Here and there folks are insisting that Catholic clergy have a duty to speak out about the events over the weekend, particularly in Charlottesville. OK, I will be happy to share my thoughts -- although I first will point out that leaders of the conference of U.S. bishops have had their say, so check it out (and this too). Also, here is Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia.
So, here's the thing. How you view something like this has a lot to do with how narrowly or widely you focus your lens. Some people are zeroing in on the events in Charlottesville. So let's start there.
First, I obviously wasn't there, and I am not prepared to accept the news reports as the last word. But here's what seems to have happened:
1. A local individual wanted to organize a protest to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a local park; perhaps other statue removals were in the mix, I don't know. Whether this individual was a racist isn't obvious to me. No, I don't accept the notion that objecting to the removal of the statue makes someone a racist.
2. He wanted to get other people at the protest. Whether he explicitly invited racists and white supremacists, again, I don't know. But we do know that they showed up.
3. There was a legal dispute over the location of the protest; the courts sided with his right to have it where he wanted.
4. People who wanted to counter-protest also organized and showed up. From what I gather, the local authorities had time and information that would lead them to anticipate this.
5. Apparently, there was a third group that showed up, and they were legally armed citizens. Were they part of either of the groups? Not clear at all.
6. The police were there in some numbers, and appear to have been somewhat reserved about their response, such that they have been widely criticized, both from conservative and liberal viewpoints, about not handling this better. My reading so far inclines me toward that view.
7. All this climaxed with an individual who drove his car into a crowd of people, with one death and several people injured. That individual has been charged with second degree murder, and the federal authorities are contemplating charges.
So what do you want me to say? That white supremacy and racism are terrible? Indeed they are. Also terrible is anyone who thinks that violence and aggression are acceptable ways to make your point. But see, now I'm starting to widen the lens a little. Because, after all, if this were a peaceful demonstration in favor of white supremacy, that alone would deserve condemnation; yet that's not what we saw in Charlottesville. What we also saw was something we've seen before, especially in recent years: a ready recourse to violence attached to political sentiments.
Now we widen the lens a little more, to something that happened on Sunday in Seattle. Thankfully, no deaths, but people were hurt as a group that absurdly claims to be "anti-fascist" deliberately used violence to shut down a pro-Trump event. I say deliberately, because the Antifa group has admitted this is deliberate; and we've seen it happen several times already.
If every white supremacist and wannabe Nazi loser who lurks in dark places somewhere in this country had a Road to Damascus (please God!) moment, there would still be a huge problem with violence and extremism, right? Is there any doubt these folks are feeding on each other? Almost lost in all this is the question of Confederate memorials. I don't think they are terrible in principle; some might be, but as a general principle, I don't object to them being left alone. History is complicated, and if we start tearing down statues of people who don't measure up to our standards today, this will go way beyond the heroes of the Confederacy. Our American Revolution was fought for both good and bad motives too, including preservation of slavery and for a free hand to deal with Native Americans on the frontier. But now we have both the national socialists (i.e., Nazis) on one side, and the international socialists (Antifa) on the other side, happily agreeing that a statue of Lee is all about white supremacy (which Abraham Lincoln believed in, by the way); because, as I said, they are feeding on each other.
In short, there's a larger problem here. A big part of it is so-called "identity politics," which started on the left, but is now leeching over onto the right. Over the years, I've seen similar things happen: namely, where people I know who are conservative lament a dirty or low tactic taken by the opposition, and who then decide, ok, fine, we'll do it too! For quite some time, we've seen folks on the left promote the idea that your political views are essentially defined by your skin color, your race, your nationality, your sex or sexual attraction. So why should anyone be surprised that someone would say, OK, let's apply that to whiteness, maleness, nativeness, etc.? Rod Dreher makes this point better than I, here.
All this leads to a really depressing conclusion. We will see more Charlottesvilles; the wave is far from crested. And it isn't mainly about racism, that's just added evil. It's about our country turning into two countries, which is about something more prosaic:
We may no longer be -- now, or soon -- a country with enough shared values in common.
Do you disagree? Then tell me what common values still unites our nation? Is it the flag? Antifa burns it, and we have well paid athletes treating it with disrespect.
Is it respect for law? Not when violence in the streets is justified. Is it due process? Not when people insist that regardless of what juries decide, the defendant is guilty and should be punished. I had exactly that conversation on Facebook a few weeks ago, and I've seen it before.
Is it the Bill of Rights? We have a growing number of folks who are constitutionally illiterate -- made so by incompetent education all the way through college -- who don't know what the First Amendment protects, nor do they care. Some want an exception for "hate speech"; some believe your right to promote ideas does not include spending money for it. Some think religious freedom is no longer about how you live, but only what goes on inside a place of worship, or inside your head. And we could go through all the Bill of Rights thusly. And -- when I say "some" -- I mean a politically significant segment of our society. All these assaults on the Bill of Rights have the enthusiastic support among "progressives," and more I might mention; meanwhile, if we get to the later amendments, we find amendments that some on the right don't like very much, such freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, the protection of due process and the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Heck, we no longer even agree on reality! This is why I think the present moment is so different. With the Supreme Court's decision in Obergefell -- reinventing marriage -- we are waking up to a fractured view of reality. What is a man? A woman? If you dare to insist these are questions of fact, not will, then congratulations, you are a bigot! Can a society be a society if it can't even agree on what is good and evil? On what is real?
I really hope I'm wrong. But I fear far worse is coming.