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Movie review: 'Beauty and the Beast'

Disney's live-action adaptation of its beloved 1991 animated film "Beauty and the Beast" arrives in theaters amid a swirl of controversy over the updating of one of its characters into an openly gay man.
 
The decision of the studio, director Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls"), and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos to reimagine LeFou (Josh Gad), sidekick of the villainous Gaston (Luke Evans), as Disney's so-called "first gay character" is a regrettable one. A cherished family film has, in essence, been appropriated for an underlying agenda that is firmly at odds with Christian values.
 
Parents will have a hard time explaining to their kids -- as most know the cartoon by heart -- why LeFou has jumped on the homosexual bandwagon. His amorous advances to Gaston, proud display of a bite mark from Gaston on his stomach (due to "wrestling"), and ultimate dance in the arms of another man will raise eyebrows, to say the least.
 
Admittedly, many grown moviegoers will take LeFou's transformation in stride. "Beauty and the Beast," however, is a must-see film intended for children. Given the clear intent to make a statement with the character in question, the restrictive classification assigned below is a caution for viewers of faith, especially parents.
 
The pall cast over "Beauty and the Beast" is unfortunate, as the film is largely an imaginative and engaging work with an arresting visual style. An old-fashioned Hollywood musical at heart, it brims with familiar songs by Alan Menken and whirling dance sequences worthy of Busby Berkeley.
 
Like the cartoon, this film is loosely based on the 1740 fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. The eponymous lovely, Belle (Emma Watson), is a spirited maiden in a French village who longs for excitement.
 
"I want adventure in the great-wide somewhere," she warbles. "I want so much more than they've got planned!"
 
Be careful what you wish for, dearie. No sooner does she spurn the advances of the vain hunter Gaston than Belle winds up imprisoned in a haunted castle, having swapped places with her kidnapped father, Maurice (Kevin Kline).
 
Enter said Beast (Dan Stevens), aka The Prince. We learn in an extended prologue that this handsome royal was transferred into a horned (but infinitely more dapper) version of Chewbacca from the "Star Wars" franchise by Agathe (Hattie Morahan), a local enchantress, as punishment for his selfishness.
 
Agathe's curse extended to The Prince's staff, who became not furry creatures but household objects. These exceedingly loquacious items include Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), a stuffy mantel clock; Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), a dancing candelabra; twirling feather duster Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw); Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), a motherly teapot, and her cup of a son, Chip (Nathan Mack); and musical duo Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), a harspichord, and Garderobe (Audra McDonald), a wardrobe.
 
Only if Beauty grows to love the Beast will the spell be broken, which seems a very long shot for this odd couple. A courtship ensues -- with a nice lesson on looking beyond outward appearances for true love -- until a vengeful Gaston raises an angry mob to kill the Beast, casting doubt (for newcomers, at least) on a happy ending.
 
Even in the absence of the hot-button issue already discussed, young children might be frightened by several dark moments in the movie, including attacks by wolves and Gaston's violent assault on the Beast's castle.
 
The film contains a few scenes of peril and action violence, a benign view of homosexual activity and some sexual innuendo. The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
 
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Movie review: ‘Rock Dog’

"You ain't nothin' but a hound dog," Elvis Presley famously crooned six decades ago. That pretty well describes "Rock Dog" (Summit Premiere), a feeble animated comedy about a canine with unlikely musical aspirations.
 
On Snow Mountain, high in the Himalayas, a Tibetan Mastiff named Bodi (voice of Luke Wilson) is stuck in the shadow of his stern father, Khampa (voice of J.K. Simmons). Their two-dog mission is to guard the village from marauding wolves eager to eat the resident sheep population.
 
Bodi prefers playing his guitar to sentry duty. When a passing airplane drops a radio from the sky, it's like manna from heaven. Turning the dial to a rock 'n' roll station (reception is remarkably clear), Bodi is entranced by the music of legendary rock-and-roller Angus Scattergood (voice of Eddie Izzard).
 
The village elder, fittingly named Fleetwood Yak (voice of Sam Elliott), convinces Khampa to let his son leave the village and seek his destiny in the big city.
 
"It's your life. Make it a happy one," Fleetwood tells Bodi.
 
And so Bodi hops the bus (mass transit is also surprisingly good), lands in the nearby metropolis -- filled with anthropomorphic species -- and seeks out Angus' heavily guarded compound.
 
The aging rocker, a hipster cat with a British accent and a sassy robot butler named Ozzie, invites the awestruck fan into his lair, but his motives are not sincere. Angus needs a new hit, and Bodi's fresh talent might be just the ticket.
 
Meanwhile, the big bad wolf pack, led by Linnux (voice of Lewis Black), is inspired by Bodi's departure to mount a final assault on Snow Mountain. Sporting gangster attire and driving stretch limos, these cool dudes have one goal in mind: feasting on grilled lamb chops.
 
Director and co-writer (with Kurt Voelker) Ash Bannon keeps the story moving while borrowing heavily from other animated films, including "Zootopia" and "WALL-E."
 
Despite the dangers characters occasionally face and Angus' mildly intemperate language (he says things like "stupid bloody idiot!"), "Rock Dog" is mindless fare acceptable for all -- except possibly the most easily frightened.
 
The film contains a few scenes of peril.
 
The Catholic News Service classification is A-I -- general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
 
 
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Movie review: 'The Lego Batman Movie'

In 2014's "The Lego Movie," Will Arnett voiced an amusingly self-absorbed version of Gotham City's Dark Knight. With the entertaining spinoff "The Lego Batman Movie" (Warner Bros.), Arnett's character, together with his inflated ego, takes center stage.
 
Despite occupying the spotlight, however, this time out, the Caped Crusader will have to learn some important lessons in humility, teamwork and emotional openness if he's going to meet his latest challenge. That's because his longtime adversary, the Joker (voice of Zach Galifianakis), is leading an army of bad guys in a bid to prove that he is Batman's most important enemy.
 
Just as the isolated, relationship-shunning hero insists on working alone to fight crime, so he slaps the Joker down when the Clown Prince of Crime puts himself forward as the Cowled One's indispensable foil.
 
"You're nothing to me," Batman growls in a scene that cleverly inverts a familiar trope, substituting the Joker's longing to be told he's hated for the more usual goal of exacting a declaration of love. Soon the spurned villain is scheming to destroy Gotham and thus bring his rivalry with Batman to a decisive close.
 
To vanquish him, Batman will have to accept the help of the trio of supporters who have rallied to his side: would-be adoptive son Dick Grayson, aka Robin (voice of Michael Cera), love interest Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl (voiced by Rosario Dawson), and father figure (as well as butler) Alfred Pennyworth (voice of Ralph Fiennes).
 
Still burdened by the loss of his parents -- their murder is only hinted at by a childhood photo taken at a moment aficionados of chiropteran lore will recognize as laden with doom -- Bruce Wayne, and therefore his alter ego, finds it difficult to make himself vulnerable again. It will take all of Robin's irrepressible good spirits and Alfred's patriarchal concern, as well as Barbara's head-turning effect on Batman, to break through his barriers.
 
Fast-paced fun is the order of the day in director Chris McKay's animated treat for viewers of almost every age. Still, scenes of danger and a bit of potty humor as well as a few joking turns of phrase designed for grownups suggest that small fry would best be left at home. The wide remaining audience will find the screen chockablock with good guys, black hats and monsters -- and the dialogue enlivened by sly wit.
 
The film contains perilous situations, including explosions, and a couple of instances each of vaguely crass language, scatological humor and mature wordplay. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
 
 
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St. Dominic of Silos

In 11th-Century Spain, if the king demanded something, he generally got it.  Not so in the case of one Benedictine monk, however. 
 
Saint Dominic of Silos stood his ground and, although he lost one monastery, he gained another,  greater one instead.
 
Born in about the year 1000 to a peasant family in Navarre, Spain, Dominic spent his early years as a shepherd, cultivating a love of solitude and prayer. In adulthood, he entered the Benedictine order, was ordained a priest and became abbot of the monastery at San Millan de la Cogolla.  When a dispute over monastery lands arose, the king of Navarre ordered the Benedictines to leave; when Dominic refused, he and two of his monks were forcibly removed and exiled.
 
They sought refuge in Castile; there they became part of the monastery of San Sebastian at Silos, which was in desperate need of reform. Under Dominic’s leadership, the house was reinvigorated both physically and spiritually and became one of the most famous monasteries in Spain.  It was reputed to be a place of healing, due primarily to the holiness associated with Dominic.
 
Dominic died in 1073 of natural causes.  His feast day is Dec. 20.
 
Sources for these articles include:
www.americancatholic.org
www.catholiconline.come
“Saint Dominic of Silos." CatholicSaints.Info. 14 June 2016.
 

St. Nicholas of Myra

One of the most popular secular figures associated with Christmas, Santa Claus, actually began as a very Christian saint – St. Nicholas.  Although we have few facts about this Fourth-Century bishop, the many stories which grew up about him, coupled with the widespread devotion people have expressed toward him in many times and cultures, give us a glimpse into the holiness of the man.  And the picture it paints is very appealing.
 
Nicholas was born into a wealthy family during the latter part of the Third Century on what is now the southern coast of Turkey; his parents, devout Christians, died in an epidemic when Nicholas was still a very young man. As a result, he suddenly found himself in possession of a fairly substantial fortune. However, rather than keep his money, he obeyed Jesus’ command to “sell all you have and give it to the poor” and distributed his earthly wealth among the poorest and neediest around him.
 
Nicholas was ordained a priest and was subsequently made bishop of Myra, a city in Lycia, which was a province of Asia Minor. Sources tell us that he was imprisoned during the Christian persecution, which took place under the Roman Emperor Diocletian but lived to see the legalization of the faith under Constantine. Likely present at the Council of Nicaea in 325, Nicholas died in the city of Myra on Dec. 6, 343.
 
Nicholas was known during his lifetime for his expansive generosity.  One of the most popular stories about him concerned a man who was too poor to provide dowries for his three daughters; at the time, a lack of dowry meant that a woman could not marry, and so it was likely that these girls would end up being sold, either into slavery or prostitution. When Nicholas heard of the situation, he is said to have gone to the house on three separate occasions, each time tossing a bag of gold through the window, thereby providing each daughter with the needed dowry.  According to legend, the gold landed in the stockings of the young women, which they had washed and hung over the fireplace to dry – thus beginning the tradition of hanging stockings at Christmas that persists to this day.
 
Miracles also were attributed to Nicholas after his death. One of the oldest stories tells of a young boy who was kidnapped from Myra by pirates who raided the city during the celebration of the saint’s feast day. A year later, as the child’s grieving mother prayed for his safe return, Nicholas is said to have appeared to the boy where he was being held as a slave, sweeping him up and returning him to his parents.
 
Another story has Nicholas restoring to life three children who were murdered by a wicked innkeeper.  Still another, which reportedly took place during the saint’s lifetime, says that while on a voyage to the Holy Land, the ship on which he was traveling was caught in a terrible storm. The terrified sailors were sure that the ship would be lost and that they would drown, but Nicholas calmly prayed for their safety. Within minutes, the waves were stilled and the storm abated, sparing everyone on board.
 
While many of these tales are unsubstantiated, their persistence over the centuries nevertheless point to a man who was both generous and holy, a model for those who would also live a compassionate life. There are many who claim him as their patron, among them children, sailors, brides and the country of Greece. 
 
His feast day, which falls near the beginning of Advent, is Dec. 6.
 
Sources for this article include:
www.americancatholic.org
www.catholiconline.come
Ott, Michael. "St. Nicholas of Myra." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.
“Saint Nicholas of Myra." CatholicSaints.Info. 11 June 2016.
 www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas/
 

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: Patron saint of widows and seafarers

If you ever had an opportunity to attend Catholic school in the United States, you have Elizabeth Ann Seton to thank for it. The first American-born saint, Mother Seton, as she became known, would end up traveling an often painful road, which led from a privileged upbringing in New York to her eventual vocation as a Sister of Charity in Baltimore, Md.
 
Born Elizabeth Ann Bayley in New York in 1774, she was raised as a staunch Episcopalian by her father, Dr. Richard Bayley. Although the family moved in the highest social circles, Bayley made sure that his daughter learned early the value of love and service to others.
 
At the age of 19, Elizabeth married a wealthy businessman, William Magee Seton, with whom she was deeply in love. Together they had five children, and she felt, at the time, as if she had everything she could want.
 
Ten years into their marriage, however, life began to take a different turn. Seton’s business failed, and he contracted tuberculosis. In an attempt to recover his health, the family moved to Italy, where he had business friends. The move, however, saved neither him nor his finances; he died in 1803, leaving his wife an impoverished widow with five children to raise on her own.
 
While in Italy, however, she came in close contact with Catholicism for the first time through the Filichi family, who took her and her children in. Through their influence, she became deeply devoted to both the Real Presence and the Blessed Mother.  When she converted to Catholicism in 1805, the news was not warmly received by many of her strict Episcopalian family and friends. 
 
Although she considered entering a convent in Canada, then-Archbishop John Carroll (whose cousin Charles had been a signer of the Declaration of Independence) convinced her instead to come to the Diocese of Baltimore. There, she founded a school in 1808 to help support herself and her children; though it was a secular institution, it was run along the lines of a religious community.  In fact, when news of her Catholicism spread, many of the girls enrolled there were withdrawn by their parents.
 
As other young women began to join Elizabeth, the archbishop asked her to establish a free Catholic girl’s school in Baltimore, and the parochial school system in America was inaugurated. In 1809, Elizabeth founded the Sisters of Charity to run the schools, and from that point on, she was known as Mother Seton. Archbishop Carroll officially approved the order in 1812.
 
Both her order and the parochial school system grew. Although she contracted tuberculosis, Mother Seton continued to work with both until her death in 1821.
 
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s feast day is Jan. 4; she is the patron saint of widows and seafarers (two of her sons went to sea), and against loss of parents.
 
Sources for this article include:
 
www.americancatholic.org
  
www.catholiconline.com
 
“Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton“. CatholicSaints.Info. 30 September 2016.
 
Schreck, Alan.  “Catholic Church History from A to Z”.  Ann Arbor, Michigan:  Servant Publications, 2002.
 
 
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Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 19, 2016

Zechariah 12: 10-11, 13:1; Psalm 63;

Galatians 3: 26-29; Luke 9: 18-24

"O God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water." (Ps 63:2)

"Then [Jesus] said to all, 'If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'" (Lk 9:23)

It is rather ironic–or maybe not ironic at all and simply God's plan–that these readings would be assigned to this particular Sunday in June. This weekend in the Diocese of Burlington Bishop Coyne will ordain Mr. Joseph Sanderson to the transitional diaconate and Deacons Matthew Rensch and Curtis Miller to the priesthood. Following their ordinations, Deacon Sanderson and Fathers Rensch and Miller will either assist at or celebrate Masses of Thanksgiving at which these readings will be used. How these readings speak to those of us in Holy Orders! Both quotes above are great beginning points for those to be ordained priests and a reminder for someone like me who is already a priest.

The journey to the priesthood begins when the candidate realizes his "flesh pines and...soul thirsts" for God. While all people experience this call, the one to enter Holy Orders realizes in the depths of his heart and soul that God has called him to enter an ordained relationship with him. "This sacrament configures the recipient to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1581), "so that he may serve as Christ's instrument for his Church. By ordination one is enabled to act as a representative of Christ, Head of the Church . . . "

The priest feels drawn into a life in which he gives himself totally, body, mind, heart, and soul, to Christ and his Church. Through the priesthood, he satisfies the thirst of his soul as recounted in Psalm 63. This relationship with Christ then overflows into service to God's people. It is a total giving of one's self, and thus it is a joyful life marked by simplicity, obedience, and celibacy. The heart, mind, body, and soul are given to God.

Jesus makes it clear that anyone who wishes to follow him must "deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow [him]." On Good Friday, the priest holds the wooden cross for all to venerate. He knows from his own prayer that it is only through the cross of Jesus that salvation and redemption will come to God's people. The individual crosses of the people must come to the cross of Christ, which is a window to resurrection and hope. The priest has given his life for that cross, and now leads others through it. A priest's life is not a career. He does not seek advancement or career opportunities. His life is set before him. He sets out to minister in the places the Church needs and directs him, as that is how he knows and hears God's will. The priest knows it is not about him, but about Christ and his Church.

The celebrations of the sacraments are the center of the priest's life. His life comes together fully in those moments. He has felt God's call into a deep, unique relationship with him that is marked by prayer. He celebrates the sacraments in humility as he himself is in need of the forgiveness and healing of those same sacraments he provides for God's people. He does so in the person of Christ, for it is Christ who baptizes, forgives sins, and anoints through the priest. It is Christ's body and blood that is made evident upon the altar in the Eucharist.

The priest has felt the need of Christ in his own life. He has given his life for that relationship. He now brings that relationship to each person he meets in celebrating the sacraments, healing God's people. Indeed, he is an icon of Christ, for it is through him that the faithful see Christ, the one to whom the priest is configured through Holy Orders.

Msgr. Bernard Bourgeois is the principal of Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington. Msgr. Bourgeois may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. (See official on page 3.)

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Of Immigrants and Refugees

American history has always fascinated me. We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. All of us, except for those descended from the Native American tribes, have immigration in our background. And with the exception of those descended from African American slaves, our families immigrated either seeking refuge from oppression or seeking economic and social freedom.
 
In history, a number of cycles of “nativism” have emerged over the years. Nativism is built on fear of the unknown, fear of those who are perceived as different. Among the groups of immigrants that faced opposition were Catholics (Irish, Italian and Eastern European), Jews (Russian, Eastern European and German) and Asians. It is ironic that with each wave of immigration, high achievement arose over one to two generations. That high achievement benefited not only the immigrant families but the broader community as well.
 
On Feb. 21, Pope Francis made a compelling statement that we all need to think about. EWTN News reported that on Feb. 21: “Defending (migrants’) inalienable rights, ensuring their fundamental freedom and respecting their dignity are duties from which no one can be exempted.”
 
We have to take his message very seriously.
 
Against this background, let us examine the current debate on immigration and refugees. Recent executive actions are playing into and exacerbating nativist fears and suspicions about two groups: Muslims and Latin Americans, especially the 11 million or so “illegal aliens” now living in the United States.
 
The current plan for “extreme vetting” plays well in the minds of many and would seem to be reasonable except for one thing: The average refugee admitted to the U.S. has already gone through about two years of vetting by U.S. agents. A moratorium that allows for a review of the current vetting process, again, sounds reasonable.
 
This is something that was discussed throughout much of the recent presidential campaign. But does this mean that the present vetting process should necessarily be suspended while this review takes place? The unfortunate decision to suspend all immigration from particular countries has lead to unnecessary human suffering.
 
Legitimate refugees continue to suffer in camps that fail to meet the basic human needs of the refugees. MOST of the illegal immigrants in this country work hard at agricultural jobs and whatever jobs they can find. Much of the food we eat is produced and picked by their hands. They are in the shadows of the economy. Some of them are our neighbors here in Vermont.
 
They have come to the U.S. with the same motivation that our own ancestors had -- to seek a better life for themselves and their children. They desire refuge from oppression and danger.
 
Does deportation really make sense? Not as a blanket policy that makes no distinctions based on individual situations. Perhaps some form of legalization makes more sense on a practical level.
 
We cannot morally turn our backs on these immigrants and on the refugees. Making it impossible for them to enter or remain in the U.S. under the ruse of security and legality simply is wrong! It is time for a better solution.
 
____________
 
Deacon Pete Gummere is Director of the Permanent Diaconate for the Diocese of Burlington and serves at Corpus Christi Parish in the St. Johnsbury area. He is adjunct faculty at the Josephinum Diaconate Institute where he teaches moral theology and medical morality.
 
 

Transforming faith into action

Jesus uses the wonderful parable about the rich man and Lazarus to prod us into awareness of those around us who are in desperate need; He is specific about the evil of ignoring the poor person who is hungry. In the parable, Jesus tells us that Lazarus was lying at the rich man’s door, and the rich man had to know he was there but did nothing to help.
 
Jesus is speaking about more than hunger. There are many effects of poverty — poor health, hunger, thirst, inadequate clothing, inadequate shelter, despair, discouragement, depressed spirits, social isolation, marginalization and even oppression. Despite an enlightened social services network in Vermont, all of these effects of poverty are experienced by people in our own communities, throughout Vermont and the nation.
 
Even worse, the level of poverty in developing countries is unimaginable. And one of the worst effects of poverty is that no one seems to care that there is no end, no hope in sight; yet there is plentitude in the world.
 
Just as our prayer expresses what we believe, our actions tangibly demonstrate what we believe. Our faith should move us to be evermore charitable.
 
Blessed Oscar A. Romero, a late archbishop of San Salvador, reflecting on the depth of poverty and injustice in his native land commented: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and do it very well. It may be incomplete, but at least it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”
 
In addressing the problems of poverty in Vermont, the United States and the world, the Church long has been in a leadership position. Programs operated at the parish, diocesan and national levels are significant sources of help to the impoverished. In Vermont, The Bishop’s Fund and The Bishop deGoesbriand Appeal
for Human Advancement support many such activities.
 
Catholic Relief Services has a presence in more than 100 countries and annually delivers emergency
relief supplies to about 100 million people suffering the effects of natural disasters. It works with local
people on tangible development and redevelopment projects, enabling transformative improvement in people’s lives.
 
Although charitable giving is part of charity, there is more to it. We must not think that the solution is simply to throw money at a problem. The core of charity is love. How do we love someone? We spend some time with that person. Ordinary acts of kindness and genuine concern, being involved in the lives and the wellbeing of others and providing encouragement all are simple illustrations of that kind of charity. It is particularly charitable when such acts are done for those marginalized by society and when we are conscious of them as Christ in disguise.
 
Many Vermont Catholics actively engage in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy through formal channels. Others perform them quietly. I applaud the many who are doing those works of mercy.
 
Jesus reminds us, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). Would He be happy with what we are doing? Or would He suggest how we might do a little more in caring for His people who are suffering?
 
As we become more involved in some concrete aspect of caring for God’s people, we transform our faith into action and delight the Lord.
 
 

The Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Mt 5:9)
 
As Catholics, how we live our faith can have a great impact on the violence and injustice that surround us.
 
The escalation of violence and shooting of unarmed African Americans by police and subsequent retaliation against police have shocked the conscience of the nation.
 
These were not acts of foreign terrorists. In July, two victims were African American men who were killed during an interaction with local police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Five were Dallas police officers fatally shot by a lone gunman expressing anger toward police officers.
 
These incidents in Louisiana and Minnesota are not isolated incidents. They are part of an ongoing nationwide epidemic in which police have shot unarmed African Americans. More recently the tragedy was repeated in Tulsa, Okla.; Charlotte, N.C; and San Diego, Calif.
 
Today, with the ability to capture everything on video via cell phones and police body cams, the public is able to examine these incidents closely, which has led to public protests throughout our country.
 
Police stopped the Minnesota victim because a taillight that was out on his vehicle. In Louisiana, the victim was selling CD’s on the sidewalk. For reasons that are not clear, the interactions escalated to the point of an officer shooting the victim.
 
The central question is: Are police dealing with the African American segment of the population in a manner inconsistent with the treatment accorded the white population?
 
To be true to our vocation as Christians, we need to hunger and thirst for righteousness in our society. We must also be peacemakers and always seek the truth by critically evaluating the facts both nationally and in our own community.
 
While we have not encountered the same type of racial incidents here in Vermont, we have seen an increase in violent crime and three fatal confrontations involving law enforcement since December. A well-publicized report commissioned by the Vermont State Police and conducted by the Institute for Race and Justice and the Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research revealed that troopers were more likely to stop African American drivers than white drivers. African American drivers who were stopped were more likely to receive a ticket or to be arrested for relatively similar offenses.
 
Records from the Department of Corrections, Census Bureau and the Department of Justice also show that people of color are incarcerated at a higher rate than the white population. A report from the research and advocacy group, The Sentencing Project, reveals that one in 14 black men in Vermont are incarcerated. In fact, Vermont is one of just five states incarcerating its black population at about 10 times the rate of white residents.
 
Before concluding that racism fully explains the above statistics, we would have to know more about all confounding factors such as the objective behaviors that resulted in a traffic stop and make a thorough analysis of all information pertaining to each encounter. Sentencing decisions are complex and include many variables. However, it appears bias may be a factor.
 
At the same time, society needs to understand that police, in Vermont and elsewhere, have an extremely critical and difficult role. It is essential for the public to be protected from criminal activity, whether violence against persons or property, or crimes such as harassment, or hazards like drunk driving. Every veteran police officer can share accounts of unimaginable tragedies encountered on the job.
 
Yet police officers are human and make mistakes. If these mistakes are motivated or enabled by racial bias, they need to be extinguished.
 
This too is a matter of justice.
 
Race is such a polarizing force in American culture that most of us have at least some tint of racial bias in our thinking. Individual Catholics must first confront their own biases. We must realize that all human beings are God’s beloved children, made in His image and likeness. We need to share that vision in the broader community.
 
With the Year of Mercy nearing an end, now is the perfect time to reinvigorate the spirit of mercy by working to eliminate racism from our culture. Fair, unbiased policing and sentencing and justice in the social and economic arenas are all essential to overcoming injustice. But also getting to know and engage with our neighbors is essential if the racial divide is to be broken down.
 
Those able to break down those barriers and so foster peace -- Jesus proclaims them blessed.
 
 
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Theology isn't math

During the heyday of the Solidarity movement, a famous Polish slogan had it that, “For Poland to be Poland, 2 + 2 Must Always = 4.” It was a quirky but pointed way of challenging the communist culture of the lie, which befogged public life and warped relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, colleagues and neighbors. For Poland to be something other than the claustrophobic Soviet puppet-state it had been since 1945 – for Poland to be itself, true to its character and history – Poland had to live in the truth: It had to be a country in which 2 + 2 always equaled 4.
           
That Solidarity slogan harkened back to George Orwell’s “1984.” In Orwell’s dystopian novel, a totalitarian state maintains social control by obfuscating reality, using what the British author called “Newspeak” and “doublethink” to compel its subjects to acknowledge as true what they know is false. Thus one of the more odious of the characters in the novel, a regime stooge whose job is to break the will of “thought criminals,” explains that if Big Brother and the omnipotent Party say so, two plus two doesn’t necessarily equal four: “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once.”
           
Which brings us to a tweet earlier this month from Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a prominent figure on the current Roman scene.
            
I don’t use Twitter, so its syntactical wonderland is a bit foreign to me. And having had previous experience of Father Spadaro’s capacity for provocation-via-Twitter, I’m prepared to think that, in this case, he may have been trying to say something other than what he seemed to be saying. But as his tweet rang ominous bells for anyone familiar with Orwell or Solidarity, it’s worth reflecting upon.
           
Here’s what Father Spadaro tweeted (in linear, rather than Twitter, format): “Theology is not Mathematics. 2 + 2 in Theology can make 5. Because it has to do with God and real life of people.”
           
Now that was not, so to speak, a tweet in a vacuum. It was a message projected into an already-overheated Catholic conversation about the proper interpretation of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In that context, the charitable reading of the tweet is that Father Spadaro was reminding us of the obvious – that pastoral care is an art, and that the priest dealing with complicated and messy human situations is not like a first-grade teacher drilling six-year olds in addition.
 
But then the question inevitably arises, what is the relationship of truth to pastoral care? And why suggest, even in Twitter-world, that there are multiple “truths” – a convention of the post-modern academic playpen that leads by a short road to the chaos of “your truth” and “my truth” and nothing properly describable as the truth?
As for theology, the word means speaking-of-God, which in Christian terms speaking of the One who is Truth – the Truth who makes us free in the deepest meaning of human liberation. There are many ways of doing theology, and not all of them are strictly syllogistic; St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, doctors of the Church, were not logicians. But if theology decays into illogical forms of Newspeak, it is false to itself.
           
It was providential that Christianity had its first “inculturation” in a milieu – Greco-Roman antiquity – where the principle of non-contradiction was well-established and something couldn’t “be” and “not be” simultaneously. That cultural environment was where Christianity found the conceptual tools to turn confession and proclamation – “Jesus is Lord” – into catechesis and creed. Suppose the first “inculturation” had been in a setting where it made perfect sense to say “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is not Lord” at the same time – like the culture of India two millennia ago? It made a great deal of difference that the first formative centuries of Christianity took place in a culture where 2 + 2 always equaled 4.
           
Applying the truths of the faith to the complexities of life is not a matter of logic alone. But if attempts to do so are illogical, in that they stretch truth to the breaking point, they’re unlikely to be pastorally effective. Because the soul needs truth to be free.       
 
 

A reflection on “A Man for All Seasons”

On Dec. 12, 1966, the film “A Man for All Seasons” was released. And if it’s impossible to imagine such a picture on such a theme winning Oscars today, then let’s be grateful that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got it right by giving Fred Zinnemann’s splendid movie six of its awards in 1967 – when, reputedly, Audrey Hepburn lifted her eyes to heaven before announcing with obvious pleasure that this cinematic celebration of the witness and martyrdom of Sir Thomas More had beaten “The Sand Pebbles,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Alfie” and T”he Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” for Best Picture.
           
Intriguingly, though, “A Man for All Seasons” is a magnificent religious film – perhaps the best ever – despite its author’s stated intentions.
           
Robert Bolt’s introduction to his play, which led to the movie, makes it rather clear that author Bolt saw More less as a Catholic martyr than as an existential hero, an approach befitting the hot philosophical movement of the day (which was, of course, the Sixties). As Bolt put it:
           
“Thomas More…became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what areas of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases, for he had a proper sense of fear and was a busy lover. Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at last he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self.  And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff….
           
“What attracted me was a person who could not be accused of any incapacity for life, who indeed seized life in great variety and almost greedy quantities, who nevertheless found something in himself without which life was valueless and when that was denied him was able to grasp his death.”
           
Yet this portrait of Thomas-More-as-Tudor-era-existentialist doesn’t quite convince, because Bolt, perhaps in spite of himself, gave us a different More in his drama and later in his screenplay – a More who “grasps” his death, not as an existential stalwart, a courageously autonomous “Self,” but as a Catholic willing to die for the truth, which has grasped him as the love of God in Christ.  Thus when More’s intellectually gifted daughter Margaret, having failed to argue him out of his refusal to countenance Henry VIII’s divorce and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, plays her final card and cries, “But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?”, More replies, haltingly, “Well…finally…it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”
           
And not love of self, but love of God and love of the truth. For the God who is truth all the way through is also, St. John the Evangelist teaches us, love itself. And to be transformed by that love is to live in the truth – the truth that sets us free in the deepest and noblest meaning of human liberation.
           
There was something worthy and inspiring about certain aspects of existentialism: not the soured existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, which quickly decomposed into nihilism, but the heroic existentialism of a Albert Camus, who could not abide the anti-clerical Catholic progressives of his day and who sought a world in which we could be, as he put it, “neither victims nor executioners.” But it was Sartrean existentialism that won the day, at least insofar as one can trace a line from Sartre to contemporary narcissism, displayed today in everything from temper tantrums on university campuses by over-privileged and under-educated barbarians to voters across the Western world who seek relief from their grievances – some quite legitimate – in adherence to some pretty dreadful characters.
           
In this unhappy situation, we need the real Thomas More: the Thomas More who bore witness and ultimately “grasped his death,” not to vindicate his sense of self, but as the final and ultimate act of thanks for his having been grasped, and saved, by Truth itself, the Thrice-Holy God.   
 

A cinematic lesson in hope

At a moment like this when there doesn’t seem to be a lot going right — ascendant authoritarianisms throughout the world; lethal violence by ideological fanatics; feckless responses to both from the democracies — it’s good to be reminded that things can be different, and in fact were different, not so very long ago. 

Recapturing those days and summoning memories of a time when the good folks won, cleanly and against all the odds, is the singular accomplishment of a splendid new documentary, “Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism,” which should be on everyone’s summer must-watch list.

It took me 19 years of research and three books (“The Final Revolution,” “Witness to Hope,” and “The End and the Beginning”) to do what executive producer Carl Anderson and writer/director David Naglieri have done in 93 minutes of gripping videography and marvelous graphics: explain how and why John Paul played a pivotal, indeed indispensable, role in the greatest drama of the last quarter of the 20 century: the collapse of European communism. In doing so, they make us think hard, again, about how this miraculous liberation took place: something no one expected on October 16, 1978, when a little-known Polish cardinal, who styled himself the pope “from a far country,” was presented on the central loggia of St. Peter’s as the new bishop of Rome.       

Central and eastern Europe weren’t liberated by conceding that the communists had a point, even if they were rather brutal and inefficient in making that point socially, economically, and politically. Nor were the countries of the Warsaw Pact liberated by churchmen and western diplomats cosseting the dictators that ran those party-states. What we used to call the “captive nations” were liberated because “good” and “evil” were “called by their right names,” as the Solidarity martyr, Blessed Jerzy Popieliuszko, used to put it.

Central and eastern Europe didn’t break free of the shackles of totalitarianism without trying, failing, and then trying again: it took a critical mass of people, determined to “live in the truth” no matter how difficult, to implode the communist culture of the lie and give a new birth of freedom to the lands Stalin claimed as his prize for helping beat Hitler.

And the countries of central and eastern Europe didn’t regain their liberties by adopting the usual 20th-century method of social change, mass violence. Understanding that people who begin by storming Bastilles usually end up building their own (as one Polish dissident said), the new freedom fighters inspired by John Paul II deployed weapons that communist brutality could not match: truth, national memory, tenacious organizing, and personal resilience. 

For those whose memories of St. John Paul reach back only as far as his last years, “Liberating a Continent” is also a powerful reminder of what a handsome, charismatic, and utterly compelling man John Paul II was at the height of his physical powers. He radiated confidence, moral strength, and the courage of a happy warrior. And because of that, those whose lives he touched felt empowered in return. 

The displacement of history by “social studies” in U.S. elementary and secondary schools has been a disaster for historical understanding. And while the new “social history,” which wants to do history from the bottom up, has taught us many things, there are still occasions when great men do bend history’s curve in a different direction; “Liberating a Continent” is also a useful reminder that John Paul II didn’t make “1989” happen by himself. But without him, a continent wouldn’t have been liberated when it was and how it was. So I’d suggest adding this terrific film to the curriculum of every Catholic (and indeed every Christian) high school in North America, to remind students what happened in their parents’ lifetimes and to inspire them to moral greatness themselves.

“Liberating a Continent” will be aired on various public television stations in the months ahead; that schedule will be regularly updated at www.jp2film.com. But while you’re checking for local airings at that site, go to the “purchase” tab, order a copy online, and settle down for an hour and a half of superb entertainment that will lift your spirits in a darkling season.  

Article written by George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
 

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