Watch: How to make spiritual sense of the attack on the Capitol
The Rev. Bryan Massingale, professor of theological ethics at Fordham University, joined Matt Malone, S.J., to discuss yesterday’s attack on the nation’s capital. A transcript can be read below.
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Matt Malone, S.J.: We are remembering the events of yesterday, when a mob of insurrectionists incited by the sitting president of the United States stormed the United States Congress, took it over, disrupted the work of our legislators in the execution of their constitutional duties and shook the foundations of this democracy to its core. It was a shocking, but perhaps not an entirely surprising event, given what we have been experiencing over the last four or five years. To help us make sense of that event via video livestream, I was joined by Fr. Bryan Massingale, who is professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, and who has written a piece on the attack at the Capitol for America magazine.
The following transcript of our interview has been edited for style and length.
Father Bryan, you wrote this article for America really as these events were unfolding. What were you seeing from your perspective?
I turned on the TV because I got a text message saying, “Are you watching this?” And I said, “watching, what?” Because I fully expected from all the press reports that there would be a very routine kind of objection. I turned on the TV and was just dismayed by what I saw in front of me, I saw images of the Capitol being absolutely overrun by rioters—we can’t really call them protesters, because they were not exercising the peaceful right of assembly that we all enjoy with the Constitution. They were there to actually hold the government hostage, to actually shut it down and to use violence and intimidation to disrupt the very process of democracy and they were doing so at the instigation of the sitting president of the United States.
Anger, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is passion that moves the will to justice.
As I was watching these events unfold, I was chilled. I was angry, deeply dismayed. And the piece that I wrote for America actually flowed out of that deep anger. Part of me was second-guessing myself: Should I be writing this in real-time, not even processing my own anger? And then it occurred to me that anger, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is passion that moves the will to justice. All too often, injustice flourishes in our society precisely because we’re not angry enough. The difference between the anger that I was feeling, hopefully, and the anger that we saw in the streets of Washington, which was simply a deluded rage directed toward unjust ends. The kind of anger that we as followers of Jesus need to have is an anger that’s directed toward protecting what is right, to protecting the truth. And I thought truth was fundamentally under assault during the events of yesterday.
And what in your judgment was the truth, or that set of truths, that was under assault yesterday at the Capitol?
Well, the truth was that we had a just and fair election. A just and fair election that was a determination reached by almost 60 different court decisions by multiple recounts in many different states. In Georgia alone, there were three different recounts. The state of Wisconsin had a partial recount. Pennsylvania had a recount. In Arizona, there was a recount. In all of these administrative and judicial processes, there was no evidence whatsoever of there being widespread fraud or anything that was illegitimate.
And when the president’s lawyers were challenged on this in court, they never were able to bring forth any convincing evidence to that end. And so I saw the “truth” was that our democracy was being hijacked; that this election was illegitimate; that we had to somehow save the country from something that was nefarious. And that “truth”—that lie—is something that’s absolutely poisonous to democracy. To put it in Catholic terms, is profoundly injurious to the common good. This is the reason why I quoted Pope John Paul II in my article, where he says “the truth is the mother, the basis and the foundation of justice.” What we’re finding out through the events of yesterday is that truth matters and rhetoric matters. We cannot have a just society if people are unwilling to acknowledge the truth, even when that truth is one that is unpopular or one that’s undesirable for them.
We cannot have a just society if people are unwilling to acknowledge the truth.
Now, like you, I was also shocked and appalled by what I was seeing. But there was part of me too that wasn’t entirely surprised, and that has something to do with what I understand to be the deeper truth there, which is the reality of the human condition, as it exists in this country from my limited perspective. But you also spoke in your piece about seeing a deeper truth at play here in these events.
Absolutely. If I could put this in Ignatian categories, the dynamic of the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is that we come to understand ourselves as loved sinners, that we first have this overwhelming understanding of being loved by God, in a way that’s beyond our deserve. Then, we’re led by that love to examine where in our lives we are blocking God’s love or unfaithful to God’s love. And so the deeper truth—and this is with all due respect to President Biden and others who said that yesterday is “not who we are as Americans”—the deeper truth is that yesterday revealed a deep part of who we are as Americans; that we have a long-standing tolerance, at least for the last four years, of lies and deceit and hypocrisy and narcissism.
This president rolled to office on a wave of appealing to white racial resentment and grievance.
Furthermore, we have a long history in the United States of deeply ingrained racial privilege and white racism. And this president rolled to office on a wave of appealing to white racial resentment and grievance. That’s been the base of his power and his appeal from day one, continuing throughout his presidency. We saw that yesterday, in terms of the composition of the protestors, in terms of their message, in terms of the raw appeal to the violence: all of that is part of who we are as Americans and part of what our political discourse has become. In some ways it’s not surprising what happened. As I argued in the article, this was the inevitable result of where the last four years of demagoguery have gotten us.
Yesterday in our editorial in America, we called attention to this phrase, which not only President Biden but several bishops have used and which you also mention: “This is not who we are.” One of the things that I thought the editors got right there was, as you’re saying: This is a part of who we are and we have to face it. We have to be honest about it. It’s not the totality of who we are but it is a very serious part of who we are. I think white folks are often shocked to discover that this is still a part of our national life. And yet we’re confronted by the obvious reality when you see people with anti-Semitic t-shirts and racist t-shirts bringing the Confederate flag into the U.S. Capitol, something that not even the Confederate army was able to do there. There’s a serious disconnect here, isn’t there, between the perception among people of color of these realities and the perception of white folks?
That was something that was remarked constantly yesterday, especially people comparing the response of law enforcement to the invasion of the Capitol yesterday and of Black Lives Matter protesters this [past] summer who were met with a massive military response. They were showing pictures yesterday from the summer where the National Guard was lined on the steps of the Capitol, almost four or five deep as a barrier to protect the Capitol. And yesterday what we saw was that another group—a far more dangerous group—was treated with an almost exact opposite reaction, where they received almost no opposition upon getting in. They even showed Capitol police taking selfies with the insurrectionists. Many people were saying yesterday, had this been a group of Black or brown insurrectionists, rioters, it would have received—and did receive—a far different kind of law enforcement response.
Had this been a group of Black or brown insurrectionists, rioters, it would have received a far different kind of law enforcement response.
The contrast between how we treat white insurrectionists and those were exercising their legitimate First Amendment rights is telling in this country. It’s extremely telling in this country. It’s something that many white Americans continue to be shocked by. But many people of color are saying this is indeed another example of the double standard of justice that exists in this country.
I noticed in my conversations and even brief interactions with my white friends and my family, yesterday, that we white folks really fail to understand that point that you just made. I think it’s often because we think of racism, racial prejudice, as conscious sentiment. As if somebody is standing there in front of the Capitol with their baton saying, “I’m not going to respond to these folks the way I responded to those folks two months ago.” That’s not really what we’re talking about here, is it? It’s something deeper than that.
No. We are talking about the ways in which people’s bodies are framed because of their racial identities. So, when we see a group of Black or brown protesters, we immediately associate Black skin or darker skin with danger, with threat. And with white people, white skin is framed differently. We are framed to give it the benefit of the doubt because, after all, these are people whom we know—they’re like us. We’re framed to see them as people who are more virtuous, or of whom we presume their best intentions. Whereas we wouldn’t make that same presumption of innocence with people of darker skin.
We immediately associate Black skin or darker skin with danger, with threat.
We see it also with white folks who are saying, like you said, these are members of our family, who we know support the president, or who voted for the president and so if we criticize the president or his protestors or supporters too much, then we’re also implicating people that we love, we’re implicating our friends, we’re implicating our family.
That blinds us then, to see what’s really going on in America. What’s really going on in America is this age-old system of white preference. A white preference which is being challenged by the nation’s changing demography. That anxiety is something that the president didn’t create but that he’s managed to skillfully exploit and manipulate. Which, unfortunately, members of the faith community have not been forthright in challenging or naming.
Right. So your point is that the president hasn’t created the reality of what we might call systemic injustice but he’s cynically benefited from it?
Oh—Cynically exploiting it and manipulating it. As I say in the article, it’s easy for us to lay all the blame at the president. Indeed, he deserves significant responsibility, after all he is the nation’s chief executive. However, you have to admit that the president could not have done what he’s done without the complicity, the support, the enabling behavior of a whole host of entities: of people who’ve known of his incompetence but refuse to call it out; of people who repeated his lies about a stolen election for their own short-term gain; or those who cynically manipulated this for their own political advantage; or those who knew what was going on but said they’re not going to confront him because they’re afraid of a presidential tweet.
The president could not have done what he’s done without the complicity, the support, the enabling behavior.
In other words: A whole host of enabling behaviors enabled the president to do what he did and to be as destructive a force in our democracy as he has been.
And of course, among that army of people who have enabled the president or who have simply been silent out of fear or self-interest—there are a lot of Catholics, right, in that group? And we have to be honest about that too, as one of our readers questioned.
This, to me as a Catholic priest, is something that I find the most disturbing and frankly, the most infuriating. I remember when President Obama was elected back in 2008 and I happened to be at a meeting at the U.S.C.C.B. headquarters in Washington, D.C. I overheard a bishop—who I will not identify now—who said that Obama’s election will be the church’s Golgotha. That we’re on our road to Calvary because of the election of President Obama. A bishop during Obama’s time compared him to Stalin because of his advocacy of the Affordable Care Act.
We have never heard bishops in the United States forthrightly criticize the current sitting president in those kinds of apocalyptic terms; despite the fact that this man has throughout his tenure as president consistently threatened and undermined every democratic norm by which this country has functioned. So, we have the silence of the United States hierarchy as a group when it comes to some of the president’s most egregious behavior. But there’s a more subtle thing happening with the Catholic side. During the election, we said that there are a number of issues that Catholics should consider when forming their consciousness and coming to a decision as to whom to vote for during the election. But the bishops said in their official document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” that abortion is the preeminent issue.
We’ve never faced fully as a Catholic faith community the significant overlap between the most rabid elements of the anti-abortion movement and their overlap with the advocates for racial intolerance.
In pastoral language, how that’s heard is that all this other stuff isn’t really important. What’s really important is a very narrow understanding of what it means to be pro-life. I think going forward this is something that the Catholic faith community has got to address forthrightly. That is: We have to come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be pro-life.
I think what’s happened all too often is that the slogan “pro-life” has been hijacked to mean anti-abortion and we’ve never faced fully as a Catholic faith community the significant overlap between the most rabid elements of the anti-abortion movement and their overlap with the advocates for racial intolerance. Because we’ve never named that or faced that directly, the Catholic faith community officially, de facto, becomes a supporter of the worst elements of racial intolerance in our country.
How do you understand or explain to folks that disparity between what the church professes about life and the ways in which our leadership at a national level, or even at a community level, seems to pick and choose when to employ that value?
There are times when I don’t really know how to explain it. Because I was talking about this during the election and I said: This is not the official teaching of the Catholic church. Even beginning with the declaration against procured abortion issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith in 1974, we, Catholics, were called upon to oppose not only the practice of abortion but also to oppose those practices which make abortion an attractive choice or attractive option. Every pope since then has expanded our understanding of what it means to be pro-life. St. Pope John Paul II, in his last pastoral visit to the United States, called upon Catholics to be unconditionally pro-life. And by unconditionally pro-life, in St. Louis in 1999, he stressed opposition to euthanasia, opposition to the death penalty and a proactive measure to eradicate, as he said, “every form of racism”—racism, when you put it explicitly, in the context of being what he called, I quote here, “unconditionally pro-life.”
It’s impossible to turn a blind eye to racism and to claim that we’re protecting the sanctity of every human life.
We saw this also with Pope Francis when this summer after the killing of George Floyd, he said that it’s impossible to turn a blind eye to racism and to claim that we’re protecting the sanctity of every human life. And so, I really don’t understand the disconnect between the teaching of the universal church on these matters—which is quite clear—and the American reception of it by too many bishops, to be frank, and by too many of our clergy.
One of the things that really continually surprised me during the course of the election was the extent to which in our Catholic conversation in this country, we were acting like this was any other presidential election and the stakes were not higher than they actually were.
Well, yes. And I think one of the things we need to take more seriously as Catholics in future political discernment: We need to understand that character matters. In previous iterations of the faithful citizenship document, the bishops made that point more clearly. With each succeeding document, that point is made but it’s made less clearly and less forthrightly. What we saw here was almost total blindness to the character of the candidates in favor of a very narrow understanding of where they stood on the issue of life and religious liberty.
We need to understand that character matters.
We acted as if all we’re debating here are policies and not looking at the fact that we had an admitted nationalist who is forthright about it. He said, “I am a nationalist.” And yet that didn’t factor at all in our conversation about the election. I was appalled that we, that people, weren’t making that deep connection. That we were simply overlooking the fact of his character. And as long as he stood with us on two very specific issues, everything else could be given a functional pass.
I was also mindful of an additional point that the institutions of our political life are under assault during this presidency—and the very means through which we adjudicate policies around these values and decide what we’re going to do as a country. And I thought to myself, without that, then what does it matter what this president professes his priorities to be? I would, so quickly, realize I was talking often to a group of people who had an entirely different worldview and information stream, not necessarily different values, a world that I just didn’t see. What are the resources in our tradition that can help us break through that massive gulf in information, in truth?
That’s a really important question and a very painful question. One of the things that we have to understand is what I believe a wiser man than either of us said: “The truth will make you free.” One of the ways that we have as citizens a way of understanding truth is to understand that there’s a difference between opinion and fact. As Catholics, we believe there is such a thing as objective reality and objective truth. It may not be what we would want it to be but it is true. One of the things that we suffer from in the Catholic Church is that we’re very hesitant to confront our people with painful truths that would make us unpopular. I’ve said this before about racism. And I said that the Catholic church’s biggest failure when it comes to confronting the sin of racism is that we always want to tailor our presentation of the church’s message and our presentation of social reality in ways that will not make white people uncomfortable.
Decisions need to be informed by the gospel and not by our political party or political allegiance.
We saw this also in terms of our political discernment, that we don’t want to forthrightly criticize the president, because we don’t want to be seen as partisan. But we have to draw a distinction between saying, “No, we’re not criticizing him because he’s a Republican,” and “No, I’m not criticizing him because I might be a Democrat.” I am criticizing him because his policies, his demeanor, his rhetoric is offensive to Christian values and Christian morality. That you cannot call a group of human beings infestations, invaders. You cannot cage children in cages in the name of national security and claim that that is Christian behavior. Frankly, I think we have to do a lot of remedial education of clergy and catechists, to teach our clergy and catechists how we help our people to form a social conscience.
A social conscience isn’t one that’s a partisan reality but it’s one that says that when we come to making decisions about our common life together, those decisions need to be informed by the gospel and not by our political party or political allegiance. That’s not a radical Fordham University professor saying that, that’s from the compendium of the social doctrine of the Catholic church; where it teaches us that every political party and every political allegiance needs to be a critical one. At the very least, we have to be forthrightly critical—and even condemning—of the kind of conflation we saw yesterday in Washington, D.C., where we had people holding a Trump banner in one hand and a cross in the other. We say, “No. These are not equal realities.” We, always, must subject every political leader in every political product policy, whether it’s Donald Trump or Joseph Biden, to the light of the gospel.
One of the challenges that I see in the church’s public witness over the last few years, and I suspect you’ll agree with this, is that the way we talk about forming conscience is overly legalistic. As in, we are weighing a series of laws and “which law is more important.” We’re making a calculation based on a certain series of propositions. There’s a deeply spiritual dimension to that process of forming conscience. One of our readers alludes to this; he asks about when you feel that anger, the kind of anger that you were talking about this morning in reaction to these events, how that could get in the way of forming your conscience. Or, it can lead to the formation of your conscience. How do you tell the difference between that righteous anger and that anger that doesn’t lead us in the direction we want to go?
I always appeal to St. Thomas Aquinas. I realize I’m talking to a Jesuit and St. Ignatius also has a lot to say about the discernment of spirits, which I’ll get to in just a moment.
But at least in terms of anger, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that we can incur the sin of anger in one of three ways. The first he says is “by inappropriate object,” which is like misdirected anger. A classic case would be where I’m angry at a spouse or significant other and I take it out on my coworkers at work. A second way we can incur the sin of anger is “by excess,” where anger becomes wrath or rage and it’s out of control, it’s misdirected—I think you saw a lot of that yesterday in Washington, D.C.
The “good spirit” is always going to lead us to create a society of justice.
The third way, he says, that we incur the sin of anger is “by deficiency.” He says that we sin and we incur the sin of anger when we’re not angry when we ought to be. And then, he says, “as in the presence of injustice because anger is the passion that moves the will to justice.” I think that he gives us a very healthy way of discerning when anger is appropriate and necessary; when it’s destructive and wrathful; when it doesn’t lead us; when it’s not a manifestation of what Ignatius would call, “the good spirit.” The good spirit is always going to lead us to create a society of justice, and a society where justice is determined not by what’s good for me individually but what is good for us as a people.
Pope John Paul II said that the question that confronts every major human group is this: “How are we living together—together?” That’s a question that we need to ask ourselves as U.S. citizens, as U.S. Catholics, far more forthrightly than we have before. How are we living together? What is the shape of our common life? And that shape of the common life cannot be determined simply by looking at one or two narrow issues. We need to look at the survival of our species. We need to also look at: How are those who are the least among us...how are they faring? I mean, Matthew 25 gives us a great way of looking at our common life together. How are the hungry being treated? How are the naked being clothed? How are the strangers being welcomed? How are the imprisoned among us being treated, because Jesus tells us that’s the acid test of our discipleship. That’s the acid test of our following of Jesus. How do we treat Jesus, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta would say, “who comes in the distressing disguise of the poor.” And in our political discourse, at least this past election, I didn’t hear a whole lot of conversation about the poor—except as scapegoats—and that is antithetical to our Christian beliefs.
That question—How are we living together? What is the common life that is our reality and the common life that we envision?—is a really helpful framing device. In light of that, what is it that we can do at a practical level in the near term or over the long haul? What can our readers do in their individual lives to help bring change around these realities?
We need to be honest about what we got wrong in our analysis or in our approach to the current president. We need to have a long, serious look as a faith community. Where did we go wrong here? What did we miss? Or what were we turning a blind eye to? What didn’t we want to face that was there all along but it was inconvenient for us to see?
In your editorial yesterday, you used the word “repentance.” I think repentance is a keyword going forward. We have to be honest about how we got this wrong; and be honest about the voices in our community that got it right—that we chose not to listen to—Why didn’t we listen to them? We also have to be honest, going forward: that white nationalism—we also call it Trumpism—is not going to disappear after Jan. 20; that the anger, the rage, the nihilistic anarchy that we saw displayed yesterday in Washington, D.C. is not going away. We need to name that as a clear and present danger to the survival of our democracy.
What humans break, divide and separate we can with God’s help also heal, unite and restore.
A third thing that, especially, as individual Catholics, we can do is that we need to educate ourselves about the sin of racism and we need to be honest about our own conscious and unconscious complicity in that sin. The summer during the Black Lives Matter protests, I wrote an essay in which I outlined a series of steps that the Catholic community has to take. Because the sin of racism is a corrosive cancer that will destroy our democracy if we do not attend to it more forthrightly than we have. But the final thing we as Catholics need to do is that we need to have a sense of hope, as well. And the reason why I want to end on that note of hope is that, well, we’ve had this very heavy conversation this morning and we need to because this is heavy stuff and this is serious stuff.
What we saw yesterday was unprecedented. We have to look at that squarely in the face. I often tell people, the best way to predict the future is to help create it. Human life, social life is the result of human decisions. And that means that we as human beings can change things. At the end of my book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, I say that what humans break, divide and separate we can with God’s help also heal, unite and restore. Cooperating with God’s grace, we have the agency—we have the ability—to create a better society. We need to understand that the best way to predict the future of our country and the future of our church is to be proactive agents—co-creators with God—in creating that more just future that we believe is God’s vision and God’s will.