Synod: Interview with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Interview with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo
October 12, 2008

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas, is the only Catholic cardinal in America’s Bible Belt, which gives him a unique perspective during this Synod of Bishops on the “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.” On Sunday, DiNardo celebrated Mass at his titular church, St. Eusebius, and later in the afternoon he sat down for an interview at the North American College.

The conversation covered a lot of ground, including charismatic preachers such as Joel Osteen, the death penalty, and immigration, as well as a subject that’s been conspicuous by its absence in the synod, even though it’s a source of much heartburn in the wider world when talk turns to the Bible – creationism. DiNardo also commented on the aftermath of the recent floods that struck the Galveston-Houston area.

The following is a complete transcript of the interview.

By this stage in the synod, you’ve sat through 234 speeches – 149 formal interventions, and 85 comments during the free time. That’s a sort of tsunami of verbiage. Sorting through it all, what has struck you?

Initially what’s struck me is that much of the content of the speeches is the same, but what’s different is the angle of vision because of where people come from. You pick that up right away. When you hear the bishops from South America talk, there’s always a certain focus on the poor, the difficulties of people just trying to live, so the Word of God becomes a basis for small group communities. They talk about the formation that’s necessary to do that well. If you hear a bishop talking to you from Oceania, any of those islands, you get another distinctive sense of the Word of God. Their people are either reading the Word of God or not, but they have another perspective. Poverty affects them too, but it’s a different kind of poverty. They live in a context with a lot of non-Christians, as you can imagine. Therefore, they’re very interested in inculturation … that seems to be the big word that they use a great deal. When the bishops of Europe get up, they’re obviously concerned about secularism, and the reduced saturation of the Word of God in the culture.

In terms of content, what I hear most of the bishops saying is this: the Word of God is extremely important for people, there is thirst for the Word of God, but there isn’t always a clear understanding of the relationship between scripture and daily life. The biggest thing that has come out is that we all have to do more about preaching. Also, there’s a concern for translations of the Bible … if I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times, especially from countries where there are multiple languages.

Papua New Guinea, as we heard, has 837 languages.

They just keep saying, ‘We need Biblical translations.’ At one level, the Protestant churches are a little ahead of us here. They’re very, very good at getting translations of the Bible out, and the bishops are saying that we need to be more a part of that. Of course, then some of the African bishops say, ‘A lot of our people are illiterate.’ So, in a lot of ways, accessibility of the Word is an issue.

I’m surprised at how much attention lectio divina is getting. That’s considered to be an extremely important form of Biblical thinking, getting people to appreciate the scriptures. Also, in South America and Africa, the challenge of cults is obviously important. It’s pretty common to hear about that.

Is there anything you’ve heard that you think you’ll take back and that will make a concrete difference in the life of your archdiocese?

One of the things I notice in developing countries is that there is a great hunger for the Word of God, which often takes the form of people meeting in small groups. They want to hear the Word of God. We have to do this in a way that’s a little more ecclesial, but also in a way that’s vivid in people’s lives. Where this happens [Bible reading in small groups], it’s a great help for the church.

I live in the Bible Belt, which is what I talked about in my intervention. Catholics are used to hearing people quote scripture in the Bible Belt. In fact, it has an effect on them. What I’d like to see are some practical things to help Catholics deal with this situation. A number of our Catholics are involved in Protestant Bible studies, there’s no question about that. I mentioned something about a kind of Compendium, that would be addressed not to clergy but to ordinary people … simple, straightforward, our classic ways of reading the scriptures, why we read them the way we do, in order to give people what St. Luke calls that “assurance” when they’re meeting with others, so that we can bring our point of view to them.

What I’m thinking about is giving our people a little greater sensus ecclesiae, the “sense of the church.” It isn’t that some of them don’t want to do that, but the particular way that many Baptists – and, of course, it’s more than Baptists – read the Bible is as a personal inspiration, and of course there’s no problem with that. But then they begin interpreting texts as if this is the meaning, and we have to show them that there’s context, that there’s the greater context of the whole book, and that there’s a living tradition of faith that’s interpreted it. That’s what I think would be very helpful.

One of the things I notice among the synod fathers is that they want their people to read the scriptures. They think it’s a great idea.

No one seems to be debating that.

There’s no one that’s opposed. If there are any concerns, it’s about reading the Bible within the bigger context of the church.

As you mentioned, you’re the Cardinal of the Bible Belt. In some ways, you’re therefore a point person for relations with Evangelicals and Pentecostals. There’s been a lot of talk at the synod on that subject, not all of it positive. What can you tell me about the relationship in Texas?

Some of the people in the synod have been quite critical of them in certain parts of the world. I guess I’m less critical. I suppose if I have any criticism it’s that some of the Evangelicals, out of their concern for knowing Jesus Christ, will take advantage of people coming from, let’s say, Mexico or South America. These people come into a place like Houston … you’re new, you’re frequently illegal. [Evangelicals] are going to offer you some help, some assistance, and of course I have no objection to that. Then they read the Bible, and they tell you that this is the only way to know Jesus Christ. May I also add, John, that they’re not totally without some sense of the background. We have churches in Houston that are Protestant Evangelical, and they have pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A lot of people are attracted to them, and maybe part of that is our fault. Our formation in the faith, particularly, perhaps, in Central and South America, is not as well developed as theirs. So, they get ‘em.

Cardinal Pengo from Tanzania talked about an ‘exodus’ of Catholics across Africa moving into Pentecostal groups. Do you lose a lot of people in Houston to the Pentecostals and the Evangelicals?

We have some. I talk to some of our priests, and they say, ‘Yes, we’re losing some.’ I can’t say we’re losing a huge amount right now.

Would you use the word ‘exodus’?

I wouldn’t use the word ‘exodus’ in Texas. I might use the word ‘trickle.’ Maybe even a big trickle in some areas. If they come to Houston in certain areas, the parishes are very good, and they’re a force of stability for a lot of people. We have a parish south of the stadium in downtown Houston that lists on its books 2,200 families, but it had a thousand baptisms the year before last. They’ve obviously got more than 2,200 families. They’re not going to register because people are too afraid. So, we do have some exits, there’s no question, but …

But you also have an enormous number of people coming in, most of them immigrants.

It’s huge, and you know it’s not just the Hispanics, though they would be the largest single group. We also have to be concerned about the Filipinos, for example.

You’ve talked about the ‘happy chaos’ in Houston.

That’s what it is. There are so many different kinds of people in the archdiocese of Galveston-Houston right now … I always say that if I’m not aware of a particular group, it’s only because I haven’t yet heard about them. They’re either coming or they’re already here.

In your part of the world, creationism is a fairly powerful cultural, even political, force. Are you surprised there really hasn’t been any discussion in the synod on creationism?

I think it’s been mentioned maybe once, in a minor point by one of the bishops, but basically you’re right, it hasn’t come up at all. Partly, this may be because it’s a local issue in the United States, in parts of the country, but it's not a big concern in much of the rest of the world. It’s an issue in Texas at times, though you should know about Texas, as someone once said to me with a straight face: ‘You know, we’re our own separate nation.’ Texas is somewhat unique. I see this issue more in West Texas and other parts of the state, but it doesn’t come up as much in Houston. You have to remember that the role of the Baptists in Houston in this regard has been significant. It’s kept the issue from becoming too intense, because they don’t let it get out of hand.

When someone in the Bible Belt asks you what the Catholic church thinks about creationism, what do you say?

I actually don’t know that anyone’s ever asked me, but if someone did, what I would say is that the Bible tells us the ‘why’ of things. The importance of the Book of Genesis is on the ordered character of God’s creation. For the rest, the Catholic church is receptive to the role of reason, and reason tells us ‘how’ things go. To us, the ‘why’ is more important, and that’s what religion answers. Of course, there are some people, whether in the state of Texas or outside, who want to use the creationism question to attack the notion that God has any role or any agency in the world at all. That’s not true with all people who argue for evolution, but it’s true of some of them. You have to realize that in Texas, those would be fighting words among the politicians.

There are some Catholics in the United States who are very attracted to the idea of ‘intelligent design.’ What do you make of that?

If ‘intelligent design’ is used as a philosophical argument to talk about the foundations of how we understand science, I have no problem with it. Some people are using it as a scientific explanation per se, but it’s really not. It’s a philosophical explanation trying to show the presuppositions by which we can talk about divine purpose or providence in the world. I think that’s great, that’s very important.

The problem I see on both sides –both with some of those who are pushing the evolution agenda and with intelligent design – is that they’re really arguing philosophy, they’re not arguing science.

Of course, the intelligent design people understand themselves to be making a scientific argument. They contend that you can’t explain the transition from simple to complex species in terms of a linear progression driven by random mutation and natural selection, that there’s an ‘irreducible complexity’ to life that requires the hypothesis of a designer.

Some of that is probably true, though I don’t know that it necessarily leads to intelligent design. Of course, you can take an alternative explanation [to evolution]. You could use Aristotle’s notion of substantial forms that are just always around, for example, and explain the results that way, which wouldn’t necessarily give you a theory of design.

I think we have to be careful in our public schools that when people are teaching evolution, they’re not teaching metaphysical evolution, but rather methodological evolution, which is okay.

Is the bottom line that when we teach Genesis we should focus on the theological content, and leave the mechanics of the science alone?

As I recall when I took my exam here on the Pentateuch, a professor asked me if I’d ever read Bertolt Brecht’s play ‘Galileo.’ I had read it in high school. In the Book of Genesis, at its time, what would be known as any kind of cosmology and science is at home in theology. That is to say, the Book of Genesis is trying to indicate to us that there is order in creation. Science obviously becomes more sophisticated about the manner of the order of creation, and how we would discover it. The notion of order is an important issue, which to my mind isn’t purely theological.

So you would say there’s a kind of natural theology implicit in Genesis?

There is, but today we’re fighting certain aspects of science we really shouldn’t be fighting. Let the scientists fight out some of the methodological battles they have over some of these things. In the state of Texas, this whole thing is also played out on the political level.

The broader issue the debate over creationism raises is what it means to call scripture ‘inerrant.’ Cardinal George has suggested that perhaps the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith might want to put out some kind of document on inerrancy. What do you think of that?

The way [inerrancy] is phrased in the English translation of our Instrumentum Laboris makes the issue, to my mind, a little more clear-cut than it is. Inerrancy affects every word of scripture. We have to ask, what’s the inerrancy for? Of course, it’s for our salvation. But that itself is a bigger issue than purely conceptual terms about how we are saved.

The Second Vatican Council phrased Dei Verbum carefully, and left the question partially difficult. Should the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issue something? It could be helpful. Do we need further theological analysis before they even speak on it? Maybe. I’d be one willing to wait, though there are people who think we should make something much clearer right now. I remember before coming to the synod I got a lot of letters, and many of them dealt with this point. It has not emerged in the synod, however, as a major issue.

You live in a part of the world where the issue of scripture’s inerrancy is quite topical.

Yes, and it’s very straight-forward the way most people who use the term ‘inerrancy’ would mean it. The way we use it, and the way an Evangelical would use it, is obviously a little different. They won’t give, for example, on the seven days of creation.

To take a step back, in the United States today there are two poles in any cultural debate that involves the Bible: secular skepticism, according to which the Bible is an interesting piece of ancient literature but no more than that, and Biblical fundamentalism, which reads the Bible as the literal, face-value word of God. The Catholic church occupies a middle position between these two extremes. Could a document on inerrancy help lift up this ‘third way’ of reading the Bible in cultural debate?

If we end up doing some kind of document that’s a compendium on how we read scripture, and I don’t know that we will, this issue is going to have to arise. They would have to say something about it. I think the Catholic church’s position is nuanced, it’s faith and reason working together. Maybe it’s because of the way Catholics came onto the fields of form-criticism and literary criticism under Pius XII, but when the question comes up of whether something is literally, factually, true, we ask, ‘What’s the literary form of the document? What is the sacred author trying to get at?’ That’s the truth it’s trying to express. That may involve more than, ‘God saves.’ That may involve, as you said earlier, some natural truths that natural theology can bring out.

Of course, members of our church run the gamut on these questions …
Do you think a document on inerrancy is coming?

I don’t know. It’s possible that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may decide that now is not the time to do it. I have some indications of that, that there will be more reflection… they’re not going to rush into it.

You know, I find that with most people, if there’s ever a battle, these days it’s not over religion and science so much as religion and history. It’s the problem of historical consciousness. What brings it to light are some of the points of the gospels where there are tensions, seemingly, in the narrative, or varying portrayals of what Christ said or did. These are good questions. I think if they’re read in light of lectio divina and the bigger spiritual tradition of the church, they’re less intensely problematic, but I don’t know that they’re questions which will go away.

Walter Kasper wrote years ago that the problems in relationship among theology, religion and science will be considered more minor in the future, in comparison to the problems in the relationship between religion and history. That issue is still a vexing one, still a tough one.

Let me ask you about whether there are ways the Bible can be brought to bear on a couple of social issues that are important in Texas. What about the death penalty?

The Catholic bishops in Texas have been opposed to the death penalty for 30. The polls have moved from about 90 percent approval to around 85-82 percent approval, which means that there’s the beginning of some people starting to question the death penalty. You have to keep in mind the people who have lost their loved ones. For a lot of people, it’s that emotional issue that gets to them. The second issue after that is that they took someone’s life, so they give theirs in return. That’s a kind of justice, of redress.

It’s often informed by a kind of Biblical morality, isn’t it?

I guess some do, though what I’ve heard on the TV a lot, and one hates to say it, is – along with the reaction to the loss of a loved one – just simple vengeance.

Have you had much luck using scripture to make the case against the death penalty?

We’ve tried to do it in terms of the forgiveness of enemies, and love one another. Among the Catholics in Texas that I’ve met, I’ve found that most of them are favorable to the death penalty, but they’re not absolutely attached to it. They can be worked on, but it’s going to be a long time.

Does reading and praying with scripture have any effect at all on their attitude toward the death penalty?

I can’t say that I can answer that, to be honest with you. We have some very intense small groups of people, like Pax Christi and others. The effect of some of the anti-death penalty thinking has been good in some of our schools. In looking to the future, I’ve been talking to someone who’s been at it for years, Archbishop [Joseph] Fiorenza. He told me that this is going to take a long time to reach Texas. People there are very traditional and just say, ‘If you do this, you’ve got to pay for it.’ It’s almost primitive at times, but we’re making a dent. The fact that support has gone down is indicative. Part of it is the scientific stuff, where people found out that the DNA didn’t match, things like that. Part of it, too, is the kind of people who are on death row in Texas. Let’s face it, they’re the poor. Some of them may have had bad representation.

One man was recently given a reprieve, a sad case. He drove the car, and in Texas we have that law where if you’re in the car when somebody commits a crime, you’re part of it. He has a mental capacity that’s not so strong, and he was given a reprieve to life in prison. That’s unusual for this governor, who’s pretty tough.

Can scripture help you with the question of immigration?

My hope would be yes, insofar as people read both the Old Testament and the New Testament … whether it’s the great Pentateuchal/Deuteronomic language on the widow, the stranger, and the orphan, or whether it’s the prophetic cry against the exploitation of those who are strangers in our midst. Not least of all is the powerful parable, which I think is indicative of a whole frame of mind, of the Good Samaritan. The more we would read the scriptures, the more we are involved in them, we could make a very, very good case, and I think we’ve tried, for immigration.

Is it bearing fruit?

Just look in Texas. I’ve had people come to see me from the building trades, from the Chamber of Commerce … there are lots of people getting on board and saying, ‘We can’t continue to live with what’s going on in Texas and elsewhere.’ But it has to be handled at the federal level. You know, I’ve talked to senators who are very sympathetic when you approach them one-on-one, but the pressure’s on them in Washington, D.C. Some people are saying that once the election is over, there may be some window of opportunity to do something with the lame-duck congress, in late November or December. I’m skeptical about it, having dealt with it the last couple of years, but we’ll see. In any event, it certainly has to be on the agenda of the next congress. We can’t continue to live this way in Texas and California. It’s crazy.

For instance, I’ve talked to people who are in the building trades, in construction, and they tell me that they go to all the job fairs. People say [about immigrants] that they’re taking away jobs from Anglos, but these guys tell me that no Anglos show up. One guy told me that some of the people who work for him have been working for him for twenty years, and they’re master craftsmen and builders. He said, ‘I don’t know how many of them are illegal. I thought they were all legal, but I’m finding out that some of the papers they hold and give to me are false.’ But, he said, that doesn’t take away from the good work they do. They’re productive citizens. We should get their situation regularized.

Another theme that has emerged in the synod is the persecution of Christians in various parts of the world, in India, in the Middle East, and so on. For American Catholics, that can seem fairly remote. Concretely, what can Americans do?

First of all, we should make sure that word gets out. In Houston, that’s less difficult. I have a large number of Indian Catholics in Houston, and they make what’s going on known to others. We also have to make ourselves heard. Sometimes you have to say something, about India, about the terrible situation in Darfur, and so on.

We also have heard a great deal about the terrible loss of Christians in the Middle East, which I’m aware of since I’ve been dealing with the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher. That’s the Holy Land, Jerusalem, and of course Iraq. We have a growing Iraqi, and also Maronite, community in Houston because they’re leaving.

We can let our representatives in government know about this. The government has some influence, for example, with what we can do for the Christians in Iraq. It’s been a sadness … as you know, that constitution was supposed to protect minorities, but it has not de facto worked out in practice. The Christian community there is very productive, which is not unusual. It’s like the Copts in Egypt. I also feel bad for the Maronites in Lebanon, because that was always a 50/50 arrangement, but they’re suffering.

I suspect a lot of Catholics feel sympathy, but don’t know what to do with that sympathy.

What some of the bishops have asked me to do is to make their plight known, beginning with my own Christian community, when I write pastoral letters or when I talk.

One concrete suggestion that has come up with regard to the Holy Land is the importance of pilgrimage.

Keep going over, keep sending people over. That’s probably the most important thing we can do right now. Houston is very good about that, lots of people go to the Holy Land. By the way, a lot of Evangelicals go to the Holy Land. This is one concrete thing someone can do, if they have the means … just go.

How did you react to Bishop Kicanas’ proposal to make 2009 a ‘Year of Preaching’?

It’s probably a good suggestion. As a bishop in the United States, if you get letters that complain about priests – and you always get them – one of the complaints you’ll get is about preaching. A priest’s ability to connect with the people in terms of the word of the day, the scriptures that are being read, is something our people want. Of course, there are also people who will excuse bad preaching by a priest if they love him otherwise.

There’s been a fair bit of complaining in the synod about the quality of preaching. Is it really all that bad?

It’s uneven. We have priests in Houston, for example, that people go to because they consider them such fine preachers. We have other people that go to the parish because, they say, I’ve just always gone to this parish, and they roll their eyes about the preaching. Plus, we have so many languages. There are some Spanish-language preachers who are very good. In other cases, the priest isn’t such a good preacher, but the people are from the same country and so they just tolerate it, they don’t ask for much.

Is there a danger of making the homily carry more weight than it was meant to bear?

Could be. We always say that we’re fed by two tables, and the first table is to get you hungry for the second one. We’ve always gone to the Eucharist. I have to say that we’ve got some Catholics in Houston who have told me themselves that they go to Mass on Sunday at 8:00 am, and then they go to another church at 11:00 am so they can be “uplifted.”

Probably a number go to Joel Osteen?

Sure. Now, I would not put forth Joel Osteen as a way to be lifted up, because it’s just self-help. All it is, is self-help. That’s not good. The point is, however, that while they know that the Eucharist is something pretty important, they feel there’s something missing in the preaching. This intrigues me to no end.

In Houston, we’ve already done things on preaching. We’ve had days at our convocation dedicated to it. We have regular workshops on scripture. In fact, they’re doing a state-level; event next year in Houston. It’s not that we don’t provide opportunities. Of course, what strikes one person as a good homily will cause somebody else to say, ‘Oh, this guy is just foaming at the mouth.’ Yes, we have to always improve the quality of preaching, but they do so much preaching practicum at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston already.

Is there some practical step you haven’t taken?

There are some priests who subscribe to homily services, or who read a bit of exegesis, and get up there and sort of bumble through, just making a series of statements. What’s probably necessary is a better defined rhetoric, bringing out the spiritual dimension in a way that isn’t moralizing. That would be wonderful … mystagogy is the way the liturgical people describe it, the idea that the text is being realized right now as you’ve heard it proclaimed, and as I try to unpack it. Though the text will say something to you about your moral life, it isn’t moralizing and wagging your finger. It has something to do with what you meet in your life. It’s like today, the reading about the marriage banquet … Jesus is telling a parable about salvation history. Jesus went to so many dinners in the synoptic that you almost want to ask, ‘Why is he always going to supper?’ It’s because it’s a sign of the kingdom, that there’s a joy in meeting Jesus Christ. That’s the kind of stuff we should put out there.

I recently spoke at a conference on Catholic preaching, and there was a lot of conversation there about preaching by the non-ordained, especially women. Obviously the liturgical rules forbid this in the Eucharist, but do you think it would be desirable to promote preaching by lay people in non-Eucharistic settings?

In non-Eucharistic contexts I think it’s a great idea, because some of them are very talented. Although people don’t look at it as preaching, I often say that some of the finest preachers we have are some of our volunteer catechists in some of our religious education programs. They keep those kids coming and buoy them up. I have the greatest regard for them, and I think what they’re doing is a kind of preaching. In that sense, lay preaching has always been around in the church. Some of the people in charge of our RCIA are very good. What some people are asking is to do it in the liturgy, but the Roman liturgy is pretty intense on this, that the person who presides is the one who preaches…. Outside the liturgy, I’d be favorable to looking for creative ways [to encourage lay preaching], with laity who are trained and formed and who can speak well. Some of the laity on Spanish-language radio are very good.

I might add that we also have over 250 permanent deacons in Houston, and some of them are good preachers. I hate to say it, but some are better than the priests, in part because they spend more time preparing the text. Some of our priests just don’t prepare as well as they should. Is that sometimes their fault? Yes. But if you have 5,000 families in your parish, it may well be that you were so overwhelmed with everything else you were doing that …

That it’s a miracle you showed up on Sunday at all?

Right. Also, we have to remember that God’s Word proclaimed is pretty good. As long as the lector is good, God’s Word sounds pretty good even if the preaching is terrible!

In your experience, what are the big differences in approaches to the Bible between Hispanics and Anglos?

Hispanics tend to read the Bible and see themselves in it immediately. It’s amazing. They’re an oral people, and the stories and the oral narratives speak to them. I don’t find that Hispanics have any trouble recognizing themselves in scripture passages. I find that the Anglos are a little bit more reserved. That’s not to say they don’t find meaning in the text, but …

Let me put it to you this way. I do so many confirmations every year it isn’t funny. I did 60 last year. When I with the Hispanic kids, at first they’re very reserved, because the cardinal is there. Once they get used to it, however, if you ask them to say something about the scripture text, they’ll do it, and I always have good exchanges with them. When I go to the Anglos, it concerns me. It’s not true across the board, but it’s true often enough … they don’t know the Bible at all. I ask them, ‘Tell me your favorite Bible passage,’ and nothing comes to mind. With the Hispanics, maybe it’s the way they do their songs, maybe it’s the way they train them at Sunday Mass or the way the priest preaches, but once they get over their initial shyness and respect for authority, I find those kids love to talk from their heart about Jesus did this or that for them. At times, they can almost sound like fundamentalists.

That probably helps explain some of the appeal of the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches to the Hispanics.

Yes, exactly. The trick is to draw them more into the sense of the church. When it comes to the Anglos, the ones who will say something to you about the Word of God are some of the Life Teen crowd. Of course, they also have a pretty Evangelical mind, except for the Eucharist. The one difference is that their piety is Evangelical-Eucharistic. Of course, it’s not that the Hispanics aren’t Eucharistic, but they have a feel for the text because it’s a narrative.

It’s not just that it’s narrative. The thought-world of the Bible tends to reflect the view of the poor, people who are close to the earth, who don’t take a skeptical stance towards the supernatural, and often that’s a better fit for Hispanics, isn’t it?

They’ve never asked about inerrancy, that’s for sure! No one even bothers about it. For them, miracles happen all the time.

At the end of my intervention in the synod, which was on the Bible Belt, I told a story about Galveston-Houston and the floods. Three weeks ago, after the floods, I got permission from FEMA and I went into Galveston. I had to have the police with me, and so on. I went into the cathedral in Galveston, where there was eight feet of water … it was just horrific. There was a woman there, a Catholic woman, whose house was gone. She came up to me and said, ‘You see, cardinal, Mary the Star of the Sea is on top of the cathedral. Blessed is she among women … we’ll be okay.’ She quoted the Bible, in a very distinctive Catholic form. Then I went into another church four blocks away, flooded with three feet of water. A woman came from across the street, obviously a non-Catholic, whose house had flooded up to the second floor. She said to me, ‘The Lord done saved me from the miry clay and the dark pit, bless you Jesus!’ Those two responses were equally beautiful, equally Biblical, one Catholic and the other more Evangelical. Both were the little ones, the ones to whom Jesus says in Matthew 11, ‘Come to me you who labor and have a heavy burden.’ Both had confidence in God’s Word. It’s amazing. Some people would simply laugh at those two responses to the floods, some Catholics even, but I saw in them a deep respect for the Holy Spirit’s beauty in making scripture something they carry with them.

So a Biblical imagination is alive and well in Texas?

It is absolutely alive … it may be crazy sometimes, but it’s alive and well. I don’t see that in the Northeast. I really don’t see it. I don’t see it among our leaders, I don’t see it among some of the university people, and I don’t even see it among all of our Catholics. But when you go south of the Mason/Dixon line and get into the Bible Belt, it’s still there. The Biblical vocabulary and imagination is alive.

In the Northeast, for example, they simply ridicule creationism. In Texas it’s argued in a different way, because the Biblical imagination is still strong. There’s a different way of approaching it, even intellectually, than in the Northeast. I was so impressed by these two women. They had lost everything, but they were not going to lose their sense that God is with them. I just think that’s magnificent. One threw out the Lucan Marian hymn, the other Psalm 40, and I loved them both.

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