Kristof on the Catholic Church

While some Catholics may not agree with every point in Nicholas Kristof's latest column in the New York Times, it's hard to argue with his words of praise for the many nuns and priests working and living in some of the world's poorest countries. These men and women, dedicated to humbly serving the poor, far outnumber the priests and bishops who committed sexual abuse or contributed to the cover up. Kristof writes with admiration about the clergy and women religious he's met in his travels, including Father Michael Barton, a Catholic priest from Indianapolis, who now lives in southern Sudan.

He runs four schools for children who would otherwise go without an education, and his graduates score at the top of statewide examinations.


Father Michael came to southern Sudan in 1978 and chatters fluently in Dinka and other local languages. To keep his schools alive, he persevered through civil war, imprisonment and beatings, and a smorgasbord of disease. “It’s very normal to have malaria,” he said. “Intestinal parasites — that’s just normal.”

Father Michael may be the worst-dressed priest I’ve ever seen — and the noblest.

Anybody scorn him? Anybody think he’s a self-righteous hypocrite?

On the contrary, he would make a great pope.

In the city of Juba, I met Cathy Arata, a nun from New Jersey who spent years working with battered women in Appalachia. Then she moved to El Salvador during the brutal civil war there, putting her life on the line to protect peasants. Two years ago, she came here on behalf of a terrific Catholic project called Solidarity With Southern Sudan.

Sister Cathy and the others in the project have trained 600 schoolteachers. They are fighting hunger not with handouts but with help for villagers to improve agricultural techniques. They are also establishing a school for health workers, with a special focus on midwifery to reduce deaths in childbirth.

At the hospital attached to that school, the surgeon is a nun from Italy. The other doctor is a 72-year-old nun from Rhode Island. Nuns rock.

Sister Cathy would like to see more decentralization in the church, a greater role for women, and more emphasis on public service. She says she worries sometimes that if Jesus returned he would say, “Oh, they got it all wrong!”

She would make a great pope, too.

There are so many more like them. There’s Father Mario Falconi, an Italian priest who refused to leave Rwanda during the genocide and bravely saved 3,000 people from being massacred. There’s Father Mario Benedetti, a 72-year-old Italian priest based in Congo who fled with his congregation when their town was attacked by a brutal militia. Now Father Mario lives side by side with his Congolese congregants in the squalor of a refugee camp in southern Sudan, struggling to get schooling for their children.

Kristof points out, as we did in our recent editorial, that the Catholic Church is larger than the Vatican. He concludes with a bit of advice for those quick to scorn the church as a whole: ...[U]nless we’re willing to endure beatings alongside Father Michael, unless we’re willing to stand up to warlords with Sister Cathy, we have no right to disparage them or their true church.

Check out his accompanying video here.

Kerry Weber


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
8 years 5 months ago
This is very predictable...and trite at this point for America to praise a liberal ideologue who praises catholics in order to attack the Church on various topics such as homosexuality, women priests and condomns.
I hate to tell you, but there is no difference between the Church and the people of the Church - we are all the Body of Christ; the theology and love held by those priests and nuns in the field is the same as Pope Benedict in the Vatican. 
It is good for Kristof to highlight the actions of these men and women - he tries to separate charity from truth (as many in this magazine do).  You cannot separate the two and understand the actions of these priests and nuns.
Before his next column, Kristof should read a bit of Benedicts writings - especially "Caritas in Veritate"
8 years 5 months ago
Brett; if you don't see a difference between the magna cappa wearing Church and the accompaning the poor and marginized Church, you are not paying attention. and that's the Truth.
Vince Killoran
8 years 5 months ago
I think Kirstof's column reminds us how the Catholic faith is a lived experience for individuals and in local settings.  Can you imagine trying to understand what it means to be American by focusing  exclusively on, say, the U.S. Senate or Wall Street?
It's true that Kristof doesn't explain how inspiring people like Sr. Arata understand their relationship to the "official church"  (I'd love to know how the "official church" learns from Sr. Arata et al.). There's only so much you can do with one newspaper column!
David Pasinski
8 years 5 months ago
"The theology and love held by those nuns and priests in the field is the same as Pope Benedict in the Vatican."
I really doubt that the theology is the same or the experience of "love" in its daily expression.
That does not denigrate the Pope, but I am sure they have different starting places and perhaps finishing places as they both contemplate the mystery of incarnation and redemption... and agree that Jesus is the focal point for both. Still, it would be fascinating to hear a dialogue among them with those in the Vatican in their world and these witnesses and "practicing Catholics" in theirs.
8 years 5 months ago
I agree with much said above, but would add that those serving in the Vatican were also once priests and nuns and brothers in the field.  This is not a separate class of religious persons bred for leadership alone.
Also, they do experience the same love that all Catholics do: the love and truth brought into the world by Christ to renew the world each day: the holy liturgy and the Eucharist!
Here is a quote about Rome and the "suburb" churches by Benedict:
"And I must say here, there is often talk about the Church in the suburbs and in the center, which would be Rome, but in fact in the Church there are no suburbs because Christ is , the whole center there is."
Wherever the Eucharist is celevrated, wherever the Tavernacle stands, there is Christ; hence, there is the center..."
I think we, as modern American individualists, have forgotten that we parts of the Body of Christ and, instead, think that we constitute its entirety as an individual.  A very modern, protestant atomized outlook.
8 years 5 months ago
PS - I am not saying that the Vatican is perfect (Sodano must go!!) - but I am saying that it is uncharitable and theologically untenable to disconect the pope and bishops from the clergy and laity.
This pope is a good shepard and he - quietly, through his studies and writings - shows the truth and light of Christ to the world. 
Eugene Palumbo
8 years 5 months ago
Brett:  you wrote, “the theology and love held by those priests and nuns in the field is the same as Pope Benedict in the Vatican.”
That’s not always true.  I say this as one who is “in the field” – in El Salvador, where I’ve lived for decades.   To give just one example:  in 1984, the current pope – at that time, head of the CDF - issued an “instruction” which was highly critical of liberation theology.  Many nuns and priests here disagreed, saying it was inaccurate and unfair.  Many Latin American bishops felt the same way, and were so insistent – and had such solid arguments – that the Vatican had to issue a second, toned-down instruction on the same subject two years later. 
As Richard Ostling wrote in Time Magazine, “Ratzinger’s opponents, fearing his hard-line reputation, lobbied to have John Paul take over the second document and write it as an encyclical. Instead, the Pope and Ratzinger agreed to incorporate advice on the contents of the second text from 35 national conferences of bishops, and as a result the Instruction has a moderate tone.” 
A few weeks later, in a letter to the Brazilian bishops, John Paul said, “we are convinced, we and you, that the theology of liberation is not only timely but useful and necessary.”  This, obviously, was closer to the position of the “priests and nuns in the field.”  Summing up:  at least in that case, it simply was not true that those priests and nuns held the same theology as the current pope.
8 years 5 months ago
Great comment, Gene.
I am not making this a competition; however, your detailed and interesting experience tends to prove the point of those saying that the Vatican is not a "separate Church" from those in Catholics around the world.
Your account seems to show cooperation and understanding between the local church officials and the leadership in Rome - one which led to a compromise on both sides.
In any case, the point Benedict makes about the center of the Church being located wherever the Eucharist is celebrated is really all we need to know about his theology and ours.
8 years 5 months ago
I am sorry, Ed, but knee-jerk, us-vs-them liberal ideology makes for a very weak argument.
The vestments, art et al in Rome represent the glory of God and the truth of Christ - they are symbolic and represent man's creative/artistic tribute to God.  The pope does not revel in these things and so say so is Protestant reductionism.
Have you read anything by Benedict?  Jesus of Nazareth is a good place to start or Saved in Hope from the encyclicals.  If you cannot see the goodness and very, very deep truth in his expositions on God and Catholic theology I am not sure what to tell you.
Eugene Palumbo
8 years 5 months ago
Brett: I appreciate the generosity of your reply.  I agree with you that the idea is not to make all this into a competition; blog exchanges sometimes have a ''take no prisoners'' tone. Still, I should add that I’m not persuaded by your last sentence:  “…[T]he point Benedict makes about the center of the Church being located wherever the Eucharist is celebrated is really all we need to know about his theology and ours.”
In my opinion, that is not ''all we need to know.''  I think we need to know more than that, and at times the search for that ''more'' will take us into areas where we’ll find that we do not (to use your language) hold the same theology. If you should ever want to look further into the issue of liberation theology, I’d recommend a very fair book called ''Liberation Theology and its Critics,'' by the late Arthur McGovern.


The latest from america

Venezuelan migrants walk across the border from Venezuela into the Brazilian city of Pacaraima. (CNS photo/Nacho Doce)
About 5,000 people leave Venezuela every day. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, at least 1.9 million Venezuelan citizens have left the country since 2015, fleeing from the economic and political crisis that the country is experiencing under President Nicolás Maduro.
Filipe DominguesOctober 22, 2018
Sexual orientation by itself is irrelevant to child sexual abuse. The risk factors include impulse control problems and substance abuse, and offenders take advantage of situations in which they are trusted.
Thomas G. PlanteOctober 22, 2018
“Jesus finds people where they are, but he never leaves them where they are.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 22, 2018
Paddy Considine in ‘The Ferryman’ (photo: Joan Marcus)
In the fallen world of “The Ferryman,” conflict and compromise poison everything.
Rob Weinert-KendtOctober 22, 2018