Category Archives: Uncategorized

Jettisoning ‘Worthiness’ From Our Faith

Pope Francis’ comments about ‘even the atheists’ being redeemed fueled stories in the media that displayed a confusion among Catholic respondents. Even the Vatican issued a clarification that seemed to correct the pope. It raised for me a more fundamental question about why non-theists or non-Catholics being redeemed upsets the more religious among us.

I often tell friends who love to disprove atheism as a hobby it is not disbelief that threatens our Church, it is apathetic belief. For this reason, I shy away from encountering atheism in my thought. Their conscience decision to engage spirituality in such a way is largely more experiential than intellectual, and you cannot argue experience. The pope’s comments are not a challenge to atheism though, but progress in dialogue with those who differ in belief – and, perhaps more telling, a conversation starter for necessary dialogue with Catholics ourselves.

If an atheist is redeemed why should this bother the believer?

If the theist’s beliefs are objectively true, then nothing they posit in this life will affect their redemption because it is of divine origin. If the atheists beliefs are objectively true, and there is no God, then this whole discussion of Christian redemption is futile.

Except for worthiness, which is the sole reason why Catholics have been objecting to the pope’s words (and they have in droves). Faith becomes a calculus of inputs and outputs, thus being Catholic and doing all the right things is the input to attain the output of redemption. Why would anyone who does not put in the time and work gain the reward? It would seem to lessen the redemption of those of us who labored; in other words those who are “worthy.”

In this mindset then, Pope Francis admitting the reality that ‘even atheists’ are included in Christ’s redemption can be jarring – or liberating if worthiness is something you hope the Church will soon jettison.

Inclusion in salvation, present to God’s overwhelming love should be a goal we desire for every person. The Catholic mind is communally-oriented and our conception of salvation cannot escape this nor can we cast communion with every human being aside. Atheists’ redemption is included in this universal nature of redemption, and we need to overcome inflated piety or over concern with worthiness for a shift in thinking to occur.

The Church, which is all of us as the People of God, needs to shift our thinking and ask, Why are we not overjoyed when all are redeemed? Why do we fail to express unconditioned joy at the thought any person would gain salvation? Is that not the entire point of evangelizing and bringing others into a relationship with Christ – so, even if this occurs post-mortem, is it not still the final end we would celebrate?

God’s all powerful ability to welcome any and all into the Kingdom of God cannot be limited by our human conceptions of worthiness, so rather than worry we must release false aspects of our faith. We must release the idea that our worship, service, or devotion contributes to more worth in God’s eyes. We must release the idea that those who worship in other traditions or participate in no tradition, or even adamantly defame God, are some how unable to participate among God’s love in an eternal sense. Beyond just acknowledging our work does not ‘earn’ salvation, we need to practice this in our lives – doing good, but not pretending it increases our worth before God.

Our worth is already maxed out.

God loves us, every single person in their uniqueness, without failure. To speak of equal love for all does not diminish God’s love for each one, but in typical both/and fashion we live this tension. Worthiness needs expulsion from our consciousness, and a leveling in our minds of all humanity before God. Pope Francis simply stated the long-held belief that Christ’s paschal mystery redeems all – it should not have rattled the world so much, and yet mired in our false beliefs it did. Let’s move on.



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Two Capuchins, Two Churches, & Turning to Christ

Curious about the two paths American Catholicism could take? Tom Roberts of National Catholic Reporter uses two high-ranking Capuchins, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, as models for these two churches, so to speak. The key quotes about each man, in my opinion, are below.

On O’Malley:

Archbishop O’Malley mowing a lawn

“His emphasis throughout his life has been on the poor and those on the margins, and he recalled sheltering people in the wake of riots that broke out in Washington, where he was then living, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. O’Malley followed that by joining the Poor People’s March, ‘sleeping in a tent city’ and watching protestors get tear-gassed.

“He was a prison chaplain and ministered to immigrants and refugees while staying at Washington’s Centro Catolico Hispano during the 1970s and ’80s…He organized a rent strike among poor tenants until improvements were made to their property.”

On Chaput:

Archbishop Chaput

“Chaput’s is a rather gloomy view of the church and the world…His language is littered with phrases that are derisive of everyone else…When asked if he sees even a little hope, he replied, ‘I see some lights, but they’re not many and they’re small.’

“Everything, it seems, is someone else’s fault, and Chaput appears to hover above the fray, with both the accusatory analysis and all the answers. Not once did he even hint that perhaps Catholics in places like Philadelphia were leaving in droves because church leaders, especially bishops, deeply and horribly betrayed them in ways that would put the most relativistic, hedonistic secularist to shame. Perhaps they were leaving because they can’t stand to be in an institution led by men who had so little regard for their children that they would tolerate the rape and molestation of those children for decades without saying anything to anyone.”

Roberts concludes with some rhetorical questions, but it is obvious the answers. Americans are faced with the choice between a conservative pessimist who relishes conflict and thrives off condemnation or a more moderate leader who lives out the Gospel of the marginalized (i.e, the Gospel) through dynamism and love. Is there even a decision about where our Church needs to go?

Luckily, it seems Pope Francis seems to get it and perhaps, if we’re lucky, the hyper-partisanship of the US bishops I’ve written about before might cede to a more pastoral leadership we can all embrace. And if Archbishop Chaput needs a little more light and hope in the meantime, I suggest he turn to the blinding light of Christ that can set the world aflame.


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Mental Illness Gone Viral

Another Facebook status was making the rounds today, this time asking us to list seven people with roles in a ‘mental hospital.’ It isn’t the first, only, or last time a viral status will appear on my newsfeed that is offensive – but what shocked me today was several friends I expected more from filled in names and posted it. What exactly is it about mental illness that leaves it with a lingering humor, or more precisely a humor based in stigma? How come otherwise aware and progressive activists, social workers, people of faith, and advocates for the marginalized are all fine laughing at the mentally ill?

Two decades of experience with my own mental health issues means I cannot but conclude that there is great humor in mental illness. Coping with pain, or worse the unknown, is sometimes only possible through humor and a recognition of how ludicrous a moment might be. Laughter scales the walls of mania or depression and eases the mental anguish within me. This humor is not only good (even if dark), it is something I recommend to anyone struggling personally or with a loved one afflicted by mental illness.

Yet, the Facebook status and general comedy around mental illness is not the positive, therapeutic kind. It is the nasty, stereotypical kind that relies on ignorance of mental health and decades old images of the ‘crazy’ people interned in psychiatric wards worthy of Nurse Ratched. Who exactly is listed in this particular status?

Well, there’s the roommate (the poster is considered mentally ill, too); there’s the window licker and the escapee; the naked person and the one “yelling nonsense about clowns”; there’s even the person you went crazy with whatever that means. Oh, and there’s a doctor thrown in for good measure. We’re all then instructed to copy/paste this, add our own seven friends, and “share the craziness.”

You may have surmised I did none of the above. I am fed up with mental illness being an acceptable target of derogatory humor. The same circles who would object to anything racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-poor, anti-migrant, anti-…you understand (I should note, I would totally object to these too) – are posting statuses targeting the mentally ill as if it’s no big deal. To quote Vice President Biden, it’s a “Big F–kin’ Deal.”

The reality is, there is too much truth in this Facebook status. Of a random sampling of seven friends, we’re all likely to get a couple in there who have struggled themselves with mental health and a couple more who have firsthand experience with illness’ ravages on friends and families. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (definitely check them out) estimates that 1 in 4 Americans suffer from mental illness in a given year, which is about 61.5 million people.

If you’re reading this in a public place, look around for a moment and think about that 1 in 4 statistic. Mental illness, and the lack of proper healthcare around it, leads to and compounds a host of injustices prevalent in our society that so many of my Facebook friends are fighting against.

Mental health is a matter of our loved ones, and the ones we love as God’s children we may not know – who then are we ready to call the “naked one” or the “window licker” or the one “yelling nonsense about clowns”? Is it really all that humorous to list our friends aside these labels, when they may suffer in reality from afflictions that make getting out of bed a Herculean feat?

Shouldn’t we instead celebrate the victories of those who are learning to live, and thrive, amid a chronic mental illness or overcome an addiction? Shouldn’t we become involved in mental health care and advocacy, where we can acknowledge the true humor minds like mine provide?

If you want to make a Facebook status go viral, let us all make it the one that will pull my bipolar disorder and those illnesses of millions others out of the shadows, stripping them of stigma and opening a policy discussion on how to heal a broken society!


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Boy Scouts Decision Isn’t an Invite to ‘Cure’ LGBT Youth

Boy Scouts of America Welcome Gay & Bisexual ScoutsA good friend of mine recently wrote about the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to allow openly gay and bisexual youth into their movement, and he affirmed the decision from a Catholic perspective. Joe is an Eagle Scout (whereas I quit in 2000 when the Supreme Court upheld the BSA’s discriminatory policies, never extending beyond Cub Scout) so his thoughts come from a place of deep appreciation for Catholic faith and scouting. I offer my responses here, and while I acknowledge the other half of why Joe endorses the BSA’s decision is matters of unity (which I agree with), I cannot support his first reasons based on Catholic morality.

Two major areas within Joe’s thinking seem problematic to me: his support for a continued ban against gay adults and, following from that, the reasons behind allowing gay youth he endorses.

Excluding Gay Leaders 

Joe’s support for the decision, a compromise between competing interests in his view, considers the distinction between the scouts and the leaders to be “vital.” If this distinction is necessarily involved in making the compromise valid, and not just an exercise in kicking the gay leaders ‘problem’ down the road, then it seems fair to ask why. Joe offers that allowing gay youth while banning gay leaders:

“…helps promote a heterosexual lifestyle in the most respectful and compassionate way. The Boy Scouts (and this should be to no one’s surprise) still probably seeks to uphold its inculcation of values that include what it believes to be a proper sexual union between a man and a woman, and this is why gay adults are still not permitted…

“I believe such a choice [to exclude gay leaders] is because the sole basis of their moral choice to have a definitively active homosexual relationship rather than anything else…The character of homosexual adults can be, in many cases, exemplary. I think it is because the BSA would feel that allowing them as leaders would be seen as an endorsement.”

I deeply respect Joe, but in this line of thinking he assumes far too much. Breaking his argument down we see something like this for his logic:

(1) The Boy Scouts of America promote heteronormative standards, i.e. sex is properly enacted between only a man and a woman;

(2) To be in a sexual relationship that is not one man, one woman contradicts the Boy Scouts values, and all actions from Boy Scout leaders should be in accordance with the movement’s values;

(3) All gay leaders have made the “moral choice” to be in “definitively active homosexual” relationships, thus every gay leader fails to uphold scouting values in their lives;

(4) Therefore, there cannot be gay leaders in the Boy Scouts.

Obviously, the third premise is the objectively false one (even if I disagree with the first two) that invalidates the conclusion. It’s unfair to make claims about how anyone expresses their sexuality, including gay men, unless we are to have an Inquisition in scouting. Suddenly, every scout leaders’ sex life becomes open game – Did they engage in premarital sex? Are they using contraception? Is one partner having an affair?** If their use of sexuality is not an example of scouting values, then by the logic provided above even many straight leaders must go.

And herein lies the overall problem with Joe’s reasoning for allowing gay youth to participate in the Boy Scouts: conflating sexual expression as sexual orientation, which in the current articulation by the Catholic hierarchy are two different matters. Identifying as LGBT, even for Catholics, presumes nothing about how one dates or expresses their sexuality physically just as we never assume about straight people.

Endorsing Gay Youth 

This matter of orientation is behind why I oppose Joe’s reasons for allowing gay youth, at least as far as his endorsement of Catholic reasons. He writes:

“By allowing gay youths into the organization, and not allowing adults, the policy change posits that any youth who considers himself gay is not set in that view and should not be sexually active (Catholic teaching on chastity), and rather can grow and change as a sexual being:

“So then what is sexual orientation for youth in the Boy Scouts?…if a Boy Scout were to claim he is gay, as many of our youths do today, the response should not be one of alienation or affirmation, but one of expectation for their future sexual growth in holistically, healthy moral lifestyles…”

“That ‘future sexual growth,’ for me, is the heterosexual relationship or abstinence.”

In my reading, Joe comes perilously close to endorsing what can be referred to as a “cure” or “therapy” for LGBT youth. I agree that chastity, the responsible use of one’s divinely gifted sexuality, is a positive value to inculcate through scouting. However, he makes the claim that gay identified scouts are not “set in that view” and quotes extensively that welcoming gay youth is an opportunity for “future sexual growth” into either celibacy or a straight relationship. It is positive to bring in gay youth for more than teaching every scout to use sexuality in a just, healthy, and appropriate way. It is positive because scouting could change them.

Efforts to change gay youth do not, and can not, mesh with Catholic teachings that sexual orientation is an innate and unwavering state for nearly everyone. Straight and LGBT people alike are attracted to whom they are attracted, and I quote the US bishops in their 1996 document, Always Our Children:

“…It seems appropriate to understand sexual orientation (heterosexual or homosexual) as a deep-seated dimension of one’s personality and to recognize its relative stability in a person…Having a homosexual orientation does not necessarily mean a person will engage in homosexual activity.

“There seems to be no single cause of a homosexual orientation. A common opinion of experts is that there are multiple factors…that may give rise to it. Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen. By itself, therefore, a homosexual orientation cannot be considered sinful, for morality presumes the freedom to choose.”

Clearly, any attempts to alter gay scouts would contradict the notion of sexual orientation from the Catholic hierarchy’s perspective that Joe espouses. Healthy development of one’s sexuality is an essential part of raising children, but this healthy development should never aim to force LGBT youth into heterosexual relationships or repression through celibacy.

If openly gay scouts are merely being welcomed into the movement to “help” them, then this decision means nothing. If however, openly gay scouts are welcomed, affirmed for who they are, and grow in understanding the responsible and just use of their sexuality like every other scout – then that is a step forward. As for gay leaders, discrimination remains in place and LGBT advocates like myself will continue educating and advocating for a better approach to sexuality in conservative cultures.


**I should note, I do not make any claims about the morality of same-gender relationships or any of the actions described thereafter. I’m merely working from the conservative Catholic articulation of sexual morays that Joe is working within. I personally see the true goodness in same-gender couples, as I do with mixed-gender ones.

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CUA President John Garvey: Consent & Chastity “Clash Awkwardly”

John Garvey of The Catholic University of America

John Garvey, the president at The Catholic University of America, recently wrote a letter in Catholic San Francisco about students’ sexual conduct at his school (and my alma mater). Concerns about the “hook-up culture” and sexual health seem to be discussed a lot lately in higher education, and with validity I agree. Garvey’s take however is troubling given CUA’s poor record on sexual violence. He begins:

“At The Catholic University of America, where I serve as president, we have been working on some revisions to our code of student conduct. We’re finding that it’s challenging because we need to send students two different messages about sex that can at times clash awkwardly.”

What exactly are these two clashing messages that Catholic college students receive? The messages, as Garvey elucidates, are the importance of consent and the importance of chastity.

It seems that Catholic teachings on sexuality are at odds with seeking consent from one’s partner – in his words, they “clash awkwardly.” He refers heavily to the sexual violence portion in legalistic terms, although admitting it is “a sin against justice and charity” at one point. Most important it seems is that sexual assault is forbidden by local and federal laws, and there are all kinds of laws that colleges must comply with too.

The takeaway from John Garvey: Don’t sexually assault a person because it violates the law, and we need to keep the “risk managers” happy. He actually writes at one point:

“Risk managers (accountants and lawyers) want us to be very clear with our students about what counts as sexual abuse…If we’re not explicit about this, they say, we may be guilty under Title IX of creating a hostile environment, and risk losing federal funds.”

Cast aside any concern for students who may be victimized by failing to teach about healthy, mature, and consenting sexual relations (or Catholic identity for that matter), The Catholic University of America could lose precious federal funds and thus is forced to comply with the laws. So there’s that, in approximately three paragraphs.

President Garvey then continues discussing consensual sexual relations, which are presented as far worse, and is worthy of almost double the words sexual violence was. He continues:

“College student conduct codes will usually tell students that the difference between sex and sexual abuse is the element of consent. And they will use a formula something like this to define consent: ‘Consent is informed, freely given, mutually understandable words or actions that indicate a willingness to participate in sexual activity.’

“But that’s not the end of the story from a Catholic perspective. Consensual sex between students matters, too. It’s not a crime (fortunately), but it is a sin against chastity when it takes place outside of marriage.

“Chastity is an unfashionable virtue nowadays, but the idea is not hard to understand. Casual sex is harmful even if there is no coercion. It plays at love for sport. It makes promises that the players don’t intend to keep. It insults the dignity of the other person by treating him or her as a sex toy rather than a child of God. It divorces sex from the creation of new life and the unity of a family.”

Apparently, encounters of rape and sexual assault, and consensual relations between two students are analogous at some level – the article hints that both are quite harmful. It even leans to emphasis how sinful consensual sex is – it’s insults the dignity of the partner, treats them as a sex toy, divorces sex from it’s meanings. Sex outside of marriage is seemingly the worst sex there could be. Except it is not.

In a balancing act, the president then forcefully says sexual abuse must be dealt with justly at Catholic schools, even if “it’s a bit awkward to turn around then and say, ‘But wait – that sexual activity we told you to get consent for? You should not be doing it at all.'” These principles of consent and chastity now “clash awkwardly” again, even as President Garvey writes that the goals are “quite harmonious.” So who is to blame for positioning them in conflict?

“The awkwardness in explaining this arises because our culture doesn’t want to hear the message it needs. It wants to prevent violence while preserving promiscuity. It is forbidden to consider that for some subset of the population, the latter can lead to the former.

“Casual sex is a disordered activity. If you engage in it, it creates terrible habits in you and degrades your partner.”

Nowhere in the article is sexual assault called a degrading activity or a disrespecting of human dignity, and nowhere in the article is the opposition to violence rooted in Catholic thought aside from the general “sin against justice and charity.” The theology against using our sexuality as a violent tool and a power game is so clear and so deep, it would not be hard to draw from. Garvey would rather stick to faulting culture for putting Catholics in the awkward situation, not our own inadequacies in responding to pastoral realities.

Yet, President Garvey in this article is clear that sexual violence is a legal matter, and sex outside marriage is the theological one. I know he would clearly speak about against rape and assault as morally contemptible acts, but he refuses to stop equivocating between two disparate acts. Where is the disconnect?

The problem, I believe, is the Catholic silence around sex positivity, especially for young adults. Yesterday, I wrote about misguided views by Catholics on intimate partner violence and marriage, with some good links on these same problems including a piece by Meghan Clarke at Millennial.

As for education today, the hierarchy and school administrators spend far too much time with heads buried, constantly haranguing unmarried Catholics to chastity – meaning celibacy – without any other conversations. Deprived of discussions around sexual health, consent, positive body image, and good relationship dynamics, students on Catholic campuses are trapped in a twilight zone where there is no acceptable “yes,” and yet nearly everyone is sexually active. Students participating in the average activities of college students nationwide, drinking and hooking up, are less (or completely un-) equipped situations they may find themselves in – and this is when terrible things happen.

Garvey hedges in ever saying consensual sex, inside or outside of marriage, is totally separate from violence and power expressed sexually. The Catholic University of America, and I guarantee it is not alone, hedges from recognizing that consensual sex may not fit within the Catholic framework – but it should never be spoken of alongside rape.

Catholics in our Church remain silent around building up a culture that is sex positive – that endorses the goodness of these divine expressions, openly discusses consent and sexual health, deals with the realities of college students’ lives, and all the while rejects the “hook-up culture” by reappropriating chastity to the responsible use of one’s sexuality, not merely listing prohibitions.

I know that Catholics in the pews are imagining sexuality in new ways, in ways closer to Christ’s message and the love of God, and in ways that are making each of us safer, healthier, and more fulfilled. Let’s pray this Spirit carries onto our Catholic campus too!


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Misguided Divorce Comments Speak to Underlying Scandal

Fr. Peter Ryan of the USCCB

Joshua McElwee has another good interview at National Catholic Reporter, this time with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops new doctrinal head, Jesuit Fr. Peter Ryan. The interview is introductory, and Fr. Ryan offers little besides lockstep adherence to the bishops. He’s an expert in bioethics, which is a growing field of moral quandary with medical advancements on the daily – and in this capacity maybe he will advance theology.

However, one response from the priest about divorce struck me as particularly misguided. I quote it here in full, with my comments afterwards:

“[Joshua McElwee] Since you specified the church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, I wonder how you would say this on a pastoral level in talking to someone who has been divorced who was obviously in an unhealthy relationship and wants to continue with their life. How do you consider that?

“[Fr. Peter Ryan] Well, there certainly does need to be a lot of pastoral outreach in that area and many other areas where people have real-life problems. I think the first thing to do is to be genuinely compassionate and understanding and to reach out to them with genuine pastoral care.

“At the same time, the teaching about marriage is right there in the Gospel. It’s pretty clearly not something the church happened to come up with years later. … And so I don’t think that somehow it makes sense to think that being pastorally sensitive could somehow mean compromising that teaching,

“… Sometimes people have to accept a really difficult reality that in fact they are married, and then we just have to support them as well as we can. And if they’re not willing to live by the church’s teaching, then we still love them and welcome them to church.

“That doesn’t mean that we violate what the church says about holy Communion, but it does mean we try and reach out to them and help and support them as much as we can.”

The Catholic hierarchy’s failure to adequately understand and address marriage is not newsworthy, and the continued attacks on the divorced, remarried, same-gender couples, etc. are to be expected. Except, McElwee does not ask about any old divorce and receive the party line. He asks about a woman who is separated from an unhealthy (and we can fairly read abusive) relationship and receives a poor response.

It seems, amid all the talk of pastoral concern and compassion,  Fr. Ryan expects the victim of an unhealthy marriage to remain in that marriage. In order to not “compromise that teaching” that marriage is indissoluble, those in ministry should counsel the abused spouse to stay married even if it is a “difficult reality.”

It’s a few paragraphs in an initial interview, and perhaps I could accept it as such and wait to see how this new doctrinal czar acts. The problem is Fr. Ryan is speaking about a larger trend in the Church, and living among the anti-woman and anti-pastoral culture of the bishops he may only get worse. Catholics should be scandalized by this problem: we do not take issues of intimate partner violence and sexual violence seriously in our theology nor in our pastoral practice.

John Garvey of my alma mater, The Catholic University of America, recently wrote in a San Francisco Catholic publication. His words, like Fr. Ryan’s reveal the scandal, in regards to student life on Catholic campuses where “two different messages about sex…can at times clash awkwardly.” Garvey explains that the two messages in conflict are consent and chastity – I will write more tomorrow about this troublesome piece.

I’m obviously not the first Catholic who reads remarks like Fr. Ryan’s or President Garvey’s and feels pained by the bishops’ backwardness, and Meghan Clarke of Millennial writes a piece well-worth everyone’s time. Writing about rape culture and the high rates of violence against women worldwide, she concludes by criticizing the Church’s complicity:

“As a Catholic feminist ethicist, I am currently struggling with the silence of my own community on the structural sin here.  There are a handful of theologians writing on the hookup culture, domestic violence, and sexual violence in war, but these conversations are small and largely relegated to the edges of our moral theology conversations.  Catholic public debate on violence against women is virtually nonexistent, even as we are about to launch a second fortnight for freedom – this time on same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court.  Why isn’t rape culture and violence against women a priority within Catholic moral theology?”

Let us pray that as Fr. Ryan takes over at the USCCB’s head position for moral theology, a growing awareness of women’s issues and the impact gender and sexual violence will help the scales to fall away from his eyes. His response to the divorce question is inadequate in our day, and everyone who is affected by marriage (so everyone…) deserves more Christ-like, loving guidance from our clergy.



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Obama’s False Choice on Drones, and a Syllogism of Sorts

A few remarks about President Obama’s address last week, specifically relating to his defense of the immoral drone strikes the US government continues to use (You can read the full transcript of President Obama’s remarks here.) Ultimately, I argue President Obama’s defense of drone strikes relies on a false choice between kill or do nothing and some poor logic.

In addressing drones, he sets the stage by reminding Americans of just how remote those the government hunts are considered, hiding in lawless nations like Somalia and in the deserts and caves of the Middle East. Geographic difficulties, national sovereignty concerns, and risk to surrounding populations all mean using troops is implausible most times. The hunt of ‘terrorists’ is necessary, the means are limited, the challenges are many: cue the drones.

The president’s first defense is that drone strikes are “effective.” So much for a discussion on ethics. His quotes from al-Qaeda communications that worry about the effectiveness of the drones as evidence, concluding, “Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.” It seems President Obama is making the ethical argument that the ends justify the means, and this discussion seems to be all about effective tactics for the just end of…well, I’m not so sure.

To appease the lawyers, he then references the terrorism of September 11th and the Congressional authorization for the War on Terror as the legal basis for this war of self-defense. Relying on the theory of Justified War, the president concludes: “So this is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.” I have no legal training, so perhaps this War on Terror is legal under domestic and international law (though I’m inclined to think not). I do know Justified War theory and its Catholic roots, and definitively these drone attacks are neither proportional, a last resort, nor in self-defense as the theory traditionally understands imminent threat.

Finally, President Obama admits that merely possessing an effective technology is not actually a moral defense for drones. In his own words:

“To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance…And that’s why, over the last four years, my administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists…”

Unfortunately, he dodges the moral question again. Merely having a framework implemented again does not answer the jarring questions raised by drones. His words are shallow, and painfully ironic, for those who know the truth about drone strikes. The president claims these strikes are constrained, respectful of national sovereignty, used only when capture is not possible for “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” and when there is “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” There may be this framework, but it is a failed one and the body count tells a different truth.

President Obama’s defense of drones comes down to the false choice he presents, excluding the voices of nonviolence and peacemakers, development individuals and educators, leaders of civic society and democratic reformers. The choice is between accepting massive civilian death tolls, tacitly acknowledged as a “gap” between official military estimates and those of nongovernmental reports, and not using drones to stop terrorists who would kill us all if only we let our guard down.

As he reiterates, sending in US troops would be too costly and there may be governments who would not allow the US to operate militarily within their nation (shocking). There may be a plethora of reasons why we cannot use conventional means to attack these terrorists, so the only option that is left is drones. For the president, when this choice is all that exists, ” Doing nothing is not an option.” And that something to do is a drone strike.

There is more in the speech I hope to digest, about the killing of American citizens using drones and the expansiveness of their use, about Congress role and the over-empowered Executive branch, about many other issues. I think these are separate issues than the moral justification of a drone strike itself though, and in this moral defense President Obama fails gravely.

Fundamentally, when President Obama made a defense of drone strikes it was this:

(1) Drone technology is effective in getting around the nasty bits of warmaking, like US soldiers being killed, accountability to the American people, or foreign governments rejecting our ‘aid,” and we have a good end to justify this questionable means;

(2) The Obama Administration’s lawyers concocted a way to ‘legally’ justify these drones strikes under domestic, and international law, but there is no need to explain this to the American people. Just trust the Administration that the strikes are ‘legal’;

(3) It is necessary to violently strike/kill at whomever the US government secretly ordains ‘terrorist’ because the only other choice is inaction, and conventional uses of force are impractical for a number of reasons thus necessitating the use of drones;

(4) Therefore, drone strikes are morally acceptable.

That syllogism may not make sense because of my poor articulation, but more likely it may not make sense because the muddling of premises into a cloud of confusion is the only means through which the President can arrive at the unjustified conclusion. The limited imagination at the White House does not allow for new thinking or for the realization violence perpetuates violence.

What if Obama admitted, as we are well aware, that schools, healthcare, democratic institutions and the rule of law, enough food on one’s table from a stable economy, and all the varied benefits of peace will defend Americans and the whole world much more than more drone murder? For this awareness, I continue to pray to God.


P.S.Drone strikes remain immoral, illegal, and ineffective – and they’re ongoing! If you’d like to take action consider speaking out against them join the monthly witness at CIA headquarters the second Saturday of every month from 10am-12pm.

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Replacing Memorial Day with True Mourning

Marking Memorial Day, we are meant to honor those in the military who died in war – but I perennially ask myself on this day, “Why?”  Warmaking is a most sinful and barbaric endeavor. Honoring people simply for fighting in war, using language of sacrifice and service, merely perpetuates the myths of militarism. Each year, Catholics are swept up in the dangerous nationalism of this day and lend their voice to the cultic remembrance of soldiers who died in war. Enough. Catholics must stop participating in Memorial Day, and start peacemaking with our lives every single day through mourning.

Letting Go of Myths & Honor 

To honor someone usually implies they contributed positively to our world and expressed virtuous traits routinely in their life’s journey. I admit that in war individuals may act virtuously in moments that preserve life, but on the whole soldiering is a poor profession to honor. Participation in Memorial Day strengthens the myths that the military is a good force, a service, a suitable career, or worthy of our praise. Catholics cannot hold this view about the US military, the lethal arm of that greatest purveyor of violence in the world which is America, according to Rev. Martin Luther King.

Catholics cannot extol any longer the mythical virtues of soldiering or warmaking. We must jettison this false cult of honor accorded to those in the military. Parades, ceremonies, and moments of silence that speak in the language of service or that pretend these deaths preserve American freedoms merely lend credibility to the myth these deaths had purpose. Or at least purpose beyond the idiocy of anti-Communism, the bloodlust after 9/11, or the protection of US oil interests. World War II may be a justified war, but no other military action our nation took in the 20th century or now even approaches justified.

There is no honor in what our nation has done – sent young people to be killed, and even worse to kill and live on scarred. There is no honor in the routine slaughter of innocent civilians or the use of napalm or drone strikes. There is no honor in waves of homeless veterans who cannot get healthcare for their war wounds, turning to addiction and abuse. There is no honor in using hate speech, racism, and inhumanity to get 18 year olds to murder against their conscience. There is no honor in a military where women are more likely to be raped today than killed in combat. There is no honor in the utter destruction of nations. There is no honor in the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. There is no honor. There is none.

Mourning as Peacemaking 

So what do these war dead tell us? How do we commemorate tragedy? What is the call for Catholics? Their voices from the grave are simple, their message is pure and it is one with Christ’s call for every one of us: peace.

Catholics must rely on our tradition to understand how to move past the myths of Memorial Day – we must not honor, for there is nothing to honor, but we must mourn. Mourning the dead from war – the soldiers of all sides, the innocent children, the civilians cut down -this is a healthy task for Catholic peacemakers. These deaths from warmaking mourned daily drive me to enact peace in my personal interactions while challenging the US government’s violence.

This mourning isn’t wrapped up in layers of the American flag, but it strips bare the reality of warmaking: it is an abhorrent practice, one that can never be justified in the Christian tradition today, and it is the duty of every Catholic to oppose as they can the militarism of American’s empire. Mourning rids us of the hindering language of service, sacrifice, honor, bravery and enables us to speak truly: these war dead died needlessly to fuel the unjust causes of the political elite. Their deaths did not sustain American freedoms nor liberate foreign populations. Their deaths are pointless and void of any good. Their deaths are simply tragedies in the fullest manner.

For the loved ones of the war dead, and for those who support the wars, this reality is a painful endpoint – and yet, admitting pure tragedy as the only meaning to the these deaths is an essential step to peacemaking. To effectively overcome the criminal enterprising at the Pentagon and from war profiteers and to end political will for war, we must deal with the painful truth that American military actions are contradictory to peace and the values of the United States.

And so, as Catholics opt out of Memorial Day, we must fervently turn to mourning as a spiritual practice. We must include American soldiers and civilians in the nations we ravage by name in our prayers, encompassing the pain of their loved ones and the loss to our world of these lives if we can. We must personalize these current losses, set in a context of the millions slaughtered at the altar of the Pentagon in wars past. We must mourn in our tears and anguish that combat persists, and then we must find in this Christ’s peace that will strengthen us to take a step forward and louden our call for love.



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Drone Strike in Watertown

As the overhyped headlines about terrorism continue, I couldn’t help but reflect on the terrorism my nation commits daily abroad in nations like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc. One thought keeps breaking through:

If Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were hiding out in one of those nations where everyone isn’t wealthy and white, you know, the terrorist training grounds, the US government would have assassinated him without trial in a drone strike. Surrounding homes in this far-off neighborhood would have been leveled, and dozens of innocent lives would be taken in strikes like these day after day, month after month.

The question stares Americans in the face:

Would slaughtering a dozen Watertown residents to kill this one guy be an acceptable policy for you? What if it meant several strikes and hundreds of innocent lives?

The targets are civilians (written off as collateral damage at best), children as young as 8 are killed, and fear grips the lives of thousands — just like the Tsarnaev brothers did with their heinous bombing at the Boston Marathon, except this time sanctioned, supported, and funded by the United States of America.

That is what America does daily abroad with our immoral, illegal, and ineffective drone warfare. It seems the US government and the Tsarnaev brothers method isn’t so different after all — terrorism is always terrorism, no matter who commits it.


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Excerpts from Rachel Maddow’s “Drift,” part II

Rachel Maddow

I recently finished reading Rachel Maddow’s book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. I highly recommend all read this book, as Maddow lays out systematically how far US militarism has drifted from the nation’s origins. This is the second post of excerpts from the book. These aren’t a systematic outlining of Maddow’s argument, but merely passages that I found particularly compelling. I encourage all to reflect on them, as our nation figures out how to reject this permanent, profitable war-making state we’re in and turn towards a peaceful co-existence with the world.

“Ignoring the founders’ loud and explicit warning that we should not allow one person to unilaterally take us to war has been demonstrably bad for this country.” [p.147]

“…it was common practice among the contract workers at Comanche to buy themselves live-in sex slaves from the local Serbian mafia…

“The Army lawyers had told military investigators that neither Bosnian law nor US law applied to the contractors, so the Department of Defense had no authority to prosecute any crimes private contract workers committed over [in the Balkans], and therefore no responsibility for them either. Thank God…

“So how did we get to the place where private American citizens representing us — men whose salaries were paid by the US government — could cut this greasy, lawless swath through the Balkans with no real consequences for the criminals, or for DynCorp itself?” [p. 165-167]

“The CIA now functions as a military force beyond the accountability that the United States has historically demanded of its armed services. The CIA doesn’t officially acknowledge the drone program, let alone provide public explanation about who shoots and who dies, and by what rules…

“Having a secret military force with no visible chain of command, or recognizable rules of behavior or engagement, has become a most useful thing.” [p. 197-198]

“[From an intelligence source] ‘If there’s one person they’re going after and there’s thirty-four people in the building, thirty-five people are going to die. That’s the mentality…They’re not accountable to anybody and they know that.'” [p. 201-202]

“With tax cuts in wartime, with no sense of collective national sacrifice on behalf of the war effort, with less than 1 percent of the American population taking up arms to fight, with US casualties politically and literally shielded from public view, the cumulative effect was to normalize our national wartime. We’ve become a nation ‘at peace with being at war,’ in the words of the New York Times media critic David Carr.” [p. 246]

“This isn’t bigger than us. Decisions about national security are ours to make…We just need to revive that old idea of America as a deliberatly peaceful nation. That’s not simply our inheritance, it’s our responsibility.” [p. 252]

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