Second Thoughts about Pope Bergoglio: A Liberation Pope or Just More Blah, Blah?


I’m still trying to figure out the new pope, Francis I. Initially, I was very skeptical and even negative about his election. After all he was carrying all that baggage from Argentina’s “dirty war.” And some incidents there made me see Francis as just another right-winger in the tradition of his immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Tongue partly planted in cheek, I called for his resignation.

Gradually however, I’ve come to question my rush to judgment. True, the new pope faltered with early missteps regarding women. He seemed to reiterate Benedict XVI’s admonition to U.S. women religious to focus more on the issues of contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage, rather than on social justice for the poor and electoral politics. He even warned a group of sisters against becoming “spinsters” or “old maids” (depending on the translation) rather than fruitful celibates.

But then he went to that women’s prison on Holy Thursday and drew fire from conservatives for including women among those whose feet he washed that day. I concluded that the jury is still out concerning Francis and women. Like most of us males, he clearly has room to grow.

As I wait for the jury’s verdict, two recent incidents have led me towards a more positive evaluation in the court of my own mind. To begin with, Leonardo Boff, a leading liberation theologian who had been silenced by the Ratzinger-Wojtyla team, surprised me by his own positive assessment. He even identified the new pope as a “field” liberation theologian as opposed to a “desk” theologian. Despite his reservations in the past about liberation theology, Bergoglio, Boff said, was truly committed to the poor. Boff was hopeful that the Argentinian might change the direction of the Vatican policy of suspicion and rejection over the last 30 years towards the “preferential option for the poor” so central in the thought of activists committed to the welfare of the world’s poor majority.

Then a couple of weeks ago, a second occurrence made me think Boff might have a point. The pontiff made some surprisingly critical remarks about capitalism and ethics to a group of new ambassadors to the Vatican.

Here are some excerpts. They are worth quoting at length:

“. . . We must also acknowledge that the majority of the men and women of our time continue to live daily in situations of insecurity, with dire consequences. . . The financial crisis which we are experiencing makes us forget that its ultimate origin is to be found in . . . the denial of the primacy of human beings! We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old (cf. Ex 32:15-34) has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.

The worldwide financial and economic crisis seems to highlight . . the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption. Worse yet, human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away. We have started a throw-away culture.

This tendency is . . . being promoted! In circumstances like these, solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy. While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good. A new, invisible and at times virtual, tyranny is established, one which unilaterally and irremediably imposes its own laws and rules . . . The will to power and of possession has become limitless.

Concealed behind this attitude is a rejection of ethics, a rejection of God. Ethics, like solidarity, is a nuisance! It is regarded as counterproductive: as something too human, because it relativizes money and power; as a threat, because it rejects manipulation and subjection of people: because ethics leads to God, who is situated outside the categories of the market. God is thought to be unmanageable by these financiers, economists and politicians, God is unmanageable, even dangerous, because he calls man to his full realization and to independence from any kind of slavery. . . I encourage the financial experts and the political leaders of your countries to consider the words of Saint John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs” (Homily on Lazarus, 1:6 – PG 48, 992D).

. . . There is a need for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. . . Money has to serve, not to rule! The Pope . . . has the duty, in Christ’s name, to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote them. . . .

The common good should not be simply an extra, simply a conceptual scheme of inferior quality tacked onto political programs. . . . In this way, a new political and economic mindset would arise that would help to transform the absolute dichotomy between the economic and social spheres into a healthy symbiosis. . . .Are you surprised by those words? Here the pope is saying that:

1. The wealth gap between the rich and poor is completely unacceptable.
2. It is caused by unfettered markets which reduce people to consumers subordinate to material production.
3. Free markets are heartless, inhumane and idolatrous.
4. Remedying that problem necessitates government interference in the marketplace.
5. . . . based on an ethics of solidarity taking its lead from the poor and prioritizing human welfare and the common good over untargeted economic growth.
6. Solidarity ethics find their origin in God who calls all humans to liberation from slaveries and idolatries of all kinds.
7. So governments must overcome their reluctance to correct the wealth-concentrating tendencies of free markets,
8. . . . and the attitude which sees ethical and theological concerns as counter-productive when they
prioritize the needs of the poor over the profits of financiers and the moneyed classes.
9. Avoidance of these responsibilities makes governments complicit with the crimes of robbery from the poor who (rather than the rich) are the true owners of the resources of God’s creation.
10. Economics and social justice should not be understood as standing in opposition to one another, but as mutually nourishing.

I find the pope’s words encouraging and quite promising. True, most popes (even J.P.II and Ratzinger) made isolated statements in tune with the comments just quoted. And taken as a body, the social teachings of the Catholic Church from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) to Vatican II’s “Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes, 1965) are progressive enough though they remain the church’s “best kept secret.”

Yet, the words I’ve quoted come from a new pope who (as Boff notes) has demonstrated his concern for the poor in practical ways, and has embodied a preference for simple living, And that might be sufficient reason for hope the pope’s words will define his papacy rather than simply being more papal “blah, blah.”

The jury’s still out.

A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request

Today’s posting is just for fun. It was sent to me by a life-long friend, Ray Walsh – a White Sox fan – and I thought it worth sharing.

Ray knows I’ve been a Cub fan all my life since the days of “Big Hank Sauer,” Bob Rush, Roy Smalley, Mickey Owen, Wayne Twilliger, and Dee Fondy. Ernie Banks was my boyhood hero. Ray and I had many arguments about who was the better shortstop – Ernie or Luis Aparicio.

I’ve even inflicted my Cub fan-ism on my children. Growing up, my daughter, Maggie, had a crush on Cub first baseman, Mark Grace. No summer time visit home is complete without my sons, Brendan and Patrick, going with dad to Wrigley Field to “root, root, root for the Cubbies” — as old Harry Carey always sang it.

Lately though, I’ve found myself less interested. When I speak with my brother, Jim, on Skype he always fills me in on the latest Cub loss. Last week, Jim was telling me how the Cubs are improving and “should be a .500 ball team this year.” (I remember, by the way, that .500, “breaking even” – winning as many games as they lost – was the best any of us could expect of the Cubs when I was growing up. Usually they didn’t even make that.

And then there was 1969! I remember so well that the Cubs were on their way to their first pennant since 1945, and perhaps their first World Series since 1910. And then there was the big September collapse. I still haven’t forgiven the Mets for overtaking them.

Don’t even mention Steve Bartman!

Oh, well, as they say in Chicago, “Any team can have a bad century.”

I could go on and on about this. But Steve Goodman has done it for me. He’s said it all in this video Ray sent me, “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” Enjoy!

“You Lose; You Lose; You Lose; You Lose, and then You Win”: The Difference between Knowledge and Wisdom (Sunday Homily)


Readings for Trinity Sunday: Prv. 8: 22-31; Ps. 8: 4-9; Rom. 5: 1-5; Jn. 16: 12-15.

As I was preparing this week’s homily, I thought I would focus on a piece of good news for people of faith. For me, that would be a change of pace, because the pages of our newspapers are daily filled with such bad news. At last, I thought, there was something good to report – and related to this morning’s liturgy of the word and its surprisingly indigenous and tribal themes about Wisdom, the Great Spirit and their manifestations in God’s creation. Unfortunately my piece of good news did not stand up to history’s harshness to indigenous people and to the rest of us who are not rich and powerful.

I’m referring to the recent conviction of Guatemala’s ex-president, Rios Montt on charges of genocide. As a frequent visitor to Guatemala along with my students, I’ve followed closely efforts by Guatemala’s Mayan population to bring Montt to justice.

General Efrain Rios Montt was the U.S.-supported dictator who took power by a coup d’état in 1982. On May 10th (just a couple of weeks ago) he was held responsible for the deaths of more than 1700 Guatemalan Mayans in a 40 year-long war that killed more than 200,000 “Indians,” and disappeared more than 30,000 others.

It was the first time a modern head of state has been convicted of genocide in his own country. The octogenarian president, who had been trained at Washington’s Kennedy School, was a vocal born-again Christian, and supported by President Reagan and the Washington establishment was sentenced to more than 80 years in prison.

Montt’s conviction represented a huge victory for Guatemalan priests, religious, catechists who served Guatemala’s poor. Thousands of them had been butchered by the brutal Guatemalan military. It was a victory for peasants, workers, union leaders, social workers, teachers, students and others without public power. They had been working on this case for more than two decades despite threats and violence coming from the Guatemalan oligarchy and the U.S.-trained military that supports it. Above all, Montt’s conviction was a victory for Guatemalan Mayans whose various tribes compose 70% of the country’s population.

I was going to say that the Montt conviction showed that the Forces of Life and Justice coupled with hard work and dedication of ordinary people can achieve miracles even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I intended to point out how the patient indigenous understanding of the unity of all creation, the long arc of history, and the Great Spirit’s powerful Wisdom finally received improbable confirmation.

But then last Tuesday, Guatemala’s Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision on a technicality. As a result, the 86 year old genocide is (at least for the moment) a free man.

The reversal raises the question about the direction of history, who’s really in charge, and what forces (good or evil) will ultimately triumph. An answer to that question, I think, is implied in today’s readings, which, as I said reflect a peculiarly indigenous, tribal point of view about the direction of history and its Sovereign.

That shouldn’t surprise us because the Jewish Testament is a tribal document, isn’t it? Jesus himself was a tribal person – not a product of bourgeois society like us. Once again, according to tribal beliefs the world over, the earth and its history ultimately belong to God. The planet has been given as gift to earthly creatures and to humans as a trust. If it “belongs” to anyone, it belongs to ordinary people – to the poor and not to those whose only claim to ownership resides in their bank accounts.

Today’s liturgy of the word celebrates that viewpoint in terms of the Wisdom of Jesus and his Holy Spirit. In effect, the readings tell us not to worry whether good or evil will triumph in history. From time’s beginning that issue has already been settled, because in the long run God’s Wisdom is in charge not only of human history, but of the entire cosmos. Far from asking us to worry, God’s Wisdom requires us to know one thing only – what every tribal person knows.

You see, wisdom is different from knowledge. Knowledge is the intellectual grasp of data and so-called “reality.” The knowledgeable person knows many things. And that knowledge often tells us that the world is hopeless; the cards are stacked against ordinary people – like the Mayans of Guatemala – and their thirst for justice and hope. The powerful have insured the maintenance of the status quo, for instance by retaining power to annul unfavorable court rulings.

The tribal wise people on the other hand need to know one thing only. In theological terms, they know (and act on the knowledge) that the Lord is present in every human being and in all of the earth and that in the big scheme of things, God’s Wisdom will triumph. Hinduism’s Shveshvatara Upanishad puts it this way: “Know that the Lord is enshrined in your heart always. Indeed there is nothing more to know in life. Meditate and realize the presence of God in all the universe.”

The first reading from the Book of Proverbs seconds that insight from the Upanishads. Proverbs portrays Wisdom as God’s guiding principle for the creation of the entire universe. Wisdom is embedded in the very laws of creation. The author pictures it as playing before God as the Creator pours God’s Self into the earth, its oceans, skies, and mountains – and into the human race.

Today’s responsorial psalm also agrees. It praises wise human beings. In God’s creative order, they are almost angels. They are crowned with honor and glory, the psalmist says; they rule the earth. This is because they realize (as the Mayan indigenous of Guatemala do) that they are sisters and brothers with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and with the creatures of the deep.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said something similar; he saw the wise as “gentle” (meek); he promised that they would have the earth for their possession. They are princesses and princes, kings and queens in disguise whatever their earthly social status and wherever they find themselves.

Finally, the Gospel reading from John concurs with the understanding of the wise which sees them as single-minded – as knowing only that one necessary thing (God’s presence in each and every creature). John says that the wise who (like Jesus) know that one thing, ultimately receive everything from God, the origin of all things good and wise. So John has Jesus again tell his friends not to worry about anything – not even about remembering the many things he might tell them.

Instead, they should rely on God’s Spirit of Truth who will remind them of the one thing necessary. That Spirit will remind them that Jesus, the Gentle and Incomparable One embodied conscious awareness of God’s presence in everything. Consequently (like all the gentle) he has been given everything that belongs to God. “Everything that the Father has is mine,” says the crucified and apparently defeated one.

Living in accord with Jesus’ spirit of conscious unity with God brings peace even in the face of ostensible failure. That’s what Paul says in today’s second reading. Even though we might be otherwise afflicted, those very afflictions will strengthen our character, Paul writes. The love which Jesus’ Spirit pours into our hearts will produce great hope when those around us are mired in and depressed by their despair.

Can you imagine the despair of the Mayans during the genocide – and now by the reversal of the Montt decision? Can you imagine their temptations to discouragement before the overwhelming odds they face in pursuing God’s justice against the brutal killers of their relatives and friends?

The message of today’s readings: Don’t be discouraged. Instead be mindful of God’s Wisdom. It is present in your heart and in the very fabric of the cosmos. Despite appearances to the contrary, and despite the best-laid plans of the powerful, the Forces of Life and Justice will prevail in the end.

Or as the great community and labor organizer, Mother Jones said “You lose; you lose; you lose; you lose, and then you win.”

That final, improbable victory of God’s wisdom and justice is what’s promised in our readings today.

Thinking Critically about Marxism, Socialism and Communism (All in fewer than 1000 words!)


[This is the third blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought. Last week started a sub-series on the first rule of critical thought, “Think Systemically.” That rule holds that we can’t really escape Plato’s Cave unless (without prejudice) we’re clear about the meaning of the key systemic terms: capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, mixed economy, and fascism. Last week’s blog entry tried to explain capitalism in three simple phrases: (1) private ownership of the means of production, (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings. This week’s episode turns to the main critique of capitalism (Marxism) and to the nature of its alternatives, socialism and communism. Again without judging, it will clearly explain these terms using just three points each and in fewer than 1000 words. I promise.]


Marxism represents the Western tradition’s most trenchant critique of capitalism. Marxism’s three points are as follows: (1) capitalism necessarily exploits workers and the environment, (2) workers will eventually rise up against such exploitation and replace capitalism with socialism, and (3) socialism will eventually evolve into communism. Let’s consider those points one-by-one.

First of all, Marxism’s critique of capitalism holds that the system necessarily exploits workers (and by extension, as we shall see, the environment). The adverb “necessarily” is emphasized here to show that, on Marx’s analysis, the destructive nature of capitalism is not dependent on the personal qualities of individual capitalists. Regardless of their personal virtue or lack thereof, the market mechanism itself forces capitalists to exploit workers (and the environment). This is because, for one thing, workers are forced to enter a labor market whose wage level is set by competition with similar workers seeking the same job. As a result, each prospective employee will bid his competitors down until what economists have called the “natural” wage level is attained. Marx found this “natural” level below what workers and their families need to sustain themselves in ways worthy of human beings.

For Marxists, the capitalist system does not merely exploit workers of necessity. It also necessarily exploits the environment. That is, the market’s supply and demand guidance dynamic punishes the presence of environmental conscience on the part of producers. Thus, for example, a conscientious entrepreneur might be moved to put scrubbers on the smokestacks of his factory and filters to purify liquid effluents from his plant entering a nearby river. In doing so, he will, of course, raise his costs of production. Meanwhile, his competitors who lack environmental conscience will continue spewing unmitigated smoke into the atmosphere and pouring toxins into the river. Their lowered costs will enable them to undersell the conscientious producer, and eventually drive him out of business. In this way, the market rewards absence of environmental conscience.

Marx’s second point is that the exploitation which the capitalist system necessarily fosters will cause rebellion on the part of workers. They will rise up against their employers and overthrow the capitalist system.

Marx’s third point is that the workers will replace capitalism with socialism. Socialism will eventually evolve into communism. So what do those terms mean?


For Marx capitalism’s replacement at the hands of workers is socialism. This economic system is capitalism’s opposite on each of the three points indicated earlier. First of all, whereas capitalism espouses private ownership of the means of production, socialism advocates public ownership. According to this theory, the workers themselves take over the factories and administer them, not for the profit of the few, but for the benefit of workers and their families.

Secondly, whereas capitalism demands free and open markets, socialism mandates controlled markets. Since socialism has the interests of the working majority at center, its pure theory will not allow, for instance, production of luxury crops (such as roses or coffee) if that production deprives workers of the food they need for subsistence.

Thirdly, whereas capitalism idealizes unlimited income, socialism calls for redistribution of income – for instance, through a progressive income tax. For socialism, greed is definitely not good. So it might also limit income by establishing ceilings beyond which personal incomes are not permitted to rise. Taxes and surplus earnings are then used for the common good, for example to fund schools, clinics, food subsidies, affordable housing, rents and health care.


As for Communism, it is a “vision of the future” which some, though not by any means all, socialists entertain as history’s end point. That is, while all communists are socialists, not all socialists are communists. This is because some socialists (along with all capitalists, of course) consider the communist vision of the future as unrealistic and unattainable. That vision, overly idealistic or not, is of a future where there will be (1) abundance for all, (2) no classes, as a result of such plenty, and (3) no need for a state.

To begin with, the vision of virtually unlimited abundance marks communists such as Marx and Engels as convinced industrialists. They were highly impressed by the unprecedented output of the factory system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Shirts, for example, that would take a skilled seamstress days to produce, were turned out in minutes, once an assembly line based on “division of labor” was set in motion. Soon, communists theorized, the world would be filled with consumer goods. And in a context of such abundance “yours” and “mine” would cease to have meaning. Neither would it make sense for some to hoard goods to themselves at the expense of others. The result would be the disappearance of classes. There would be no rich and no poor. Everyone would have more than enough of what they need.

With the disappearance of classes would come the gradual “withering away” of the state. This is because “the state,” by communist definition is simply armed administrator of the affairs of society’s dominant class. As Marx and Engels put it in their Manifesto, “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.”

Thus the state’s job is to impose the will of a ruling class on others. Under capitalism, the state’s function is to oblige the working class to accept conditions profitable to the bourgeoisie (wealthy property owners). In other words, under capitalism, the state imposes the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.”

Meanwhile, under socialism, the function of the state is to impose the will of the working class on the bourgeoisie. It enforces the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” By way of contrast, under communism, in the absence of classes (eliminated by a condition of abundance) there remains no group whose will needs to be imposed on others. The state’s function thus ceases. It gradually disappears.

[Next week: Conclusion of Critical Thinking’s first rule (Think Systemically): Mixed Economy and Fascism]

Fascism Is “Capitalism in Crisis”

Princess Bride

This is the third installment in a series on “How Hitler Saved Capitalism and Won the War.”

[Last Monday this series on the Second Coming of Adolf Hitler tried to connect Hitler and the response to the tragedies of September 11th, 2001. In the aftermath of those events, the U.S. Vice President’s wife, Lynne Cheney and her American Council of Trustees and Alumni identified university and college professors as “the weak link in the fight against terrorism.” They found it particularly offensive that some of the latter had identified the September 11th attacks as “blowback” for “American” Hitler-like policies in the Third World. Such response inspired me to do some research on the question paying particular attention to data found in a standard Western Traditions textbook used in many institutions of higher learning, Jackson Spielvogel’s “Western Civilization.” This third installment attempts to clear up some common misconceptions about fascism which many see as threatening to take over the U.S. today just as it did Germany in the early 1930s. (Unless otherwise indicated, all references are to Spielvogel’s text.)]

The thesis here is that privatized globalization is a continuation of Hitler’s system of fascism which is understood here as “capitalism in crisis.” To understand that position, it is first of all necessary to clear up prevailing confusions about fascism itself. Not surprisingly, misunderstandings abound concerning its nature. Most correctly identify fascism with a police state, with institutionalized racism, anti-Semitism, and totalitarianism (though they typically remain unclear about the term’s meaning). Most too are familiar with concentration camps, the Holocaust, and, of course, with Adolf Hitler. Some can even associate the Nazi form of fascism with homophobia and persecution of Gypsies. However, rarely, if ever will anyone connect fascism with capitalism. For instance, here is Jackson Spielvogel’s (Western Civilization) textbook description of Hitler’s thought:

“In Vienna, then, Hitler established the basic ideas of an ideology from which he never deviated for the rest of his life. At the core of Hitler’s ideas was racism, especially anti-Semitism. His hatred of the Jews lasted to the very end of his life. Hitler had also become an extreme German nationalist who had learned from the mass politics of Vienna how political parties could effectively use propaganda and terror. Finally, in his Viennese years, Hitler also came to a firm belief in the need for struggle, which he saw as the “granite foundation of the world.” Hitler emphasized a crude Social Darwinism; the world was a brutal place filled with constant struggle in which only the fit survived” (794).

Here it is interesting to note that racism, especially anti-Semitism, nationalism, propaganda, terror and Darwinian struggle are signaled as defining attributes of the Hitlerian system. Capitalism is not mentioned, though “struggle” is. Perhaps, had the term “competition” been used instead of “struggle,” the basically capitalist nature of “Social Darwinism,” and fascism might have been clearer.

Fascism and Communism

Textbooks typically add to the confusion by closely connecting fascist Nazism and Communism. For instance, Spielvogel’s Western Civilization deals with Hitler’s fascism and Josef Stalin’s socialism back-to-back, linking the two with the term “totalitarianism.” Spielvogel’s transition from one to the other illustrates how the merely mildly interested (i.e. most college students) might come away confused. He writes, “Yet another example of totalitarianism was to be found in Soviet Russia” (801). Spielvogel defines totalitarianism in the following terms:

“Totalitarianism is an abstract term, and no state followed all its theoretical implications. The fascist states – Italy and Nazi Germany – as well as Stalin’s Communist Russia have all been labeled totalitarian, although their regimes exhibited significant differences and met with varying degrees of success. Totalitarianism transcended traditional political labels. Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany grew out of extreme rightist preoccupations with nationalism and, in the case of Germany, with racism. Communism in Soviet Russia emerged out of Marxian socialism, a radical leftist program. Thus, totalitarianism could and did exist in what were perceived as extreme right-wing and left-wing regimes. This fact helped bring about a new concept of the political spectrum in which the extremes were no longer seen as opposites on a linear scale, but came to be viewed as being similar to each other in at least some respects” (Spielvogel 789).

Here Spielvogel correctly points out “significant differences between fascism and communism. One is radically right, the other radically left. Nazism is identified with nationalism and racism (not, it should be noted, with capitalism). Communism is associated with Marxism and socialism. In the end, however, the two are viewed as “similar to each other in at least some respects.” Thus, clarity of distinction given with one hand seems to be erased with the other. Confusion is the typical result. Such fogginess might have been cleared had Spielvogel employed greater parallelism in his expression – i.e. had he identified Stalinist communism with police-state socialism and Hitler’s Nazism with police-state capitalism.

National Socialism

Nonetheless, history books and teachers are not solely at fault for student confusion. There are other understandable reasons for the distancing of fascism from capitalism. For one, Hitler’s Party called itself the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP). As a result, it is quite natural for students who reflect on the question at all, to conclude that Hitler and his party were “socialist,” or even “communist,” since the two terms are almost synonymous for most Americans. After all, well-indoctrinated students would be justified in reasoning that Hitler did such terrible things he must have been a communist.

Lost in such analysis is the historical realization that during the 1930s, all sorts of approaches to political-economy called themselves “socialist.” This is because they supported state intervention to save the market system that was in crisis during the Great Depression. Thus, there were socialisms of the left as found in Soviet Russia. But there were also socialisms of the right, such as Hitler’s in Germany, Mussolini’s in Italy, and Franco’s in Spain. In other words, interventionist economies easily adopted the “socialist” identification to distinguish themselves from laissez-faire capitalism, which in the aftermath of the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, had been completely discredited. As we shall see below, in such context (were it politically possible) Franklin Roosevelt’s interventionist program to save capitalism could easily have been called National Socialism instead of the “New Deal.”

However, analysis of fascism’s approach to socialism must recognize the national character of the socialism advocated. [Yet even here, according to Spielvogel, Hitler’s program had a distinctly international dimension eerily evocative of promises associated with the current global economy. Spielvogel recalls, “After the German victories between 1939 and 1941, Nazi propagandists painted glowing images of a new European order based on “equal chances” for all nations and an integrated economic community.” (829)] The critical adjective (nationalist) was intended precisely to distinguish the right wing brand of socialism from its left wing international antagonist. In this connection Hagen Schulze writes in Germany: a New History (2001):

“The catch-phrase “national socialism” itself had been created before the First World War as a means to unite a variety of nationalistic organizations in the battle against “international socialism.” The term was designated to appeal to the working class, but it also proved attractive to young people from the middle and upper classes with romantic notions of Volksgemeinschaft, a “popular” or “national” community” (231)

The implication here is that right wing zealots “co-opted” a popular term to confuse the young – a strategy employed to this day with great success. Here as well one should note that “national socialism” is signaled as a direct opponent of “international socialism.”

Fascism as Mixed Economy

Yet another reason disjoining fascism from capitalism is that fascism was not capitalism pure and simple. (The same might be said of Roosevelt’s New Deal – and even today’s U.S. economy.) Both systems were “mixed economies.” That is, if capitalism’s essential components are private ownership of the means of production, free and open markets and unlimited earnings, socialism’s corresponding elements are public ownership of the means of production, controlled markets and restricted earnings. Both Roosevelt and Hitler combined the two approaches to economy.

Once again, in a period when free market capitalism had been widely discredited, both Hitler and Roosevelt performed a kind of “perestroika.” Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev would later use the term to refer to the restructuring of socialism, in order to save it by incorporating elements of capitalism. The suggestion here is that more than a half-century earlier, Roosevelt and Hitler had done the opposite; they had incorporated elements of socialism into the capitalist system in order to resurrect it. So, while the means of production most often remained in private hands, others (such as the railroads, the postal system, telephones and highways) were nationalized.

Similarly, while the free market was allowed to continue in many ways, its freedom was restricted by measures socialists had long advocated (e.g. rationing, legalized unions, social security, wage and price controls). Finally, high income taxes were used to restrict earnings and garner income for the state to finance its interventionist programs. [Few recall, for instance, that during the 1940s, U.S. federal income tax rates assessed incomes over $400,000 at a rate of 91% (See Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, 567-8). Government revenue collected in this way paid for populist programs that modestly redistributed income to the American working class and unemployed. Such redistribution found its way into workers’ pay envelopes, but also took the form of “social wage.”]

None of this is to say that Roosevelt’s and Hitler’s interventionist economies were the same. Mixed economies, after all, are not the identical. The key question for distinguishing between them is, “Mixed in favor of whom?” Some mixed economies are mixed in favor of the working class, others, in favor of their employers. As the product of a liberal capitalist, Roosevelt’s mixture successfully sold itself as the former. That is, while keeping most means of production securely in the hands of capitalists, Roosevelt gained the support of the working classes through his populist programs aimed at gingerly redistributing income downward towards those unable to fend for themselves. In other words, Roosevelt’s “mixed economy” was blended so as to facilitate its defense in populist terms – that is, as mixed in favor of the working class. And the defense achieved plausibility with the American people. Despite objections from more overtly pro-business Republicans, Roosevelt was elected four times in succession. His party remained in control of the U.S. Congress for nearly a half-century.

Hitler had another approach. Influenced by Herbert Spencer and (indirectly) by Friedrich Nietszche (see below), der Fuhrer was an extreme social Darwinist whose programs unabashedly favored elite Aryans and despised “the others,” particularly socialists, Jews, trade unionists, non-whites, Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled and other “deviants.” On the other hand, Hitler despised “liberal” politicians like Roosevelt, with their programs of social welfare. On those grounds, he vilified the Weimar government which preceded his own. During the early years of the Great Depression, Weimar politicians had attempted to gain the favor of the working class, and to sidestep civil war by implementing wealth distribution programs (233). Funding the programs necessitated tax increases, unpopular with middle and upper classes. It meant strengthening unions along with socialists and communists.

The point here is that is it with good reason that few make the connection between fascism and capitalism. A student of Spielvogel, for instance, would have to be quasi-heroic to do so. After all, he or she would be not only resisting the confusion fostered by the text itself, but would also be swimming against the stream of American propaganda, which treats Hitler’s system as the product of an evil individual, and unconnected with any specific economic system (other than, mistakenly, socialism or communism).

Despite such ambiguity, next week’s blog entry will attempt to demonstrate more specifically that even a closer reading of a text like Spielvogel’s makes unmistakable the connection between fascism and capitalism.

Gil Rosenberg’s Anniversary, Jesus’ Pentecost (Sunday Homily)


Readings for Pentecost Sunday:Acts 2: 1-11; Ps. 104: 1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34; I Cor. 12: 3B-7, 12-13; Jn. 20: 19-23.

A couple of weeks ago Peggy and I were blessed to attend an extraordinarily powerful spiritual gathering. It was at the home of June Widman, a friend of ours in Berea, Kentucky who lost her husband, Gil Rosenberg, in a tragic car accident one year earlier (See my “In Memoriam” blog entry for Gil under the “Personal” button just below this blog site’s masthead). Our friend’s daughter and son (Jessie and Greg), some co-workers and friends like us were all present at this commemoration potluck. There were about 20 of us in all.

Before eating we gathered in a circle. The “priest” among us – a former Mercy Sister who has a real gift for this sort of thing – started us off reminding us of why we were there and of how quickly (and painfully) the intervening year had passed. There were some readings – most moving for me “Death” by Pablo Neruda, read in both English and Spanish. A recorded musical selection followed.

And then people began sharing memories of Gil – an extraordinarily beloved member of our church community in Berea. (His funeral had been attended by an overflow crowd rarely seen in our Catholic church – and this for a man who was himself Jewish, though a faithful attendee at weekly Mass along with June and their children.) Gil was smart, quick-witted, and very funny. A teacher at a local community college, he was also a soccer and basketball coach for many of our children. Everyone loved him.

And that’s what we talked about. But more than that, Gil’s friends told stories of how they continued to experience his presence during the past year. People told of actual “conversations” they had with him (mostly humorous) as they faced problems or were taking themselves too seriously. They told how memories of Gil’s quirky wisdom helped them muddle through otherwise overwhelming circumstances. It was entirely inspiring.

The whole experience made me think of that first Pentecost experienced by Jesus’ followers after his resurrection. What happened then stemmed from an attempt on their part to keep Jesus’ memory alive. That’s what June and the rest of us were going for in relation to Gil as well. And like June’s gathering (and like Gil himself), Pentecost blended Jewish and Christian elements. “Pentecost,” of course, was originally a Jewish feast. It was celebrated fifty days after Passover.

Whereas Passover celebrated the Exodus from Egypt, Pentecost (seven weeks later) commemorated the giving of God’s Law at Mt. Sinai. Also called “the Feast of Weeks,” Pentecost was a harvest festival like our Thanksgiving. And like the Passover, the feast drew Jews from all over the world to Jerusalem and its Temple. The evangelist, Luke, takes time to make this point. He lists Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene. He refers to travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs.

Because of the events recorded in today’s readings, Christians have come to consider Pentecost the “birthday of the Church.”

I used to think of Pentecost as taking place among Jesus’ disciples (the 11 apostles and about 110 others, they say, including many women) who had stayed in Jerusalem following Jesus’ death and resurrection simply awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. However, now that seems unlikely.

Jesus’ followers and inner circle were poor working people. They needed to earn their daily bread. Even John 21:3ff indicates that following the tragic (and later hopeful) events in Jerusalem, several of them returned to Galilee to resume their labor as fishermen.

Then as the feast of Pentecost approached, they must have decided to return to Jerusalem along with all those other pilgrims I mentioned. No doubt they wanted to re-experience “on location” their final hours with Jesus, even returning to the “Upper Room” to do what June and the rest of us did a couple of weeks ago in commemorating Gil on the anniversary of his death. Surely they wanted to break bread together as Jesus had told them to do – but there in the Upper Room. That would make it truly special.

So they returned to Jerusalem at some risk to their own safety. Luke tells us that they kept the doors locked because they were afraid of the same powers that had arrested, tortured and executed Jesus. After all, Jesus’ disciples had been responsible for circulating the rumor that their Teacher was not really dead. They told their friends that he somehow survived the Roman’s attempts to eliminate him. He was alive.

Evidently, word of that “resurrection” had gotten back to officials of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish court whose members were collaborators with the Romans, working with them hand in glove. The Jewish sell-outs well remembered how the carpenter from Nazareth had “stirred up the people” (Lk. 23:5) with his message about God’s revolutionary “Kingdom.” They especially recalled how just before his execution, he had entered Jerusalem to popular acclaim and led that notorious demonstration in the Temple.

As a result of all that, the people took Jesus for their messiah, which meant he was the enemy of Rome and collaborators like the Sanhedrin members. If word got out that “He lives!” the trouble could well start all over again during the Pentecost feast. So the Sanhedrin mobilized its brutal police to hunt down the members of Jesus’ Galilean terrorist gang and solve the Jesus problem once and for all.

Despite such threat, Jesus’ followers gathered in the Upper Room (or perhaps, some scholars say, it was even in the Temple). There in that place so full of memories, they must have recalled the Master’s words and deeds, and how he continued to influence them even in his apparent absence. I’ll bet their stories were just as dear and humorous as June’s friends’ recollections of Gil.

Then suddenly (in John’s version of the Pentecost event) Jesus is standing there in their midst. He tells them not to worry about the police. “Peace be with you,” he says twice. Jesus shows his friends his pierced hands and wounded rib cage. Don’t be worried, he implies, they can kill you and torture you, but like me, you will not really die.

Then Jesus breathes on them all, and they receive his own Spirit – of forgiveness and discrimination in the sense of discernment. His spirit, Jesus promises, will instruct them about forgiveness — and about what they should never overlook. He tells them to continue his work despite any threats from Rome and its collaborators.

Luke’s version of the same event is recorded in the familiar story from Acts which we heard in today’s first reading. Luke calls on imagery from Exodus – wind and fire – to describe the transforming event of Pentecost. Instead of Jesus appearing personally to bestow his Spirit, Luke says the Spirit came in the form of a mighty wind. It was like the wind that dried up the Sea of Reeds in the Exodus. The Spirit came in the form of “tongues of fire” like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites during the dark nights that followed the initial euphoria of liberation from Egypt.

In both cases (John and Luke), the result of receiving Jesus’ Spirit is the same. The disciples are literally encouraged. Their fear entirely disappears. Doors are unlocked. Jesus’ friends are suddenly are out in the street. And everyone can understand the import of their words: Jesus lives! Everyone can understand because Jesus’ message (as always) is about the Kingdom of God. No matter where people come from, famished stomachs speak the same language of hunger. Calloused hands speak the same eloquent “sign language.” Mothers weep the same tears for their sons tortured and victimized by empire.

According to Jesus’ Spirit, it’s the Romans and their collaborators, not Jesus’ followers, who have reason to fear. Their days are numbered. God’s kingdom is at hand. Once again, Jesus lives! The old order is about to be overturned. The first will be last; the last, first. The rich will be poor; the poor, rich. Those laughing now will find themselves in tears; those in mourning will at last find joy.

In their sheer numbers of converts (3000 says Luke that very first day) the crowds from all over the Jewish world protect Jesus’ friends from the Sanhedrin police. We can picture the lawmen on the edges of the crowd rendered powerless by the crowd’s solidarity.

And what’s to be learned from that first Pentecost experience? Could it be that we must keep Jesus’ memory alive – as the prophetic preacher of God’s Kingdom in the here and now, not in the sky somewhere after death? (Shouldn’t that be the purpose of our weekly gatherings for worship and the Lord’s Supper?) Is the lesson of today’s feast that believers must insist on speaking in language that anyone can understand – the language of the working classes, the hungry, and of mothers in mourning? Is it that a measure of the truth of our beliefs is the degree of threat we feel from empire and its collaborators as a result of the beliefs we fearlessly profess? Is it that followers of Jesus should refuse to accept division but unite instead with a solidarity that protects us from the same forces of empire and its collaborators that threatened Jesus’ first followers?

The truth is that there’s much to learn from Pentecost. June’s and her children’s devotion to Gil Rosenberg along with his friends’ recollections and experiences of Gil’s “real presence” remind us of the nature and purpose of that first Pentecost gathering. It was not only to recall what Jesus said and did in terms of resistance to Rome and its oppression on a macro-level. For us it can also be about creating Kingdom in our personal lives and with our families as Gil himself did. Besides bringing gifts of forgiveness, the Holy Spirit was the basis of Gil’s humor, non-conformity, attention to the needs of the exploited, and refusal to take himself (or others) too seriously.

If we open ourselves wide, we too can receive all of those gifts. The Spirit can make us fierce advocates of God’s Kingdom. It can help us overcome our very selves, along with our fears of the Empire, its police and religious collaborators.

The First Rule of Critical Thinking: Think Systemically (about Capitalism)

This is the second blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought: (1) Reflect Systemically, (2) Expect challenge, (3) Reject neutrality, (4) Suspect ideology, (5) Respect history, (6) Inspect scientifically, (7) Quadra-sect violence, (8) Connect with your deepest self, (9) Detect silences, (10) Collect conclusions. The series was inspired by responses to my April 16th reflections on the Boston Marathon bombing.


The first rule of critical thinking as understood in this series is to think systemically. This is a ground-clearing rule. Its point is to clarify the vocabulary and concepts without which you’ll not be able to think critically about the most important issues facing our world today. You can’t think about poverty, hunger, war, climate change, healthcare, education, or a host of other problems without clear understandings of the basic economic concepts presented here. Without them, you’ll be thrown for a loop; your eyes will glaze over when conversation turns economic. And economics, remember, is the principal language spoken in the world of politics and newscasts.

Think about what’s happened since the 2008 election of Barack Obama. With the implementation of bailout programs, and discussion of “Obamacare,” there has been a lot of talk about “socialism,” hasn’t there? This has come along with accusations about “Marxism,” “communism,” “fascism” – all in a context that supposes the superiority of “capitalism.” The discussions have rarely recognized the universal prevalence of “mixed economies.” Instead, the discourse has illustrated huge divergences of understanding and opinion about the meaning of all the terms just placed in quotation marks.

Most debate participants simply do not have clear ideas about their meaning. They are convinced, of course, that communism is bad, and that capitalism is good. Beyond that however, ideas remain confused. Most are even unaware that all the terms mentioned describe positions adopted towards the free market economic system.

It is the modest, yet ambitious, purpose of the explanation of this first rule of critical thinking to clear up confusion simply by defining terms in an easy- to- understand way. Doing so is absolutely necessary for any critical thinker to join productive discussions about our days’ most important issues. So, oversimplifying for purposes of discussion and clarity, what follows will summarize the crucial categories in three points each, beginning with capitalism, and then moving on to Marxism, socialism, mixed economy, communism, and fascism.

Today’s blog entry will define capitalism in this way.


Liberal capitalism is an economic system based on (1) private ownership of the means of production (2) free and open markets (places where goods are bought and sold), and (3) unlimited earnings. Those are the three points.
Private ownership of the means of production dictates that individuals should be empowered to own fields, forests, farms, factories and other sources of products for sale and exchange. Communal ownership is thus excluded. That’s capitalism’s first point.

Free and open markets means that private ownership should permit those in question to produce what they choose to produce, where and when they choose to do so, employing whom they choose, without any power outside of market forces of supply and demand dictating that production. Here government interference in the market by way, for instance, of outlawing or controlling some productions (such as liquor or cigarettes) and mandating others (such as beans and rice) is rejected. Moreover, anyone at all should be able to enter an open market regardless of personal attributes such as race, age, gender, nationality, or religion. In all this emphasis on “freedom,” we find expressed the “liberal” nature of “liberal capitalism.” That’s capitalism’s second point: free and open markets.

Finally, liberal capitalism calls for unlimited earnings. That is, the producer’s talent and the quality of her or his product alone should limit the income goals attainable. Limits on earnings such as taxes should be kept to the minimum necessary to provide public protection of private property (police, military, the judicial system) and to supply the infrastructure necessary for commerce (roads, bridges, etc.) That’s capitalism’s third point: unlimited earnings.

Income ceilings, of course, are out of the question for capitalism strictly understood. For capitalists wide disparities between the rich and the poor are not a problem. And some might even admit to greed as a kind of virtue that is responsible for human progress. That idea was captured in the film, “Wall Street,” where entrepreneur, Gordon Gecko (played by Michael Douglas), praises greed in a speech before the stockholders of his company, Teldar Paper Company:

These words, of course, not only praise greed in business, but in national life. Echoing the words of economist Milton Friedman (at the top of this blog entry) and ignoring the fact that in the past greed was considered by Christians one of the Seven Deadly Sins, Gecko claims that greed leads to salvation. It will not only save his business from low returns on the Stock Market, but the United States itself from what ails it as well. For Gecko and Friedman greed is the virtue at the heart of capitalism. It’s what makes the world go ’round.

(Next week: Marxism in three easy points)

The Western Powers Loved Adolf Hitler

Hitler Love

This is the second installment in a series on “How Hitler Saved Capitalism and Won the War.”

Last Monday this series on the Second Coming of Adolf Hitler began with a brief allusion to the special responsibility Christians have to resist Hitlerism without Hitler. That first entry recalled how Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoller and others formed a Confessing Church to counter the surrender of Germany’s mainstream churches to Hitler’s nationalism. The example of the Confessing Church and the tenets of its Barmen Declaration should be kept in mind as this series progresses. An underlying thesis here is that given the similarities between Hitler’s Germany and the contemporary United States, would-be followers of Jesus should emulate the defiant example of the Barmen Declaration’s authors.

Today’s entry focuses on the relevance of Adolf Hitler to U.S. policy since 9/11/01:

In the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11th, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, co-founded by Mrs. Lynne Cheney, the wife of Dick Cheney, the former United States Vice President, accused dissident professors of being the “weak link in America’s response to the attack.” To support its accusation, the Council published a list of more than a hundred recorded statements by such professors characterizing them as “anti-American.” Statements ranged from “Any attack on the Pentagon’s got my vote” to “Ignorance breeds hate,” and America should “build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls.”

Of course, any professorial references to “fascism” and “Nazism” connected with U.S. policy were anathema to Mrs. Cheney’s group. Such accusations, it was alleged, revealed an ignorance or suppression of real United States history. A more genuine narrative of the past showed America to be an unparalleled opponent of Nazism and an unrelenting advocate of freedom and democracy in the face of fascism. Schooling in truer, more patriotic history, Mrs. Cheney said, would make students valued assets in civilization’s war against terrorism.

As a teacher of history in a small liberal arts college in the American South, I found extremely welcome the new centralizing of history’s importance. I also welcomed it as an opportunity to explore a suspicion that had been with me for some time – precisely in connection with the categories of terrorism and anti-terrorism, but especially connected to fascism, Nazism and the study of history.

The suspicion came from reading closely and teaching the standard Western Civilization text many professors use at Berea College, where I teach. It is a book of which Mrs. Cheney might approve – Jackson Spielvogel’s Western Civilization. For a long time, I had been finding unmistakable clues there to support the thesis that far from being a beacon of freedom and democracy, the United States is actually the opposite. More specifically, in relation to most of the world, it has since the conclusion of the Second Inter-Capitalist War (aka World War II) embodied Hitlerism without Adolph Hitler.

Put more starkly, the clues in my students’ textbooks indicated that Hitler’s system actually triumphed in World War II. Moreover, his system was police state capitalism, and Hitler was capitalism’s savior. Even more importantly, police state capitalism continues today in the process of globalization and, most recently, in the U.S. “War on Terrorism.”

Such challenging assertions find additional support in conservative histories like Hagen Schultze’s Germany: A New History, and Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity. Support appears as well in statements by U.S. government officials, and in the daily newspaper.

All of these sources indicate that at the beginning Adolf Hitler enjoyed the support of western powers because of his stern opposition to socialism and communism. Hitler was the West’s champion against the Soviets and those who admired Soviet accomplishments. So after his coming to power in 1933, Hitler’s international sponsors quickly rescinded the harshly punitive clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. They forgave Germany’s debt. British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain hastened to align Great Britain with Hitler. Pius XII referred to der Fuhrer as “an indispensable bulwark against the Russians.” Henry Ford loved the man. The admiration was mutual; Ford accepted a medal of honor from Hitler’s hands, as did the founder of IBM. Trans-Atlantic aviator, Charles Lindbergh and movie actor Errol Flynn were prominent among Hitler’s champions.

With such backing, the Western Powers allowed Hitler’s Germany to rearm. But in the end, der Fuhrer lost the support of his capitalist backers, because he went too far. His crime, however, was not gassing Jews. The West proved remarkably compliant with that. Rather, Hitler’s crime was his attempt to establish control of the world economy – over such capitalist competitors as Great Britain, France, and the United States. He proposed a New World Order, which, he promised, would bring prosperity to all. Nonetheless, Hitler’s attempts to impose his order ultimately met with stiff resistance from his opponents’ Allied Forces. The Second Inter-Capitalist War followed.

Afterwards, the United States emerged relatively unscathed from the conflict, and proceeded to establish its own dominance of the world capitalist system, in ways not extremely different from those employed by Adolph Hitler. That dominance of the capitalist world turned to imperial global dominance following the disappearance of the Soviet Union as the lone super-power adversary of the U.S. at the beginning of the 1990s.

In other words, there is surprising continuity between Hitler’s New World Order and the New World Order embodied in the contemporary system of globalization. To understand this perhaps shocking claim, it is necessary to (1) clear up some common misconceptions about fascism, (2) describe the connections between Hitler and capitalism, (3) indicate how fascism triumphed in World War II and its aftermath, and (4) show how Hitler’s system is continued today in globalization and the War on Terrorism.

These points will be elaborated here (on Mondays) during the coming weeks.

Ascension Sunday: What’s Christianity for Anyway? (Sunday Homily)

People attend the funeral mass for Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic at St. Michael's Catholic Cathedral

Readings for Ascension Sunday: Acts 1: 1-11; Ps. 47: 2-3, 6-9; Eph. 1: 17-23; Lk. 24: 48-53

This is Ascension Sunday. For us Catholics, it used to be “Ascension Thursday.” It was a “holy day of obligation.” That phrase meant that Catholics were obliged to attend Mass on Thursday just as they were on Sunday. To miss Mass on such a day was to commit a “mortal sin.” And that meant that if you died before “going to confession,” you would be condemned to hell for all eternity.

So until the years following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) Catholics would fill their churches on Ascension Thursday in the same numbers (and under the same threat) that made them come to Mass on Sundays. That’s hard to imagine today.

I suppose that difficulty is responsible for the transfer of the commemoration of Jesus’ “ascension into heaven” from Thursday to Sunday. I mean it wasn’t that the church changed its teaching about “holy days of obligation.” It didn’t. Catholics simply voted with their feet. They stopped believing that God would send them to hell for missing Mass on Ascension Thursday or the feast of the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption (August 15th), or All Saints Day (November 1st) or on any of the other “holy days.” Church once a week was about as much as the hierarchy could expect.

But even there, Catholics stopped believing that God would punish them for missing Mass on Sunday. So these days they more easily attend to other matters on Sunday too. They set up an early tee time or go for a hike in the woods. Afterwards they cut the lawn or go shopping at Wal-Mart. That kind of “servile work on Sundays” or shopping used to be forbidden “under pain of sin” as well. And once again, it isn’t church teaching that has changed. Catholics have just decided that the teachings don’t make sense anymore, and have stopped observing them.

And apparently they do so in good conscience. So you won’t find them running to confession after missing Mass or working and shopping on Sunday. In fact, that’s another way Catholics have voted with their feet. For all practical purposes, they’ve stopped believing in Confession – and largely in many of the mortal sins they were told would send them to hell – like practicing contraception or even getting a divorce.

I remember Saturday evenings when I was a kid (and later on when I was a priest). People would line up from 4:00-6:00, and then from 7:00 -9:00 to “go to Confession.” And the traffic would be steady; the lines were long. No more! In fact, I personally can’t remember the last time I went to confession. And no priests today sit in the confessional box on Saturday afternoons and evenings waiting for penitents to present themselves.

What I’m saying is that the last fifty years have witnessed a tremendous change in faith – at least among Catholics. Our old faith has gone the way of St. Christopher and St. Philomena and “limbo” all of which have been officially decertified since Vatican II.

In fact, since then the whole purpose of being a Catholic (Christianity) has become questioned at the grassroots level. More and more of our children abandon a faith that often seems fantastic, childish and out-of-touch. Was Jesus really about going to heaven and avoiding hell? Or is faith about trying to follow the “Way” of Jesus in this life with a view to making the world more habitable for and hospitable to actually living human beings?

That question is centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. There the attentive reader can discern a conflict brewing. On the one side there’s textual evidence of belief within the early church that following Jesus entails focus on justice in this world – on the kingdom. And on the other side there are the seeds of those ideas that it’s all about the promise of “heaven” with the threat of hell at least implicit. The problem is that the narrative in today’s liturgy of the word mixes each view with its alternative.

According to the story about following Jesus as a matter of this-worldly justice, the risen Master spent the 40 days following his resurrection instructing his disciples specifically about “the Kingdom.” For Jews that meant discourse about what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Jesus’ teaching must have been strong. I mean why else in Jesus’ final minutes with his friends, and after 40 days of instruction about the kingdom would they pose the question, “Is it now that you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” That’s a political and revolutionary question about driving the Romans out of the country.

Moreover Jesus doesn’t disabuse his friends of their notion as though they didn’t get his point. Instead he replies in effect, “Don’t ask about precise times; just go back to Jerusalem and wait for my Spirit to come.” That Spirit will “clothe you in justice,” he tells them. Then he takes his leave.

Presently two men clothed in white (the color of martyrdom) tell the disciples to stop looking up to heaven as if Jesus were there. He’s not to be found “up there,” they seem to say. Jesus will soon be found “down here.” There’s going to be a Second Coming. Jesus will complete the project his crucifixion cut short – restoring Israel’s kingdom. So the disciples who are Jews who think they’ve found the Messiah in Jesus return in joy to Jerusalem and (as good Jews) spend most of their time in the Temple praising God, and waiting to be “clothed in Jesus’ Spirit” of liberation from Roman rule.

The other story (which historically has swallowed up the first) emphasizes God “up there,” and our going to him after death. It’s woven into the fabric of today’s readings too. Here Jesus doesn’t finally discourse about God’s kingdom, but about “the forgiveness of sin.” After doing so, he’s lifted up into the sky. There Paul tells his readers in Ephesus, he’s enthroned at the Father’s right hand surrounded by angelic “Thrones” and “Dominions.” This Jesus has founded a “church,” – a new religion; and he is the head of the church, which is his body.

This is the story that emerged when Paul tried to make Jesus relevant to gentiles – to non-Jews who were part of the Roman Empire, and who couldn’t relate to a messiah bent on replacing Rome with a world order characterized by God’s justice for a captive people. So it gradually turned Jesus into a “salvation messiah” familiar to Romans. This messiah offered happiness beyond the grave rather than liberation from empire. It centralized a Jesus whose morality reflected the ethic of empire: “obey or be punished.” That’s the ethic we Catholics grew up with, that sent some of us to weekly “confession,” and that former and would-be believers find increasingly incredible, and increasingly irrelevant to our 21st century world.

Would all of that incredibility and irrelevance change if the world’s 2.1 billion Christians (about 1/3 of the world’s total population) adopted the this-worldly Jesus as its own instead of the Jesus “up there?” That is, would it change if Christians stopped looking up to heaven and focused instead on the historical Jesus so concerned with God’s New World Order of justice for the poor and rejection of empire?

Imagine if believers uncompromisingly opposed empire and its excesses – if what set them apart was their refusal to fight in empires wars or serve its interests. How different – and more peaceful – our world would be!

A sensitive discerning reading of today’s liturgy of the word, a sensitive and critical understanding of Jesus’ “ascension” presents us with that challenge. How should we respond?

(Discussion follows.)

Series on Critical Thinking, Part One: It’s Not What You Think!

Plato's tv cave

This is the first in a series on critical thinking. Its immediate inspiration was the controversy on this blog site sparked by my April 16th entry on the Boston Marathon bombing (see below on this site). Many of the most critical responses showed that their authors did not understand where I was coming from in terms of my own remarks about severity and the “blowback” nature of the tragedy in Boston. I had written that the Boston tragedy was minor compared to the havoc wrought virtually every day in the Muslim world by U.S. drone attacks. Moreover those attacks by U.S. weapons of mass destruction evoked anger and desire for revenge on the parts of their victims. So “Americans,” I suggested, should expect more tragedies like Boston.

In truth, my point of departure was not (as some critics alleged or implied) anti-Americanism or insensitive gloating over the sufferings of the Marathon victims. Far from it, I love the United States; it is my place of birth; I consider myself highly patriotic. Like most people in the world, my heart went out to the dead, maimed and injured in Boylston Square.

However, I am also a teacher of critical thinking and have been for more than 40 years. During that time I’ve developed criteria – 10 of them – for thinking critically about history, politics, economics and religion. For me the essence of critical thought entails the ability to judge oneself (and one’s country) as objectively as possible (i.e. without ego-centrism or ethnocentrism). To that end, the criteria I’ve developed include


As anyone can see, such criteria are not those one ordinarily finds in critical thinking textbooks – at least not those historically employed at Berea College where I taught for more than 36 years. Standard approaches provide tools for analyzing the thinking process itself. They instruct students in logic, common fallacies, and how to evaluate statements, evidence, statistics and information. Diagrams used to illustrate this understanding of critical thinking often look like the following:


In many ways “thinking about thinking” accurately describes the project pictured above. According to this understanding, thinking critically is about thought processes and their logic. Once articulated and clarified, the new understandings are applied to cases such as abortion, capital punishment, immigration, and war. Without doubt, this understanding of the discipline is valuable and necessary for any serious scholarship or indeed for responsible citizenship.

However, the problem with this kind of thinking is that it can ignore questioning its own “parameters of perception.” It can work within cultural, institutional and ideological premises that largely remain unquestioned. It can proceed quite successfully without seriously questioning or even acknowledging the possibility of alternatives to existing ideologies, laws, institutions, power relationships, and customs. One can think about the Marathon bombing, for instance, without considering the accuracy of one’s accepted historical narrative about the role of the United States in the world or about the “institutional violence” that might have provoked the atrocity.

By way of contrast, critical thinking as explored in this series will address such neglected elements. The operative image here will be Plato’s Cave. Its representation looks like this:


About 2500 years ago Plato described the human condition as characterized by a tragic absence of critical thought as I’m proposing it here. We live, Plato said, like people in a cave where they’ve been imprisoned all their lives. They remain there chained in a way that prevents them from moving about. They face a wall unable to move even to see directly the others who like them are chained alongside. However the wall the prisoners face is not blank. This is because a fire burns behind the captives and casts their shadows on the wall much as a movie projector would in a dark theater. And that’s their only image of themselves – shadows.

However other shadows appear on the wall as well. They are cast by people walking behind the prisoners along the “roadway” pictured above. The walkers carry statues of all kinds of things – animals, trees, gods . . . . Viewing those shadows, the prisoners think that life is unfolding before them. Moreover, the “wise” among the prisoners – the teachers – become very good at describing the shadows and at predicting the sequence of their appearance. In terms relevant here, their discourses are taken as expressions of “critical thought.” However, their wisdom describes shadows in an artificial world.

Eventually one of the prisoners escapes the cave and discovers the real world and the sun which makes life possible. The escapee returns to the cave to inform the prisoners of this discovery. The escapee’s intention is to introduce real “criticism.” Far from welcoming him, the other prisoners threaten to kill him.

Plato, of course, was writing about his mentor, Socrates whom the citizens of 5th century BCE Athens actually did kill for teaching what I’m calling here “critical thinking.” They interpreted his project as “corrupting the youth,” because it called into question the “doxa” of their day. The Greek term, doxa, referred to the “of course” statements that go unquestioned everywhere. Our culture is full of them: “The United States” is the best country in the world.” Of course it is! “Ours is the highest standard of living.” Of course! “’We’ are good; ‘they’ are evil.” Of course!

The critical thinking I intend to pursue here is about critiquing doxa; it’s about questioning parameters of perception; it’s about escaping the cave.

More specifically, what I intend to expose here attempts to provide tools for subjecting society’s underlying narratives, along with its economic and political structures and ideologies to careful yet easily accessible analysis. Moreover, it starts not from a place of supposed neutrality, but from a place of commitment to a world with room for everyone. Commitment in one form or another is inescapable.

Consequently this approach to critical thought not only analyzes reasons for such commitment; it evaluates as well ideologies that contradict that vision. This approach will be historical and involve examination of “official” and “competing” narratives about the past. It will treat violence as a multi-dimensional phenomenon connected with structures of political economy, the struggle for survival, and police enforcement of “rules of the game” that benefit some and hurt others. The approach centralized here will give key importance to spirituality and the clear articulation of conclusions about the world and the historical patterns at work there.

My approach will also recognize that some of the best and most engaging stimuli for critical thought are can be found in popular culture’s most powerful and engaging medium, Hollywood film, as well as from outstanding documentaries. So most blog entries on this topic will include film illustration.

My hope is that readers will find these Wednesday blog entries interesting and helpful and worthy of their “critical” feedback.