Monday, December 14, 2015

"I hate Catholicism as I do poison": Harvard University President Charles William Eliot (1869-1909) and anti-Catholicbigotry in the 19th century

Years ago, on a TV comedy talk show called Fernwood Tonight, comedian Fred Willard made this observation to talk-show host Martin Mull: "Isn't it funny how times have changed?" Willard remarked. "During World War II, people were encouraged to shoot Germans. You might even get a medal for shooting one. But, boy, if you shoot a German today, you're in big trouble!"

I thought about Willard's remark as I considered recent efforts to condemn important historical figures--Americans who were once greatly honored. Take President Woodrow Wilson, for example. The New York Times recently editorialized in favor of striking Wilson's name from Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs based on his record of racism.  Wilson might have thought his legacy would be secure after he died; after all, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize! But the revisionists finally rooted out the racist rascal--exposed like a retired Nazi living in Argentina.

In New Orleans, a groundswell of local opinion will probably force Robert E. Lee's statue off its pedestal at Lee Circle, where it has stood for 100 years. I'm a little more ambivalent about outing Robert E. Lee. I read Douglas Southall Freeman's multi-volume biography of Lee  several years ago, and I became convinced that Lee had many noble qualities.

Nevertheless, I sympathize with the people who want to knock Lee of his perch. As a Catholic, I am offended by the many historical figures who continue to be honored in spite of their clear records of anti-Catholic bigotry.

For example, Christopher Columbus Langdell, Dean of Harvard Law School and father of the case method of teaching, barred graduates from Catholic colleges from being admitted to Harvard Law School. Yes, and in spite of this well-known fact, Harvard's law library is still named Langdell Hall.

Harvard's president, Charles William Eliot, supported Langdell's bigoted policy, claiming it was based on the inferior quality of Catholic colleges and not prejudice. Was President Eliot himself an anti-Catholic bigot? This is what Eliot wrote about Catholicism when he was a young man visiting Europe in the mid-1860s: "I hate Catholicism as I do poison, and all the pomp and power of the Church is depressing and mortifying me."

Charles William Eliot, President of Harvard  1869-1909
"I hate Catholicism as I do poison . . ."
So, let the revisionist historians have a ball. Down with all the statues of Confederate generals! Agitate for the revocation of President Wilson's Nobel Peace Prize!  Remove Andrew Jackson's picture from the twenty-dollar bill!

But let's not let the anti-Catholic bigots lie undisturbed. Harvard's Langdell Hall must be renamed! Surely some Catholic Harvard law students are willing to take over the dean's office to make that happen. And Harvard should take down all the portraits of President Eliot and place them in a broom closet--and I mean now!

Indeed, there are scores of anti-Catholic bigots who should be posthumously humiliated: Horace Mann, John Dewey, Lyman Beecher, and President John Adams; and that's just for openers.

As for you, Ulysses S. Grant, don't get too comfortable in that tomb of yours. If the revisionists examine your views on Catholicism closely, you might be evicted from your final resting place and replaced by someone whose life contained no whiff of bigotry. In fact, we 're measuring Harriet Tubman  for your spot right now! Tubman's Tomb--it has a ring to it, don't you think?

Grant's Tomb:
Hey, Ulysses, don't get too comfortable in your tomb. You might get evicted!


Daniel R. Coquilette & Bruce A. Kimball. On the Battlefield of Merit: Harvard Law School, The First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Friday, December 11, 2015

American Catholicism in the 21st century: Some of our churches are ugly and poorly designed, but God still resides in them.

I once had a Canadian friend who grew up Catholic in Nova Scotia. He told me that a nun who taught in the parochial school once told the school children that Christ is actually  present in the Eucharist and that if one were to scratch a communion wafer, it would bleed.

It was not long before a little boy tested this thesis by pocketing a  wafer during Mass and taking it home with him. Expecting to see blood, he scratched the wafer but was disappointed when it merely crumbled.

The parish priest, when he heard this story, had only this to say. "It is a terrible thing," he lamented, "when Catholics don't know their faith."

And of course this is true. But unfortunately, the Church itself often makes it difficult for people to know their faith because Church leaders do careless and thoughtless things.  For example, my parish, Christ the King, built a new church around 15 years ago to accommodate the growing Catholic community on the LSU campus. Unfortunately, the sanctuary was designed so that the Tabernacle resides at a side altar at the back of the church instead of the front of the church, where it is traditionally placed.

Sunday after Sunday, I see parishioners genuflecting to the Crucifix, not realizing that the tabernacle is not where it is supposed to be.  A few people are aware that the Tabernacle is in the back of the Church and they genuflect in the appropriate direction, but it is awkward.

Likewise, the Stations of the Cross at my parish church are merely 14 Roman numerals.  In the older churches, the stations of the cross are depicted pictorially. Thus, at a traditional Station VI, where Veronica wipes the face of Jesus, we actually see Veronica wiping Jesus's face. 

Some of the traditional Stations of the Cross are works of art carved in wood or stone, but I recall visiting a mud church in the Tanzanian highlands, where the Stations of the Cross were made of construction paper and merely tacked to the mud walls. These primitive Stations were quite moving. Who cared enough, I wondered, to see the Stations of the Cross in their proper place that they created Stations with paper and crayons? But at my parish, all we see are Roman numerals.

And these are not my parish church's only deficiencies. The sanctuary contains no niches whatsoever for the saints, although a space was reserved for a statue of Mary at the back of the church.  St. Joseph is nowhere to be found at Christ the King parish church because literally there is no place for him. And surely that is a poverty.

Nevertheless, the beauty and majesty of our Catholic faith always overpowers the thoughtless construction of our modern Catholic churches, and we are strengthened by the Eucharist, even when we encounter it in ugly surroundings. Sometimes for me, the tactile sensation of the wine and the host are almost like a physical jolt, and I am flooded with gratitude that God called me--the most unworthy of people--to the supper of the lamb.

After I partake of communion, I kneel with the other parishioners and watch people go filing by to receive the Eucharist.  At my parish, I mostly see LSU students, people in their twenties. But there are older people too, some quite elderly; and there are children who are too young to take communion but who come forward to receive the priest's blessing.

We Catholics often stumble, but we keep moving forward, century after century, people of every race and color. Through the Eucharist, Mary's prayers, and the intercession of the saints, we experience the power of God and his presence in our lives. "Look not on our sins, but the faith of your Church," the priest says at every Mass; and he might also add, please overlook some of the ugly edifices we constructed as our worship places.


Michael Rose. Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces—and How We Can Change Them Back Again. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, let us as Catholics urge the government to forgive student-loan debt

According to Old Testament scripture, a jubilee year occurs every fifty years; and in that year, slaves are freed and debts are forgiven. Leviticus 25:8-13. Pope Francis has proclaimed a Jubilee Year of Mercy for the Catholic Church that begins on December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception. Would not this be a good time for the  U.S. government to forgive  $1.3 trillion in student-loan debt?

Perhaps not all of it. Of the 41 million people who have outstanding student loans, a great many received good value for their college education and can pay back what they borrowed. But 10 million people have either defaulted on their student loans or are delinquent in their payments. Millions more have gotten economic hardship deferments and aren't paying down their loans.

And for some people, their student loan debt is completely out of control. Liz Kelly, for example, featured in a recent New York Times article, is a 48-year old school teacher who owes $410,000 in student-loan debt--most of it accumulated interest. Will she ever pay it back? Not likely.

A 2014 law review article reported that 241,000 people with student-loan debt filed for bankruptcy in 2007, but less than 300 of them even tried to discharge their student loans. Either they figured it would be hopeless to try wipe out their student-loan debt in the bankruptcy courts or they didn't have the money to hire a lawyer to assist them.

And yet, as Paul Campos explained on his blog site and in a recent book,  we have thousands of unemployed or underemployed attorneys, many of whom have crushing student-loan debt themselves. Why doesn't the government, as an act of mercy, encourage these idle lawyers to help people discharge their student loans in bankruptcy?

Mercy, Pope Francis reminds us, demands justice. "True mercy, the mercy God gives to us and teaches us, demands justice, it demands that the poor find a way to be poor no longer," Pope Francis explained. Mercy demands that institutions insure that "no one ever again stand in need of a soup-kitchen, of makeshift lodgings, of a service of legal assistance in order to have his legitimate right recognized to live and to work, to be fully a person."

Our country now has 23 million people who are unable to pay off their student-loan debt.  Indeed, about 150,000 elderly people are having their Social Security checks garnished by the federal government to offset unpaid student loans. For these people there is no Jubilee Year of Mercy--no forgiveness, and little relief even in the bankruptcy courts.

We are now a secular people--a people who pride themselves on having driven religion out of the schools and the public square. But surely we are not a heartless people. Surely our hearts are susceptible to warming by the words of a great man like Pope Francis.

So let us do mercy in the Jubilee Year of Mercy. And if our government is incapable of mercy, let us look for ways we as individuals can render mercy and to work for a system of higher education that does not drive millions of students into the poor house.

Image result for pope francis year of mercy

Sunday, November 29, 2015

No country for angry old white men: A Catholic's reflections on Dorothy Day and the Colorado Springs shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic

Pancho needs your prayers it's true, but save a few for Lefty too
He only did what he had to do, and now he's growing old

Townes Van Zandt

Image result for robert lewis deer
Robert Lewis Dear
America has two kinds of serial killers. First, there are the angry young white men who have serious psychological problems and often want to commit suicide after killing the maximum number of people. We've seen a lot of these guys: at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, the Aurora movie theater, and Sandy Hook. Their body counts are impressive.

Second, we have the angry old white men who are frustrated by their misspent lives and who often obsess on some personal injury or a particular social injustice. There are fewer of these guys, and in general, they kill fewer people. John Russell Houser, age 59, killed two people and wounded nine in a Lafayette, Louisiana movie theater in July 2015. Robert Lewis Dear, age 57, killed three people and wounded nine in Colorado Springs earlier this week.

Houser and Dear had similar profiles. Both men were estranged from their families, both had had minor run-ins with law enforcement, and both were loners with mental health issues. Both killers' motivations are unclear, although Dear's attack may have been triggered by his feelings about abortion.

What can we say about murderers like Houser and Dear? We can pontificate about stronger gun-control laws like President Obama routinely does--taking time away from his golf game to express his outrage. We can lament the fact that our nation doesn't have better mental health care, which is a convenient way of saying the government should do something.

But the truth of the matter is this: America has always had angry old white men living on the margins of our society.  At one time, men like Houser and Dear might have had union jobs, which would have provided them with health care and a pension. But the union jobs are mostly gone, and we have millions of aging men with poverty-level jobs or no job at all and no health insurance. A great many of them once had wives and families, but these were lost in some mysterious way that men like Houser and Dear do not understand.

Suicide rates for middle-aged men are going up, and mortality rates are going down for people in Houser and Dear's demographics. White people with less than a college degree are killing themselves or succumbing to drug- and alcohol-related diseases in higher numbers than they did 20 years ago.

Let's face it: our society doesn't think much about angry old white men unless they shoot someone other than their relatives. At least, by killing strangers, Houser and Dear forced Americans to acknowledge their existence, which in their minds perhaps, is at least something.

What can we do to help prevent men like Houser and Dear from shooting people? And by we, I mean by us individually, not the government?

I think we can begin by showing some respect for aging people who are not important to anyone. We all subscribe to the slogan that "Black Lives Matter," but almost no one articulates the notion that old white guys matter.

And perhaps we can school ourselves to see the poor as Dorothy Day saw them--as the living embodiment of Christ. Men like Houser and Dear are poor, and they have serious mental health problems. They're no fun to be around. But Dorothy Day spent her whole life with people like them--smelly, mentally unstable, poor people. You can't read Dorothy's Loaves and Fishes without coming to the conclusion that she voluntarily chose to live in a nut house.

But most of us can't live like Dorothy Day lived; God has not given us the grace or charity to do so. But at least we can smile at people like John Russsell Houser and Robert Lewis Dear; we can lend them a helping hand when they come our way. Maybe a smile at the right moment would have stopped John Russell Houser from shooting people in a Lafayette movie theater. Maybe a smile in the parking lot in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic would have caused Robert Lewis Dear to leave his weapons in his car and simply drive away.

I know this is a simple, even simplistic thing to say, and I am giving advice I often don't heed myself. But I am certain of this: Our society, and each of us individually, bear some responsibility for the angry old white men who, bereft of family, friends, or jobs, begin shooting people for no apparent reason.

Image result for "dorothy day"
Dorothy Day

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

American scholars often ignore anti-Catholicism when they write American history: A comment on Stacy Schiff's New Yorker essay on withcraft in Puritan Massachusetts

"Men occasionally stumble over the truth," Churchill is said to have remarked,  "but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened."

I thought about Churchill's observation as I was reading Nancy Schiff's essay about witchcraft in Puritan Massachusetts that appeared recently in the New Yorker.  I am sure it was a very learned scholarly exercise. After all, Schiff won the Pulitzer Prize for her book on Cleopatra. And I'm sure everything she wrote in the witchcraft article is accurate.  Nevertheless, Schiff stumbled over some important truths and picked herself up as if nothing had happened.

Early in her article, Schiff writes about the apparent bewitchment of the Martha Goodwin, the daughter of a Boston stonelayer. Cotton Mather got involved and discovered a witch. As Schiff wrote:
The cause of Martha's affliction was identified soon enough. The witch was the mother of a neighborhood laundress. On the stand, the defendant was unable adequately to recite the Lord's Prayer, understood to be proof of guilt. She was hanged in November, 1688 on Boston Common. (p.48)
Schiff failed to mention the name of the woman who was hanged: Ann "Goody" Glover," a Gaelic-speaking Irish woman who was probably a former slave who had been captured during Oliver Cromwell's Irish holocaust (1649-1653).  According to writer Brian O'Neel, Ann Glover was Catholic and her family were probably the only Catholics in Boston at the time. O'Neel quotes a scholar who concluded that Catholicism was equated with witchcraft among some of the Puritan preachers.

At her trial, Goody Glover was able to recite the Lord's Prayer in the Irish tongue but not in English; therefor she was judged a witch. As Schiff records, Glover was hanged in Boston Common in November 1688, after being taunted on her walk to the scaffold by Puritan bigots.

In short, Ann Glover was a Catholic martyr, and the circumstances of her death should have been stated more fully by Schiff.  Surely the good Ms. Glover deserved to be identified by name and recognized for what she was, a faithful Irish Catholic. And Cotton Mather deserved to be described as what he was--a Harvard-trained anti-Catholic bigot (among the first of many).

Schiff also wrote that when the Puritans established a legal code in 1641, the first two capital offenses were idolatry and witchcraft.The Puritans considered Catholicism to be the chief form of idolatry, so the Puritans basically made Catholicism a criminal offense. Certainly the Puritans made their anti-Catholic animus clear the following year, when they passed a law making it a capital offense for a Catholic priest to be inside the boundaries of the colony.

Our higher education elites are in a frenzy to purge any positive reference to historical figures who do not meet today's standards of political correctness. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson have been purged from their former glory as founding lights of the Democratic Party. The University of Texas has exiled its statue of Jefferson Davis to an obscure space; Robert E. Lee may be removed from New Orelans' Lee Circle.

And perhaps that is a good thing.  But let's not take half measures. Let the Puritans be vilified for what they were--anti-Catholic bigots, along with President John Adams, Lyman Beecher, Horace Mann and dozens of other famous 19th century Protestant American who despised Catholicism.  Horace Mann still has an insurance company named after him, along with numerous public schools.

Surely, religious bigotry is as hateful as racism. And if the intellectual elites have not unmasked the anti-Catholic bigots in our history books, perhaps it is because they are anti-Catholic bigots themselves.
Cotton Mather on a good-hair day


Brian O'Neel, 150 North American Martyrs You Should Know (Cincinnati, OH: Servant Books, 2014).

Nancy Schiff, "The Witches of Salem," New Yorker ( September 7, 2015), 46.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Let's put St. Katharine Drexel's image on the ten-dollar bill

Jacob Lew, Secretary of the Treasury, wants to take Alexander Hamilton's image off the ten dollar bill and replace it with the image of a woman--perhaps Rosa Parks. Ben Bernanke, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, wants to leave Alexander Hamilton on the tenner and replace Andrew Jackson (now on the twenty dollar bill) instead. Bernanke argues that Jackson wasn't a very good president; and, given Jackson's views on a national bank, he probably wouldn't mind having his face removed from our currency.

I'm not sure I agree with Bernanke's assessment of Jackson. Jackson won the battle of New Orleans, after all. If he hadn't won, Louisianians would probably be drinking British tea now instead of our wonderful Community Coffee. It's distressing to think about!

In any event, I have another suggestion. Why not place St. Katharine Drexel's image on the ten dollar bill? A Catholic's image has never been featured on any of our currency; and St. Katharine would be a good person to fill the bill, so to speak.

St. Katharine Drexel
St. Katharine Drexel, for those who are not familiar with her, gave up the Drexel banking fortune to become a nun and founded the order of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The SBS was dedicated to serving Native Americans and African Americans, and it fought racism all across the United States in the early 20th century.

Wouldn't it be lovely to see St.Katharine Drexel's face every time we pulled out a ten spot and started to spend it on something foolish? Her image would be a reminder that we should be more frugal and spend some of our wealth helping the less fortunate. Placing St. Katharine on the ten dollar bill would give us a twofer: she is both a woman and a representative of a religious minority.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha
And if St. Katharine is unacceptable because she wore religious garb, then how about St. Kateri Tekakwitha? She would give us a threefer. She is a woman, a Catholic saint, and a Native American.

Friday, May 29, 2015

"R U Saved?" An ecumenical colloquy on a sidewalk at Yale University

I was recently in New Haven conducting research in the Knights of Columbus Archives, and I attended mass in the chapel of the K of C administration building, a 22-story tower with an impressive view of New Haven and Yale University. From the top floor, I could spot the spire of St. Mary's Church, where Father Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in the church basement back in 1882.

From my vantage point, I could see that St. Mary's was located just a short walk from my hotel, and so I decided to attend the 5 PM mass at St. Mary's.  Father McGivney's crypt is located there, which I wanted to see, and I understood that the church had been recently restored and was lovely.

And so I attended my second mass of the day. The Gospel reading was the story of Bartimaeus, the blind man who called out to Jesus on the road to Jericho and was healed. The priests at both Masses stressed that when Bartimaeus approached Jesus he threw away his cloak, abandoning everything in the hope that Jesus would restore his sight.

Even though I was in a place where a future saint (Father McGivney) once had walked, my mind wandered at the afternoon mass. I remember asking God in my prayers what he wanted me to do with the rest of my life, but I had been praying that same prayer for more than a year and God had not answered.

When the Mass was over, I knelt at the altar to St. Joseph and remembered to say prayers for my important intentions, but I was unable to light a candle because I did not have the change in my billfold to buy one. Had I not given a couple of bucks to a panhandler who had accosted me on Georges Street, I would have had the three dollars I needed to purchase a candle. Would God credit me the two bucks I had given to a guy who swore to me that he was hungry if I lit a candle and only contributed a one-dollar bill? I decided not to risk it. It seemed unlucky to light a candle at St. Joseph's altar and not pay the full price.

And so I left St. Mary's Church feeling restless and dissatisfied.

St. Mary's is only a short distance from the Yale campus, and I found myself wondering how those Irish Catholics had managed to buy such a prime piece of real estate back in the 1850s, located so close to one of the great bastions of Protestant ascendancy. "There goes the neighborhood," the Yalies must have muttered to themselves as the Catholics began constructing their lovely church.

Walking back to my hotel in this unspiritual mood,  I passed an African American woman standing on the sidewalk in front of one of Yale's great edifices.  "Are you here for the Yale reunion?" she asked me.

Hmm, I thought to myself: another panhandler. And now that she has made eye contact, she is going to ask me for money.

"No, I'm not a Yale man," I answered. I considered adding that I had done my graduate work at Harvard, but that response seemed gratuitously supercilious and totally inappropriate; and besides, I am definitely NOT a Harvard man.

Still, her question seemed to require me to account for myself, so I added that I was in New Haven to visit the Knights of Columbus office.

"Oh," she said, agreeably surprised. "Then you're a Christian."

Caught completely off guard, I stumbled out a reply. "Yes, I suppose I am."

"Praise be to God," she responded, with great satisfaction--perhaps joyful satisfaction.

"Look at the license plate on my car," she then said, pointing to an old Toyota parked on the street. The plate said, "U SAVED."

"Very nice," I said, beginning to realize that I was entering a totally different conversation from the one I had anticipated.

"And see that R?" she added. I looked at the car again and saw the letter R pasted to the car bumper below the license plate.

"OK, I see the R," I told the woman.  "But what does the R represent?"

"R U Saved?" the woman replied slowly, as if I were a simpleton. "And are you? Are you saved?"

Againc aught off guard by the audacity of her question, I immediately replied, "Yes."

"Praise be to God," she repeated, completely taking me at my word.

"God bless you," I blurted out, trying to convey that I had suddenly recognized her for what she was--a truly humble and guileless woman who had given me a blessing. She was Christ, and I was the blind man on the road to Jericho.

And as I walked on, I realized that the Holy Spirit had visited me once again, as it always did, when I least expected it. The woman was right; I am a Christian. I am a Catholic.

And I was in New Haven for a reason--to find documents in the Knights of Columbus Archives that would help me tell the story of my glorious American Catholic heritage. This is what God wants me to do. He has given me the tools to do this well, and he put a mysterious African American woman in my way to show me back to my path.

Servant of God Father Michael McGivney: Pray for us

Sunday, March 29, 2015

If you are going to be Catholic, you gotta listen to the Pope: Catholics should oppose the death penalty

Pope Francis does not always speak clearly about the moral issues of the day. Catholics are still trying to figure out what he meant when he said, "Who am I to judge?" when he was asked about his views on homosexuality.  But we will know in good time what he believes on that issue, and I am prepared to follow his lead no matter where he takes us.

But on capital punishment, Pope Francis is absolutely clear. The death penalty "contradicts God's plan for man and society," the Pope wrote to the International Commission against the Death Penalty. "Today the death penalty is inadmissible, now matter how serious the crime committed."

Pope Francis also condemned life sentences, which are are "a hidden death penalty" that should be abolished along with capital punishment.

Finally, the Pope spoke out against solitary confinement in prisons, which he described as a form of torture.

Some prominent Catholics criticized the Pope's position. Patrick Callahan, a respected professor emeritus at DePaul University, said that Pope Francis had not sufficiently acknowledged the reasons in favor of the death penalty.

Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, was of the same view. "It is distressing," Lawler wrote, "that a prepared statement by the Roman Pontiff--which would inevitably be interpreted rightly or wrongly, as an expression of the teaching magisterium--would make such unconvincing arguments."

I greatly admire Philip Lawler. The Faithful Departed, Lawler's book on the collapse of Catholicism in Boston, is a profound book-length examination of Catholicism's fading vitality in the Northeast.  It is on my top-ten list of influential books on contemporary Catholicism.

But I think Mr. Lawler is wrong to criticize the Pope's position on the death penalty.  Surely, Pope Francis is right. The death penalty demeans American society and it dehumanizes everyone who helps maintain it in our justice system--lawyers, judges, prison officials, the executioners, and the crime victims. I can't imagine that victims gain any sense of peace from the execution of someone who murdered a loved one.  Speaking for myself, I have never felt anything but increased bitterness from my own vengeful emotions.

I do not always know where Pope Francis is taking us. I am puzzled by some of his remarks. But I have decided to follow his direction on all spiritual matters and to acknowledge that it is a lack of faith on my part when when I want to reject his teachings.

So let us as Catholics recognize capital punishment as another manifestation of our culture of death and let us oppose it as fiercely as we oppose abortion.

We are after all the people of life or at least we are striving to be.

Monday, February 23, 2015

James Foley and the North American Martyrs of the 17th Century: Surely All These Good Christians Are Safe in the Arms of God

The New York Times recently carried a story about the murder of Catholic journalist James Foley, who was captured and beheaded by Islamic extremists in Syria last August. Mr.Foley had been captured once before.  In 2011, he and three other journalists were ambushed and imprisoned by forces loyal to Col. Muammar al-Quaddafi in Libya.

Mr. Foley was released from his first captivity after 44 days, and he said later that  he was sustained during this ordeal by his Catholic faith. While a prisoner, he prayed the Rosary in order to make a connection with his mother.

In 2014, James Foley was captured a second time. This time his captors were ISIS, a far more sinister group than Col. Quaddafi's people. ISIS orders its prisoners to convert or be killed--and not just killed. ISIS murders its victims in horrific ways: crucifixion, beheading, and being burned alive.

James Foley
The Times reported that Foley did indeed to convert to Islam, although he was murdered anyway.  What are we to make of this?

Father James Martin, one of the New York Times' go-to Catholic experts, was quoted as saying, "How do we assess [Foley's conversion to Islam]?" Answering his own question, Father Martin  said, "The answer is we can't assess it. We cannot look at what is in someone's soul."

Well, I disagree with Father Martin. If Mr. Foley did indeed convert to Islam while a prisoner of the most brutal people of the 21st century, the state of his soul was not imperiled. As a Catholic, I say with all conviction that the soul of James Foley is at peace in the arms of God. In fact, I am more certain of the state of Mr. Foley's soul than I am of my own.

We know a lot about the trauma that prisoners of war endure. Judith Herman, in her classic work on psychological trauma, expanded the types of experiences that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition to people who experience the horrors of combat, Herman wrote, people in captivity and children who are the victims of long-term physical and psychological abuse may also experience PTSD.

Indeed, some medical researchers have theorized that the victims of severe PTSD undergo physiological changes in their nervous systems from being exposed to severe, long-term trauma, changes that are physiologically  irreversible.

Without question, James Foley was under almost unimaginable stress while a prisoner of ISIS. At some point during his captivity he surely realized that ISIS was going to kill him and that he would die an excruciatingly painful death. And surely he also knew that his murder would be performed in such a way that his killers could demonstrate their contempt for his humanity.

Did James Foley suffer from PTSD at the time of his death? Probably. Did he convert to Islam while under duress? Perhaps. Nevertheless, I am certain God was with James Foley in the last moments of his life.

As it happens, I an reading John O'Brien's book on the North American Martyrs, the eight Jesuit missionaries who died for their faith in Canada or upstate New York during the 17th century. One of these Jesuits, Father Isaac Jogues, lived a life somewhat similar to James Foley. Like Foley, Jogues was educated by Jesuits.Like Foley, Jogues was captured twice and was murdered during his second captivity. And like Foley, Jogues was beheaded.

The story of the North American martyrs is astonishing. During his first captivity, Joques' Mohawk captors tortured him with fire, gnawed off or mutilated his fingers, and sawed off his left thumb with a shell. Jogues lived in constant dread of being burned alive, and he witnessed other prisoners who were burned to death or fiendishly tortured. In fact, Jogues baptized a woman into the Catholic faith while she was being burned to death.

Through all this, Father Jogues never lost his Catholic faith, and he never lost an opportunity to convert and baptize the Native Americans who were his captors and torturers. After escaping captivity almost miraculously, Father Joques agreed to join a peace expedition to the Mohawks that led him to be captured a second time.  He was hatcheted to death by his Mohawk captors and his head was displayed on a pole.

Very few people could maintain their faith under the torture that the eight North American martyrs experienced. I shamefully confess that I would convert to Islam to save myself from being burned alive.

But God does not ask all Catholics to be martyrs. Most of us do not have the courage to give ourselves over to be drawn and quartered or roasted to death. Most of us would succumb to the stress of prolonged torture. Only a few Catholics have the courage to be martyrs; and perhaps a few are enough. We are strengthened in our faith by the witnesses of Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe, who were killed by the Nazis, by the North American Martyrs, and by the 40 sainted martyrs of Elizabethan England--Margaret Clitherow, Edward Campion and the rest.

Of course, most of us will succumb to the terror and fear that can break us down physically and psychologically. Under duress, we may even renounce our faith.

 But God knows our hearts and he knows our terror. Regardless of what happens on the scaffold, He will welcome us home to live forever within the tender embrace of His own loving and powerful arms.

October 19 is the Feast Day of the North American Martyrs. This would be a good day to pray for the repose of James Foley's soul and for the consolation of his Catholic family.

St. Isaac Jogues


Judith Herman. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

John A. O'Brien. Saints of the American Wilderness. Manchester, NH. Sophia Institute Press, 2004.

Jim Yardley. "Keeping the Faith in Brutal Captivity: Catholics Mull Foley's Conversion to Islam as a Hostage in Syria." New York Times, February 22, 2015, p. 6.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Don't get on your "high horse": Professor Obama lectures Americans on moral relativism and the Crusades

President Obama raised a storm of controversy for remarks he made at the National Prayer Breakfast.  After talking broadly about radical extremism in the Middle East, he cautioned listeners not consider themselves as being morally superior. "[L]est we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ."

Fox News commentators (many of whom are Catholics) responded angrily to the President's remarks, and I will try not to reiterate what has already been said in their condemnations.  I offer just two observations.

First, what is President Obama doing at a prayer breakfast anyway? To paraphrase an observation from my Oklahoma childhood, Barack Obama knows as much about religion as a hog knows about Sunday. 

Second, to compare the present-day barbarism of radical Islam to the Inquisition and the Crusades is not very useful. Of course, the Crusades and the Inquisitions were terrible episodes of religious intolerance and cruelty (although I doubt President Obama knows much about those events). President Obama could have spent all morning recounting the dark episodes of Western Civilization: The Thirty Years War, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, the brutal execution of Catholics by Queen Elizabeth, Thomas Cromwell's murderous conquest of the Irish in the seventeenth century, British and American firebombing of German cities during World War II, Nagasaki, etc.

But what good would that do?

Americans are waking to the realization that radical Islam wants to destroy Western Civilization, a phrase President Obama probably disdains to use.  We are in a battle to preserve the world's basic humanity and decency against forces of unfathomable evil. We will not win this battle by reminding ourselves we are no better than our enemies.

Can you imagine President Roosevelt telling Americans on December 7, 1941 not to get on our high horse against the Japanese. Yes, the Japanese did a bad thing when they bombed Pearl Harbor, but let's not forget about Jim Crow.

Ross Douthat offered a half-hearted defense of President Obama's remarks in the Times when he proffered that President Obama sees the world from a Niebuhrian perspective. Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian of the first half of the twentieth century, was something of a moral relativist.

But you don't have to read Niebuhr to be a moral relativist. You can pick up that world perspective just by hanging around Columbia and Harvard (where Obama went to school) without reading anything. And I am skeptical of the proposition that Obama has read Niebuhr.

In my view, President Obama's unfortunate remarks at the prayer breakfast were not inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr. Rather they are the remarks of a man who is arrogant, supercilious, and a bit lazy. After all, if he can play down the mortal threat of ISIS in the Middle East,  maybe he won't have to do something about it.

Susan Rice, President Obama's disengaged National Security Advisor, assures us that ISIS and the other radical Islamic groups--Boko Haram, the Taliban, etc--do not pose an "existential threat" to the United States--certainly nothing serious enough to distract President Obama from his golf game.

But of course Ms. Rice is wrong. Islamic extremists are not enemies at our gates in the sense that the Nazis surrounded Stalingrad. But surely everyone understands that some of these mad men would incinerate our major cities if only they had the capacity to do so. And some day, they may have that capacity.

Reinhold Niebuhr (Yale guy)


Ross Douthat. Obama the Theologian. New York Times, February 8, 2015, Sunday Review Section, p. 11.

Remarks by National Security Advisor Susan Rice on the 2015 National Security Strategy. White House press release, February 6, 2015. Accessible at: