Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Response to the LifeSite News declaration ("Bethlehem Declaration")

 Hi, Will –

 RE: Bethlehem Declaration

I have had an interesting exchange with Patrick Delaney, from LifeSite News, about the document that LifeSite News promotes, which they call the “Bethlehem Declaration.” Pope Francis has urged people to get vaccinated to fight the epidemic. The document is a response: it declares that people who get the vaccine are participating in abortion, and that the vaccine is worse than useless – that it does not protect, and in fact it kills vast numbers of people. Patrick Delaney asserted that no one has answered the challenge they pose. I thought I had. But let me answer again.

The Bethlehem Declaration from LifeSite News has problems from beginning to end. It abuses the teaching of the Catholic Church, misquoting Church documents repeatedly. The statistics that bulk large in the LifeSite document do not withstand scrutiny. The decision to focus on the alleged sins of the people who choose to be vaccinated is startling and obtuse. And the signers are not consistently thoughtful and scrupulous about issues linked to abortion.

The Declaration misquotes the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith (CDF).

The CDF published the “Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines” on December 21, 2020. That Note says that it is licit – moral, permitted – to use the Covid-19 vaccines that were already available then. The LifeSite document quotes the CDF Note in making their argument, but concludes that it is illicit to use these vaccines – without explaining that the Congregation’s Note flatly contradicts the LifeSite conclusion. If you quote a Church document to substantiate your claims, it’s probably best to say up front that CDF considered your arguments and discarded them. Anyway: CDF says licit, and LifeSite says illicit.

The CDF Note makes a careful distinction between developing the vaccine using fetal tissue from two aborted babies on one hand, and using the vaccine on the other hand. For Americans, this kind of distinction is not complicated. For example, some years after the war in Vietnam, the nation decided – as a nation – to express our gratitude for the courage of our brothers and sisters in the military who risked their lives for freedom, regardless of what we think about the decisions of the politicians who led us into war. So also here: the use of fetal tissue derived from dead babies in the 1980s was wrong; it was callous; we want to avoid repeating that evil. But, says the CDF, the people using vaccines developed using a cell line derived from that tissue in the 1980s are not complicit in that evil. LifeSite insists: “it remains objectively morally illicit for a person to accept these shots.” And this is their central conclusion, when they finish up with all their whereas clauses and state ! The individuals who use the vaccine are sinning! They assert some corollary conclusions, but their first and fundamental declaration is about the users, not the developers or promoters.

The Vatican note – the CDF Note – distinguishes between abortion, which is non-negotiable, and the abuse of bodies, which is definitely problematic but is nonetheless subject to some balancing, some negotiation. The Note doesn’t use that language; it uses Vaticanese jargon. But is speaks with unswerving clarity about the evil of abortion, and then states that the use of these vaccines does not constitute a legitimation of abortion. LifeSite, in direct opposition, insists that there is a moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation in the crime of abortion by the use of said injection.

The CDF note states that it is licit to use the vaccine because the abortion-vaccine link is “remote.” LifeSite states, wrongly, that the CDF Note says that using the vaccine is permitted only if three conditions are met – and then works to prove that these conditions are not met. The three conditions that the LifeSite paper discusses are indeed in the CDF Note, but they are not the core issue. The CDF note splits the issue of abortion away from the issue of vaccines because the connection is remote.

The LifeSite Declaration also misquotes the CDF document “Dignitas Personae.”

The Bethlehem Declaration seeks to apply the teaching about genetic manipulation in the CDF document “Dignitas Personae,” but does so in a completely mistaken way. The error seems to be based on a misunderstanding of the term “genetic.” The Church supports genetic testing and manipulation – unless it’s destructive of human life. The genetic manipulation in the development of the vaccine was not destructive of human life. Addressing this error in the Declaration may require a bit of a detour.

Every human body is host to billions of living organisms that are in or on the body but not part of the body. We can, for example, have parasites in our intestines, worms that eat our food. Those worms have their own DNA that is not the same as ours. If a worm lives in me, that does not make me part-worm. This is not complicated at all. We also have colonies of living bacteria all over us, inside and on the surface. In fact, we have billions of bacteria swarming in and on us; there are about as many living organisms living in and on us as the world has humans. These colonies include some bacteria that are benign, and some that will attack us and weaken us or even kill us, given the opportunity. Some of the benign bacteria fight the malign bacteria; there are epic wars going on all over our bodies all the time. All these bacteria, both the malign and the benign, have their own DNA, which is not our DNA. We are not bacteria, nor even part-bacteria. We have bacteria in and on us. We live in-the-world but are not of-the-world; the bacteria similarly are in-our-bodies but not of-our-bodies

There’s a specific and dramatic example of life within a human that is not the same life as that of the human host. That’s pregnancy. A pregnant mother carries a child within her body. The child’s DNA is derived in part from her, and part from the father; but the child’s DNA is unique, and different from hers (and his). The placenta is a part of the child’s body, although at birth the child leaves it behind. The child’s placenta interacts with the mother’s uterus, with a fantastically extensive boundary where the child takes nourishment from the mother through the walls of adjacent cells. The boundary of the placenta is far more twisty and intertwined than the borders of the Chesapeake Bay. But along that boundary, cell by cell, it’s possible to check the DNA of any cell and identify whose it is – baby’s or mom’s. None of the cells have any ambiguity: each cell has the DNA of one person or the other. This example of a living creature living inside another human – inside but still separate – is of course fundamental to the thinking of the whole pro-life movement.

But the Bethlehem Declaration mangles this teaching, with impressive ignorance. It quotes “Dignitas Personae,” noting that the document discusses genetic manipulation. Some forms of genetic manipulation of human cells are flatly immoral, and other forms of manipulation of human cells are permissible but require careful thought. Throughout, the document is focused exclusively on the manipulation of human cells. It discusses engineering different kinds of cells – somatic cells and germ cells; but in both cases, it’s about human cells. It says nothing whatsoever about the genetic manipulation of any of the wide variety of non-human creatures living within. The complex makeup of the Covid virus, and the amazing responses within our bodies to that virus, involve battles within our bodies. Those battles affect our bodies; the wrong side could win and kill us. But the genetically manipulated vaccine is a foreign substance that we place within our bodies to trigger a response that resists the Covid virus. It doesn’t alter our DNA is any way.

At a grocery store today, some foods are labeled “non-GMO.” If you wish, you can choose to avoid foods that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The discussion of the moral issues surrounding GMOs is extensive, but none of that discussion is about whether ingesting GMOs alters our own genetic makeup: it doesn’t. “Dignitas Personae” is about genetically modifying human bodies; it has nothing whatsoever to say about ingesting GMOs. The moral issues it discusses arise with procedures that alter human genetic makeup. The vaccines are genetically modified material, but they don’t genetically modify humans. The vaccines are not about a genetically modified human being; they’re about a modified virus. And in fact, it’s not even a full virus that’s modified; it’s a genetically modified scrap of a virus.

Stated simply: the discussion of the morality of genetic modification in the “Bethlehem Declaration” is completely irrelevant, based entirely on a misunderstanding.


In defending the Bethlehem Declaration, Patrick Delaney wrote to me that the teaching of Pope Francis is not formal, not binding. By contrast, he said, the LifeSite declaration is based on formal documents like these two CDF documents. I’m not sure what to say! The CDF documents are his teaching. The authority of the Vatican is in no way separable from his authority. Pope Francis signed off on the CDF Note, which explicitly uses the teaching from “Dignitas Personae.” Their teaching is his teaching. So the LifeSite declaration rejects the repeated and urgent but perhaps informal exhortations from the Pope – and also rejects his formal teaching. The Pope and the CDF, working for him, say the same thing.

The LifeSite stats are not credible

The argument presented in the LifeSite declaration is based largely on statistical studies of Covid and various responses. The declaration offers studies that are – at first glance, from a non-expert’s perspective – credible. On the other hand, the LifeSite stats contradict the conclusions reached the World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other credible bodies. The Bethlehem Declaration does not respond to the data from apparently credible sources, except to say that they all have conflicts of interest. But the CDF asserts firmly that their moral judgment about whether it is licit to use the vaccine does not depend on sorting out the competing stats. Regardless of the statistics, the vaccine-abortion link is far-fetched; it is morally permissible to make your decision about whether to get a vaccination without settling the arguments among the experts.

I will follow the lead of the CDF, and let the medical and public health experts battle it out – with one exception. Amidst the claims made by LifeSite, there’s one that doesn’t require expertise to evaluate. The Bethlehem Declaration urges paranoia about the entire profession of forensic pathology. In the whereas clause #20 (of 28), beginning “by means of comparison,” the Declaration discusses “under-reported adverse events,” making three separate impressive errors.


Error #1. Post hoc propter hoc.

In the United States, when a new medication is made available, Federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) watch for any pattern of complications. And there’s a whole separate Federal program to track complications from vaccines. It’s called the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS. And VAERS has, of course, been tracking the Covid vaccines.

The LifeSite declaration asserts that VAERS reported over 20,244 deaths as of December 2021 that were “due to these injections.” That’s nonsense. It’s an error in logic that everyone who touches logic learns to identify – the “post hoc propter hoc” error, the assertion that because event A happened after event B, B caused A. VAERS collects data about all deaths after taking the vaccine – including car accidents on the way home. This 20,244 is all deaths after vaccination, not because of the vaccination. The number of post-vaccination deaths is preliminary data, undigested. It contains no assertion of causality at all, none whatsoever.


Error #2. About under-reporting

It is true that adverse events are often under-reported, sometimes vastly under-reported. Take Vioxx, for example, just to understand the problem of under-reporting. Vioxx (that’s a brand name for Rofecoxib) was a painkiller that was marketed in 1999, after approval by the FDA. Over the next five years, about 80 million people used it – and over 80 thousand users developed serious heart disease. That’s one case of heart disease per thousand Vioxx users. Is that enough to say that there might be a connection between Vioxx and heart disease? Heart disease is the number one killer in the nation; did Vioxx really change anything? It’s not possible to collect data about every death from heart disease between 1999 and 2004, checking to see whether each of the deceased ever took Vioxx. To measure the impact of Vioxx, you have to use samples; you have to find your way around the inevitable problem of under-reporting. (The FDA made its way systematically and took the killer drug off the market.) But tracking a new vaccine is very different. From day one, VAERS was determined to track outcomes from the Covid vaccine, and required that every – every! – death from any cause whatsoever after a Covid vaccine be reported. This requirement led to a great deal of misunderstanding and paranoia: all across the country, people fussed because of incidents like a death from a gunshot showed up in the vaccine stats. Because of this stringent requirement, the stats have to be used with caution; there is substantial over-reporting. There’s nothing shady going on; it’s all in the open; but to use the stats, you have to understand how they were collected. This is a challenge. But it has an upside: the stats on deaths from the Covid vaccine are not under-reported.


Error #3. Wild extrapolation invites paranoia.

The errors above led LifeSite to make an assertion that deaths from the vaccine could be in the hundreds of thousands for the USA. Hundreds, plural, of thousands: that’s at least 200,000. One would expect that pathologists would notice 200,000 deaths from a new cause.

The Declaration seems to imply that these deaths from the vaccine are being under-counted because they are reported as deaths from Covid. The Declaration asserts that Covid deaths are wildly over-counted and deaths from the vaccine are (probably) wildly under-counted. This is not well informed. There is no reason whatsoever to assume that vaccine complications would resemble Covid.

Some history may help. Two and a half centuries ago, when George Washington ordered that all his army be vaccinated against smallpox, the vaccine was crude. The physician (or whoever) would cut the patient, and put blood and pus from someone else’s live infection into the cut, deliberately causing a new infection, hoping it would be mild. It was dangerous, but it worked well enough that smart people kept doing it. But today, we don’t do anything like that. The Covid vaccines are not from a live infection. And so you can’t get Covid from the vaccine. The vaccine is not a thriving virus; it’s dead. In fact, it’s a dead fragment of a dead virus, a spiky knobby piece off the side. So when medical professionals watch for any adverse effect from the vaccine, they aren’t looking for a viral infection resembling Covid. The most common problem with a new vaccine shows up promptly – an allergic reaction within minutes after the injection.

There is zero reason to expect that any complications from the Covid vaccine would resemble Covid. So the 200,000 deaths that the Declaration warns of – if they occurred – would be something new and different. There were about 3.4 million deaths in the USA in 2020, from all causes. If there were 200,000 deaths from some new cause, that’s a sizable fraction of all deaths – one in 17. A new killer that big can’t get lost in the shuffle. Folks would notice 200,000 deaths from something new. For sure.


The document does not offer responsible pro-life leadership.

The document seems to offer itself as the thoughtful and courageous declaration of truly committed pro-lifers, as opposed to the weaklings who are quick to compromise. I cannot let that go by unchallenged. The authors and the signers of the declaration do NOT exhibit a thoughtful and consistent concern about abortion, despite all the huffing and puffing. To take one prominent example: Archbishop Schneider, the principal signer of the Declaration, dismisses the duty of Europe and America to welcome and protect refugees as propaganda. This is a problem for pro-lifers, because it’s nearly impossible to construct an argument for stringent regulation of immigration that is not also an argument for population control. That is, in brief: if it’s necessary to keep new immigrants out of the wealthy and relatively depopulated continent of North America because the influx is more than we can care for, then the world as a whole must – all the more – be unable to care for a far greater influx of new babies. So Archbishop Schneider’s position against welcoming refugees is not only opposed to the teaching about immigration from every pope since 1914; it’s also pro-abortion. He insists on asserting a link between abortion and vaccines in a way that the CDF calls far-fetched (“remote”); he should be able to notice the much tighter, much more obvious, ongoing link between abortion and population control.


The LifeSite declaration is just division

In his exchange with me, Patrick Delaney denies that the document is divisive. He insists that his document reflects the true teaching of the Church, and the casual ramblings of Pope Francis do not. But the declaration mangles the formal documents it quotes, which are solid and thoughtful and balanced – and authoritative – and the key document that LifeSite uses belongs to Francis. The Bethlehem document, despite its claims, is not the teaching of the Church.

Who speaks for the Church? Is this complicated for a Catholic?

   – John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe

   – January 25, 2022

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Fr. Altman #1 - who is he attacking?

 open letter (first of six)

RE: meet one of the people you consigned to hell


Dear Fr. Altman,

I’m a healthy-medicine guy, with six doses in hand. Some of your friends might advise you to slam the door right away!

Our mutual friend Will Goodman has been defending you. I’m responding to your vitriolic attacks on me – not me by name, but me as a representative of a group. Perhaps we can manage an open and honest dialogue.

I am a pro-life Catholic, and a Democrat. You have asserted that people like me must repent or go to hell. Let’s get away from straw men: I’ll explain who I am and why I’m a Democrat, and what was wrong in your sermons. Respectfully, Fr. Altman: I think I have a right to a careful response to reality, not a caricature.

I plan (tentatively) to write six letters: (1) an introduction to a real pro-life Democrat, not some silly ragged straw man; (2) pro-life strategy;  (3) the authority of the Church to teach about morality and justice; (4) the division you exacerbate between social justice activists and pro-lifers; (5) lynching; and (6) Covid-19 and euthanasia.


So who am I?


I wrote Pro-Life Democrat. I am not the only pro-life Democrat, nor the most prominent; but I am among the most prominent.

I was a conscientious objector during the war in Vietnam. While I was doing alternative service, a friend whom I admired and loved told me about her abortion, and wanted my approval of her decision. I was pretty ignorant then, and I didn’t pretend to understand what she was talking about, except that she ended a pregnancy. But if she wanted my support, she had it, right away and without reservation. But then, she went on and on about it; she was upset. So I did some reading, and became convinced that (1) my beloved friend was the mother of a dead child, and (2) she needed to mourn, but (3) she couldn’t because she was in denial. I didn’t know what to do to help her, other than love her and listen, and probably shut up. I don’t think I was any help to her. But the incident transformed my life. My opposition to war expanded to include opposition to abortion, and I never looked back. I didn’t jump on a soapbox right away or anything, but I was a convinced pro-lifer. That was 50 years ago.

The first thing I did publicly was to organize a pilgrimage to Guadalupe to pray for unborn children and their mothers. That was in December 1972: Roe v. Wade was already decided, but had not been made public. At the shrine in Mexico on the feast day, Mexicans assumed we belonged with the other gringos in the sanctuary, and they pushed us up there. But we didn’t belong to that group, and we ended up standing behind the curtains to the left of the altar, alone. We shifted a little, and settled down right under the tilma. In the image, Mary is looking down to her right, our left. We reached up and touched the left corner of the frame of the image. That’s where we were for Mass December 12, 1973, praying for unborn children and their mothers. By God’s grace.

In 1976, I worked in the Ellen McCormack campaign. She ran for President in the Democratic primary, and got was on the ballot in 18 states. I wrote and distributed material on college campuses. (I hope to God that the stuff I wrote then doesn’t re-surface; it was not well done. Whoo-ee.)

Also in 1976, I wrote my first piece about pro-life nonviolence, “Human and Vulnerable.” I wrote it for the National Right to Life Convention, which was in Boston that year.

In 1977, I was a co-founder of the Prolife Nonviolent Action Project. We organized sit-ins at abortion clinics, later called rescues. Our work was modest; we were pleased when we got half a dozen people participating. But we got things started in 50 of the 50 states. Most of the material that people used across the country (and in Australia) was written by a team of three, including me. One of my flyers, “Peaceful Presence,” was used everywhere – all 50 states.

I was the keynote speaker at a LIFE conference in Britain in 1978. I also spoke in Canada and Mexico. I helped organize Rescue Outreach, starting rescues all over Europe. I was invited by Fr. Al Schwarz (Venerable) to build the pro-life movement in Korea. (I declined, but they used my material.)

I was with the first group that went to jail for pro-life nonviolent action. Overall, I was arrested 39 times, although I never served a long sentence.

Some people have dubbed me the “father of the rescue movement.” I’m ambivalent about the label; I got credit for the work of a team. The hard work – that is, the organizing – was done by women, especially Jeanne Gaetano and my sister Lucy O’Keefe. Burke Balch did legal work; Dave Gaetano did press; Leszek Syski led many rescues; John Leary kept us grounded in prayer; we all went to jail. This appellation showed up in a variety of places, including a history of pro-life nonviolence by Jim Risen (LA Times, later NY Times) and Judy Thomas (KC Star) entitled Wrath of Angels, Time magazine, NY Times magazine, and elsewhere.

My articles have appeared in some publications you know, like Homiletic and Pastoral Review and National Catholic Register.

I worked for a dozen years at national RTL groups including National Right to Life Committee, American Life League, and Human Life International. I was a cofounder of my local pregnancy center, and helped Marilyn Szweczyk start pregnancy centers and support groups for post-abortive women (the Gabriel Project) all over Maryland. I worked to get ultrasound equipment into Maryland centers; I failed, but others picked up the idea and succeeded. I helped launch the Population Research Institute. I was the executive director of the American Bioethics Advisory Commission, fighting against human cloning. I was the editor of P.S., the newsletter of Prolifers for Survival.

I worked with Bill O’Reilly (not the TV celebrity) and helped him close 400 abortion clinics in Bangladesh. I do not know the status of his work now; but if it lasted, he may have saved about 15 million unborn children. There were four people who made indispensable contributions to that great work; I was one.

In 2000, I wrote two books – one about the fundamental strategy for pro-lifers, and the other a re-evaluation of the fundamental strategy of our opponents. The first is about nonviolence: Emmanuel, Solidarity: God’s Act, Our Response. The second is about eugenics: The Roots of Racism and Abortion: An Introduction to Eugenics. They are not best-sellers (!), but they remain useful.

In 2012, I embarked on a project of bridge-building. It seemed to me that the pro-life movement was drifting away from its moorings, ignoring the teaching in Scripture and the leadership from the oldest pro-life group in the world (the Catholic Church). The movement was also breaking up old alliances and coalitions and connections, instead of strengthening old ones and forging new ones. The movement was choosing to be smaller, deliberately excluding more and more friends and potential friends. It tied itself more and more tightly to the Republican Party, and alienated Muslims, and immigrants, and feminists, and civil rights activists – and eventually a whole political party! I thought I could focus on one significant bridge and make it strong. So I set out to develop a consistent ethic of hospitality. I thought pro-lifers should embrace the teaching in Scripture and Tradition about strangers, should build strong alliances with immigrants – and stay away from anti-Catholic xenophobes.


So that’s me. I don’t think there’s a pro-lifer on earth who agrees with everything I have said over the past half a century – not even me! But the idea that I am not a serious pro-lifer is crazy.

I would like to talk with you. I think I can help you see some things that you have misunderstood or ignored.


John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Pro-Life Democrat is published

My book is published, and available on Amazon or Kindle.

I still have a draft posted here. The published version is better, of course. Most of the changes were small, but the section on Catholic questions has some changes larger than tinkering. 

Amazon: $6

Kindle: $3

Obviously, I'd prefer it if you bought the book. But the pro-lifers I trust and admire are often kinda dirt poor. If you want a free copy, electronically, lemme know.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Shaping a tabernacle

The readings at Mass that the Catholic Church uses this week are from the Letter to the Hebrews, and Thursday’s (1/21/2021) reading invites some reflection on tabernacles. Lemme skip around a bit.

So what’s a tabernacle? It’s a tent, with a history – with special reference to the tent which housed the stone tablets of the Law given by God to Moses – the Ark of the Covenant. The tabernacle is a dwelling of sorts, where God dwells in some sort of way.

King David wanted to provide a better dwelling for the Lord. He lived in a palace, but the corner of the universe set aside by the king and his people for the Lord was still a tent. So he was ready and eager to do better. The prophet Nathan said okay; but then slept on it, and returned with a more careful answer. God says no: God will build a house for David instead. And then Nathan talked about the House of David: it’s not made of stone, but is rather a people, a kingdom.

Catholic churches have “tabernacles.” They aren’t tents; they are boxes sitting on the altar in the front of the church. Inside the tabernacle is the Blessed Sacrament, bread that the Lord broke and blessed and distributed to his disciples, saying, “This is my body.”

I’m a Catholic, and I accept the Church’s teaching about transubstantiation. But I am deeply uncomfortable with teaching that starts weird and then goes nowhere. I’m happy to start weird as long as we go somewhere. And let me explain where I think the Lord’s words go: it’s more than a gold box. We understand that tabernacle when we see it radiate.

There wasn’t a tabernacle on the table at the Last Supper. There is no story about the fragments left over after the meal that night. They ate the bread; they consumed the flesh of the sacrifice. Did they do it right? Or was that just a primitive beginning, a Model T? What did the Lord do?

After a person receives Communion, where is the Lord? I’m okay with the tabernacle, but I think that’s a radically incomplete answer. The Lord dwells in his people. The dwelling we construct for him is interesting and useful, but the dwelling the Lord constructs matters more – and that dwelling is not a box; it’s the hearts of his people. That is, it seems to me appropriate to bow before the tabernacle – before all tabernacles – including each child of God. When the rite of Communion is completed – that is, when Mass is over – in a church with – say, for example – 600 people and a tabernacle up front, the Lord dwells sacramentally in 601 places. And half an hour later, the Lord still dwells, sacramentally, in 601 places.

When I walk down the street and pass someone, have I walked past a tabernacle of the Lord? Dunno; likely so. For sure, with tranquil certainty, I can say that this person may be a tabernacle, and should be a tabernacle. But is he/she? Dunno; but prudence demands that I assume so.

I understand that there are some people who are believe, more or less explicitly, a fragmentary thing. They believe that God enters into the hearts and minds and indeed into the bodies of his people – but then, they think, this presence in and among us is fleeting. After a little gastric acid and/or inattention and/or sin on our part, the Lord departs, decamps. He still dwells inside that gold box, but probably not inside me and you, and definitely not inside Joe. So say some people, although they may say it much more elegantly (and obscurely).

I don’t think God is squeamish. He comes to dwell with us – in us! – and he means it. The tabernacle that David wanted to build, and the tabernacles that we want to build, are interesting and useful. But the tabernacle that matters is what the Lord builds. I am / thou art / he/she/it is / we are / you are / they are tabernacle(s). So said God; and if he said it, he did it.

When we think about God’s visits in Scripture, the idea of tabernacle may get clearer. Elijah was in a cave when God visited. Elijah went to entrance of the cave, and saw storms and earthquakes – but found God in the gentle breeze. So God communicated gently: got that. But also, he communicated at the door of the cave. Elijah was in a quiet spot, a place of quiet meditation and contemplation; but God spoke to him as he came out. Not to say as he burst forth; that’s not right. But God was there at a place of transition, where quiet thought turns into action. Elijah went back inside the cave, but he didn’t stay there; God had spoken to him, and so he was getting ready to come out and make some changes in the world.

God visited Abraham at his home in Mamre. But they met at the entrance of the tent. They were in and out. Their conversation that evening ended under the stars.

The whole idea of a tent is about being in the midst or on the brink of action. If you stop permanently, you build a house. But if you are restless, peripatetic, on the move, on a pilgrimage, on a campaign, ready to go – well, tents are better.

John’s Gospel proclaims that the Word of God came to us, came to dwell among us. John’s word for this is provocative: the Lord came to “pitch his tent” among us. He might build us into a house, but he himself dwells among us in a tent, because he keeps tumbling forward. His home, his castle, his palace – and ours, in eternity – is elsewhere.

Caves and tents – we meet the Lord as we tumble out of the quiet into action. And yet, we do cherish the times and places of quiet. The cave has an entrance, but it’s a cave. So what’s in my cave? What do we choose to do in the cave, to shape that space?

I was very interested in the stories about Biden’s cave (if indeed it is such), the Oval Office. It’s a place for a ruler – not with a sceptre and a throne, but with a pen at a desk. Not in robes and mantles, but in coat and tie. The details change a bit, but this is a place where a ruler does his ruling, where he pronounces his decisions. And the way he shapes that space can and should explain what goes on inside his imagination before we hear what’s in his mouth. If the office isn’t in fact his cave, still it can and should correspond to whatever it is that he uses to decorate the walls of his cave, the home of his imagination, the tabernacle of his soul, where he listens to the Lord. And indeed, Biden chose busts and pictures of an impressive group from the communion of saints to stand around him as he ponders and rules. His family of course, and Washington and Lincoln of course, and crisis manager FDR, tussle-dancers Jefferson/Hamilton, martyrs MLKing and RFKennedy, activists Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez and a sculpture by an Apache from a Japanese-Hawaiian friend, geek Franklin and a moon rock, Unionizers Lincoln and Webster. The choices reveal, and are meant to reveal: if he’s not really intending to emulate these men and women as well as he can, he’s a liar, deceiving us for sure and perhaps himself.

In the tabernacle of our hearts, we surround ourselves with the clear recollection of God’s word and work in our lives, and with the love and the work of family and friends and heroes and models and artists and poets and other sources of strength and joy and challenge. That is (I think): we build our tabernacle according to the model of the house that the Lord promised to build for David: the House of David is the People of God.

God came to dwell among his people – in fact, in his people. We are the tabernacle, and although we are the anointed stewards and empowered custodians of our souls, it is the Lord who builds. And he is comfortable living in my restless heart, because he came to live among us in a tumble-forward dwelling – a tent but especially the entrance, a cave but especially the exit, in our hearts but also in our hands, where love becomes service, where hidden contemplation becomes visible action.

Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, 

Pure and holy, tried and true. 

With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living 

Sanctuary for you.

Wash Post photo in Biden's Oval Office

Monday, January 4, 2021

The pro-life movement in a democracy

I’m a pro-life activist, and have been since 1972. Some years ago, I faced a major dilemma. I was convinced that tiny children before birth were members of the human family; but also, I became convinced that democratic government – that is, government based on the will of the people, expressed in votes – would not protect unborn children in my lifetime. So what then? Was an honest pro-life movement possible in a democratic nation? Did I have to choose between the values I held dearest, and the American way of government? Could I hold to both?

The answer doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker.

I am convinced of the following.

First: life begins at the beginning, not in the middle. The beginning is real and objective, not a social construct. It is significant, non-arbitrary, and discernible. And when an individual’s life begins, that individual is precious in the eyes of God, and is a member of the human family, worthy of all the respect and protection offered to older and larger people. If the Fourteenth Amendment means anything, it includes equal protection for tiny and dependent children.

Second: effective protection requires the cooperation of the child’s mother. An effort to protect the child that is dismissive of the mother’s concerns is certain to fail.

Third: effective legal protection requires the agreement and joint determination of the society around this child and this mother. This is not a minor point, because …

Fourth: a dictatorship can indeed create laws much faster than a democracy, but cannot enforce them.

I do not have to choose between struggling to protect unborn children, and choosing to live within a democratic system. Democracy is slow, but it works, while the alternatives go faster until they smash. I assert that an unborn child has rights, and also I am convinced that the painfully (lethally) slow democratic process is the only way to move toward effective social and legal protection.

I understand clearly that unborn children will not have social and legal protection in my lifetime. I will do what I can do help mothers and children in ways that are not affected by a broken legal system. But also, I want to see a realistic plan for moving toward social and legal protection. So …

Fifth: I am convinced that the only way to move toward protection is by a sustained campaign of nonviolence.

There was once the beginning of such a campaign. That campaign was smashed by people who refused to study the power and the discipline of nonviolence. They were distracted by the more obvious power of the press. The best-known campaign of nonviolence in America was led by Rev. Martin Luther King, who was committed to nonviolence but was also adept at harnessing the power of the press. This American experience may have obscured the differences between these two powers. But the two are different, and pro-lifers need to study nonviolence as practiced by Gandhi, King, Walesa, and Aquino – and build a disciplined campaign, with or without the added power of the press.

There is, at this time, not a single pro-life leader with recognized national status who is serious about building a campaign of nonviolence. Some admirable people are engaged in efforts that are good and aren’t violent. I pray that their work prospers.

The pro-life movement in America today is prepared to scuttle democracy in order to protect children. I understand the temptation, but I reject it. There is another way forward. It is not cheap, and it will not be quick. But it exists.

In the shadow of death, I choose life. In the face of violence, I choose nonviolence. So help me, dear God.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Hospitality -- Divine Mercy Sunday

Hospitality in today’s readings

No one disputes that hospitality is nice. But there is a fierce debate about whether it’s fundamental and mandatory – like truth and justice – or decorative and optional – like using the best dishes when special guests come.

I note with interest that the first reading at Mass today, on Divine Mercy Sunday, is a short passages from the Acts of the Apostles (2:42-47), with three references to hospitality. It’s repeated three times: the ideal of a Christian life in community includes prayer and hospitality.
First: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.”

Second: “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes.”

And third: “They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people.”

Monday, January 27, 2020

Two Stout Monks Myth

I've completed a new book, the third in a series, on immigration in Scripture and Tradition. The first was immigration in the Old Testament; the second was immigration in the New Testament; this is immigration in the teaching of the Church from the Fathers to Aquinas.

I have posted a draft. I would be pleased to get some feedback.

The book is serious, but it's readable and relaxed. The book took me a long time -- partly because I'm undisciplined, but partly because I wanted to understand the people I was writing about. Understand: for people like these, "understand" that means "appreciate and enjoy." I like these men and women, and I tried to make it easy for you to like them too.