It really did not matter that Fr. Daniel Moloney’s letter, which condemned police brutality and any kind of racism, was a model of balance and a call for all people to seek mercy, justice, and reconciliation. What mattered was that he had not repeated the dogmatic utterances of a secular religion. He had to be canceled.

No sooner had my essay, “No Safety in Silence,” appeared last week than I was immediately made aware of a story involving an old friend who did not remain silent and who was indeed canceled. Fr. Daniel Moloney, who had served as the Catholic chaplain at MIT since 2015, was forced to resign after writing a letter to the MIT community concerning George Floyd and the protests that offended the sensibilities of some members of MIT’s student life and diversity administration.

Fr. Moloney’s June 7 email was about the deep divisions in society that are caused by sin and need to be healed. Fr. Moloney clearly condemned Officer Chauvin’s actions: “George Floyd was killed by a police officer, and shouldn’t have been.” But it dared to make the further point that George Floyd was himself not a saint and was indeed a person whose life was not conspicuous for virtue. Fr. Moloney’s point in making this observation was that such a situation did not mean that Floyd should have died, because George Floyd retained his human dignity. Indeed, our human dignity cannot be erased or ignored precisely because it is not rooted in our own virtue but instead in our human nature: We are beloved sons and daughters of God and made in His image. “But we do not kill such people. He committed sins, but we root for sinners to change their lives and convert to the Gospel.” “Criminals have human dignity, too.”[1]

One can’t be much clearer than this about George Floyd’s dignity, and yet MIT’s Dean of Student Life, Suzy Nelson, was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying, “Those who wrote me and other senior leaders were outraged, and many felt abandoned and alienated by their faith. By devaluing and disparaging George Floyd’s character, Father Moloney’s message failed to acknowledge the dignity of each human being and the devastating impact of systemic racism.”[2] One can see by the combination of claims that Dean Nelson realized that accusing Fr. Moloney of denying “systemic racism” is a weak claim and likely had to put a little more egg in the pudding by charging him with something that is more serious—albeit patently false.

But her statement was for public consumption. No, the real “sin” against academic administrators and departments of diversity was to question the claims that Officer Chauvin was motivated by racism and that police departments are themselves “systemically racist.” He did not even deny the claims. He simply said, “I do not think we know that.” It did not matter that Fr. Moloney acknowledged that police departments are themselves filled with individuals who sometimes become hardened, brutal, and even racist. (“Some of them certainly develop attitudes towards the people they investigate and arrest that are unjust and sinful.”) While Dean Nelson claimed Fr. Moloney had not lived up to the statement he signed as a chaplain, acknowledging that “actions or statements that diminish the value of individuals or groups of people are prohibited,” it is pretty clear that this statement is being interpreted as protecting some people and groups from criticism. While George Floyd was beyond criticism, Derek Chauvin is assumed to have acted out of racism and must be devalued. While protesters and even rioters must not be “diminished or devalued” (read: criticized), police departments as a whole must be considered as dangerous agents of destruction to minorities. The real sin was to cite the inconvenient facts that 150 police officers were killed in the line of duty in 2019 and that 18 people, including one police officer, have been killed in the “riots.” Even to use that last term is to court controversy.

It really did not matter that Fr. Moloney’s letter, which acknowledged the human dignity of all people and condemned police brutality and any kind of racism, and which cited approvingly calls for abolition of the death penalty by Catholic bishops and by the pope, was a model of balance and a call for all people to seek mercy, justice, and reconciliation. What mattered was that he had not repeated the dogmatic utterances of a secular religion.

He had to be canceled.

I am not surprised by the position of MIT’s administrators. Frankly, I would have been more shocked in today’s atmosphere if they had done otherwise. What I am shocked by is the craven attitude taken by the archbishop of Boston. In a statement quoted by the Globe, the archdiocese said that though they should not be taken to represent Fr. Moloney’s entire ministry, his comments “nonetheless were wrong and by his resignation he accepts the hurt they have caused.” They were “wrong”? What the diocese indicated was wrong was that they did not comport with Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s recent letter on the George Floyd killing. That letter invokes the language of “systemic and structural racism,” repeats the claim that the protests were mostly peaceful, and closes with the holy phrase of our times, “Black Lives Matter.”[3] Black lives matter. Full stop. But this use of the capitalized phrase is a drastic mistake as it gives a kind of imprimatur to a group whose official statements include some claims that cannot be reconciled with Catholic Christianity. Is such language now required in the Archdiocese of Boston? It appears so.

My guess is that what further motivated Dean Nelson and also the archbishop was Fr. Moloney’s even more blunt language written the day before on his personal blog, “Spiritual Directions,” in which he was more explicit about the context of our discussions:

Racism is a sin, and Jesus conquers sin. It’s a sad fact that most of our thinking about race takes place in a left-wing, Marxist, atheistic context, in which a desire for power and an awareness of otherness crowd out Christian reflections on meekness and solidarity. It didn’t used to be this way. The Civil Rights movement was once led by Christians, most notably the Protestant Pastor Martin Luther King. It appealed to the Gospel to unify people of all races. As in so much of our life, so too with regard to race, it’s a struggle to think in Christian terms. When people only talk about justice, it’s a struggle to cultivate mercy. It’s a struggle to forgive those who have trespassed against us, or people like us. It’s easy to forget what we said above, that mercy is commanded of us.[4]

The reminder that in a godless world power ends up being the dominant—sometimes the only—category is too much for those for who pride themselves on “compassion.” The reminder that the oft-invoked Civil Rights movement was much different than the Marxist-influenced Black Lives Matter movement is too much for academics and activists claiming its mantle. The reminder that these views are mostly found on one end of the political spectrum is too much for clerics desperately afraid to be thought un-progressive.

To his credit, Fr. Moloney expressed sorrow for the way in which his letter was taken but did not apologize for his letter. Though the Archdiocese of Boston may say so officially, Fr. Moloney did nothing wrong. I am sympathetic to what I take to be Cardinal O’Malley’s desire to keep a good relationship with MIT in order to have a priest chaplain on campus. If the Cardinal judged a full-throated defense of Fr. Moloney imprudent, an eventual reassignment of Fr. Moloney and the appointment of a new chaplain would not have been completely inappropriate after a bit of time for things to cool down and some efforts to smooth things over. He could have shown Dean Nelson and those in the MIT administration what kind of attitude to speech a university ought to have by sponsoring precisely the difficult but charitable conversation that they say they want—but Fr. Moloney actually had the courage to undertake.

But to give in to the mob and to say something false was a shameful betrayal of the truth. It also invites the silencing of every Catholic and indeed every other person out there who does not hold the requisite politically correct opinions. One notes that one of the most prominent Black Lives Matter activists, Shaun King, recently tweeted that he believes that “statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down.”[5] If depictions of Christ or Mary in your church are deemed “too white,” what will the Cardinal say?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous 1974 essay “Live Not by Lies” is appropriate here. His call was for a refusal to participate in lies or even the tyranny of partial truths either by repeating them or by allowing others to think we hold to them. “The simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation,” Solzhenitsyn implored his readers, was our “personal non-participation in lies. Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, but not with any help from me.”[6] Bishops, even Cardinals, need to read it now and read it often. And Catholics and other Christians need to recall the words of Flannery O’Connor written in a letter to a friend disappointed in the Catholic Church: “It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.”

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Notes:

[1] Read Fr. Moloney’s message here.

[2] Deirdre Fernandes, “MIT Catholic chaplain forced out after message on Floyd killing and protest,” Boston Globe.

[3] “Cardinal Seán’s Letter to the People of the Archdiocese of Boston.”

[4] Read Fr. Moloney’s full blog post from “Spiritual Directions” here.

[5] Shaun King’s twitter.

[6] To read Solzhenitsyn’s 1974 essay, see here.

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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