Did the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast Recognize Bill Barr for ‘Christlike Behavior’?

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The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast planned to give Attorney General Bill Barr its "Christifideles Laici Award" in September 2020.

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On September 23 2020, “Christlike” appeared on Twitter’s list of trending topics due to a viral tweet objecting to a Catholic organization’s decision to honor Attorney General Bill Barr:

In her tweet, Dead Man Walking author and anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean used the word “Christlike.” Prejean specifically objected to Barr’s direct involvement with application of the death penalty, claiming Barr ordered the executions of six men (a seventh pending):

The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast will present an award to Attorney General Barr for “Christlike behavior” tomorrow morning [September 23 2020]. A.G. Barr has ordered the executions of six men with at least one more on the calendar. What is “Christlike” about using discretionary power to kill?

As a matter of doctrine, the Catholic Church formally disavowed all instances of the death penalty in August 2018. A contemporaneous update to the Catechism of the Catholic Church was amended to deem executions “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’ and [the Church is] pledging to work for its abolition worldwide.”

It appeared that “Christlike” had specifically trended due to Prejean’s invocation of the term in her late-night tweet. News organizations quickly clipped the verbiage for subsequently viral headlines:

Christifideles Laici, Explained

Other Catholic organizations present Christifidelis Laici awards to laypeople for works in service to the church.

The phrase “Christifidelis Laici” is derived from an apostolic exhortation by Pope John Paul II in 1988:

Christifideles Laici[:] Apostolic exhortation of Pope john paul ii, “The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People,” issued Dec. 30, 1988, following the seventh ordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops (Oct. 1–30, 1987) whose theme was the “Vocation and Mission of the Laity in the Church and in the World Twenty Years after the Second Vatican Council.” The text comprises an introduction (nos. 1–7) and five chapters: “The Dignity of the Lay Faithful in the Church as Mystery,” (nos. 8–17), “The Participation of the Lay Faithful in the Life of Church as Communion” (nos. 18–31), “The Coresponsibility of the Lay Faithful in the Church as Mission” (nos. 32–44), “Good Stewards of God’s Varied Grace” (nos. 45–56), and “The Formation of the Lay Faithful in the Lay State” (nos. 57–64). The exhortation ends with an appeal to the intercession of the Virgin Mary.

The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast Honors Bill Barr

On the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast‘s website, a page (“Christifideles Laici Award”) describes the relatively new honor:

One can say the foundation of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, and a host of other Catholic apostolates, rests on an amalgam forged by the fire of the Holy Spirit. The first element being from Pope Saint John Paul II’s exhortation of the New Evangelization to “spread the Gospel in ways that are new in ardor, methods and expression”. The second element is from the charge he gave the laity in his 1988 Post-Synodal Exhortation Christifideles Laici for the lay faithful to answer the Lord’s call for individual missions “on behalf of the Church and the world” and “to stir and promote a deeper awareness among all the faithful of the gift and responsibility they share, both as a group and as individuals, in the communion and mission of the Church.”

Over the last generation, consider the launch and explosive growth of thousands of thriving apostolates, ministries, and charities tending to the needs of so many – especially in the areas of education and health care. It is stirring and inspiring to consider how many have answered the call of our Lord to serve in His vineyard.

The NCPB created the Christifideles Laici Award in 2019 to help highlight these good works and those who serve the Church so well. The Award reads: “In Honor and Gratitude for Fidelity to the Church, Exemplary Selfless and Steadfast Service in the Lord’s Vineyard.”

The Award itself is an original work commissioned by the NCPB and created by talented artist, Isaac Dell.

That blurb acknowledged the award’s purpose in honoring laity or laypeople (non-ordained members of the church), noting that the organization initiated the “Christifideles Laici Award in 2019 to help highlight these good works and those who serve the Church so well.” “Christlike behavior” was not explicitly described, but “good works” and people who “serve the church so well” were both mentioned.

Atop the description was a photograph of 2019’s inaugural Christifidelis Laici Award, Gerry Giblin. To the left of Giblin was an image of Attorney General Bill Barr, labeled “2020 Honoree”:

Overall, the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast’s website was sparse, and no additional information its decision to bestow the Christifidelis Laici Award upon Barr (or why he was selected) was readily available.

On the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast’s Facebook page, there was no direct announcement about Barr being the award’s recipient in 2020. A September 14 2020 post mentioned Barr by name while addressing confusion about the ceremony:

 

A separate September 22 2020 post indicated that United States President Donald Trump was an anticipated speaker for the 2020 event:

As “Christlike” trended on Twitter on September 23 2020, commenters flooded the post:

“As a lifelong Catholic whose family has donated tens of thousands of dollars, I find this so against what Catholicism has stood for. The men you are honoring are corrupt, crooked liars. Trump has broken every commandment, and is the pure opposite of Jesus Christ and what he represents. He divides the nation yet you will honor him. He and Barr represent the worst in humans, they are evil, and Jesus Christ would not stand with them. This is shameful and sacrilegious. A man who has committed adultery more than once and even paid off a hooker. Today again, groups like yours make me ashamed to be a catholic. My extremely Catholic parents are rolling over in their graves.”

“Hypocrites!! Christ like?!?! Barr should be charged with crimes against HUMANITY!!! SHAME, SHAME, SHAMEFUL and DISGUSTING!!!”

“Jesus wept. John 11:35”

“I hope you plan to counsel them to change their ways, like putting toddlers in cages or sterilizing their mothers, doing their best NOT to care for the sick and homeless, the widows and orphans, of being anti-life, and anti-God. If they refuse, will you offer a public rebuke and disavow them until they repent and make amends?”

Other Objections to Barr’s Nomination for the Christifidelis Laici Award in 2020

A petition on FaithfulAmerica.org addressed the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast’s decision, gathering thousands of signatures, and reading in part:

Tell the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast Barr’s violent corruption does not deserve a Christian award

The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast pretends to be non-partisan — yet nearly every year, the event hosts primarily Republican leaders like Rick Santorum, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, and George W. Bush.

At this year’s breakfast, the right-wing Catholic organization plans to give a major award to Attorney General William Barr for “service in the Lord’s vineyard.” This is the same William Barr who provides legal cover for Donald Trump’s efforts to steal the election, cruelly teargassed peaceful protests for the president’s cynical Bible photo-op, and reinstated the federal death penalty.

Without even a hint of irony, the award will be given the very same week that Barr’s Justice Department carries out its next two executions. That’s shocking for any Christian organization, but especially a Catholic one: Pope Francis has updated official Church teaching to oppose the death penalty under all circumstances.

Given Barr’s record of unjust, corrupt authoritarianism, it’s clear that the NCPB’s award for Barr is simply a political stunt, hijacking the Church to boost Trump’s reelection chances — and that’s something that grassroots Catholics and other Christians cannot allow.

Newsweek quoted another nun who opposed Barr being given any award for “good works”:

Meanwhile Sister Simone Campbell who is the executive director of NETWORK Catholic Lobby for Social Justice said it was not appropriate for Trump and Barr to appear in such a prominent Catholic forum.

“I am horrified that they are giving an award to Attorney General Barr who had reinstituted executions of people on death row, which is shocking and counter to Catholic social teaching. It is abundantly clear, ‘thou shalt not kill’, and he is doing that and he is being given an award,” she told Newsweek.

“Then they have President Trump who really doesn’t have a sense of religion or religious values addressing the breakfast. This appears to be a crass political move.

“Based on who’s getting the award and based on President Trump’s policy, I don’t think the breakfast will enrich or really create a sense of solidarity of ‘we the people’, because it is too focused on destructive activities,” she added.

In a September 22 2020 National Catholic Reporter piece on the 2020 Christifidelis Laici Award and Barr’s scheduled acceptance of it (“National Catholic Prayer Breakfast award for Barr divides Catholics”), other prominent Catholics objected to the move — extensively and strenuously:

It is “unconscionable and scandalous that this recognition be given to William Barr who only two months ago [in June 2020] reinstated the Federal death penalty after a 17-year discontinuance,” says the Rev. Michael Bryant, a Catholic priest and former prison chaplain. He notes that five men have already been executed and two more will be killed, one on the day before the breakfast and another on the day after.

The Catholic Mobilizing Network, which opposes the death penalty, has a petition that already has over 6,000 signers calling on Barr to “Stop the executions!”

The decision to give Barr the award is “shocking, incomprehensible, and scandalous,” according to the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests. “Executions are clearly not pro-life,” said the association. “Pope St. John Paul II judged such actions as ‘unnecessary.’ Pope Francis defined them as ‘inadmissible.’ That position of the Magisterium is now affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

They also accused Barr of showing “disrespect for sacred space when he was party to a recent show of force to enable the President to use the grounds and building of an Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square to hold up a bible in front of the church as a prop for a political photo op.”

Also tweeting against the award is Stephen Schneck of the Franciscan Action Network: “Barr personally restarted the federal death penalty. Willingly supported the separation of children from parents at the border. Directed the attack on protesters to give Trump a photo op with a Bible. The National CATHOLIC Prayer Breakfast needs to change its name.”

Johnny Zokovitch, executive director of the organization Pax Christi USA, referenced Barr’s record outside of executions in 2020, saying that the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast “should be ashamed” of its selection of Barr:

There is no overlap between the gospel message and the Attorney General’s support for caging immigrant children, teargassing nonviolent protesters, executing fellow human beings, the sexual assault of women, racist rhetoric and the blatant disrespect for human dignity that runs rampant with this administration … The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast should be ashamed.

Barr’s Relationship to Six Executions and a Seventh Scheduled Execution

On September 22 2020, the same day Prejean’s tweet was shared, Reuters published an article about federal executions during the Trump administration, reporting:

The U.S. government put convicted rapist and murderer William LeCroy to death by lethal injection on [September 22 2020], the sixth execution under the Trump administration this summer after a lengthy hiatus in capital punishment at the federal level.

[…]

It marked the sixth death sentence the U.S. government has carried out during the past three months, more than the total number of federal executions carried out under all of President Donald Trump’s White House predecessors combined going back to 1963.

Another execution was planned for Thursday, when Christopher Vialva, a convicted murderer, is set to become the first Black man to face the federal death penalty under Trump.

As Prejean noted, six men were executed in 2020, with a seventh scheduled for September 24 2020. A June 15 2020 Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs press release described Barr as having “directed” federal agencies to schedule several executions in 2020:

Attorney General William P. Barr today directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to schedule the executions of four federal death-row inmates who were convicted of murdering children in violation of federal law and who, in two cases, raped the children they murdered.

In July 2019, Attorney General Barr directed the BOP to revise the Federal Execution Protocol to provide for the use of a single-drug, pentobarbital — similar to protocols used in hundreds of state executions and repeatedly upheld by federal courts, including the Supreme Court, as consistent with the Eighth Amendment. A district court’s preliminary injunction prevented BOP from carrying out executions under the revised protocol, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated that injunction — clearing the way for the federal government to resume capital punishment after a nearly two-decade hiatus.

“The American people, acting through Congress and Presidents of both political parties, have long instructed that defendants convicted of the most heinous crimes should be subject to a sentence of death,” said Attorney General William P. Barr. “The four murderers whose executions are scheduled today have received full and fair proceedings under our Constitution and laws. We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

The press release concluded:

Additional executions will be scheduled at a later date.

Summary

Sister Helen Prejean’s tweet describing the purpose of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast’s “Christifideles Laici Award” as honoring “Christlike” behavior appeared to be a paraphrase, and as a nun, Prejean was an expert on Catholic Doctrine. It is true the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast chose Attorney General Bill Barr as its second-ever recipient for the “Christifideles Laici Award” in 2020, and it is further true that Barr presided over six executions in 2020, with a seventh scheduled just after the event.

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