Camus and the Great Conundrum
I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.  ―Albert Camus, The Plague Most good words are meaningful, full of meaning—and given my loves, I am always intrigued. Honored on my bookshelf is the Oxford English Dictionary, and one of my most-used websites is the Online Etymological Dictionary; few days pass when I do not look up a word that seems calls forth more understanding. Where did it come from? What are its roots? When was it first used? What does it mean? For example, the word disease was created to communicate a state of “dis-ease,” its etymological origin from an old word for “ease,” for things being the way they are supposed to be. A life with no trouble, at ease, simply said. When we use the word, we are saying that human life has been disrupted, that we are in disarray, that sometimes something has gone wrong, terribly wrong. As human beings all over the world have been assaulted by the crisis of the coronavirus disease—COVID-19 is how scientists have classified the epidemic—everyone everywhere is confronted with fears that most of us do not live with very often, if ever. What is it? Can I get it? What happens if I do? What will this mean for my life? My learning? My labor? My loves? As the number of those affected multiplies by a thousand-fold, as the death toll tragically rises day by day, as countries close, as border crossings become difficult, as cities lock-down, and our places of employment require us to work at-home and online, we all feel in shock, not knowing what the next day will bring. Bewildered and confused, we feel “dis-eased,” thrown off our usual patterns of waking and working, our minds full of questions that we have not asked or been asked. A month before anyone in the West imagined that COVID-19 was going to be a problem outside of Wuhan, and maybe China, my students read Albert Camus’s The Plague. In a course called “The Gospel and Culture,” we take up ideas and readings that invite us to think more deeply about the perennial challenge of living in the world, and yet not being of the world. Beginning with the political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain, we made our way through questions of identity, learning and life in the information age, the global marketplace, cultural analysis, the arts and entertainment, the dynamic relationship of metanarrative to narrative, the nature of sexuality, the challenge of belief in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment world, and the meaning of vocation for the common good. From Sherry Turkle to Walker Percy to Lesslie Newbigin to Wendell Berry and more, we read good books which open these questions in ways that matter. In the week we read Camus I named the class, “The Great Conundrum,” wanting the students to reflect on why the challenge of evil and suffering is so difficult, causing anyone who has lived very long to ask questions for which there are no easy answers. What do we do with a wounded world? What do we do with a world that sometimes wounds us? From the most personal heartaches to the most public horrors, the dilemma of Camus’s story runs through history, and through every heart. Sometime in my undergraduate years, I first read Camus, realizing that as the pages of The Plague passed I was being drawn into a more serious world, one that I had neither imagined nor wanted. The stakes were being raised on my life, for the rest of my life. Like most adolescents on their way to adulthood, I knew something of what I believed about God and the world, and yet the negotiating years were before me. What would I carry on into my twenties? What would I conclude was no longer me? Push-come-to-shove, who was I, and why was I? A more serious world demanded a more serious me. The drama of Camus’s story grows out of the bubonic plague coming to an African Mediterranean city in the middle years of the 20th century. A physician and a priest respond very differently to this plague and its meaning. When the rats first come, no one notices, but slowly by slowly people begin to get sick, first afflicting one person, then another, then a neighborhood, and finally the city. “What does this mean?” is the question both the physician and priest wrestle with, choosing different ways to interpret it. Formed by habits of heart deeply written into the vocation of a physician, Dr. Rioux steps into caring for those who are sick, sure that “just doing my job” is the work of his life. The priest, Father Paneloux, burdened by misread doctrines of God and providence, reads the disease as coming from God, and concludes that he cannot fight God, wrestling with his congregation and his city over the deepest, hardest questions, and eventually he falls prey to the plague. There are paragraphs and pages worthy of our attention, ones that any good reader must ponder. Camus pulls no punches, philosophically or theologically, insisting that we all face “the great conundrum.” The characters are insightfully drawn with complexity and nuance that allows all of us to sympathize, to see ourselves in them and in their responses—perhaps especially in the ways that their responses change over time. The main characters are not caricatures; instead they are given to us with the artful insight of a master storyteller who knows his readers demand the truth of the human condition. In the allusive insight of Michael Polanyi, there is “a responsibility for knowledge” that they bear as their knowledge grows, and it necessarily makes what they see and hear and feel more fully human, even as we see in them the glorious ruins that we all are. The plague runs its course finally, leaving the dead, and a worn-down people in its wake. But paying attention to the gravity of the terror that has afflicted the city, listening to the anguished and heartfelt conversations that run through the novel, necessarily deepens every one who reads the story carefully. In some sense Camus’s questions become our questions. Most of us will wonder why Camus wrote the book. Yes, he was a human being entering into the fullness of adulthood, finishing the novel in his early 30’s, taking up the questions of every generation with the intellectual seriousness that marked his life. Yes, he was a philosopher whose questions were written into the questions of his moment, “existential” as they were, born of his longing to make more sense of his existence as a man in the modern world. Yes, and yes, but we might be surprised to find that he wrote his novel in the early 1940’s, living in the French village of Le Chambon, home to shopkeepers and farmers who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. While I have searched to know more, what is clear is that Camus found his way here, looking for respite because of his own struggle with tuberculosis, and wrote his story of “the plague,” seeing the Gestapo settled in its cafes and on its streets as if that could be normal, watching the absurdity of a continent gone mad, with systemic murder at its heart. We have no journals, and no interviews, and so we do not know more. What we do know is that he took up what is perhaps the great unanswered question of the 20th century, “Why this holocaust, why this plague?” choosing to do so with a story set in a city on the Mediterranean Sea, plagued as its was by an evil that had no good answer. Doing our best to honor Camus, we are agnostic about all the reasons behind his novel, but what we know is that he saw the intriguing response of the Church, a community of faithful Huguenot folk who would do no other than open their basements and barns to those who suffered, because they could do no other. When asked a generation later by a Jewish filmmaker who had been born in Le Chambon during those years, “Why did you care? When most of Europe didn’t care, why did you?” their response was simple and straightforward, “What else could we have done?” They refused to be seen as heroes; rather they saw themselves as neighbors to those who had need, nothing more, nothing less. Camus’s questions about God and history threaded their way through the rest of his life, eventually brought him to a church in Paris in the 1960’s, wanting to talk with the pastor about life and death, about faith and hope and love in a world that seemed so wrong, so diseased. That is a story that God alone finally knows, as Camus was killed in a car accident before more was known about his conversations. It is not surprising that his lifelong questions were ones that he kept asking, longing for honest answers, knowing that the drama of his dilemma in The Plague required more of him as a human being who cared about who we are, and why we are, and therefore what we do with our lives. On the last page, Camus writes about “the never ending fight against terror.” He believed that that was human life under the sun. While he felt its weight more than most, tragically it is our history, with some terrors being literal plagues, and some more metaphorical and moral. In reality they become twined together in the end, the very physiological becoming very philosophical. Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear? Can we feel “the weight of knowledge,” as Rowan Williams has described the burden of more knowledge? In looking back across time, the problem of the great conundrum is perennial, circling its way through the centuries, as every generation faces holocausts which bring their own horror. The Black Death killed untold peoples in the 14th century; our best guesses being that millions upon millions died across Europe and Asia. Two hundred years later, Daniel DeFoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year, telling the tale of the Great Plague of 1665—and history has debated whether his book should be seen as a novel, like The Tale of Two Cities, or whether it is one man’s account of what he saw, and more the “history” of the bubonic plague which struck the city of London. But there is no debate over its terror. In the 19th century leprosy plagued the world. Deforming of all who were afflicted, there are two stories of holy heroism that are important for us here, of people who stepped in, differently gifted, but with kindred cares for the suffering they saw—a priest and a physician whose vocations took them into the plagues of their times and places. And yes, remembering them is a grace to us, both in reflecting on the primary characters in Camus’s novel, and in seeing more clearly what human beings can do in the face of crisis whenever and wherever. In the middle years of the 19th century, the Jesuit priest Father Damien was called to care for the lepers of Hawaii, living among them for years, saying, “I am one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you”—finally contracting leprosy himself, and dying of the disease. To know what he knew, and choose to respond as he did, is a great gift for all of us, generations later. In the 20th-century Paul Brand, spent the years of his life among lepers in India, then the United States and throughout the world. With medical and surgical brilliance, he slowly began to understand the epidemiology of the disease, overturning centuries of indifference to and scorn of those who were diseased, writing about what he learned in a fascinating book, The Gift of Pain, in which he asked his readers to think and think again about the meaning of pain— having discovered that lepers did not feel pain. A healer by vocation, Brand gave his life away to those who suffered this scourge, with prayer and hope wanting to understand the disease, and what could be done; and before his work ended, being recognized for his pioneering work with the neediest among us. What does all of this mean for us? As January becomes February in the year 2020, and March makes its way into spring and beyond, the world is feeling besieged. Not the bubonic plague, nor leprosy; we are calling it coronavirus and COVID-19. Mysterious in its own unique way, overwhelming in its surprising scope, every nation on earth is affected. And at this point, we do not know what its prognosis is. Will it run out by summer? Will it be with us for another year? What will we do? Individuals can self-isolate for a while, but for a long while? Cities can shutdown for a time, but for a long time? And what is the vocation of the Church in this? What can be learned from the faith of Le Chambon; of the hope of Damian; of the love of Brand? “Vocation” is a good word because it calls us to see and hear and feel what God does, in imitation of Christ taking up the work of God in our time and place. If anything, Le Chambon reminds us that it is first of all ordinary people who are called to this vocation. Not particularly heroic, they saw themselves as simply doing what was theirs to do, offering help to those in need. Damian’s calling took him from Europe into a small valley on the island of Molokai in Hawaii, serving as priest to a people who were dying, offering himself to neighbors in need. And Brand spent years becoming one of the most accomplished surgeons of the world, giving his gifts to those who longed to feel as others felt, offering love to neighbors wherever he found them. As we live into the reality of our own plague in our time, the questions that shaped the life of Camus become our questions too, feeling their weight as we must. But we can learn from faithful folk, men and women who saw themselves implicated for love’s sake, knowing their vocations made them responsible for the way the world is, and for the way the world could be. That is our reason for being the Church, called to live our lives for the life of the world.
The Key to Ecological Conversion – Fr Eamonn Conway
The Encyclical Laudato Si’, published in 2015, and Querida Amazonia, the Post-Synodal Exhortation published in February of this year, tap readily into the increasing awareness that young people have of the enormity of the ecological crisis that we now face. Querida Amazonia (‘Dear Amazon’), following the 2019 Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the PanAmazonian Region, has been described as a love-letter from the Pope to the Amazon peoples. The Amazon tropical rain forest is not only a region of immense natural beauty; it also provides a fifth of the world’s oxygen. While the Synod was taking place in Rome, vast regions of the Amazon were burning because of fires started maliciously. Cattle ranchers, acting illegally and eager to expand their grazing lands, have destroyed almost a fifth of the forest in the past fifty years. The result is the irrevocable destruction not only of a region of unique natural beauty but also of the way of life of indigenous peoples, bringing a whole array of social problems, from sexual exploitation to alcoholism to family breakdown. In recent years, missionaries have been at the vanguard of efforts to protect the Amazon. It wasn’t always so. During the Synod last October, prayers of reparation were offered ‘for the mistakes made as a Church and as humanity; especially through the abuses of colonization, the systematic violence to human rights and the ethnocide carried out on so many peoples throughout the continent.’ Teaching on Ecology since Vatican II The Church’s teaching on ecology has come a long way. Yet its ‘coming of age’ didn’t begin with Pope Francis. According to Donal Dorr, the 1971 World Synod of Bishops first ‘linked an ‘option for the poor’ with an ‘option for the earth’ – though it did not use these terms.’1 Pope John Paul II referred to the ecological crisis several times during his 26-year pontificate. His 1990 ‘Message for the World Day of Peace’ was a decisive step forward for the Catholic Church, in which he not only drew attention to issues like the depletion of the ozone layer, urbanisation, deforestation, the use of chemicals and their effects on the environment, but he also called for Catholics to respond by adopting a simplicity of lifestyle in their everyday lives. He also highlighted the need for a resolution of the ecological crisis at international and inter-governmental level, a call we would hear reiterated by Pope Francis 25 years later, in Laudato Si’. Dorr is critical of the way in which John Paul II tended to see ‘the value of the rest of the natural world almost exclusively in terms of its value for humans,’ rather than presenting the earth as possessing a dignity and value in and of itself. At the same time, he acknowledges that John Paul II paved the way for Pope Benedict XVI’s later emphasis on the earth as a precious gift. John Paul II was also the first pope to speak of the need for an ‘ecological conversion,’ which he did in a General Audience in 2001. In turn, Pope Benedict XVI set the stage for all the major issues that Pope Francis subsequently unfolds in Laudato Si’. In Caritas in Veritate (2009) he writes that ‘the environment is God’s gift to everyone and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole. When nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes.’ All aspects of ecology are integrally linked It is no coincidence that at key points in Laudato Si’ and Querida Amazonia, Francis relies upon his immediate predecessor. In Laudato Si’ Francis develops Benedict XVI’s position that the ecology of nature must include human ecology: ‘the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth.’ It follows, he says, that ‘the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence’ (Laudato Si’ 6). In Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis writes, In the Amazon region, one better understands the words of Benedict XVI when he said that, ‘alongside the ecology of nature, there exists what can be called a ‘human’ ecology which in turn demands a ‘social’ ecology. All this means that humanity… must be increasingly conscious of the links between natural ecology, or respect for nature, and human ecology’ ( 41). This paragraph presents the distinctive insight of the Church in addressing the ecological crisis: that all aspects of ecology, the ecology of the natural world, human ecology and social ecology are integral. They stand or fall together. Young people, ecology and the ‘God bit’ My experience of teaching Laudato Si’ to third-level students, especially future primary school teachers, is that they will readily endorse certain aspects of the Encyclical. For instance, they find the weight of science that lies behind Laudato Si’ compelling and are not surprised to hear that it has been widely acclaimed as an incontrovertible analysis of the ecological crisis. They also very much welcome the focus on our current duty to protect the planet for future generations. They recognise, too, that we in the West are living at the expense of those in the global South. They are open to reflecting on their own complicity in environmental degradation because of their consumer habits, and take seriously the need to be personally more responsible. They endorse wholeheartedly the critique of governments and the demand for a global political solution to the ecological crisis. Student teachers are happy to develop lesson plans for the pupils they teach that communicate the above aspects of Laudato Si’. However, they struggle with what we might call the ‘God bit.’ I put this specific challenge to them: in my lessons, am I reflecting sufficiently the distinctively Christian basis for caring for the earth and the poor of the earth? Could an atheist environmentalist, for instance, teach what I am teaching? It has become clear to me that, in many cases, the reason they struggle with this is because of a lack of development of their own personal faith. A personal relationship with God as Creator It is welcome that students learn so much from Laudato Si’. Furthermore, we can and should see God’s grace at work in people who care passionately for the environment but do not recognise or accept that there is any faith dimension to what they do. There is a danger, however, that as Catholic pastors and educators we would settle merely for establishing common ground with others concerned about the ecological crisis. Young people today suffer immensely because of the false ‘doctrine’ of autonomy. Their culture teaches them that they are free to be or to do anything they wish as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. This is considered the only absolute moral principle. Life is understood fundamentally as self-invention. How life begins, how life ends, marriage, sexual and gender identity, can all be redefined and manipulated. Yet if human and social ecology can be manipulated, at will, to personal and selfish ends, why not nature as a whole, including our planet? Older generations, who felt oppressed by a constricting and over-bearing moral code when they were growing up, might welcome and even envy the apparent autonomy of today’s youth. Yet increasingly, we are aware of the precarious state of so many young people’s mental health, and how in too many cases their sense of self-worth has no foundation other than the number of ‘likes’ they get on social media. We need to ask ourselves why ‘industries’ that engage in resilience-training, well-being and mindfulness are burgeoning. They are trying to fix something that’s not working. The key to ecological conversion Pope Francis has repeatedly taught that ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible’ (Laudato Si’ 6), and that there are ‘rhythms inscribed in nature by the hand of the Creator’ (Laudato Si’ 71) that must be recovered and respected.This passage is particularly important: The acceptance of our body as a gift from God is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept your body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognise myself in an encounter with someone who is different’ (Laudato Si’ 155). The task of evangelisation is to help young people realise that their personal happiness is dependent upon them accepting the rhythms inscribed in nature by its – and their – Creator. When students realise this, and I have had occasional such light-bulb moments in class, there is an almost audible sigh of relief as they realise that life is a gift, that self-worth is inherent and that they have inviolable God-given dignity. So, life becomes a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance, which is also acceptance and surrender to the mystery of God, rather than the more fragile and risky project of self-invention. This recognition and insight is key to ecological conversion, because acceptance of one’s own dependence leads to recognition of the interdependence of all creatures, and the need and desire to care for our fellow creatures and our common home. NOTE 1 https://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/‘- fragile-world’-church-teaching-ecology-andpope-francis. Fr Eamonn Conway is head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick To download this article along with our full April 2020 issue click the link: April Intercom 2020 Free Download
Roberto Esposito: Philosopher of Community and Immunity?
Some time ago I called Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society a “gift” for Christians. The short book, which has been translated into 18 languages, is a rare example of chic political theory that resonates with homilies. Han calls upon us to develop practices of contemplation to resist overextending ourselves in a hyperactive digital age. In the book’s opening pages, Han proposes that we abandon an “immunological paradigm”[1] that sees the threat of infection from outside us. Instead, according to him, the real threat to our wellbeing comes from ourselves, from our own desires to achieve self-imposed goals. We over-work, over-consume, and over-achieve till we “burn out.” Now, Han’s concerns about burnout suddenly seem to belong to another age. As we wall ourselves in against the threat of the COVID-19, Han’s gift looks like the proverbial “gift horse”: well past its prime, once a concern we could afford, now an expensive luxury to maintain. Collective anxieties about bodily survival lower our expectations about our own personal projects. Contemplation, of course, is still timely.[2] But to think politically about the world, the immunological paradigm deserves a second look. 1. Agamben, Biopolitics, and Coronavirus The coronavirus pandemic will—at the very least—change the way we think and talk about politics for years to come, much like the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks.[3] In the niche market of chic political theory, frequented by those of us who indulge grand sweeping claims, etymology, and neologism, Giorgio Agamben was a hot commodity in the 2000’s. His State of Exception proposed that the Bush Administration’s War on Terror signaled a permanent and global state of exception to international law. Today, he proposes that the coronavirus is a similar pretext for governments to invoke emergency powers.   Agamben’s political categories explain his initial suspicion that the coronavirus epidemic in Italy was a pretext—a flimsy one—for disciplinary measures. A month before Italy’s reported COVID-19 death toll surpassed China’s, Agamben compared coronavirus to the common flu, suggesting that public alarm was exaggerated. In the intervening weeks, torrents of information have debunked this once-common comparison, and it has become taboo to make it. Agamben follows Michel Foucault who, with considerably more historical distance, argues that surveillance and control of bodies intensified considerably during 17th century epidemics.[4] Agamben was quickly charged with “medievalism”—one way journalists call people “out-of-touch.” But this reminds me of a grim Italian joke[5] that is circulating the Internet these days: “If you ever wanted to know how people lived in the 14th century, now you know: you have two popes and a plague.” One may conclude that masters of suspicion like Foucault have warped Agamben’s perspective so much so that he cannot see a serious public health emergency for what it is.[6] Yet, Christians should heed this untimely warning of his. Agamben warns that we now see one another, and ourselves, as vectors of contagion. By keeping “social distance,” he writes, we abolish “the neighbor.” The Christian conscience should be pricked to reflect upon a difficult question with no easy answer: will God judge our actions amidst the pandemic in the same way that the public authorities do? If 9/11 vaulted Agamben onto political theory syllabi around the world, the pandemic coronavirus could do the same for another contemporary Italian thinker, Roberto Esposito. It is Esposito’s “immunological paradigm” that Han attempts to surmount at the beginning of The Burnout Society. It will not be surmounted. On the contrary, it should command new attention. Esposito organizes his political theory around concepts drawn from biology, and he asks timely questions about the intersection of politics and immunization efforts, borders, and specters of totalitarianism. It is a truism that events change our perspective, but Esposito thinks they ought to, even to the point of reorienting philosophy. The signature of Italian philosophy, according to Esposito’s 2010 book Living Thought, is that it does not shy away from complex, world-changing events. Thinking life in its complex totality is an Italian legacy, he argues in Terms of the Political, that runs from Machiavelli to Augusto del Noce and into the present day. Esposito claims in Terms of the Political that the task of philosophy, quoting his mentor Gilles Deleuze, is to find “appropriate concepts for the event.” Now events find his. Esposito proposes that we need new political concepts, because the democracies’ political language of equality, rights, and sovereignty is 50 years out of date. Between 1968 and 1972, he writes, sexual liberation, generational politics, genetic modification, and ecology all raised new kinds of problems and questions about what “life” and “freedom” mean. Esposito wants a conceptual register that is capacious enough to think about these events together. This propels him beyond historically oriented continental thinkers like Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and the Catholic theologian Romano Guardini.           His 1988 book Categories of the Impolitical addresses these figures and others in broad outline; Esposito makes a sustained critique of “the political” in the sense of something that has an “origin,” a founding moment or crisis, an “essence” somehow opposed to technē. Esposito dismisses these attempts to chart the direction of political history, insisting instead that politics is only technology acting within nature and upon its plurality.[7] He calls this the “impolitical” perspective. The impolitical gives Esposito leverage to shut out political concepts that transcend events and biotechnological responses to them. This materialistic plane conceptually excludes “existential” anxieties, “what-is” questions about the political, right, and law, and even “the person.”[8] From now on Esposito’s philosophical reflections will take place within bio-politics,[9] exploring how the political might preserve life in all its complexity, difference, and heterogeneity, and explaining why so often it does the opposite.[10] 2. Esposito’s Affirmative Biopolitics Esposito thinks towards an “affirmative biopolitics,” or a “democratic biopolitics,” that moves beyond Foucault’s hermeneutic of suspicion. What does this mean? Recall that Foucault introduces “biopolitics” to the language of political theory in his 17 March 1976 lecture at the Collège de France. Foucault argues that the collection of statistics like birth rate, mortality rate, and life expectancy changed medical science, which in turn ushered in new regimes of public hygiene and public health. These new forms of normalization, discipline, or simply power are “biopolitics,” as practiced upon a population. As we saw, Foucault thinks these forms of discipline were particularly intense during early-modern epidemics. But by the 18th century, biopower addressed “endemics,” as states tried to keep their populations alive against the permanent threat of death. At this point in the lecture, Foucault moves quickly, making admittedly “enormous claims” that sketch connections between biopower and state control of sexuality, racism-as-policy, and Nazism.[11] Biopolitics is first theorized in a critical mode. No doubt this hermeneutic of suspicion trains Agamben’s instincts that the coronavirus is a pretext for discipline. Biopolitics can describe the new language that has appeared seemingly overnight these days—“social distance” (verb), “flatten the curve,” “community spread”—along with the morality estimate graphs and infection-rate maps. All of a sudden, the health of the population takes precedence over other political concerns, individual rights, commerce, and elections. Everywhere new relations of power seem to spring into action to meet the dual threats of spreading pandemic and future social unrest. Despite positioning himself within biopolitics, Esposito can quietly criticize Agamben for overreacting to coronavirus: one can read Foucault without equating quarantine and incarceration.[12] Esposito insists that a democratic biopolitics is possible. We the people can only hope so. The essay collection Terms of the Political: Community, Immunity, Biopolitics is the best introduction to Esposito’s post-Foucauldian affirmative biopolitics. As the subtitle suggests, community and immunity are the important technical terms. Esposito constantly points out that munus, “a task, obligation, duty (also in the sense of a gift to be repaid),” is the etymon for both community and immunity.[13] In response to any event, the political is what simultaneously embraces and rejects munus. Community is what is outside us, but Esposito emphasizes that it is also the condition of our growth into the “others” that are our future selves.[14] Community is both necessary for life and the site of freedom. Freedom for Esposito is the experience we have when we are open to difference and growth in community. Esposito is critical of political theory that makes freedom a past achievement or a future hope, and insists it must be a “fact,” a “connective, aggregative, unifying power” that “frees existence to the possibility to exist.”[15] Our obligation (munus) to the community is simply what we owe to ourselves, the condition of our existence in freedom. There is no primordial founding moment, no myth of origins, and no social contract to justify our obligations to the community. Esposito’s notion of community is total, because it is the environment where growth, freedom, and life are. Yet Esposito does not idealize the community. Because a community has no essence, it has no potential. His notion of community is in one sense deflationary—there are no “communities” in essence—because there are only actual, flawed communities at any given time. Community is always defined, or limited, by its opposite: immunity. Communities are inherently limited, Esposito thinks, because there is no politics (or democracy) without immunity, the limits of our obligations to others.[16] Esposito explains, “Immunis is he or she who has no obligations toward the other and can therefore conserve his or her own essence intact as a subject and owner of himself or herself.”[17] Democracies are not planetary in scope because groups immunize themselves with borders, the denial of obligations to a global community of living things. But Esposito’s concept of community challenges us to envision a politics for the sake of preserving life, starting with exigent demands of “nude and terrifying images” of the world’s refugees and displaced persons, but also branching out to all living things.[18] Immunological responses define all communities all the time, Esposito thinks, but he warns that carrying their logic too far leads to violence. To make secure ourselves, we imperil others. Picking up where Foucault leaves off in 1976, Esposito argues that the Nazi regime is best understood not according to the historical category of totalitarianism, but the biopolitical category of immune response.[19] In his 2004 book Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, which develops this theme at length, Esposito argues that the Nazis medicalized sovereignty (or dissolved it into biological categories): “If the ultimate power were the boots of the SS, superior auctoritas was dressed in the long white gown of the doctor.”[20] Nazism is like an autoimmune disease that turns the state’s defensive potential against its own population—most famously the “Jewish virus”—and “attacks the very body it should protect.”[21] To think critically about 1933-1945 with immunitarian rather than totalitarian concepts, Esposito thinks, reveals there are immunitarian crises where the desire for security is pursued to self-defeating ends even today. Esposito provocatively considers the Western democracies’ and Islamic extremists’ respective “immunitarian obsessions”: the former to secure individuals and their wealth worldwide, the latter to secure their religion from ideological contamination. These two opposed obsessions lead to an “immunitarian crisis” (which Esposito likens to René Girard’s “sacrificial crisis”) of ever-escalating violence.[22] What do Esposito’s biopolitical concepts offer, however, when we face non-metaphorical viral contagion, literal immunizations, and a country that closes its borders as an immunological response? I think two things. First, in a more specific theoretical contribution, Esposito moves Foucauldian biopolitics beyond Agamben’s kneejerk suspicion of public health.[23] Esposito accepts that immunity defines every community, even if it is the antithesis of community. This acceptance allows him to see the Italian response to coronavirus not as a disciplinary apparatus clamping down, but rather as an actual community struggling to control a chaotic situation for the sake of preserving life. More broadly, Esposito dispels the specter of totalitarianism for non-Foucauldians as well. Esposito offers us an interpretive framework that refuses to see COVID-19 within a master narrative of historical drifts away from freedom (or the origins of the political) towards totalitarianism. “What occurs when an ‘outside’—namely, life—bursts into the sphere of politics,” Esposito asks, “causing its supposed autonomy to explode and shifting the discourse to a terrain that is irreducible to the traditional terms (such as democracy, power, and ideology) of modern political philosophy?”[24] Many of us wonder the same thing now, when all of a sudden the only political concern is the preservation of life, and not only biological life, but also the return to a richer, freer, life that we only have in community with others. The danger is not totalitarianism, if Esposito’s historical lessons hold true, but that an immunitarian democracy will identify human vectors of contagion. Conspiracy theories about bioweapons that escaped containment in Wuhan, and blame games in China and the United States alike, suggest ripe conditions for the immunological response to become violent.[25] The pandemic calls us to think in immunological terms, but most of us will ultimately resist Esposito’s adventure to think only in biopolitical terms. Such thinking excludes questions of legitimacy and right, and of course a fundamental “what is” question about the nature of politics. A world immanent to itself, where right is commensurable with power, is nothing new, as any of us who read Spinoza know—Deleuze first among us! Is Esposito simply fashioning political concepts appropriate to post-1968 events, then, or reintroducing a metaphysical “plane of immanence” that Deleuze can date back to the 17th century?[26] Either way, Esposito’s combination of biopolitics and Deleuzian materialism to think “big events” rules out an existential dimension where personal experiences of anxiety and wonder impress a sense that we do not belong wholly to the world. So long as those remain true to our experience, there are categories of freedom that transcend becoming-other (or “becoming-animal”)[27] in and through the communities where we encounter difference. 3. When Immunology Is Not Metaphorical Esposito’s concepts seem fitting for the present coronavirus pandemic, but this event may show the limits of his metaphors. As Susan Sontag once wrote, “illness is not a metaphor”; it rather purifies our “metaphoric thinking.”[28] Ironically, the immunological paradigm is better suited to describe genocide, racism, security dilemmas, and xenophobia than to grapple with a community’s actual immunological response to preserve life. Esposito does not lament, I assume, that the present medical effort to contain or eradicate coronavirus immunizes us from planetary community with virus life. His concepts of immunity and community are a metaphorical language to deal with political problems of ecology, gender, sexuality, race, and generation—not disease. Perhaps no language of political concepts is suited to a time of plague, the high noon that casts no shadow of the future. Epidemics rescind what Deleuze calls our “right to problems,”[29] the way democracy under normal circumstances can respond to events, formulate political problems, and solve them collectively. If public health authorities do not suspend politics, then chaos will. As John Panteleimon Manoussakis reminds us, this lesson comes down to us from before political philosophy has a name, when Thucydides saw that the plague of 430 BCE was stronger than speech or reason. Individuals who fear imminent death are no longer citizens who can cooperate on long-term collective projects, or think with political concepts that point towards munus, duty, gift, obligation, or openness to difference. Total immunization reduces the space of community to zero. We are not yet close, perhaps, but even now panicked shoppers flock to the stores to hoard everything that might avail them from ammunition to zinc. We foresee an event where no political concepts are viable, even metaphors drawn from immunology, because no ideas are strong enough to secure cooperation. If politics can cease, and reemerge, this suggests contrary to Esposito that the political is a “something” with origins and termini. Mass immunization and quarantine brings the impolitical perspective into question: What is it that has disappeared? The deeper irony, I think, is the event of a mass immunological response, where Esposito’s metaphor becomes literal, raises all the questions that his metaphor brushes off. Let us return to Han, where I began, with more a chastened perspective than I had two years ago. The immunological paradigm will not be overcome, but it can be supplemented, if we consider that the coronavirus pandemic exacerbates a pre-existing neurotic crisis. Panics that dump stocks and deplete stocks of toilet paper are nothing new. New, however, are those anxieties related to our ability to consume and share vast amounts of information that is up-to-the-minute, ever changing, and often contradictory. The pandemic has only begun, and experts already warn of “coronavirus fatigue.” If we cannot find the “releasement” to let things be that are outside our control (Han borrows this term from Heidegger), then it is not only material concerns that will prevent people from relaxing at home for the next few weeks or months.[30] Han would not be surprised, probably, if many of us “burn out” trying to save ourselves before we are truly in danger. The old problems of politics will be supplanted, for the near future, with criticism of the administration of the pandemic response. Politics is much reduced. While Agamben is unable to distinguish this new state of affairs from totalitarianism, Esposito is simply unable to conceptualize the suspension of politics. Even so, facing a threat to our survival, we forfeit the right to formulate problems. Christians will remember, however, that immunized and isolated as we are, we still belong to a communion that is not entirely immanent to this world. The duties of citizenship can be suspended; the obligations of sainthood cannot. Whosoever will save his life shall lose it . . . Christians face difficult problems in plague-time, but not political ones. [1] Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society (Stanford: SUP, 2015), 1-6. [2] Quarantine experts share Pascal’s notion, mutatis mutandis, that all the world’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in one room. [3] I leave it to others to speculate about how it will probably change political and economic structures, maybe in ways that were unthinkable only weeks ago. [4] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (New York: Vintage, 1995), 195-199. [5] https://twitter.com/Devadip96/status/1232082783583002625 [6] On March 17, he modified his view somewhat, emphasizing that it is because “we” are so accustomed to permanent states of emergency that we sacrifice our civic life to cling fearfully to bare biological survival [7] In Han’s terms, Esposito is complicit with the “disintegration of time” that renders it meaningless and allows it to “whizz” around us. Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time (Cambridge: Polity, 2017). [8] Esposito, “Towards a Philosophy of the Impersonal,” Terms of the Political, 112-122. [9] Esposito, Terms of the Political, 69. [10] We can object that philosophy is not simply concept-formation to respond to events. Jean-Luc Nancy sums up this objection in a curt e-mail to Esposito recently distributed online: “Dear Robert, neither ‘biology’ nor ‘politics’ are precisely determined terms today. I would actually say the contrary. That’s why I have no use for their assemblage. Best regards, Jean-Luc.” Esposito describes his turn to biopolitics, around the time of his 2002 book Immunitas, as a break with Nancy (as well as the aforementioned continental thinkers), and an embrace of Foucault. See: Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life (Cambridge: Polity, 2011); See also: Timothy Campbell and Frederico Luisetti, “On Contemporary French and Italian Political Philosophy: An Interview with Roberto Esposito,” Minnesota Review 75 (Fall 2010), 109-118, 112. [11] Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, 261. [12] https://antinomie.it/index.php/2020/02/28/curati-a-oltranza/ [13] Esposito, Immunitas, 5. [14] Esposito, Terms of the Political, 26. [15] Ibid., 52-56. [16] Ibid., 65. [17] Ibid.,. 39. [18] Ibid., 43. [19] Ibid., 102. [20] Roberto Esposito, Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 2008), 113-114. [21] Esposito, Terms of the Political, 84-85. [22] Ibid., 62,132. [23] Esposito modifies but does not break with a Foucauldian understanding of discipline, as Han does. See Han, The Burnout Society, 8. [24] Esposito, Terms of the Political, 106. [25] Esposito might commend, however, the reluctance of the New York State health authorities to declare the Brooklyn Hasidic Jewish community of Borough Park a “cluster” of community spread. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/nyregion/Coronavirus-brooklyn-hasidic-jews.html?searchResultPosition=2 [26] Esposito, Terms of the Political, 121; Perhaps, as Antonio Negri thinks, the events of 1968 can only be understood with Spinoza? See: Antonio Negri, Spinoza for Our Time: Politics and Postmodernity (New York: Columbia, 2013), 3. [27] This term, which Esposito deploys several times, comes from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [1980], trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 237ff. [28] https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1978/01/26/illness-as-metaphor/ [29] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition [1968], trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 158. [30] Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time, 83.
Religious sisters fight human trafficking in Mozambique
YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – While world attention has been focused on the growing coronavirus pandemic, millions of people continue to suffer due to human trafficking networks. It is a multi-billion-dollar criminal industry that enslaves an estimated 24.9 million people around the globe. According to a July 2019 report by Human Rights First, human traffickers earn around $150 billion a year. One group working tirelessly to stop traffickers and help victims is Talitha Kum – an international network of Catholic religious orders dedicated to stopping modern slavery. Talitha Kum has recently established itself in Mozambique, a country of origin for many victims of human trafficking, usually destined for South Africa. The network’s international coordinator, Comboni Sister Gabriella Bottani told Crux that each time she sees a survivor of human trafficking, she knows she is “in the presence of God, in the wounded body of Christ.” What follows are excerpts of her conversation with Crux. Crux: In November 2019, a new Talitha Kum Network was created in Mozambique to fight against human trafficking in the Southern African country. How much of a problem is it in the region? Bottani: The request to organize a Talitha Kum Network in Mozambique came from South Africa, the main destination country of Mozambican girls trafficked for sexual exploitation. The purpose of Talitha Kum is to coordinate the efforts of religious sisters and to train them to identify cases of human trafficking, to organize activities for the prevention of human trafficking and to support survivors in their social rehabilitation and reintegration. It is very difficult to define the dimension of the crime of trafficking in persons. As in many parts of the world, human trafficking in Mozambique is a hidden crime, underreported. Who are those involved in trafficking? Trafficking is a very rentable crime. The chain of traffickers includes the recruiters, the people providing transport and accommodation, the ones who exploits and the clients. The demand led by clients influence the action of traffickers. In Mozambique there is forced child labor which occurs in agriculture, mining, and market vending in rural areas. Why it happens? Who earns from this crime? These are important questions to understand who the people are involved in trafficking. The best way to understand who is involved is to follow the money! Who are usually the victims? The majority of trafficked people are women, globally they represent 72 percent of the total. The percentage is more if we consider only human trafficking for sexual exploitation. The main region of recruitment of young girl for sexual exploitation in Mozambique in in the south of the country, close to the capital Maputo. Men and boys are also trafficked to South Africa for forced labor in mines and farms. In Mozambique there is also a high number of boys who are victims of human trafficking for the purpose of organs removal or body parts. This is believed to be  a practice connected with witchcraft. Also in Mozambique, undocumented migrants are at high risk of being trafficked. Many undocumented migrants smuggled from South Asian and other African countries to South Africa are transported through the country. In the Mozambican ports were also identified South Asian men exploited in slavery-like conditions on vessels for the fishing industry. What are the routes used by human traffickers? Mozambican people are trafficked abroad for sexual and labor exploitation. The routes of trafficking follow the migrations routes. People are attracted to a better life: From poor areas to places where there is more possibility of better working conditions, such as big cities, mines, ports and industrial areas. Many migrant workers are attracted by the growing extractive industries in Tete and Cabo Delgado. Mozambican girls are exploited along the roads from Maputo to Eswatini and South Africa. Child sexual exploitation is growing in the capital, Maputo. The children are recruited in the center and in the north of the country. Obviously you should have spoken with survivors, in Mozambique or elsewhere. What do they tell you about their experiences? During the Talitha Kum training in Maputo, the participants had the opportunity to meet a Mozambican girl rescued in South Africa. She had a painful story, she was invited to work in South Africa, and the promise was a good, well-paying job. When she arrived at her destination she was locked in an apartment and forced into prostitution. They suffer any kind of violence: Psychological, physical, spiritual. They suffer torture, they are raped. The dreams they had of a better life bring them into a nightmare, difficult to understand. Every time I meet a survivor of trafficking, I know I am in the presence of God, in the wounded body of Christ.  What has the Talitha Kum Network been doing to bring respite to the survivors? The main activities of the Talitha Kum Networks are based on prevention. Prevention is much more that information and awareness-raising campaigns. Prevention is to find a way to change people’s behavior. Prevention is organized among groups with a high risk of being trafficked, in the rural areas, in refugee camps, in the slums of many cities. Prevention is done also with the survivors: It includes all the activities connected with social rehabilitation and reintegration of survivors, such as professional training, income generation activities, housing. Talitha Kum Networks provide material, psychosocial, juridical services to survivors. Talitha Kum is hope! Religious sisters are called by the cry of the victims to stand up. Talitha Kum is an invitation to everybody to stand up for human dignity, for freedom and to overcome indifference and fear: “Together against human trafficking!”
Editorial – April 2020
As I write I’m half way through a two week quarantine for a possible case of the coronavirus. The symptoms are very mild and the initial novelty of the whole situation has been replaced now with a certain tedium and I find myself increasingly looking forward to the day when this pandemic is something for “remember the coronavirus pandemic of 2020?” conversations in years to come. I find myself trying not to think of the possibility of this situation dragging on, not for weeks, but for months yet, and even less to think about loved ones who may not in fact make it through to see the end of this pandemic. We had thought that maybe there might be no point in producing Position Papers this month given everything that is happening, especially with the uncertainty that hangs over the shops and postal service. It strikes me, however, that our readers might well appreciate, now more than ever, receiving some faith inspired lights on the pandemic. To this end about half of our contributions deal with it. I would also like to use this editorial to share some personal thoughts on the crisis we are all passing through together, and also to draw on the reflections of Pope Francis in his special Urbi et Orbi homily of Friday 27 March. In a few short weeks the season of Lent will give way to the season of Easter, and the Church will once again teach us the crucial lesson that the cross – suffering – does not have the last word. The fifty days of Easter is a particularly significant number as it is meant to symbolise eternity: it is a week of weeks, or forty-nine days, plus an additional day added to give eight Sundays – all of which symbolises going beyond this present life into a time which has no end. Nature too will take up the chorus as those fifty days bring us from April into May, providing a living icon of the beauty of eternal life. Easter is the oldest and most fundamental feast in the Church’s calendar, and it expresses the core of our Catholic Faith. It reminds us that we have been created to enjoy an eternal Easter, but that we arrive at this Easter through Lent, and through Holy Week, in other words, through the Cross. During these difficult days of lockdown, of job losses, of illness and death, we Christians cannot lose sight of the Christian understanding of suffering. It is not to say that we have a facilely optimistic view of everything, a view which would downplay the cruel reality of suffering. No, we acknowledge that suffering is very real, and that it is mysterious; it cannot be rationalised away. And yet it is when faced with the reality of suffering that our Faith really comes into its own. Nothing else, no science or worldly wisdom, can make any sense of the cross. We know that this pandemic, like all crosses, would never be allowed by God if it were not to draw a much greater good. What that good might be is impossible for us to say with any certainty. We can perhaps surmise that it may be allowed in order to shake the modern world out of its materialistic sleep, to realise that “we do not have here a lasting city”. Christ has also revealed to us that God is a loving Father, not a cruel and arbitrary God who is indifferent to our sufferings. I think this is particularly important to remember when some begin to present this pandemic as a divine punishment of the modern world for its sinfulness. There are two dangers in this approach. First of all, who are we to know God’s motives? We would do well to remember the words of God in Isaiah: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). It is at best temerarious to presume to judge God’s actions in the world. But secondly, if we are to speak in terms of punishment we must be very careful to show how this is reconcilable with God’s infinite, paternal love for each and every one of us. He loves us with a love “which surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:19) and even his “punishment” must be an expression of this love. As St Paul asks, “What man among you would not chastise his son?”. We must beware of applying the all too human motives of vengefulness, or impatience to God. St Francis de Sales has written one of the most moving descriptions of how God approaches the task of presenting us with our cross. He shows how there is nothing arbitrary about the cross; rather it has been most lovingly and carefully considered before God gives it to us: The everlasting God has in his wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents to you as a gift from His inmost Heart. This cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms and weighed with His own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you. He has blessed it with His Holy Name, anointed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the All-Merciful Love of God. These words can be applied now to almost the whole of mankind who are experiencing in one way or another the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Each person suffers in their unique way: some with sickness, some with a job loss, some have extra pressures placed on their marriage, some experience great tedium, and some even death. But in every case God knows that this precise cross is the best blessing for that person, and besides He also gives with the cross, the grace needed to carry it. And besides, if we are realistic, we must admit that already we have detected the silver linings on this cloud: there will have been material goods such as a much needed period of rest, or more time spent with one’s family, and spiritual goods such as a deepening in empathy with others, and so on. If we do not allow ourselves to lose sight of God’s loving providence in all this, we will not lose our peace and joy and will face these trials with an unfailing Christian optimism. To date one of the most striking thing about the coronavirus pandemic has been the incredible outpouring of heroic charity that it has evinced; we see all round the world how health care workers have rallied around to assist the sick, sometimes putting their own lives at risk in the process; we have seen how dozens of Italian priests have died, and in some cases they have literally given their lives for others; or initiatives to care and shop for the elderly have been put in action. While at the same time there has been less than edifying behaviour: panic buying, price gouging, and the like, the sheer numbers and heroism at the other end of the scale is impressive. And that is what we see reported; there are of course countless daily acts of care for the elderly and infirm which go unreported. In all of this of course, we are witnessing at least one of the blessings that God has wanted to give the world at this time. Surely for all of us this trial provides us with an opportunity to live the Communion of Saints in a particularly intense way: we can join in the Holy Father’s petitions for an end to the pandemic, a cure of those who are sick, and for the repose of the souls of those whose lives have been taken by it. For many people one of the great challenges of these days is to live charitably with those with whom they are sharing confinement. Spending day after day in close quarters with the same people in times of trial can be particularly demanding – we can think especially of parents now forced by the circumstances into home-schooling on top of all their other responsibilities. I personally have been quite inspired by the example of St Josemaría Escrivá during his months of semi-imprisonment from April to September 1937. (In his article below, Jason Osborne also mentions the timeliness of the example set by St Josemaria during his months of captivity). He and several of the young vocations to Opus Dei took refuge in the Honduran Legation to Spain, based in Madrid, in order to escape certain death at the hands of Marxist death squads roaming Madrid at the time. During those months the group of them were holed up in a tiny basement room, described by his biographer: Until the middle of May the Father and his companions did not have a room of their own. Then they were given one at the end of the corridor, next to the service stairs. In earlier times it had probably been a storeroom for coal. It was so small that at night its tile floor disappeared under the thin mattresses and the blankets. Rolled up and rested against the wall, the mattresses served as seats during the day. A narrow window looked out on an enclosed patio. The room was so dark that even in the daytime they had to turn on the bare electric light bulb that hung from the ceiling. In this tiny, dismal room the Father organized life for himself and his companions. There were dozens of others holed up in similar circumstances throughout the building. Some found the whole experience so trying that it lead to their becoming mentally unhinged as a result. But the experience of the fellows in the company of St Josemaría was completely different. Amazingly they later spoke of months of captivity as a time of intense joy, on account of the kindly presence of the saint. The manner in which he spoke to them filled them with consolation and calm. One of the fellows there, Eduardo, later recalled: “Sometimes we thought, if only this could last forever! Had we ever known anything better than the light and warmth of that little room? As absurd as it was in those circumstances, that was our reaction, and from our way of seeing things it made perfect sense. It brought us peace and happiness day after day.” We could do well these days to attempt to imitate in our own confined milieu the wonderful example set by St Josemaria, seeing how much the warmth of charity can do to ameliorate the harshness of adverse material conditions. Finally, I would like to draw on the words of the Holy Father from his Urbi et Orbi homily of March 27. Those of you who watched must have, as I did, felt we were watching something both deeply historic and at the same time somehow beyond the confines of this world. I have to confess I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. We were watching Christ’s vicar on earth going face to face with God on our behalf. As the ceremony closed I felt, as many must have done, what a great gift of God it is to the Church, and to the world at large, to have the Roman Pontiff. His “analysis” of the crisis is especially valuable, as he shows us that more than a “punishment” it is rather an unmasking of false premises on which our secularised, materialistic culture has been built: The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare all our pre-packaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anaesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly “save” us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.  Our Golden Calves have been shown wanting by this virus: our frenetic system for acquiring wealth and comfort has ground to a halt and its frailty has been revealed. It is almost emblematic that the response of many to the impending disaster was panic buying, as if to underline the fact that we believe that we will be safe if our freezer is full, and our storerooms packed i.e we will be safe from all adversity. In this way we are only rehearsing the actions of the rich fool of Jesus’ parable: Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12: 18-21). But at the same time, the Pope has reminded us of the words of Jesus to the apostles in their sinking boat: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith”? The answer now is a complete faith in Christ: Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.
In Passing: The third horseman of the Apocalypse
It was an eerie sight. The lone figure of the Vicar of Christ on earth standing under a canopy in the rain-drenched esplanade of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome addressing the world, Urbi et orbi. A little short of one year earlier he imparted the same traditional blessing to something in the region of a hundred thousand pilgrims gathered in the same esplanade. What apocalyptic event had brought this about? We know the answer well enough – and few will argue that the ‘A’ word is overstating reality. For some, perhaps for many, thinking and talking about death betrays a morbid obsession. For others it is a truly liberating preoccupation, for it is an engagement with a reality, a gate through which we enter on the Way to nothing less than Truth and Life itself. The message of that evening was about hope; hope in the face of fear – for fear is what now is predominantly in the hearts of mankind, the fear of death. But the message of hope was centred on the answer to that question asked by Christ of those fearful disciples in the sinking boat who called out to be saved from what looked to them like certain death. Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?   The Scriptural apocalyptic vision of death describes it as coming accompanied by and through the three-fold agency of Famine, War and Pestilence. In the lifetimes of those of us present on this planet today the former two have been, sadly, familiar enough. The latter, in the terms in which it threatens us today and now – the prospect that it would bear away, as some experts estimate, forty million of us were it to get out of control – is a new experience. But in all this there is also an invitation to each one of us to reflect on the true nature of that fourth horseman – is he friend or is he foe?   He is friend for he is the bringer of wisdom. Don’t be afraid of death. Accept it from now on, generously … when God wills it, where God wills it, as God wills it. Don’t doubt what I say: it will come in the moment, in the place and in the way that are best: sent by your Father-God. Welcome be our sister death! (The Way, 739) These are the words of St Josemaría Escrivá. The wisdom which the Christian life embodies encompasses both a glorious rejoicing in the gift of life and a peaceful acceptance of the inevitable moment in which we will pass from this temporary sojourn to an eternal joy. What Pope Francis reminded us of emphatically was that faith is the antidote to fear. His words were also a reminder and an encouragement to fight together those three humanly engineered real enemies of mankind, War, Famine and Pestilence. We know that Death came into the world through the willful folly of our race. But we also know that the act and witness of Christ’s death on a Cross, followed by his Resurrection, has totally changed its meaning for mankind and is now in itself a reminder to us of the true meaning and ultimate end of our existence. Napoleon Bonaparte, approaching death on the bleak South Atlantic Island of St Helena, reflected on his self-absorbed life and the turbulent events of his time. In doing so, with the help of his sister Death, he finally and peacefully saw the true measure of the significance of life, fame and human glory.   St John Henry Newman recalled – in The Grammar of Assent – that in the solitude of his imprisonment, and in the view of death, Napoleon was said to have reflected on the motivations of his years in pursuit of glory.   “I have been”, he said, “accustomed to put before me the examples of Alexander and Cæsar, with the hope of rivalling their exploits, and living in the minds of men for ever. Yet, after all, in what sense does Cæsar, in what sense does Alexander live? Who knows or cares anything about them? At best, nothing but their names is known; for who among the multitude of men, who hear or who utter their names, really knows anything about their lives or their deeds, or attaches to those names any definite idea?”   “But, on the contrary” he is reported to have continued, “there is just One Name in the whole world that lives; it is the Name of One who passed His years in obscurity, and who died a malefactor’s death. Eighteen hundred years have gone since that time, but still it has its hold upon the human mind. It has possessed the world, and it maintains possession.”   “Amid the most varied nations, under the most diversified circumstances, in the most cultivated, in the rudest races and intellects, in all classes of society, the Owner of that great Name reigns. High and low, rich and poor acknowledge Him. Millions of souls are conversing with Him, are venturing on His word, are looking for His presence. Palaces, sumptuous, innumerable, are raised to His honour; His image, as in the hour of His deepest humiliation, is triumphantly displayed in the proud city, in the open country, in the corners of streets, on the tops of mountains. It sanctifies the ancestral hall, the closet, and the bedchamber; it is the subject for the exercise of the highest genius in the imitative arts. It is worn next the heart in life; it is held before the failing eyes in death.”   “Here, then, is One who is not a mere name, who is not a mere fiction, who is a reality. He is dead and gone, but still He lives, – lives as the living, energetic thought of successive generations, as the awful motive-power of a thousand great events. He has done without effort what others with life-long struggles have not done. Can He be less than Divine? Who is He but the Creator Himself; who is sovereign over His own works, towards whom our eyes and hearts turn instinctively, because He is our Father and our God?” And it was to Him, two hundred years after Napoleon uttered those wise words, that Pope Francis once again drew the city of Rome and all the cities of the world to ask for help today as we face the rampaging Third Horseman of the Apocalypse, asking for help to deal with the multiple devastations he will bring in his wake. But the miraculous crucifix which was so central in the images relayed from St Peter’s on March 27 reminded us powerfully of the truth that death itself is not a fearful thing, but is the true beginning of all Wisdom and Life.
A Time To Plant, A Time To Be Born
Life has changed radically in the space of weeks, Lent being forced upon us this year. With our lives dominated by these unorthodox circumstances it would be easy to lose sight of the goal, and I have already seen this playing out in my own life. I have been reading too much news, partaking in too many “doom and gloom” conversations, and lamenting over all the opportunities I’ve lost. And without my realising it, God slips out of the centre, and the world and its present concerns slip in. Chaos has swept in and troubled many hearts, mine included. It seems as though life, our adventure with God, has been put on hold for the foreseeable future. It seems as though our sole concern at the moment is keeping our heads above the waves. Where are you to look to, where can you go, when the floodwaters begin to rise? To the Ark, the Church in our case, “which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). While the world struggles to withstand the sea of panic, the faith upheld by the Church offers us the clarity that only God can bring. The Church ought to speak of the ark sitting peaceably above the chaos, confident in its God and his power to bring good out of every situation. How then, should this assurance appear in our restricted day-to-day lives? St. Josemaría Escrivá offers up an example of the Christian life successfully lived in exile. In April 1937, St Josemaría and five other young men were forced into refuge by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. For four months they lived all together in a tiny and dreary storage room in the basement of the Honduran consulate, with a few mats to spread over the floor for bedding. They were facing an uncertain future, and this resulted in panic and depression, fear and hatred in those present. However, St Josemaría was wise to the opportunity God was granting him. He recognised that life had not stopped, it had only changed. He established a strict routine which was centred on God, and included study, language learning, and quality time with those he was confined with. His philosophy of the time was summed up in a meditation he later wrote: “The plants could not be seen, as they lay hidden under the snow. And the farmer who owned the land observed with satisfaction: ‘Now they are growing on the inside.’” As jobs are lost, as the economy slows down, and as we are confined to our houses, we must move from the external to the internal after the example of this saint. As he said, “How can I bring God’s gifts to fruition in this forced retreat? Don’t forget that you can be like a snow-capped volcano (…). On the outside, yes, the ice of monotony and darkness might cover you; outwardly you appear trapped. But inside, the fire will not stop burning within you, nor will you tire of making up for your lack of external action with a very intense internal one…” The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that for “everything there is a season”. We’ve all seen the pictures of empty streets and shuttered shopfronts, and so we know that now is the “time to keep silence”, now is “a time to plant”, and now is “a time to be born”. God has granted us greater silence than ever before this Lent, and we have a duty to use it.
The Coronavirus and sitting quietly in a room
Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” The great seventeenth-century philosopher thought that most of us, most of the time, distract ourselves from what truly matters through a series of divertissements (diversions). He was speaking from experience. Though one of the brightest men of his age and one of the pioneers of the modern physical sciences and of computer technology, Pascal frittered away a good deal of his time through gambling and other trivial pursuits. In a way, he knew, such diversions are understandable, since the great questions – Does God exist? Why am I here? Is there life after death? – are indeed overwhelming. But if we are to live in a serious and integrated way, they must be confronted – and this is why, if we want our most fundamental problems to be resolved, we must be willing to spend time in a room alone. This Pascalian mot has come to my mind a good deal in recent days as our entire country goes into shutdown mode due to the coronavirus. Shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants, school campuses, sports stadiums, airports, etc. – the very places where we typically seek out fellowship or divertissements – are all emptying out. This is obviously good from the standpoint of physical health, but I wonder whether we might see it as something very good for our psychological and spiritual health as well. Perhaps we could all think of this time of semi-quarantine as an invitation to some monastic introspection, some serious confrontation with the questions that matter – some purposeful sitting alone in a room. Might I make a few suggestions in regard to our retreat? Get out your Bible and read one of the Gospels in its entirety – perhaps the Gospel of Matthew, which we are using for Sunday Mass this liturgical year. Read it slowly, prayerfully; use a good commentary if that helps. Or practice the ancient art that has been recommended warmly by the last several popes – namely, lectio divina. This “divine reading” of the Bible consists in four basic steps: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. First, read the scriptural text carefully; second, pick out one word or one passage that specially struck you, and then mediate on it, like a ruminating animal chewing on its cud; third, speak to God, telling him how your heart was moved by what you read; fourth and finally, listen to the Lord, discerning what he speaks back to you. Trust me, the Bible will spring to life when you approach it through this method. Or read one of the spiritual classics during this time of imposed isolation. Keep in mind that, prior to the rise of the physical sciences, the best and brightest people in our Western intellectual tradition entered the fields of philosophy, theology, and spirituality. One of the dark sides of our post-Enlightenment culture is a general forgetfulness of the astonishing richness produced by generations of brilliant spiritual teachers. So take up St. Augustine’s Confessions, preferably in Maria Boulding’s recent translation, which reads like a novel, or Frank Sheed’s classic translation. Though he lived and wrote seventeen centuries ago, the spiritual seeker of our time will discern in Augustine’s story the contours and trajectories of his own. Or read the Rule of St. Benedict, especially the section on the twelve degrees of humility. If you dare, follow St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, preferably under the direction of a good guide (who doesn’t have the coronavirus!). If these texts and practices seem too dated, spend your quiet time with Thomas Merton’s splendid autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, which, in compelling prose, tells the story of the twentieth-century author’s journey from self-absorbed worldling to Trappist monk. And of course, pray. When Merton was once asked what is the most important thing a person could do to improve her prayer life, he replied, “Take the time.” Well, now we have more time. Do a Holy Hour every day or every other day. Dust off your rosary, which I think is one of the most sublime prayers in the Catholic tradition. When we pray it well, we meditate on the mysteries of Christ; we call to mind, fifty times, the inevitability our own passing (“now and at the hour of our death”); and we entrust ourselves to the most powerful intercessor on earth or in heaven. Not a bad way to spend twenty minutes. Take the time at the end of the day to examine your conscience – and not in a cursory manner. Do it carefully, prayerfully, honestly. Ask yourself how many times in the course of the day you missed an opportunity to show love, how many times you did not respond to a grace, how often you fell into a habitual sin. Now that we’re being asked to keep a certain distance from our fellow human beings, embrace the solitude and silence in a spiritually alert way. Go for that long walk on the beach, across the fields, up in the hills – wherever you like to go to be alone. And just talk to God. Ask him what he wants you to do. Pray for your kids or your parents or your friends who might be struggling. Tell him how much you love him and how you want greater intimacy with him. And please put away the iPhones! Open your eyes, lift up your heads, and take in the beauty of God’s creation and thank him for it. If Pascal is right, many of our deepest problems can be solved by sitting, with spiritual attention, alone in a room. Perhaps through God’s strange providence, the quarantine we’re enduring might be our chance.
All the Circumstances and Events of my Life
For many years I in common with lots of other people have been using the prayer card to Saint Josemaría Escrivá. Indeed lots of us were using it when he was simply Monsignor, before being declared Venerable, later Blessed and in 2002, Saint Josemaría. One day recently as I was praying it silently the sentence “Grant that I too may learn to turn all the circumstances and events of my life into occasions of loving you and serving the Church, the Pope and all souls with joy and simplicity…” struck me like they never struck me before. All the circumstances and events! The sentence is, of course, totally attuned to the spirit of Opus Dei and the message God revealed to its founder, St. Josemaría in 1928. All the circumstances and events of our lives typically meant our work, our family life, our leisure, even the more mundane things such as going to the pub, playing a round of golf and lots more besides. For some people, no doubt their lives did involve extremes – health care workers at the cutting edge of life and death, those living and working in war zones or attending to the needs of refugees and asylum seekers, Gardaí in special units fighting gangland crime, but for people like me who, I have to admit led a fairly sheltered life for three score and ten years up to now the circumstances were by most accounts, ordinary. But now it seems there is a new “ordinary”. A little virus, in diameter less than a millionth of a metre has caused worldwide havoc, firstly in China and in other Asian countries and then in Italy and other Western countries. In fact nowhere on earth seems to be immune to it, though at the time of writing parts of Africa seem to have been less affected. The scale of its impact on the lives of nations and individuals is frightening – businesses closing, people losing their jobs, airlines grounding their entire fleets, schools closing, examinations at risk. The list goes on. For all sorts of reasons, the restrictions and admonitions preventing gatherings including attendance at Mass are a huge body blow, particularly during the season of Lent and as we approach Easter. One presumes at the time of writing that attendance at Holy Week and Easter ceremonies will be impossible. One thinks also of the millions who normally gather in Rome and Jerusalem at Easter. Nobody is booking flights to those cities now. Other religions have been hit too – Saudi Arabia has had to do the unthinkable and close off Mecca and Medina. Parallels are drawn to the Spanish ’Flu pandemic of just over one hundred years ago, but there are vast differences too. Extraordinary advances in medicine, the speed of communications and the rise of the mass media make the world a very different place to what it was in 1918. But therein lie problems. We get so much stuff on our phones – mine is normally good for a full day between charging but lately by 5.00 p.m it’s beginning to show red. I’m probably using it too much, but much of it is incoming traffic. People sending advice, not always correct, others sending stories from the front line, even some funny stuff. But I’m very wary of forwarding most of it – what some find funny might upset others. When will it end? I can’t see anyone wanting to travel away from home for a holiday until there’s pretty clear proof that the destination is safe. I can’t see us being let attend social gatherings e.g. dinners where we all sit close together for a long time. And as for shaking hands and giving bear hugs, well as a certain advertisement says, they’re definitely gone – for a long time to come! In all of our needs we look for inspiration. For Catholics and many others the example of Pope Francis is inspirational. As well as complying with the directives completely, the example of him walking in pilgrimage through the deserted streets of Rome to the Basilica of St Mary Major and the Church of St Marcello (in both of which predecessors of his prayed for an end to plagues in the sixth and sixteenth centuries) on 15th March, and the daily tweets (https://twitter.com/Pontifex) wherein he gives encouragement to all are just one example. The dedication of front line heroes all over the world is also remarkable. In Ireland too we must give credit to the government ministers and the HSE. Outstanding among these has been Dr. Tony Holohan, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer and Paul Reid, CEO of the HSE, neither of whom would have expected to be playing such a visible role in advising (and calming) the nation when they stepped into those roles. While there is no shortage of information (and disinformation) on Covid-19, it will serve us well to go to sources for spiritual guidance, – guidance to help us stay calm and pray. Simply googling the words “Covid-19 prayer” led me to a wide variety of links, including the very helpful “Prayer Resources for use during the Coronavirus pandemic” page on the site of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, to a whole host of prayers on the Church of England’s website, and a really uplifting report on a gathering (with physical distancing) of Christians, Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem to pray together.    When will it end – when will we get back to “normal”? Who knows if things will ever be totally normal, as we understood them. Covid-19 has wreaked untold misery in several countries. One thinks of people dying in misery alone and their relatives being unable to give them a proper funeral. Let us ask God to spare the world any more of such scenes. Let us ask Him too to bring an end to the suffering caused by Covid-19.
Yes, I’d Become Catholic Again
A recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Saxum Holy Land Dialogues led me to think carefully about the question of whether today, given the crisis and confusion in the Church, if I were an eager “C.S. Lewis” Protestant – as I once was – I would become a Catholic, here and now, again. In part, it was because the young professionals I accompanied in Saxum YPS wanted to hear about my earlier conversion to Catholicism as a graduate student, I was compelled to re-examine my motives.  In part, it was because a pilgrimage offers something like the fullest possible means to embrace Christianity for a Protestant. I prayed in Gethsemane and stood atop Golgotha. I read the Beatitudes in my Greek New Testament, while looking out over the Sea of Tiberias.  I sang Adeste Fideles in fellowship with other believers in the grotto of Bethlehem.  But doing all that, what would I still lack, if I were a Protestant as before?  So I took an inventory for myself, and here is my tally. First, I’d lack the Canon of the Mass.  This may seem a strange item to place first. Yet I remember clearly that, as a Protestant, it was difficult to find proper expressions of worship.  Almost always, the language used was merely emotional, or merely human, or lacking some essential element.Whatever the gripes of some Catholics about the Novus Ordo, it remains true that each of the four versions of the Canon of the Mass gives wonderful expression to the essential truths of our faith, and the nature of Christian fellowship, in the context of giving God due worship.  These prayers express quite suitably what one looks for and esteems in the Holy Land sites. Second, I’d lack the Eucharist.  Pilgrims are aware that a pilgrimage obliterates separation in place.  “Here” (hic, in Latin) becomes the operative word.  Here the Word became flesh.  Here the precursor of the Lord was born.  Here Mary placed the infant Jesus in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. That is, after all, why one makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But the Eucharist obliterates, as well, differences in time.  Our group celebrated Mass in the chapel of the Cenacle. At that liturgy, it was not simply here but also now that the bread became his body and the wine became his blood. And those things, similarly, happen now at every Catholic Mass. Third, I’d lack the Apostolic Succession.  In saying this, I do not mean merely the commonplace point, very true, that Catholics remain under Peter, and Andrew and James, and the other apostles, just as the first Christians were.  We therefore live under the form of government that Jesus intended and established.  I mean additionally that the Apostolic Succession – with its consistent teaching over time – and the Eucharist are the types of continuity that God clearly cares about. This point is worth dwelling upon.  When you visit a site in the Holy Land, you often find there, today, a Church.  And the guide will say something like this: “This church dates to the early twentieth century, on a site where archeologists have discovered signs of pilgrimage dating back to the first century AD. The Romans built a pagan temple over it.  Under Constantine, a basilica was built there, which was destroyed by the Moors.  The Crusaders recaptured the place and built a church, which was destroyed by Saladin. The Franciscans sought from the Sultan and gained approval to build a new church there.” And so on. No holy site has been immune to such revolutions of destruction, rebuilding, and change of control. The identity of a place of pilgrimage seems incredibly left open to chance.  Sometimes even a miracle is necessary, such as in Helena’s discovery of the True Cross. God’s providence in these matters looks genuinely puzzling. And yet, in contrast, God has clearly taken great care that two things be preserved over time, the Apostolic Succession, together with continuity of teaching, and the celebration of the Eucharist, as originally instituted. “The fullest possible means to embrace Christianity” for a Protestant is, as it were, left up to chance. But these other things, which a Protestant does not possess, are not left up to chance.  (One must count Scripture among the latter – because the Bible does not verify its own canon, or carry along with itself its true interpretation.) Fourth, I’d lack miracles. As pilgrims, we stood beside the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus created bread and fish to feed the multitude. We saw the pools in Jerusalem of Siloam, where the blind man received his sight, and Bethesda, where the man sick for thirty-eight years was healed.  I remember puzzling as a Protestant why there were no longer any miracles. Many hold that an “Age of Miracles” was necessary only at the beginning, so that Christianity could spread rapidly.  (Doesn’t it need to be spread now?)  But we Catholics live and move and have our being among miracles.  We all know stories of miracles among our friends. We expect miracles. There is a Siloam and a Bethesda for any canonization. The Eucharist is a daily miracle. Fifth, and finally, I’d lack my mother as a Christian, Mary.  When I converted, I did so in spite of “the Marian doctrines,” not because of them. But I see now that my heart was impoverished then, as well as my faith. A Protestant pilgrim might well wonder why the sites involving Mary, such as her home in Nazareth, where the angel appeared to her, are just as ancient as those involving Jesus and the Apostles. Why did Christians from the start sense that she was so central? But then reflection on the Word becoming flesh should dispel that wonder, and clarify the connection between Mary, and truth’s insertion into place and time. These realities abide.  Yes, if I were a “C.S. Lewis” Christian, I’d become a Catholic again, today, by the grace of God, in a heartbeat.
The Contribution of L’Arche
Earlier this year, the L’Arche community published revelations about “credible and consistent testimonies” from six adult women without disabilities about “manipulative” and “emotionally abusive” sexual relations between Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, and these women. The findings were made on a “balance of probabilities” rather than “beyond any doubt” standard of proof but the testimonies of the women were reinforced by the documentary and archival research that L’Arche conducted  (L’Arche International, Letter from International Leaders and Summary Report, February, 2020, larche.org). When Vanier died last year, warm tributes had been paid both to him and to his work with people with an intellectual disability so these revelations caused much distress in the Catholic world and beyond. The revelations about Vanier followed similar revelations some years ago relating to his mentor and the person he called L’Arche’s “co-founder”, Fr Thomas Philippe. Many commentators have rightly underlined the courage of the women who have come forward in relation to these cases. In any issue of abuse, the abuse victims must be centre-stage and their suffering and courage need to be highlighted, and were indeed highlighted, in the report published by L’Arche. L’Arche also deserves credit for facing up so promptly to credible accusations about its founder and for the firmness of its response in “unreservedly” condemning his actions, “which are in total contradiction with the values Jean claimed.” I worked for several months as an “assistant” or full-time volunteer with the original L’Arche community in Trosly in France in the 1980s and met both Jean Vanier and Fr Philippe, though I didn’t know either of them well. My experience was relatively short and I don’t speak in any way for the community today but these are a few brief reflections on L’Arche and Vanier, on the basis of my personal experience. As a volunteer with L’Arche, I had direct experience of its positive contribution to the lives of many of its members. I am thinking particularly of the happy, home-like setting which it succeeded in creating for large numbers of people with an intellectual disability, some of whom previously had difficult or even anguished backgrounds. A French researcher used the word enracinement or “putting down roots” in relation to L’Arche – he suggested that the community helped people to put down roots or settle in a place of love and solidarity. I recall one person, for example, who, on first coming to L’Arche, stood in a corner, with his back to other people, at meal-time. Some time later, he had become a smiling and joyful presence in his community. Such experiences could be replicated many times over as L’Arche did prove to be, in the words of one of Vanier’s books, a place of “community and growth’. Living in a L’Arche house provided assistants like me with a strong sense of the unique value and dignity and indeed mystery of each person, including the person with an intellectual disability. That sense of the mystery of the person seemed to be linked to the mystery of suffering but could also be expressed in reflective or thoughtful moments as well as in beautiful smiles or in unexpected gestures of welcome and friendship. During my life there as a volunteer, I also experienced L’Arche as a place of encounter and dialogue between those of different outlooks within the Church – for example, between those who emphasised pro-life and pro-family concerns and those who emphasised social justice concerns. While I appreciate that these terms can be somewhat reductive and are not mutually exclusive, I mean that people campaigning for the protection of the right to life of the unborn, including the unborn baby with a disability, respected a community which had at its heart people with an intellectual disability. Equally, people campaigning for justice for the marginalised also felt drawn to a community which was centred on persons with an intellectual disability, some of whom had previously languished in psychiatric hospitals. Along with many others, Jean Vanier spearheaded an extraordinary growth of L’Arche around the world in a short time, from the 1960s on. One might also mention, in that context, the contribution of Faith and Light, also co-founded by Vanier, along with Marie-Hélène Mathieu, in pushing for people with an intellectual disability to come on pilgrimage, in large numbers, and in an atmosphere of joy, to Lourdes. Strange as it may seem, this was not something that had happened previously, or certainly not on a large scale, before the 1970s. I frequently found nourishment in the writings and talks of Jean Vanier, which highlighted the centrality of the person with a disability rather than his own contribution to L’Arche. Given the recent revelations, however, I do acknowledge that there must now be considerable doubt about whether these writings will continue to be widely read into the future or even whether I will return to them myself. Anyone commenting on the transgressions of another person, and particularly perhaps when that person is deceased, should keep in mind the famous injunction of Jesus in the Gospel: “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Nevertheless, along with many other friends of L’Arche, I feel sadness that the posthumous reputations of both Jean Vanier and Fr Philippe, are now, because of their own actions, permanently linked to damaging experiences of sexual misconduct and abuse. Both men came from faith-filled family backgrounds. Vanier’s father Georges was a former Canadian Ambassador to France and the first Catholic Governor-General of Canada. His mother Pauline was also a remarkable woman of faith, who spent her later years living with L’Arche in France while Vanier’s sister Thérèse did much-respected work with the hospice movement in Britain as well as with L’Arche.    Thomas Philippe came from a family of twelve children in the North of France, eight of whom became religious. Their uncle was a well-known Dominican priest and Thomas and three of his brothers joined the Dominicans. Thomas was a gifted lecturer and preacher while his brother Marie-Dominique, who also joined the Dominicans, became disconnected from that order in the turmoil of the 1960s, and subsequently set up the Community of St John. Sadly, since his death, there have also been revelations that he engaged in sexual abuse with women whom he was counselling, revelations which have also been faced up to courageously by the Community which he founded. The French Dominican order assisted L’Arche in its enquiry and has also been carrying out its own investigations into the Fr Philippe  brothers, though they both lived quite separately from the Dominicans in the later decades of their lives. As well as the serious wrong that they did, Vanier and the two Fr Philippe brothers also clearly did a lot of good. Moral theologians would be better equipped than I am to analyse how deeply flawed ideas about morality and particularly chastity affected the thinking of even committed Catholics in recent decades. What I feel that I can do today, however, is to pray both for those who had their trust betrayed by the co-founders of L’Arche and for those founders themselves.    Most people will hope that the good work of lLArche itself around the world, and its very positive contribution to the lives of its members, will continue to flourish. The prompt and transparent actions of its current leadership in the face of the recent grave revelations will undoubtedly be a very positive building block in that context.
The Demon in Democracy by Ryszard Legutko
With concerns about the Coronavirus ever-present in our minds, and many outdoor activities off limits, it is a good time to focus on some reading material which does not relate to the global pandemic. The Demon in Democracy, written by the Polish philosopher-politician Ryszard Legutko, caused a minor stir when it was released in 2016. Four years on, the book’s central themes have only become more relevant, as the tensions between and within the democratic countries of the West have grown ever deeper. During the Communist era, Legutko was among those dissidents who challenged the Soviet-backed regime which ruled his country with an iron fist. He now lectures philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Kraków (where Pope John Paul II studied and taught) and also heads up the conservative Law and Justice party’s delegation in the European Parliament. From the time Poland joined the EU in 2004, Law and Justice governments and politicians have regularly been at odds with leaders of the European institutions as well as other European governments: a trend which has accelerated since they were returned to power in 2015. Given that he is an intellectual standard bearer for his party, it is not a surprise that Legutko pushes back hard against this, and is scathing in his assessment of many trends in modern day liberalism. Having personally struggled against Communism, Legutko sees strong parallels between the ideology of those who ruled Poland between 1945 and 1989 and the mindset which prevails in most of the Western world today. While he makes clear that there is no moral equivalence between Communism and modern-day liberalism/progressivism (a belief system which he refers to throughout as “liberal democracy”), he is not shy in pointing out similarities where he sees them. “Both communism and liberal democracy are regimes whose intent is to change reality for the better,” writes Legutko. “They are – to use the current jargon – modernisation projects. “Both are nourished by the belief that the world cannot be tolerated as it is and that it should be changed: that the old should be replaced with the new. Both systems strongly and – so to speak – impatiently intrude into the social fabric and both justify their intrusion with the argument that it leads to the improvement of the state of affairs by “modernising” it.” The author divides his book into five key chapters – History, Utopia, Politics, Ideology and Religion – and analyses them in turn. The grim persecution he and his compatriots endured in Communist Poland are never far from his thoughts, and he makes a direct comparison between the socialist regime’s burning desire to completely dominate civil society and the growing intolerance shown by modern liberals. He cites several examples, but any observer of the political and cultural scene across Europe and North America will have no problem understanding what he is getting at. Every passing week brings with it fresh examples of challenges to freedom of conscience, expression and belief. Today it might be the cancelling of a conservative speaker’s talk at a college campus, tomorrow it could be legislation banning silent vigils outside abortion clinics, the day after that, another Christian minister might find himself being prosecuted for having views on marriage which conflict with newly passed and vaguely-defined “hate speech” laws. Those who call themselves liberal are rapidly becoming ever more intolerant of opposing viewpoints, and ever more willing to use the machinery of the state to bend individuals and organisations to their will. No dissent can be brooked. “Not only should the state and the economy be liberal, democratic, or liberal democratic, but the entire society as well, including ethics and mores, family, churches, schools, universities, community organisations, culture, and even human sentiments and aspirations,” Legutko writes. He argues that this intolerance of other viewpoints can in part be explained by how adherents to the liberal democratic viewpoint view themselves. Just as Marxists viewed their ideal state as the final step in the evolution of human history, many modern-day liberals have adopted an ‘End of History’ approach. It follows on from this that those who refuse to conform to the new consensus should be viewed with scorn. Legutko also argues that the liberal fondness for identity politics and the concomitant political measures to tackle perceived injustices represents a continuation of Marxist tactics, which are directed against the same enemies who  opposed Communism in Poland and elsewhere. “Both sides – communist and liberal-democratic – share their dislike, sometimes border on hatred, towards the same enemies: the Church and religion, the nation, classical metaphysics, moral conservatism, and the family.” It is strong meat, and the sort of analysis which leaves little room for discourse with the other side. Legutko sees that he is under attack. The values of his party and his Church are constantly being derided by political elites across Europe (and by a sizeable minority within Poland, it must be acknowledged) and his book is a powerful response. His contribution is valuable and necessary for a number of reasons. Firstly, Legutko’s insightful analysis of Polish society under Communism provides an insight into the attitudes of Poland’s controversial conservative government, as well as their counterparts in Hungary. Years of assaults on both countries’ reputations by EU figures, left-liberal media outlets and the usual Soros-funded NGOs have left a stain on the reputation of these great nations which is thoroughly undeserved. The words ‘Poland’ and ‘Hungary’ are now shorthand among European liberals for backwardness, authoritarianism, even fascism. The alleged sins of Law and Justice in Poland and Orbán are too many to be listed, but include such antediluvian stances as opposing a further transfer of powers to Brussels, honouring the role of Christianity in shaping their countries’ identities, resisting abortion and gender ideology, and worst of all, opposing the sort of mass Muslim immigration which is designed to fundamentally and irrevocably transform whole societies. For all this, Poland, Hungary and the other Visegrád countries are despised. The facts that these governments are democratically elected and many of their policies are broadly popular is irrelevant to the political and cultural elite represented by figures such as Guy Verhofstadt, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. The mutual distrust between the populist conservatives of both countries and the Western liberal democrats who Legutko rebukes has deep roots, and is to some extent attributable to the desire of the Polish and Hungarian governments to make a clean break from the Communist past, a process which can involve contentious steps such as, in Hungary’s case, the writing of a new constitution. Few in the West understand that many Communist-era politicians – who had played key roles in their respective dictatorships – later went on not just to participate in post-Communist politics, but to lead several governments. In Hungary for instance, Orbán’s predecessor as Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány had been a leading member of the Organisation of Young Communists in the 1980s. Gyurcsány’s Hungarian Socialist Party was the direct successor to the one-party state which a youthful Orbán once worked to overthrow. The fact that the Communist influence has not been fully removed from political life is jarring to many Polish and Hungarian conservatives, as is the (often accurate) belief that the EU’s governing class would prefer that the former Communist parties were in charge, given how amenable they are to ever closer union. In addition to focusing on Poland’s road to freedom, this book also shines a much-needed light on the perfidy of those European liberals and socialists who did nothing to oppose Soviet tyranny in central Europe, but who have since developed a strong aversion to democratically elected governments in that region which dare to oppose them. “The liberal-democratic West did not fight the Soviet empire and – with few minor exceptions – never had such intentions,” Lejutko states, after beginning his book with an account of his exasperation at travelling through the West during the Cold War and discovering that many self-described liberals were deeply reluctant to criticise Communism, and in many cases openly sympathetic to its aims. That sympathy has never fully gone away, which is why the likes of Castro or Maduro never receive the same level of condemnation in liberal circles in the West as an Orbán or a Kaczyński will. In this book, Letugko does a good job of explaining why that probably won’t change in future, either. The enemy of your enemy is your friend.
The unlikely message of hope in The Invisible Man
If you are susceptible to bedtime spooks, you would do well to avoid watching The Invisible Man at night. The recent science fiction thriller from director Leigh Whannell, based on the novel by H.G. Wells and the film series from the 1930s to 1950s, is loaded with suspense, action, and surprise that will hold many viewers on the edge of their seats. The tight, fast-paced plot, eerie score, and stellar acting together produce a chilling masterpiece about a scientific genius who haunts his ex-girlfriend – without being seen. But the film’s merits lie not just in its gripping storytelling. It is also an incisive study of good versus evil, in which the villain is wicked through and through and the heroine fights for redemption against all odds. The film opens on a dark, quiet night in which Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) finally makes her escape from her psychologically manipulative and physically abusive boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). We later learn that Cecilia, who describes herself as an ordinary suburban girl, met the wealthy optics scientist at a party. The two started dating, and over time Adrian gradually increased his influence over her life. Eventually, he took complete control over her appearance, whereabouts, words, and even thoughts. But even after Cecilia’s escape – and Adrian’s subsequently reported suicide – she finds that she is far from rid of him. A series of mysterious events convince her that Adrian is still alive, has found a way to become invisible, and is stalking her. As the film unfolds, Kass gives an incredible performance of Cecilia’s transformation from a nervous wreck to a resolute warrior fighting for her life and those she loves. Her battle against the invisible man paints a striking image of the human person’s struggle against evil. The metaphor works in large part because Adrian himself is nothing short of evil personified. Jackson-Cohen’s performance demonstrates the very image of toxic masculinity, which makes him the perfect villain in the #MeToo era. He certainly scores the movie’s progressive points, but it is not so heavy handed as to trumpet an ideological agenda. The structure of his villainy is simple yet potent: devilishly attractive and clever, he presents a facade of comfort, honesty, and affection – all to mask his insidious attempt to dominate and destroy his victims. Cecilia was once under his grip, but she broke free. Still, her refusal to be part of his twisted life brings its own brutal consequences. She must repeatedly resist and fight his attempts to overpower her, and each trial is more difficult than the last. In one pivotal moment, she is even offered relief, a way out of the torture – if she returns to Adrian. In short, the film is a true illustration of temptation. The Invisible Man offers not only a thrilling sci-fi story but also a profound message for viewers enduring any kind of moral struggle. It reminds us that amid any temptation – and even after being sucked into a tormenting world of evil – one can always find the strength to escape, to resist, and to triumph. That, in spite of the blood-curdling scenes, makes this film a story of hope.
April 2020
I Am Patrick
The reasons the church continues to honor the Apostle of Ireland more than 1,500 years after his death shine forth in the film I Am Patrick (CBN), a docudrama that will be screened in theaters on dates to be announced. Screenings originally scheduled for two nights only, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day – and March 18, were canceled due to government restrictions on crowd size and gathering places due to the coronavirus pandemic. Written and directed by Jarrod Anderson, the profile – subtitled “The Patron Saint of Ireland” – seeks to debunk many of the myths and legends that have grown up around its subject over the centuries. The goal is to capture who Patrick really was as a man and a follower of Christ. John Rhys-Davies (Gimli in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) plays Patrick in old age. With his distinctive voice and stately bearing, he brings the patriarch to life as he reflects on his past and writes his Confession, laying out the facts about his work to refute the detractors who have arisen during his evangelization of Ireland. Anderson has brought together an impressive array of people to lay out what is known about Patrick. Those interviewed include historians Charles Doherty and Elva Johnson as well as authors Thomas O’Loughlin and Father Billy Swan. They weave a narrative that reveals Patrick for the amazing missionary he was. The exact dates of Patrick’s life are not known but the historical consensus identifies him as a fifth-century figure. Probably born in Roman Empire-controlled Britain, he was the son of a deacon, though his father’s position was more that of a civil servant than a Church leader. Because Patrick (played as a teenager by Robert McCormack) was also expected to enter the civil service, he was taught to read and write. But all the youth’s plans for the future came to an abrupt end when he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken to their homeland as a slave. In his Confession, Patrick describes his descent into slavery as a wake-up call from God. His duties as a shepherd meant that he was in danger from other raiders, but his solitude gave him ample time to reflect on God’s goodness. As he came to think of God as a father he could trust, he began to pray and developed a personal relationship with him. One night, Patrick heard a voice urging him to go home, “for a ship was prepared.” Traveling two hundred miles through lands where he was constantly exposed to the danger of being recaptured, he reached the coast and found safe passage back to Britain. During all that time, he was not afraid “because he had come to know God.” Unsurprisingly, his family was thrilled to see him. But the Patrick who returned to them was very different from the Patrick who had left six years previously. He followed his desire to become a cleric, first, serving as an apprentice to the local bishop, and then being sent to Gaul (modern-day France) to study theology. In explaining Patrick’s journey to ordination, the film falters a bit, failing to clarify the process by which he would have become a priest, and then a bishop in late Roman times. Simply saying that Patrick “worked his way up the ranks to become a bishop,” seems vague and inadequate. The film then fast forwards to the middle of Patrick’s life. After a decade in Britain, Bishop Patrick (now played by Sean T. O’Meallaigh), acts on a call from God to return to Ireland as a missionary. Of course, everyone thinks this is a crazy idea because, legally, he would still be considered a fugitive slave. But Patrick insists that it’s God’s will that he go. And go he does. It’s no spoiler to say that Patrick’s evangelizing mission was a great success. And the film does a splendid job of detailing just how much of a change it was for the Irish pagans to become Christian. Some back in Britain, however, were uncomfortable with Patrick’s efforts and with the way the church was developing in Ireland. Even after decades of work, Patrick still had his critics. It was for them that he wrote his Confession, saying that his only motivation in all the preceding years of labor had been “to bring people to Christ.” The live-action and documentary elements blend well, keeping the pace moving along as the story unfolds with the help of Moe Dunford’s narration. The actors who portray Patrick at different stages of his life successfully capture the excitement, determination and zeal Patrick consistently displayed. Anderson gives moviegoers an opportunity to view this popular saint as the lover of Christ and proclaimer of the Gospel that he was. His screen biography thus makes especially apt fare for Lent. Perhaps in witnessing the radical way Patrick responded so fully to God’s calling, we might take a moment to reflect on how we live out our own vocations. For a trailer and possibly theater and ticket information when restrictions are lifted, visit: www.fathomevents.com/events/i-am-patrick. The film contains brief stylized violence. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II – adults and adolescents. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association.
White Ribbons: 'I Will Never Forget You'
By Father Dave Pivonka, TOROn the afternoon of March 6, I walked around the campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville, saying goodbye to students as they headed off for Spring Break. On that cold afternoon, it was unimaginable that those students wouldn’t come back to campus to finish out the school year. It was even more unimaginable that our University, where the Mass has always been at the center of campus life, would cease the public celebration of the Eucharist. Tragically, at Franciscan University, like everywhere else, the global spread of the coronavirus quickly made the unimaginable our new reality. I’ve been living with that new reality for over two weeks now, and I don’t like it. So, last week, I decided to do something about it: I hung a white ribbon on the door of our University chapel. Let me explain. It breaks my heart to not celebrate the Mass with students, faculty, staff, and their families. I miss the singing and the filled pews, the cries of babies and the responses of the faithful. Most of all, I miss Holy Communion; I miss giving Jesus to those hungry to receive him. I understand why our bishops and leaders made the decisions they’ve made. I’m not questioning the necessity of those decisions. Extreme social distancing, for now, is a necessary evil. Just the same, like my brother priests everywhere, I miss my people. I long for the day we can gather again, to worship, to listen to the Word of God, to preach and to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. Until that day comes, however, I want the men and women I serve to know that they are always with me in thought and prayer, that I’m not letting a day go by without interceding for them before God, and that I could never forget them. Even more important, I want them to know that God could never forget them. God didn’t forget his people when they wandered in the desert for 40 years. He didn’t forget them when they worshipped idols, ignored his commands, and found themselves exiled in Babylon. And he hasn’t forgotten us now.   Make no mistake: Our Lord does not like being separated from his people in this way. Jesus wants to give himself to us. He wants us to encounter him in the liturgy, in the Church, and in the Eucharist. And this is where the white ribbons come in. Ribbons have long been a sign of remembrance. They tell the world that we have not forgotten someone: a prisoner, a soldier, or a sick friend. I’ve tied a white ribbon onto the door of Christ the King Chapel, as well as the Portiuncula Chapel, here at Franciscan University, to remind our community that their priests and their God have not forgotten them. I’ve invited my friends who are priests and bishops to do the same. They, in turn, are inviting more priests and bishops to join us. My hope is that as Catholics walk or drive past their churches, they will see those white ribbons and know their priests are praying for them and waiting for the day we can fling open those doors to welcome them back inside. I also hope, when they see those ribbons, they know Jesus is waiting for that day, too. He longs for the day when we can gather together once more, and he can be with all of us, again, in the sacraments. That day is not yet here. Like the Israelites of old, the Catholic faithful have to wander in exile a little longer. Jesus has not left us orphans, though. He is still with us. He is with us in the Scriptures, which are his Word. He is with us in his people—those we live with, work with, or encounter online. He is with us in prayer and in silence and in the beauty of his creation, which is singing his praises as spring finally comes. Look for Jesus in all those places. Look for Jesus where you are. And when you see white ribbons hanging from a church door, remember God’s promise in Isaiah 49:15: “I will never forget you.” In the midst of the chaos and the confusion, and the craziness, let those ribbons be a reminder that your priests are still with you. Let them be a reminder that Jesus is still with you. And let them be a reminder that one day soon, this exile will end, the churches will re-open, and your priests will be standing there, ready and waiting to joyfully welcome you home.
Assisted Suicide: Compassion and Choice or Callousness and Coercion? – Patricia Casey
An American organisation, Compassion and Choice, formerly the Hemlock Society, has adopted an appealing and catchy slogan to promote their campaign for assisted suicide. The words ‘compassion’ and ‘choice’ resonate with modern society since their antonyms are cruelty and coercion. There is a danger that this language may help shut down the debate and generate a false impression that only religious people, driven by paternalism and imbued with the belief in a God of punishment, will have any objection to this practice. But there are powerful reasons why even atheists may balk at the normalisation of assisted suicide. As clinical psychiatrist and ethicist Dr. Mark Komrad points out, euthanasia is a violation of an ethical injunction that predates Christianity, with the Hippocratic Oath of ancient Greece prohibiting it. Referring to psychiatrists in particular, he said ‘We prevent suicide, we do not provide suicide.’ The religious arguments against assisted suicide are well known to the readership of Intercom. The secular arguments are generally less well appreciated. It should not be forgotten that many powerful organisations, such as the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the World Medical Association (WMA, formed in the wake of the Holocaust) and a raft of others, including the Israeli Medical Association, are opposed. However the British Medical Association is neutral, while the Canadian Medical Association favours assisted suicide and, along with the Royal Dutch Medical Association, has campaigned for the WMA to adopt a neutral position. Turning to the secular arguments, one is that the human life is precious and should be valued. All humans deserve to be treated as such, irrespective of age, sex, race, religion, social status or their capacity for achievement. Those who are frail or elderly should not be treated in an inferior manner when it comes to respecting their right to lifelong care until nature takes it inevitable course. The proponents of assisted suicide may well counter this, arguing that giving an individual choice in how they die is actually showing them respect rather than the contrary. This omits the unintended consequence that subtle coercion may remove choice from the frail and elderly if they are groomed into perceiving themselves as a burden, especially if assisted suicide becomes socially normalised. Living in a continent which faces a huge ageing population, it is unarguable that such a solution would have some appeal to governments struggling to deal with the pension crisis and with health resource problems. This utilitarian approach is very much at variance with the dogma of respect. For example, the philosopher Immanuel Kent stated that human beings should be regarded as a value in themselves and not as a means to achieving another goal, such as reducing healthcare costs. Human beings should also value themselves in all their vulnerability and frailty, and shun the pressure of self deprecation and defeatism. An argument against the introduction of assisted suicide is the slippery slope hypothesis. This proposes that once the slope has commenced, it will only get steeper. This implies that once a Assisted Suicide: Compassion and Choice or Callousness and Coercion? behaviour is minimally tolerated it will open more doors and extend the criteria for general acceptance of that behaviour. There is some evidence of this in respect of assisted suicide, as its use has extended from those who were terminally ill and had unmanageable pain, through to conditions that were difficult for individuals to deal with emotionally, such as motor neurone disease, then further reaching others with conditions such as depression, and finally, perhaps most cruel of all, to children who may be autistic or suffering with depression. Canada is to the fore in trying to extend Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) to children. Another secular concern is that MAID cedes too much responsibility and power to doctors who may begin to assume godlike authority where life and death are concerned. Their narcissism might run riot, generating singular decisions that ending lives prematurely would be the best option for some, who know no better. The nebulous question of quality of life crops up here and it may spur power-seeking doctors to decide who has and has not a good quality of life. In other words, identifying those whose life is unworthy of life. How can the poor person living alone in a tower block, compromised by emphysema, have a fruitful, meaningful life when viewed from the perspective of a wealthy doctor living in a leafy suburb, unless one clings to the view that of itself every life is worthy of life? Deviation from that value would rapidly unleash eugenic euthanasia. Consider how a patient would feel, knowing that their doctor supported and/or practised euthanasia. Could you trust that doctor to unquestioningly offer the best treatment possible, up to the natural end of life? Could you trust them to have your best interests at heart? And might the day come when, despite your protestations, you come under the doctor’s needle, as happened recently in Holland? The question of advance directives needs to be considered also. If an individual at a time of full or near full health makes a decision that at a certain point in the course of their illness their life should be ended, surely there can be no quibble about accepting that person’s wishes? However, this argument neglects the reality of the medical evidence that as people progress through different stages of an illness, their level of psychological adaptation changes. Impairments that previously appeared impossible to live with, over time are accommodated and accepted. We know that human beings are resilient and that adhering rigidly to advance directives without making allowances for the ability to adapt to changed circumstances and to factor in the inner strength that people possess, is in itself disrespectful of the human condition. Another of the emotive arguments is that unexpected suicide among cancer patients can be reduced when sufferers are aware that assistance with death in the face of intractable pain is available. This knowledge, according to the arguments, defers the rush to suicide and reduces the desperation that leads to suicide. Thus, the availability of assisted suicide actually reduced the actual suicide rates, even when those dying with assistance are excluded from the data. This can be tested by studying the suicide rates in states where it has been legalised and comparing rates of suicide before and after the legal changes. Professor David Patton, from the Industrial Economics Department of Nottingham University, compared rates of non-assisted suicide in Washington and Oregon between 1990 and 2013. The study, published in 2015 in the Southern Medical Journal, found that there was a 6.3% increase in total suicides (assisted and non-assisted) and no decrease in non-assisted suicides, as claimed by proponents of the measure. One of the arguments against physician-assisted suicide is that it would be hypocritical to, on the one hand, spend millions on suicide prevention initiatives while at the same time recommending suicide to others as a way out of their turmoil. What type of message is this, that is so empty of hope and marked by pessimism towards our patients? Does this give the wrong message to vulnerable people? Should not those who are requesting assistance be referred for psychiatric evaluation, given the data on the high prevalence of depression in this group? And of course the answer is yes. A further question is whether assisted suicide increases suicide contagion when it is presented as viable option in difficult situations. The Oregon Health Authority Data (2015) showed that as of 2012, the Oregon suicide rate was 42% higher than the national average, and this data did not include cases of assisted suicide. Further studies in other states on this question are continuing. As the threat to the innate value of human life continues apace, it is crucial to be well informed, and one of the very helpful resources is the Charlotte Lozier Institute and the work of Richard Doerflinger.1 NOTE 1 See www.lozierinstitute.org. For an interview with Richard Doerflinger on PhysicianAssisted Suicide and Euthanasia, see https://lozierinstitute.org/qa-with-thescholars-physician-assisted-suicide-andeuthanasia/. – Ed. Patricia Casey is Consultant Psychiatrist, Mater Hospital Dublin and Professor Emeritus at UCD. She is a columnist with the Irish Independent. To download this article click here: Assisted Suicide – Patricia Casey
A Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World Asks: Has It Happened at Last?
Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last? —Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins To enter my office this morning, I broke through yellow tape that read “CAUTION: DO NOT ENTER.” My office is located behind our university cathedral, over whose doors this tape is stretched, barring the way. Something strange about security tape sealing off cathedral doors. Yet, the cathedral bells, unhampered by such warnings, still ring every hour. The apocalyptic tone of world events have me feeling like a Walker Percy character; we were all lost in the cosmos until the current threat of worldwide contagion loomed upon us. In Percy’s novels, the heroes are a strange bunch, all cut from similar cloth: they are outsiders, able to see what others around them cannot. They know they are pilgrims, that human beings are essentially wayfarers, yet they are none too sure about the destination. Depressed by the general aimlessness of the human condition, these heroes—or antiheroes—hope that the bomb falls, that the Soviets press a button, the stock market crashes, and that the world will end sooner rather than later. If the world is ending, then suddenly they know what to do, how to act. If there are only moments left to live, these characters feel the urgency to love well, be good, do something that matters. However, how to go on existing during an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Our situation during the COVID-19 outbreak shares much in common with the setting of a Percy novel. At regular intervals, politicians claim to be at “war” and employ figurative language about “battling” and our greatest “weapons.” The grocery store shelves are empty of organic chicken and Charmin; we must settle for frozen turkey and Scott’s, and someone on Twitter had the audacity to bless hand sanitizer and sell it at an exorbitant price. Most concerning has been our loss of human connection. We can no longer visit our grandparents and hold their soft-skinned hands. Our walks with friends are walks alone with earphones. Instead of lunch with colleagues, we must settle for faces via screens and meetings from our couches. Even church is being hosted via Livestream; we miss eating his Body and drinking his Blood. For Percy, communion with people in particular places, the sacraments, and the liturgical calendar were the great antidotes to our malaise (Percy’s word for the “everydayness of our lives”). The vast majority of Americans are “humanist and ninety-eight percent believe in God,” his hero Binx Bolling reflects in The Moviegoer, “and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out.” We are zombies, ghosts in unfamiliar shells, divided beings who sometimes prioritize our physical needs and other times transcend ourselves with false spirituality. But, with either temptation, we do not know who we are. The interaction with other beings physically saves us from the loss of self. By kissing his fiancé Kate’s hand, where she has been anxiously shredding her fingers until they bleed, Bolling overcomes his hatred for his fellowman. In Love in the Ruins, Dr. Tom More, “the Bad Catholic at the end of the world,” stops floating above reality in his abstract thoughts about science saving all of humanity only by partaking of the sacraments—confession, Eucharist, marriage. How are those of us who cannot be with each other in our spaces and who are unable to feel the wafers on our tongues to be saved from the malaise? Percy writes stories about the end times so that we may be stirred out of our death-like states and live meaningfully. In The Second Coming, a sequel to The Last Gentleman, Will Barrett is no longer a seeker, as he once was in his youth; he is an old man and has lived a successful life. He married well, made a fortune, and now plays golf to bide his time. His situation may resonate with our own. Whereas other Percy heroes, like Bolling, endure the peace that feels like living death or, like More, strive to survive the looming apocalypse, which offers him the urgency of life, Barrett desires a third option: “Everybody thinks that there are only two things: war which is a kind of life in death, and peace, which is a kind of death in life. But what if there should be a third thing, life?” Here we are, in the 21st century, fearing an unseen sickness that could hospitalize or kill those we love, while having no way to fight it but to sit and wait. What should life look like here? In Barrett’s words: God may be good, family and marriage and children and home may be good, grandma and grandpa may act wise, the Thanksgiving table may be groaning with God’s goodness and bounty, all the folks healthy and happy, but something is missing. What is this sadness here? Why do folks put up with it? The truth seeker does not. Instead of joining hands with folks and bowing his head in prayer, the truth seeker sits in an empty chair as invisible as Banquo’s ghost, yelling at the top of his voice: Where is it? What is missing? Where did it go? I won’t have it! I won’t have it! Why this sadness here? Don’t stand for it! Get up! Leave! . . . Go live in a cave until you’ve found the thief who is robbing you. But at least protest. Stop, thief! What is missing? God? Find him! We have our families, some of us have our health, and the world continues on, “Why this sadness?” Or, “Why this boredom?” We should protest. We should be like Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version and sing, “I’ll never be satisfied” or Augustine in his Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Protest the sadness, Barrett admonishes us, and seek God. Even as thousands of deaths tally higher each day, the malaise has settled, and we have become satisfied with a lackluster existence. “We are far too easily pleased,” C.S. Lewis says in his “Weight of Glory” sermon: It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. Our schedules get cleared for months; our children sent home from closed schools, and what do we do? Either we make a list of work—learning a new language, trying a new hobby, increasing our children’s educational activities—or we throw productivity out the window in rebellion and declare that we will be streaming Netflix and allowing our children to play videogames and eat cupcakes. Neither road moves us towards our destination as human creatures and both routes will soon be overtaken by despair. In Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, Josef Pieper redefines leisure rightly as “contemplation.” When Aristotle said, “We work so we can have leisure,” he did not mean, Pieper explains, “recreation, entertainment, amusement, play . . . Wouldn’t it be quite nonsensical to think of work as drawing its justification from play?” Apparently not. Plenty of us put in our hours at the office, so that we can return home and veg out in our recliners. “Veg out”—to become like a vegetable. Are we not meant for something more? Pieper reminds us that we were made for an “activity which is meaningful in itself [and] cannot be accomplished except with an attitude of receptive openness and attentive silence.” Namely, contemplation, or the love of God. We work, so that we can have the time to enjoy and worship God, in all the places that God might be found. In Percy’s novels, the heroes do not change the world, and they minimally change their lives and behaviors. What changes is their vision and their motivation. On the outside, Binx Bolling seems to alter very little from the beginning of The Moviegoer to the end: yet, he has opened himself up to the possibility that “God himself is present here.” He is attentive to the possibilities of God’s presence, and thus, not in despair. Barrett goes a step farther by answering his own question, moving from potential to acceptance. In his conversation with Father Weatherbee about marrying Allison, he wonders, “Is she a gift and therefore a sign of a giver? Could it be that the Lord is here, masquerading behind this simple silly holy face? Am I crazy to want both her and Him? No, not want, must have. And will have.” What changes when we look for God in our daily activities or when we seek his face in those around us? Does it not make a great deal of difference to how you treat your child? For instance, if you see her as participating in God’s incarnation, a fellow pilgrim on the road to paradise, versus your property, your image, and thus your charge to form into a success story? And, when we consider the day before us not as an empty schedule to be filled, but God’s gracious and gratuitous gift of time, how then might we live differently? With a true vision, we may offer back to the Giver our minutes in gratitude, thankful for what we have been given to love and enjoy. Just as I, in my quiet office alone behind bars of yellow tape, hear the cathedral bells ring, so too, if we all attend more to the bounty than to the deprivation, then, in this season of uncertainty and potential desperation, perhaps it will be possible, even here, to find God?
Author: ‘Peace in Iraq’ is best remaining hope for country’s Christians
NEW YORK — For 25 years, Stephen Rasche served as an international lawyer — traveling the world for commercial work. But in 2015, at the request of Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, he made the decision to relocate to Erbil, Iraq — where now serves as Vice Chancellor at the Catholic University in Erbil and Director of the Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity — in an effort to wake up his fellow Christians to pay attention to the plight of region’s Christians who were on the verge of extinction. In his new book, The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East, Rasche chronicles the dramatic decline of Christians in the Middle East, many of whom feel abandoned by their counterparts in the Western world, and the policy decisions that have led to their current predicament. Released to coincide with the Lenten season, in his interview with Crux, Rasche describes how 2,000 years of history risks being lost if Christians are completely driven out of Iraq. Further, he weighs in on the possibility of a papal visit to the country, the ongoing tensions between neighboring Iran and the U.S. and the need for peace, and how Christians in the region view the Trump administration. Crux: You write that many Iraqi Christians say, “Bush has blood on his hands for the way he came in, but Obama has blood on his hands for the way he went out.” What’s the assessment of those who remain in the region of President Trump? Is that the same for those who have left and are seeking asylum in the U.S.?  Rasche: There was great hope amongst the Christians when the Trump administration first came in, which was tempered in the first two years as those hopes ran up against the reality of the institutional inertia of the existing aid paradigms and the utter dysfunction of the Iraqi central government. There has been real traction however in the past year in terms of assistance and the Iraqi Christians still place great hope in the Trump administration. As for those who have left the country and are in the diaspora, they do not hold any real hopes of getting into the U.S. now due to the heavy U.S. visa restrictions in place. For those already in the U.S. seeking asylum, theirs is a different story now, and certainly there is wariness in their communities as to what will happen to them. You cite examples of both Jews and Muslims that have stood in solidarity with the Christians in Iraq. Can you provide some examples of this and why it’s been significant?  There is a chapter in the book that deals with the importance of the Jewish voice. Speaking from their historical position and unique moral standing, these voices stood out at a time when much of the world, including much of the Catholic world, was largely silent. In a sense, the Jewish voice of solidarity was also a rebuke of sorts to the West — these are your people, it said, how can you not care? For the Muslims, we can look to those moderate voices of Islam, such as KH Yahya Cholil Staquf, who wrote very strong praise for this book, who are saying to the West — listen to the cries of your people, they are telling you something important, and they are speaking the truth. There’s been talk of — and an expressed desire by Pope Francis — for a papal visit to Iraq. What’s the likelihood of this happening and should it happen, what do you imagine the response will be?  Our understanding is that this visit has been put off indefinitely due to the danger and instability of the situation on the ground — which is very real. It does not appear that this situation will be resolved any time soon, so the likelihood to us now seems very far away. Were His Holiness ever to come, for the Iraqi Christians I think they would hope and pray that the visit would primarily be one of solidarity with them in their immense suffering and persecution, in which case it would certainly be one of the most important moments in the 2,000 year history of Christianity in Iraq, perhaps even a saving moment for their remnant people. You didn’t want to write this book initially out of some fear for personal safety. What’s been the reaction so far and how has it changed your life to date?  We will know better over the coming months. The planned talks and presentations have been all been postponed due to the coronavirus and the book is now just getting out through distributors. Based on the advance praise we hope there will be a good reception, especially amongst Christian readers during Lent and Easter. Certainly, we expect some opposition as well. As for personal safety, I am resigned that it will likely affect my ability to travel as freely as in the past, especially in the Mideast. This was part of the price. But there remains plenty of important work in this effort that I can still do in different ways. Our faith always shows us the path – I have learned that in these past five years. As the book was going to press, tensions were rising between the U.S. and Iran with Iraq caught in the middle. What’s your assessment on the state of that conflict and how can Iraqi Christians be protected in the midst of it?  That tension is still a very real and dangerous thing. Iraq could easily spiral down quickly into the new Syria. The coronavirus preoccupies Iran right now, and the border closure with Iraq affects their ability to support the militias which have been in conflict with the U.S. and coalition forces. But there are still many ways in which the violence escalates very quickly. The one ray of hope is in the goals of the protest movement, which began last October. This is covered in the postscript of the book. But if there is sustained open conflict, much of it will inevitably land on the remaining Christians and that may well mark the final end of hope for their survival. So in a real sense, peace in Iraq is the best remaining hope for the Christians of Iraq. Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
As Australia fights COVID-19, archbishop says virus changing church ministries
ROME – As more Masses and ministries go digital amid the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, many have argued the pandemic will change the way the Catholic Church evangelizes. However, one Australian archbishop has argued that this is not a theoretical discussion for the future but is happening in real time. For Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, the coronavirus crisis is not only forcing the Catholic Church to be more creative in the way it reaches people, but it is also reshaping the way faith is at home. “Forget about the future, it’s happening already. This is not the future, this is now,” Comensoli said in an interview with Crux. “It’s been extraordinary. It feels like a month, but in this last week alone the shift between doing things in one particular way to now doing things differently is quite extraordinary,” he said. One important concept Comensoli said is important keep in mind, in his view, is that the opportunity the Catholic Church has now “is not just to move what we already did onto an online platform, but to find genuinely different ways of evangelizing, of reaching out to people and letting them know that the Lord is with them and finding ways that they themselves can be a part of the life of the Gospel and the life of the local faith community.” How this is done will be different in every diocese and parish, and rightly so, he said, explaining that in Melbourne, they have “seriously geared up around digital and online opportunities.” With schools closed as part of the coronavirus restrictions, one way the archdiocese is stepping up its digital game is exploring ways to help children and adolescents continue their education and faith journey online with the help of their families. “We’ve been saying for decades and decades that faith is at home and in the parish, and now it’s literally at home,” Comensoli said. “This sort of language has been part of that church for a long time, but now it’s actually what it is.” As of Monday, Australia had 4,246 total COVID-19 cases, with 18 deaths, most of which are in New South Wales, according to Johns Hopkins. In the state of Victoria, where Melbourne is located, there have been over 800 cases but only four deaths. So far, Australia has had a much flatter coronavirus curve than other countries such as the UK, Italy and South Korea. However, while he hopes this trend continues, Comensoli said he believes this number will go up as the outbreak continues. Speaking of the images coming from hard-hit areas such as the northern Italian town of Bergamo, where coffins line church floors and family members are forbidden from having a regular church funeral, “that’s not our reality yet, but it’s coming,” he said. “We’ll eventually get to a stage (of) what you’re living through at the moment,” he said, referring to Italy, which has taken the global lead for coronavirus deaths, which have now surpassed 10,000 since the outbreak began. On Sunday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a set of tighter restrictions on social gatherings, limiting the number of people allowed to gather together outside to two. Outdoor facilities such as playgrounds, skateparks and outdoor gyms are also now closed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Australia. Personally, Comensoli said he is not frightened of the virus, “but there are many, many people who are, and my role and responsibility is to be able to accompany and carry those who are fearful, who are overwhelmed.” Speaking of Sunday’s Gospel passage recounting how Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, Comensoli noted how before Jesus performed the miracle, he was questioned by Lazarus’s sisters, who told him that if he had come sooner, their brother would not have died. For a moment, “Jesus himself is in this great grief,” Comensoli said. “He’s not there to magically do things, to rectify everything. People are going to die that we know and love. People are going to lose their jobs and livelihoods.” Even Jesus “doesn’t step into these things and magically sort them out,” Comensoli said, “but he says through death and in this moment of death, there is nonetheless a path to life after the Resurrection.” Though he stressed that he cannot predict the future, Comensoli said he believes the coronavirus pandemic is not only prompting the Church to become more creative in evangelization, but that it will also “shift people’s priorities.” “People will start to give consideration to well, what is important in my life? What is important in our family life? I think faith opens up as a possibility there,” he said, noting that his job as archbishop “is to find ways of enabling that to happen.” For Catholics, Comensoli said he believes the way faith is lived at home “will become substantive” in a way that it was not before. Referring to stories he has been told of families “suddenly finding ways of praying together,” buying candles and setting up a quiet place for prayer inside their homes, he said these “are seed-planting moments, and the effects of those into the future, we’ll wait and see, but I genuinely think this will be a time of fruitfulness.” In this regard, he said technology is now “opening up all possibilities.” On a personal note, “I’ve become an expert at Zoom,” he said, explaining that one thing he is planning to do is find opportunities where all the priests in the archdiocese can participate. Noting how he has already held one zoom meeting to pray together with the priests in his archdiocese, Comensoli said this is not normally something they would do, instead getting together two or three times a year in person. “Imagine now that all of our priests on a regular basis, I’m thinking weekly, that we gather together via Zoom to pray together,” he said, adding that the Melbourne archdiocese is now also working to digitalize interactive materials for sacramental preparation, since this is the time when Catholics in Australia typically prepare to receive the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion. “We’re looking at ways where that can happen and where families can be much, much more deeply involved in preparation for their children’s sacramental life,” he said. Whereas families in the past might have depended on the parish or local Catholic school to take care of their child’s faith formation, “Now, families are needing to consider how they might need to pass on the faith to their children more directly,” he said. Like much of the rest of the world, priests in Australia are increasingly taking the sacraments online, with many livestreaming Masses from empty parishes and cathedrals given the restrictions on public gatherings due to the coronavirus. Noting how he himself celebrated a livestreamed Mass at St. Patrick’s cathedral in Melbourne on Sunday, Comensoli said it is an “unusual experience,” for westerners, but there are some areas in the world where Catholics are not able to receive the sacraments on a regular basis. “There are parts of the world that have been living like this for a long time. We in the West, particularly, in more developed and wealthy countries are suddenly being deprived of things that we’re normally used to, where there are great swaths of the world where this has been their reality for ages,” he said, noting that this was a major talking point during the October 2018 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon. “There are parts of the region where they won’t have Mass for months on end,” he said. While the impact of celebrating Mass in am empty church likely differs depending on the personality of the priest, thinking of the thousands of people who are unable to receive the sacraments while he and other priests are able to, Comensoli said, is for him “the really sad thing about the present situation.” “I’d be dishonest if I said I was sitting here fearful of my own self, I’m not, but I deeply feel for our people and what they’re going through,” he said, noting that amid the coronavirus outbreak he has decided to dedicate the Archdiocese of Melbourne to Saint Joseph. Recalling how the outbreak began to get more serious around the March 19 feast of Saint Joseph, Comensoli said “it just came to me that he is this man who had to deal with these great challenges and difficulties thrown (at him), but he had trust. And not only did he have trust, he did things.” “He got on with working out what to do in the circumstances he found himself in, and he did it with trust in God,” he said, voicing hope that in spite of the difficulty many people are facing, he hopes they are able to find hope in their faith. Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen