Monday, March 31, 2014

"The wrong side of history": Can Catholicism survive in a postmodern age?

To read the remote past in the light of the recent past; to think the process of the one toward the other "inevitable"; to regard the whole matter as a slow inexorable process, independent of the human will, still suits the materialist pantheism of our time
                                                                       Hillaire Belloc
                                                                       Europe and the Faith
President Obama said recently that Russia was "on the wrong side of history," when it reclaimed Crimea. Evidently Mr. Obama believes that the world is gradually swinging toward the Western values of democracy and individual freedom and the Western economic model of corporate capitalism. In the President's mind, Russia ignored the inevitability of Western ascendancy and consigned itself to the dustbin of history.

And Mr. Obama may be right. Perhaps the whole world--Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East-- will become like America and Western Europe--materialistic, radically individualistic and secular. And if Russia is on the wrong side of history, then surely the Catholic Church is as well.  In fact, I feel sure that Barack Obama and his postmodern minions believe that the collapse of Catholicism is just around the corner.

But don't count us out. In the nineteenth century, Otto von Bismark and Germany's political liberals concluded that Catholicism was incompatible with the modern German state and they launched the Kultukampf to drive it out of Germany society. Modern Germany would be rationalistic, progressive, scientific, individualistic, and secular. Catholicism, Bismark and German liberals believed, was on the wrong side of history; and there was no place for it in the new Germany.

Otto von Bismark
Believed Catholicism on wrong
side of history
And for awhile it looked like the Kulturkampf would succeed. At the height of the persecution, half of Prussia's bishops were in prison or in exile, dozens of convents and monasteries were closed, and hundreds of monks and nuns were driven out of the country.  Many exiled religious emigrated to America.

But Catholicism survived the Kulturkampf and it survived Nazism that emerged sixty years later. And it has survived all the political movements that have tried to stamp it out--the Calles regime in Mexico during the 1920s, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, and the Spanish Republic of the 1930s.

President Obama and America's liberal media may believe that Catholicism is on the wrong side of history, but every political movement that made that bet has lost it.  President Obama may win his lawsuit against the Little Sisters of the Poor, but he will never get them to acquiesce in grave sin, which Obamacare forces them to do.

And you can bank on this:  a hundred years from now the Little Sisters will still be doing their good work while Barack Obama will have faded into history, no more memorable than Rutherford B. Hayes, Millard Fillmore, or Chester Arthur.


Michael B. Gross. The War Against Catholicism: Liberalism and the Anti-Catholic Imagination in Nineteenth Century Germany. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

Hillaire Belloc. Europe and the Faith. Rockford, Ill: TAN Books, 1920.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

According to the New York Times, Barack Obama has "Catholic roots." I did not know that!

Today's issue of the Sunday Times contained two front-page articles that contained very few facts. First was a story about the missing Malaysia Airlines jet. Although no one knows anything about what happened to that airplane, the Times managed to crank out a lengthy front-page story.

Second, the Times carried a front-page story by Jason Horowitz entitled "The Catholic Roots of Obama's Activism." Let's give Horowitz credit.  Like Wolf Blitzer talking about Malaysia Flight 370, he can go on and on without imparting any information.

It is true that Obama attended a Catholic school as a child in Indonesia. But, as Horowitz noted, this experience did not turn Obama toward Catholicism. "Nothing happened," Obama recalled. "No angels descended. Just a parched old nun, and 30 brown children, muttering words."

And it is also true that Obama got his start in politics working as a community organizer with an office in a Chicago Catholic Church.  During that period of his life, he was in contact with many Chicago
Catholics. But there is no evidence that he was drawn to the Catholic faith in any way. He may have attended a few Masses in Chicago Catholic churches, but we see no sign that he was moved by the mystery of the Mass--by the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Horowitz's puff piece is evidently intended to buff up Obama's Catholic credentials prior to his meeting with Pope Francis.  But Pope Francis is no fool. I feel sure the Pope knows exactly where President Obama stands on matters of faith.

After reading Horowitz's article I went to my bookshelf and pulled out my copy of Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, a novel written by Michael D. O'Brien. Father Elijah is one of those obscure Catholic novels that are completely unknown to non-Catholics.  In essence, the novel is about a priest named Father Elijah, a Holocaust survivor and Catholic convert, who is sent as an emissary of the Pope to the President of the Federation of European States.

Although O'Brien published his novel in  1996, before anyone was thinking about Barack Obama as a future President of the United States,  O'Brien's fictional president of the Federation of European States is very much like Obama.  Like Obama, the fictional president is a humanist and a man who has collected many honors and degrees.  Like Obama, O'Brien's president is lauded by the press as a man of destiny.  His face appears everywhere on the covers of journals, on television, and in the newspapers. Like Obama, the fictional president is the author of books that have sold millions of copies. Like Obama, the fictional president seems to herald a new world order, a world order based on peace, harmony and justice.

But underneath the European leader's charisma and his avowed aim to create a new and better world, there lurks a sinister design.  In fact, O'Brien's fictional president is scheming to destroy Catholicism.

Early in the book, Father Elijah is summoned to a meeting with the Pope, who tells Father Elijah that the president has reached out to the Catholic Church, seeking to have it join in his vision for a new world order. But the Pope is deeply skeptical. The Pope suspects the president merely wants to use the Pope for propaganda purposes.

"He wishes to use the Church for as long as he needs her," O'Brien's fictional pope tells Father Elijah. "But he despises her, because he has never understood her divine nature."

In fact, O'Brien's fictional pope comes very close to calling the fictional president the Antichrist. "I do not call any many Antichrist while his soul hangs in the balance, while he is still free to choose the good," the pope ruminates.

"But with utmost certainty, I tell you that his ideas move in the realm of Antichrist. Even so, Christ would come for even one man. Christ died for this man."

I am not the first person who sees a connection between Barack Obama and the fictional president in O'Brien's novel. Tom O'Toole wrote a piece in 2011, in which he makes this connection.

And I am not calling President Obama the Antichrist. Nevertheless, he has implemented policies that directly offend the Catholic Church, something no recent president has done.

Of course, Obama is not the first American president to show open disdain for Catholicism. That honor goes to John Adams, our nation's second president.  Adams made no secret of his contempt for Catholicism, which, in his opinion, left its adherents in "a state of sordid ignorance" (Metzger, 1962, p. 12).

But most of our great presidents--George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and even Andrew Jackson, for goodness sake--have publicly showed their respect for Catholicism.  And these men served as president during times when Protestant America was deeply hostile to Catholicism.

But Obama, like the fictional character in Michael O'Brien's novel, only shows respect to our Church when it is politically expedient.  And I'm sure Pope Francis knows that.

But let us pray for Barack Obama. Angels did not descend when Obama was introduced to Catholicism as a child. But who knows?  Maybe angels will yet descend.


Jason Horowitz. The Catholic Roots of Obama's Activism: He Found his Voice in a Chicago Parish. Now He'll Speak With the Pope. New York Times, March 23, 2014, p.A1.

Michael D. O'Brien. Father Elijah: An Apocalypse. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996.

Charles H. Metzger. Catholics and the American Revolution. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1962).

Tom O'Toole. "An Apocalypse" now? Can Michael O'Brien's Father Elijah stop the Antichrist? Renew America blog. August 17, 2011. Available at:

Monday, March 17, 2014

In Honor of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Let's Plant Tomatoes

Homegrown tomatoes homegrown tomatoes
What'd life be without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can't buy
That's true love & homegrown tomatoes

                                Guy Clark

We meet Christ in three ways, Dorothy Day wrote: in the Eucharist, when two or three or gathered together, and in the poor. Dorothy was speaking about all the poor, but the urban poor had a special place in her heart.

Peter Maurin working in the soil

On the other hand, Peter Maurin, Dorothy's lifelong collaborator, was an advocate for communitarian farms. On farms, Peter believed, people could live in Christian fellowship and raise their own food--insulated from all the evils of urban life.

Dorothy was skeptical.  "I loved the life of the city," she wrote. "Especially I loved the life of the Lower East Side, where, in my neighborhood, every Italian backyard had its own fig tree and grape arbor."  Moreover, she reminded Peter, "Heaven is portrayed as a heavenly Jerusalem."

As we all know, the Catholic Worker movement started a few farms, and some Catholic Worker farms may still exist.  Nevertheless, I think most would agree that the Catholic Worker movement is primarily an urban phenomenon. Dorothy, at least, will always be associated with the cities and with the urban poor.

Personally, I share Dorothy's reservations about communitarian farm life. I am not an expert about rural utopian experiments, but I know most have floundered.  Farm life is romantic from a distance, but speaking as one who grew up with farm animals, I say with authority that there is nothing romantic about the rear end of a cow.

But as a person who has gardened for many years, I strongly recommend it for everyone--particularly urban dwellers. I am proud that my son and his wife, who live in Washington DC, maintain a community garden plot in Columbia Heights; and my daughter and her husband keep a small garden on the rooftop of their Brooklyn loft apartment.

What are the benefits of urban gardening?

First of all, there is something self-affirming about growing one's own food--even if it is just a few herbs to season a jar of store-bought spaghetti sauce. To plant vegetables, see them grow until the harvest, and then  eat them in one's own kitchen connects us with our  ancestors.  We may make our living doing one high-tech thing or another, but we all have to eat; and it is good to be able to produce our own food--even in a small way.

Second, gardening reminds us of the healing power of nature. Last winter, South Louisiana endured several hard freezes, and tropical plants died all over the city.  Surely our ancient philodendron, with stalks so big it looked like a coiled python in our garden, was a goner. Surely our new grapefruit trees were headed for the dumpster. Surely our palmettos and our bougainvilleas were dead.

But no. It is now late March, and new leaves have sprouted from our philodendron. Our grapefruit trees are still alive and show promise of producing fruit. The palm leaves of our palmettos are yellow at their tips, but all the palmettos survived.  Only the bougainvilleas succumbed.

Nevertheless, last winter reminds us to be cautious when planting a spring garden. Don't plant your garden until St. Joseph's Feast Day, the old timers caution, and this year's spring weather proved them right.

Now is the time to plant our gardens--at least in the deep South. And I urge everyone to begin gardening, at least in a small way. At the very least, let's plant tomatoes--if only the patio variety that  can be grown on the balcony of a city apartment.

Here are some things I've learned from gardening that have carried over into the rest of my life.

First, you must visit your garden every day and see how it is doing.  You never know when a leaf-eating insect might arrive, or a cat who wants your garden for a napping place.  And doesn't that hold true for all we hold dear--we have to connect with what we care about on a daily basis--and that goes especially for people.

Second, the way to begin gardening is to begin. If you are a back-to-the-earth environmentalist, you may want to grow your own seeds and raise only heirloom vegetables. But for most of us, the place to start is Home Depot, where we can buy plants that have already pushed through the earth.

And isn't that true of everything we do? If we wait until conditions are ideal or until we can construct something perfect, we will never begin.

Third, let's think of gardening as participating in the divine. Even the wine we drink at communion--the blood of Christ--is "the work of human hands."  Our gardening may be as important to our physical and spiritual health as anything we do on a given day.

If we plant a garden and don't neglect it, we have a good chance of getting at least some of our vegetables to hang on until the harvest; and we can eat something we grew ourselves.

And when we do, let's think of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Peter had a vision of a a rural Catholic utopia, while Dorothy would probably have been content with a fig tree growing in a back yard on the Lower East Side.  Together, however, they constructed a model for being Catholic in the modern world.  Urban dwellers though we are and living in a postmodern environment that is hostile to faith, we can follow their example. And when we Catholics plant our small gardens, let's do so as a tribute to Dorothy and Peter.

God Bless Officer John Breckinridge, Who Let Go of Bitterness and Now Opposes the Death Penalty

I read an article in the New York Times last week about efforts to abolish the death penalty in New Hampshire, which has not actually executed anyone since 1939.  According to the Times, the  New Hampshire House of Representatives passed a bill outlawing capital punishment and the bill has good prospects for final passage. (The New Hampshire Senate also approved the measure.)

The Times article began by telling readers about John Breckinridge, a Manchester police officer who saw his partner, Michael Briggs, shot to death in an alley.  Officer Briggs was a husband and father, and his death naturally embittered his partner.  Michael Addison was convicted of the crime in 2008 and was sentenced to death.

John Breckinridge
Photo by Jeff  Dachkowski
Apparently, Officer Breckinridge became obsessed with Addison and fervently desired to see him executed. In fact, Breckridge testified against abolishing the death penalty when a bill came up before the New Hampshire legislature several years ago.

But Officer Breckinridge has changed his mind about the death penalty, and he  no longer wants to see Addison executed. "'For me, this has been about anger,' Breckinridge said recently. "And I realized my anger was about vengeance, not justice'" (Seelye, 2014, p. A17).  And Breckinridge's change of heart was accompanied by a deepening of his Catholic faith.

As we begin the Lenten season, a time of repentance and reflection, I ponder my own bitterness about wrongs done to me over the years. I have experienced nothing so shattering as what Officer Breckinridge experienced, who saw a friend and partner murdered before his very eyes.  But I was betrayed on a couple of occasions many years ago by people I had trusted. In both cases, I was sucked into a heartless bureaucratic maw, and it took years to extricate myself.

And I think about those experiences from time to time.

I ask God to forgive my trespasses at every Mass and promise to forgive those who have wronged me.  And some days I think I have done that. I think back on the people who intentionally tried to hurt me, and I am simply grateful for the blessings I have received in the years that have passed--especially those that came from my conversion to Catholicism.

But some days the bitterness returns, and I realize how hard it is to truly forgive.  I think it would help if the people who hurt me asked for forgiveness, but they have not.

How hard it is  to forgive people who don't even want to be forgiven--who may be smug about the things they have done, who may even gloat about it. How hard to forgive people who continue to harm others, who may truly be agents of the Devil.

But that is what God asks us to do, and I know it can be done. I know because Officer John Breckinridge, who saw a friend killed in a criminal act, has let go of his vengeance.  God bless Officer Breckinridge, a very good Catholic indeed.

Michael Addison
Photo credit; Concord Monitor


Katharine Q. Seelye. New Hampshire Nears Repeal of Death Penalty. New York Times, March 13, 2014, p. A17.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Reflections on Peter Manseau's New York Times essay: There are many kinds of Catholics, but only one Catholic Church

Peter Manseau published an essay in the New York Times yesterday in which he wrote sympathetically about various renegade religious groups that claim to be Catholic.  Manseau points out that there are "hundreds of independent Catholic churches already operating in the United States and more on the way," making it "increasingly difficult to know exactly what the word is meant to signify."

Manseau suggests that what it means to be Catholic is open to interpretation and that the views of a group operating outside communion with Rome are as valid as those of Orthodox Catholics.   Indeed, Manseau ended his essay by suggesting that Pope Francis's papacy, which has prompted many lapsed Catholics to re-examine their spiritual lives, has caused "a thousand Catholicisms [to] bloom."

Well, I disagree.  There is only one Catholic Church.

It is true there are many kinds of Catholics. There are daily communicants and those who struggle just to do their Easter duty. There are Catholics who try to abide by every jot and tittle of Church doctrine; and there are millions of Catholics who completely ignore Church teaching on contraceptives. There are faithful Catholics, lapsed Catholics, so-called "recovering" Catholics, and Catholics who joined the Church for the sole reason of pleasing a Catholic spouse.

Nevertheless, there is only one Catholic Church.

I acknowledge that there are a welter of church groups whose ties with Rome are murky, tenuous or at least unclear to the average Catholic layperson.  There is the Polish National Catholic Church, for example, which is in dialogue with Rome but not in full communion. There are Maronite Catholics who are in communion with Rome but whose worship practices differ from the standard Roman rite.  And I recall attending Mass at a Byzantine Catholic Church in Florida, where I received Communion through intinction. The priest used a utensil that looked very much like a long tea spoon to dip the host in consecrated wine, which he then placed on my tongue.

And most recently, the Church has recognized Anglican Use Catholic Churches, which are churches that were once Anglican but have reunited with Rome as a body.  A lovely web site called "Southern Fried Catholicism" describes the Anglican Use Catholic Church very nicely.

But these variations on Roman Catholicism, profound as they are, do not change the core reality that the Roman Catholic Church is one Church. And the curiously American practice of forming new religious denominations based on personal preferences does not change the fact that apostate groups that call themselves Catholic are nothing more than heretics.

Our Lady of Walsingham
Mr. Manseau's  essay is the latest in a long stream of New York Times op ed pieces written by people who challenge--explicitly or implicitly--some core tenet of the Catholic faith. All these people are free to leave the Mother Church and join various Protestant denominations or form new ones.  They may even choose to become secularists, which is the current term for atheists.

 But they are not free to redefine Catholicism to suit their personal preferences. And if they start some idiosyncratic offshoot organization and call it Catholic, they engage in heresy and will likely be excommunicated. Even I--a back-pew Catholic convert from fly-over country--know that.


Peter Mansseau. What It Means to Be Catholic Now. New York Times, March 10, 2014, p. A21.

SFC on the Road: Our Lady of Walsingham, Houston. Southern Fried Catholicism blog site. Available at: