Witness to Beauty Through Love

by NR Interview
Care for people in the light of the Gospel.

Louisville, Ky. — “Religious freedom is not simply freedom of thought or private worship. It is the freedom to live according to ethical principles, both privately and publicly.”

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops quoted Pope Francis from earlier this month in reacting to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision this week. On Saturday, in Louisville for the National Right to Life convention, I visited him at his home in the rectory of Assumption Cathedral there. We spoke for about a half hour about religious freedom, the Church in America, Pope Francis, the family, and, of course, the Christian life — and what he considers life’s greatest adventure. We began talking about social media and specifically Twitter, which he uses frequently to share his travels around his archdiocese, the country, and even the world, believing that tweeting and retweeting (which he also does) are good ways of “multiplying” the message of the Good News of Christ. — KJL

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: I think Twitter can be a great way to show the body of the Church — each of us in our different roles . . .

ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH E. KURTZ: I do, too. As I mentioned in the talk I gave to the Catholic Press [the previous week in Charlotte, North Carolina], the challenge really is finding ways to move from diatribe to dialogue. The digital media — I still call it a frontier, and maybe other people will say “Well, my gosh, we’ve been using it for a long time,” but I almost have a sense that we’re still at the very early stages of knowing how to use it well. And I compare it with, as I said in my talk, the satisfaction and the fruitful input that I get when I sit down with people. And yet, I don’t seem to have yet that ability in the digital frontier to be able to go out there and get that kind of feedback. I know it will come, and I know that there will be creative ways for that to happen.

LOPEZ: What kind of feedback do you get from what you put online?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: Well, it’s actually very positive feedback, but I wouldn’t call it a dialogue. In fact, I guess there’s a fearfulness on my part that if 50 people start a dialogue with me, then how in the world can I be polite and civil and loving in a way that keeps up the conversation?

LOPEZ: You see those challenges, too, when you look at, say, the pope’s twitter account, where there are just people sending some terrible things @pontifex’s way . . . 

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: As I mentioned in the talk, the combination of perceived anonymity and the impulsiveness of giving your first reaction seems to go with the new media. And yet it’s a medium where perhaps all of us need to be able to understand civility and to understand how to use it well. In reality, we are not anonymous and certainly we have no requirement to be impulsive — we can take all the time we need to respond well to people in the digital frontier.

LOPEZ: We hear a lot about “civility.” What is it and how can Catholics particularly contribute to civil leadership?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: Well it’s very, very basic. I’m just reading the very beginning of the Instrumentum Laboris [the preparation document for the upcoming synod on the family] — I’ve read it online quickly and now I’m doing my hard-copy review. And I noticed that at the very beginning Cardinal Baldisseri includes the very thoughtful messages of Pope Francis when he says, addressing parents and married couples: Don’t forget to say “thank you;” don’t forget to say “please;” and say “I forgive you,” and  “I’m sorry” before you go to bed.

That sounds so basic, and yet that’s really the makings of civility. When we approach people in that way, there’s that sense of [Christian charity] — approaching with the courage of our own convictions, but also with an openness to making sure I understand what the other person is saying. That level of civility is very important.

LOPEZ: And particularly in the public square, that can seem to be nonexistent, right?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: Well yes. I remember reading a little book on George Washington’s rules for civility. It had rules that he had learned growing up that he put in a book, probably as a reminder for himself, and then people asked him to share it with them. That reminds us that the call for civility and treating people with dignity, seeking to listen before we speak — all the things that our parents taught us — is not a new one. In the hectic, fast-paced life in which we live that Pope Francis just referenced in his World Day of Communication message, perhaps we need to be more intentional and cultivating.

When I was growing up, in the summer, evenings were spent on the front porch, where where we had relaxed conversation with one another. Now things are of a much more fast-paced and have a turned-in-on-oneself quality. We need to carve out areas today in which we spend time with one another and we seek to approach people to do as our Holy Father said: Accompany people, including people who are in pain and even people who may not completely agree with us, or, perhaps even more often, don’t understand us.

LOPEZ: Do you think that’s largely the problem in so many of our political conversations, that people frequently don’t understand where we’re coming from? Perhaps, we’re not communicating it well?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: Let’s talk about the family as an example.

One of the writers who I’m reading as much of as I can of is [Hans Urs] von Balthasar, whom people call the “theologian of beauty.” First I heard Pope Emeritus Benedict say, “it will be in beauty that people will come to discover first the presence of their God.” And now I hear Pope Francis saying to “see first the beauty of the family” — and that’s in the very beginning of this Instrumentum Laboris.

People are attracted to beauty. We need to cultivate those qualities in people. We need to find authentic and lively witnesses of that beauty showing through relationships — especially though families, and through married couples who are committed in love to one another.

Someone said that perhaps one of the outcomes that will come from both synods will be for us to do even more to foster authentic couples witnessing to their love. Someone called it an “untapped resource.” Now I’m not sure that’s true because I see an awful lot of witnessing going on now. But I wonder if that’s part of what the Church also needs to do: Carve out opportunities for people to witness to that unselfish love of a husband and a wife for one another, in fidelity and in a faithful love for their children.

LOPEZ: So what is going to happen at the synod? What are you looking forward to happening?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: One good thing about this synod is that it’s in the news! Every synod since the Second Vatican Council has had elements of consultation. But I don’t think there’s ever been the buzz that’s going on now. Of course, the buzz involves enormous expectations, so much so that even our Holy Father is saying, “now remember, this is not a synod bringing together concerns about doctrine; it’s about pastoral care of people in the light of the Gospel.”

What I am looking forward to is genuine conversation, dialogues in the light of the Gospel and the traditions of the Church. And within that light, I hope we do what I think our Holy Father is saying: Take a wide-open look at the difficulties, the burdens, and the joys that today’s families are bringing to Christ and to the Church. Our Holy Father is very deliberately saying that the synod in October in many ways will prepare us for the general universal synod that will take place in 2015.

It’s a very intentional approach, something that will allow all of us to gradually come to understand the beauty and the vision of marriage and family and what efforts we can make, pastorally, to reach out to welcome and accompany people as we all come closer to Christ and seek to be converted to Christ.

LOPEZ: How do you see the challenges facing families? And not just families, but people maybe wanting to get married who aren’t, or people struggling with other issues? Have you seen it in a different light? You’ve obviously, pastorally, dealt with these issues since you were ordained, but what are you seeing, perhaps differently, as president of the bishops’ conference?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: I recently read a wonderful book that talked about taking a closer look at the reality — meaning the statistics — with regard to marriage and divorce. It’s a wonderful book that talks about the fact that the biggest threat to marriage today is discouragement. That there is what in social-work terms used to be called “the self-fulfilling prophesy”: If you tell people that their likelihood of success is not very great, they’re going to start to believe that.

What I have found in terms of both the joys and the needs within family is that where people are experiencing difficulties, there is a tremendous amount of discouragement. Some of that discouragement may come from the challenges within their own circumstance, but some of it also comes from the society in which we live. Part of our task as a Church is that when we say we accompany people, it really means to walk with people, to encourage them, to find ways in which families are able to find a home within our Church and receive support.

LOPEZ: Speaking of discouragement, what do you tell people when they say to you, “Archbishop, what’s becoming of our country? … What should we do?” How do we even approach people anymore when there seems to be a lack of a common understanding about foundational issues and institutions and language — and much seems a mess to a lot of people?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: In many ways the synod is calling us to return to the light of the Gospel. It’s very interesting that when we got feedback here in Louisville and throughout the world, this was the case. There was a very undeveloped, and even inaccurate understanding of natural law. It can be summarized as people saying: Natural law to them now is what that feels natural. Which, of course, is a sentiment that changes by the moment and is very influenced by what we read and the trends we encounter within a particular culture, as opposed to our clear understanding of natural law, of certain understandings of human nature that are written in the very hearts of the person created by God. And so the synod is going to approach things very much with an emphasis on Sacred Scripture and on getting back to the foundations of Genesis and the teachings of Jesus.

People are very impressed by going back to understandings from Sacred Scripture. And even people of goodwill, who are themselves not Christian, I think would at least give an ear to our speaking less abstractly and more in a manner that is personal and very human. That’s certainly how we see Jesus in Sacred Scripture. It’s very personal and human as a way of getting back to the basics.

Our Holy Father, for example, is saying we need a renewed anthropology, an understanding of the very essence of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, and what conjugal love is. Those concepts have eroded within our culture, and they have eroded in general probably over the last 50 or 60 years, don’t you think?

LOPEZ: Yes, absolutely.

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: There is confusion, there’s no question about that. Many people said to us in response to our surveys: “We understand what the church is teaching, but now we don’t understand why.” We need to find new vehicles, new metaphors, to explain what is really the time-honored truth of our faith and really of human nature.

LOPEZ: I’m sure people are asking you questions about Pope Francis all the time, and that’s what he’s doing across the board, isn’t it? When my conservative friends worry about what he’s saying about economics, for instance, he’s just calling us to actually live the Gospel, right?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: Yes, though “just” is the word I would probably temper. The call to live the gospel is not something we “just” do.

LOPEZ: Which, is, of course, part of his point?


And I think what our Holy Father is saying about economics – including in sections of Evangelii Gaudium — is about people, and how in our complex world we run the risk of forgetting the human person. Now is that something that Amos and the prophets of the Old Testament, is that something that Jesus in his daily preaching and teaching, talked about? You better believe it. And so in many ways, Pope Francis is returning to a rather prophetic approach, clearly saying, “I’m not an economist, but I don’t have to be an economist to see the effects that things have, that economic policies and practices have on real people.”

He gave a very good example — and I’m not an economist by the way — when he talked about speculation on commodities, speculation on food. He said that speculation in a capitalistic system, it involves the rise and fall of the cost of food, we have to be aware that there are real people eating that food.

I think the pope is relying, as we all are, on economists to be people of integrity, people who will bring their skills to understand how economic systems work for the common good. He is saying that we need voices who are speaking on behalf of the effects that particular policies or practices have on real people and most especially on those who are the poorest of people. And he of course sees this primarily through his experience in South America — and you can see the way he’s making visits to various parts of the world, he’s going to places where there is great poverty and great need.

LOPEZ: Including when he was in Rio last year.


LOPEZ: I love the Feast of the Sacred Heart and I was struck by your homily at Notre Dame.

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: Oh — I just gave it just last night.

LOPEZ: Yes, I read it because you tweeted it out. I wanted to ask you about what you were saying about love, and Christ’s love for us. Is part of our problem, too, the fact that people don’t know what love is, let alone what Jesus’s Sacred Heart is?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: I think so. We run the risk every day, of course, of thinking that this world is all there is and that our success in this world depends completely on us. I guess in that sense even those who are believers are good Pelagians — they think they are going to earn their way to Heaven. And yet, my homily was attempting to say that we naturally understand the smile of a mother, and the effect that that mother’s smile has on a newborn child — it’s gratuitous, it’s not something that child has earned, and yet, it’s what will bring out the greatest gifts to that child as the child grows. In a sense, the love of a mother is one of the deepest analogies for God’s love for us — look at the Old Testament. And, of course, the love of a mother is also the greatest analogy for the Church as the bride of Christ, and the relationship of the Church as the bride of Christ to Jesus — the Sacred Heart of Jesus — with a love that shows the smile of God in a way that actually shed precious blood. So it’s a smile that is backed up with sacrificial love! And that was in a sense what I was hoping to convey, and what the readings of the day conveyed. The task of a homilist of course is not to preach our own message, but rather to see what God’s word is saying to us. And the readings chosen on the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus were all readings talking about the lavishness of God’s love — a love that is given, as Saint Paul said in Romans, in the laying down of a life. In some ways in our culture, we don’t appreciate the lavishness of God’s love and in our Church. And when we don’t appreciate it, we become mini-Pelagians, thinking that we earn our own success, and if there’s any good in us, we get all the credit for it. And if someone else is not matching up in that goodness, then somehow they’re just not trying hard enough.

So, I think you’re right, to get back to another point you mentioned, about the cultivation of devotion. Catholic faith has always touched all the senses, and growing up that’s what I loved about our Catholic faith — that there was not just a thinking but a feeling, there was a touching. There was holy water and incense and prayer books and litanies. And the Eucharist, of course, has always been the central part. But it has always been the Church’s task to lead us to the full person of Jesus. And I believe devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has been a wonderful way to move us beyond an abstract understanding to a personal encounter with the One who loves us.

LOPEZ: Pope Benedict talked a lot about encounter toward the end of his pontifical.

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: Absolutely. And, actually, it’s interesting that Pope Francis quotes Pope Benedict on that wonderful phrase that comes from Deus Caritas Est [“God Is Love”]– which was fairly early in Pope Benedict’s service as the Holy Father. It says that Christianity — or the following of the Christian faith — is not simply a lofty ethical choice or proposition, but rather it is the encounter with Jesus who provides a new horizons and a definite path to our lives. Pope Francis quotes that in Evangelii Gaudium; it is a central part of the pope’s message. He is joining himself to Pope Emeritus Benedict in talking about the need for the centrality of Jesus in our lives.

LOPEZ: As president of the bishops’ conference in the United States, is there anything particular about the American Catholic experience that the pope is specifically speaking to here? Is there sort of a penitential posture we may have to take as Catholics who maybe haven’t been encountering Christ?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: Well, he is speaking, of course, to the universal Church, and sometimes as Americans we forget that. We think it’s all about us. The synod is about the universal Church. When I went to the synod for the New Evangelization as a delegate in 2012 that’s probably the biggest lesson I brought home. You find yourself sitting in a room, in a small group, with representatives from virtually every continent in the world and seeing the richness of our Catholic faith of the universal Church. The Holy Father is calling us to expand our boundaries — they would be too narrow in thinking that we’re the center of the universe, or the United States is the center of the universe, or any one person is. He is calling us to the one family of humanity, loved by God and redeemed by Jesus Christ. And that call also has us feel a certain sense of urgency in the Gospel to allow our faith to have an effect on our daily life.

I think you’re right, Kathryn, that we may, in the United States, have special responsibilities because of the material blessings that we have as a nation, perhaps more than any other nation in our world. So you’re right. Somebody asked me what about the pope’s words to bishops. And I said: I find that our Holy Father, when he talks about bishops, to me, that it’s like a mini retreat. Because when I go on retreat, that has always been a call to return to the basics, even to go back to when I was first called to the priesthood, and how that emerged in my life. And so I find that Pope Francis helps me tremendously to do that. I constantly find myself going back to that initial call that I felt and the initial zeal, the initial enthusiasm that accompanied that call.

LOPEZ: You talked about the universal Church, and Pope Francis keeps talking about how there are more Christians persecuted and martyred in the world than ever before. What ever can we do as Americans?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: Well you’re right — persecuted both as individuals and as Americans.

LOPEZ: We talk about Hobby Lobby – and there’s a connection here, isn’t there?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: On religious liberty, our Holy Father calls us rightly first to pray. You noticed his response when he went to the Middle East was to invite leaders to pray, and remarkably, they responded positively to him. And so I would not diminish the fact that in our prayer there is solidarity with people of faith in general, but there’s a special bond that we feel with followers of Jesus. That Christian solidarity might lead us to various areas: It may lead our nation to seek ways to defend the persecuted Christians. It certainly has been of great help in stirring up within the bishops’ conference a desire to be in solidarity with other episcopal conferences throughout the world. And it doesn’t diminish our need to address religious freedom here within the United States; rather, it puts it in a proper context.

In all cases, our Holy Father has spoken about the diminishment of religious freedom to being simply a freedom of worship — and even that freedom is curtailed at times. That’s what we’re experiencing within the United States.

As the theme of our Fortnight of Freedom is saying this year, we’re called to be free to serve. Wonderful people like the Little Sisters of the Poor want only to serve the poorest of the elderly, the frail elderly — as their charism has called them to do — and to do so with integrity of faith, without compromising their faith. That’s all they really want to do. The Little Sisters understand pretty clearly that they needed to have that lawsuit in order to allow them not to give up one or the other. They want to continue to serve, but they want to continue to serve with integrity of faith. And it’s hard to believe that that’s even a conversation going on. I think most people when they hear what’s going on, say, “Well why shouldn’t the Little Sisters of the Poor be able to be true to their charism?” My gosh, they have served so many people!” Even people of goodwill who are not themselves Catholic or Christian would say their witness is compelling. I am optimistic, obviously cautiously optimistic, but optimistic that we will win the day.

LOPEZ: And they have been a little blessing — they have helped wake people up, haven’t they?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: In this sense, thank God for their courage of conviction. They come with such a universal sign of their compassion. Everyone who sees the Little Sisters of the Poor understands clearly their compassion, the same way that people would see Mother Theresa as a universal symbol of compassion. Here you have women who are in many ways the essence of compassion saying, “I also am I person of integrity, I need to be true to my convictions and to the charism that is the engine of this charity.” I like to say, too, that supporting people like the Little Sisters is not just good for people of faith, it’s good for our culture, it’s good for our society. Faith enriches public life. Sometimes people forget what our culture and our public life would look like without the great way the Little Sisters of the Poor — and others — serve others.

LOPEZ: And doesn’t that go back to the beauty you were talking about?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: It does — it fits very much this notion of beauty. I’ll go back to the image of [Friday’s] homily – it was about the fact that the smile of a mother is not just an impersonal service to that child. There is a bond, and there is a bond of integrity. It’s a particular mother loving a particular child. And so it is with the Little Sisters of the Poor. They are not just giving service in some impersonal way. No, there’s a quality of the service that people are aware of: They want to be in one of the homes of the Little Sisters of the Poor! They may not appreciate all the charisms and they may not have read the history of their foundress, but they certainly understand what they see as the result. There is a loving service there, which is something that the world needs and wants.

LOPEZ: One last question: You have so much going on, what are you thinking about in the morning when you wake up and go to bed at night? What concerns you the most, and what are you most inspired by?

ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: Kathryn, you know it’s a funny thing, I’ve lived a charmed life in this sense. Maybe because of the wonderful family in which I was born and raised, maybe because of my education and seminary training, I don’t know. I’ve really tried to cultivate this notion of beginning my day in prayer and seeing the work I do as a way of following Christ, and in some ways relying on many, many, many people to help understand how challenges are being met and solved. I often say that when I go to a holy hour — sometimes with problems within, say, the archdiocese — in that time of prayer I am amazed at how a path to a solution comes to my mind, and it has very little to do with me. It has to do with what other people are already doing. I think the role of the president of bishops’ conference is a role of service and a particular kind of service, and that is seeking to maintain the unity of our bishops, with our Holy Father, and with one another as we seek the truth and charity of Christ in the world. And little by little that happens each day. You don’t complete anything all in one day. And each day is kind of an adventure isn’t it? Which I love.When I was in eighth grade, my late sister Rose gave me as a Christmas gift: It was called St. Dominic and the Rosary. It was about the adventure of Dominic being an athlete for Christ, and I was so captivated by that notion of having an adventure and following Christ in a way that was an adventure. That was probably my first attraction to Christ calling me to be a priest.There is that sense of adventure when serving as the president of the bishops’ conference that I kind of like.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.

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