Now an Episcopalian priest, Matthew Fox tells of his coming to political consciousness and decision to join the Catholic priesthood, which he saw not as an escape, but as a way to stay in the world – Matthew Fox on Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network and Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay.
Matthew Fox is a former Catholic priest who was first stopped from teaching liberation theology and creation spirituality by Cardinal Ratzinger, then expelled in 1993 from the Dominican order, to which he had belonged for 34 years. Matthew is the author of over three dozen books, including Letters to Pope Francis: Rebuilding a Church with Justice and Compassion; Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation; and The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade has Imperiled the Church, and How It Can be Saved. He currently serves as an Episcopal priest and lives in California.
There’s a fight going on within the Catholic Church focused on the scandal of pedophilia and the criminal cover up of such by the church hierarchy. Matthew Fox believes this is a malignant symptom of a rot that goes deep within the church; something he says Pope Francis has not taken strong enough action to purge. There’s also a struggle against Francis, who has taken what amounts to a social democratic position on wealth inequality and the need for urgent action on climate change. This has infuriated the far right of the Church, especially the fascist Opus Dei, who would like to see Francis gone.
In this episode of Reality Asserts Itself we’ll explore these and other issues with Matthew Fox. And he now joins us in Berkeley, California. Thanks for joining us.
MATTHEW FOX: Thank you, Paul. Good to be with you.
PAUL JAY: Take us through some of the story of how you choose to become a priest.
MATTHEW FOX: Well, I grew up in a family of seven children. I was in the middle. They call it the neurotic middle, I guess. Three older and three younger than I. And my parents were interesting people, and they encouraged our creativity and our individuality, and thinking for ourselves.
PAUL JAY: What’d they do?
MATTHEW FOX: Well, for example, when I was in high school and my older brothers would go off to college, they would rent out a, a room to a foreign student at the University of Wisconsin. And so I grew up with an Indian Sikh next door to me, because his room was next to mine, who was cooking wheat germ at two o’clock in the morning- which really stank, by the way- in his room, and wore the turban, and all. And there was a, a Yugoslav communist who who joined our family for a couple of years. And I remember a Venezuelan who every time he met someone, he’d pull up his shirt to show where he had been gored by a bull in a bullfight once.
And, and so I learned that the world is much more than Catholic, and much more than white, and much more than Western. And I think that was a marvelous education, a subtle one, that our parents gave us to kind of open-.
PAUL JAY: What did they do for a living?
MATTHEW FOX: My father was a football coach in Wisconsin for a number of years. Then he went into business. My mother was a mother of seven children, born within 11 years of each other. But she couldn’t wait to leave- she was not a supermom. She couldn’t wait to get on with her life. And even when she was raising us, she always took two hours off every day for herself. No matter what was going on with the diapers and the kids and everything, she would play tennis, or bicycle, or she had all kinds of clubs, book clubs and sewing clubs, and all … so she, she took care of herself. Long before the word ‘feminism,’ she was a feminist.
PAUL JAY: And how religious was the household?
MATTHEW FOX: Well, my father was an Irish Catholic. And he was serious about it, because he grew up in a tough situation in the Irish ghetto of Chicago. He remembers as a boy seeing signs, ‘Work available; Irish do not apply.’ He was a very angry young man. And that’s how he got into football. He took his anger out on, in football. And he was a good football player. Then he got a football scholarship. The only one in his family who went to college.
And my mother was actually half Jewish and half Episcopalian. Her mother became Christian, who was Jewish became Christian when she married. So she was not raised Jewish, but she was raised Episcopalian. But she decided on her own after a year or two of marriage to my father to become Catholic, because she didn’t want a split … a split family. But she never told him, which is so typical of them. So she did these, she took, she took instructions on the sly, secretly, without telling my father. And of course she’d go to Mass on Sunday with my father and would just sit in the pew during communion. So this one Sunday she gets up to go to communion, because she’s now a Catholic. But she didn’t even tell him.
So they have this fight in the aisle of church at communion time, my father saying, “You can’t go to communion, you’re not a Catholic.” “Yes, I am.” [None of this other] fighting. I think this is kind of an archetypal story of of them. He was, he was a Scorpio and she was Taurus. So there wasn’t a lot of compromise there. But they were a very alive couple.
PAUL JAY: And what were the politics of the household?
MATTHEW FOX: Split down the middle. My, my mother was a Democrat, my father was a Republican. We used to tell them, why do you bother to vote? You just cancel each other’s votes out. So that’s how that was. But we kids all became-.
PAUL JAY: What kind of Democrat?
MATTHEW FOX: Well, she voted for Kennedy, and he voted for Nixon back then. And then he voted for Nixon again. And then regretted it with Watergate and everything. You know, of course he was older then. But he kind of, kind of shut up about Republican politics after Watergate.
PAUL JAY: And as you sort of start becoming conscious of politics and stuff, where do you fall?
MATTHEW FOX: Well, the whole family fell, fell with my mother to the left, except my one brother who went to West Point.
But I was … of course I, when I was studying as a Dominican and so forth, I was exposed to- especially when I went to Paris to study I was very much exposed to the Marxist way of seeing the world. And this was a big part of my education, and of course Latin American liberation theology and so forth that was going around in the late ’60s. In fact, I studied with Pere Chenu, who many people would credit with being kind of the grandfather of liberation theology, because he comes out of the worker priest movement in France after the war. So he was working with the Marxist unions. That’s what the worker priests were doing. And he was the leader, because he was the most educated. He was an intellectual, a theologian. He was silenced by Pope Pius XII for 12 years.
And he was my mentor. He’s the one who named the Creation spiritual tradition for me in my studies in Paris. And actually, it was Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk- who, by the way, has just been proven was murdered by the CIA in 1968 in Thailand. I knew that already, but now there’s a whole book about it called The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton. He’s the one who sent me to Paris to study. I asked him, where’s the best place to go to get a doctorate in spirituality? He said, go to Paris. And that’s where I met Chenu, my mentor. And he comes out of the worker priest movement and liberation theology. Because he would go to these union meetings in Paris in the ’40s and ’50s. And he’d be in the back. And at the end of the meeting the head guy would say, well, Pere Chenu, what did you hear us talk about?
So he would just give feedback. And that’s really the basic methodology of, of base communities, and so forth, is, you know, to listen to the people and to feed back what you’re hearing.
PAUL JAY: You’re sort of coming to consciousness, at least politically, in the midst of the Cold War. McCarthyism, the Pledge of Allegiance to the, to the flag, the enormous anti-communism, anti-socialism, anti-leftism. How much does that influence and pervade your life?
MATTHEW FOX: Well, and of course the civil rights movement, too, began in the late ’50s. Was certainly part of my generation, too. But yeah, I remember going- when I was a kid we had just gotten a TV, we were the last ones in the neighborhood to have a TV. And the Army-McCarthy hearings were on all day, and I would run home for lunch to see as much of this I could see. I was very- and I have these deja vu experiences now when I watch the Trump thing going on, you know. And of course, Trump is directly related to McCarthy by way of Cohn, Roy Cohn. He was on TV with McCarthy. Very sinister. Even then he was a sinister lawyer coaching McCarthy. So you know, there’s a real link there. But I find all that very fascinating. And then of course, like I say, the civil rights movement, of course.
PAUL JAY: But how much, if any, do you internalize of this kind of Americanism?
MATTHEW FOX: Well, of course, even then I was- you know, I was, like, 12 or 13. I was beginning to wake up and say, you know, who is- because McCarthy was from Wisconsin. And I was from Wisconsin. And he was a Catholic, supposedly. And so I was really questioning, what is all this stuff, you know? Then I began to learn pretty fast that there are different versions of being a Catholic, and of being from Wisconsin.
PAUL JAY: You were in high school. And you …
MATTHEW FOX: I went to public high school. And my friends were Jewish, or Protestant, or agnostic. So we’d have these great debates, philosophical debates about life and all. And I would go to my parish priest, who was Dominican, and he would kind of give me, he would give me books, or tell me to read Chesterton, or to read Thomas Aquinas and stuff. And I liked that intellectual side to arguing about issues. And that was, that- that’s one way where joining the Dominicans had appealed to me. Because they have this tradition. People like Pere Chenu, but also Aquinas, and as I discovered later, Meister Eckhart and some other really thinking people.
PAUL JAY: So if I understand it correctly, you really get serious about joining institutionally in 1960, is that right?
MATTHEW FOX: Yes. Well, when I graduated from high school in ’58, I decided- I went on a retreat my senior year in high school to the Dominican House of Studies in Dubuque. And I was very moved by three things. One was the intellectual life. The other was the community life, and of course I’d come from a big family, anyway. And the third was the aesthetic of seeing these semi-monks, kind of half monk, chanting the Psalms in Latin and all that. I just, I just felt that in my heart that there’s something powerful. So I thought I would give them a try.
So I, in 1958 actually, when I went to college, it was in Dubuque. And the Dominican order at that time had young men who were interested living together and kind of learning more about the order, while going to a regular liberal arts Catholic college, and participating that way. So that’s how it began. And then two years later, then you joined the novitiate, which was a more rigorous baptism, if you will, into the order.
PAUL JAY: So the philosophical debate, the intellectual pursuit, you can do all of that without being a priest. Without making the sort of- at least what non-priests think are sacrifices. I don’t know, maybe priests don’t, I don’t know. But you know, not getting married, being celibate, all the discipline- especially, you know, having to do what you’re told by the church. Why take that path?
MATTHEW FOX: Well, at that time things were opening up. Pope Pius died in 1958, and Pope John XXIII came in. And then he launched the Vatican Council. And that became very exciting theologically and otherwise in the church, because it really let a lot of new voices in. And old voices heard. For example, my mentor Pere Chenu who had been silenced for 12 years in the Vatican Council, he came as a peritus with a third world bishop. Peritus is kind of the theologian who accompanies a bishop. But it was the third world bishop who invited him to be his peritus, and who really was responsible for the most radical document, called The Church in the Modern World, that came out of the Second Vatican Council.
So all this was happening at the time that I was in seminary. And it was, you know, quite exhilarating, really. And a lot of people felt that way. A lot of new priests, and so forth. And of course, in the order there was this 700-year tradition, which included meditation and study, serious study, and we- for ethics, for example, we were studying Aristotle and Aquinas’ commentary on Aristotle. Which is really interesting. Because It’s not about rules, it’s not about commandments, it’s about virtues. That’s how Aristotle sets up ethics; about virtues, of courage and magnanimity. I’ll always remember reading Aquinas on magnanimity when I was a 20-year old, or so. It was powerful to me. It’s still powerful today. It’s good stuff. It’s not about rules. It’s about developing inner strength, which we call virtuous habit, good habits.
PAUL JAY: And there was room for that then in the church.
MATTHEW FOX: There was room for that. Oh, yeah. Yeah, there was. Yeah, yeah.
PAUL JAY: Because, you know, you’re getting into the ’60s. A lot of people are doing this kind of spiritual, philosophical exploration as part of a counterculture, youth culture. Whether it’s Buddha, or various other explorations. But you pick a very serious discipline.
MATTHEW FOX: Well, that’s true. And-
PAUL JAY: Why was that necessary for you, to do the exploration?
MATTHEW FOX: I enjoyed studying, and I liked the challenge. I enjoyed sports. And I felt there was this challenge to kind of grow. Grow intellectually, and grow psychologically, if you will, and to mature. I just found it interesting. And then going to Paris, I landed in ’67. So I was there for ’68, when the huge events happened that brought de Gaulle’s government down, and Cohn-Bendit; you know, the Marxists and everything. I made good friends with young Dominicans who were studying Marx and theology in Munster with Johannes Metz, who called himself a political theologian. And people from Spain, and from … and of course, my closest friend, actually, was from Spain. And he was involved with the with the overthrow of Franco. In fact, he was on the first government after Franco, a socialist. He was a cabinet minister. He had left the Dominicans by then. And he, he was like the cultural minister, or something. Because he had a price on him. When he was studying in Munster getting a doctorate in theology, Franco’s men tried to kill him. And he had to sneak back into his country to visit his family. He was very, from a very poor village. He used to say the big deal the village was Saturday they had the one television set in the middle of the village to watch the bullfight. That was the big big thing going on in the village back then.
But he was amazing. He’s a professor now a university. So there was a lot of vivacity, a lot of life going on. And the young Dominicans in Europe, we all got together for a big event for a week or so to criticize the Order and criticize the Church. I was involved in that. In fact, they elected me the head person at the end. And I gave a speech that I guess people liked. But also it was partly political, because I was outside some of their intra-Nicene fights of the Europeans. But all that was very, very much part of my education, my awakening, I think.
PAUL JAY: If studying Marx and engaging with Marxists in Paris was part of the awakening, that doesn’t necessarily lead to 34 years in the Church. How did- how did the ideas of Marx jive with the ideas of your version of Catholicism?
MATTHEW FOX: Well, of course, Catholicism has lived for about 2000 years, and so it’s covered a lot of history. And there’s a lot of history there. And so the early Church lived in many ways a life of sharing. And in many ways you might even call it a Marxist view of the world. And monasticism, too, is about sharing the vow of poverty, is about everyone having equal opportunities, and so forth. So there’s a lot of kind of hidden wisdom within the monastic tradition, I think, about community life. And community means equality. And you know, obviously this gets poisoned at times. But it’s there.
So that’s the thing about Catholicism. It has an incredibly rich and diverse lineage. If you start taking it apart. And then, for example, each order has its own [charism]. There’s the Jesuits, and growing out of the 16th century Reformation time. But the Dominicans, of course, were a response, as were the Franciscans- they grew up the same time- to the corruption of monasticism. Because monasticism had become too successful under feudalism. And so that’s where Francis and Dominic both broke really violently with it in the early 13th century. And a new- when a new kind- when capitalism displaced feudalism. And the vow of poverty under the Dominicans and Franciscans was really an effort to resist feudal privilege and monastic privilege, and to be with the poor, et cetera. So you know, there’s an amazing amazing history there.
And then, of course, later I discovered Meister Eckhart, who is my favorite mistake. He was a Dominican. And condemned by the Vatican a week after he died. But Ernst Bloch, the Marxist philosopher, says that Eckhart was a big influence on Karl Marx. Why? Well, he said that he critiqued the having neurosis better than anyone who has ever lived. No, Erich Fromm said that, that Eckhart critiqued the having neurosis. But Ernst Bloch says that Marx was really influenced by by Eckhart, because Elkhart’s mysticism was not about escaping the world or flying off someplace. It was about staying in the world and struggling for justice. And Eckhart was very involved in the women’s movement, the Beguine movement of the Middle Ages, and the peasant movement. He was, he was the first theologian to preach in the peasant dialect language to the poor.
And at his trial- we discovered the transcripts in the late 19th century. At his trial, they said to him, why are you preaching to the poor in their own language, telling them that they are all divine? They have all this power? And they said, you know, if you’d preached like others in Latin we’d let you go. Because you know, this wouldn’t disturb the poor people. They don’t know Latin. Did Eckhart say, oh, I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again? This is what he said. He said, the poor need to learn. And if they do not they will never know how to live, or why to die. Ten years after he said that, the peasant wars broke out in Germany. Tens of thousands of peasants were murdered. So he was aware of the growing gap between haves and have nots. And he tried to do something about it by supporting the have nots, giving them their dignity back.
And that’s why he was condemned. That, and his support of the women’s movement, the Beguine movement. So it is highly political. And yet he was so deep in his mysticism that- in I think many ways he was very, very Buddhist. I’ve written about that, that Eckhart was very Buddhist.
PAUL JAY: In the next segment of our interview we’ll continue the story of Matthew’s journey, which leads him and not too much longer into a direct confrontation with what many people think is a pretty much feudal hierarchy within the Catholic Church. Join us for that on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.