Thursday, April 19, 2018

Hospitality and nonviolence: cousins, not twins

Richard Stith is among the geniuses of the world, and I’m blessed to know him. In a letter to friends who share a consistent life approach, he wrote a preliminary response to “Gaudete et Exsultate.” It was – of course, coming from him – thought-provoking. But I’d like to respond.

Stith raised three issues. First, the exhortation seems to be a ringing endorsement of the consistent life approach; but if you measure it as such, it falls short. It puts abortion in a context of other life issues, but does not mention war and the death penalty. That’s a lot of violence to overlook, and these are odd omissions indeed if Francis intends to endorse the consistent life approach.

Second, Stith points out that when the Pope speaks about immigration and abortion together, this seems to equate intentional lethal violence with misery. Stith in no way minimizes the misery caused by restrictions on immigration; but misery is different from intentional lethal violence. So, again, the Pope’s approach is not the same as a consistent life approach.
And third, Stith is concerned that the Pope seems to accept the largely false “canard that pro-lifers do not do anything much to help out in the difficult daily lives of moms and babies after they are born.”

With regard to the third matter, it seems to me that pro-lifers have to accept that in 2018 the leadership of a substantial portion of the pro-life movement (other than the Consistent Life Network!) is untrustworthy. Millions of people continue to set aside their own ease and comfort so that they can help women and children threatened by abortion: I thank God for them, and thank them for their dedication. Nonetheless, there are criticisms of the movement as a whole that were not honest and fair 20 years ago that are honest and fair today. The Trump campaign pulled pro-lifers into an ad hoc coalition with people embracing some truly awful ideas.

With regard to the first and second issues, I agree with Stith’s argument that what the Pope is saying is not the same thing that the consistent life network is saying. But it isn’t obvious to me that the differences matter. It seems to me that abortion is a huge issue, and it’s complex enough that we consider it from a variety of different perspectives, learning from each.

From the beginning, the pro-life movement has always addressed a few issues. It has never been single-issue. Consider:

1.       Jack Willke and The Abortion Handbook
Jack Willke put abortion in a framework that included euthanasia. Abortion and euthanasia are not obviously similar: tiny and fresh versus full-sized and wrinkled; sharp lines (life begins at …) versus grey areas (the natural process of death, ordinary/extraordinary measures, who decides); deliberate lethal intervention versus deliberate non-intervention; etc. But Willke emphasized that abortion is a living person – with a beginning and end here on earth. From sperm and egg is not a continuum; it’s a change. From zygote to elderly is a continuum. From aging to corpse is not a continuum; it’s a change. Willke wanted to emphasize the value of the life of an individual, from beginning to end.

2.       The Human Life Center in Minnesota
There were many pro-life activists who emphasized that abortion is rooted in an attitude toward human sexuality. If a person accepts that sexual activity is private matter, and that its meaning for them is entirely up to them – if sex and birth drift apart in theory and in practice, with sex for fun and IVF for babies – and if we accept the apparent commonsense proposal that good fun cannot cause great damage – then abortion follows.

3.       Eagle Forum and the conservative coalition
Eagle Forum and allies often insisted that the pro-life movement should be single-issue. But when they got to work, their single issue was anti-abortion, anti-feminist, pro-nuke. This conservative coalition is still visible and vibrant, although it’s changed a smidgeon. Now it’s anti-abortion, anti-gay, pro-gun.

4.       slavery and the Holocaust
Jesse Jackson, before he turned pro-choice, said that the mentality of slavery and the mentality of abortion are the same: treating a person as a thing. It was an interesting argument, but in fact pro-life activists and civil rights activists did not build a coalition. Ask Jesse why not.

Similarly, many pro-lifers compared abortion to the Holocaust, for two reasons. First, abortion involves killing huge numbers of people while society looks on and refrains from interfering. The phrase “Never again” expresses a shared determination, but the precise focus of this determination is not quite identical among Jews and Christians. Jews often mean, “We will never let this happen to us again.” But Christians often mean, “We will never turn our backs on a slaughter again.” Second, abortion produces corpses that end up in the waste stream, or in labs, or in crematoria. Tracing the bodies to a crematorium in Alexandria is sobering. The cremation of innocent victims looks like a holocaust. However, despite the similarities that pro-lifers saw, many Jews have expressed opposition to this linkage. It never helped build an effective coalition.

5.       Consistent Life Network
The consistent life approach was championed by Juli Loesch in the early 1980s, in the organization she founded, Prolifers for Survival. It was her intention to bring pro-lifers into the Mobilization for Survival. The ideas was embraced by Cardinal Bernardin, who spoke about a “seamless garment.” And now the idea is carried forward by the Consistent Life Network. They speak for me, for sure.

6.       Pope Francis offers another angle
I hadn’t really focused on it until Stith spelled it out, but the Pope’s approach is not the same as CLN. One might say it’s about a consistent approach to hospitality.

I’ve been working for six years to link abortion and immigration. And I learned slowly that most people consider hospitality to be a decoration, like flowers on the table, not a matter of immense and eternal significance like justice and truth. Emphatically, Stith does not trivialize hospitality. He notes that what the Pope is saying isn’t exactly the same as what Loesch and Bernardin said. Okay: it’s a new approach.

The links include:
(a)    Restricting immigration and expanding abortion are major accomplishments of the eugenics movement.
(b)   Both are about hospitality to people who show up in our lives on their schedules, not ours, capable of altering our lives substantially even if inadvertently.
(c)    It is almost impossible to construct an argument for restricting immigration that isn’t also an argument for can’t be turned pretty easily into an argument for global population control. And global depopulation schemes include forced abortion. In other words, restricting immigration here leads to more abortion overseas. Recent reports of increased miscarriages among pregnant women being held for deportation are horrifying in themselves; but they are only the tip of the iceberg.
(d)   Both abortion and restricting immigration are ways to turn away from the creative initiatives of the Lord, who always cherishes us but almost always challenges us. When the uncomfortable Other shows up in our lives, it’s likely to be God. Do not be afraid! Angels always say that when they show up, because people are always scared.
(e)   Immigrants and babies change our lives – but the changes, on balance, are joyful and delightful and enriching and wonderful, now and forever.

I’m not disturbed by Stith’s comments. I think he’s right: the Pope’s links are not consistent life links. They are similar, but not the same. It’s actually something new and different. And I embrace it wholeheartedly.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Trust on a Cliff


Trust on a Cliff

In 1972, I spent 40 days in a hermitage a mile from Christ in the Desert Monastery, in Abiquiu, NM. “Hermitage”? Please translate into standard modern English. That is, I went camping with a friend for a couple of weeks, then alone for a few weeks more.

I had no agenda for the summer, just an idea that felt like an invitation. Jesus says we should call his Father, the creator of the universe, Our Father. What does that mean? It’s not a proposition; it’s supposed to be a way of life, a fundamental attitude toward everything. So, mull it over and try it out.

I had no agenda, but I ended up doing this and that. I read the Bible cover to cover, again. I tried some vigils. I visited the monastery most days, to listen and watch and pray; I learned a great deal from Fr. Aelred, Fr. Gregory, and Br. Anthony. I drafted a letter to a friend, over and over (check out Jim Risen’s “Wrath of Angels” for that story, if you want). I listened to coyotes and elk, and watched 13 buzzards. I met the angel of the river (see Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life”). And I climbed around in the canyons and mesas.

One day, I went up the Rio Chama, past the monastery, past their fields, past their hermitage (which looked like a real one, with stone and adobe), and a distance farther. Then I examined the north wall, to plan a route up the cliff, and tried to climb out of the canyon. Halfway up, I got came to a dead end. Any serious rock-climber could have kept going easily, but I couldn’t; I had to back up. I had run out of ledges and hand-holds that would work for me. I turned around, and froze.

Coming up, I had reached easily over a gap, grabbed rock a few feet up, and clambered across. Going down, I had to stand on a ledge and jump forward and down three or four feet to a ledge that was perhaps 15 inches wide. An easy jump. Picture standing on the kitchen table, with three cinder blocks lined up on the floor, a yard away from the table. Jump from the table to the cinder blocks. Easy.

Easy, except that if I missed the jump, I would die. I would fall 200 feet, bouncing off the cliff a little but mostly just falling, onto sandstone boulders. No one would look for me for a couple of weeks, or maybe months. And when they did look, they wouldn’t have any idea where to look in an area of 314 square miles, assuming they found my tent and looked within ten miles of it. Buzzards and coyotes might scatter my bones before anyone found me, and I would disappear without a trace. Easy jump, if you just do it. But I was scared.

I sat there for a very interesting 45 minutes. If you’re scared, then you have something to be scared about; if you’re all shaky, you can mess it up, and fall. If you’re not scared, there’s nothing to be scared of; it’s an easy jump.

Q: Lord, am I going to be okay?
A: Yes.
Q: I’m not going to fall and die?
A: I didn’t say anything about that.

Him: Do you trust me?
Me: Yes.
Him: Then jump.
Me: No.

I sat a while, enjoying the incredible beauty of the canyon, the same colors as the Grand Canyon. I listened to the silence, with an occasional bird. I smelled the hint of mesquite on the hint of a breeze. I prayed the Rosary, thinking about Mary’s incredibly eventful life. Then I made an easy peasy little jump.

Attitude.

The story is on my mind, because I’ve been thinking about my friend Phil Lawler, who is promoting his book about Pope Francis, the wayward shepherd who’s killing off his flock parish by parish. Phil was on EWTN shortly after the book was released, being interviewed by that polished pink guy. And the interviewer set up a question. A gaggle of bishops got all gussied up for a synod, and everybody who really knows anything about anything that matters knew that the real issue at the meeting was how to interpret and enforce footnote 734 in Latin-Latin about how to handle sinners who come to Mass with their toupees crooked and a tangled marital history which has already been completely explained by the ancient and venerable bishops of Latvia and Timbuktu. Something like that.

And I thought, no. The Pope thinks that marriage is joyful. Start there.

If you’re scared, there’s good reason to be scared. If you’re not, there’s not.

I choose to trust my Father.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The fast in Nineveh

Today is Wednesday of the first week of Lent. The first reading at Mass today was from the wry Book of Jonah, about a reluctant prophet. I read it with a deliberate slant, with hospitality on my mind.

Jonah goes to Nineveh, reluctantly, to warn the city that God will destroy them in 40 days. Unfortunately for him, they repent, and God opts not to wipe them out; he looks like a fool, just as he had predicted.

They “repented.” What does that mean?

Well, they fasted, didn’t even drink, and they put on sackcloth. The king joined the fast, and went out to sit in the ashes. That’s a familiar story; I’ve heard this stuff before. But it’s still pretty weird. Why did they do all that? Who were they trying to convince? What were they trying to say? What’s the connection between all that stuff and the preferred outcome – presumably, avoiding annihilation? Is there any discernible logic to it? And what does any of this have to do with repentance, whatever that it?

Augustine used Matthew 25 as a jumping-off point for understanding all of Scripture. Okay, can we?

In Matthew 25, Jesus says, feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty and welcome strangers and clothe the naked and tend to the sick and visit prisoners. In the fast in Nineveh, the people skipped food and water, and set aside their good clothes. Okay, the lists overlap; maybe there’s something here. Maybe.

Maybe this. Repentance is about changing direction, turning around, trying to get your heart right. And the point of a fast is to push that change along. We don’t know what the problem(s) were in Nineveh, but for sure they included something that ruptured or distorted relationships between God the people, and also among the people. All this fasting stuff does two things. It re-establishes a proper understanding of the relationship between God and us: everything we have is a gift from the Creator, and we depend on him for our daily bread. And also, although fast doesn’t address the difficulties of the poor, it is – or can be – an expression of solidarity with neighbors who are hungry or thirsty or cold (or, in the king’s act, homeless).

Maybe repentance is about right relationships with God and neighbor. And maybe fasting is can be a rational step toward repair.


(Book of Jonah. If you want a delight, read my cousin’s novel. It’s got nothing to do with all this fasting stuff, but it’s a quirky bit of thought-provoking joy. Set in New York, Amsterdam, and Las Vegas, it’s a love story – Jonah’s girlfriend is Judith the peg-pounder. The villain is a real estate mogul, although the novel was written before the Trump erumption; it is, after all, a novel about a prophet.)
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00EGJ3328/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

defense of priorities

[posted on FB Jan 14, 2018; edited]
I had an unpleasant encounter yesterday. A group of pro-lifers were engaged in a debate about how pro-lifers should respond to Trump’s racism. It was a fiery and interesting debate. But there was a guy who participated, denouncing Trump – as I do – and his allies – which I consider a key battleground. After quite a bit of back and forth, it came out that this guy was not asking pro-lifers to pull away from Trump; he was asking pro-lifers to forget about abortion. He was strengthening the ties between pro-lifers and Trump, insisting that they are natural allies. I was appalled. Some pro-lifers stick to Trump because they believe that – like it or not – Trump is the key to stopping abortion in the USA, and to achieve that goal they will put up with just about anything. So telling pro-lifers to dump-Trump-and-forget-abortion strengthens Trump. I thought the guy was among the most effective pro-Trump voice I’d encountered.

Let me clarify why I am a pro-lifer opposing Trump. This is a sketch, but 1400+ words.

First: NSSM 200.

I don’t think Roe v. Wade was the most violent document ever penned. I think NSSM 200 launched far more abortions that RvW. National Security Study Memorandum 200 was a definition of threats to American security, written by officials in the Nixon and Ford administrations. “Security” here doesn’t mean money in the bank; it’s diplomatic language for the things about which this nation is prepared to go to war. The document said that our deadly enemies were:

Commies in Europe, to be fended off by the military;
Commies around the Pacific Rim, also to be fended off by the military;
Commie propaganda in Latin America, to be resisted by the CIA; and
African women having babies, to be stopped by the Agency for International Development.

Under these two Republican presidents – and everyone since until NSSM 200 was scrapped in – hm, hm, was it scrapped? – our enemies were Commies and black babies. To stop them, we had nukes and abortion. I over-simplify, but you see the point.

The take-away: NSSM 200 led to far more abortion than RvW. Pro-lifers who focus on RvW are dilettantes, overlooking most of the abortions launched by the USA. We started abortion globally, and we have to stop it globally. Abortion inside America – the whole RvW thing – is about 2% of the abortion problem.

Second, Sherri Finkbine.

The propaganda push for abortion in the USA did not begin with RvW. The propaganda push began with Sherri Finkbine. She had a TV show in the 1950s, called “Romper Room,” a popular kids show sort of like “Mister Rogers” or “Sesame Street.” She took thalidomide, a sedative that was used then to treat morning sickness. But then news broke that thalidomide was “teratogenic”: it caused serious birth defects, including severely shortened limbs. Parents were afraid their kids would be born with flippers, not arms. So Sherri Finkbine, the Mrs. Mister Rogers of the decade, went to Sweden to get an abortion. And wasn’t it awful that she had to go across the Atlantic to avoid having a disfigured baby.

Two quick lessons. The push for abortion in the USA began with eugenics. And abortion cannot be considered a national problem; it was international before RvW.

Third, population control.

Population control isn’t a sideshow; it’s most of the abortion battle. And a detail of population control is now and always has been immigration restrictions. When Hitler was trying to wipe out the Jews, some fled to the United States. But our immigration policy sent some back to Hitler’s camps; you can get a list of some of the people who saw Miami, weren’t allowed in, and went back to Europe to get killed. When the Chinese launched a one-child-only depopulation policy, some women fled to the USA. We debated whether to let them in: a prolife policy and pro-immigration policy overlapped, and most pro-lifers saw it clearly. The same thing is going on now. Women are fleeing from depopulation policies – and other violence. Will we protect women and children? To me, that’s a no-brainer. I simply do not recognize this new “pro-life” movement that turns away pregnant women at the border. What happened to you?

Fourth, Lopez Trujillo and the Mexican Yellow Pages.

I had a squabble one year with the head of the Pontifical Council for the Family. He hosted a pro-life conference in Rome, and during the conference, I invited participants to meet to pray outside an abortion clinic at a hospital close by. He was appalled, and wanted my boss to ship me out of Rome promptly. In the ensuing discussion, one of the details that emerged was that he wanted good laws on the books, but didn’t care much what actually happened. In Mexico, for example, the law about abortion at that time was pretty good (from a pro-lifer’s perspective), and he wanted that. But abortions were advertised in Las Paginas Amarillas. The law was unenforced; it meant nothing. I thought reality mattered more than the damn law. He wasn’t interested in that; he wanted good laws.

Many Irish pro-lifers are as blind as Cardinal Lopez Trujillo. They are focused on preventing abortion in Ireland. That’s a good interim goal, but banning abortion in Ireland might not save a single child and family, not one. You can get from Ireland to England and back for the price of a carton of cigarettes. It’s a nuisance, and an added expense: killing Irish citizens in England takes several extra hours and adds maybe 20% to the price tag. Stopping abortion in Ireland, completely, has almost no connection with protecting Irish babies; it’s a tiny first step, no more.

The lesson: there’s a difference between (a) protective laws on the books and (b) actually protecting mothers and babies. They aren’t completely unrelated, but they are not the same thing. If you fail to change the thinking and habits of a pro-choice society, changing the law is almost meaningless. (Also impossible, but that’s a different issue.)

Fifth, the father’s failures.

One of the many appalling crises facing Americans today is that white males have lost their sense of purpose and identity. Schools across the nation stare at the stats, baffled. Every demographic group in the nation is improving from one year to the next on test scores – some groups with large gaps still to overcome, but there’s steady improvement. Every group is improving, except one. While males, starting at the top, have been declining slowly but steadily for years. Their scores are not declining relative to other scores: that is, the decline is not really just another way to say that everyone else is improving. No. While male scores are declining this year relative to white male scores last year, year after year. Why? Your guess is probably about as good as anyone’s.

I think that a piece of the problem is that a huge portion of the men in the nation – a quarter, more or less – are parents of a dead child. So are the women, but there’s been a lot of thought given to that. For men, I think that the test scores at school point to an unexplained problem, and men’s total failure at their first duty in life may be a partial explanation. What did you do when your first child was scheduled to die? Nothing. You bottled it up, got depressed. Maybe you did your best to cherish and support your partner in her crisis. But your child?

There’s no quick fix to that problem. But one detail that is clear, that men can address now: you can work to ensure that women don’t have abortions because they feel trapped and abused. That’s not the whole issue, but it’s a real part, and it’s fixable. So when someone attacks a woman, and makes her feel stupid or helpless, step in. You can’t protect a child unless the child’s mother feels empowered. When some male monster says it’s okay to grab pussy, fix his thinking; you may be saving a child’s life. That kind of thinking and language isn’t just a little gross, a little naughty, a little juvenile; it’s deadly. I don’t know what “fight” means to you; but when somebody talks about grabbing pussy, a child’s life is in danger. Fight. Fight for children, and for women, and for dignity, and for the future, and for everything on earth that has value.

Enough. Each point here deserves a book, but my overall point is clear and simple: pro-lifers should oppose Trump.

It is true that Trump said he would resist abortion, and specifically that he would appoint pro-lifers to the Supreme Court. He did appoint Gorsuch, and it is possible that Gorsuch will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, although Gorsuch himself casts doubt on that prediction. But RvW by itself is a sideshow. What really feeds abortion? What’s the real issue?

1. It’s an international struggle; “America First” is silly.
2. It’s based on eugenics; Trump’s on the wrong side of the eugenics fight.
3. It’s about racist depopulation, which includes restrictive abortion, Trump’s main political goal.
4. It’s about reality, not just about the law; but when Trump spoke – once, briefly – about why he’s against abortion (the Raymond Arroyo interview), his little tale was transparent fiction.
5. It’s about men abusing women; Trump is the poster boy of using women as toys and/or decorations and/or status symbols.

Trump made a promise to pro-lifers. But in my view, the promise was superficial. In fact, I think Trump is now and always has been a staunch proponent of everything that leads to abortion. Opposing Trump is not the same thing as abandoning the pro-life movement. I’m a pro-lifer, AND SO I oppose Trump with everything in me.

Some former co-workers of mine have accused me bitterly of abandoning the pro-life movement, and going off to some other movement – the immigration movement. That’s silly nonsense. It is true that I can’t tell the difference between the pro-life movement and the pro-immigration movement; I follow Pope Francis.


But do I prioritize immigration over ending abortion? I do not; that’s a flat lie. I prioritize immigration over reversing Roe v Wade.

balance in the Our Father

Tuesday of the first week of Lent. The Gospel reading at Mass today is about the prayer that the Lord taught his disciples, the “Our Father.”

I was struck by a detail. When the prayer turns from words about God to words about us, we make two requests – for bread and for forgiveness, for hospitality and for healing and forgiveness. The second request has a balance: forgive us as we forgive others. But the request doesn’t have anything like that, just gimme. Why?

I think that the nature of hospitality, following Abraham, includes balance, has a built-in balance. The host-guest relationship, like a marriage, reflects the life of the Trinity: it starts with two people, but moves inexorably toward unity. We welcome the Lord, and he feeds us: who’s the host?

Why do we ask for bread, not – say – meat and potatoes, or kasha, or lovely rice pudding again? Why bread? Well, bread is the classic basic food: when you’re packing to travel across the desert, bring some compact bread. Bread is simple, but evocative: see Neruda’s “Ode to Bread.” It’s a common food, simple nutrition, familiar to billions of people; but also, it’s been used in religion (Eucharist) and politics (French Revolution). It touches every level of human life. Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Mostly, it’s the most familiar symbol we have of unity: when we break bread together, this isn’t just about our bodies.

Give us bread, and draw us into forgiveness: hospitality and healing are conjoined everywhere.


whatsoever you do to the least

The Gospel reading at Mass today (Monday, first week in Lent) is the Last Judgment passage from Matthew: whatsoever you do to the least of my family, you do to me. It’s the passage that led me into an exploration of Scripture and immigration. When Jesus said that we will welcome strangers and meet the Father, or turn them away and go to hell, what did he mean by “stranger”? We can figure that out.

According to an Australian scholar, Raymond Canning, this passage was of the two passages that St. Augustine used as the take-off point for understanding all of Scripture. (The other was the story of Paul on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” There too, Jesus identified with people in trouble: what you do to them, you do to the Lord, personally.)

Augustine spoke specifically about refugees pouring across the Mediterranean: if you want to meet Jesus, invite a refugee into your life.

And Jerome also spoke about refugees on the shore of the Mediterranean. Addressing the idea that we can sort them out, and welcome some refugees while rejecting others, Jerome reached out for a rhetorical boost from his favorite pagan writer, Virgil, who wrote about secure and snug citizens – who watched human being drag themselves out of the savage sea into the hands of worse savagery ashore, the savagery of smug and smiling self-righteous rejectniks. The passage bursts with anger and contempt: Virgil can’t think of a crime lower than inhospitality.

Jesus, Augustine, Jerome, and the Pope. Listen up!


Thursday, February 1, 2018

An insight from Fr. Paul Marx

I learned a lot from Fr. Paul Marx, OSB, SOB.

I worked for him, or with him, for eight years. He had a large vision; he traveled around the globe for decades, talking and talking about sex and violence. He wrote short pieces about his observations that were often insightful, sometimes bombastic. He listened to people from a vast array of backgrounds – listened, really listened. He saw himself as a teacher – in fact, as a man with a mission – and was quick to push his own views with vigor. But he listened, always with interest, often with insight, sometimes with politeness – always with a global vision. When he was in Kenya, he had an eye on Switzerland. When he was in Japan, he had an eye on Italy. When he was in the Amazon, he didn’t forget Baltimore.

He was from a Midwest German family; I’m from a New England Irish family. But we shared a lot. We argued often, and fought occasionally.

A couple of years before the tough old man died, I wrote him a longish letter, thanking him for what he had taught me, apologizing for the wrongs I had done him, setting aside the wrongs he had done me, making peace. It remains painful to me that several narrow-minded and nasty enemies of his stole that letter off his desk and plundered it, using it as a source of dirt. Some people know no bounds in their bitter vandalism.

That’s a lot of background for a short point. I learned from him that people can fixate on problems to solve, evils to fight, for two very reasons. Some people fight abortion because they have been through something – abandonment, or loss of a child, or abortion, or a friend’s abortion – and others fight it because they can’t imagine it. C. S. Lewis was once asked why he wrote about all kinds of sins, but skipped two. His critic was specifically curious about “gambling and homosexuality.” Lewis replied that he only wrote about things he understood. Fr. Marx helped me see that some people wrestle with sins of passion – anger and lust, primarily – and draw on their own experiences to understand and resist abortion. But others wrestle with, say, arrogance and greed – and hate not their own sins but rather the sins committed by those people over there.

The greedy and arrogant denounce the sensual and impulsive. And vice versa. They share a blindness.

The perspective of an inexperienced outsider or a na├»ve and innocent observer isn’t worthless. The perspective of a struggling sinner isn’t unreliable, either. But you want to know which is which. You want to understand both.

I have great difficulty getting inside the mindset of people who commit acts of inhospitality. They astound me, baffle me. The joy of meeting strangers and stumbling slowly into a new perspective seems so obvious to me! So to get at the mindset of the inhospitable, I have to approach crabwise, with odd analogies. Some calm people don’t understand explosions of anger.


Monday, January 22, 2018

Trump's motivation

John Ryan is among the great heroes of the pro-life movement, and has been like a brother to me for decades. We disagree about many things, but no one ever should think that our disagreements reveal disrespect.

I said I was ashamed for the pro-life movement when Trump spoke and pro-lifers cheered. John applauds Trump’s words, and thinks that if there’s room in the movement for a left-winger like me, I should be willing to make room for a right-winger like Trump. Words to that effect.

Let me try to explain something. It’ll take a bit. I want to get several ideas across, if I can.

As background to what I’m after: when I taught Shakespeare to high school kids, I used a technique borrowed from the Folger Shakespeare Library: to figure out what a word like “blood” means in a play, it’s worthwhile looking at every use of the word. Treat it as a word that you don’t understand at all, like “scloop,” and try to determine its meaning by context. Reach deliberately for the connotations of the word.

So, similarly, we might learn what some people mean by the word “abortion” by looking at what they say about other forms of violence, like war. With another group of people, it might help to listen to what they say about hospitality and immigration. We might learn by listening to what they say about other issues involving women, like rape.

There’s an oddity. Some people, when they speak about abortion, deny fiercely that it’s an issue of sexuality. But when you listen, they talk about abortion and homosexuality and divorce. If they have nothing to say about other forms of violence or bigotry, I think it’s fair to disbelieve their claim that they don’t see abortion as a sexual issue. They say “abortion, abortion,” then get red in the face and talk about sex.

I do not assume that I know what people mean when they use the word “abortion.” I want to listen for a while. Do they want to stop something violent like war? Do they want to welcome unscheduled arrivals, like immigrants? Do they want to protect people from violence, like rape?

Do they have a patient approach to living things? When they see something small, do they promptly and vividly imagine its growth to maturity? Do they intuit the unity of a life, from embryo to fetus to baby to child to adult to elder?

Do they want to protect Western Civilization from vast social changes? Is abortion an example of decadence, next to plastic cars, plastic money, plastic breasts, falling SAT scores, high school diplomas without reading Great Books, cell phone habits, private jets and gold faucets and $800 meals?

Do they want to punish sassy girls who act like sluts?

Do they just want to harness the energy or collect the money of some determined and selfless workers?

 I think I’ve seen these options, and others, while working with pro-lifers for 45 years. People can get eloquent about abortion and still leave you wondering what they mean, what they want. You have to listen. And when you speak about abortion yourself, you have to pay attention to the context you use.

Take war, for example. It seems to me that war and abortion are similar. War is a form of global curettage, using a weapon to scrape vulnerable life off the very thin layer at the surface of the globe. And it seems to me that abortion is like war, especially because they both damage people at both ends of a weapon. Takashi Nagai, a Catholic leader (and prophet) who helped to rebuild the Catholic community in Nagasaki after the second American bomb wiped out a third of the Catholics in the nation, reflected on this. Obviously, he saw what war did to the victims. But he also saw what war did to the perpetrators; he was with the Japanese army during the invasion of Manchuria. Violence does grave damage to the person in front of a gun, but perhaps far more damage to the person behind the gun. And abortion is like that. The mother – who enters an abortion clinic trying to escape from responsibilities she doesn’t want or cannot handle – leaves as the mother of a dead child with no easy way to grieve. Dearest Lord of mercy, draw near.

Trump does not connect war and abortion. He’s ignorant and careless about nukes. He has made threats, referring to our nuclear arsenal, or bigger button – threats that are not in any compatible with the “just war” theory. He made these threats quite recently, just weeks ago. So his opposition to abortion is not related to his views on nuclear war: he’s not squeamish about massive violence. That’s not what troubles him about abortion.

How about immigration? Consider Scripture: the Law of Moses starts with reflections on the Exodus, when God saved his people from slavery in Egypt. After that experience, we should (1) be grateful to God for his love and (2) avoid imitating the Egyptians. So hospitality to strangers is, arguably, more fundamental than the Ten Commandments. Consider schedules: strangers – including immigrants and babies – come into our lives on their schedules, not ours. Consider “widows and orphans”: the prophets throughout Scripture ask us to protect widows and orphans, and pro-lifers hear that as a call to protect pregnant women and unborn children. Widows are mentioned in Scripture 49 times; of those 49, 21 refer to the pair, widows and orphans; of those 21, 18 refer to a trio, also mentioning strangers. Hospitality is hospitality is hospitality.

I don’t think that Trump’s opposition to abortion is linked to his commitment to hospitality. On the same day as the March for Life this year, the Federal government drifted toward closing down – over the issue of hospitality to immigrants.

Consider another context, violence to women. The early feminist movement, in the 19th century, was pro-life. Margaret Sanger’s life work is often described as making contraception available; that’s not a stupid description of her work, but I don’t think it’s accurate either. I think her work was to make the feminist movement subservient to the eugenics movement. She drove a wedge between the protection of mothers and the protection of babies. She set their rights apart; in fact, made them seem to be in collision. This was a change of unimaginable proportions. It seems obvious to me that re-building a society that protects the unborn must also mean strengthening women’s rights, asserting and defending women’s dignity and equality.

But I don’t think that we can understand Trump as a true champion of women’s rights, laboring diligently to restore a sense of the incalculable dignity of motherhood. He supported a pedophile for Senate a few weeks ago. And in recent weeks, the mainstream feminist has asserted itself as a far more credible voice against rape than the pro-life movement allied to Playboy Trump. Pro-life leaders have NOT defended women who felt supported, at long last, when they reported rape. How could pro-life leaders support rape victims – without calling for Trump to step down?

John, I don’t think it’s possible to understand Trump’s views on abortion in terms of war, hospitality, or women’s issue. And I don’t think he’s defending Christendom; he doesn’t think that way. And I don’t think he wants to punish women who act like sluts. I think his motivation is clear: he wants to harness the energy of a movement. He wants our votes, our support. Period.

To the extent that we support him, we lose any chance of explaining ourselves. We cease to be credible. We cease to be intelligible.

So it seems to me.

John, I don’t mean to challenge you, just to explain. Feel free to respond, but don’t feel obliged.

With great respect.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Hospitality in the Desert

Hospitality in the Desert

The stories and insights in this chapter are taken from The Wisdom of the Desert, by Thomas Merton (New York, NY: New Directions, 1960).

In the third and fourth centuries AD, there was a new movement in Christian life that laid the foundations for a millennium of monastic life.  The “Desert Fathers” and mothers abandoned the wreck of the Roman Empire and fled into the wilderness to pray – some alone, some in small communities. There were hermits and monks scattered along a 250 mile stretch in the Egyptian desert, from the Mediterranean south toward Lycopolis on the road to Sudan. They were in the mountainous region in the northern end of the Aegean Sea, around Skete on Mount Athos. They showed up in the deserts in Palestine, Arabia, and Persia. For over a century, these fugitives from decadence, pioneers of Christian life, tended the fire of the Gospel.

The paradox: solitude and hospitality

In their lives, solitude was fundamental, indispensable, mandatory. Abbot Anthony said, “Just as fish go back to the sea, we must return to our cells” (Merton, XI). And Abbot Moses in Skete, asked for a word of wisdom, suggested a source better than himself: “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything” (Merton, XIII). And yet, this much-sought solitude was only a tool, a means to an end. The true goal was a deep relationship with God – which cannot be separated from love of your neighbor. These men and women struggled with incredible determination to find solitude; but at the same time, they were profoundly committed to hospitality.

Thomas Merton tells of a man visited a hermit, and stayed for a period of time. When he left, he apologized for intruding: Forgive me, Father, for I have interrupted your observance of your Rule. The hermit replied, my Rule is to receive you with hospitality, and to let you depart in peace. (Merton, LXXV)

To know God, the hermits sought solitude. In solitude, God taught them to love. And the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor. Their solitude prepared them for hospitality.

The joy of hospitality

The hospitality of the hermits is usually described as joyful. It’s not seen as a burden accepted obediently; it’s a plain joy. For example, there’s the story of an elder who fasted most days. But when he met his brothers, he invited them with joy to dine with him. With joy: that’s a part of the story. We today, who are accustomed to luxury, might be quick to explain that joy: the old man had a good excuse to eat, and he was hungry! But the story asserts otherwise. The elder explained his joy, giving two reasons. Out of charity, he set aside the rewards of fasting, and fulfilled two commandments: he set aside his own will, and he refreshed his hungry brethren. Joy! (Merton CXLI)

There’s a similar story about Abbot John the Dwarf at Skete. A group of priests came to visit. During their dining, a very old priest, one of the visitors, got up to serve, offering a cup of water to each person there. No one would permit this esteemed old man to be a servant to them, except John the Dwarf. Afterwards, they all questioned John, asking how he could dare to accept the service of such a revered old man. He said that when he got up to pour water for his friends, he was happy when they accepted. He took the drink because he thought it would please the old man, and protect him from feeling sad because no one took what he offered (Merton, CXVIII). In other words, hospitality is a fountain of joy for the giver as well as the receiver.

Visitor jokes

The stories about the Desert Fathers includes a collection of visitor jokes. We tell (or listen patiently to) knock-knock jokes, a recognizable sub-genre of literature. They had visitor jokes. For example, there’s the story of a hermit who was visited by several men from a nearby community. The visitors were monks, from a new-fangled thing, a monastery; there was a little competition between the hermits who lived alone and the monks who lived on groups. To be properly hospitable, the hermit brought out all the food he had stored away, and they ate it all. That night, he heard his visitors whispering amongst themselves, saying that this hermit ate far better than they ever ate at the monastery. So in the morning, when they were preparing to leave to visit another hermit, he asked them to bring a message: be careful not to water the vegetables. The second hermit understood the message, and he had the visitors sit down and weave baskets for hours without a break. Then he fed them a little bread with salt. Then they started reading the Psalms, and prayed right through the night until it as almost dawn. Then they got a short rest. When they got up, they were ready to leave; but he insisted they accept his hospitality for several days. Charity demanded that he serve them. That night, under the cover of dark, the monks fled (Merton, VIII).

Abbot Simon worked hard to avoid visitors who came to him for enlightenment. Hearing that a provincial judge with a retinue was coming, he scrambled up a tree and pretended to be a workman picking dates. They asked where to find the man of wisdom. “Not here!” he assured them. Another time, friends warned him that another judge was on the way, to get a blessing. This time, his disguise was food. He sat in the entrance of his cave, eating bread and cheese. So when this judge with his retinue arrived, they saw a glutton, not a disciplined hermit. They insulted him, and departed. Which left him in peace. (Merton, CIV)

Hospitality to the weak

Some brothers approached Abbot Anthony, asking what they had to do to be saved from damnation. At first, he tried to deflect the question: you have Scripture, and you can find the answer to this question by yourself! But they pressed, asking for a word of wisdom direct from his mouth. So he suggested they try to follow the teaching from the Sermon on the Mount: if someone hits your left cheek, offer him your right cheek. They said they couldn’t do that. Okay, if you can’t offer your other cheek, at least accept the first blow patiently. They said they couldn’t do that either. Okay, then don’t hit back. A third time, they demurred, saying that the challenge was beyond their strength. At that, Anthony turned to his servant and asked him to cook some food for these men, because they were weak. And he said to the men that if they couldn’t listen to the words of Jesus, how could he help? He could only pray for them. (Merton, CXXXVII)

When Anthony began to prepare food for them, was he just being sarcastic? Was he dismissing their efforts to live an ascetic life in the desert? If they couldn’t do what the Lord asked, why were they undertaking a life of fasting? That’s plausible. But it’s also plausible that what he did was simple: he saw their weakness, and so he fed them. Hospitality is not a curse or an insult!

Hospitality: the test of holiness

Two brothers got a reputation for humility. The desert fathers were not pleased when people developed reputations and received praise for their lives; at best, it’s a nuisance and a temptation, and it may be a fraud. So one holy man went to test them. He visited them, and they received him with joy. They prayed the psalms together, and then the father went outside to their little garden, and destroyed it, smashing every plant with a stick. The brothers watched without saying a word, nor even showing dismay on their faces. When the destruction was over, the three went back inside and prayed Vespers together. Then the brothers found one remaining cabbage, and invited their guest to dinner. The elder fell to his face in front of them, and thanked God. He was convinced that the Spirit of God rested there. What was the proof? Hospitality. (Merton, CX)

The Old Testament and hospitality

There is a story that there was a brother who wanted to know how to do good, and went to a friend of Abbot Anthony, Father Abbot Nisteros. “What good work should I do?” he asked. Abbot Nisteros said he should understand the models in Scripture, then pay attention to what his soul desired when he was praying, and do that. The elder held up three possible models: Abraham and Elijah and David. These men pleased God in different ways, by hospitality and solitary prayer and humility. (Merton, III)

Thus the story. What can we take from it? Obviously, it doesn’t make sense to do one and not the other two; the brother should focus and work hard on one, without neglecting the others. All three are necessary; they correspond to the teaching of the Lord that the Church recalls in Lent, when we seek to renew and deepen our spiritual life, so we pray (like Elijah’s solitary prayer) and fast (to learn humility, like David) and give alms (imitating the hospitality of Abraham).

The priority: almsgiving over fasting

The hermits and monks in the desert were committed to prayer and ascetic practices. However, love mattered more. A brother put this question to an elder. There are two brothers, one who prays all day, fasts six days a week, and does penance. The other cares for the sick. Which work pleases God most? The elder did not say, listen to your heart and choose. He said that the one who fasts could also hang himself up by the nose, and he would still not come up to the level of the one who took care of the sick. (Merton, XCVI)


On another occasion, a young monk avoided work in the kitchen, because he was busy praying. He said he had chosen the better part, like Mary. So they didn’t feed him. When he got hungry, they urged him to be spiritual, and avoid food that perishes. He thought that over a bit, then apologized. Martha’s work of hospitality is necessary for Mary’s work of listening at the feet of Jesus. (Merton, XXXIII)

Monday, January 15, 2018

I Can Never Be ...

As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars.

As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy even if I just got a good checkup at Mayo Clinic.

I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.

This is the way our world is made.


“The Measure of a Man” – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.



Rev King, to America

It seems that I can hear a voice saying to America:

“You started out right. You wrote in your Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’

But, America, you strayed away from that sublime principle. You left the house of your great heritage and strayed away into a far country of segregation and discrimination. You have trampled over sixteen million of your brothers. You have deprived them of the basic goods of life. You have taken from them their self-respect and their sense of dignity. You have treated them as if they were things rather than persons. Because of this a famine has broken out in your land.

In the midst of all your spiritual wealth, you are spiritually and morally poverty-stricken, unable to speak to the conscience of this world. America, in this famine situation, if you will come to yourself and rise up and decide to come back home, I will take you in, for you are made for something high and something noble and something good.”


“The Measure of a Man,” Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Trump and abortion

I had an unpleasant encounter yesterday. A group of pro-lifers were engaged in a debate about how pro-lifers should respond to Trump’s racism. It was a fiery and interesting debate. But there was a guy who participated, denouncing Trump – as I do – and his allies – which I consider a key battleground. After quite a bit of back and forth, it came out that this guy was not asking pro-lifers to pull away from Trump; he was asking pro-lifers to forget about abortion. He was strengthening the ties between pro-lifers and Trump, insisting that they are natural allies. I was appalled. Some pro-lifers stick to Trump because they believe that – like it or not – Trump is the key to stopping abortion in the USA, and to achieve that goal they will put up with just about anything. So telling pro-lifers to dump-Trump-and-forget-abortion strengthens Trump. I thought the guy was among the most effective pro-Trump voice I’d encountered.

Let me clarify why I am a pro-lifer opposing Trump. This is a sketch, but 1400+ words.

First: NSSM 200.

I don’t think Roe v. Wade was the most violent document ever penned. I think NSSM 200 launched far more abortions that RvW. National Security Study Memorandum 200 was a definition of threats to American security, written by officials in the Nixon and Ford administrations. “Security” here doesn’t mean money in the bank; it’s diplomatic language for the things about which this nation is prepared to go to war. The document said that our deadly enemies were:

n  Commies in Europe, to be fended off by the military;
n  Commies around the Pacific Rim, also to be fended off by the military;
n  Commie propaganda in Latin America, to be resisted by the CIA; and
n  African women having babies, to be stopped by the Agency for International Development.

Under these two Republican presidents – and everyone since until NSSM 200 was scrapped in – hm, hm, was it scrapped? – our enemies were Commies and black babies. To stop them, we had nukes and abortion. I over-simplify, but you see the point.

The take-away: NSSM 200 led to far more abortion than RvW. Pro-lifers who focus on RvW are dilettantes, overlooking most of the abortions launched by the USA. We started abortion globally, and we have to stop it globally. Abortion inside America – the whole RvW thing – is about 2% of the abortion problem.

Second, Sherri Finkbine.

The propaganda push for abortion in the USA did not begin with RvW. The propaganda push began with Sherri Finkbine. She had a TV show in the 1950s, called “Romper Room,” a popular kids show sort of like “Mister Rogers” or “Sesame Street.” She took thalidomide, a sedative that was used then to treat morning sickness. But then news broke that thalidomide was “teratogenic”: it caused serious birth defects, including severely shortened limbs. Parents were afraid their kids would be born with flippers, not arms. So Sherri Finkbine, the Mrs. Mister Rogers of the decade, went to Sweden to get an abortion. And wasn’t it awful that she had to go across the Atlantic to avoid having a disfigured baby.

Two quick lessons. The push for abortion in the USA began with eugenics. And abortion cannot be considered a national problem; it was international before RvW.

Third, population control.

Population control isn’t a sideshow; it’s most of the abortion battle. And a detail of population control is now and always has been immigration restrictions. When Hitler was trying to wipe out the Jews, some fled to the United States. But our immigration policy sent some back to Hitler’s camps; you can get a list of some of the people who saw Miami, weren’t allowed in, and went back to Europe to get killed. When the Chinese launched a one-child-only depopulation policy, some women fled to the USA. We debated whether to let them in: a prolife policy and pro-immigration policy overlapped, and most pro-lifers saw it clearly. The same thing is going on now. Women are fleeing from depopulation policies – and other violence. Will we protect women and children? To me, that’s a no-brainer. I simply do not recognize this new “pro-life” movement that turns away pregnant women at the border. What happened to you?

Fourth, Lopez Trujillo and the Mexican Yellow Pages.

I had a squabble one year with the head of the Pontifical Council for the Family. He hosted a pro-life conference in Rome, and during the conference, I invited participants to meet to pray outside an abortion clinic at a hospital close by. He was appalled, and wanted my boss to ship me out of Rome promptly. In the ensuing discussion, one of the details that emerged was that he wanted good laws on the books, but didn’t care much what actually happened. In Mexico, for example, the law about abortion at that time was pretty good (from a pro-lifer’s perspective), and he wanted that. But abortions were advertised in Las Paginas Amarillas. The law was unenforced; it meant nothing. I thought reality mattered more than the damn law. He wasn’t interested in that; he wanted good laws.

Many Irish pro-lifers are as blind as Cardinal Lopez Trujillo. They are focused on preventing abortion in Ireland. That’s a good interim goal, but banning abortion in Ireland might not save a single child and family, not one. You can get from Ireland to England and back for the price of a carton of cigarettes. It’s a nuisance, and an added expense: killing Irish citizens in England takes several extra hours and adds maybe 20% to the price tag. Stopping abortion in Ireland, completely, has almost no connection with protecting Irish babies; it’s a tiny first step, no more.

The lesson: there’s a difference between (a) protective laws on the books and (b) actually protecting mothers and babies. They aren’t completely unrelated, but they are not the same thing. If you fail to change the thinking and habits of a pro-choice society, changing the law is almost meaningless. (Also impossible, but that’s a different issue.)

Fifth, the father’s failures.

One of the many appalling crises facing Americans today is that white males have lost their sense of purpose and identity. Schools across the nation stare at the stats, baffled. Every demographic group in the nation is improving from one year to the next on test scores – some groups with large gaps still to overcome, but there’s steady improvement. Every group is improving, except one. While males, starting at the top, have been declining slowly but steadily for years. Their scores are not declining relative to other scores: that is, the decline is not really just another way to say that everyone else is improving. No. While male scores are declining this year relative to white male scores last year, year after year. Why? Your guess is probably about as good as anyone’s.

I think that a piece of the problem is that a huge portion of the men in the nation – a quarter, more or less – are parents of a dead child. So are the women, but there’s been a lot of thought given to that. For men, I think that the test scores at school point to an unexplained problem, and men’s total failure at their first duty in life may be a partial explanation. What did you do when your first child was scheduled to die? Nothing. You bottled it up, got depressed. Maybe you did your best to cherish and support your partner in her crisis. But your child?

There’s no quick fix to that problem. But one detail that is clear, that men can address now: you can work to ensure that women don’t have abortions because they feel trapped and abused. That’s not the whole issue, but it’s a real part, and it’s fixable. So when someone attacks a woman, and makes her feel stupid or helpless, step in. You can’t protect a child unless the child’s mother feels empowered. When some male monster says it’s okay to grab pussy, fix his thinking; you may be saving a child’s life. That kind of thinking and language isn’t just a little gross, a little naughty, a little juvenile; it’s deadly. I don’t know what “fight” means to you; but when somebody talks about grabbing pussy, a child’s life is in danger. Fight. Fight for children, and for women, and for dignity, and for the future, and for everything on earth that has value.


Enough. Each point here deserves a book, but my overall point is clear and simple: pro-lifers should oppose Trump. Opposing Trump is not the same thing as abandoning the pro-life movement. I’m a pro-lifer, AND SO I oppose Trump with everything in me.