Trump, White U.S. Catholicism, and the Fate of God’s Creation

November 27, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Posted in Climate Change, The Hierarchy, U.S. Politics, Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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In a blog posted soon after the presidential election, I argued that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops colluded in the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. But that’s not all there is to Catholic collusion in the Trump phenomenon, not by a long shot.

In a preliminary analysis published on November 9, the Pew Research Center reported that 52% of U.S. Catholics voted for Trump.  But 60% of white Catholics voted for Trump. And while only 26% of Latinx Catholics voted for him—67% went for Clinton—the percentage of Latinx voters going for Clinton was an 8% decline over the percentage that went for Obama in 2012. This was another component of the Trump victory

And when we examine the individuals central to Trump’s campaign, the picture is no less disheartening.   Though I could find nothing about her current religious affiliation, if she has any,  Trump’s campaign manager and current top advisor, KellyAnne Conway (née Fitzgerald) graduated from a Catholic high school and from Trinity College, once a leading Catholic women’s college.

Then there’s Steve Bannon, the former head of the Breitbart News, an unambiguously  anti-semitic, white nationalist news site, and soon to be Trump’s chief counsel in the White House. Bannon is a Catholic. In a talk he delivered at the Vatican on June 27, 2014, sponsored by the Institute for Human Dignity, he spoke of “a crisis both of our Church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.” The U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has also recently assured us of Donald Trump’s Christian values, arranged to have Bannon speak at the Vatican conference.

Then there is Paul Ryan. An article I read recently argues that we should be more worried about Reince Priebus, Trump’s soon-to-be chief of staff,  than Steve Bannon. Why? Because Priebus will ultimately be more influential than Bannon—having major impact of administration hires, for example. And he is totally on board with Paul Ryan’s campaign to eviscerate the social safety net. And what’s Ryan’s religious affiliation? Roman Catholic, of course. At least the U.S Catholic Bishops did call him out for the cuts to social programs he proposed during the 2012 election, something they hardly did at all with regard to Trump’s threats during the 2016 campaign.

Now this is by no means the first time in U.S. history that white Catholics, and their bishops, have come down on the wrong side of pivotal ethical issues. In his recent book American Jesuits and the World, the distinguished scholar of U.S. Catholicism, John McGreevy, documents how the American church, and the Jesuits, were strongly pro-slavery for a stunningly long time. I believe the church called slavery “just servitude.”

And in the 1950s, the Catholic press, and the highly influential archbishop of New York,  Francis Cardinal Spellman, strongly backed anti-Communist and anti-gay “witch-hunts” by the Catholic senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy was eventually censured by the U.S. Senate, and died, probably of alcoholism, in 1957.

But the support of slavery and of Senator McCarthy by American Catholics and the U.S. bishops pales in significance beside their support of Donald Trump. This is so because Trump is a complete climate change denier, pledged to roll back President Obama’s already inadequate climate change initiatives, and restore the fossil fuel industry. And he has already appointed a “notorious climate change denier” and “head of a coal industry funded think tank,” Myron Ebell, to lead the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some may think this is no more significant than the threat Trump poses to Muslims and undocumented immigrants. But as an editorial in this week’s issue of The Nation argues compellingly, climate change is the “worst crisis that human beings have ever faced.” And as the U.S. Catholics who voted for Trump, and those who work for him, and the bishops well know, this is an increasingly irreversible crisis that the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has called out emphatically in an encyclical, the primary teaching instrument of the Catholic Church.

But who cares about that? What really matters to the majority of white U.S. Catholics,  a minority of Latinx Catholics, and the vast majority of the U.S. Catholic bishops, is the “right to life.” And everybody understands that the earth, God’s creation, has nothing to do with life.




Race Murder and Ecological Destruction

June 23, 2015 at 10:20 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The pastor at my parish, Michael Perry, had his work cut out for him last Sunday.

Our Lady of Refuge is a tri-lingual, multiracial parish in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. (Some say it’s in Midwood, but that’s another discussion). There are a few odd lots of white folk there, me, for example, but basically, Refuge is a Caribbean-Latino-Haitian parish.

So the pastor pretty much had to begin by acknowledging the murder of nine African Americans at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston the previous Wednesday. This is not to suggest that he wouldn’t have wanted to in any case. But the murder of nine people of color in a church can’t help but mean a great great deal to a church full of people of color. As Father Perry said, the people of Our Lady of Refuge were grateful that the murders hadn’t happened there.

Then there was Father’s Day. Encouraging fathers–and mothers and families–is one of the things Catholic churches do well, and Refuge did so, acknowledging fathers at various points in the liturgy, and conducting a blessing ritual for all the fathers present before the last blessing.

And then there was  Francis’s encyclical, “On the Care of Our Common Home.” Apparently a lot of priests and bishops didn’t mention the encyclical, despite the fact that it was garnering massive attention around the world, in the media, from other faith leaders, even from secular environmentalists. But Michael Perry was not one of those priests or bishops. He spoke of the encyclical in his introduction to the liturgy; he talked about it in his sermon; and he spoke about it again in his comments before the end of Mass. The earth is our home, he reminded us, and the Pope reminds us that we have to care for her as we care for the poor. I especially loved what he had to say about the attacks on the encyclical on Fox News. You go, Father Perry!

All in all, this was a lot of stuff to fit into one liturgy and sermon (along with the usual readings, offertory, canon, consecration, communion routine.) And I can’t really imagine any way that the pastor could have dealt with Father’s Day except the way he did–directly.

One way that he might have consolidated his treatment of the Charleston racial murders and the Pope’s call for us to stop making our common home into a pile of filth is that in certain respects, they are the same violence. And I’m not being metaphorical here: the destruction of Black lives in Charleston (and elsewhere) and the destruction of our common home are underpinned by the same mistaken vision–that the earth, and people whose color resembles the earth, are equally worthy of mistreatment. The nineteenth century ideology of Social Darwinism was an inherent part of all this: black and brown people had evolved from the animals, who had in turn merged from the soil. At the top of the heap were white people, who had the right to abuse those beneath them by virtue of being on top.

Another dimension of the link between racism and environmental destruction is that so many (ostensibly white) people don’t understand the ways in which their own ancestors were once associated with the earth. One of the things that most astounds me about the noxious politics of Irish-Americans like Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy is that they are oblivious to the reality that the Irish immigrants in this country were considered much farther down the evolutionary pyramid than Irish-Americans think they are today. The phrase “black Irish” can be illustrated by  a cartoon from the nineteenth-century anti-Catholic caricaturist Thomas Nast portraying Catholic bishops as crocodiles crawling out of the water. And then there was the eighteenth century English travel writer who described the Irish as “primitive savages in the sea of Virginia.” Paul Ryan is genealogically a lot closer to those murdered folks at Mother Emanuel than he cares to admit.

A French historian whose name I’m blanking on (Mouthot, maybe) also clarifies the link between environmental destruction and Wednesday’s race murders when he argues that the end of slavery was less about abolitionist virtue than it was about the invention of the steam engine. Coal, and later oil, were cheaper and easier to maintain and house than actual human beings, so once the steam engine was invented, slaves came to be seen as less and less economical. This helps me understand why it was that the  British government who allowed a million Irish to die in the Potato Famine of the late 1840s were adamantly abolitionist. Each policy was more economical.

So to return to my pastor’s sermon: while  the shooting of nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and Pope Francis’s encyclical on the care for our common home may seem to be two different topics, actually, destroying our brown (and green and yellow and white) mother earth and our brown and black brothers and sisters are pretty much one and the same activity. And as Papa Francesco says, until we understand that we are fundamentally connected with God, Creation, and one another, we are in for really big trouble.

What Paul Ryan Forgets

August 20, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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A number of commentators, myself included, have been opinionating of late about whether Paul Ryan has a “Catholic problem.”

Another dimension of Ryan’s public profile worth considering is his Irishness. Ryan apparently gets a lot of mileage out of claiming to be a rags-to-riches Irishman:  descended from Famine Irish, as they’re called, but now wealthy thanks to his financially successful parents and grandparents.

Trouble is, that story leaves out a few details. For example, the fact that a million Irish, the vast majority of them Catholic, starved to death during that same Potato Famine of 1845 to 1850 that Ryan claims so proudly. And that the British government contributed massively to this starvation by deciding that it would be bad for the Irish character if the government gave hand-outs to the starvees. And that said government was immovably committed to the belief that if they just let the market take care of problems like this, everything would straighten itself out. This economic ideology, which resulted not only in the deaths of a million Irish but in the forced emigration of two million more, is called “laissez-faire capitalism” or “neoliberalism.”  And it’s the economic theory that underpins Ryan’s much-touted budget.

I was thinking of writing about this–about how our Irish-Catholic ancestors, Paul’s and mine, are basically turning over in their graves because of the cuts he’s proposing–when an historian named John Kelly saved me the trouble. (If you want to become a successful blogger, you have to write about things the moment you think of them and not spend the weekend up the Hudson at a fabulous wedding!!)

In an article called “Paul Ryan’s Irish Problem” in the August 18 issue of The Daily Beast, Kelly writes,

“The Irish famine, widely regarded as the worst natural disaster of the 19th century, began when, between 1845 and 1850, repeated crop failures reduced the population of Ireland by a third. But crop failure wasn’t what caused the worst of it: a government economic philosophy called ‘Moralism’ and speeches made in Parliament that are almost word-for-word like Ryan’s own speeches about his Republican budget are what made the famine catastrophic, causing needless deaths.

“Charles Trevelyan, the British official who oversaw famine relief, was so intent on rooting out the ‘cankerworm of government dependency’ from the character of hungry peasants that he ordered relief food be sold rather than given away. That decision was the single-most devastating one, increasing famine deaths multifold—and unnecessarily.

“The words Paul Ryan used, last March, to introduce the Republican budget that eviscerates Medicare and other ‘entitlements,’ had, to my famine-trained ears, an eerie echo to Trevelyan’s. Ryan declared that America was at an ‘insidious moral tipping point,’ adding that ‘the president is accelerating this.’ He went on to say that a capacious safety net ‘lulls able-bodied people’…’into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It’s demeaning.’ Far better for the American character for the poor to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps”…”

Drawing on his new book, The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish PeopleKelly argues that Ryan (and Romney) are rigid ideologues much like Trevelyan and his fellow strengthener of the Irish character, Sir Randolph Routh, who cared not the least about the effects of their policies on the starving peasants of Ireland. He concludes:

“Whether 165 years ago across the ocean or now, in America, there’s a danger  in the inflexible ideas of staunch ideologues… The British government assembled some of the most able bureaucrats in Whitehall to oversee famine relief. But men like Trevelyan and Routh were free market ideologues, and ideology creates a form of tunnel vision that blinds the ideologue to context.

“Yes, the free market is a very efficient instrument, but it runs on the profit motive, and in a period of crisis—whether 1845’s catastrophic crop failure or our current economic near-collapse—measures need to be taken—feeding the hungry, employing the unemployed—that, in the short run at least, won’t make anyone money.”

I have a funny feeling we won’t be hearing too much about this side of Paul Ryan’s Irish heritage at the Republican Convention next week.

More on Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand

August 15, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Jennifer Burns, the Stanford historian whose radio interview I discussed in my last post, has more to say about Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. Among other things, she argues that no matter how much Ryan thinks of Rand, Rand wouldn’t think much of him.

An Ayn Rand Catholic?

August 14, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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As you surely know by now, Mitt Romney has chosen Paul Ryan as his running mate on the Republican presidential ticket. Paul Ryan, of course, is the author of a budget passed by the US House of Representatives in March that would have cut Medicaid and other health programs by $770 billion and other programs, including welfare, food stamps, agriculture subsidies and transportation by nearly $2 trillion. You also may have heard that Ryan is a Roman Catholic.

What you may not know is that the great inspiration of Ryan’s career in politics is Ayn Rand, the 20th century Russian emigre novelist, and political ideologue. Ryan announced this himself at a meeting of the Ayn Rand Society in 2009, that is to say, three years ago. Rand was adamantly opposed to any connection between the government and the economy. She had her reasons: she’d grown up under Soviet communism and believed that Stalinist repression of free enterprise was the greatest evil known to humankind. Her philosophy is the absolute reversal of all things communist: laissez-faire economics, radical individualism, every tub on its own bottom. She despised the New Deal, and hated Eisenhower for not eviscerating it. (To learn more about all this you can listen to an interview of the Stanford University Ayn Rand scholar, Jennifer Burns, on today’s Brian Lehrer Show  on WNYC).  This radical economic individualism is what Ryan’s budget embodies and what Romney has endorsed by choosing Ryan as his running mate.

The other thing worth knowing about Rand, however, is that she was an absolute atheist. This, according to Dr. Burns, was why, despite her opposition to communism, she was not popular in the 1950s and 1960s, during the “Cold War.” Communism was identified with atheism, so an atheist anti-communist was a contradiction in terms. She was also adamantly opposed to libertarianism, believing it was hypocritical, and hated Ronald Reagan because of his adulation of the Religi0us Right. In some respects, she was an individualist’s individualist, belonging to no party except her own. This is the great inspiration of Paul Ryan’s career in “public service,” as he describes it.

In her interview Dr. Burns argues that as Paul Ryan has become a figure on the national stage, he has tried to put some distance between himself and Ayn Rand’s atheism, but that his economic position is still Randian through and through. And if you’ve studied much philosophy you realize that it’s not so easy to to divide something like the religious/metaphysical dimension of a world-view from its economic/political perspective: atheism fits pretty well with massive individualism and letting the market take care of everybody. Alternatively, it’s kind of hard to believe in the Christian God and leave your neighbor to shift for him or herself. (See, for example, Luke 10:25–29.)

So as a Randian, can Paul Ryan be a Catholic? Well, as another Paul said, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), so I guess Ryan is as much a Catholic as the rest of us sinners. It’s worth noting, however, that the US Catholic bishops criticized Ryan’s budget fairly strongly, arguing that it fails to meet the moral criteria of “promoting the common good of all.” With the choice of Ryan as Romney’s running mate, the bishops’ criticism is getting a certain amount of play, in an editorial in the New York Times, for example.

Trouble is, hardly any ordinary Catholics are aware of the bishops’ criticism of the Ryan budget. (I’ve been taking a survey.) What they’re aware of is that the bishops sponsored a two-week protest against the Obama administration’s denial of Catholic institutional and individual entrepreneurial religious freedom. I’d be willing to bet my vast fortune that not fifty priests in the entire country addressed the bishops’ criticism of the Ryan budget from the pulpit. How many do you supposed spoke of the “Fortnight of Freedom”? Meanwhile, I note that Paul Ryan’s ideological mentor, Ayn Rand, was adamantly pro-abortion. Wonder what Paul-baby will make of that one?

From the New Breed of Catholics, O Lord, Deliver Us

January 10, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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To fully understand this post, there are some things about me that you should know. To wit, I am an “Irish-Catholic” of  a certain sort. My father’s mother, Rose Ronan, was an Irish immigrant who died when he was nine, at which time his father, the rotter Tom, vanished. Dad dropped out of high school after the ninth grade to join the Civilian Conservation Corps; the Irish aunts who had been raising him could no longer afford to feed him. After “The War” Dad worked shifts at the Philadelphia Electric Company, and eventually became the president of his IBEW local. Sometimes, at the dinner table, he would announce to my brother and me, “If you ever vote Republican, or cross a picket line, you will go to hell.” I consider this the beginning of my theological education. I was well into high school before it dawned on me that being Irish, being Catholic, being a Democrat, and being pro-union were not all one thing. One of my favorite stories from all of US history is how the Bronx’s Ed Flynn, one of the last great Tammany Hall bosses, worked to get FDR elected and to establish the New Deal, a program modeled on the social welfare that the Irish/ Democratic/Catholic machine delivered to its own.

So when, back in December, I came across an article in the Times titled “Newt Gingrich Represents New Political Era for Catholics,” I very nearly retched. I leave it to the pundits to comment on Newt’s six-year affair with the woman who eventually led him into the RCC and will  stick to Newt’s social positions, nearly all of which are at odds with Catholic social teaching. Take for example his advocacy of child labor as a means of undercutting the janitor’s union (perhaps he thinks that if my Dad had done more janitoring in grade school he wouldn’t have had to live off  government give-aways in the CCC ). Then there’s Newt’s deleting a chapter on climate change from his latest book even as the current “green pope,” Benedict XVI, calls on all people of good will to work to stop it. Or consider Newt’s $30,000 an hour non-lobbyist income from Freddie Mac; this is not, let me assure you, what the church means by a “living wage.”   Newt, baptized by a cardinal, seems to be more like the Piccolomini princes of the Renaissance, seduced by the church’s power and intellectual grandeur,  than like the nuns and priests and laypeople of my father’s generation of Catholics (and of my own)  laboring, as Jesus said, to bring “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).

Newt, of course, is not the only instance of this new breed of Catholics, or the Times article wouldn’t speak of a “new political era.” There are lots of others. Take, for example, Paul Ryan. Ryan’s budget is based in the same neo-liberal economic assumptions that inspired the British government to let a million Irish starve during the Potato Famine, so as to protect them from the dangerous notion that the world owed them a living. But Newt, somehow, is more offensive to me than all the others, sitting in basilicas listening to his wife sing in massed choirs before he goes out to preach a gospel of greed and dishonesty across the US.

I suppose I should just count my blessings: Sarah Palin, at least,  has abandoned holy mother church to share her wisdom and example with “Bible-believing” Christians around the world.

Fraudulent Catholics?

May 12, 2011 at 11:25 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Two of our grandkids (and their parents) live out in western Massachusetts, in a village called Warren, near Springfield. One weekend when we were there I went to Mass at a church the next village over.

It was a pretty amazing experience. Almost everything about the liturgy, except that it was in English, could have taken place in my childhood parish in the 1950s: they even said the prayers at the end of Mass that we used to say before Vatican II, in which, among other things, we prayed to St. Michael the Archangel.

The most stunning part of my one and only visit to that church, however, was a poster in the lobby titled “Fraudulent Catholics,” with the names and photos of sixteen politicians, all Democrats, who had voted for some kind of legislation related to reproductive choice. The ones I remember are John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi–Pelosi whom some consider the most successful Speaker of the House in fifty years for getting the first real expansion of health care passed since the Johnson administration.

Let me be clear: I  can understand disagreeing over political questions. Even claiming that certain actions are against the teachings of the church. The term “fraudulent Catholics” strikes me as a little over the top, though. Besides which, if theses men and women aren’t real Catholics, why should they care what the St.-Michael-lovers out near Sturbridge think?

This brings me to two other Catholics, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Congressman Paul Ryan, who are working like maniacs to do away with the social safety net that US Catholics, including our bishops and politicians, did a lot to get put into place. After all, Catholic immigrants throughout US history have comprised a good percentage of the poor; in some ways, the New Deal was the expansion of the kind of aid  Catholic parishes, Sisters, and machine politicians gave immigrant Catholics before World War II.

As you perhaps know, a group of Catholic professors and leaders have sent a public letter to John Boehner on the occasion of his addressing the graduates at the Catholic University of America, pointing out to him that the budget cuts he advocates in Medicare and Medicaid and other social programs are contrary to Catholic social teaching. I’m delighted that they did this, and proud of them for not descending into the kind of vilification that that poster out in western Massachusetts does.

I wonder, though, whether the current batch of Catholic bishops will show the kind of directness regarding the evisceration of the social safety net that they have shown on the subject of abortion. If Ryan’s proposal to block-grant Medicaid really does pass, thus cutting back massively, for example,on funds that extend nursing home care  for incapacitated elderly Americans whose savings are exhausted, will Ryan’s bishop deny him communion? Or is sex the only thing that merits unambiguous episcopal action?

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