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Politics divides, but Christ unites: Madison bishop confronts Catholic ‘acrimony’

January 29, 2021 CNA Daily News 2

CNA Staff, Jan 29, 2021 / 04:14 pm (CNA).- The polarization of American politics means that Catholics must be a force for unity rather than “divisively tribal,” and clergy especially need to be careful that they don’t let their personal politics compromise their Christian mission, Bishop Donald Hying of Madison has said.
“All Catholics have to be careful to engage in political life in a manner that reflects the Gospel, but clergy need to exercise special caution so that their political activity is consistent with their vocation in the Church,” he said in a Jan. 27 reflection on the “current state of general acrimony.”
Clergy should not voice “overt and purely political opinions regarding individuals, parties, election results, the current news cycle,” nor should they engage in ad hominem attacks.
“Such actions threaten to politicize the Church and divide our people even more,” he said.
“I am not implying that we should be silent in the face of evil, injustice, and wrongdoing, but we need to stick with the moral issues and refrain from the personal attacks,” Hying said.
While bishops, priests and deacons can vote and hold political opinions, Hying said, their task is “to preach and teach the Catholic faith to the laity and to lay out the revealed priority of moral issues.” Pastors who fail to preach the truths of the Catholic faith, however, “fail in loving our people.”
“The task of the laity is to form their consciences and apply the teachings of the Church to the spheres of politics, economy, society, and culture,” said the bishop.
He reflected on the state of the country in January 2021: “the anger and vitriol is palpably toxic.”
 “Our cultural, political, and social divisions, exacerbated by COVID; the elections; and the violence in our streets and cities have unfortunately entered into the Church and are seriously wounding our unity in Christ,” he said.
“We now seem to have Biden Catholics and Trump Catholics, perhaps just the latest incarnation of traditional and progressive Catholics, but a division that is louder, angrier, and far less compromising than all the previous rifts in the Body of Christ.”
“Any words of moderation, actions of conciliation, benefit of the doubt given to another point of view, or attempt to find middle ground is dismissed as betrayal and disloyalty to the truth,” he said.
“If we do not even desire to heal the divisions among us, how can we ever rediscover our unity in Christ? The bishop asked. “The painful experience of these past months tells me that we as fallen human beings can become divisively tribal. We instinctively associate with the people who think, act, and live as we do.”
He emphasized that Christ calls members of his body to “a far greater reality, indeed a supernatural unity, founded in the very life of the Most Blessed Trinity.”
“Jesus served, loved, died, and rose from the dead to establish a New Covenant in His Blood, a redeemed humanity of every race, tribe, and tongue, incorporating every culture, nationality, class, and people into the Church,” Hying continued. “For us Christians, water is thicker than blood, for the communion we discover in the waters of Baptism is far deeper and significant than the ties of race, nation, political party, and even family.”
“If we are bound together in Christ as His Mystical Body, then how can we keep tearing each other apart? We are brothers and sisters in Christ,” he said.
He suggested Catholics should spend the time before Easter in deeper prayer, penance, and almsgiving.
“How can I be more patient, kind, gentle, and compassionate to others, especially those I disagree with? Get off social media and get in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Stop watching so much news and start reading the Good News. Spend the time on volunteer service to help the poor instead of writing angry emails,” said the bishop, who added: “Examine your conscience regarding the sins of calumny, rash judgment, violent anger, and malicious speech. And then go to confession.”
At the same time, Hying said vocal partisans are not necessarily representative of Catholicism.
“Most Catholics are simply trying to live their faith, focus on Jesus Christ, become holy, and do God’s will. Many people had questions and concerns about some of President Trump’s policies and actions, as many do about President Biden,” he said.
He said that the Catholic bishops in the US do consider abortion the “preeminent” national issue because it is “intrinsic evil as the deliberate taking of human life in its fragile beginnings.” At the same time, he said, “‘preeminent’ does not mean ‘only’.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has always tried to work with every presidential administration to support moral policies and oppose others, said the bishop.
“The fact that President Biden is a baptized Catholic who attends Mass and asserts faith as the guiding principle of his life gives greater urgency to the need to challenge those of his policies which are opposed to moral teaching based on the natural law,” he said. “Some may mistakenly assume the Church is taking political sides, but Her actions are always inspired by the truth of God’s revelation and the dignity of the human person. And that cuts both ways, as the Word of God is ‘sharper than a two-edged sword’,” said Hying, quoting the Letter to the Hebrews.
To the Madison diocese’s north is the Diocese of La Crosse. Before the 2020 elections, La Crosse diocesan priest Fr. James Altman’s Aug. 30 video went viral for saying “You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat. Period.”
Bishop William Callahan of La Crosse sought to correct the priest, saying he inflicted a “wound” upon the Church.
“Unfortunately, the tone Fr. Altman offers comes off as angry and judgmental, lacking any charity and in a way that causes scandal both in the Church and in society. His generalization and condemnation of entire groups of people is completely inappropriate and not in keeping with our values or the life of virtue,” Callahan said Sept. 9.
Altman’s video won support from Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, who praised him on Twitter Sept. 5.
Father James Martin, S.J., editor-at-large of America magazine, wrote an essay claiming that Catholic leaders’ criticism of President Joe Biden’s stance on abortion helped contribute to the conditions for the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. He named Altman and Bishop Strickland, among others, as well as Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville.
In a brief response, Bishop Stika rejected the claim. He stood by his criticism of Biden’s abortion stand and again noted the contradiction between the president’s professed Catholic faith and his support for abortion.


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News Briefs

Virtual photo exhibit seeks to tell diverse Catholics’ stories

November 18, 2020 CNA Daily News 1

Denver Newsroom, Nov 18, 2020 / 06:31 pm (CNA).- The U.S. bishops on Tuesday praised a virtual exhibit created by the Diocese of Green Bay, which features portraits of racially diverse Catholics from the diocese and testimonies about their experiences.

The exhibit, Open Wide Our Hearts, was developed by Peter Weiss, the Living Justice Advocate for the Diocese of Green Bay. Weiss told CNA that his job is primarily a teaching role, seeking to promote Catholic social teaching and raise awareness of problems of injustice.

In 2017, the same year Weiss started at his current position, the U.S. bishops formed the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism in response to increasing racial tensions and an outburst of violence in Charlottesville, when a white nationalist attacked counter-protesters of a far-right gathering, killing three and injuring 19.

Since its formation, the committee has produced an award-winning children’s book on healing and reconciliation, as well as organizing a day of prayer and fasting in reparation for sins of racism this summer. The bishops this week voted overwhelmingly to renew the ad hoc committee for another three-year period.

Weiss started to consider how he could use his position to help to bring the issue of racial justice into the conversation in Green Bay— a diocese which, he notes, is probably “about 90% white.”

“The experiences of particular racial or ethnic groups is not the same as what the vast majority of people are having within our diocese. And I think it’s important to reach out and find those stories, learn a little more, and find out what they can tell us about our understanding of ourselves as Catholics,” he said.

On a personal level, Weiss said, reports of various killings of black men by police was disturbing to him, in no small part because he has several biracial nieces and nephews.

Around 2018, Weiss attended a traveling photo exhibit in his community chronicling the experiences of racially diverse people, and was inspired to create a similar project for the diocese.

Weiss admits that he had no prior experience as a photographer or a curator of art exhibits. So, that November, he enlisted the help of several leaders of various ethnic groups within the diocese as an advisory team.

The exhibit was inspired in part by the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter Open Wide Our Hearts, which condemns racism as a failure to acknowledge others as children of God.

The exhibit features the portraits and testimonies of African Americans, Africans, Native Americans, Asians, and others, all of whom are Catholics who live in the diocese.

One of the portraits in the virtual gallery is of Gerry Martins, who is originally from India and who came to the U.S. as a Catholic missionary.

Martins told CNA that he was glad Weiss approached him to invite him to be a part of the project, adding that he is an amateur photographer in addition to being a missionary and father.

The exhibit seeks to convey the honest experiences of diverse people within the Church, Weiss said, and is not explicitly “about” racism, though some of the subjects do talk about racism they have experienced firsthand.

Though Martins said he has not experienced any overt racism since he arrived in Wisconsin, moving to such a predominantly white area made him feel like he “stuck out” occasionally at Mass and at Catholic functions.

He said the project has been “prophetic” in a way, since the Catholic Church has, since the events of 2020, been focusing more and more on the topic of racism. Martins recently moved with his family to Savannah, and he has shared the virtual gallery with many of his fellow Catholics in his new diocese. A lot of the feedback has been positive, he said.

Martins encouraged Catholics to be open to listening to other people’s experiences, rather than staying closed in stereotypical views. He said he hopes Catholic people of various ethnicities will be open to talking about their culture and traditions.

“We need to be open to listening…it will be good to have these conversations so people feel included. We are an inclusive Church, and everyone is welcome in the body of Christ. I’m definitely hoping we can get the conversation started,” he said.

The exhibit launched as a traveling in-person gallery during November 2019, and ran until March 2020, when it was forced to close amid the coronavirus pandemic.

When protests erupted during the summer of 2020, Weiss said he was inspired to work with the diocesan communications team to adapt the exhibit into an online presentation.

Weiss said he hopes people from all around the country will find the photos and stories compelling and relatable, even if they are specific to people within Green Bay. He said he also hopes that other dioceses may see the online exhibit and be inspired to create their own.

Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, chair of the U.S. bishops’ ad hoc committee against racism, praised the virtual exhibit Nov. 17 during the U.S. bishops’ annual fall meeting.