Can Joe Biden Save American Catholicism from the Far Right?

Joe Biden and Pope Francis.
President Joe Biden’s nondoctrinaire Catholicism is driving comparisons to Pope Francis, who has vexed traditionalist U.S. bishops much the way Biden has.

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A few hours after agitators incited by President Donald Trump breached the Capitol, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, addressed the reconvened representatives, along with a vast television audience. She denounced the “shameful attack on our democracy” and resolved that the House would complete its certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College. Pelosi, a Catholic, then took a religious turn. “Today, January 6th, is the Feast of the Epiphany,” she said. “On this day of revelation, let us pray that this instigation to violence will provide an epiphany for our country to heal.” She also quoted a prayer often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me a channel of thy peace; where there is hatred, let us bring love; where there is despair, let us bring hope.” Biden has quoted this prayer often. Three weeks earlier, when the electoral votes were first certified, he had offered the saint’s words—“where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is darkness, light”—as something like a mission statement for his Presidency.

Those invocations represent a striking turnabout. In the past four years, several million traditionalist American Catholics have made the impious, twice-divorced, religiously tone-deaf celebrity mogul Donald Trump their standard-bearer. Now progressive Catholics are placing their hopes in Biden, who is only the second Catholic President, after John F. Kennedy. Biden’s unfailing attendance at Sunday Mass, his visits to the churchyard graves of his first wife and daughter (who were killed in a car crash, in 1972), and his practice of carrying a rosary are taken as emblems of that public servant’s deep faith. His late-in-life election, moderate temperament, and just-folks manner prompt comparisons with Pope Francis—even as the new President’s support for abortion rights and gay marriage has prompted the head of the U.S. bishops to form a “working group” to examine his positions, and several bishops to declare that he should be denied Communion. (During the campaign, Biden turned against the Hyde Amendment, which proscribes the use of federal funds to support abortion services, after decades of tacit support for it.) Set the rosary aside, and old-school Joe Biden is the kind of flexible, independent-minded Catholic whom many bishops have spent their careers taking to task—and many progressive Catholics see as akin to themselves. In a new book, Massimo Faggioli, an Italian who is a professor of theology at Villanova University, near Philadelphia, observes that “Biden’s presidency arouses not only political expectations but also religious, even salvific ones. This Catholic president is now called upon to heal the moral damage inflicted upon the nation by Trump, the pandemic, and globalization.”

The events of January 6th upped the salvific ante and the brief for Biden to be a “Reconciler-in-Chief.” With the election to the Senate of the Reverend Raphael Warnock, a Baptist pastor from Georgia, some envision a resurgence of the religious progressivism that shaped the civil-rights movement. Catholics hope that the Church, with its moral authority diminished owing to its bishops’ failings on clerical sexual abuse, can be a trusted actor in national affairs again—that it can counter the “ ‘zombie’ ideas” (as Faggioli calls them) of Christian nationalism. The hope is that the Biden Administration will invigorate American Catholicism, and vice versa.

Catholics have sought convergence between Rome and U.S. politics before, and the present political culture is partly shaped by such aspirations. In 1987, Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor (soon to convert to Catholicism), declared that a “Catholic moment” in American public life was at hand. The Reagan Administration had conjoined the President’s anti-Communist conservatism to that of Pope John Paul II, who, after conducting a nine-city U.S. tour, was at the apogee of his influence in this country. The Archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, was as prominent as any senator or governor. Antonin Scalia had been seated on the Supreme Court. Through John Paul’s efforts, Catholicism was strongly identified with the struggle for political freedom and human rights in Soviet-controlled Poland. Neuhaus saw the moment as one in which the Roman Catholic Church in the United States would assume “its rightful role” in providing “a religiously informed public philosophy” to what he saw as an incoherent, decadent, post-sixties civil society.

Catholic theoconservatism has shaped Republican politics ever since, through an extensive network of political operatives, opinion-makers, academics, and philanthropists. It has set itself against the presentation of religious belief as merely a private matter, seen in a speech that Mario Cuomo gave in 1984, when he was governor of New York, in which he explained that, although as a Catholic he believed abortion to be wrong, he could not impose his beliefs on his constituents. Theocons disdain that position. In their view, a Catholic in public life should affirm his or her faith openly, strive to conform public policy to Church teachings, and reject the notion that the separation of church and state forces officials to check their faith at the door.

Today, outward measures suggest that a different Catholic moment is at hand. Six of the nine Supreme Court Justices are Catholics. So is Speaker Pelosi. So are at least eight of Biden’s Cabinet nominees. So is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Yet the terms of engagement have changed dramatically. The Church to which these people all belong is nearly as divided as the country, and American politics is now suffused with religion-as-public-philosophy, even as theocons decry, as the former Attorney General William Barr, a Catholic, did in 2019, the left’s “organized destruction” of traditional religion.

The appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court made the change manifest. Barrett, raised a Catholic in Louisiana, is a graduate of an all-girls Catholic high school and of Notre Dame Law School, whose faculty she later joined. Since childhood, she has belonged to the People of Praise, a Catholic movement with a structure that places female members under the authority of men. A traditionalist—mentored by Scalia and publicly opposed to legal abortion—Barrett was a theocon’s dream high-court nominee. Yet, at her confirmation hearings for both the U.S. Court of Appeals, in 2017, and the Supreme Court, this past October, she took the Cuomo-esque position that theoconservatives have long derided: she insisted that her “personal convictions” and “policy preferences” should have no bearing on her rulings from the bench. (Nevertheless, last Tuesday, she joined the five other conservative Justices—three of them Catholics—in rejecting the argument that a Food and Drug Administration rule that women seeking to obtain the so-called abortion pills must do so in person from a health-care provider rather than by mail places an undue burden on those women during the pandemic, which has made doctors’ offices and clinics less accessible.)

Biden’s stance is something like the inverse of Barrett’s: as his public prominence has increased, he has grown more effusive about his Catholicism. In his memoir from 2007, “Promises to Keep,” he recalled that, fifteen years earlier, when asked to speak about faith and public service, at Georgetown University, where his son Hunter was a student, he hesitated: “It was a topic I had always shied away from because it makes me a little uncomfortable to carry religion into politics.” But the experience, he went on, made clear that Catholicism’s message about the perils of the abuse of power by the powerful had “always been the governing force in my political career.” His faith was prominent in the memoir itself, and in 2016, when he received Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, awarded to Catholics who have “enriched the heritage of humanity” through their work, he called it “the most meaningful award I’ve ever received in my life.” During the 2020 campaign, he traced his view on immigration to the Church’s “preferential option for the poor”—a favored expression of the Catholic left. Last June, in a eulogy for George Floyd, he cited “Catholic social doctrine, which taught me that faith without works is dead,” and quoted from the Catholic hymn “On Eagle’s Wings.”

Biden’s nondoctrinaire Catholicism is driving comparisons to Pope Francis, who has vexed traditionalist U.S. bishops much the way Biden has. Shortly after his election, in 2013, Francis said that “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” suggesting that the Church had become “obsessed” with those topics. In 2019, he expressed support for gay civil unions. Last week, he announced that women are now expressly permitted to serve on the altar during Mass, thereby rejecting the traditionalist view that sacramental authority belongs to priests, who, according to Church teaching, must be male.

Shortly after Election Day, Francis sent Biden an inscribed copy of his new book, “Let Us Dream.” The progressive Catholic commentariat had already lit up with exhortations about the ways the new President might draw on the Pope’s key themes—mercy, concern for the poor, attention to the common good—to undo the Trump Administration’s inhumane policies. But it’s worth noting that, on many issues, Francis is much more progressive than Biden. In his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” the Pope traced the destruction of the planet to globalized liberal capitalism, in which strong countries put “selfishness” in place of the common good. In October, in “Fratelli Tutti,” he spelled out a view of universal human solidarity to extend his vision of a society in need of dramatic reordering. His positions bring to mind those of the self-described democratic socialists who are the architects of the Green New Deal—which Biden distanced himself from in a debate with Trump, saying, “The Green New Deal is not my plan.”

How, then, might President Biden draw on his faith as he takes office and leads the country? There are two obvious options. The first is that he could move to the center, through an appeal to his Catholic roots. On the Sunday after the riot at the Capitol, Pope Francis encouraged public figures to “calm souls” and “promote national reconciliation.” Biden could use the language of faith—the human family, my brother’s keeper, a common destiny—to reach out to Republicans disaffected by the Trump-incited hard right, and gain their coöperation in containing the spread of COVID-19, doing the work of reconciliation in the process.

Alternatively, Biden could draw on Francis’s critique of globalized society to move the emboldened Democratic majorities in Congress emphatically leftward. He could cite the vastly popular Pope to help make the case for regular payments to pandemic-stricken families (a form of basic income), tax and banking reform, a national minimum-wage increase, debt forgiveness, and aggressive action on climate change. An obvious precedent is President Kennedy, who shifted left after his election, bolstered, in part, by the progressive teachings of Pope John XXIII.

Or he could combine the two options, taking an approach rooted in both Francis’s pontificate and his own career. Paradoxically, the Pope’s moderate temperament and reputation have served to advance his progressive positions. In the same way, Biden’s record as a centrist and his profile as a hymn-quoting churchgoer could give him cover as he tacks left, much as Francis has, using the language of the common good to advance policies—refreshed infrastructure, a green jobs program, health care for all—that would actually benefit the disaffected whites in the heartland who are presently hooked on Trump. Strong employment, social stability, and a government seen acting concretely for the common good would help bring about national reconciliation with a Franciscan accent. As a side effect, joint efforts between the Biden Administration and the Vatican—on the climate, immigration, and human rights—might prompt the Vatican to be more progressive in its approach to laypeople, women and gay people among them, in leadership positions.

Of course, Biden faces harsh opposition, not least from other Catholics. The morning of the Inauguration, as Biden went to St. Matthew the Apostle, the Catholic cathedral in the capital, for a Mass attended by Speaker Pelosi and other government figures, the Catholic bishops released a long missive by their conference president, Archbishop Jose Gomez, of Los Angeles, expressing an eagerness to work with the new President, but upbraiding him for holding positions “in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender” that “would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity,” and implying that Biden’s approach to Catholicism posed a threat to religious freedom. The same Catholic traditionalists who detest Pope Francis detest the new President, and spiteful right-wing resistance may block any progressive initiative from Biden, as it has blocked those of Francis in Rome.

In this moment, it’s strange to think of Joe Biden, for so long a workhorse legislator in a blue blazer, as a redemptive figure. It’s strange that progressives, who are generally leery of Vatican authority, are frankly hoping that American politics will be inspired by the Pope—and hoping that a Pope might move a Democratic President further to the left. It’s strange that a Church whose followers have been harmed and angered by decades of negligence on clerical sexual abuse can still be seen as a source of civic healing. And yet the second Catholic President can hardly afford not to draw on his religion; with the country wracked by a pandemic, a recession, and political violence, he is going to need every source of reconciliation and moral authority available to him.

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USCCB President’s Statement on the Inauguration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr., as 46th President of the United States of America

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Statement on the Inauguration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr., as 46th President of the United States of America from Most Reverend José H. Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles, President, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

My prayers are with our new President and his family today.

I am praying that God grant him wisdom and courage to lead this great nation and that God help him to meet the tests of these times, to heal the wounds caused by this pandemic, to ease our intense political and cultural divisions, and to bring people together with renewed dedication to America’s founding purposes, to be one nation under God committed to liberty and equality for all.

Catholic bishops are not partisan players in our nation’s politics. We are pastors responsible for the souls of millions of Americans and we are advocates for the needs of all our neighbors. In every community across the country, Catholic parishes, schools, hospitals, and ministries form an essential culture of compassion and care, serving women, children, and the elderly, the poor and sick, the imprisoned, the migrant, and the marginalized, no matter what their race or religion.

When we speak on issues in American public life, we try to guide consciences, and we offer principles.  These principles are rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the social teachings of his Church. Jesus Christ revealed God’s plan of love for creation and revealed the truth about the human person, who is created in God’s image, endowed with God-given dignity, rights and responsibilities, and called to a transcendent destiny.

Based on these truths, which are reflected in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, the bishops and Catholic faithful carry out Christ’s commandment to love God and love our neighbors by working for an America that protects human dignity, expands equality and opportunities for every person, and is open-hearted towards the suffering and weak.

For many years now, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has tried to help Catholics and others of good will in their reflections on political issues through a publication we call Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. The most recent edition addresses a wide range of concerns. Among them: abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, immigration, racism, poverty, care for the environment, criminal justice reform, economic development, and international peace.

On these and other issues, our duty to love and our moral principles lead us to prudential judgments and positions that do not align neatly with the political categories of left or right or the platforms of our two major political parties. We work with every President and every Congress. On some issues we find ourselves more on the side of Democrats, while on others we find ourselves standing with Republicans. Our priorities are never partisan. We are Catholics first, seeking only to follow Jesus Christ faithfully and to advance his vision for human fraternity and community.

I look forward to working with President Biden and his administration, and the new Congress. As with every administration, there will be areas where we agree and work closely together and areas where we will have principled disagreement and strong opposition.

Working with President Biden will be unique, however, as he is our first president in 60 years to profess the Catholic faith. In a time of growing and aggressive secularism in American culture, when religious believers face many challenges, it will be refreshing to engage with a President who clearly understands, in a deep and personal way, the importance of religious faith and institutions. Mr. Biden’s piety and personal story, his moving witness to how his faith has brought him solace in times of darkness and tragedy, his longstanding commitment to the Gospel’s priority for the poor — all of this I find hopeful and inspiring.

At the same time, as pastors, the nation’s bishops are given the duty of proclaiming the Gospel in all its truth and power, in season and out of season, even when that teaching is inconvenient or when the Gospel’s truths run contrary to the directions of the wider society and culture. So, I must point out that our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.

Our commitments on issues of human sexuality and the family, as with our commitments in every other area — such as abolishing the death penalty or seeking a health care system and economy that truly serves the human person — are guided by Christ’s great commandment to love and to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, especially the most vulnerable.

For the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the “preeminent priority.” Preeminent does not mean “only.” We have deep concerns about many threats to human life and dignity in our society. But as Pope Francis teaches, we cannot stay silent when nearly a million unborn lives are being cast aside in our country year after year through abortion.

Abortion is a direct attack on life that also wounds the woman and undermines the family. It is not only a private matter, it raises troubling and fundamental questions of fraternity, solidarity, and inclusion in the human community. It is also a matter of social justice. We cannot ignore the reality that abortion rates are much higher among the poor and minorities, and that the procedure is regularly used to eliminate children who would be born with disabilities.

Rather than impose further expansions of abortion and contraception, as he has promised, I am hopeful that the new President and his administration will work with the Church and others of good will. My hope is that we can begin a dialogue to address the complicated cultural and economic factors that are driving abortion and discouraging families. My hope, too, is that we can work together to finally put in place a coherent family policy in this country, one that acknowledges the crucial importance of strong marriages and parenting to the well-being of children and the stability of communities. If the President, with full respect for the Church’s religious freedom, were to engage in this conversation, it would go a long way toward restoring the civil balance and healing our country’s needs.

President Biden’s call for national healing and unity is welcome on all levels. It is urgently needed as we confront the trauma in our country caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the social isolation that has only worsened the intense and long-simmering divisions among our fellow citizens.

As believers, we understand that healing is a gift that we can only receive from the hand of God. We know, too, that real reconciliation requires patient listening to those who disagree with us and a willingness to forgive and move beyond desires for reprisal. Christian love calls us to love our enemies and bless those who oppose us, and to treat others with the same compassion that we want for ourselves.

We are all under the watchful eye of God, who alone knows and can judge the intentions of our hearts. I pray that God will give our new President, and all of us, the grace to seek the common good with all sincerity.

I entrust all our hopes and anxieties in this new moment to the tender heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ and the patroness of this exceptional nation. May she guide us in the ways of peace and obtain for us wisdom and the grace of a true patriotism and love of country.

For Clergy Who Ministered Through the AIDS Crisis Covid is Both Eerily Familiar and Puzzlingly Different

In an eerie foreshadowing of Zoom calls, Tammy Faye Bakker Interviews Rev. Steve Pieters on PTL

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“This is not my first plague.” In 1982, Rev. Steve Pieters was the first minister diagnosed with AIDS in the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a denomination that lost a third of its clergy to the disease. In 1985, he was the first openly gay man and person with AIDS interviewed by Tammy Faye Bakker on The PTL Club, a Christian TV show and cultural staple of the early Christian Right. Today he’s retired from ministry, locked down at home, and “trying to be of service over the phone and zoom” to people in his church facing another pandemic.

Pieters is part of a unique cohort for whom the current pandemic is both eerily familiar and puzzlingly different. LGBT Christian clergy who ministered in queer communities in the 1980s and 90s are engaging Covid-19 using some lessons learned from AIDS ministry in the years before treatment. They’re also grappling with the spiritual, political, and social lessons we failed to learn in that epidemic; lessons that are re-emerging in this one.

Bishop Zachary Jones re-experienced the feeling of being utterly absorbed in the immediacy of a medical crisis when taking part in the daily ritual of thanking New York health care workers. “While I was banging this tambourine I was like oh my God, I remember what it meant to deal with case after case after case.” Jones, a bishop in the Unity Fellowship, started his work in AIDS and LGBTQ ministry driving Unity founder Rev. Carl Beans to his seemingly endless hospital visits in the AIDS units of 1980s Los Angeles.

Rev. Penny Nixon, who ministered in MCC’s San Francisco congregation in the 1990s, felt bodily memories of AIDS ministry rise in the first few weeks of Covid and then recede in the face of the also-familiar need to put feelings away and get to work. “How we got through the last pandemic,” she said, “it became the reality. You put your head down and you do it.”

For Karen Ziegler, the political parallels have been almost uncanny. She was the pastor of the MCC congregation in Greenwich Village for a decade that spanned the emergence of AIDS. “I realized early on in the Trump administration that it felt like the 80s when Ronald Reagan was elected and then there was this sharp, visible turn to the right,” she said. Part of that rightward turn is the way that AIDS and Covid revealed the often implicit American political calculation of whose lives are valued. The contrast between the anti-gay backlash in the first years of AIDS and the backlash against people of color evident in both epidemics is “helping me to understand that the original lie of America is this white superiority and all the kinds of supremacy that allows some people to think that other people don’t matter. All of that has become so visible.”

There are big differences in the physical and social trajectories of the respective diseases. In its early years AIDS was a very visible disease and, as Rev. Jim Mitulski recalled, an ugly one. Mitulski ministered with Nixon at the MCC congregation in San Francisco. Jones remembered seeing people getting sicker and sicker, week after week. “Death was much slower,” he said. And for all of the losses of Covid, the length of illness, for most, is much shorter and the possibility of survival much greater.

When Pieters was first diagnosed there was no treatment for AIDS. He considered himself lucky to have a doctor who advised “if there’s a one in a million chance that you can survive this, why not believe that you are that one in a million? Just believe that. And act like it.” People with Covid have a much higher rate of survival. “Eighty percent, eighty-five percent will survive this. And that’s a lot easier to believe than one in a million,” he said.

“It’s baffling,” Jones said, “the difference stigma brings to a pandemic.” It’s the most striking difference between the diseases these clergy have noticed. An early AIDS diagnosis was often intertwined with sexuality, sometimes with substance abuse, and always with social shame. Clergy had to minister to all three in addition to the disease. Jones remembers it as a kind of spiritual triage where he was always trying to figure out the most pressing need to respond to in any given case. “There were times that we just didn’t know what we were dealing with until hindsight,” he said. AIDS, recalled Nixon, was “religiously stigmatized in a way this pandemic is not.”

Isolation and aloneness have been challenges of pastoral care and spiritual leadership in both epidemics, albeit in very different forms. In the early years, the isolation of people with AIDS was visceral. Many were socially—and sometimes medically—shunned. The pastoral challenge was to make congregations spaces where people with AIDS were seen, welcomed, touched, and included. Nixon remembered how MCC San Francisco shaped ritual around the experience of AIDS. “[W]hether it’s the men coming with their IV poles coming to church [or] laying on the pews, their bodies were recognized as sacred and holy in that moment. That was a powerful corrective to society. And to religion. And to church.” All the clergy I talked to made church environments that countered the fear of disease by bringing people physically close.

With Covid, Bishop Yvette Flunder notes, the challenge is to keep people connected when the virus keeps them physically apart. Flunder started Ark of Refuge, one of the first AIDS ministries in a black church, in the mid-80s. Today she’s the pastor at City of Refuge, a UCC/Metho-Bapti-Costal church, and leads The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a global community of churches committed to radical inclusivity. With AIDS, she recalled, people who looked sick were marginalized “because of the position that the church took that if you have this dirty disease you’re a dirty person. But in this particular environment it’s the church that’s the dirty person. It’s [coming to] church that can make church people sick. Which flips the script.” And flips the pastoral task.

Ministry in LGBTQ communities provided at least two tools that have been useful in that new task. One is spiritual grounding in what Flunder calls a “consistent ethics of self care.” “[W]e talked about barriers and condoms back in the day, and safe sex practices. I now talk about social distancing and masks. And for me it’s six in one hand, half a dozen in another. Protect yourself. Be responsible not just for yourself but for your partner. . . .  It’s really not different.”

Another is the skill of ritual innovation, honed in ministry to people whose life passages were not ritually marked in the eyes of the dominant culture. “God didn’t go away” in either epidemic, said Mitulski. “Our ability to craft ritual, our imagination has not dissipated or dried up.” Queer churches have long had to create rituals to counter that exclusion and make the sanctification of queer life feel real.

This has translated into creative experimentation with making virtual church feel real. Flunder’s church has grown since the epidemic. “We’ve had all kinds of ritual online,” she said, including different sacraments from the African-American Christian church and the indigenous spiritual communities that make up her congregation. They’ve also experimented with outdoor rituals. “[We] broadcast through our radios and through cell phones so that we could see each other. . . . We gave people little disposable communion kits and we had communion on the parking lot and blew our horns something fierce… you know, made a lot of noise.”

Like all of us, these ministers are looking toward the time when science and medicine change the trajectory of the Covid epidemic. But they also remember the challenges that change can bring. One is the need to address the compounded grief and loss that can so easily be skipped over in the midst of crisis. Pieters remembers that “when the drumbeat of death slowed down in ‘96, ‘97, there was a palpable feeling of deep depression among a lot of people who worked in AIDS. A deep grief,” which he attributed to losses unattended to.

“Think about all the un-mourned people who’ve died.” Mitulski said. “And the fact that they died in solitude. We’ve got to deal with it or it’s going to fuck people up for a long time.” In a 1999 sermon, given three years after protease inhibitors changed the course of AIDS in his congregation, Mitulski reminded them that AIDS wasn’t over. AIDS still isn’t over. And it fuels his admonition that, if and when the course of Covid changes, we attend to its afterlives. And especially to the enduring inequalities that both epidemics make inescapably clear.

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How a female priest helped calm tensions over Daniel Prude’s police custody death in Rochester

The Rev. Myra Brown stands for a portrait at Spiritus Christi Church in Rochester, N.Y., on Sept. 18. Brown brokered a deal with Mayor Lovely Warren to get the Rochester Police Department to back down from protesters fighting for justice for Daniel Prude.

By Shayna Jacobs

The pop of pepper ball pellets echoed in the night as police converged on demonstrators who gathered in front of a church to protest the death of Daniel Prude.

“Sanctuary!” an activist filming the protest shouted to his peers. “Go inside!”

Protesters streamed into Spiritus Christi Church, a congregation led by the Rev. Myra Brown, one of Rochester’s most vocal advocates for racial justice. That night, she stepped into a new, unofficial role, trying to bridge the divide between a growing group of Rochester residents fed up with city leadership and the officials still struggling to handle a city in crisis

Video of Prude’s March encounter with Rochester police shows him naked, handcuffed and hooded; he died a week later. The images, which were not released until September, sparked days of protest. Prude’s name — along with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and other Black Americans killed by police this year — is now invoked in the nationwide racial justice movement.

It also galvanized Rochester, an industrial city on Lake Ontario where residents have, for decades, pushed for police reform and fought against racism

A respected community leader whose golden singing voice fills the church, Brown has the ear of both the city’s leadership and its grass-roots advocates. A former nurse whose ministry is as tied to racial justice as it is to God, she emerged as a key channel of reason and understanding as tensions between police and protesters escalated, helping change the trajectory of the protests.

She was at home when she got the call that the church, home to a breakaway Catholic congregation, was being hit by pepper balls and the injured were taking refuge inside.

“I need you to get your officers to stand down,” Brown told then-Police Chief La’Ron Singletary. After some haggling with the top police official — who has since been fired amid revelations that he may have tried to minimize the department’s role in Prude’s death — a line of officers surrounding the building receded and those taking refuge inside began to leave.

The following day, Brown brokered a deal with Mayor Lovely Warren: the police would pull back and activists could march freely. Brown and 100 “elders” from the community and area churches served as a buffer between protesters and police that night.

The protests stayed peaceful. Brown was later thanked by city officials and painted as a partner in their efforts — a role she said she did not play.

She said she felt “used” by the city. Brown believed she was “negotiating a better path and a better response for the community” in her talks with Warren and Singletary, a goal she was easily behind.

The message, she said, should not have been, “Reverend Myra partnering to save the system.”

‘We like to deny’

Brown believes Rochester has not recognized how that system, along with historical wrongs and discriminatory policies that include putting Black children in substandard schools, have contributed to systemic racism in a city that is 40 percent Black.

“We like to shift the narrative here,” Brown said. “We like to deny.”

Raised in Rochester by parents who were farmworkers in the South, Brown, 55, saw the difference up close when she and other members of a racial justice convoy spent a week in 2017 touring six cities that have significance to their mission. Stops included Selma and Montgomery, Ala. They went to Cleveland, where a police officer in 2014 shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old playing with a toy gun.

On the trip, the complicated nature of American racism revealed itself through a candid conversation with a parole officer in Ohio who admitted to feeling like “every Black youth is equally dangerous,” Brown recalled

The officer, who was Black, was worn down by the system and was repeatedly troubled by “the boys he was working with,” Brown said.

Brown, in an essay about the trip, said the group learned that they “must work tirelessly to end racism where we live.”

“To become our best selves,” she wrote, “we must humbly hold ourselves accountable and be open to being held to account when we yield to our worst selves.”

For years, Brown has been working to change Rochester from the pulpit of Spiritus Christi. She spent years worshiping and serving in various positions with the Rev. James Callan, a Catholic priest who violated strict Vatican guidelines by blessing same-sex couples and allowing women to perform the functions of priests. The Vatican forced Callan, who made civil rights the centerpiece of his ministry, from his church.

Callan’s ousting and final Mass was front-page news in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: “Huge goodbye to Callan,” the headline read. The mayor at the time told Callan, “Wherever they send you, Jim, give ‘em hell

In 1999, Callan helped found Spiritus Christi, where he is now the associate pastor. Brown was ordained a priest in 2017 and started leading the congregation two years ago. Women are not allowed to be Catholic priests, but Spiritus Christi is not recognized by the Vatican

Brown delivers sermons, wearing a stole with “Black Lives Matter” etched in gold, that highlight a moral obligation to address racial injustices. At a Sunday this fall, a White congregant with a long gray beard showed up to church in a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt. Equality is Spiritus Christi’s mission.

The church is working on building an outdoor museum in Rochester’s Baden Park — a site of unrest in the 1960s — to raise awareness for the area’s history of housing and employment inequality, and what Brown said was Black community’s mistreatment by police.

Brown tells congregants and community members that the political system was established generations ago by the White, male, elite and was built to serve its creators. She says that modern-day policing is derived from Southern slave patrols. The diversity we see now in government and the private sector is “because people pushed their way in,” Brown said.

Brown, who greets both strangers and friends with her inviting smile, believes Rochester is no exception. Yet she has faith she can help enlighten hearts and minds through education, kindness and respect. It will be no easy task.

“We haven’t done anything to change the structure, we’ve simply moved the pieces around,” she said. “That is why you have what happened to Daniel Prude.”

Brown finds herself working within the confines of what she believes is a broken system, and hoping for the best. She spent four hours facilitating a discussion on race in September with 18 guests, mostly candidates for local office.

The group covered, with her guidance, how the legacy of slavery and broader systems of racism in this country applies to issues they face in their lives and work

New York State Assemblyman Harry Bronson (D) said Brown is able to convey the history that informs structural racism because she is willing to listen to others and treats all with respect.

“Even if they don’t agree with her, they’re open to having those conversations,” he said

Bronson, who is White, said he left with a deeper understanding of White guilt and White fragility, as well as how to recognize racism. Candidates also discussed structural, cultural and institutional racism in society.

“Those kind of thoughts and ideas are going to be beneficial as I continue to develop policy,” Bronson said.

Demond Meeks, a Rochester organizer recently elected to the state assembly, said Brown earns trust by showing respect while facilitating judgment-free conversations about difficult issues.

“She’s someone that can speak to both sides and try to get people to come to a consensus of sorts,” Meeks said

Meeks said community relations with the police have been fractured for years. Many protesters are still haunted by the 2002 fatal police shooting of 14-year-Craig Heard. The eighth-grader was allegedly driving a stolen car. According to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, police alleged the boy was trying to run an officer over.

“People are quick to speak about George Floyd and other situations that have happened throughout the country,” Meeks said. “But we have a history of these things happening right here in Rochester.”

Warren said it is “no secret” that Rochester — along with every other city in the country — has issues with systemic racism and police brutality.

“The problems of the past cannot be changed or erased, but we can learn from them,” she said in a statement.

A ‘pathway forward,’ despite a broken system

Days after the video of Prude being detained by police was made public, Brown was among the throngs of protesters gathered in front of Rochester’s Public Safety building — a facility that, to many, represented systemic injustice. The group had been blocked from getting close to the building on previous nights, fueling discontent.

Earlier in the day, Brown brokered a deal with Warren to get the police to pull back its roving detail and allow the activists to march freely. She also pushed for the ability to intervene on site, giving her time to try to diffuse a problem before police responded with force.

On the ground, she and about 100 other elders from the community and area churches were serving as a buffer between the police and protesters. It was tense at times, but the tactic worked: That night was the first of many relatively peaceful ones to come.

Throughout the night, Brown fielded calls from Singletary, who believed some in the crowd were getting out of hand. She convinced Singletary and Warren to give her “at least five minutes” to diffuse situations before officers “start to get trigger-happy and nervous,” she said. The officials agreed to work with Brown.

Brown said her goal was to create a “pathway forward to make sure the community was safe to grieve,” that they “were not attacked by police and not re-traumatized.”

Elders, she reasoned, could provide the life experience and patience that some of the young people needed. They should also be willing to listen.

That night, a young Black man she encountered was visibly hurting, his voice shrill and intense. As others fell silent, he continued to chant by himself in a way that was “coming out sideways,” she said.

Hi sweetie, how you doing?” Brown asked the young man. She saw an opportunity to show him love and see that his hurt did not get the best of him, leading to conflict. She said she asked him in her “softest and gentlest voice” to please lower his volume so she could hear the speaker on the megaphone.

The young man said he was sorry.

“You don’t need to apologize,” Brown said. “I hear the pain in your voice, and I know its real for you, and I’m sorry about whatever you have gone through.”

Ashley Gantt, one of the main organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement in Rochester, said Brown has a reputation for doing good in the area.

“She’s like a mentor, slash activist, slash spiritual counselor,” she said. “And she can sing.”

Activists in Rochester have paused protest activity as coronavirus infection rates rise. They have turned their attention to advocating for a law that would remove police officers from mental health crisis calls like Prude’s, mirroring similar efforts around the country, Gantt said.

Brown’s negotiation with Singletary and Warren resulted in a news conference where she was thanked for her role. In public statements after the meeting, she was painted as a “partner” of those in power, a role she did not agree with. There was also confusion over Brown’s role in bringing elders to the protest; Gantt said others deserve credit for organizing their presence.

“Myra just let the mayor know what was happening, and then the mayor co-opted it,” Gantt said.

Brown was also unhappy with the city’s portrayal of her role as one that denoted a community partnership, which was not her intention.

“I felt used in that,” Brown said. “I never want to be framed as somebody working with the system that’s oppressive for people

In a statement, Warren said those considered to be elders are the most trusted and respected voices in the community and have been “instrumental in bringing together opposing sides.

“The presence of our city’s elders during recent protests and periods of unrest has been vital to the well-being of the Rochester community,” Warren said.

Brown told a Rochester television station that she was ultimately happy to have helped secure “a pathway forward” for the city, and acknowledged it would not have happened without Warren pushing Singletary to stand down.

“I can establish relationships with people without being tied to the oppression,” Brown said.

Complete Article HERE!

Priest describes senior Vatican Cardinal’s comments as ‘like Trump’

Fr Tony Flannery, a co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests, said there are “polarised positions” in the Church and in the Vatican itself on possible reform

By Noel Baker

A Redemptorist priest who has been suspended from active ministry for the past eight years has described comments by a senior Vatican Cardinal as “like Trump” amid a deepening row over potential reforms in the Catholic Church.

Fr Tony Flannery, a co-founder of the Association of Catholic Priests and an advocate of the ordination of women priests, made his comments after a report this week in the National Catholic Reporter quoted Cardinal Luis Ladaria of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) as saying it had done “everything possible” to come to some type of resolution with him, but this had been unsuccessful.

In the same article, Cardinal Ladaria defended his office’s request that Fr Flannery sign four strict oaths of fidelity to Catholic teaching, saying while this was “very unpleasant”, it was required to maintain fealty to Church guidelines.

The Cardinal was quoted as saying: “We have tried always to maintain our respect towards Fr Flannery, but the duty that we have, according to the arrangement of the church, is to protect the faith and therefore to indicate some things that do not conform with this faith.”

Fr Flannery, 73, had said that unless he signed the oaths he had been informed he should not return to public ministry.

The row has now deepened, with the ACP tweeting a link to the NCR article and stating it is “very disturbed” by the comments as to the nature of the engagement with Fr Flannery.

It said if the report had quoted the Cardinal accurately “then it must be said, that he is misleading Catholics and the public. This is disturbing.”

Fr Flannery himself tweeted on Tuesday night “Ladaria is a Jesuit; he knows what ‘dialogue’ entails. He must know this statement is false. This has upset me this evening”.

He told the Irish Examiner he has no intention of leaving the priesthood or the Redemptorists, but could not rule out the possibility that he might be fired.

He said in eight years he had had no direct correspondence from the CDF and so the Cardinal’s assertion to the contrary was, in his view, “totally false”.

“The only thing I can compare that to is Trump,” he said, adding that what was said is “clearly contrary to all the evidence”.

Fr Flannery said there are “polarised positions” in the Church and in the Vatican itself on possible reform, but that the recent issue over the oaths of fidelity “in tone and content is like something from the 19th century”.

“To some extent this is like the end of the road in dealing with the Vatican,” he said.

In a comprehensive statement issued earlier on his website by way of response to the comments made by the Cardinal, Fr Flannery said the CDF under Cardinal Ladaria or his two predecessors “never communicated directly with me”.

“How do you dialogue with someone when you won’t speak to them?” he asked.

He said he was “totally unaware” of any other discussions held at a higher level and added: “All I ever got were demands for statements and signatures, and lists of punishments meted out to me. In fact the very first I knew of the whole process was, in 2012, when I was presented with two documents, outlining my ‘heretical’ writings, and the sentence being imposed. And the Cardinal says they have done everything to dialogue with me.”

Complete Article HERE!