Thoughts at the Alamo

On a recent visit to San Antonio to help support an exciting new project, John Paul II Catholic High School, I had the opportunity to re-visit the Alamo, one of my favorite American historical sites, and San Fernando Cathedral, a masterpiece of Hispanic Catholic architecture and decoration. The shrine of Texas liberty and the cathedral church of the archdiocese of San Antonio are a few blocks from each other; their proximity prompts a reflection on the paradoxes of Catholic history in the New World, and the contemporary challenges facing Catholicism on both sides of the Rio Grande.

The war for Texas independence in 1835-36 and the annexation of the Republic of Texas by the United States in 1845 were preludes to the Mexican-American War of 1846-48—and the latter, I think most historians now agree, was a war of conquest. Yes, various corrupt Mexican governments hadn’t done much to develop the upper one-third of the country. But the circumstances under which President James Knox Polk contrived to wring a declaration of war out of Congress were murky at best, and both young statesmen like Abraham Lincoln (who vigorously opposed Polk’s policy) and young soldiers like Ulysses S. Grant (who distinguished himself in combat in Mexico but declared the war an unjust one in his memoirs) knew that the American cause was not without blemish, to put it mildly.

It was also, from one point of view, a war by what was a sometimes-militantly Protestant country against what had long been a deeply Catholic country.  And then there was the aftermath: the argument over how to digest America’s new southwestern territories widened the breach between North and South, such that, in his history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson argues persuasively that the Mexican-American War’s results made the great bloodletting of 1861-1865 virtually inevitable.

Yet the men who died at the Alamo (including Protestants and Lodge members like William Barret Travis, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie) fought and died next to Catholic Tejanos—and in so doing, made it possible for the Catholic Church in San Antonio, embodied by the magnificence of San Fernando Cathedral, to live a life of faith and service today that is as least as well-developed as any in Mexico. Some of those who fought the Texas war of independence and the Mexican-American War may have thought that they were displacing a decadent Catholic culture and making space for an energetic, freedom-loving Protestantism; it seems inconceivable that any of the victors of 1836 and 1848 imagined they were securing the conditions for vibrant Catholicism in the American southwest. But over time, that is precisely what they accomplished.

In another turn of the historical wheel, the favor is now being returned, so to speak. A man born in Mexico will become archbishop of Los Angeles next February. Another native Mexican has been appointed archbishop of San Antonio. Catholicism throughout the United States is being reinvigorated by its Hispanic members.  Meanwhile, the Church in Mexico (and throughout Latin America) continues to struggle with poverty, political corruption, and the challenge of an evangelical Protestantism that seems, in some respects, better equipped to inculcate the human virtues that make better material conditions of life possible.

Catholicism has been a powerful cultural force in Mexico for almost five centuries. Today, despite a vicious 20th-century persecution by secularists and Marxists that gave the Church new martyrs like St. Cristobal Magallanes and Blessed Miguel Pro, Mexico remains a profoundly Catholic nation. Yet Mexico in 2010 is also perilously close to becoming a failed state, its northern provinces rendered almost ungovernable by a catastrophic failure of public authority in the face of drug cartels and their wars against each other and the government.

Can an increasingly Hispanic Church in the United States challenge its brethren south of the Rio Grande to stop blaming their problems on “El Norte” and to become the protagonists of their own history—and aid in that transformation? The answer to that question is the next act in the drama symbolized by the Alamo and San Fernando Cathedral.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.