Deacon Steven Greydanus on Good and Bad Preaching
Over on the book of Face, my friend Deacon Steven Greydanus wrote two separate posts illustrating two sides of the same coin as far as what good and bad Catholic preaching looks like. I’m reprinting them here because they are helpful in a host of ways.
The first ran on September 10 and was in response to the dreadful preaching of a Rising Star among the Most Wrong Demographic in the Church, Fr. James Altman, who preached this awful culture war screed disguised as a homily on July 2:
Conservative Catholics are making a folk hero of a “brave” priest who not only ridicules the idea of systemic racism today from the pulpit, but says that of the “top three causes” of lynchings, “homicides and rapes were behind it all, so it was capital punishment.” Does not mention racism once in connection with lynching, in a homily ostensibly *about* racism.
* * * UPDATE: A more extensive critique of Fr. Altman’s homily collected from my comments in various places:
Fr. Altman begins by affirming that there is and has always been systemic anti-Catholicism in this country, but heaping scorn on the idea of systemic racism (“If there were such a thing as systemic racism…”).
He ignorantly and incorrectly indicates that you only ever hear systemic racism discussed in terms of “symptoms,” never “causes.” So he hasn’t done the bare minimum homework necessary to understand the subject he’s belittling from the pulpit.
Discussing symptoms associated with systemic racism, he acknowledges that Blacks are incarcerated at higher rates than Whites, but explains this away by citing higher crime rates in the Black community.
The reality, though, is that even when Blacks and Whites commit crimes at similar rates (as rates of drug use and drug dealing are similar in the Black and White communities), or when comparing cases where Blacks and Whites commit the similar crimes under similar circumstances, Blacks are a) more likely to be arrested, b) if arrested, more likely to be charged, c) if charged, more likely to be convicted, d) if convicted, more likely to receive stiffer sentences, and e) if sentenced, more likely to be denied parole — again, all of this for similar crimes committed under similar circumstances.
Fr. Altman repeatedly and emphatically states that over 360,000 White men — he repeats this statistic, 360,000 White men, at least three times — died in the Civil War “largely to eliminate the scourge of slavery” or “to free the slaves.” This is erroneous on two grounds.
First, NOT ALL OF THOSE 360,000 SOLDIERS WERE WHITE! Hundreds of thousands of Black men also fought for the Union — and they died at higher rates than their White counterparts.
There were fewer of them, but still 40,000 Black men died fighting for the Union. So the number of White men who died was 320,000, not 360,000.
That’s still a lot, obviously, but it’s important that in his zeal to celebrate White men, Father obliterates the contributions of Black men and deprives them of their agency. Black men were not just sitting around passively waiting for White men to liberate them, as Father wrongly indicates.
Second, to say that the Union fought “to free the slaves” (or “largely to eliminate the scourge of slavery”; Fr. Altman varies his language here) is at best highly misleading and incomplete.
It’s true that the Confederacy went to war to defend slavery and white supremacy. But the Union went to war, initially and fundamentally, not to end slavery but to preserve the union.
As the war went on, the necessity of ending slavery did become a larger part of the Union cause in the war. But the Union soldiers who marched on the Confederacy in response to the attack on Fort Sumter were moving to put down a rebellion and preserve the union, not to end slavery.
Fr. Altman seems preoccupied with partisan point-scoring. He finds great significance in the fact that most slaves were owned by Southern Democrats, overlooking the reality that the Civil Rights movement and the Republican “Southern Strategy” led to a mass exodus of Southeners from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party of today. He’s also eager to report that some White people were lynched and that some Black people owned slaves.
He states that in 1860 “only 1.4% of Americans owned slaves,” misleadingly averaging in Americans who lived in states where slavery was illegal. (More accurately, nearly 25% of households in slaveholding states owned slaves — and many non-slave-owning households aspired to own slaves and strongly supported the institution.)
Most egregious are Fr. Altman’s comments on lynching.
He begins with statistics on lynching that he repeatedly says are from the “NCAA” website. (This is a slip of the tongue, of course — as a public speaker myself, I know all about such slips of the tongue — but he says it more than once, so apparently he isn’t clear on the name of the NAACP. I can’t help finding it ironic that the letter he drops is the one indicating that we’re talking about, you know, *people*.)
Commenting on “the top three causes for lynching,” Fr. Altman says that “homicides and rapes were behind it all. So it was capital punishment. Carried out by a mob, never a good thing.”
So Father criticizes lynching because it’s mob justice without due process, but adjudicates the victims presumptively guilty of the charges which he says were the “causes” — not the pretext, or even the charges, but the “causes” — of lynching.
So, to review, Father
- discusses lynching at length *without once* mentioning or acknowledging the role of racism in the history of lynching — in a homily or a meditation ostensibly *about* racism (and more precisely how systemic racism doesn’t actually exist);
- ascribes the “causes” of the lynchings, not to racism, but to the charges in question; and
- calls lynching “capital punishment” for those crimes (implying that it was deserved). He also
- states earlier in the talk that disproportionate crime rates among Blacks are responsible for higher rates for incarceration (leaving listeners to draw the conclusion that more Blacks were lynched because they just raped and murdered more often, as opposed to being more likely to be wrongly accused of rape or murder, BECAUSE OF SYSTEMIC RACISM).
That’s about as clear a denial, or at least a dismissal, of the role of racism in the history of lynching as you could ask for. * * *
Many white Americans, including Christians and Catholics, are skeptical that racism is a significant reality today.
Yet here’s a priest on YouTube who’s a celebrity with Catholic conservatives because he says you can’t be Catholic and a Democrat—he even has a bishop in Texas on his side!—and so far his racism denialism doesn’t seem to be costing him with his cheering fans.
The following day, Steve wrote another piece which, while obviously related to the piece above, is applicable to a lot of other situations and gets at the heart of what Catholic preaching is supposed to be and do:
Few things trouble me in quite the same way as clergy bandying about their own opinions—liberal or conservative, fringe or mainstream—from the pulpit as if it were the Word of God or Church teaching.
Most recently I’ve been disturbed by homilists claiming from the pulpit that COVID is a manmade conspiracy and dismissing the role of racism in the history of lynching. I’ve heard homilists proclaim the messages of Fátima or pious traditions as if they were binding on the faithful. I’ve also heard progressive priests lean into their own ideas about women clergy and partisan politics.
It’s one thing to have opinions. It’s another thing to make them part of a homily.
The homily is a unique rhetorical form. In current liturgical praxis, it is considered part of the liturgy, but of course there is no text for it. It must serve the readings in the setting of the Mass, but it must also reflect the condition and the needs of parishioners.
It must be “personal” in the sense of being authentic to the homilist’s faith, to his relationship with Christ, and expressive of his insights, but not personal in the sense of reflecting his own opinions, however strongly felt.
There’s no getting around the fact that this requires an integral union of the Gospels and Church teaching with the cleric’s faith and life. More elusively, the homily must be a collaboration with the Holy Spirit, which requires a serious and sustained effort at holiness of life and closeness to Christ.
When a deacon is ordained, the book of the Gospels is placed in his hands and he is told: “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
If what you read and what you believe are two different things, you cannot preach authentically at all. If you don’t practice what you preach, then you may preach orthodoxy but it will not be in collaboration with the Holy Spirit and your words will lack power. If you are incapable of distinguishing, either in principle or in practice, what you believe by faith from what you hold as a matter of opinion, you cannot reliably serve the Word of God, the teachings of the Church, and the needs of parishioners.
I have preached about 40 homilies in my four-plus years as a deacon. I still think of myself as a beginner—a talented beginner, to speak in candor, but still far from proficient.
One thing I can say is that from the beginning I have tried to preach what I was passionate about, but to exclude anything like an opinion from my preaching. I may not always have been completely successful, but it’s always been my intent.
I have nothing to add except, “May God deliver us from preachers like Fr. Altman and send us a million more like Deacon Steve Greydanus.