How is the current pandemic affecting the Church in the US? What message can the Church give to the US and the world to make its presence felt for those affected by the virus?
Obviously, these are challenging times. In addition to the worldwide spread of the coronavirus and the death toll, with the shutdown of our societies God is allowing us to be stripped of all the things that we rely on — our routines and expected ways of doing things, our priorities. In some cases, he is taking away our schools, our jobs, our livelihoods, even our physical connections with our loved ones.
The question from a faith perspective is where is God and what is God saying to us in this moment — what is he saying to the Church, to the nations of the world, to each one of us in our own personal circumstances ? And all of us, I think, are reflecting on these questions.
As I see it, this crisis is a time for conversion, a time for us to make choices about what truly matters in our lives, a time for us to change the priorities of our societies. It is a time to turn to God and to recognize that no matter how advanced our civilization and technology, we cannot save ourselves. We need God.
The Church’s mission is more urgent than ever in this time — to proclaim our hope in God’s love, our faith that his love is stronger than death, and to witness to this by reaching out in love to those who are suffering and hurting.
The first Christians loved in a time of plagues and epidemics. They nursed the sick, buried the dead, and consoled the grieving, often at great sacrifice and risk to their own lives. And that is our mission in this time.
In your foreword to Bishop Thomas Olmsted 2016 book, « Catholics in the Public Square », you said that the Church today faces a “highly secularized society”. Does America no longer trust in God?
It is hard to describe « America », as a whole. As a nation, we are highly diverse and fragmented along political lines, culturally and even geographically.
What I meant is that there is an elite class — in business and politics, in entertainment and the arts, in science and technology, in education at all levels — that has a dominant view of the world that does not have any room in it, or any need for, God.
The popes have described this reality as a kind of « practical atheism. » So, ordinary daily life presumes now, and has for some time, that we do not need God to explain anything and that we can define our objectives as a society and our individual happiness mostly in material or consumer terms. Practically speaking, our society operates as if God does not exist and as if religion is a private lifestyle choice.
But — this is important — saying that American society is highly secularized does not mean that faith, hope, and charity have died in the hearts of the American people.
Here in Los Angeles, we have millions of Catholic faithful — we worship in more than 40 langauges. And across the country, there are millions of Catholics and people of other faiths who are living out their beliefs in their work and school, in their civic responsibilities ; they’re passing on their faith to their children, serving their neighbors with generous love and sacrifice.
We are seeing this in beautiful ways every day during this pandemic — in our hospitals and homes, in our parishes and ministries. There are so many people serving at great personal risk and making quiet, unseen acts of self-sacrifice and service in our families and communities.
I really believe that saints are being made — new kinds of saints, everyday saints or « saints of the little way » — in this time of trial for the world, and for American society. I also think that our experience right now of being surrounded by death and feeling the true fragility of life is going to lead to a new religious awakening, a deeper appreciation of our need for God.
In your writings and talks, you have indentified a growing hostility and discrimination against Christian institutions. In the face of such hostility, how should Catholics react? Should they follow a « Benedict Option », as recommended by Christian journalist Rod Dreher?
In the American tradition, religious freedom is a primary human right. So, it is important for the Church, and for individual believers, to continue to struggle to defend our rights to live our faith.
And religious freedom means more than just the right to pray and worship. It means the right to organize our lives according to our beliefs and to run our institutions — our charities and schools, hospitals and other ministries — without interference from the government or other outside pressures.
Jesus gave his life for « the life of the world ». And he calls his Church to go out and make disciples of all nations and to proclaim his Kingdom. There is not one of us in the Church who can avoid this responsibility.
So, for me, the model of missionary discipleship is the best way to respond to our society in this moment. That means we need to be bold and clear that we are followers of Jesus Christ. We need to be witnesses, each in our own way, to Jesus — who he is, what he has done for us by his dying and rising from the dead, and what he has promised to us if we believe in him and follow his path for our lives. We do this, as we know, more by our actions than by our words.
Recent polls have shown that only a third of American Catholics still believe in God’s real presence in the Eucharist. Is this skepticism new among American Catholics?
I can tell you that here in Los Angeles I see a deep devotion to the Eucharist ; there is a hunger for Jesus in his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, and our churches are filled on Sundays and we have many, many people going to Mass every day.
Now, it is true, we are living in a technological society that is « de-sacramentalized ». Every day we are breathing the air of secularism and materialism. In our society we see reality as made up of only « matter » or material things. And we judge what is « real » by what we can verify according to our own senses or prove scientifically.
In our technological society, it just doesn’t make any sense to say that a priest in worship can repeat the words that our Lord spoke at the Last Supper and bread and wine truly become Christ’s Body and Blood. For the people of our time, even after consecration, there is just bread and wine on the altar.
So, we have a real challenge to restore the Catholic imagination, the Catholic sacramental vision. And this extends way beyond our sacramental practice. As Pope Francis talks about in « Laudato Si », we need to rediscover the truth that everything in the created world is a reflection of the Creator’s love. There is a beautiful passage in that encyclical about the Eucharist as the supreme act of « cosmic love » that joins heaven and earth and opens up creation to transcendence.
This « sacramental » vision has to become part of our new evangelization. We need to restore the truth that reality is more than what meets the eye ; that all that we see is made to be transfigured and sanctified, and that each of us is more than our biological existence — we are made to become « new creations », children of God in Christ.
Since the 1960s, two broad types of Catholics have been distinguished: the « pro-life Catholics » and the « peace and justice Catholics ». You have said you consider this distinction as a « false divide ». According to you, is there no such a thing as « conservatives » and « liberals » among Catholics?
We all have our temperaments, our viewpoints on political and cultural issues. So, of course, there are Catholics who are more liberal and more conservative.
But the Gospel is not about « issues » or political positions. Jesus said there is not a sparrow that falls from the sky that our Heavenly Father does not know about. And then he said, the human person, every soul, is worth so much more than a sparrow.
The Church’s social doctrine is rooted in Christ’s revelation of the sanctity, dignity, and mystery of the human person, created in the image of God and redeemed in the blood of Christ. Every soul is worth the price of his blood — and that has profound implications for a Christian vision of human society.
The great crisis we face in societies across the West is the crisis of the meaning of the human person. We are living in a society where God no longer matters and the human person is on the verge of being forgotten, too. The sense of our great dignity as children of God, the sense of God’s loving design for creation and the divine meaning of our lives — all of this is being lost.
And of course we see the consequences in the « issues » that our societies face — from abortion to homelessness, to the global refugee crisis ; from euthanasia to the inequities in our economy and our criminal justice system.
As Christians, we do not have any justification for working on just some of these issues and ignoring the others. We are called to love our neighbors and in our times that means defending human life in every condition — from the child waiting to be born, to populations that are suffering under war and economic failure.
In the logic of God’s love, taking care of the weakest and most vulnerable always takes priority. That is why abortion and euthanasia will always be the fundamental social injustices that we need to struggle against — because abortion and euthanasia are about the direct killing of the most defenseless members in the human family. But we can’t stop there. We need to fight for the human person. We need to defend the sanctity and dignity of the person everywhere and to work for their salvation.
In your 2012 book « Immigration and the Next America, » you spoke about a “broken immigration system”. What would be a fair immigration policy, according to the Church’s social teaching?
There are complicated issues involved, questions of law, economics, and politics. But the most basic consideration for me as a pastor, is that migrants are human beings, loved by God and redeemed by Jesus Christ. And the humanity of others can never be « negotiable ». Men and women do not become less than human, less a child of God, because they are « undocumented ».
When we think about our nation’s policies toward migrants and refugees, we of course need to make judgments that are prudent and just. The Church’s principles are clear and well-reasoned — our nation has the duty to secure its borders and to enact regulations regarding who comes into our country and how long they can stay.
But the Church also says that every person has a right to life and a right to emigrate in search of a better life. And the Church also teaches that a prosperous nation like America has a duty to try to welcome those who are seeking security and a livelihood they can’t find in their own countries.
Of course, this is the challenge — how do we balance these different interests and obligations in light of the Gospel. And it is complicated, as we all know. And that is what the immigration debate is about in our country.
I think the Church has a special role to play in this discussion because we are a church of immigrants. We also need to help our society to see our common humanity — that we are all children of God, meant to live together as brothers and sisters, no matter the color of our skin, the language we speak, or the place we were born.
Broadly speaking, the American Church’s vitality was sustained by the French in the 18th century, and the Irish in the 19th century. Following the same pattern, will the Church’s future be Latino?
The Church’s future in America will be Latino because the Church’s orgins in our country were Latino.
It is important to remember that Latinos are not newcomers — we were here before everybody else except the Native Americans. A lot of American Catholics do not even know this.
But Pope Francis knows this. That’s why when he came to America in 2015 he canonized America’s first Latino saint, St. Junípero Serra in the nation’s capitol, Washington, D.C. Francis said St. Junípero was one of America’s « founding fathers ». And it’s true, St. Junípeeo wrote a bill of rights for California’s indigenous peoples three years before America’s Declaration of Independence.
The truth is that there has been a Hispanic presence and influence in Americ country from the beginning, since about 40 years after Columbus, more than a century before the first settlers from England and France.
Our Church in America has always been an immigrant Church, and that is still true. But right now, Latinos make up more than one-third of all American Catholics, and more than half of all Catholics under the age of 25. And Latinos are taking leadership in the Church and there is a great energy and enthusiasm, especially from young Latinos. It is beautiful to see.
The Catholic Church remains the largest single Christian denomination in the US, but Pentecostals and Evangelicals Christians are increasingly gaining ground. Has the Church missed the “Catholic moment” as described by Richard Neuhaus in 1987?
Every moment is a « Catholic moment » because in every moment the Church has the duty to proclaim Christ and to build his kingdom on earth.
The Church in the United States faces many challenges, even beyond this coronavirus. We are living, as we are talking about, in a highly secularized society and in a time of real confusion — confusion about the meaning of human life and human freedom; confusion about marriage and the family, the role of faith in society, and the liberty of the Church. We also confront challenges to America’s historic commitment to be a home for all peoples.
But our mission as a Church, and our mission as Catholics is not changed. Each of us is called to follow Christ in our lives, to love him and try to live like him, and to show his love to the people that he puts in your life.
We’re called to holiness, to be saints, and we’re called to bring everyone to know the good news of Jesus and to transform the world according to the values of the Gospel. In practical terms, that means bringing our family and neighbors to know the love of God and it means working for a society of love and compassion that truly serves the human person.
So, really, every moment is the « Catholic moment » because we have this beautiful mission and vocation.