recently.  Nonetheless, the failures were colossal, and global.   The internal system was a not just a failure; for years, it was an obstacle to the work of local (secular) courts who intended to protect children.  Should the Church be running courts?
d.      I respect the Pope’s well-trained body-guards.  But should we have this pageantry?  Is this another eruption of ancient (well, pre-Columbian) history?  Is this a leftover from the Papal States, when the Church ruled some of the city-states of Italy? 
e.      Generally: is the marriage tribunal a detail in a list of weird things that we might want to leave behind?

7.       St. Pius X led a deep revolution is the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist.  Prior to his papacy at the beginning of the 20th century, people did not receive Communion frequently.  So it seems to me that telling someone in 1890 that he/she could not receive Communion was different from saying the same thing in 1910.  And the revolution of St Pius X has continued and deepened throughout the past century.  Today, most practicing Catholics receive the Eucharist 60 times a year, and millions receive the Eucharist 365 times a year, compared with once or twice a year not too long ago.  In 1890, it made sense – perhaps, sort of – to say that a person could participate in the life of the Church but not receive the Eucharist.  But it’s very different now.  The Eucharist is – and also now is perceived to be – the heart of Catholic life.  How can you say, today, that a person is welcome to everything in the life of the Church – except the fount, the center, the core, the foundation, the beginning, the culmination of our life?  I am not sure that I could have explained the penalty ever.  But it seems to me that this penalty means things today, after Pius X, that it didn’t mean before his great work.  Should we adjust?

8.       “You should not receive the Eucharist.”  What does that mean?  Doesn’t it mean: “As far as we can tell, you are going to hell unless you repent – or unless you are a Protestant.”  Perhaps I have completely missed the point – but this sounds (1) severe, and (2) insulting to Protestants.  So I’m open: what does it mean, anyway?

9.       A couple seeking to deal with the practical problems of a second (civil) marriage judged invalid might be permitted to “live together as brother and sister.”  That strikes me as so weird that it’s hard to get started responding.  The phrase is a euphemism for staying together but not having sex.  Perhaps I’m missing something here, but that sounds to me like a view of marriage that is so cramped and impoverished that it is hard to fathom!  In my view, Christian marriage means unity of heart and soul.  Sex is good too, but it’s a detail!  Marriage is so enormous that sex is a detail!  In the debate over same-sex marriage, a part of what Catholics are trying to say is that marriage is much deeper and richer than genital activity, or even than sex-plus-affection.  Explaining this richness is critical to explaining why we oppose same-sex “marriage”!  But then you turn around, and find Catholic canon lawyers, with advanced degrees from Roman universities, saying that couples can live as brother and sister, not as man and wife – and by that they mean, no sex!  Lord, have mercy!  Was the marriage of Jacques and Raissa Maritain one of the deepest marriages in Church history, or was it not a marriage?  The lawyer’s modest offer strikes me as absurdly ignorant!  When the best and most expert canon lawyers try to be gentle and healing, and then they spout shocking nonsense, it’s unsettling.  Do they know what they are talking about, at all?

10.   Why can’t we return authority to handle marriage questions to the bishops?  When kings and potentates twisted episcopal arms in ages past, the cases were referred to Rome, to avoid corrupt decisions.  That made sense then.  But the bishops are the successors of the Apostles.  Isn’t it their vocation to deal with the complex issues in the lives of the people in their diocese?  The cases sent to Rome don’t go the Pope, anyway; they go to a bureaucracy.  Isn’t the Orthodox model better?

11.   The specific laws in canon law about annulment make sense individually.  That is, reading them over, I can see where each one came from.  But as a package, do they make sense?  That is, it I clear that the annulment process has been abused, and the practice in one diocese has been wildly different from the practice in a neighboring diocese.  But is the process so convoluted and detailed that abuse is guaranteed to occur?  Many good folks insist that we need to make it (“it” = canon law dealing with divorce and marriage) uniform and predictable and just.  I’m not sure.  Is the effort to reform it a fool’s errand, like unscrambling an egg?

12.   It seems to me that if the Church is going to have tribunals and lawyers and penalties, we should do a whole lot more, or a whole lot less.  That is, sex cases go to court regularly.  But what’s the appropriate penalty for fire-bombing Tokyo?  Or for closing factories in Michigan and re-opening them in Asia – not to help Indian workers who are still underpaid, but to increase profits for shareholders?  Or for spouting hatred non-stop on the internet, encouraging and fostering and excusing racial or religious tension and division?  Or for participating in the seizure of an entire continent for European settlers and excluding others?  Or for [Catholics who persist in …] denouncing the authority of the Pope and bishops in council together, denying that these anointed men understand God or worship, and insisting that they are heretics who worship false gods?  Isn’t spitting on “Gaudium et Spes” or “Nostra Aetate” as dangerous and destructive and disobedient as divorce and remarriage?  Aren’t these questions (violence, money, hatred, racism) as important and as complex as sex?  Why take one slice of human problems to a court, and leave the others to the priest in the pulpit and confessional – or overlook them altogether?


Burke's Rebellion

Burke’s Rebellion
Cardinal Burke demands that Pope Francis accept Card. Burke’s ideas about marriage, and prioritize life and marriage. DEMANDS! The Cardinal demands that the Pope re-arrange his ideas about subsidiarity (Card. Burke wants power concentrated in Rome), about the authority of bishops (limit the local bishop’s power, and concentrate power in Rome, says Card. Burke), about the role of the Curia (to correct the errant Pope when necessary – the power concentrated in Rome belongs to the Curia, not the silly pope). What lit Card. Burke’s fire? Divorce and re-marriage and receiving Communion.

Burke’s Rebellion goes hand in hand with another Card. Burke split. The bishops of the United States are solidly – unanimously, as far as I know – protective of immigrants’ rights. Oops! The bishops in American dioceses are unanimous, as far as I know – but there is an American bishop now serving in Rome, without an American diocese, who challenges this unanimity. Burke sides with Trump, and says carefully, “A Christian cannot close his heart to a true refugee, this is an absolute principle, there’s no question about it, but it should be done with prudence and true charity. Charity is always intelligent; it demands to know: Exactly who are these immigrants? Are they really refugees, and what communities can sustain them?”

Dear Lord. Listen to this rebel! “True refugee”? The UN screening process isn’t enough for Card. Burke? He wants extravagant assurances of safety when he serves! “Charity,” not justice? But the teaching of the Church (from a true Pope, you know, not this silly Latino, but from John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio, #46) is that migration is a right. Welcoming refugees and even economic immigrants is not charity; it’s justice! Card. Burke expects “prudence” to water down and limit the demands of justice.

Card. Burke is a dissenter on Islam. “Lumen Gentium” says that Muslims adore “the one and merciful God.” Card. Burke apparently believes that this authoritative document is not clear. “Nostra Aetate” says the Church regards Muslims with esteem. Card. Burke says that may be clear, but it’s not authoritative. All the Popes since the Council have prayed with Muslims; but Card. Burke sees fit to set aside any teaching value in such practice; deliberate efforts to set an example do not constitute teaching.

Burke’s Rebellion focuses on matters of sex, but he’s also: divisive on the rights of migrants, and a dissenter on Islam.

Like all rebels, he’s ready to teach, fired up and ready to go. He’s got a whole Church – from the Pope on down to humble married folks in trouble – to straighten out.


Cardinal Burke: Trump’s man in Rome.

Recognize the visitation!

As Jesus drew near Jerusalem, he saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If this day you only knew what makes for peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes.” Jesus prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” (Lk 19:41-44, reading at Mass on 11/17/16)

The way to peace is indeed hidden from our eyes!

The time of your visitation: what is that? There was a moment in history, when the Lord came among us: “he has come to his people and set them free,” the dawn from on high breaking upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness, to guide our feet into the way of peace. We celebrate this Incarnation at Christmas; but the Word was made flesh in the womb of Mary nine months before Christmas. It was a tiny event, and it took some time, historically speaking, for this moment to be made manifest.

But we continue to celebrate “the time of your visitation” today, not only looking back two thousand years, but looking at events in our daily lives. The Church presents this reading about recognizing the Lord’s visits to us as we approach the end of the year and recall the end of time and the Last Judgment. It is urgent – it is a matter of life and death – that we recognize the Lord’s visits. “When I was hungry, you gave me to eat … when I was thirsty, you gave me to drink … when I was a stranger, you welcomed me.” If we refuse to recognize the Lord’s visitation when strangers appear at our gates, our land too will be smashed and scattered.


The Church and the nation are divided bitterly over the Lord’s visits. Some say, the Lord is present to us in the unborn: protect these children. Others recall the words of the Lord about welcoming strangers. Why should we dream of choosing between the two? What is wrong with us?

St Jerome, St Fabiola, and the necessity defense

The Orthodox Churches have been permitted couples to receive Communion after divorce and re-marriage. Perhaps this is because they have drawn more from the Fathers like St. Jerome. Consider Jerome's remark about his friend -- divorced and re-married.

Jerome’s remark
The Catholic Church is split, left against right. The most visible manifestation of the split: immigration versus abortion. Most pro-lifers oppose the Church’s teaching on immigration, and most pro-immigration activists oppose the Church’s teaching on abortion. This weird split in the Church, setting justice against morality, is new, going back perhaps two generations. But there are some hints of it in the past. In about 400 AD, the story of St. Fabiola extracted a tantalizing remark from St. Jerome: “… after repudiating her husband she did not continue unmarried … I readily admit this to have been a fault, but at the same time declare that it may have been a case of necessity. It is better, the apostle [Paul] tells us, to marry than to burn.”


Fabiola’s story
If St. Jerome was the Father of Christian Hospitality, then St. Fabiola was the Mother of Christian Hospitality. The two were friends, and worked together in the hospitality movement. St. Jerome was the first (as far as I know) to attach a hostel to a monastery; this significant new pattern of hospitality began in Jerome’s monastery in Bethlehem and spread around the world. Fabiola also built a hostel about the same time, near Rome, for pilgrims and the needy there.

But before her years of service and hospitality, Fabiola had a somewhat scandalous life. She married a man who became notorious for sexual license, details unspecified. She left him, got a civil divorce, thought she was free to re-marry, and did in fact re-marry. After her second husband died, she was reconciled to the Church, and poured her life into serving the poor. After her reconciliation, questions about her second marriage subsided. Nonetheless, Jerome says this [slightly more extended quote]:

“So terrible then were the faults imputed to her former husband that not even a prostitute or a common slave could have put up with them. [Fabiola chose not to give detail about her husband’s behavior, so Jerome doesn’t either.] The Lord has given commandment that a wife must not be put away ‘except it be for fornication, and that, if put away, she must remain unmarried.’ Now a commandment which is given to men logically applies to women also. For it cannot be that, while an adulterous wife is to be put away, an incontinent husband is to be retained. … Earthly laws give a free rein to the unchastity of men, merely condemning seduction and adultery; lust is allowed to range unrestrained among brothels and slave girls, as if the guilt were constituted by the rank of the person assailed and not by the purpose of the assailant. But with us Christians what is unlawful for women is equally unlawful for men, and as both serve the same God both are bound by the same obligations. Fabiola then has put away – they [her critics] are quite right – she put away a husband who was a sinner, guilty of [unmentionable sins]. … On the other hand, if someone makes a charge against her that after repudiating her husband she did not continue unmarried, I readily admit this to have been a fault, but at the same time declare that it may have been a case of necessity. ‘It is better,’ the apostle [Paul] tells us, ‘to marry than to burn.’ She was quite a young woman, she was not able to continue in widowhood. In the words of the apostle she saw another law in her members warring against the law of her mind; she felt herself dragged in chains as a captive towards the indulgences of wedlock. Therefore she thought it better openly to confess her weakness and to accept the semblance of an unhappy marriage than, with the flame of a monogamist, to ply the trade of a courtesan. … Fabiola therefore was fully persuaded in her own mind: she thought she had acted legitimately in putting away her husband, and that when she had done so she was free to marry again. She did not know that the rigor of the gospel takes away from women all pretexts for re-marriage so long as their former husbands are alive.” (From Letter LXXVII, “To Oceanus,” in Philip Schaff’s compilation in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church.)

Jerome is a hero to the left because he was committed to hospitality. It’s a little disorienting to find the same kind of left-right split that affects the 21st century cropping up in the 4th century: a hero of hospitality slightly lax about divorce laws. Jerome (like Pope Francis today) does not deny the authority of the teaching against divorce and re-marriage, but (again like Pope Francis today) he is ready to see and understand mitigating circumstances. He seems (to me) to suggest that what Fabiola did was indeed wrong, but not mortally sinful.

I think it’s fair to connect Jerome’s attitude toward Fabiola’s situation with his fierce fights with his bishop. Jerome argued fiercely with his bishop, Bishop John II of Jerusalem, and called him a chamber-pot. The angry arguments were – at least in part – about the teachings of Origen. Origen was an original and provocative thinker, and he spurred fascinating discussions about the Trinity that have been of great value to the Church ever since. However, Origen had some troubled theories about the human body. For example, he speculated that since the saints in heaven have perfect bodies, and since the perfect shape is a sphere, perhaps everyone in heaven is spherical. How about that? I’m not sure why Peter and James and John didn’t notice that at the time of the Transfiguration.

Spherical speculation is one thing, but action is another – for better or for worse. Origen read that if your arm leads you to sin, you should cut it off; and if you eye leads you to sin, you should pluck it out. Origen’s arms and eyes didn’t lead him to sin, but he did have a troublesome appendage – and in perhaps excessive obedience, he lopped off his peccant parts. Just about every Christian thinker since then has suspected that his attitude towards the human body was flawed.


By contrast, Jerome was an ascetic, but he had a respect for human bodies, and a patient awareness of frailty. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

My portion and cup

“You are my portion and cup.”

Letter LII, To Nepotian

In this letter, St. Jerome writes that the role of the clergy is to serve the Lord. What does that look like? Hospitality to strangers. He pleads and admonishes: understand the difference between the military and the wealthy on one hand, and the clergy on the other hand. Specifically, welcome strangers as Christ. (In our time, of course, Catholics pay much more attention to the “priesthood of the laity.” All of us, not just the clergy, are called to share to some degree in this precious portion and cup.)

In 394, Jerome wrote to a man who had left a military life and become a priest. He begins with a brief meditation on what is means: “You are my portion and lot.” After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, the House of Israel was divided into 13 tribes, the descendants of the 12 sons of Israel with Joseph getting a double portion. The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh are the descendants of Joseph’s two sons. But then the portions of the land and goods to be divided were split up 12 ways. The descendants of Levi were not to be landowners, because their lot and portion was the Lord himself. The Levites were to serve the Lord, and when the other Israelites presented offerings to God – an ox or sheep, grain or wine – a portion of the offering went to the Levites. (See Dt 10:9, Nm 18:20). Psalm 16 celebrates the portion given to the Levites, or priests: “LORD, my allotted portion and my cup, you have made my destiny secure. Pleasant places were measured out for me; fair to me indeed is my inheritance.” There’s a startling and beautiful flip side of these allotments: the Lord too get an allotment, and his share of the world’s wealth is his people, the people of Israel.

In his letter to Nepotian, Jerome starts with the portion allotted to the priests (of the Old and now the Testament), and offers a treatise on the duties and life of the clergy. “The Lord Himself is their lot and portion. Now, he who in his own person is the Lord's portion, or has the Lord for his portion, must so bear himself as to possess the Lord and to be possessed by Him. He who possesses the Lord, and who says with the prophet, “The Lord is my portion,” can hold to nothing beside the Lord. For if he hold to something beside the Lord, the Lord will not be his portion. Suppose, for instance, that he holds to gold or silver, or possessions or inlaid furniture; with such portions as these, the Lord will not deign to be his portion. I, if I am the portion of the Lord, and the line of his heritage, receive no portion among the remaining tribes; but, like the Priest and the Levite, I live on the tithe. Serving the altar, I am supported by its offerings. Having food and raiment, I shall be content with these, and as a disciple of the Cross shall share its poverty.”

Jerome continues, pleading pointedly to distinguish between a military life and the life of the clergy: “I beseech you, therefore, and again and yet again admonish you: do not look to your military experience for a standard of clerical obligation. Under Christ's banner seek for no worldly gain, lest having more than when you first became a clergyman, you hear men say, to your shame, ‘Their portion shall not profit them.’ Welcome poor men and strangers to your homely board, that with them Christ may be your guest.”

Jerome adds a caution about mixing wealth with your service. “A clergyman who engages in business, and who rises from poverty to wealth, and from obscurity to a high position – avoid him as you would the plague. For ‘evil communications corrupt good manners.’ You despise gold; he loves it. You spurn wealth; he eagerly pursues it. You love silence, meekness, privacy; he takes delight in talking and effrontery, in squares, and streets, and apothecaries' shops. What unity of feeling can there be where there is so wide a divergence of manners?”


So what does it look like if God himself is your portion? Your guests are the poor and strangers, and with them Christ is your guest.

(The letter to Nepotian is from the Philip Schaff’s compilation in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church.)

Saturday, November 12, 2016

quick note for clarity in today's reading

The first reading at Mass today is from the third letter of John. It includes a reference to strangers that can cause confusion. So a quick note.

“Beloved,’ writes John, “you are faithful in all you do for the brothers, especially for strangers; they have testified to your love before the church. Please help them in a way worthy of God to continue their journey.” (3 John 1:5-6)

It’s fair and proper to read the passage trying to figure out what John thought about strangers. However, this specific passage is not about the proper attitude toward strangers in general; it’s about a pretty specific group – about traveling missionaries. Help them, he says.

People who want to use Scripture to justify protecting Christian refugees in Syria while rejecting Muslim refugees can use (abuse) this passage. John says, help these particular people, because they are ours. That implies that there are other strangers whom we won’t help because they aren’t ours. The passage can be used (abused) to justify building a wall, at least in your heart, between good refugees and bad refugees.


To justify walling out Mexicans (all rapists) and Muslims (all terrorists), you can use this passage. Grab it, if you are an abusive cherry-picker! But people who recall what Jesus said about Samaritans and robbers might want to embrace this passage – and also look at other texts which demand that we expand our definition of “neighbor”!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Compassion Fatigue

Compassion Fatigue [2054 words – talk about fatigue]

Why is the nation divided angrily, setting people who want to protect unborn children from abortion against people who are determined to defend refugees from barrel bombs? One puzzle piece, not a complete answer but a piece: unquestionably, millions of Americans suffer from compassion fatigue. We see more problems than we can solve, encounter more suffering than we can endure. We are indeed overwhelmed. And so we prioritize, triage – we will serve some, and then slam the doors of minds and hearts and imaginations to others. Can we do more? Should we try to open our hearts, and learn to weep again? That way, we fear, madness lies.

I think it’s worthwhile exploring the way out of compassion fatigue. It’s not complicated: we cooperate. I can’t help every refugee, but UNHCR and churches united can. I can’t help girls raped by Boko Haram, but the African Union can. I can’t help Tibetans facing genocide, but the Dalai Lama knows who can. I don’t need to solve every problem that the world faces as long as I have a living and fluid connection with the problem-solvers of the world. That’s not complicated, in theory. In practice, well …

If you have the patience for it, I’d like to race through five approaches to a social problem. I’ve been writing about immigration for a while, looking at patterns of welcoming strangers in the Old Testament, then the New Testament, then the early Church, then an aberration (that I don’t understand very well yet, but think of as the age of excommunication), and then the Social Gospel starting with Pope Leo and affirmed most clearly in the Vatican II document “Gaudium et Spes.” How do we – “we” here being Catholics – respond to strangers? I’d like to spread out the five (four and an aberration?), because I think that’s the best way to understand what we are doing now. And I am convinced that this is the best way out of compassion fatigue (and brutality).

I’m focusing on welcoming strangers, because I’ve been studying it. But I suspect that the Church’s approach to most (all?) social problems develops step by step the same way her approach to hospitality has developed.

First: Old Testament: national. The approach described by Moses was national. It included the hands-on service of individuals, but it was national. “Welcome strangers, because – remember! – you too once were a stranger in a strange land.” This command applies to individuals, but what Moses asks is that we stir up a national memory. I wasn’t a slave in Egypt, nor wert thou. But “we” were. The nation of Israel was oppressed by the nation of Egypt, and God punished the nation of Egypt to save the nation of Israel. And later, when the nation of Israel abused strangers, God punished the nation of Israel by sending Israel into exile in the nation of Babylon. One example: the Book of Ruth. The story is about hospitality, especially the welcome (and love) that Boaz offered Ruth. But remember her song: “Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” National.

Second: New Testament: personal and individual. Jesus affirmed the teaching of Moses unequivocally, but applied the command to individuals, not the nation. The nation was under occupation, and asking the nation to act properly was meaningless. So when Jesus talks about welcoming strangers, he tells the story of the Good Samaritan, one individual who helped one victim of one robbery. And when Jesus described the Last Judgment, he said, “I was a stranger, and you (singular) welcomed me.” And look at today’s first reading at Mass (on 11/10/16), from Paul’s Letter to Philemon, about freeing a slave. Some people insist that the letter is not applicable to the social evil of slavery, because Paul appealed to one slave-holder (Philemon) on behalf of one slave (Onesimus); I think that’s pernicious nonsense, and that the principles that Paul lays out (treat your brother as a brother) can be extended; but it is certainly true that the New Testament deals with problems on an individual basis.

Third: Patristic era: ecclesial. The early Church built squarely and explicitly on Scripture, Old and New. However, the pattern of response to strangers was not the same as that of Moses nor of Jesus. The Church responded as a church. St. Jerome offers a clear example: he built a hostel attached to the monastery in Bethlehem. The hostel served pilgrims, obviously, but also served all visitors and guests and strangers. Jerome was explicit and forceful about universal welcome, pointing to Virgil’s “Aeneid” to explain.

St. Jerome wrote: “I am forced to cry out against the inhumanity of this country. A hackneyed quotation best expresses my meaning: ‘What savages are these who will not grant / A rest to strangers, even on their sands! / They threaten war and drive us from their coasts.’ [Aeneid, Book I, 539-541] I take this from a Gentile poet so that anyone who disregards the peace of Christ may at least learn its meaning from a heathen.” Thus declaimed St. Jerome. (Excerpt from Jerome letter to the Presbyter Marcus, in Philip Schaff’s “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers”)

Jerome’s hostel set a pattern for the Church. It was an institution built by the Church to serve those in need. St. Benedict adopted Jerome’s idea, and Benedict’s Rule makes hospitality central in monastic life: strangers are to be received as Christ. St. Ambrose affirms the requirement to welcome strangers – in his work “The Duties of the Clergy.” St. Thomas Aquinas later affirmed that the precepts of Jesus, including the command to welcome strangers, are mandatory, and that a failure to obey these precepts is mortally sinful; but Aquinas assumes that many duties, including this one, will be delegated – in this case, to a church-run hostel attached to a monastery. So the duty to welcome strangers can be fulfilled by supporting a monastery that welcomes strangers in the name of the Lord and his church.

So: third: ecclesial.

It matters a great deal to see and understand this third response to strangers. Many Christians today hold up the example of Jesus, and insist that we today should follow that example. What Christian wants to say no to that? But when you understand that Moses and Jesus and the Fathers all demanded, unequivocally and forcefully, that we welcome strangers – and you also see that they responded in a variety of ways – then you can move ahead determined to get the job done but not tied to a single model.

Fourth: Holy Roman Empire: excommunication. I do not have a clear way to explain this phenomenon, but there was an extended period in the history of my beloved Church during which we focused on serving our own members, and refused to serve others. We killed Muslims, killed Protestants, burned heretics and witches, and cared deeply about the sharply defined boundaries of our church. Some of what we did was clearly and simply wrong. Some of it was complex, subject to explanation. Some of the service, though narrowly focused, was admirable. I’m confused about what to say here, but can’t skip over it. We developed a large body of clear thought, and that was wonderful. But we turned in, and served our own while deliberately excluding others. During this period, welcoming strangers contracted to sheltering the homeless. Sheltering the homeless matters, of course; but it is a detail of the Lord’s much more comprehensive command.

Fifth: Vatican II: global. In the past century, there has been a revolution in the Church’s understanding of who we must serve. Pope Leo started the revolution in 1891, with his encyclical “Rerum Novarum.” Leo was committed to the principle of subsidiarity, the idea (roughly) that the smallest social unit capable of handling a problem should do so, without interference from others. (More to be said …) If a family can deal with a problem, the village should stay out of it. If the village can handle a problem, the state should stay out of it. If the nation can handle a problem, the world should mind its own business. Fine. But Leo also saw clearly that there are some problems that cannot be solved locally or even nationally. The one that pulled him into action was the question of labor in an industrialized society. The dehumanization of workers, treating the children of God as cogs in a machine, was not something that could be solved by an employer and a worker over a beer. It was an international problem, and protecting the children of God required a global response. So the Church declared – addressing a global issue – that workers have a right to organize and strike, if all else fails.

Leo’s teaching was explosive. There are other problems that are global – problems that cannot be solved locally or nationally. And the Church is not silent in the face of these problems, nor restricted solely to pious prayers for divine intervention. The problems that creep across national borders include: plagues that refuse to obey no trespassing signs, drought and starvation, war, poverty, pollution – and migration. In response, the Church serves individual people in need. But also, the Church teaches and leads, when appropriate. Including: the Church asserts that there is a God-given right to migrate in search of a better life.

The change from previous patterns of response is made clear at the beginning of “Gaudium et Spes.” One of the key documents of the Second Vatican Council was this “pastoral constitution of the Church in the modern world.”  It opens: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

The problems that we make our own are the problems of all humanity.

That’s impossible. Talk about compassion fatigue! Unless …

Unless we serve the people of God hand in hand with the Lord, the Creator of the universe, who loves each of us with unbounded love, who awakens in the hearts of all people of good will a deep desire to love and be loved, who invites us all to majesty and splendor forever even if we are all a little confused at this moment.

I can’t handle the griefs and anxieties of seven billion people! But I know who can, and I work for him. And he is pretty determined to coordinate the services offered by about seven billion other people.

The Church has deliberately and explicitly made her own the griefs and anxieties of all the world. That’s silly nonsense, pure distilled poopery, unless we are deliberately and explicitly cooperating with all people of good will. Which we are doing – or trying to do. For a century, the Church has supported international cooperative bodies, including the League of Nations and then the United Nations. This is not a silly foray into matters outside the Church’s expertise! Global cooperation to solve global problems is central to the mission of the Church today! Like Jerome’s hostel! In obedience to the Lord’s deamnds speaking about the Last Judgment! Central! Details of governance shouldn’t be solved by the Chair of Peter. But whether there should be global cooperation, organized and made concrete somehow: the Church has been speaking clearly and forcefully about that for at least a century.

The alternative to global cooperation is compassion fatigue. And in our day, compassion fatigue has become an epidemic of unimaginable cruelty. Pro-lifers voted for a man who has sworn to care for the rich and let widows and orphans face barrel bombs alone. Immigration activists (including me) voted for a woman who has worked hard to protect the right to solve personal problems by killing millions and millions of children. The idea that we must choose between the two – not just on election day, but in national policy going forward – is so bitter! Compassion fatigue is not a little itch; it’s a global killer, aiming for billions of dead.

So I stand with Francis. Against compassion fatigue. For unity. Serving the one true God, who came among us with love, and who is compassionate and merciful forever.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Voting for Hillary #2

[posted on FB 10/15]

Many thanks, Tim Brophy, for your thoughtful response. I depend on it.

There was never any chance I would support Trump. So when the Republican Party walked away from any kind of serious effort to protect children and women, and nominated a violent fool, the decision was between a third-party vote or other protest vote, or Hillary Clinton. For months, I was planning to vote for my wife.

What changed me included: (1) Trump’s continuing slow-motion train wreck, of course; plus (2) a growing unease about not seeing how to horse-whip the arrogant bully; plus (3) Nate Silver’s gender gap map (http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/election-update-women-are-defeating-donald-trump/ ); plus Father Pavone’s response to sexual assault.

Trump. I have previously tried to list the problems he has, each one of which I judge to be disqualifying, including approach to: immigration, Muslims, women, fraud, the military, the world economy, identifying allies, international commitments, Russia, Crimea, Syria, refugees, bankruptcies, abusing workers, civil discourse, the Pope, religion in general, honesty, integrity, taxes, ignorance … 

Horse-whip the bully. I understand that sounds like a joke, but I have been searching in my mind for the modern and culturally appropriate equivalent, for months. I think that when people’s minds and hearts sink into the gutter, there a limited number of familiar options. Beauty shocks some people into wonder and awe, but Trump has surrounded himself with gold mirrors; shocked by beauty for a moment, he will try to buy it the next. Ditto love and sex.  A desert experience: that’s not likely either, because he’s not fond of silence; look what he did in Las Vegas. God is not limited to our familiar categories; who knows what might happen? But the only familiar category left for rescuing the bully that I can think of is devastating pain and suffering. I think he would do well to contract cancer and break some bones, then get nursed back to health by Muslim and Latino doctors and nurses. Or some such. Can we push him into treatment? For his sake and our own?

The gender gap. Nate Silver’s map shows a shocking divide in the nation: if men voted without women, Trump would win decisively (350-188); if women voted without men, Hillary would win decisively (458-80). Why? There are numerous factors at play, but surely one of them is that women resent sexual assault, and men might be more casual about the problem. But why is that? I don’t mean to sound like a complete dinosaur, but is chivalry really that dead? Okay, it probably is; but what will take its place? (Or: what has taken its place?) In large part: more independent women. I should support that. Do I? Do I?

Also: if men decided the election Trump would win. If pro-lifers decided the election, it would be Trump versus a handful of unknowns (sorry); and I think he would win in a landslide. That’s a scandal. That’s painful to face. Trump has solid support among the disenfranchised downwardly mobile (who place their trust in a lying & cheating but glib & skillful fraud), and anti-immigration folks (some racist, some not), and white supremacists, and pro-lifers. What are we doing in that coalition?

Enter Father Pavone. He’s not alone in saying that pro-lifers should support the damn-fool-bully, but he claims that he is speaking for the Church – for pro-life priests. That’s mind-bendingly wacky. But he did get me thinking. How many pro-life groups support Trump? How many opt for silence, especially if they have 501(c)(3) status? It’s silly to ask how many support Clinton: that’s an easy zero. But why? I understand the history of it, but it isn’t logical. If pro-lifers can support Trump to avoid Hillary, then they can with greater logic support Hillary to avoid Trump. I am completely convinced that Trump is far worse than Hillary in many many ways – including that he would drive abortion UP, not down. Pavone convinced me to face the binary choice. But I think his choice is inexcusably stupid.

Trump will lose – thanks to women, no thanks to men among whom chivalry is dead and sex is a game. Trump will lose – no thanks to pro-lifers. I can’t stand that.

How bad is the rot in the pro-life movement? When I have tried to explain how Trump will drive abortion up (abusing women, eugenics, and dismissing refugees), I have mentioned a detail of the global migration crisis: there are about a million pregnant women on road each year – desperate refugees. You know how many pro-lifers have sat up and said, “Whoa! To heck with the men, but I gotta help pregnant women!” In general, pro-lifers are responding to Trump with greater determination and commitment than they are responding to a million pregnant refugees.


Sometimes blindness is due to accident or congenital difficulty. But sometimes it’s just a bad habit.

Voting for Hillary [10/14]

[posted on FB 10/14/2016]

I’m a pro-lifer, and I’m voting for Hillary Clinton.

If there were a pro-lifer on the ballot, I’d vote for that person. There’s not. What now?

I’m a devout Catholic, committed to the teaching of the Church – all of it, not cherry-picked items on the left or the right. The nuanced teaching from Pope Benedict matters to me: a faithful Catholic cannot vote to permit the killing of our brothers and sisters. BUT in circumstances where all ballot options look bad, a person can vote in good conscience for the less destructive option. I am convinced that Trump, if he were elected, would damage the nation and the world in a long list of ways, including that he would increase abortion – by giving permission for thugs to abuse women, by insulting people with disabilities, and by refusing to help pregnant refugees. Hillary’s record on abortion is unambiguous, but not as bad as a Trump eruption.

There is no pro-life option on the ballot. What now?

I do not recall ever noticing Donald Trump before he got into the presidential race. I never saw his show, or noticed his grandiose buildings. So I learned about him during the primary. And I was deeply shocked by the way he treated Heidi Cruz. I thought he should be horse-whipped. What he did was just one misogynist barbarism among thousands, but it was the first that I saw, and I was deeply disturbed by it. I simply cannot understand why other decent people are not equally disturbed.

He should be horse-whipped. But that’s not going to happen. This is 2016, and it’s not Texas. So what’s the social equivalent? That has bothered me for months.

It would be good for the world, and for the nation, and for all decent people, and for all indecent people, and indeed for Trump himself, if he were whipped. For the sake of his son, to end the family’s rotten treatment of women going back to Donald’s pimp grandfather, Trump needs to be beaten badly. Three generations of egocentricity is enough. For the sake of his soul, if Trump can’t crush his own habitual arrogance, he needs to have it crushed for him.

Well, Hillary is going to whip him – not horse-whip him, something more focused and effective. She will expose him as a loser. A list of Republican men tried, and failed; but Hillary will get the job done. I support that, enthusiastically.

My state, Maryland, will go for Hillary; my vote is almost meaningless. But not quite! On Election Day, Hillary will whip Trump. Look at the margin of victory. One tiny but proud sliver of that margin will be me. Deeply angered by what Trump did to Heidi Cruz, and inspired by the words of the graceful First Lady, I’m voting for Hillary.


After the election, I will argue and plead and cajole. But for now: you go, girl. Whip the lard bucket.

Reagan and abortion -- swerves in history

I worked for National Right to Life News in 1980-81, with Dave Gaetano, when Reagan won and Republicans took control of the Senate. I spoke with David Stockman after the election; he was a Reagan aide, and became Reagan’s Director of Office and Management and Budget. Stockman told me (and NRL News reported) that Reagan would not do much about the social issues any time soon, because he was going to focus on budget issues. So the work of pro-lifers to put Reagan in office was set aside, to make way for serious issues.

I covered (and fought) the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor, who was “personally opposed” to abortion. Henry Hyde told NRL staff – not for publication, but I think that hold on the news has probably expired – that he had met with Reagan before Reagan formally announced the appointment, and had argued against it. Reagan said she was personally opposed. Hyde asked, “Did you ask about Roe v. Wade?” Reagan responded, “Roe v. Wade? What’s that?” So the opportunity to change the Court slipped away.

When it became clear that pro-lifers would not get much from the Republicans in the Senate and White House, I covered (and helped build) the second wave of pro-life nonviolence, sit-ins at abortion clinics all across the country. But that wave did not gather strength until a large number of pro-lifers gave up on political change as the heart of a pro-life strategy.

The election of Reagan did in fact save the lives of millions and millions of babies, overseas. I worked with Bill O’Reilly (not the TV figure), a CPA from Bethesda who had run accounting for the USPS under Kennedy. O’Reilly found that the World Bank was preparing to build 400 abortion clinics in Bangladesh – more precisely, to provide “menstrual regulation” in 400 new maternal and child health centers. (Abortion was illegal in Bangladesh, but menstrual regulation, using a glorified turkey baster, was not excluded.) O’Reilly was too ignorant to know at you couldn’t lobby the World Bank, so he did it. (My contribution: I made Bill’s presentation clear and comprehensible, in “The Deadly Neo-Colonialism.”) And he succeeded. A key (the key, probably) to his success was that the White House was full of pro-life activists, especially Anne Higgins in the Office of Correspondence. Anne and others persuaded the Secretary of Treasury (Donald Regan??) to intervene. The World Bank loan to Bangladesh was approved, but with a rider attached prohibiting the new MCH centers from offering turkey-baster services for women whose menses were weeks late. So although Reagan did not reverse Roe v. Wade, his election set the stage for saving millions of children in Bangladesh (one in six since 1985??). Nearly all were Muslim, of course, and probably some of those babies saved by Bill O’Reilly and his small team (including Fr. Marx at HLI, and Anne Higgins – whose power and influence depended on Reagan) went on to become mujahideen, killing Americans.

The population of Bangladesh is about 160 million. Over half have been born since Bill O’Reilly’s campaign on their behalf.


Reagan’s most solid pro-life success was not planned nor foreseen. It was overseas, protecting Muslims. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Image of Blood

The following is an Afterword from Emmanuel, Solidarity: God's Act, Our Response, published in 2000. I post the Afterword now because a pro-life organization launched a couple of ads including a child's body in the last couple of days of the election campaign. The ad caused an uproar. Blood ... (6,222 words)

Afterword: Nonviolence and the Image of Blood

Nonviolence is most interesting and valuable and valid in situations where it is the alternative to an endless cycle of violence. Like war, a campaign of nonviolence can be a bloody business at times, not because the practitioners spill blood, but because they are needed amidst bloodshed, and often because theirs is spilled.

In Poland and in the Philippines, there was bloodshed. It may have been limited, but it was crucial to the final outcome. The Filipino Revolution was sparked by the unjust killing—the martyrdom—of many people, including especially Benigno Aquino. And in Poland, Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko’s martyrdom lit a fire that could not be quenched.


Shifting words and images


Grasping the meaning of bloodshed can be almost impossible in our time, when the image of blood is almost completely negative. The response of modern man to blood is not the same response that others have had throughout history.

In the cultural struggle of our time, many words are used by prolifers and pro-abortionists as if they meant the same thing to both sides. But the words often have very different or even opposite meanings. When we say “love,” we mean the willingness to do good for the beloved; they mean sex. When we say “faith,” we are referring to a decision to respond to God’s revelation; they mean self-confidence. When we say “hope,” we mean an assurance about things to be revealed in eternity; they mean “I kinda wish.” When we say “freedom,” we mean that our lives can match our aspirations; they mean having a variety of choices. Obviously, we differ about the meaning of “human” and “family.”

We also differ in our understanding of the images that we use. St. Paul said that the cross was foolishness to the Greeks, but wisdom for us. It isn’t surprising that people react very differently to the cross; that’s a difficult image, full of paradoxes. But today, people have vastly different attitudes towards simple images like water.

Throughout most of the history of Western literature, water was a symbol of rebirth. In the Odyssey, Odysseus wanders for 20 years on the sea, and then returns to—is reborn—in Ithaca. The Israelites left slavery behind when they crossed over the Red Sea. They came into a new life when they crossed over the River Jordan. Jonah emerged from the belly of a whale repentant and ready to preach. In the waters of baptism, we are reborn. In Shakespeare’s plays, in The Tempest, a life of injustice and treachery is drowned and a brave new world emerges from the water. In King Lear, Lear crosses over from delusion to truth when he is completely drenched during a storm on the blasted heath. For most of our history, the image of water has been associated with new life or rebirth.


Today, though, water has connotations of death. When you see a movie or a play, and somebody falls into the water or drives off a pier, you do not expect them to emerge changed; you expect them to drown. “Go take long walk off a short pier” means “Drop dead,” not “Be renewed.” Our cultural attitude toward the symbol of water has changed, from life to death. Virginia Woolf and others have taught us to fear drowning.

There is a fascinating poem by one of the Romantic poets of the early 19th century which has a transitional image of water. In that poem, someone drowned in a baptismal font. In that poem, the symbol of life becomes a symbol of death. At that time, the symbol was still shocking.

The same thing has happened with our attitude toward blood. Most people today think of blood simply as bad news, as death. But that is not the connotation that blood has carried in the past. For much of history, blood has been a symbol of life. To grasp that requires a mental struggle, but the struggle is worthwhile.

The ancient attitude toward blood can be glimpsed in primitive societies, for example in the legendary hunter who shoots a deer with his bow and arrow and then looks the dying animal in the eye and thanks it for the gift of life for his family. The deer’s blood was bad news for the deer but good news for the family. Or in another primitive society, boys who have been reading Tom Sawyer might make a commitment to each other to be blood-brothers, by cutting their wrists a little bit and sharing their blood. (Mark Twain wasn’t worried about AIDS.) Before you dismiss the practice as gross and as extremely dangerous, note that the idea is not to die together, but to share life together, even in the face of deadly threats. (Got it? Okay, now dismiss Tom Sawyer as gross and dangerous.) The blood is a symbol of life.

The blood of the Lamb of God is at least that significant. Jesus has chosen to be a blood brother.

In the novel The Cypresses Believe in God, the great Spanish novelist José Maria Gironella wrote about a young man giving blood at a hospital for someone who needed a transfusion. He gave his healthy blood to save life. The idea of a transfusion may be the closest we can get to the ancient attitude toward blood as a symbol of life, not death.

The blood of Jesus is like a healthy transfusion. The blood of the Lord Jesus is supposed to pump in our veins.

On Valentine’s Day, we exchange cute pictures of hearts. The little cutouts do not have anything left of the old symbol. St. Valentine was a martyr who used the powerful muscle as a symbol of love. I got a glimpse of what he meant when I was in high school. I worked in a lab synthesizing drugs. One summer, I helped with the drug trials, injecting mice and then seeing where the drug showed up. I killed hundreds of mice with a little guillotine, and then cut out their hearts. Believe me, a beating heart, even from a tiny mouse, is an impressive item. For several minutes after the heart was cut out, it beat and beat and beat. It was very impressive. And a human heart is much bigger.

Valentine’s symbol was a gross, graphic effort to use an image of something of immense power, as great as the power of death. In fact, Valentine the martyr knew that the blood of Jesus was a power far greater than death.

The word blessed refers etymologically to blood. It means “sprinkled with blood.” The very ground, the dirt, of the Colosseum, has been prized for centuries by people who remember that Christian martyrs poured out their blood there. The ground was blessed, sprinkled with blood. Today, perhaps the barbed wire at Auschwitz is a similar symbol: the blood shed there inspires us more than the brutality inflicted there frightens us. We identify with the victim of evil, not the perpetrators of the evil.

During a rescue in 1977, pro-lifers saw blood on the liner of a trash can in Milan Vuitch’s abortion mill at 1712 I Street, just a few blocks from the White House. The blood reminded us that we stood on holy ground, desecrated by slaughter but consecrated by innocent blood.

In Deuteronomy, the Lord says: “I set before you life and death; choose life that you and your children may live.” Pro-lifers today can choose violence or nonviolence. Whichever way, there will be blood.

 The Tobit Project: From Image to Reality


“Father, one of our nation has just been been murdered; he has been strangled and then thrown down in the market place; he is still there.” I sprang up at once, left my meal untouched, took the man from the market place and laid him in one of my rooms, waiting until sunset to bury him (Tobit 2:3-4)

Rescues and nonviolence don’t make sense to people who want to belong to a safe pro-life club and do safe clubby things. They make better sense when you put them in the context of reality, amidst the massive bloodshed and death of our age. If we are going to risk bloodshed, we need clarity about the plight of children. The Tobit Project provided a glimpse of what happens to our children.

In August 1986, I was with a friend going through the dumpster of an abortionist looking for financial records when we found four small mesh bags of tissue in the trash. The tissue resembled rice pudding, with a few spots of blood. We examined the tissue for some minutes, suspecting that we had found tiny bodies. When we were unable to recognize any part, we concluded that the bodies had probably been disposed of elsewhere, and that we were looking at placental material or something, and we threw it all away.

Over the next few days, the two of us discussed our find repeatedly, and I consulted Dr. Bill Colliton, a pro-life obstetrician/gynecologist, about the tissue. Colliton suggested a couple of other possibilities, but the more we thought about it, the more worried we became.

On August 19, I returned to the dumpster with another friend, and picked up some more trash, looking for bodies. Again, we found mesh bags of tissue. This time, the tissue was bloodier. Again, I poked through the messes, looking for fingers or toes, but found nothing. I saw what looked like tiny pieces of liver in each bag, but was just guessing.

In those early days, we were very clinical: “Is this the liver, or a clot of blood?” Our emotions surfaced later.

At the house where I was poking through the trash, friends came down to chat, and were interested in ghoulish possibilities, but the investigation was time-consuming and mostly boring. Four of the eight apparent corpses were freshly killed, but four were from August 16 (I think), and they stank fiercely. Keith Rothfus stayed with us, praying quietly for us, for which I am immensely grateful. But the other two went back upstairs to watch TV, which was perhaps a healthy reaction. You cannot let this stuff take over your life.

I did not throw these specimens out; I was pretty sure they were corpses. I took them home, wrapped them, and put them in the freezer. I did not tell my wife about it, and was a little nervous every time we needed something from the freezer.

Over the next week, I spent some time trying to get them to Bill Colliton. My schedule was full and so was his, and transportation was a hassle. At one point, I put the corpses in an insulated jug, with a couple of cans of frozen orange juice to keep them cold, and took them downtown to give them to a friend who was planning to drive out to see Colliton. But that did not work out.

We called another physician, Bill Hogan, who had taken some of the early bloody photos which were used in Jack Willke’s Handbook on Abortion. Hogan said that suction abortion before ten weeks would be likely to smash everything beyond recognition. He said we might find bone slivers in the remains of older children, or might be able to pick out liver tissue. He said he would be glad to look at what we had, but did not expect that he would be able to tell us much that we did not already know. Instead, he gave us the name of a pathologist who could examine the remains with a microscope.

We called the pathologist, Mike Dolan, who confirmed what Hogan had said. But he was discouraging about recognizing anything by the naked eye. Even what appeared to be liver tissue might be just blood clots; only examination under a microscope would tell us for sure.

I should emphasize that the doubts expressed by Colliton, Hogan and Dolan were not about whether the tissue was in fact fetal remains, but about whether they could identify it positively, and testify in court as expert witnesses that they had seen smashed bodies. After discussing the circumstances of the remains—eight mesh bags from an abortion clinic, each with a spot of blood that resembled liver—none of them had any real doubt that we had eight corpses there.

Dolan was about to leave town for ten days. He told me how to preserve specimens in the future, and said that he would be willing to examine them for me when he returned.

I decided to dispose of these eight, and get fresh specimens for Dolan when he came back to town. So I carried my yellow jug with eight corpses and two cans of orange juice home, and put the corpses back in the freezer. Then I waited for an opportunity to bury them quietly.
                                 
I was determined not to let my wife know what was going on. Her life with me is weird enough without corpses in the freezer. So I wanted to dig the graves discreetly. But what with scheduling problems and rain and whatnot, time passed, and the corpses never made it into the ground. Then a new problem arose: I started going a little bonkers.

For one thing, where was I going to put the corpses? In the orchard, the meadow, or the woods? In the woods, I could mark them, without any fear of being asked for explanations any time soon. Should I mark them, or just get them into the soil like dead mice? In the orchard, I could remember where they were without marking the graves. But if these eight are just the beginning, I may need the space in the meadow. Mass grave, or eight separate graves? I wasn’t worried about the depth; the soil here gets rocky a ways down, and regardless of good intentions at the outset, I would not dig much past the rocky level.

The big problem, though, was that I had no reason to doubt that more corpses were being dumped. Each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, another half a dozen or so children are killed there. I could call a press conference and display the corpses, and make life hard for the abortionist for a few days. But then he would continue as before, except that now he would flush the bodies down the toilet. The more I thought—to be more accurate about it at this stage, “stewed”—about it, the more I thought (stewed) I should try to keep retrieving the bodies. The public relations angle was interesting, but not very interesting, especially since the poor bodies are mangled beyond recognition. Until there was an expos√©, the bodies would keep landing in the dumpster, three times a week.

Slowly, the recognition dawned on me that I knew where and whenbodies were being dumped, regularly, as in Argentina under the junta or in Cambodia under Pol Pot.

I left bodies rotting in that dumpster in Bethesda. I had to admit that I did not have the inner strength to go get them. (I didn’t have time, either; but even if I had, I would have let ‘em rot.) Until I knew where they are going, I was not going to consider getting any more.

I kept going back in my mind to that scene in Gaithersburg, with Keith helping us pray, but two good, sane, pro-life friends deciding to watch TV. What has happened to us that we can watch TV as bodies are unwrapped in the basement? Poor naked little bastards.

I had never felt so keenly that abortion has three sets of victims: children who are killed, women who are exploited, and all the members of the surrounding community—who are offered a powerful lesson in impotence and apathy and despair.

As time passed, we became extremely angry. Our anger was not at the parents, nor even at the abortionists whose work we uncovered. We became enraged at the cold, callous society that allowed such things to take place in broad daylight. We fantasized about going into the offices of lukewarm clerics and piling bodies on their desks. We felt the urgency expressed so well by Archbishop Weakland in the bishops’ pastoral on economics, that “the greatest injustice” is to treat a person as a nonperson, to act as if they simply are not there.

Over time, the horror weighed us down. There was one body in particular that broke my heart. I found a body bag, a small mesh bag that fits over the intake of a suction bottle to catch the pieces as the machine sucks the child out. In the bag, there was a pile of mush, with a hand sticking up. I picked up the hand and lifted it out slowly. The arm came out, then the rib cage, then a torn abdomen and the legs. I had the whole body except the head and one arm. This was in a mesh bag from a suction abortion, and at first I could not understand how the body had gotten through the tube. I guessed that what must have happened was the hand got caught by the suction first and was pulled into the cannula. The arm followed. When the shoulder hit the mouth of the cannula, the body was stuck until the cannula cut through the chest and ripped off the head and one arm; the body went through a little more. The hips did not fit until they were crushed in. Then the legs went flapping through. That body broke my heart.

I had looked through gore for fingers and toes, had learned not from a textbook but from observation that all eyes are blue before birth, had admired the beauty—the stunning beauty like the glory of the earth as seen from outer space—of skulls, with lacy plates forming. I have never heard anyone before or since talk about the beauty of the skulls of babies. They are so fine, so delicate in appearance although they are quite resilient, so clearly the objects of loving attention by a great creator. But for some reason, nothing moved me as much as this body.

In the dumpsters, I cried out to God in agony. I saw the unchecked power of death. In the face of these dead babies, who could speak of sweetness and light? All hope and all joy seemed to be extinguished; itsee med that only the blind and ignorant could maintain hope.

An image of God’s love came to mind. In the U.S. Capitol, off the rotunda, there is a room full of statues of American heroes, one from each state. One of them is Fr. Junipero Serra, the Franciscan missionary who worked all along the coast of California, holding up a large cross, about two feet high. This symbol of missionary work is by no means unique to the Franciscan saint, but it is a gesture I had never understood well. I had never been able to imagine what you would say while holding up a cross like that. That audiovisual aid did not correspond to any thought that I had ever wanted to communicate.

I had seen someone hold up a cross that way once before. At the close of an all-night vigil outside an abortion clinic in Kensington, Maryland, during our dawn prayer service, a man from a Catholic Worker house suddenly held up a small cross, as if he were warding off vampires. I was intensely embarrassed. I could not imagine what might be going through his mind. It is not that I was unmindful of the significance of the death of Jesus, but I felt that crosses belonged on the wall. The gesture seemed bizarre.

But in the dumpsters of Washington, I came to understand why one might use it, what one might want to communicate that would be helped by a cross held aloft. It is a statement of God’s love.

I came to a new appreciation of Jesus as savior. The words of the prophet Zephaniah moved me deeply. Zephaniah said, “You have no more evil to fear.” How true, I thought, but at what price?

Zephaniah said, “Do not let your hands fall limp.” We frequently found hands and feet with fingers or toes sliced off, and sometimes we would hunt through the gore trying to find the missing digits, while these words echoed in my mind, as a plea for life.

Zephaniah said, “He will exult over you, and renew you by His love.” O God, I prayed, is that true? Jesus Christ, Lord of the universe, where are the toes? Is it true? You will “renew” and “exult”? Who can imagine exultation? Zephaniah said, “He will dance over you, as on a day of festival.” I thought, How can I believe that before I see it? Dance? With what opiate?

The world is full of saviors. In Harvard Square in the 1960 and ‘70s, there were lots of them—Guru Maharaji, Kahlil Gibran, Meher Baba, the Church of Scientology—lots of them, all selling sweetness and light. I’m in favor of sweetness and light. But the question that matters about it is, can you get there from here? Or is like the old Yankee gag about getting directions to someplace over the hill: “Let me think. You could go that way . . . Nope. Or you could try this way . . . Nope. Come to think of it, you can’t get there from here.”

In the dumpsters, sweetness and light is an attractive offer.

But the overwhelming reality of death snuffs out shallow hopes and dreams, crushing them contemptuously.

In the dumpsters, the difference between Jesus and all the other purported saviors stands out. The first thing you hear about Jesus is the story of His crucifixion. In the dumpsters, when your heart cries out in pain, the first thing that Jesus says is, “I am with you.” If he wants to go on to talk about sweetness and light, he can do so credibly—because he begins by saying, unmistakably, “I am with you.” In the dumpsters, the blandishments of other saviors do not mean anything. How can you believe them? They offer an alternative to pain, but once you have slipped into the abyss, alternatives are irrelevant; you need a way out. Jesus doesn’t offer a lot of philosophy about pain. Or if he does, that is not the way he begins to teach. He starts by saying, unmistakably, from the cross, “I am with you.”

When I cried out in pain, broken and crushed, he did not explain it or drug it or ask me to look at flowers. He said, “I am with you.” Because he knew the pain, understood the question that was deeper than a verbal question, understood the question that agony does not pose but is, his response could be credible. He said, and I heard, “I am with you.”

Because he had been broken like the children whose bodies I was recovering from the trash, he had credibility. When he spoke of peace, his peace was stronger than death, not a dishonest pretense that death no have power.

I heard him and I clung to him and he saved me from despair. I know he lives, and I know he is Lord, because I saw his power over death. I know I cannot explain that adequately; but I know what I saw. I saw the power of death, and I saw the power of his love beyond death.

Because he was broken as the dumpster babies were broken, and because he was killed as they were killed, he and he alone has credibility when he talks about sweetness and light, about a resurrection. If he says he will renew you and dance over you, it is credible. He bought the right to speak to people in agony. He paid for the ability to comfort the brokenhearted.

Perhaps that was what Fr. Junipero was saying when he held up that cross in California.


Pain or no, we were collecting more and more bodies. By early 1987, eight of us were engaged in the task of retrieving bodies from five abortion clinics in the Washington area. At the Hillcrest abortion clinics, we found bodies that would fill your hand, bodies of children around 20 weeks old. The task of retrieving the bodies was draining, physically and emotionally—and I opted out as often as I could. With hundreds of bodies accumulating, we had to think through the proper way to bury them. How should the remains of the bodies from a holocaust be buried? A few prolifers launched a project—the Tobit Project—to find churches and organizations who would help with proper burials.

But in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington and elsewhere, pro-lifers who were retrieving bodies had to re-invent the wheel. Specifically, we had to insist that human bodies—arms, legs, eyeballs, and other body parts, whether attached or scattered—should be buried respectfully. That does not sound particularly complicated or controversial, but we do not live in normal times.

Should the children be buried in haste, secretly, as had happened in at least two cities? What is the point of the burial, anyway?

A funeral serves a variety of purposes. It is an expression of love for the deceased person. It offers support to the family. It heals the community. The ritual provides balance and continuity. Among Christians, a funeral is a proclamation of the resurrection.

For Catholics, a funeral is a time to pray for the dead. Some Christians hold the view that prayer for the dead is a waste; final exams have arrived, and you pass or fail, and then it is over. This argument aside, all people believe that remembering the dead and mourning them is good and necessary.

But after an abortion, this aspect of a funeral is altered, since we never met the preborn children whom we bury. In fact, pro-abortion philosophers deny the personhood of preborn children for precisely this reason; nobody has any fond memories of their foibles. Still, the outlines of a moving story are known: nameless and voiceless and powerless, they were rejected and killed.

Funerals are supposed to be a service to the families of the deceased. But for victims of abortion, that is a little complicated. You cannot invite the family of the deceased to the burial. They probably don’t want to hear that the “procedure” at the abortion clinic produced a body. They are likely to be enraged to learn that their names are available to prolifers, who have been portrayed (dishonestly, of course, but repeatedly) as vindictive terrorists.

Even when you can match individual bodies with the names of patients who had abortions on a particular day (easy in Chicago, where each body had the mother’s name attached, but very difficult in Washington, where the bodies were scrambled, and the lists of 30-50 mothers were separate), a phone call to the parents of the deceased could trigger a lawsuit for harassment, or even criminal charges.

Still, it is overwhelmingly obvious that abortion reveals a desperate need for prayer for the family of the deceased. The Church can’t ignore the family simply because they don’t show up for the funeral; their absence shows how much they need our prayers.

Funerals serve to repair the community. But with abortion, this aspect of a funeral is also controversial. Many people are very offended by the suggestion that they are affected by abortion.

The abortion holocaust has been with us for a generation, but very few pastors are prepared to deal with its complications. Some are beginning to learn how to deal with post-abortion syndrome (PAS), but the widespread devastation in a community is still generally unnoted. Abortion kills a child, defiles a mother—and destroys community. Everybody near an abortion clinic is offered a powerful lesson in apathy and despair. The entire surrounding community is taught to ignore bloodshed. Either we resist that lesson, or we learn it. Once we learn to mind our own business when children and women are attacked, will we still be able to resist anything?

The abortionist assumes that the community is too weak to protect children. He spits in the eyes of all local pro-lifers, confident that their brave words about the humanity of the preborn are devoid of force. He assumes that he can kill children and abuse women without any interference from pro-lifers. Too often, his assumption is correct.

The community that is afflicted with abortion is in desperate need of healing. What will it take to open our eyes, if corpses in our trash cans do not stir us to action?

The ritual of a funeral provides sanity and balance, restoring a sense of order and continuity. The fact that there is a ritual is an assertion that “we have been here before,” that this pain, as bad as it is, is still a familiar part of the human condition, something that previous generations have seen, something we can cope with. Ritual, by itself, even when every syllable of it is incomprehensible, has a powerful healing function.

But after an abortion, there is no funeral rite. The absence is devastating. If there is no ritual, then the question arises: Have we been here before?

Christian funerals proclaim that Jesus, by His death and resurrection, broke the power of sin and death. Presumably, that includes abortion. But if this proclamation is made in secret, and the message is hidden in a pauper’s grave, then the messengers have not fulfilled their responsibilities.

What should we have learned from the discovery of corpses in our trash? Sin abounds; does grace abound the more? What on earth does it look like?

In the end, hundreds of the bodies from Washington were buried next to Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, Virginia, near the offices of the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life. One of the bodies we retrieved is in a tomb at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

Elsewhere, people suffered for their respect for the bodies of the dead. In Milwaukee, Monica Migliorino Miller went to jail for months for her role removing babies from the trash and burying them.

The Transforming Power of Blood


The blood of those babies broke my heart. The blood of Jesus healed it. I saw in the crucifixion a revelation of God’s overwhelming love.

The blood of babies challenges us to act. The blood of Jesus enables us to act, and to act with love, the power that is stronger than death.

We are all familiar with the idea that to wear the crown of peace you must wear the crown of thorns. But Pope John Paul II says that St. Paul’s attitude toward the cross was not like that. Paul saw the glory of the resurrection, and then later saw more, saw the overwhelming love revealed on the cross.

The blood of Jesus is not about death, it is about life. When God offered a covenant to Abraham, Abraham was ready to seal the deal by giving God what he valued most, his own son and heir. God intervened and said that the other bloody deities of the world might demand such sacrifices, but he did not. But centuries later, when the covenant between God and Abraham was perfected, the deal was sealed with blood, with the blood of Jesus.

The solemnity of the agreement was clear from the value of the sacrifice: God’s own son. The determination of God to fulfill his side of the agreement was clear from the value of the sacrifice: God’s own son. The unimaginable love of the Father for us was revealed in that sacrifice: he gave his own son. Who can understand that? We will spend the rest of eternity plumbing the depths of that profound mystery.

But when we begin to grasp what God did in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, when we begin to see it, a new wonder is hidden behind that. God has invited us to be recipients of his colossal and eternal love—but also to be participants in that same love. He has invited us to share in creation, making new and eternal creatures: babies. And he has invited us to share in redemption, pouring out our blood for the sake of God’s children—babies who are threatened by death and mothers who are being deceived and exploited, and our opponents who are blind and living in darkness. Paul said, “I make up in my own body the sufferings lacking in Christ.” Nothing was lacking, of course, but Paul was right that we are invited to participate.

God does not need our help in the works of creation and redemption—but he chooses to allow us to participate. That is what a rescue is all about. That is why we can rejoice when we are beaten and humiliated and jailed.

Sometimes we can see clearly how God uses what we offer. In 1983, on Holy Saturday (at the rescue mentioned in chapter one), I was arrested with a group of folks at Sigma abortion clinic in Kensington, Maryland. That day, I was dropped on my face with my hands cuffed behind my back, and I bled all over the place. Head wounds are very dramatic. As it happened, my sister Kathie saw all that blood, and by God’s grace that event was one of several things that helped her to understand her abortion, and helped her to return to life, return from death to the Lord. My blood was a small part of her healing, but still a part. To help your sister return from despair to hope: wouldn’t you be willing to bleed all over and even die for that? By God’s gift to me, I was allowed to be a part of God’s work in her life. What a gift, for my sister but also for me.

When we are at risk, a variety of things happen. We feel fear, and try not to be mastered by it. We see various evils, like police brutality. But the most important reality is that we share in the sufferings of Jesus. We have made ourselves available for the service that is suffering.

When we act in solidarity with the threatened, we have the right and the power and the duty to forgive. Before we are threatened, we do not have the right to forgive: “Hey, Hitler, I forgive you for killing people I don’t know.” That’s meaningless: bystanders can’t forgive. But when we are assaulted with the babies and mothers, we have the power to forgive. We should be ready to exercise this colossal power, because we chose deliberately to be there, in response to an invitation to the Lord. We didn’t stumble blindly into this; we are not taken by surprise.

When you suffer with the children and their parents, you are given a stunning and world-changing power. The power to forgive is an immense power, an unbelievable gift from a loving God. When you see that, it is almost embarrassing to add the obvious, that forgiveness is also a duty, because our Lord has asked us to forgive even as he has forgiven us.

In Washington in 1987, rescue leaders announced plans to close all the abortion clinics during the March for Life, as they had the previous year. But the night before the march, when all the rescuers gathered to pray and make final plans, it was a pitifully small group. There were a dozen abortion clinics in DC, and there were not even two dozen rescuers. Still, they trusted the Lord and pushed ahead.

Last-minute calls revealed that one abortuary had closed, and several were delaying their abortions until the afternoon. Only one was opening in the morning. So 20 rescuers went there, and closed that one until late morning. By mid-morning, a blizzard took over our work, and shut down the whole city. Everything closed, killing centers included. Because of the snow, they were closed the next day, and the next and the next. Then it snowed again, and the city closed for two more days.

When the rescuers gathered on the night of January 21, they had little power to offer to the Lord. But they did what they could, and the Lord blessed the work, and there was almost no killing for a week.

Obviously, the rescuers had nothing to do with that blizzard. But if they had not tried, there would have been killing that morning. The small group of rescuers delayed the killing, and then God arranged more delays. Who knows how many hundreds of women had their appointments canceled not once but twice? How many of them thought to themselves: “Hm, I wonder if someone is trying to tell me something?”

God did most of the rescue work by himself, but the rescuers were a part of it, by his invitation, by his grace.

The cross of Jesus, breaking the power of sin and death, was the central event of human history. We are called to understand it, and to be recipients of that grace. But also, in the immensity of God’s love, we are invited to participate.