Replacing Marxism

pope francisPeople say Francis is a Marxist, but he says something more interesting.   He says Marxism stole away a traditional Catholic issue.  (I defy you to find a canonized saint who wasn’t radically “poor and for the poor.”)  Marx has it wrong, because he doesn’t think like a Christian.  We have to recover the Christian view.

One of Francis’s addresses from his recent trip to Latin America gives a good starting point.

The piece is clearly organized.  The first section says, “we want change” in society.  The second says, “you are sowers of change.”  The third talks about what kind of change.  One large section talks about an economy at the service of people, the second opposes kinds of “colonialism,” and a third short section mentions the environment.


When he says, “we want change,” he lists various forms of exclusion.  The problem isn’t exactly poverty or income inequality.  The problem is the hopelessness of feeling like you are not even part of society: not part of the educational system, not equally protected by the laws, not wanted.  I think of inner city black kids.  Poverty is one thing; exclusion is much worse.  Previous Popes have said this, Francis says it more directly.

This is hard reading for some religious Americans, because Marx talked about exclusion too, and we tend to expect that the kind of change he proposes must be Marxist change.

But Francis quickly makes one of his central points, and it is anti-Marxist: “Yet there is an invisible thread joining every one of those forms of exclusion,” he says.  “An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind.  Capital becomes an idol.”  This is, in fact, the language of Scripture and the Tradition, though we don’t like to hear it.

Much of our political dialogue is about how to get money: either through the free market or through government redistribution.  Francis’s answer is that both are wrong, because both focus merely on material acquisition.  The real problem cuts through the human heart.

The real problem requires conversion, from love of money to love of neighbor, and love of God.  That’s Gospel stuff.  Marx does not tell you to love your neighbor.  He tells you how the poor can steal money from the rich.


The second section, “you are sowers of change,” adds a key point.  It is not government that can cause this cultural change.  We are not looking for new laws – though a converted society would have new laws.  What we are looking for is cultural conversion.  And that begins at home, and with the people around us.  We are talking about evangelization and repentance, not politics.

He says, “don’t expect a recipe from this Pope.”  He is not proposing public policy.  He is proposing “genuine interpersonal encounter” with our neighbor and “daily proximity to their share of troubles.”  One of his examples is “working generously in the fields of health, sports and education.”  Sports!  Working to make a happier, more human world, by the way we treat our neighbor.  Also helping them make a home, founding “cooperatives”, “favoring businesses.”  This isn’t Marxism.  It’s working together, loving our neighbor.


In the third section he talks about economics.  “The economy should not be a mechanism for accumulating goods, but rather the proper administration of our common home.”  Those are strong words, but what do they mean?

We return to the love of money vs. the love of neighbor.  Obviously we need to make enough money for our families.  But obviously, too, we can think about our jobs only in terms of how much stuff we can get, or we can think instead about how we can serve.  Don’t think about how high taxes should be.  Think about your job.  Your friends’ jobs.  How can we make our work into a way to make the world a better, more loving, more beautiful place?

Think to about our neighbor’s needs: “those needs are not restricted to consumption.”  We don’t serve merely by being “economically productive.”  We serve by treating people well.  This requires “being creative. You are social poets,” says the Pope.  Government can’t do that.  It’s about us using our jobs and free time well.  (Though he does say we should ask for laws that allow that creativity.)


Finally, he talks about “colonialism.”  This sounds like Marxism, but again, his answers end up being anti-Big.

One of his examples is “communications media,” which create a kind of “cultural uniformity.”  We lose the richness of local culture.  We lose the richness of being outside with our neighbors, and sharing our creativity.  That’s what he means by “colonialism.”

He talks about the dangers of “transnational companies.”  This is something Pope Pius XI was saying in the 1930s: huge corporations just can’t exercise that “social poetry” like small businesses and “local economies” can.

Neither can Big Government.  He talks about distant powers who trample on local people’s “culture, their language, their social processes and their religious traditions,” which ought “to be respected”

It is true, he says, that we live in a world of “interdependence.”  We can’t wish globalization away.  Interdependence means big businesses, too – some things require the complicated cooperation that Big Business and even Big Government is good at.  “Interaction, however, is not the same as imposition.”  Just because we have cooperation doesn’t mean we have to stamp out local creativity.


We should work for that local creativity, local color, local cooperation.  We should work, above all, for a world where neighbors promote one another’s whole good – not only economic, but also social and cultural and religious.  Only neighbors can see what that good is.  Only neighbors can love one another.

That affects how we vote, yes; we want governments that allow neighbors to love one another.  But this isn’t about government programs.  Fundamentally, it’s about repentance – and the richest kind of repentance, from the mindlessness of mere acquisition into the creativity of loving our neighbors.

Where do you see people creatively loving their neighbors?  What could you do?

Seventeenth Sunday: The Multiplication of Love

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

2 KNGS 4:42-44; PS 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18; EPH 4:1-6; JN 6:1-15

In this Year B we are reading Mark’s Gospel.  Year A is Matthew, Year C is Luke; John, more festal and less parallel to the others, gets read throughout all of them.  But since Mark is short and John 6 is important, we read John 6 during Mark’s year.  Last Sunday, Jesus went to a deserted place.  The next reading in Mark would be the loaves and fishes – but the Lectionary switches over to John 6, which begins with John’s account of the loaves and fishes.  We don’t read all of John 6, but we get most of it; we skip, for example, Jesus walking on the water, on the way from the loaves and the fishes to Capernaum, where he will give the Bread of Life discourse.

Meanwhile, we have been reading Ephesians.  The Sunday Lectionary runs more or less continuously through the Gospels, and picks Old Testament readings to match.  But the Second Reading, the Epistle, goes on its own cycle; for two weeks we have been reading Ephesians, and we will continue for the next five weeks, as we finish John 6.  Since Ephesians is about the divine unity of the Church, it’s not a bad match.  We don’t read all of Ephesians on ordinary Sundays, but we get about one third of the verses.


We know the Gospel reading well enough.  “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”  “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  5,000, five barley loaves, two fish, twelve baskets.

The most important lines in our liturgical context may be the conclusion.  “Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king.”  The Bread of Life discourse that we will begin next week touches often the problem of consumerist religion.  Jesus will begin, “You seek me because you ate of the loaves and were filled.”  He will respond, “Work not for the food that perishes, but for the food that abides unto eternal life.”


The Old Testament reading, from Second Kings, amplifies the Gospel.  “A man came bringing food from the first fruits to Elisha, the man of God: twenty loaves of barley.”  His servant asks, “How can I set this before a hundred people?”  But “the servant set it before them, they ate, and had some left.”

This reading brings our Gospel reading into focus.  It’s the same barley loaves.  But with Elisha it’s 20, with Jesus it’s 5.  And Elisha miraculously feeds 100, Jesus feeds 5,000.

The numbers in the Elisha story are small enough to think about.  20 loaves for a 100 people . . . that does seem thin – especially when you realize the thickest loaves they made were just one inch.  So here we have a story of how God provides: “for thus says the Lord,” says the prophet, “They shall eat and have some left.”  God takes a little and makes it enough.

But Jesus takes the same story, the same principle, and makes it ridiculous.  We are beyond mere provision.  We are into the divine.  Mere provision might still let us think of God as a mere provider.  This kind of miracle makes us think about him as God.


The reading from Ephesians helps us apply this to our lives.

“I, the prisoner in the Lord,” says Paul, “beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  The insertion, “prisoner of the Lord,” puts a point on it.  We are not called to comfort, but to radical discipleship.

As throughout Ephesians, the emphasis is on unity: “one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”  “One body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”  Notice there is a repetition here, a formula, something drilled into them.  Notice too that all of this unity is divine – we are only one body because of the divine Spirit, divine hope, and faith, and baptism.

We are called “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”  Now, there are human elements here.  Humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance: those are things we can put effort into.

But our effort is a participation in something divine.  Our contribution is not just twenty loaves multiplied to a hundred, but five multiplied to five thousand.  We are called to try, to pitch in – but we are called, more, to let Jesus build up the unity of the Church – and of our family, and neighborhood, and parish – with all his divine miraculousness.  That is the calling to which we are called: to let Jesus work miracles of love in us.

Where are you being called to let Jesus multiply your love?

Laudato Si and Romano Guardini

Lake Como, "Bellagio 2" by Joyborg - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Lake Como, “Bellagio 2” by Joyborg – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

A key to understanding Pope Francis’s new encyclical on the environment is Romano Guardini’s book The End of the Modern World.

Guardini was a major writer on Catholic spirituality and culture in the first half of the twentieth century.  Though his parents were Italians, his father was a diplomat, so Guardini grew up in Germany, and became a priest and professor there.

His importance to Francis is obvious to anyone who knows the biography of this pope.  Then-Fr. Bergoglio wanted to write a doctoral dissertation on Guardini in Germany in the 1980s, though he did not finish the degree.

But Guardini was important not only to the not-so-academic Pope Francis.  He was also a major influence on the professor-Pope Benedict.  In the introduction to one of Josef Ratzinger’s most important and influential books, The Spirit of the Liturgy, he says the book is named after Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, and credits Guardini with being the key player in launching the “liturgical movement” that culminated in Vatican II.  Ratzinger says one of his greatest hopes is to relaunch that movement.

It is no surprise, then, that Guardini first appears in a papal encyclical in that “work of four hands” (on two keyboards), Lumen Fidei, partly the last encyclical of Pope Benedict, partly the first of Pope Francis.  It is hard to say which pope added the Guardini footnotes.


The great popularizer Fr. Robert Barron wrote a helpful piece explaining Laudato Si in light of Guardini’s brilliant and accessible piece Letters from Lake Como.  In that book, Guardini talks about a trip to his ancestral homeland, in the lake country in the north of Italy.  The old architecture blends in with nature.  The new architecture jars against nature.

Guardini sees this as a metaphor for modernity.  Once we understood that we were part of God’s creation.  Now we see ourselves as conquerers.  From gay marriage to contraception to ugly architecture to deforestation, modernity can be defined as the great rebellion against Creation, the great rejection of Nature and Nature’s God.  That doesn’t mean deforestation is the same kind of sin as sodomy – but it does give insight into the deeper loss of vision.


In Laudato Si, though, Francis does not quote from Letters to Lake Como, but several times from Guardini’s The End of the Modern World.

The title might sound apocalyptic at first, but that isn’t the point.  Guardini is not talking about the end of the world; he’s talking about the end of “modernity” – and the beginning of a “post-modernity.”

Unfortunately, the book is a bit of a slow go.  In order to make his point in the second half, he spends the first half trying to explain what he means by “modernity”.  And in order to do that he begins by trying to explain how modernity was different from the ages before it.

His point is that modernity, roughly the period from 1500-1900 – or from Columbus to World War I – was a time of wild optimism about the powers of man.  Human reason could do no wrong.  We were the victors, the conquerors, the improvers.

The twentieth century blurred that optimism.  Oh, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is still a “modern” in this sense, confident that anything we think up must be wonderful.  But from the trenches of World War I to the gas chambers of World War II, the nuclear terror of the Cold War, and the torching of Vietnam, from the devastation of the sexual revolution (do you ever talk to your clerks, Justice Kennedy?) to the banality of pop culture, we are slowly realizing that human reason seems more likely to create a hell on earth than a heaven.

“The End of the Modern World” is the end of that optimism.  What comes next?


Guardini’s answer is a line Spiderman picked up: with great power comes great responsibility.  The power is now in our hands.  To an extent unthinkable in former ages, we can do whatever we want.  We can walk away from our families and communities, reshape our landscape, immerse ourselves in visual worlds of our own creation.  The pre-modern world had its own problems – but the reality of creation was always clear.

The strange thing about our post-modern world is that people think there is no such thing as human nature, even no such thing as reality.  Modernity taught us that we can create our own world.  Post-modernity realizes that we can create our own hell.

Guardini’s answer is responsibility.  Yes, the power is in our hands.  No longer does sex have natural consequences, most of the time.  No longer are we forced to live in community.  No longer do we have to spend more time in reality than in the imaginary world of our screens.

Now we have to choose it.

And that’s not such a bad thing.  It just makes more obvious what was always the case: the choice is ours.


Laudato Si is not an encyclical about global warming – in fact, global warming is a pretty minor part.  Laudato Si is an encyclical about responsibility, about choosing to embrace creation rather than to destroy it, choosing to embrace God’s beautiful, wise plan rather than replace it with our own, choosing to find ourselves in God’s wisdom rather than substitute our own foolishness.

Like Guardini’s Letters from Lake Como, and like Benedict XVI, it uses the language and imagery of nature.  But environmentalism is just one part of this vision.  The bigger point is not just that our architecture fits into the landscape, but that our behavior fits into our own nature.

In what ways do you see the world forgetting the reality of Nature?

Sixteenth Sunday: Contemplative Shepherds

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

Jer 23:1-6; PS 23: 1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; EPG 2:13-18; MK 6:30-34


Our Sunday readings this week take us deep into the connection between contemplation and shepherding.  They show us why our shepherds need to be contemplatives – but they also show us why we who seek the spiritual life need also to seek our neighbors, and children, and families.

Our reading from Mark states the theme.  Jesus’s words to the apostles, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” are a classic call to the contemplative life.

But those whom he calls are apostles (just “returned from their mission”) and “many saw them going and recognized them,” even “arrived ahead of them.”  My children seem to do the same, every time I pick up my spiritual reading.

But the next sentence is a classic call to the apostolic life: “As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”  Is this how I behave, when my children interrupt my prayer?


The other two readings take us deeper into the Gospel image.

The reading from Jeremiah opens with a roar: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”  Later he says, “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.”

The last clause is the key: “and you have not attended to them.”  How do the shepherds “destroy and scatter the sheep”?  How do they “drive them away”?  A flock of sheep does not need to be driven away.  They need attention.  They need to be gathered.

In short, the shepherds are guilty not because of what they have done, but because what they have not done.  He who does not gather, scatters.  The shepherd who neglects his flock is guilty of driving them away.


So God goes on, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock.”  (Notice that the sheep will be alright –it’s those who ought to be shepherding them who will suffer most.)  God will do what they did not do: gather the sheep.  “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them”: he will gather them by gathering gatherers.

Then the metaphor shifts, from shepherd to king: “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  Jesus and David are shepherd kings.  But the true shepherd of men does more than gather: he deals wisely with them, brings justice and righteousness, acts like a king.

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, defines our own moral life as participation in Jesus’s kingship.  We are called to help Jesus bring wisdom and justice and righteousness to the world.  If we don’t, we are like shepherds who scatter their flocks – and like sheep who fail to follow their good shepherd.


Jesus calls us to share in his care for his people, to enter deeply into his heart.  Our reading from Ephesians takes us into that heart.

“He is our peace.”  He “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”  Ephesians is about the unity of the Church.  It illustrates that unity by the unity between Jews and Gentiles; in our reading, too, it sees the ultimate peace as the possibility of these two enemies becoming one Church.

But the point is not merely the unity of Jew and Gentile, but the unity of the heart of Christ itself.  If even they can be united, Ephesians argues, we are all called to the unity of Christ.

“He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances,” says Paul, “that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” This sounds subversive.  Is Jesus doing away with the Law?

Of course not.  He is fulfilling the Law.  But the point is, mere commandments are not enough to make peace.  Jesus calls us not just to follow his Law, but to see the very heart of the Law, which is his heart – to go beyond Thou Shalt Not to love, and purity, and spiritual freedom.  He calls us not just to grudgingly do what we are told, but to embrace the fullness of his will – and he makes new hearts in us, so that we may love with his heart.

“Through him both of us,” Jew and Gentile, and every kind of enemy, “have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

This is the real key to action and contemplation, coming away to a deserted place and having compassion on the sheep.  What we seek in both is union with the heart of Jesus.  Without contemplation we cannot receive that heart – but without compassion, our contemplation is proved false.

Where is Jesus calling you to receive his heart?

The Vespers Apostlate

vespersI was going to send this idea to a Dominican friend, but I’ll post it here:

If I could ask for one great pastoral initiative (especially from the Friars Preachers), it would be sung Vespers, with benediction and good preaching, and a priest in the confessional the whole time.

This idea especially struck me on a recent vacation, in a parish with pretty bad liturgy and preaching.

Lots of little points:

  1. What strikes me, first, is that the problem is more a lack than any positive evil. This is a disputable point, but this is how it seems to me. Yes, yes, there are many evils taught in our society.  But the key point is, people don’t know what prayer is, what liturgy is, what the Gospel is, or what Catholicism is really about.  They need someone to show them.
  1. Fixing parishes is a huge problem. It requires a huge work of priestly education – a work many of us are involved in (I teach in a seminary – and perhaps you just support your priests), but it will take a long time (since the men we educate now will not be pastors for a long time) and a huge cooperation (since none of us alone can change everyone). But even good pastors are up against hugely complicated parish situations, with all the complications of hundreds of malformed parishioners.  These are things we should work on – but the danger is that, seeing such a huge work, we are tempted to give up and do nothing.  We should all do our best to improve Sunday Mass, but honestly, most of the work has to happen somewhere else. That’s why I propose Evening Prayer, Vespers.  It doesn’t have to involve all the parishioners.  Lay people can go to Vespers at a different church from their parish, and come back refreshed to renew their parish.  Priests, or even lay people, can lead vespers even if they are not pastors.
  1. Another danger is trying to convert everyone at once. Often it means watering things down, to try to win people who aren’t much inclined to be won. To the contrary, I think we can do a lot more by supporting those who are actively seeking.  If people want to pray, if they want good preaching, if they want to go deeper, give them the opportunity.  Rather than watering things down so that no one will be much converted, we need to help create the saints who can be real apostles – to their neighbors, to their family, to their coworkers.  And if those apostles get people interested, we need to have somewhere good to bring them.


  1. But we don’t want to take people out of their parishes. We need those apostles everywhere. They are the force for renewal in parishes.  One danger is that we can form separatist parishes, so that everyone serious about their faith leaves behind the parishes and pastors that so desperately need them – and think of the need: yes, there are a lot of confused people in those parishes, but they are interested enough to get there on Sunday morning.  This is fertile ground.  We need apostles in the parishes.

Another danger is that we nurture a spirituality that has nothing to do with Sunday Mass.  The first problem with this is for those we preach to: Sunday Mass is the source and summit of our faith; we need to teach people to benefit from it, not lead them away.    The second problem is for the other people at Sunday Mass: what the parish needs most is people who can show what Sunday Mass is all about.  To nurture parish apostles, we need to teach people how to pray Sunday Mass better.

The Liturgy of the Hours is a great way to do that.  Show people what real liturgical prayer is about.  Nurture their liturgical spirituality.  With adoration and benediction, teach them to long for the Eucharist.  With the Psalms, teach them to cling to the words of Scripture.  With good preaching, teach them what everything else is really about – teach them how to listen to Scripture at Mass, how to sort out the good points in the often confused homilies, to receive the Eucharist with the fervor it deserves.


My proposal can be broken into parts.  I would be happy if priests just sat in the confessional, without preaching, vespers, benediction, or good music.  We can pray the liturgy of the hours even without priests, in our homes and communities, with or without serious liturgical music.  And we can preach elsewhere – this web site is one effort to preach the Gospel outside the liturgy.

But wouldn’t it be better if communities could form around all of these things at once?  Vespers Sunday evening, or midweek.  Morning Prayer for mothers.  All done well, prayerfully, beautifully, with serious preaching, and confession, and benediction.  Liturgy will save the world.

What elements of this plan could you implement?  What alternatives can you suggest?