“I’m personally opposed to slavery, but…”

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This week I had the chance to sit down with Ted Keene, a Catholic politician who describes himself as anti-slavery despite holding a 100% rating from the National Association for the Repeal of Abolition Laws (NARAL). The following is excerpted from my interview with Mr. Keene, who discussed faith, politics, and “owners’ rights” with End of All Things:

EOAT: Thank you for speaking with me, Mr. Keene. I understand you consider yourself anti-slavery, a conviction that stems from your deep Catholic faith. How do you square this belief with your opposition to abolition?

TK: Well, it’s true I am a Catholic and so I cannot support slavery. I believe it is morally wrong to enslave another person. But I would never impose my beliefs on others, nor should the government get involved in legislating morality.

So you do not support any policies or laws that would restrict the enslavement of people?

No. See, I’m personally opposed to slavery, but I respect the right of Americans to choose whether owning slaves is right for them.

But surely slavery itself is a grave injustice that infringes on the rights of the enslaved.

Yes it is, and don’t call me Shirley. [laughing]

[Not laughing] So is it not your duty to protect every person’s right to liberty?

The problem is that there’s a lot of disagreement about who we should consider people. As a Catholic, of course, I believe that every human being is a person with inherent dignity. But that’s a religious belief. I mean, look at how many abolitionists were religious! I can’t force that view on others — we believe in separation of church and state here in America, and I respect owners’ rights.

And you oppose any restrictions on slavery?

Yes, absolutely. Slavery should be safe, legal, and rare. The current system simply drives people to seek out back-alley slave auctions, where anything goes. Only by making slavery legal and accessible will it be truly safe for everyone involved.

It seems pretty unsafe for the slave.

Sure, but only if you accept the humanity of the enslaved. Again, a lot of people don’t, and I’m not here to judge. My job as an elected official is to be to faithful to the Constitution, not the catechism.

Well, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery.

That doesn’t seem right. I’m pretty sure you can’t change the Constitution. I just follow the Supreme Court on the matter — specifically in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Oh, and Roe v. Wade, because Americans have a constitutional right to privacy that should protect their decision to own slaves. And at the end of the day, slavery should be a private decision between an owner and his auctioneer.

So to sum up your views here, you believe slavery is an affront to human dignity, a grave injustice against the innocent, a violation of each person’s fundamental right to liberty, and that this should all be completely legal and unrestricted. Is that correct?

Yeppers.

I see. Lastly, I want to ask about the Catholic Church. Should the Church get involved in the politics of slavery?

Not at all. It’s pretty awful that some priests even want to deny me communion. Don’t they understand that I’m personally opposed to slavery? The Catholic Church would do well to avoid controversial matters and instead make progress on issues that unite people, like women’s ordination.

[Snorting coffee out of nose] Thank you very much for joining me, Mr. Keene.

Thank you, it’s always nice to talk to another anti-slavery Catholic.

 

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Caravaggio’s Hidden Miracles

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

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Caravaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1601) is rightly regarded as a masterpiece of the Baroque period. It’s truly stunning, and a more learned man than me could write at length on the dramatic placement of the subjects or how the piece exemplifies the Italian painter’s pioneering use of tenebrism. The truly striking thing about this painting, however, is what’s not in there. Unlike so many other depictions of St. Paul’s conversion, here Christ does not look down from the clouds on the man who persecutes Him; there is no crowd of onlookers cowering before flights of angels. Instead, Caravaggio gives us stillness, silence, darkness — the action is all interior.

By painting the scene in this way, Caravaggio achieves a brilliant subversion: It is Paul who perceives the miraculous while the viewer is struck blind. Moreover, the piece challenges us not only to understand but to believe in the reality of St. Paul’s conversion. Only with faith do we see arms raised not just toward the sky but toward Heaven. We see a man who is not just quiet but listening. By stripping away the visible signs of the supernatural Caravaggio has imbued the ordinary with extraordinary meaning.

This revolutionary approach to sacred art was misunderstood at the time, and Caravaggio’s works were occasionally turned down by patrons who found them indecorous. In fact, Caravaggio’s realism is not a rejection of the divine but an embrace of a sacramental worldview. His paintings show grace working in our fallen world, through men and women with dirty hands and plain faces. The Calling of St. Matthew (1600), for example, reminds us that Christ called common men to live uncommon lives for Him, and that He calls us to do the same.

Caravaggio was also not afraid to show holy men and women with bare feet, contorted limbs, and pierced flesh. He seemed to have understood that the human body is not inherently profane; rather, it shares in the dignity of the image of God. As St. Pope John Paul II would later express, “The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it.”

In one sense, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s body of work may be more challenging for the believer than the unbeliever. After all, what consolation does a piece like The Death of the Virgin (1606) offer the Christian? The challenge, then, is to have faith, in invisible grace, silent miracles, and unheralded conversions. Without that faith we are blind– blinder, in fact, than St. Paul on the way to Damascus.